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Lori Balton Takes Location Scouting Into the Academy

Lori Balton

Lori Balton

Among the cinema crafts that are most taken for granted by movie viewers, location scouting and management might be foremost. However, in recent years, organizations such as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have begun to recognize this vital craft alongside other crucial below-the-line positions in feature filmmaking.

Certainly, the trained eye can recognize when a location scout has delivered an ideal natural setting for a film, whether or not that area has been modified by an art department. Consider that audiences have been taken to fascinating worlds such as Inception’s carefully depicted “limbo” scenes, Argo’s painfully realistic United States Embassy in Tehran, and the wilds of 1869 Colby, Texas in The Lone Ranger.

[Editor’s note: As the scouting Lori Balton completed on The Lone Ranger was very early on in the process, Janice Polley and Richard Klotz scouted final locations for what appeared on screen.]

The onscreen rendering of these places can be attributed to creative cinematography and masterful direction, but no one person deserves more credit for bringing these particular worlds to the screen than the location scout, and, in those specific cases, recent AMPAS inductee, Lori Balton.

Balton is credited on more than 70 feature film titles, providing an expert eye for locations that conjures what was once only a scripted vision to filmed reality. From pre-production through principal photography, Balton consults on all phases of her projects. Initially, before presenting possible locations to realize a script, Balton executes a still photography session wherein enough stills are captured to make a movie all her own. “On a good day I will shoot over 1,000 images,” Balton said regarding her process.

When scouting for any given project, Balton is responsible for researching and documenting locations that will offer the best canvas upon which the requisite universe within a film can be created. Documentation is achieved through the lens of a still camera, with her images rendering proof that a proper world exists, awaiting the film’s cast and crew. Moreover, these images are intended to inspire the beholder to imagine the actors becoming characters when inside these recommended worlds. In some cases, a location may be discovered that is different than what is described in the script, but intriguing enough to cause the director to make an adjustment. Regarding this phenomenon, Balton said, “We don’t suggest changes in the script. We present images and let them do the suggesting for us. My work has influenced both Alan Pakula and Michael Mann to adjust their scripts.”

Depending on the size of a project, a location scout may be hired before the director, very early in the process. The location scout works very closely with the production designer to achieve the project’s needs. “I have sometimes come on before a director or production designer,” Balton said. “Usually, I am hired by the designer. Many times, I’m hired by the location manager to find a new location or replace a site that has suddenly fallen out. I love being hired on early and getting involved in the research. It’s great when production realizes how important locations are to establishing the tone of a movie.”

Although it may seem that every nook and cranny of Southern California has been shot, when asked about the challenges of finding local landscapes to represent a desired visual representation of a script, Balton said, “It’s not really about finding a unique location as much as it is finding a unique way to shoot said location. I do, however, mourn the loss of many great locations, like the Ambassador Hotel, and the many great old buildings in downtown L.A. that have been gutted and turned into condos.”

Having grown with the industry, spanning the last couple of decades in the locations department, bearing witness to both the Hollywood of yesterday and today, Balton has seen all sides of the locations profession. While she now enjoys her work in scouting, Balton was once climbing the ranks as a location manager with credits for Rocky V and A River Runs Through It. Regarding her affinity for the craft, Balton said, “I am very fortunate to be able to do the part of the job that I really love. But once I find a location, and ascertain that it can logistically be filmed, the location manager steps in to handle contracts, permits, parking and a million other associated issues. Location managing is by far one of the most difficult jobs in the entertainment industry. If anything goes wrong, it’s your fault. If everything is going smoothly, there are 20 people standing in front of you to take credit. Location managers are an amazing group of resilient, creative people who think on their feet for a living.”

Although the baton is usually passed from location scout to location manager, finding an advantageous location does not always guarantee its permanence on a film. Even though Balton may be asked to find something specific at a location, there is still a chance that her selection of that perfect match will be passed over. “I don’t choose the final location,” Balton said. “I scout, make convincing presentations to the designer and/or director, and then facilitate their selections until the location manager takes over. I used to read a script and make suggestions as to where to film, but now that’s pretty much sadly driven by incentives and the bottom line.”

As with most exterior-heavy films, a final project’s look may rely heavily on locations that look and feel uncharted. Filming on a studio back lot in Los Angeles automatically limits originality, given audience familiarity with permanent streets and sets that have been used and reused countless times. According to Balton, location scouts are “certainly instrumental in presenting the pros and cons of shooting something practical versus a back lot. The ultimate decision is most often based on cost.”

Surely, a back lot may be easier on the budget in some cases, but distinct practical locations are capable of giving a film its unforgettable presence that will resonate with an audience long after the credits roll. “The best thing is to present something that seems like an odd suggestion and have it pay off in spades,” Balton recalled. “Like the downtown parking garage that production designer Neil Spisak turned into a grocery store for a shoot out in Heat, cursing me for finding a location with no 90 degree angles. I’m fortunate to work with people who are collaborators.”

Making the decision to move forward with a location can also be done in accord with a film’s visual effects team, if they are working with a practical location. “I’m very lucky to have worked with producers that are heavily invested in the look of a movie and accomplishing the best visuals, as opposed to shying away from difficult locations,” Balton said.

At this point, Balton’s work within her profession has earned her unprecedented recognition by AMPAS. In light of her achievement, Balton said, “Under the guidance of Orin Kennedy, the LMGA (Location Managers Guild of America) has been trying to get recognition in the Television Academy for the past five years. In fact it was Orin’s campaign that made me think of applying as an individual, to see if we could get a foot in the door. I’m hoping that now that a door has been opened, others will follow.”

For any interested parties, chasing a career in location management or scouting means signing on for long hours, tense presentations and, until Balton’s recent Academy recognition, a likely lack of due credit. Even with such obstacles in plain view, Balton said, “The hardest part is perhaps having the qualities that make me good at my job… always wondering what’s around the next bend or behind every door makes for a long scouting day. But when the director asks a question about a location, you need to know the answer. And then there is assembling, cataloging and uploading or printing the photographs. I’m very picky about how my pictures are presented, and it takes time, which is a luxury that I frequently don’t get.”

With her innate urge to discover new places and a commitment to polished presentations, it is clear that Balton is in her preferred natural habitat when she is immersed in her work, connecting new motion picture scripts to their best possible cinematic worlds of the real.

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