Mpho Tshabala under the highway in downtown Joburg
Mpho Tshabala under the highway near Faraday Street in downtown Johannesburg, which has served as a location for various TV commercials as well as, most recently, Kagiso Lediga's satirical comedy series The Mayor - CLICK ON IMAGE FOR LARGER VERSION. (Photo by Elias Nkabinde)

Location scouting is a key part of the pre-production stage of filmmaking and commercial photography.

Once a producer or director has decided what kind of scenery in general they require for the various scenes they aim to film in, the search for suitable venues or locations begins.

Here's where the location scout comes in - and if you think it's a job just about anybody could do, requiring no particular aptitude or specialised skills, you're way mistaken.

The job requires that you spend a lot of time on the road, have an expert eye capable of honing in on settings that would fit a host of criteria both aesthetic and practical - and enough of the traveller's natural love of exploration to be able to track down what filmmakers are looking for.

For Mpho Tshabalala, a freelance scout and location manager who has made Gauteng province his home turf, a love for location scouting began when he first went into the film industry in 1996.

From on screen to behind the scenes

"Initially I started as an actor, but I did not like the pressures it would put on you because there are several expectations. So I decided to get involved behind the scenes," Tshabalala said in a recent interview for the Gauteng Film Commission (GFC), with whom he has numerous dealings in the course of his work.

Mpho Tshabala at Constitutional Hill
Mpho Tshabala at Constitutional Hill, which he scouted for a corporate seeking a location of historical significance - CLICK ON IMAGE FOR LARGER VERSION. (Photo by Elias Nkabinde)

According to Tshabalala, good location scouting not only allows filmmakers to tell their story better, but through this promotes both the city and the province that houses each location. "It promotes the city in a way which will increase interest in different locations. It really markets the city."

He describes his own approach to location scouting as conventional. "I prefer knocking on people's doors, meeting them and speaking to them whenever I see a potential location I like.

"Not everyone is trusting because of crime, so they require proof," he adds. However, "it is always a delight when people are inviting and open about their locations".

Gauteng's fast-changing landscape

With two decades of industry experience, having scouted films and television series including Long Walk to Freedom, Soul City (season 10), The Mayor, Bantu Hour and Jerusalema to name a few, Tshabalala admits that the profession does come with its challenges.

To start with, the pressure to impress is unrelenting. "You are only as good as your last assignment," he says, and in the same breath: "It's really always about what are you going to deliver next."

Another challenge peculiar to Gauteng is the ever-changing nature of the province's landscape, particularly in urban and peri-urban areas. For a location scout, who must maintain a database of spectacular or otherwise appealing locations, this can make life very difficult.

In an abandoned warehouse south of Johannesburg
In an abandoned warehouse, currently being used by informal recyclers, off Main Reef Road south of Johannesburg. The location was recently used for Kagiso Lediga's comedy sketch show Bantu Hour. - CLICK ON IMAGE FOR LARGER VERSION. (Photo by Elias Nkabinde)

"Location scouts work hard to document locations and keep archives of them, however when they return to some locations they find that it has been redeveloped or renovated.

"It's quite tricky when you take photographs of a location and a year later you present these to a director, but when you then go back to that location it is no longer the same."

Linking the filmmaker's vision with the reality

Tshabalala regards each location as unique, as being special in its own way. "One of the locations I most enjoy shooting at is Soweto's iconic FNB Stadium, because of the contrast of different uses it offers to you. It's really a location that can be used for everything and anything.

"Another one of my favourite locations is Westford, Danville in Pretoria. It is a 'wow' location, because it looks and feels like an African state."

According to Tshabalala, an aspiring location scout should be both dedicated and good at managing his or her time. "As a location scout you need to be an open book, reliable and flexible with your time."

Further, "You should always have a good relationship with the locations you have, so that in future when you need to use them again they are available to you."

In the end, however, it all comes back to the film itself. "You need to make sure that you link up the idea of the production with the reality."

Asked what he finds most rewarding about his profession, Tshabalala reflects a moment before answering: "You get the opportunity to see things that other people do not get to see. You get to appreciate different places, which make you appreciate what you have even more. It is a humbling experience".

Source: staff reporter

Contact the Gauteng Film Commission