pre-production

9 Stages of Pre-Production

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!

Location Scouting

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.

How to Plan an Effective Shooting Schedule

How to Plan an Effective Shooting Schedule

Given that it can quite literally make or break a production, the value of a good shooting schedule cannot be understated.

“But I’m not working on a multi-million dollar shoot,” many students of filmmaking cry. Or they protest, “I don’t have time to plan everything in advance.”

Herein lies the rub: whether you’re working on a summer blockbuster or a $500 short with a couple of friends, planning a shooting schedule will not only save you a lot more time than you put into it, but it’ll also make the experience a whole lot easier (and, ergo, more enjoyable).

You probably don’t have the luxury of a three-month shooting window. If anything, the more pressed for time you are, the more you need a shooting schedule.

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Don’t make the mistake of heading out to set determined to work it out as you go. A good shooting schedule will reflect in the quality of your finished production, so here’s a helpful guide on how to implement one.

Tips on Planning a Production Schedule

For the purposes of this post, we’re going to go ahead and assume you’re scheduling for a short or feature film (though much of the advice applies to TV scheduling too).

Get Everyone on the Same Page

You’re busy. Your assistant director is busy. The sound guy is busy. The cast are all off on other jobs.

We understand it. You’re busy.

All the more reason why it’s imperative to try and get as many of the pre-production staff as possible into an initial meeting, where you can discuss scheduling. And yes, this meeting in itself can be a feat of scheduling!

The aim here is to cut down on the amount of information you’ll have to relay to people not present for the initial meeting. There’s nothing worse than setting a preliminary schedule only to have to start from scratch when you later find out the cinematographer is unavailable for your proposed shooting week.

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Thankfully, in this day and age it’s easier to keep people in the loop…

There’s an App For That

Alongside the staples like Skype and Google Docs (if you’re not using cloud sharing in pre-production, start!) you’ll want to invest in a few killer scheduling apps. The main ones to check out are:

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ShotPro ($40) – more for pre-visualization than scheduling, but this will help you tie together your workflow ahead of the shoot.

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Shot Lister ($20) – available on iPad and iPhone, the Shot Lister app has long been a go-to for even professional filmmakers who want to compile a schedule for an entire crew (with the ability to edit in real-time.)

Read more: NYFA’s essential iOS & Android Apps for Filmmakers

Along with your favorite storyboarding and screenwriting suites, those two apps alone will take the sting out of the scheduling tail. With these downloaded, let’s move on…

The Fun Begins

With as much of the pre-production crew in one place and a blank calendar in front of you, it’s time to start … but where?

From the bottom up. Start by “lining” the script. Go through every single line of the screenplay and mark down every actor, extra, prop, costume, vehicle and special effect you’ll need, then compile that information into one long list.

From here, the next logical step is to transcribe your list onto breakdown sheets. These are key items in the planning process, giving you an at-a-glance look of what is needed for each individual scene.

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Breakdown sheets are fairly self-explanatory and easy to fill out. And as luck would have it, we’ve got a breakdown sheet template you can download!

Filling the Calendar

With a breakdown sheet for every scene, you can begin organizing the shoot itself. Start by grouping together scenes that can most easily be shot back to back, in one location. Disregard the chronology of the script; very few productions film in order from the beginning of the screenplay to the end. It’s all about efficiency.

Another golden tip is to aim to do all of your exterior scenes, as well as anything involving extensive special effects or crowd work, at the start of the shoot. If the weather conspires against you or anything else goes awry, you’ll be able to reschedule for later on. Leaving exteriors to the end of your shoot schedule is a sure way to tempt fate.

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Be prepared to cut shots, too. While you should try and shoot scenes from multiple angles wherever possible to give you extra options in the editing suite, don’t be under the illusion that you’ll have time to shoot everything on your storyboard. Always be on the lookout for things that can be sacrificed.

And lastly…

Add 10%

It’s a rule that has served many a filmmaker over the years: whatever time you think you need, add 10 percent.

That applies to the number of days on the schedule and to the length of each individual day, because there’ll always be something that crops up: setting up or breaking down the set taking longer than expected, a sudden rain cloud halting production for half an hour, an actor wanting to experiment, or simply forgetting to budget time for lunch and breaks!

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Scheduling a film shoot can seem like a herculean task, but tackling it one little bit at a time will help you conquer the dragon with as little headache as possible.

Best of luck, and don’t forget to offer your own advice learned along the way in the comments below!

How To Make The Most Of Pre-Production

A producer’s job is never finished, even after their movie has a definitive, final cut. But it does have a start—at the very beginning of pre-production, the work on a film before principal photography. And a smart producer will make sure they are making the most of this crucial time from day one. Especially when dealing with low budgets, every decision and every penny count. Here then are 12 things a producer can do during pre-production to best ensure a smooth, worthwhile film.

