Location Scouting and the Curse of the Flooded 3rd Grade Hallway

Making a picture book on location — Part 2

Shooting a picture book in your home is challenging. You have to clean, for one thing. (Yes, even if your entire premise is built on making a mess.) And where do you stash your kids?

Shooting on location is even harder. Especially when your story takes place in a school. ESPECIALLY when your story calls for the use of a commercial-grade foam machine to send a tidal wave of bubbles crashing down a flight of stairs in that school.

From the first day of planning What the Dinosaurs Did at School, real locations were non-negotiable. Plastic dinosaurs, real messes—it’s the Dinovember way.

The locations also had to live up to the schools in our imaginations: blending that universal, nostalgic quality with their own unique character to give the art a quirky sort of timelessness.

We visited a lot of schools around our hometown of Kansas City and ended up with some great options. No single school had everything we needed, so we gathered our reference photos and notes and stitched together gyms and classrooms, cafeterias hallways. In all, the fictional environment of What the Dinosaurs Did at School is a composite of three schools and a public library.

Our biggest constraint was that photography had to happen over summer while the kids were away. Two of the schools offered summer programs, leaving us with only one open week per school to take pictures.

It was going to be tight. What was worse, we were going to have to shoot our most difficult scene first.

Foamsplosion!

One of the goals we set for ourselves when we started work on What the Dinosaurs Did at School was to top the mud-in-the-living-room climax of its predecessor. If you’ve read What the Dinosaurs Did Last Night you know that was never going to be easy. That scene was so messy that Susan had to leave the house during cleanup to avoid a panic attack. (Who says children’s book authors don’t suffer for their art?)

We toyed with several ideas; some of them even made it into the book. But none of them had that same give-Susan-a-nervous-breakdown excitement.

Then it hit us: where in the school could the dinosaurs get into the most trouble? No, not the cafeteria (too obvious), not the art room. The science lab.

We scribbled this on a Post-it, and the foamsplosion was born:

Our story had its climax. Now all we needed was a foam machine, a prop door, and a location willing to let us stage the biggest mess we’d ever attempted.

“Are you SURE you’re cool with this?”

We found the perfect location early. The principle of the school was very open to having us around, and excited to have her school featured in our book. I explained what we wanted to do and she was on board right away. It was easier than expected. Almost too easy…

We rented the biggest foam machine we could find, built a custom door prop stained to match the doors in the hallway (which would appear on another spread), and did a lot of deep breathing.

“These tarps will protect the floor, right? RIGHT?”

We knew that once we turned the machine on, we’d only have a few seconds before the foam overtook the door. We’d have to get all the options and angles we needed before that happened, then immediately tear down and start mopping.

That was if nothing went wrong.

Here’s what went wrong: I had the bright idea to test the foam machine while Susan was getting into position at the bottom of the stairs. It turned on as expected and started making foam. Everything looked good, so I hit the button to switch it off.

Nothing happened.

I hit the button again. And again. The machine wouldn’t turn off. I shouted down to Susan, who had already started snapping photos like a madwoman. By the time I was able to yank the power cord from the wall, the dinosaurs were completely enveloped in foam.

We had no idea if we had gotten the shot, but there was no time to check. The foam had dissolved more quickly than expected and gallons of water were rushing down the stairs. The tarps didn’t hold, so most of that water ended up on the floor under the stairs instead of in the reservoirs we’d placed at the bottom of the stairway. We tore down the camera and frantically started mopping the water.

Panic attack achieved!

So worth it.

Eventually, we got the hallway clean. There was only one to witness how close to disaster we had come; a janitor walked in, stared, then turned and walked right back out without a word.

Here’s how it all turned out:

Ruuunnnn!!!!

You might be thinking, “Refe, why couldn’t you and Susan just fake it? You’ve heard of Photoshop, right?”

Yes, we’ve heard of Photoshop. We used it to get erase the fishing line holding up Rhino all those flying vials and massage a few rogue bubbles into place. But I meant it when I said we take our motto seriously: plastic dinosaurs, real messes. Would the kids notice the difference? Probably not. But how would we sleep at night?!

We’ll take real locations and props any day, no matter what it might do to our blood pressure.

Find What the Dinosaurs Did At School anywhere books are sold.

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