Transforming locations for period dramas & historical films

Transforming locations for period dramas is an intricate process that involves careful attention to historical detail as well as a strong creative vision. The location choice is everything, and each backdrop needs to serve as a canvas for bringing the past to life. 

Unfortunately, nothing takes you out of a film faster than poor set design, and many films that take place before the 21st Century require drastic set transformations to be truly convincing.

But the challenge can also be hugely rewarding. By collaborating closely with production designers and set decorators, every detail of the set can be carefully curated to transport audiences seamlessly back in time. 

Contents

  • Checklist for scouting period locations
    • Research the time period
    • Identify key settings 
    • Location scouting team
    • Budget considerations
    • Scout locally and globally
    • Document and assess locations
    • Consider replication vs. authenticity
    • Practical considerations
    • Location recces
  • Transforming city streets for period dramas
  • Transforming homes and interiors for period dramas
  • Final thoughts

Checklist for scouting period locations

Movie still of street scene from Les Misérables
Still from Les Misérables (credit: Universal Pictures)

Scouting locations for period films and TV shows requires a blend of historical research, creativity, and logistical considerations. Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you scout locations effectively:

Research the period

First, you need a solid understanding of the period your film or show is set in. Look into the architecture, landscapes, and cultural elements of that era to ensure you can research locations confidently. Utilise historical books, photographs, paintings, and documents to get a visual reference of the period. Historical societies, museums, and archives can also provide valuable information.

Identify key settings 

Organise your search by determining the key locations required for your film, such as cities, towns, countryside, interiors of buildings, and specific landmarks.

Location scouting team

Form your location scouting team which will cover the roles of location management, scouting, and research. The team should understand the period’s aesthetics and utilise this information to find suitable locations.

Budget considerations

Keep your budget in mind while scouting locations. Hire fees will vary depending on where it’s located (for example rural vs city), the size of the space, the equipment and services included and the hire duration.

Still of Rachel Brosnahan in  The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel
Still from The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel (credit: Amazon Studios)

Scout locally and globally

Start by scouting locations locally, as you might find suitable period architecture or landscapes nearby. However, if your budget allows then don’t limit yourself geographically, consider travelling to find the perfect setting if necessary. If you can’t physically get to a potential location, try virtual location scouting with Google Earth.

Document and assess locations

Take detailed photographs and notes of potential locations to assess their suitability. Consider factors such as lighting, angles, and potential challenges during filming.

Consider replication vs. authenticity

Sometimes, finding an existing location that perfectly matches the period may be challenging. In such cases, you could also consider replicating the setting through set design or using visual effects.

Practical considerations

Evaluate logistical factors such as accessibility, permits, parking, and accommodation for the cast and crew. Ensure that the chosen locations are accessible and can accommodate the needs of filming equipment and crew. You’ll also need to research and obtain the necessary permits and filming permission for each location, even if they are public outdoor spaces.

Location recces

Conduct location recces with your production team to familiarise everyone with the chosen locations and plan the shooting schedule accordingly.

Need a storage solution for your shoot locations?

SuperScout is your own private location library – upload locations in minutes, tag them with ai in seconds, then search and share with your team

Transforming city streets for period films

Movie still of street scene from The French Dispatch
Still from The French Dispatch (credit: Searchlight Pictures)

Start your search by seeking out streets with architectural elements that can be adapted to evoke the desired period. Consider features like building facades, cobblestone streets, and monuments that reflect the historical setting. 

Once you’ve found a suitable street location, the next step is to obtain filming permissions from local authorities to film there. Figuring out how to gain filming permission can be confusing, so much sure to read our guide on how to get filming permission in London.

Local authorities will be able to advise you on implementing traffic control measures to facilitate filming and ensure the safety of the cast, crew, and pedestrians. This may involve temporary road closures, traffic diversions, and coordination with police and transport authorities.

When transforming a city street, you need to find ways to add historical details as well as hide the elements that don’t belong in your desired era. Here are just a few ideas:

  • Take down security cameras
  • Swap all modern cars for vintage ones with period license plates
  • Add old telephone booths, crates, shop kiosks and stands to disguise modern-day features
  • Swap modern signage for period-accurate signs and advertisements. Consider the material (for example metal or wood instead of plastic), the font, and how it is made (for example hand-painted pieces instead of mass-produced)
  • Wrap modern street lamps and change the lighting (for example from LED lights to gas lamps)

It’s vital to maintain continuity across multiple filming sessions so make sure to document set layouts, props, and dressing details. Keep a database to track changes made to the location to ensure you remain consistent throughout the filming process.

Transforming homes and interiors for period films

Still of Anya Taylor Joy in The Queen's Gambit
Still from The Queen’s Gambit (credit: Netflix)

The first step is to create a shortlist of houses or properties that have the right architectural elements and layout required of the period. Pay attention to details such as wall treatments, flooring, lighting fixtures, and furnishings.

You may need to source multiple locations for different aspects of a home to get the overall look you want, for example, using one property for the exterior shots, and a different interior location.

Aside from the visual aesthetics, it’s also vital to confirm the property meets safety standards and practical filming needs. Consider factors such as access for the cast and crew, space for camera equipment, and emergency exits.

Once you’ve selected your locations, you’ll need to problem solve ways to conceal modern elements that clash with the period setting. This could involve removing or covering modern appliances like ovens, hiding power sockets, removing contemporary furnishings, and concealing modern lighting fixtures.

This will require close collaboration with the production design team, including set decorators, prop masters, and art directors, to ensure the sets are consistent and cohesive.

Now the team can get creative, decorating the house with period-appropriate furniture, decor, and props that reflect the style of the chosen era, and potentially even adding architectural details such as mouldings or panelling.

Pay close attention to the details, for example the quality of materials can make all the difference to the richness and authenticity of the scene.

Still of Elle Fanning in The Great
Still from The Great (credit: Hulu)

Lighting choices are also just as important because they can instantly change the setting’s mood. There are a few factors to consider such as the warmth of light, fixture design, and placement that enhances the period feel.

One way to stay true to the period is by using only candlelight to light the set. Although this provides less lighting control, it can also pay off visually. For example, Robert Egger’s The Witch succesfully used natural lighting and candlelight to evoke the bleak ambience of puritan life in the 1600’s.

Once the set design is complete, conduct test shoots to evaluate how well it captures the desired period look on camera. The team may need to make further adjustments to lighting, set dressing, or layout based on feedback from the director and cinematographer.

Final thoughts

By following these steps and collaborating closely with your production team, you can effectively transform public spaces, streets and interiors for period films into immersive cinematic experiences.

Transforming locations requires a team effort and a combination of historical research, craftsmanship, and cinematic artistry. It’s a challenging but rewarding task, and you’ll be proud when you than see how these transformed locations breathe life into strories of the past and capture the imagination of viewers.

Need a place to store your shoot locations?

SuperScout is your own private location library – upload locations in minutes, tag them with ai in seconds, then search and share with your team