1. Start Saving Money

This applies to the producer, the director, and anyone else with a personal stake in the production. In a world where many artists and filmmakers live paycheck to paycheck, saving up a decent sum of money can take a long time, so start as soon as you know you have a project somewhere down the line. By saving up enough to cover at least a few months of rent and bills, you can then focus full time on the project without having to work a day job. You’ll also probably need some start-up cash to get the ball rolling on your project, just to get it to a point where you can start wooing investors.

2. Hire a line producer if you’re not micromanaging the budget

Film budgets, even for low-budget independent films, are both vitally important and incredibly complex. Unless you plan on having total control over the budget yourself, you will most likely need to someone to manage it for you, creating a proper breakdown of all costs and resources to the letter. Not only is this key to keeping track of a complicated film set, but essential to convincing potential investors that you have your head on your shoulders and are running a professional, competent project.

3. Hire a Lawyer

Find a lawyer willing to work within your budget, and willing to work for your budget. Having someone who knows their stuff, legally speaking, will help prevent any unforeseen expensive disasters when it comes to contracts, agreements and other paperwork.

4. Pick your format

Obviously, shooting digital is far cheaper than shooting on film these days. Choosing what you’d like to shoot—HD? 4K? 48fps?—as early as possible will help you start setting your budget sooner and more accurately. Choosing a more outdated format has its advantages as well; many production companies, film schools and individuals have stockpiles of outmoded technology they will be willing to give away at a sizable discount. If you are willing to put up with the extra costs and insist on shooting film, finding supplies of older stock can also save you a lot of money. Older film is typically grainier than fresh stock—but that could be just the look you’re going for.

5. Find your equipment

As with your format, finding equipment at a discount will go a long way toward reducing costs. You may choose what type of camera to use based on what is best available. You can work out a deal with a school you’ve attended or worked at, or go in on rental (or purchased) equipment with another production, or have a business front the money in exchange for producing an industrial or commercial video for them.

6. Find your crew

Obviously you and the director want to find a crew that will best realize the vision of the project. However, sometimes it pays to be practical. A lot of freelancing DPs and sound techs will own their own equipment. If you’re torn between two candidates, it might be smart to go with the one who can save you some money. Negotiating salary is also a key step in this part of pre-production. Even if someone is the best, if they’re asking for money you don’t have, sacrifices might have to be made.

 7. Find your casting director

Casting directors know what they’re doing, and it’ll take a load off your shoulders to have someone doing the grunt work of finding your perfect cast. More importantly, a casting director with a solid reputation will look great when you present your project to investors. (This also applies to finding your DP and crew.)

8. Storyboard!

It might seem odd to focus on storyboarding in the middle of non-creative pre-production work, but storyboarding will help with a lot more than setting the look for the film. Having a strict, detailed sense of what you’ll be shooting will help you get exactly what you require, whether its locations, lights, props, etc., and save you from having to spend money on extraneous elements you may never need. It will also keep you tight on schedule as you move shot to shot during production because producing rule #1 is and will always be Time = Money.

9. Get you insurance and permits out of the way

Acquiring insurance and permits can lead to a lot of red tape; it’s best to get it out of the way early. That way, if you hit any paperwork hiccups, you can have them resolved well before production starts, preventing any delays.

10 Find a caterer

This may seem trivial and silly, but it’s anything but. It’s indicative of an entire part of filmmaking that often gets overlooked—the little things. Finding a person or business to feed your crew may seem like a low priority when dealing with permits, insurance and expensive equipment rentals, but your cast and crew need to be fed, and if you overlook it until the last minute, any number of things can go awry. Giving yourself time to find the right caterer—someone close by, someone with a broad enough menu—will also help you find the best bargain available.

11. Lock your location

Get a great location scout. Get several, if you can. Look everywhere so that you know you didn’t miss the perfect spot that gives you everything you want for the lowest cost. Don’t just take into account how it looks on screen. Keep in mind traffic patterns, noise issues, potential problems with permits and insurance, and importantly, its distance to your crew, equipment, and, of course, your caterer. Travel costs rack up. Lock your location as early as possible so you can work on all of the above steps well before production gets underway.

12. Nail your lookbook

Your lookbook, or investment packet, should be as thrilling and as exciting as your project. Convincing potential investors to risk their own money on your artistic vision is a tough sell, and by hiring a graphic designer and offering as professional a lookbook as possible, you’ll show these investors you mean business. It can’t just look pretty, though—what’s inside counts as well. That’s where talented names—whether it’s your crew, your actor, or your casting director—come into play. And if you have everything else listed above taken care of—if you show your investors you’ve even considered the caterer—they will be much more likely to trust you with their money.

Learn more about production at the New York Film Academy Producing School.