Director's Blog
Locations, Locations, Locations! Part 1
by
January 24th, 2012

There are two categories of movie locations.  First is the “set,” which is designed and built by your production team on a stage.  Sets are great because you can control the lighting, sound, and temperature — but they’re also expensive.  The second type is the “practical location,” which exists in real life, and which your production must find, rent, permit, and secure on its own.

On SHANGHAI CALLING, our modest budget and tight shooting schedule made building sets impossible.  Which means that everything in the film was shot on a real location in Shanghai.  The upside is that this allowed us to showcase every facet of the city and turn Shanghai into a central character in the film.  But shooting our movie this way also presented a number of challenges.

With that, let’s get into “Locations, Locations, Locations!”  A 3-part inside look at the locations issues we faced on SHANGHAI CALLING.

Part 1: New Shanghai

See the banner image at the top of this page, with all of those incredible skyscrapers in the background?  Half of those buildings were built in the last ten years.  Every time I return to Shanghai, a futuristic new skyscraper seems to have appeared out of nowhere.

This is what I refer to as “new Shanghai” — mind-blowing architecture and modern, east-meets-west design everywhere you look.  In SHANGHAI CALLING, main character Sam (DANIEL HENNEY) spends most of his time in this part of the city.  As an expat attorney with a corporate expense account, Sam lives in a luxurious new apartment and works in a state-of-the-art office building.

With all of the new buildings going up in Shanghai, these two interiors were not difficult to find.  More challenging was finding the perfect exterior for a scene in which the camera circles around Sam, who is lost and surrounded by the Shanghai skyscrapers that I love.

Though I was pretty familiar with Shanghai, I couldn’t think of a place that A) had skyscrapers visible on all sides, but also was also B) far enough away from the skyscrapers that we could fit the actor and the buildings into a single frame.  I couldn’t even be sure that such a location existed.

So I embarked on a virtual location scout.  Sitting at my desk in Los Angeles, I used Google Earth to wander around Shanghai until I found a spot that seemed to work.

It looked pretty good.  But I still didn’t know how production-friendly this location would be.  Was it in the middle of a busy street? Could we place a camera, actor, and crew there for hours on end?  Were there trees all around, blocking our view of the buildings?

We had to check it out — so on our first location scout, we explored the area and found a park near where we wanted to be.  I walked into the park, put my assistant Taylor on a mark, and then walked in a circle around her, holding my camera at ground level.

Taylor standing in for "Sam." From hastily shot camcorder footage.

We later did a “tech scout” of the location with Director of Photography ARMANDO SALAS so that he could figure out what gear he needed to get the shot and perform the required camera move.  (A story in and of itself.  Perhaps Armando will join us in the “comments” and explain how difficult if is to find 90 degree dolly track in China.)

On Day 1 of production, we were back in the park again, getting a nifty shot of Daniel Henney with Shanghai skyscrapers all around him.  In between takes, I overheard our line producer say, “This is probably the only place in Shanghai where a shot like this is possible.”  Correct.

The real shot: DANIEL HENNEY as "Sam" in SHANGHAI CALLING

Next week, Locations, Locations, Locations!  Part 2: Old Shanghai

@danielhsia

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