WOA: Locating the Scene

By Laura Ly 

Arts alumnus Ben Owens searches the province for the perfect filming locations for TV shows and movies

IMG_00000068-770x596-1418312243Arts alumnus Ben Owens (`96 BA, Film Studies) has always been an avid outdoorsman who regularly hikes, bikes and climbs throughout Alberta — but he probably never imagined that his knowledge of outdoor locations would become so valuable later in life. Or that he would make a career out of it.

Owens is a Location Manager for various productions, responsible for finding and securing locations to be used in TV shows and movies. For example, although the setting on screen may seem completely authentic as a dusty, 1800s-era American Western landscape, it may actually be rural Alberta — and it’s Owens’s job to identify locations in the province that can masquerade as those other settings.

“You spend a lot of time working with the director and the producer and the production designer,” explains Owens. “You read the script and consult with them and find out what their vision is and then you go out and try to find that vision in the real world.”

To date, Owens has found locations for more than 50 productions, including Inception, Little House on the Prairie, Fargo andHeartland. He is currently working on season five of popular AMC show Hell on Wheels and scouting for an upcoming HBO miniseries on American explorers Lewis and Clark that may film in Alberta in the future.

Owens notes that the task of finding and securing locations is very fast-paced — for TV productions, he often only has a week or two after receiving a script to find a location, negotiate a deal, set up the logistics and get the location ready for filming. However, “time is money,” says Owens, who adds that the bigger the production’s budget, the more time he has to scout for locations.

Ben-Alone-in-Field-1170x780Owens’s parents encouraged him to “go to university and… learn what you’re interested in,” he remembers. So he decided to enroll in the Film Studies program in the Faculty of Arts and took a very broad course load that allowed him to learn “a little bit about a lot of things.”

“When you’re meeting people from all walks of life with different backgrounds and education, being a generalist has helped,” he says, adding that his Arts degree also taught him how to relate and communicate to people.

As the first person that the public comes into contact with during the production process, Owens heavily relies on his communication skills when talking to the owners of potential filming locations. Regardless of whether he’s talking to a CEO of a large corporation or a small homeowner, Owen says, “I feel on the same level playing field with them because I know how to present myself.”

After graduating from UAlberta and receiving a Broadcasting Diploma from Mount Royal College, Owens began his film and television career as a production assistant on various productions. “I wasn’t even aware that a Location Manager would even be a job,” he admits. But he fell into it after watching his boss, the production’s Location Manager, in action.

“I initially thought it would be a one or two year adventure and maybe I would get back into broadcasting — I always thought working in radio or television would be my goal — but it’s [been] a one or two year adventure that turned into 20 years so far and I just love it.”

A career high for Owens would be to work on a science fiction production. “The reason why I fell in love with movies in the first place is because I saw Star Wars when I was five years old. I saw Darth Vader walk onto the screen and I thought that was the coolest thing in the world,” he laughs.

“And I always thought that being an astronaut would be really cool…  and I thought, wouldn’t it be neat to work on a science fiction show and do all the things that you can’t really do in space and then also work in movies too?”

(University of Alberta)