I really wished I hadn’t asked about the ghosts.
The plan had originally been to use the Kew Bridge Steam Museum until about 2AM which is when a group of ghost hunters had arranged to visit the premises and do their scanning for other-worldly readings and what have you. When the ghost hunters didn’t show up and we were given the go ahead to carry on as we were, I casually asked the caretaker who was looking after us if there were any ghosts in the museum and ho-ho, wink-wink, isn’t it silly that people are looking for ghosts?
“We’ve got a couple, yes. A few confirmed sightings anyway,” he replied casually, initially making me smirk, but after a few seconds making the colour drain from my face due tothe very matter of fact way he had said it, as if he had just informed me that the kitchen had a bit of a mouse problem in the summer.
It doesn’t matter what you believe, when it gets round to 4AM and the only thing keeping you awake and just ever-so-slightly twitchy is about a gallon of instant coffee and a Mars bar and you are faced with finding your director and cameraman who have disappeared into some unknown part of the building, you find yourself remembering that caretaker very casually informing you of the “confirmed” presence of at least two ghosts in the vicinity. Staring into a long dark room that I hadn’t seen before and that appeared to contain several items of furniture with a few surfaces eerily reflecting what little light there was, I was unable to find any sort of switch to activate any sort of light source. It was then that the clink of chains in the distance made me stop calling out and drawing attention to myself. Whatever was out there could very easily be coming towards me, and if it was who I was looking for, surely they would have called back?
The reason I’m talking about nearly letting myself down in a steam museum is that often, an old place or a place where lots of old things can be found can make a really excellent location. Whilst the possibility of ghosts being present is not a necessary box to tick, the fact that there is cause to believe ghosts could be in a location is an excellent litmus test for something’s intrigue value.
The Kew Bridge Steam Museum for example was an excellent location. Full of old and beautiful machines and set in a large compound that is Victorian in style, it is hard to find somewhere to point the camera that does not make it look interesting. In fact, the only real issue that you are likely to run into there is accidentally picking up an emergency exit sign or a low lying do-not-cross-this-chain chain that will mark it out as a museum.
Older buildings have a certain flare to them. It is normally why they have survived from their original age – someone somewhere just can’t bring themselves to knock them down and they won’t always know why. Regardless, you can use that intrigue to bring something interesting to your film.
Self contained and singular
The title of this post is what makes a good location, not locations. This is very deliberate. Whilst it is by no means a hard and fast rule that you only want one location on your short film, having just one location definitely cuts down on the points of failure you are likely to encounter. This doesn’t mean you can only have one location in your film, but try and ensure that all your filming takes place in a single physical real world locale.
The film we shot in the Kew Bridge Steam Museum has more than one location in the film, but all of them are different areas of the same facility that we were housed in for the night. This not only keeps the film looking self contained and vaguely thematic, but it cuts down on a lot of the organisation faff you will inevitably run into as part of your filmcraft.
The more control you have over your surroundings the better. With Kew Bridge, we had a small group of unfeasibly helpful caretakers and volunteers to look after us and make sure we didn’t run into any issues. Not only that, but they were even keen to help us get closer to the steam engines themselves and even ran one of the larger ones for us for use in one of the opening scenes.
If you are somewhere that the public has access to, that will require a handler to try and ensure they don’t get in your way. If you are filiming somewhere with limited permission, you’re going to have to tread very carefully and make sure you don’t overstay your welcome. If you don’t control things like light and noises going off in the immediate vicinity, then your shots themselves are going to suffer.
Not too self contained
To go to the other extreme of Kew Bridge, filming in someone’s flat might not always be the best idea. Whilst this satisfies the controlled environment to a certain extent and the single location rule, once you start getting even a small crew in around your actors, it can cause a bit of a strain. There’s a reason why professionals tend to film interior scenes in a set after all.
Depending on the flat and the film that you’re shooting, you often have to put a lot of effort into making a flat look interesting. Filming Infinite Loop in my old flat in Camden for example was relatively successful, but the amount of set dressing required was astronomical, and the weekend was definitely fairly cosy.
How to get an exciting location
How you can get hold of an interesting location could be a post all by itself, but a lot of the time, you’re going to be down to beg-borrow-steal mode when it comes to finding locations. You can often film in public, but it’s always worth checking out if you are actually allowed to film there without some kind of permit, which local councils might sometimes require.
At other times, it will be a case of finding people you know in positions of relative power and with access to interesting locations, be it their workplace, somewhere they volunteer, a bar where they are friendly with the landlord, or somewhere their family can let you use. If you ask around your film crew, you’ll be amazed at some of the interesting places they can get you into without them realising it’s a big deal.
Realistically, despite my preference of “somewhere that could have fostered the creation of a vengeful spiritual entity”, anywhere can be an interesting location to film. Some locations take less time and effort to make interesting, but working with what you’ve got can often yield unexpectedly excellent results and I am a huge proponent of constraints directly contributing to great art and entertainment.
The possibility of ghosts has to be a good sign
Back in Kew Bridge in the harsher light of day, I found myself sitting in the room I had been too scared to venture into the night before and whilst propping myself up with a slumped arm reflected on how I should probably never admit that I had been terrified to go into the museum’s café. I realised that if the location we were filming at was interesting enough to spark all sorts of inner paranoia in me, that had to translate to something beneficial for the purposes of filming on some level.