The first day of shooting on a movie set is never the first day that film is being produced. Days, and sometimes weeks, months, years, or—in the case of James Cameron’s “Avatar” or Terry Gilliam’s “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”—decades can go by from the beginning of a film’s inception to when cameras just start rolling. The production and subsequent post-production processes of a movie can be shorter, longer, or about the same, but neither can exist without pre-production—the work that goes into a film before any images are recorded.
Pre-production, like the filmmaking as a process as a whole, is complicated and can be daunting for independent filmmakers. Here are nine stages—each with their own subdivisions of tasks and labor—that should be included in your pre-production process if you want to ensure a steady, fruitful film shoot from day one.
Finalize a Shooting Script
While movies are magical, they don’t come out of thin air. Even before the pre-production process starts, you need an idea, and often a fairly polished screenplay to work off of. But when it’s crunch time, you need to finalize that screenplay and convert it to a shooting script—one that reads for the director, cinematographer, and camera crew as well as it does for the actors. Tweaks and whole scenes may be edited, added, or deleted at anytime (sometimes even in post-production!) but for the most part your shooting script should be ready to shoot by the time the director first calls action.
Storyboards & Shot Lists
Storyboards & shot lists go hand-in-hand with shooting scripts—creating a visual interpretation of the screenplay for the director and cinematographer to reference and prepare for. While some directors know exactly what they want in their hand and can draw it themselves, usually storyboard artists are hired to bring the story to life. Once a film is seen—even in black-and-white sketches—it comes alive in a way that the entire crew can see and gives them a concrete vision to strive for.
Find the Right Crew
While some crew positions might already be attached or recommended for a project, and other positions, like your writer and storyboard artist, could be hired very early in the process—you should work to get the entire team rounded out before pre-production gets too involved. After all, these are the women & men who will be carrying out a lot of these tasks, and the sooner they are involved in the creative process, the more valuable their input will be. All of filmmaking is a collaboration—not just the shooting!
You may need to tailor your storyboards to your location or vice-versa, so finding them early is key. Many hands-on producers & directors may want to do this themselves, but often the smartest thing to do is hire a professional location scout who already has locales in mind or knows how to find original ones perfect for your script. If you’re shooting in a studio or soundstage, you’ll want to find the right one early and make sure it’s not booked before you can lock it in—treat them as you would reception halls for your own wedding! Finding real world locations early is just as important because you’ll want enough time to process the necessary permits & paperwork.
Create a Proper Budget (and Stick to It!)
By now you should be finalizing your budget, to make sure you can find the gear and afford the locations you want to use. Sometimes this is the professional thing to do; sometimes it’s the necessary thing to do because you’re not working with any credit or financial backers willing to give any more than they already promised. This is never the most fun part of pre-production, but very often it’s the most important.
Choose Your Gear
Are you shooting digitally or going old school with some 16mm film? Or are you saving money and shooting the entire film on your iPhone? Once you have the answers to these questions you can acquire your gear—often from a rental house. After your first film you may establish a relationship with a particular rental house and can negotiate discounts and figure out just exactly what your budget will allow when it comes to peripheral equipment. Maybe you can afford that ultracool fog machine after all!
Clear That Red Tape
Once you know what gear and locations you want, you’re going have to get into the paperwork—namely, permits and insurance. Permits are required from municipal governments to shoot on public property and location agreements are typically needed for use of private homes—especially if you’ll need to move furniture or equipment around or repaint the walls after the shoot, etc. You’ll also need insurance to protect yourself in the event you or one of your crew members accidentally do damage to the location or your rented film equipment. Finally you may need to cover your crew and cast as well—better safe than sorry!
Find the Right Cast
With your dominos falling in place you’re going to need to finally decide on your cast—this could feel impossible, no matter how many actors your audition. You might be frustrated you can’t find the perfect person for the role you envisioned in your head, or maybe you found two equally brilliant performers and you’re pulling your hair out trying to decide between the two. Either way, auditioning early and often and even employing a casting agent to find even more performers, possibly from outside your locality, will go a long way towards giving your movie the perfect cast.
Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse
Sometimes finding the perfect cast could make a filmmaker overconfident, leading them to put too much responsibility on their cast to be self-sufficient. Actors need their director just as much as the crew does, and working with them both one-on-one and as an ensemble is a vital part of the pre-production process. Holding table reads and rehearsals weeks before shooting will ensure that when the camera is ready to the roll, your cast will be giving the performance your movie truly needs. This extra time before the shoot also allows the cast to develop a genuine chemistry that will not go unnoticed by your audience.
These are just nine simplified stages of a complex, multifaceted pre-production process. Often these steps will be done simultaneously and in any variety of orders. Just remember that if you’re confident and prepared you can get through any hurdle and tell the story you’ve always wanted to tell. New York Film Academy offers courses in production and filmmaking with the overall philosophy of learning by doing—so the best way to get through pre-production is to learn the skills first and then master them with experience and resolve.