It's a puzzle that alters as you attempt to solve it.
It's the foundation of your whole project. If it isn't managed properly, you can expect to see everything collapse right in front of your eyes.
The preproduction process involves securing funding, building a budget, creating a schedule, hiring a cast and crew, finding locations, renting equipment and preparing everything for shooting.
It sounds straightforward. It is anything but.
Every one of those steps is loaded with conflicts, problems and delays. Preproduction is a drain on time, effort and morale.
The success of your project will depend on the work you do at this stage. You can't afford to get anything wrong.
So read on to take a look at the problem areas which make preproduction such a difficult process:
Financing and Budgeting
Every film project is a risky venture. For every success, there are countless failures. Convincing an investor that your project is one of the ones that will succeed is not easy. And even when you get funding, it's unlikely to be as much as you would want. No-one is going to hand you a blank check and set you free to create your masterpiece.
The same is true of commercial productions: your client will dictate the budget for your content and keep a very close eye on how everything develops.
Budgeting for Everything
Every cent will have to be accounted for, which means strict monitoring of how money is spent. Keeping track of the paperwork and deliverables involved is not easy, especially when many projects have a number of financing partners. And since nothing else can really begin until you have the money to bring others into your project, financing is the biggest headache a creator faces at the beginning of preproduction.
Mapping Out Your Project's Budget
Of course, getting the money you need for your project is one thing: Creating a budget for it is another. In preproduction, you have to map out the entire journey of your project in relation to the crew you will need, the equipment you require to shoot and the actors and locations you will need to lock down before the first camera can roll.
Your project may have begun with an idea and a flurry of imagination as you wrote your first script or treatment, but very quickly reality bites hard as funding and budgeting take precedence over everything else.
Once you have your budget, you can finally bring people on board. If you think your stars will align at this stage, forget it. You'll have to navigate all of this in real time as the project is underway.
Who is Available?
First of all, you need to find people who are available for the period of time you will need them for. And that's not going to be your dream team. It's going to be the best people you can find in each position for the duration of production. Some people will exceed your expectations, others will test your patience.
Hoping for the Best
And the reality is that you won't find out that someone is not completely up to the task you've assigned them until it's too late. You'll just have to roll with the punches.
Building up your crew will add some fresh momentum to your project, but communicating with everyone will take a lot of wind out of the sails. If writing endless emails and text messages is your thing, then welcome to heaven. If not, welcome to the nightmare of preproduction communication
Getting Everyone on the Same Page
You'll have to communicate with a lot of people at once. With clients and with agencies. Individually and in groups. With personalised messages and mass emails. And everyone will have questions that you will have to answer.
Confusion and Miscommunication
There will be confusion and miscommunication and crossed wires at every turn. You will have forgotten what the message you sent was about by the time the person responds. And any time you feel on top of things, your inbox will bring you down to earth again quickly.
Collaborating and Delegating
Trying to keep everyone on the same page is an ordeal – you will need to communicate and collaborate with the entire crew and try to delegate as much as you to trusted figures. Good luck.
The first draft of the script that kicked all of this off? It's good, but it's probably not that good. As more people come on board, you are going to get a lot of feedback. And it's not all going to be positive.
That scene you loved? It's too expensive to shoot. The comedic subplot kills the flow of the movie. There aren't enough scenes to justify keeping that character in the script. Things are going to change considerably and you may end up a long way away from where you started.
Commercial Production Considerations
With commercial productions, you may find that your client has altered your vision or demanded revisions that fundamentally change the concept of your vision. You can end up mired in negotiation as your treatment evolves into something different to what you had envisaged. At this point you will have to decide to stand firm or compromise. Whatever the case, you need to be careful not to dictate terms to the people bankrolling the project.
Focus and Discipline
If you don't have focus and discipline at this stage, the essence of your idea can get lost. And once it's gone, good luck finding it again. The project will probably progress in any case, so hopefully you'll have something that will work and that you are proud of.
You will need to navigate the redrafting process while taking care of every other piece of business already discussed, plus the next areas we need to look at.
Everyone who reads a script or a visualises a commercial pitch pictures each character in their mind. He or she looks a certain way, delivers lines in a certain manner and has a certain type of charisma. I've got news for you: Every single one of these preconceptions will be obliterated during the casting process.
Who Can You Cast?
First of all, you are limited to who's available. And secondly, you need to decide what kind of actor you are going to be working with. A classically trained SAG actor might be perfect for the lead, but she's too expensive to hire without cutting the budget elsewhere.
Open Auditions Can Drain Time
Open auditions might unearth a new star, but it could also involve spending a lot of time watching mediocre line readings. Even if you work with a casting agency or director, you will spend a lot of your time filtering out the actors you don't want to cast before zeroing in on who is best for the role. And as time ticks down to the beginning of shooting, you may have to make do with the best you can get. Which may not be very good.
Poor Casting Decisions Can Ruin Productions
Poor casting decisions can fundamentally alter the course of a production. Even if you've navigated your project carefully through all the choppy waters we've looked at earlier, casting issues can hole the ship below the waterline before you even transition from preproduction to production.
As your project develops you start off with your preliminary schedule. Then your revised preliminary schedule. Then your revised schedule and your updated schedule and so on - a constantly changing attempt to define what needs to be done and when.
Creating Your Shooting Schedule
Towards the end of preproduction you will have to create your shooting schedule in detail (hopefully aided by experienced colleagues). Every alteration at this stage could be very expensive.
Communicating Schedule Alterations
The course you have plotted for your project's journey will alter constantly as your plans come face to face with reality. And every adjustment will need to be communicated to everyone involved in the production.
Get Ready to Adapt
Numerous problems will arise. Your actors and locations will have off-periods. You'll have rented expensive equipment for days you can't shoot. Public holidays and weather issues will mean things have to be rearranged. Your schedule is constantly in flux, and every change will impact on a multitude of other things.
Process Acceleration In Commercial Production
If you are working on a commercial project, your preproduction is likely to be measured in days rather than weeks, which makes everything even more stressful and intense. The truncated process requires additional diligence and perserverence, and a keen eye for detail.
Finding the right places to shoot is not easy. You need to find the sweet spot between appropriateness, cost and availability. And those three things don't align easily.
Booking a Soundstage
If you're shooting on a soundstage, you'll need to block book the dates you need in advance and hope that they overlap with when you are actually ready to shoot.
Permits and Provisos
If you are shooting outdoors, you may require permits from local authorities with very strict provisos about what you can and can't do. The paperwork required can take weeks to process, so you can't leave anything to chance.
Making All The Pieces Fit
You have to figure out a way to ensure that every element comes together at exactly the right time in exactly the right place.
As you can see, getting all of the areas we've explored aligned at the same time in order to move forward to production is a monumental challenge. And the price for complacency is bad work and disappointment. The best preproduction process is acheived with a combination of organisation, communication and effective crew management.
Preproduction is not for the faint of heart as it requires intense determination, stamina and focus to pull off effectively. Decisions made during this stage will go a long way to deciding whether your project will be a success or a failure.