Pre-production is the stage of a film, tv show or commercial production where most of the important planning will be done. It is followed by production (during which visual content will be filmed) and post-production (where the filmed visual content will be edited into a coherent whole).
Making mistakes during this phase of production can have a highly detrimental effect on a project. When it is undertaken effectively, it can help to lay the foundation for a successful production.
During pre-production you will finalize your script, hire your cast and crew, scout locations, find equipment and build a shooting schedule. It is therefore imperative that this essential planning stage is well-managed.
So let's take a look at the most important things you need to know about pre-production.
What is Pre-Production?
Pre-production is the phase where you prepare your project for shooting.
Production is the phase where you shoot all of your scenes.
Postproduction is where you arrange all of the scenes you shot into the finished movie.
As you might imagine, the success of the latter two phases is heavily reliant on the work you do in the first one.
Building up the Breakdown 1: Your Story
Whether you are working with a script, a treatment, an outline for a commercial or anything else, you will need to finalize everything during this stage of production.
Does Everything in your Story Work?
You'll want to consider the arc of the story you want to tell, whether it's 30 seconds or 3 hours. You need to see if there's a rhythm to it. Does everything flow naturally? Is everything believable? Will the script work on set?
When everything is in place you can get to work on your script breakdown – the list of everything you will need for your production once shooting starts.
You will need to revise your script several times. No matter how good the writer(s), scripts are likely to go through several iterations before getting anywhere near being filmed. The early drafts give you time to flesh out characters and get rid of everything that doesn't work. This is where you figure out what needs to be added, changed or removed. The tighter the script before shooting, the more likely everything will run smoothly once you move into production.
Don't 'Direct on Paper'
A key thing to avoid if you work with a script is 'directing on paper' – writing things like "zoom in on" or "jump cut to". These are jobs for the director, and you need to leave room for improvisation later in the production. Anyway, once the shooting script is ready, these directions will suggest themselves when it comes to setting up the shots.
Write a Detailed Outline for your Commercial
In a commercial, you have to tell a very detailed story in a very short amount of time. This means that when you are casting a commercial, you have to be incredibly particular about everything that will appear on screen. You will have to describe exactly what you need – from the exact kind of actor you require (no detail is too small) to the specific look and feel the commercial should have (color palette, pace, atmosphere etc).
When you know what you want, you will send a full list of roles to casting agencies or advertise the roles on casting websites. You need to find the main actors first and then search for minor ones as they will be less important to the finished product.
Map Out The Journey
Of course, you might not even be working with a script. It could be a semi-improvised piece or a documentary, in which case you still need to plan out what the journey will be. A clear structure will make it much easier to make your way through the project and will help to focus minds about what needs to be achieved. The clearer the outline, the better the shape of the finished product.
Once your script, outline or vision is locked, you'll need to figure out all of the elements it will take to put each scene together. This is your breakdown. This includes all the locations, sets, characters, props, visual effects and costumes. Let's take a look at a few of these things:
Building up the Breakdown 2: Costume and Production Design
Find your Costumes
Unless you are working with a shoestring budget, you will need a costume designer with experience to find exactly what you need. Costume is an essential element of a film's look, and it is essential that you discuss the colors and textures with not only the costume designer, but with the production design department, the director and director of photography and maybe even the make-up and hair departments. Doing this will help to ensure that there is a coherent look and visual identity for the entire production.
Costume designers will want to have fitting appointments as early as possible – that way they can take some potential costumes they have found, dress the actors and take photos to share with the other creative departments mentioned above. Again, this will ensure that all of the film's elements look well together.
How Many Costume Copies will you Need?
You will need to figure out how many versions of a specific costume you will need over the duration of the shoot. Always assume that an actor will spill ketchup or sweat profusely under the hot lights. Your costume designer will make a list of the changes (the amount of times a character will change costume) and then source as many copies as necessary (a single costume used in many scenes will obviously require more copies than a costume used in only one).
Many commercial productions will require actors or models to wear the clothing of the brand promoting their product. In this case, it will be necessary to figure out how to make everything look as good as possible.
Most of things your characters hold, touch or interact with are going to be props. You have to account for all of these things before you get on set. Your production design team need to take care of this and also the set dressings – the little details that make your set look like what it's supposed to be. This work needs to begin the second the breakdown is underway. Always assume that you have less time than you think you have. It'll help you stay on track.
Plan your Visual Effects
Visual effects don't just refer to the big explosions you have planned for the climactic battle sequence. These effects can be anything from little green screen touches to computer-generated dinosaurs.
You'll need a have a very clear sense of the effects you'll need because they are going to take time to create. A lot of time. If you know exactly what you want before shooting begins, you'll have a much better chance of achieving the effects you require.
A detailed conversation in preproduction with all of the key figures involved will ensure things are less time consuming and nerve-wracking during shooting and post production.
Collaborate with Key Creatives
It is very important for the visual effects department to have an exact understanding of what the director and the DOP have in mind. The easiest way to ensure that everyone is on the same page is to storyboard the effects clearly.
Turning every 'thing' in the script into something physically tangible (or computer-generated) will take time. As seen in each of the examples above, the earlier you can start this process, the better.
