Shooting a film on a beach has its ups and downs, but it's good to know both before you jump into it.
What could be better than spending a month at a beach house, free of charge? If you're a filmmaker, it would be spending that month making your first feature film.
I had that exact experience in 2003 shooting my first film, Ocean Front Property, and it was a bona fide blast. It was also a monumental headache. It turns out there's a lot you need to know about shooting on a beach, and I didn't know any of it.
But I do now, and I'm glad to share it with you.
1. The Humidity
Whether you're shooting on the Gulf Coast or the West Coast, beach locations are going to have a lot of moisture in the air. This means a few things.
First of all, get ready to spend an inordinate amount of time on people's hair. That, or just write in the script for everyone to have hair like Richard Simmons. It's amazing how much kink can form in a person with laser-straight hair. I had an actress whose hair was naturally curly but normally straightens it. You could practically see it coiling up right in front of you as she acted out her scenes. And this isn't just a matter of style, it's a continuity issue. If an actor's hair is straight in one scene and wound like a Brillo pad in the next, that's not good. Be aware of this when you go in and prepare for it. Figure out what would be the easiest to deal with and stick with it. If you're shooting an indie film, dealing with hair styles is the last thing you want to be consumed by.
Another completely unforseen issue was the dry-erase clap board. It simply didn't want to work. I don't know the physics behind dry-erase markers, but for some reason the humidity in the air kept it from working at all. We eventually had to use pieces of tape, writing the scene numbers on the tape and tearing them off for each scene. An electric clap board may be your best bet, or use an iPad with one of the slate apps offered on them.
2. The Sun
Let's face it, some people handle sun better than others. The last thing you want is a cast and crew that can barely move due to sunburn. But even worse is that continuity issue again. Scenes are usually shot out of sequence, so someone could wind up pale in one scene, red in the next, and then pale again.
USE SUNSCREEN ON YOUR ACTORS EVERY MINUTE THEY'RE OUTSIDE. No exceptions.
3. The Wind
Find a sound guy who is nowhere close to suicidal. Because he will be by the end of the movie.
The sound we recorded on the beach sounded like we were passing through a black hole. In many cases, you could barely hear the actors over the roar of the ocean wind, not to mention the surf. Just expect that you're going to have to do a lot of voice over work in post. There's really no getting around it.
Also, back to the hair thing. The wind is not kind to hairstyles. Rethink anything elaborate or delicate. Simple is better.
4. The Sand
It's everywhere. It's in the ground, it's in the air, and it'll wind up in places you really don't want it.
Your lens will never be fully clean. Seriously, clean it like an obsessive Windex Nazi between each and every take, and you'll still wind up with little flecks all over by the end of the shot. Not much you can do except be diligent.
And if you're shooting on any kind of tape, one little slip of your hand and you just lost hours of work. Once it lands on the beach, you're never getting all the sand out of that thing. Game over. That goes for any piece of equipment for that matter. Just pretend that the ground is molten lava and protect your gear with your life.
But hey, there is an upside! The sand on the ground is like a giant canvas that makes blocking the easiest thing in the world. Wanna mark the spot you want the actor to stand on? Just draw it in the sand. Want to mark spot B where you want them to walk to? Just make an X with your toe. I would go outside and plot out whole scenes in the ground like an NFL offensive coordinator while the cast was in makeup. No gaffer tape required.
This one depends on where you're shooting, of course, but we had not one, but TWO hurricanes threaten to end our production (we shot on the Gulf Coast).
The first one hit as we were on our way down. Everybody else was evacuating while we were driving straight into it (come to think of it, my cast and crew must have been insane). When I first arrived at the spot we would be shooting, storm surges had pushed the water up to the back of the beach. In other words, we had no beach. I had to figure out how to shoot my beach movie without a beach.
Luckily, the waters subsided, the storm blew another direction, and the production was spared, leaving a pristine beach that I never could have dreamed we'd have. So there's an upside.
This happened a second time halfway through the shoot when we literally went to bed one night not knowing if the house would still be standing in the morning. But again, it blew away and the shoot was saved.
Bottom line, avoid shooting on the Gulf Coast in the Fall.
All of these tips aside, filming my beach movie was the experience of a lifetime, and I'd recommend it to anyone. We got some ridiculously good footage that added up to a huge amount of production value, which is everything in a low-budget movie. So if you can keep these 5 pitfalls in mind, you can come out of it with a beautiful film that will set you apart from the rest of the field.