Film location scouts shoot for a look of authenticity

Times Staff Writer

Somewhere in that twilight between real and reel worlds, a customer sits back under a yellow bib as daylight spills across the worn floor of Harry’s, an urban American barbershop. Nearby, tumbleweeds congregate between ragged fences that all but holler “Welcome to Wyoming!” And a few steps farther along, the garish wallcovering and wooden seats of a shady theater line up in a startling display of visual rhythm and saturated color.

These three photographs are among 59 in a free exhibition opening Saturday at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood. They look like they’ve come from all over. But each image was seen and snapped through the lens of an entertainment industry location scout working in “the zone,” an invisible but economically significant circle that radiates roughly 30 miles out from the corner of La Cienega and Beverly boulevards.

Beyond that radius, entertainment industry labor contracts typically call for greater per diem compensation or overnight lodging. Logically enough, producers of films, television shows and commercials have long favored the zone, whether the script calls for a California suburb, a European side street or a Chinese temple.


In recent years, however, an increasing number of productions have started migrating to Canada and other far-flung locations, drawn by the temptation of nonunion labor and other economies, not to mention fresh scenery. And so, to remind producers of the wide world within the zone -- and to draw back the veil on the singular nature of their work -- a group of scouts, also known as location managers, has pulled together this first-of-its-kind display, titled “In the Zone.”

On closer inspection of its images, you find that Harry’s Barber Shop, shot by Pamella D’Pella, is in Crenshaw. Those ragged fences, shot by Richard Klotz, are in a corner of Canyon Country known as Spookyville. The seats and wallpaper, shot by Frank Yoshikane, are in the Pasadena Civic Center.

They are a breed apart, these scouts. First they are called upon to find locations that roughly match the imagination of a producer, director or production designer. After days or weeks or months of searching, the scouts bring back folders full of photo prints arranged in taped-together panoramas, some of which will become “hero” locations: sites that actually get filmed. Then, in most cases, comes the less intriguing part of the job: These same operatives typically pull permits, make deals with property owners and neighbors, hire security and remain on the set to smooth civilian relations when production armies arrive and take over.

The Teamsters Local 399 (which includes production company drivers and animal trainers, among others) reports about 500 location scouts and managers in its membership, filling assignments that might be local or global. Hired from production to production, they earn at least union scale of $2,000 to $2,200 weekly, sometimes more on commercials. Many begin as assistants, earning far less. (There are nonunion scouts in Southern California, too, veterans say, but far fewer than 500.)

Patience is a big part of the job description. Steve Dayan, who spent more than 20 years as a location scout and manager before he became business agent for Local 399, recalls an Imax movie project featuring Cirque du Soleil tumblers who formed a human tower five bodies high. To give them enough room, he needed to find -- somewhere in the United States -- an elegant room with a 35-foot ceiling.

“I looked in Pittsburgh, I looked in New York, I looked at the Biltmore estate in North Carolina,” said Dayan. “There were some properties in Florida too. It took me at least a month.” Finally, he said, he won over his producers with Severance Hall, home of the Cleveland Orchestra, and cut a deal to share the space with the orchestra: While the tumblers made their towers in the lobby, the orchestra was assembled onstage, rehearsing.

In all, 35 scout-photographers are represented in the show. Beth Tate, a scout on and off since 1981 and one of the exhibition’s organizers, has three images in it, including an Asian temple.

That assignment, she recalled, was for a European cigarette commercial about five years ago. The client wanted worldwide scenes, but it was winter, too cold or gloomy to shoot in many locales, so Southern California was pressed into service as global stand-in.

“It had to be China, it had to be India, it had to be London, it had to be Paris and New York,” she said. She found the temple, which stood in for India, in Malibu. In agreeing to let it be used, Tate said, the temple’s tenders required that crew members work shoeless to show respect.

With those sorts of circumstances in the background, the images in the Pacific Design Center exhibition -- most of them chosen by a jury that included renowned architectural photographer Julius Shulman, film director Tony Scott, production designer Jeannine Oppewall and still photographer Kelvin Jones -- shape up as a novel vision of the city. Like the first soup can that stirred Andy Warhol or the Dublin city maps James Joyce pored over in Paris while writing “Ulysses,” they are creative tools unseen by outsiders, yet in many respects they are the overlooked link in the chain that connects somebody’s fantasy with everyone’s reality. Looking at them, a newcomer strains to imagine the narrative that might run through them.

In fact, a newcomer can only imagine. Organizers of the exhibition, wary of the time and trouble it could take to publicly name the shows, movies and ads behind these pictures, have instead supplied only the photographer’s name and the approximate location of each shot.

Dylan Kendall, director of the Open Museum of Los Angeles and producer of the exhibition, said the idea of “reframing” the images as art photographs made devising the show an unusual challenge. Not only because of the quality of the images, but because of the circumstances under which they were made, Kendall suggests that “there’s not one photograph in this show that doesn’t tell a story.... I was just in the framer’s picking these up, and citizens were wandering over and saying, ‘Wow.’ ”

Lori Balton, a 43-year-old scout who helped organize the photo show and has four images in it, noted that the diversity of photographs hints at how much the job has changed since she started in the 1980s.

In those days, she said, “you’d use a Polaroid, you’d shoot in one direction, then you’d shoot the reverse angle, and that was it.” These days, she said, she works with twin Nikon camera bodies, sometimes shooting 20 rolls a day, forever dragging around an ungainly Bogen tripod. (Many of her colleagues have gone digital.) While scouting for the film “Heat,” she was mugged in downtown Los Angeles. Assignments for “The Insider” and, more recently, “Seabiscuit” (due for release in summer) were less eventful.

“Basically, I’m paid to drive around all day and find things that are interesting in some way,” said Balton. That, she added, and “pick up cigarette butts at 3 a.m. Really glamorous.”


‘In the Zone’

Where: Melrose Rotunda, Pacific Design Center, 8687 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood

When: Monday-Friday,

9 a.m.-5 p.m.

Ends: April 15

Price: Free