Locking Down Financing and Building a Budget
You won't get very far without financing. You are going to need money – and probably quite a bit of it. This means finding distribution partners, co-producers, a team of investors – never use your own money!
You'll need to have a budget in place to attract financing, so it's important to try to factor in everything that you can to come up with a logical figure. It's important not to underestimate or overestimate costs, neither will do you any favours.
Working on a Commercial Project
In commercial productions, a client or agency will bankroll your project, meaning that you will have to take care to spend the budget prudently. As commercials time-frames are very short, it is vitally important that casting, location scouting and production design are organised well and undertaken as quickly as they can be in the process.
As time is of the essence in commercial productions, reliable agencies and collaborators will form a key part of the team, and each project you work on is an opportunity to build a relationship with people who can help you in stressful situations in the future.
The way you structure your budget will depend on the type of production you are working on and where you will be shooting. It might be a good idea to see what type of funding is available where you are planning to shoot as you may have the option to apply for public funding in some cases.
Sometimes studios or cable networks will insist that you follow a certain type of budget format.
Rainy Days and Completion Bonds
On any production, it will be essential to put some of your budget aside as a 'rainy day fund'. This may be demanded by financiers on larger productions or part of working with Completion Bond Insurance which ensures that the film will be completed.
It's important to remember that you can't account for every variable. Issues will arise, problems will occur, mistakes will be made. On any production, you will need to learn to expect the unexpected.
You can be certain that post-production and visual effects will be more expensive than originally envisaged. A telephone line in the background of a period piece can cause you trouble you'd never accounted for.
Building up your Crew in Pre-Production
You can't do it all by yourself. As preproduction progresses, more people will begin to join your team. Some people will need to be involved as early as possible, others can come on board later as you approach the production phase. Let's take a look at the key personnel.
The most important investment will be in the crew. Often it can account for 80% of your budget. The types of crew members required will vary with the size of the production, but you will need to find some people to have on board at the start, as issues will arise from the beginning of preproduction. The key people you will need to organise everything will be your Line Producer, UPM and First AD. Let's take a closer look at each of these:
First of all, your Line Producer will manage the project's budget 'line by line' – hence the name. But the role doesn't end there. The Line Producer is essentially the Chief Operations Officer for a film and will manage the daily operations of the entire production – scheduling, recruiting and liaising with the entire production team amongst many other things. The Line Producer will be the go-to person for any issues that arise throughout the whole production.
Unit Production Manager
Your Line Producer might also cover this role, but most productions will need a UPM to work closely with the Line Producer when it comes to coordinating arrangements for cast and crew housing and transportation, budget preparation, creating script breakdowns, building preliminary shooting schedules and negotiating releases for locations and personnel.
The UPM is likely to be camped out in the production office working on all of these things while the Line Producer and First AD deal with other issues.
The First AD is directly responsible to the director and is in charge of the set. This person will schedule all of the important things in relation to the production phase. The First AD will figure out the duration of production and plan out each daily schedule, making sure everything is running on time to avoid costly overruns. They deal in time management, and will keep a tight schedule once shooting begins.
The First AD will be responsible for preparing day out of days (the tally of the number of paid days for each cast member) and creating the daily call sheet (the schedule for each shooting day). They will be the main point of communication on set and take care of staff and shot security.
Bringing your director on board in preproduction will help to get everything set for shooting. He or she may bring other key people into the production like the director of photography. Collaborating with your director on the storyboards and shot lists will help to ensure that everything is ready when you transition from preproduction into production.
Your crew will be made of various departments and each of these will have a department head in charge. For preproduction, a casting director, costume designer and production designer will be the key figures. You'll be able to delegate work to these people as preproduction edges closer to production. The heads of the various departments will need to meet regularly to ensure that everyone is on the same page and to make sure that plans and schedules are adhered to.
They will also ensure that there is one look and feel for the production, which is essential for a successful project.
Preparing to Shoot: What will you film and how will you film it?
Let's break shooting down into its constituent parts: To create your movie, you're going to be filming actors with cameras on a set. In this section, we will take a look at how you can plan for everything required in front of and behind the lens.
Whatever way you envisage the characters prior to casting, the actors playing them are never going to be exactly what you had in mind. As stated already: Preproduction is where imagination meets reality.
You can use a casting agency to find your cast or advertise the roles yourself. Depending on the size of your project, you have a number of different options when it comes to finding your cast. A successful casting will require figuring out what works best for the project you are working on. You'll have to decide whether you are working with 'guilded' actors or not. The costs will vary wildly depending on the talent you are working with.
Actors in a Commercial Production
The same goes for actors in a commercial or models in a photoshoot. You must be aware of the fact that you do not only pay them for the time they spend on set. It's more about getting the right of use. You must think about all possible ways your product will be distributed and make sure you have all the necessary rights negotiated. This means you must think about territories, time and exploitation rights for the media channels you need, like online, tv, theatrical and so on. The more you need and the higher your budget is, the more you will need to pay to agencies and actors.
