The art of cinema is a bit like an extended magic trick. Both depend upon a suspension of disbelief and a carefully crafted performance to make the pretend seem real. But like any magic show, a lot of work needs to happen behind the scenes to bring the illusion to life. As a location manager, Colby Picanso ’11 is one of the first people to see a script. It’s his job to find and manage the locations that become the foundation of movie magic.

Picanso is a bit of a magician himself. Scouting for a location is one thing, but the job also comes with managing all aspects of a shoot once the location is secured. He is in charge of shutting down streets, hiring the necessary police presence, setting up tents for makeup and food, finding suitable locations for everyone to park and a thousand other logistical details. At the end of the shoot, Picanso returns the site to reality so it’s like his team was never there.

That hard work pays off, though. During his three years in the industry, Picanso has worked on nearly a dozen television and film productions, including the Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures, which landed him an onscreen credit. The feeling of seeing his name on the big screen for the first time, he says, was indescribable.

Colby Picanso on the set of Hidden Figures in the NASA office.
Picanso’s job brings him right into the scenes of films and television, like the offices of NASA officials in Hidden Figures.

Location, Location, Location

Picanso grew up in Raymond, N.H., but he now calls Atlanta home. For the last decade, film and television companies have been flocking to Georgia to take advantage of an extreme tax incentive program the state legislature passed in 2008. The boom has created jobs for thousands of people, including Picanso.

After receiving his B.A. in communication studies, Picanso fought to break into the industry. He didn’t have a job lined up after graduation, so he took temp work. By 2015, he was a sous chef at a New England country club and still eager for his big break.

At the same time, Ben Affleck’s The Accountant was in production. The film’s location manager approached Picanso’s father — who runs the housing authority for the city of Roswell, Ga. — to see if they could shoot in one of his buildings. Picanso’s father agreed. He also asked if the location manager needed any more help on set. After a phone interview, Picanso found himself on a flight to Georgia with instructions to meet the crew at 8 a.m.

Picanso showed up early and enthusiastic just at the prospect of shadowing the shoot, but he ended up being the site representative when the crew started asking questions about the location and for permissions.

“It made me feel like it was okay that I was there — I had a feeling of belonging,” Picanso said.

He used the opportunity to help in any way and formed genuine connections with everyone he could. People started to notice him. By the time they were done filming the scene, the location manager told Picanso that if he moved to Atlanta, he would help him find work.

“I didn’t hesitate,” Picanso said. “It was a miracle, and I jumped on it.”

Since then, Picanso’s worked on productions such as Fist Fight and the reboot of CBS’s MacGyver. Going from a novice to an expert in such a short time required a lot of fast learning and flexibility, but Picanso’s been able to take everything he learned at Colby-Sawyer and apply it to aspects of his career. He uses skills he picked up in his liberal art classes to photograph locations, negotiate with municipal governments and write contracts. It’s a realization that hits him sometimes when he’s scouting in the state’s northeastern mountains or driving down country roads.

Colby Picanso with actor Tracy Morgan.
Though his job is demanding, it has its perks: Picanso gets to meet the actors that make sets come to life. Picanso hung out with Tracy Morgan during the filming of Fist Fight.

The Big Picture

Picanso cites his communications professors as instrumental to fostering a love of the art of film. He took a screenwriting class with the late Assistant Professor of Humanities Asri-Ambrose “MB” Metzegen-Bundiy, and seeing his enthusiasm for dissecting the artistry behind great movies piqued Picanso’s interest in pursuing a career in film. He also took numerous classes with Professor of Humanities Pat Anderson and costarred on his film review show “Reel Talk,” which aired on local cable.

“Every time I walk onto a movie set, I think of Pat and MB,” Picanso said. Memories of Colby-Sawyer have turned out to be powerful motivators when Picanso has to work until the early morning hours.

And the respect between professor and student is mutual.

“Colby’s passion for the medium was obvious in the first film course he took with me — so much so that it wasn’t long before I invited him to join me on “Reel Talk,” Professor Anderson said.

“As a professor, I’m always delighted — and quite proud — to see my students succeed, especially, as in Colby’s case, when it’s in the field he was so eager to be a part of. I look forward to seeing his name in the credits of many more films.”

Picanso also learned valuable, industry-advancing lessons from his job at the Lethbridge Lodge. He applies the customer service skills he developed behind the counter every day to deal with paparazzi or ask disgruntled residents to postpone mowing their lawn — which the microphones can pick up — until after they finish filming.

Now he’s embracing everything that comes with the territory of his new life. Georgia is different from New England, but Picanso has enjoyed the challenge of adjusting to it. He’s just finished production on an independent film, which offered a welcome break from larger projects. He still takes on projects with the location manager who helped him get started; crews become like a family and try to stick together. Picanso also joined a union, which offsets some of the instability that comes with freelance work.

Right now, he has no plans to move to L.A. The Peach State became the production center for more feature films released in 2016 than any other market in the United States, so he’s happy to chase down his next gig in the state he now calls home.

“My life has become so different,” Picanso said. “You just have to learn to adapt.”