The Logistics of Filming Avengers

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This video was made possible by CuriosityStream. When you sign up at the link in the descriptionyou’ll also get access to Nebula—the streaming video platform that Wendover is a part of. As you reach the end of a movie’s creditsequence, usually long after everyone has left the theatre, you start to get to someof the names of people that might not have written the script, might not have playedthe characters, and might not have operated the camera, but were crucial to the successof that film. Quite a few of the names might not have dealtwith filming at all, but rather dealt with getting those who did housed, fed, and transportedto where they need to be. As much of a challenge getting the story andpicture right in a movie is, another distinct challenge that only escalates as budget doesis the logistics. While most movies will film quite a few oftheir scenes in a studio using sets, green screens, and other tactics to portray thesupposed location, still most film a number of scenes on location, all around the world.

Filming on-location is an enormously complex,multi-month or sometimes multi-year process that all typically starts with one person—thelocation scout. We’ll use the example of what is now themost financially successful movie of all time—Avengers: Endgame. As one of the biggest-budget films of all-time,this movie had a whole location department that wrapped many of the location-based functionsinto one. For smaller films, though, locations scoutstend to be more separate, freelance roles working temporarily for a given production. Essentially what they do is take the wishesof the writer or director of a given movie and do their very best to fulfill them. If a scout is asked to find a sunny yet run-downstreet in a small coastal Mediterranean town, they do their best to find a location thatlooks like that, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be sunny, run-down, coastal, Mediterranean,or even a small town. Some of that can be fixed in post, some canbe fixed with decoration, and some doesn’t show up on film at all.

There are a lot of reasons a film might usea stand-in for the real location they’re trying to depict—cost, time, practicality,availability, bureaucracy, logistics, even down to tiny reasons like weather, lighting,noise-level, and more. A film set in a small Greenlandic town mightchoose to film in Iceland just because it’s easier to get to, has better infrastructure,and has a larger and perhaps most experienced local labor force. At the same time, a film set in Antarcticamight choose to film in Greenland for the same reasons. Once the location scout finds the perfectlocation, they then have to make sure filming is actually possible there. If it’s a privately owned location, theyhave to figure out who the owner is and negotiate with them, which isn’t always easy, whileif it’s public space they have to work with the government, which also isn’t alwayseasy. In the case of Endgame, some location scoutat some point was asked to find a location to serve as New Asgard—the fishing villagehome of Thor. For this, they settled on the Scottish villageof St Abbs.

Now, there are a few reasons why this wasa smart choice. One was that it’s in a country with an upstartfilm industry promoted by its government so government approval was likely easy, two wasthat this village was small enough that they could essentially entirely take it over, andthree was that it was relatively near Edinburgh. The proximity to Edinburgh served two importantroles. One was that it meant there was a big citynearby with the facilities to host a large production and two was that, for the previousAvengers movie, Infinity War, they spent months filming a complex action sequence in Edinburgh. The two films were shot back-to-back and,in some cases, simultaneously, so this way, the production could easily move from Edinburghto St Abbs for a few days after rather than completely moving to a new country to filmthis relatively simple scene in New Asgard. In practice, a location scout typically presentsthe movie’s director a variety of options for where to shoot—for New Asgard, therealmost certainly were quite a few locations on a short-list before they settled on StAbbs.

Once a location is selected, though, the jobis then handed over to a location manager. Now, sometimes the location scout and locationmanager are the same person and sometimes they are different people, but they are alwaysdistinct roles. The location manager is in charge of navigatingall the legal and logistical aspects of organizing an on-location shoot once the location isselected. One huge aspect of this is getting permitsto film from the local government. A lot of cities, states, regions, or countriesthat are in high demand for filming, such as New York, have government agencies dedicatedto both promoting and organizing filming activities in their location. In New York’s case, for example, the Mayor’sOffice of Film, Theatre & Broadcasting fills this role and handles the permitting process. An agency like this wants to balance its roleof promoting the industry, which can be a fantastic boost economically to a city, andserving its city’s population.

Filming, especially when part of a big production,is a burden on local residents so any government that wants to stay popular with its constituentswants to manage this burden. For this, New York’s agency has a rotatinglist of locations where filming is prohibited simply because these locations have had toomuch filming recently. That way even the most popular spots won’thave their residents disturbed too much. Negotiating a filming permit in places lessexperienced in this matter can be more difficult, though, as that will require a bespoke deal. That’s only the tip of the iceberg of theplanning a location manager has to deal with. One other huge complexity can be just simplygetting equipment to the location, especially if that location is in a different countrythan where the production company is based. You see, when Avengers came to Scotland tofilm, they needed all the same cameras and equipment as in the US so the film stayedconsistent in quality.

With big budget-productions such as this,that means they need to bring hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment intoa foreign country. The difficulty then is that, typically, whengoods originate from outside of a country and are brought inside that country, one hasto pay import tariffs on them. As an individual entering a country throughan airport one has certain duty free allowances and typically there’s a provision that personalarticles can be brought in tax-free, but when traveling as a business, like a Hollywoodproduction company, if they were to bring equipment into a country and keep it there,for example if they were setting up a studio there, then an import tariff would be assessed. Avengers likely travelled with hundreds ofthousands of even millions of dollars worth of equipment so you can imagine the kind offinancial damage a 20% import tariff would have. Of course, though, there are a few ways toget around this. The first would be to get an ATA carnet.