How to Audition Effectively
In film and commercial auditions, you will want to check the range an actor can display with various line readings. It can also be worthwhile to audition actors together to see if they have chemistry. You may have to call back an actor for several auditions as you narrow down the list of potential talents and zero in on the ones who fit the role best and display the charisma you want to see on screen.
Also, you will need to address the things the actor will be required to do as early as possible. If your talent will be required to appear in some form of undress, will need to shave for the production or will need to perform in certain conditions – swimming in the open sea for example – they need to know well in advance of shooting, not when they appear on set.
If you can shoot everything on your iPhone, great. For most productions however, gearing up means renting the recording, sound and lighting equipment (along with many other things) you will need to complete the project. It's always worth seeing if it's possible to get a discount if you'll be renting over an extended period of time. It's also worth seeing if certain crew members own equipment they will offer you a better deal on or perhaps even let you use for free.
If very special equipment is required for your shoot – like Arri Skypanels or a huge Panther crane -make sure your approach your rental house as early as possible rather than having to make last minute requests.
Never forget that equipment is not just about the equipment alone. You will need to transport all of it to the set, which will require a number of vehicles, and you might need specially trained and certified personnel to operate certain equipment as well.
Once you've storyboarded your scenes, you need to do a location scout to find the right places to shoot them. You might be shooting on a studio sound-stage, in which case you will need to find out about availability as early as possible as shooting may last for weeks if not months. Getting this in order will give you time to focus on organising sets and other important elements.
Considering the amount of work involved, it will probably be necessary to bring in an experienced location manager to take care of everything. He will need to work together will the director, director of photography, gaffer and production designer to consider the feasibility of any potential location for shooting. And always consider the sound recordists – shooting next to a busy highway on a period production will cause avoidable headaches for them which may have to be resolved in post-production.
You'll probably need to shoot outdoors as well, which means you'll have to factor in things like the weather, power sources and permits for shooting. You will also have to figure out if you number of other things, like whether you will need a production base there, how accessible the location is for equipment and if there are enough hotels nearby to host the entire crew.
The Final Touches in Preproduction
Creating Storyboards and Shot Lists in Pre-Production
Storyboarding your scenes helps to give everyone a sense of what needs to be achieved on set. A shot list will give clear directions about what a scene will look like, essentially providing you with a to-do list for each day of shooting.
While storyboards give an outline of how the action from the script will look, shot lists provide a very detailed view of how the scenes will be filmed. Breaking each scene down into a succession of shots will help to dictate the shooting schedule. Some shots will require only a static camera. Others will involve panning, tilting, zooming and tracking (and as soon as a special grip is needed, more preparation time will be required for the shoot).
Discuss Shots With Your Director and Editor
It's also worthwhile to talk to your editor about shot lists if you can, as they can give feedback on coverage that could be very useful in post-production (and also ensuring that you avoid expensive reshoots). Mapping these things out logically will save you time and help avoid delays when you are in production.
The more elaborate the shot, the more difficult it will be to execute. This means that more time will need to allocated for the shot to be completed. The length of a shot is also an important determining factor for the shooting schedule. If you're planning a 10-minute-long Steadicam shot, you'll need more time than a single line to a static camera.
The director will outline his vision and the Production Coordinator and First AD will try to transfer all of this information into a coherent and workable shooting schedule.
You're almost there. Your breakdown is complete and you've mapped out a shot list. You've probably already created a rough shooting schedule to calculate day-out-of-days. Now you need to really plan everything out in detail.
You and your team will need to figure out the sequence you will be shooting the scenes in. Creating the perfect shooting schedule will depend on many factors – from actor and location availability to the length, technical requirements and emotional heaviness of each scene (it's probably not a good idea to make an actor jump from an emotionally-charged scene to a comedic one right after). It can be useful to have some film scheduling tips to refer to as you consider all of these things.
You are now setting the groundwork for the next phase of your project – production. But before that starts, there are a few last things you can do to make sure you exit pre-production assuredly.
The transitional stage between preproduction and production is your opportunity to fine-tune all the elements you've put in place. And this means rehearsing.
The latter stages of preproduction are key when it comes to rehearsing. You might do a table read with all of the major roles present to see how the whole script works and to build chemistry between your actors (your ability to do this will come down to availability).
Your director will be mapping out his shots and working with the cast during their rehearsals. And all of the other departments will be prepping so that they are ready to go when shooting begins. This is your chance to workshop everything so that when production begins: lines are learned, shots are planned and everything is ready to fall into place. It's always good if everyone knows the rules on set too.
Rehearsal allows you to run through everything and iron out kinks, spot issues and just generally tighten all the bolts before shooting. Try to make this period as practical as possible. If you will be doing something on set, try it out now so you don't have any nasty surprises when the cameras roll.
You've secured funding and finalized your script, hired your crew, budgeted for everything and built up production and shooting schedules. You project is now ready to move from preproduction to production. At times it may have felt like trying to keep a lot of plates spinning at once, but all the hard work done up to this point will pay rich dividends from this point on.
A successfully managed preproduction period will set you up perfectly for production. It takes a lot of work just to get on set, but knowledge of all of the various elements involved makes it much easier to get everything right.