This is essentially a passport for goods. For a fee and security deposit, these workas a customs mechanism for many countries in which one can import goods temporarilywithout paying any taxes. These are complicated, though, because onceissued there’s little flexibility as one has to list exact travel dates and destinationsand must also list all equipment including its exact serial number. Since the security deposit scales to the valueof the goods, it can also tie up a lot of money. The other option is to just rent equipmentwithin the location country. While this is only an option when filmingin countries with top quality rental companies, even Hollywood productions will quite oftenrent their equipment.

Another thing the location manager has tothink about is staffing. While the top positions in a production willobviously need to travel to each filming location, many of the rank and file members just donot. If you can get a lighting technician in thedestination country rather than flying one out from the US, it would obviously make senseto hire the one in-country since that would lower cost. In the case of Avengers: Endgame, the filmshot in four main locations. The film’s studio was outside Atlanta, Georgiaso many scenes were filmed in there and many that weren’t took place in the greater Atlantaarea. That’s where everyone here, the bulk ofthe names in the credit sequence, were based. There was then a partially distinct productiongroup for the film’s scenes in New York. You’ll notice that there are a not a wholelot of names in this group and they mostly correspond to location management roles andsome other production management roles. Many of the bigger roles, such as directorof photography, director, producer, and more would be filled by those working back in Atlantatraveling out.

The far larger and more distinct unit wasthe one dedicated to filming in England and Scotland. The movie had two major scenes filmed in theUK. One was in that small, Scottish village ofSt Abbs, playing New Asgard, and the other was in Durham Cathedral which played the roleof a part of Asgard—Thor’s home. Now, these two locations were not insignificantin the film—they involved some of the film’s lead characters and accounted for about 12.5total minutes of screen-time which, in a movie as big-budget as this, is a decent amount. Therefore, the on-location productions weresizable. The UK unit therefore had quite a number ofspecialized staff—it had its own graphic designers, set decorators, costume supervisor,sculptors, prop-master, sound effect technicians, it even had its own administrative staff likea network and IT technician and payroll accountant.

Sometimes, though, those in charge of a moviedon’t need to be involved with filming at all. All of the logistics mess can be avoided ifthey just don’t travel. Further down in the credits, you get to thesection titled, “plate units.” These are distinct production units that arein charge of gathering footage that will end up being used by the movie’s visual effectsdepartment, often as background in green screen sequences. When Marvel needed footage from a Braziliannational park to act as the landscape of the planet Vormir, they just hired a company calledBrazil Production Services to go and film that for them. For the most part this company was just leftto get this footage on their own. When Marvel needed shots of the Philippinesto serve as the landscape around Thanos’ hut in the final movie, they once again justhired a local production company, Indochina Productions, to do the work for them sincethe character was added in post. Even for the biggest productions like this,when actors aren’t involved, they can usually reduce complexity and cost by hiring outsideproduction companies to do the work for them rather than flying one of their productionunits all the way out to Brazil or the Philippines or wherever to get that one shot.

In addition to those two, Marvel also hiredproduction companies in Tokyo, Iceland, Chile, and San Francisco to each capture footagethat would end up as assets used by the visual effects department. When it actually comes time to film a sceneon-location, all the planning is finally put into practice. One important aspect of the implementationis making sure that the community where one films walks away from the experience feelinglike it was fun and cool, rather than a burden. This is also crucial for the government ofa given area which will typically want the economic boost from a film production comingwhile also wanting to keep public favor. Again using the example of St Abbs, Scotland,such a big production coming meant the town was basically completely shut down for twodays. They cordoned off essentially the whole townso only residents and workers could come in. Marvel made a lot of smart decisions to winover the residents of St Abbs. For one, many of the residents were used asextras which certainly turned it into an experience for them. In addition, for feeding the crew, ratherthan bring in some catering company they hired a local cafe to serve food.

That way they’re seen as supporting localbusinesses. In addition, the stars were reportedly generouswith their time, meeting many of the locals, and Marvel made a financial donation to theSt Abbs lifeboat crew. In all, this made for a win for both the townand Marvel as Marvel got a location with a supporting public and good press and the towngot a cool experience and economic benefit. That economic benefit has even kept comingafter the shoot as St Abbs has apparently experienced a tourism boom since the film’srelease. No matter where a film shoots, a huge partof the location manager’s job is to try to keep the production as low impact as possible. They have roles as minute as parking managersjust to be sure that a given production can get in and out of their location as cleanlyand efficiently as possible.

With tightly packed schedules, films justdon’t have time for a dispute with the local population and a local government will oftenbe quick to side with their constituents if they get too burdened by Hollywood comingto town. When successfully pulled off, though, big-budgetHollywood productions can bring jobs to an area, bring attention to an area—they canreally transform a place so the focus that many cities and countries put on attractingthem is truly well placed. Any long-time Wendover viewer by this pointknows about Curiosity Stream. They’re the streaming video site home toendless documentaries and non-fiction titles about history, technology, nature, science,and more. They’ve long represented one of the bestdeals out there at just $19.99 a year, but now this deal has gotten even better.

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