You have a script and the resources needed to shoot it. It took you long enough to get to this point. So you want to start shooting right away. Still, before you hit the gas, slow down for a second and think about what pre-production means.
Pre-production is your chance to make a good movie. This is the only way to get all the shots that your film concept requires and that you will need later for editing.
You need to know
- Good planning is half the battle. This is especially true for pre-production videos.
- In the case of commissioned productions, the preparation phase of a video production begins with the conclusion of the contract and ends with the first day of shooting.
- In the case of feature films, where a shoot extends over weeks or months, preparations can continue in parallel with the shoot after an initial start-up phase.
- Preproduction is more than just preparing for shooting. It also serves to minimize risks and determine production values.
Preproduction is the key
If you ignore the pre-production and just start with the video production after writing the script, this will lead to mistakes. You will bitterly regret this one later. Of course, the preparations for shooting (also called preproduction) are less attractive than the shooting. Planning a film or video is work. Really a lot of work.
To make this a little easier for you and to make sure you don’t forget anything, here is an easy-to-understand pre-production guide. With everything that goes with it. In addition to the ultimate checklist, you will of course also find one or two insider tips.
What is pre-production?
Pre-production is the planning process and the execution of all those tasks that must take place before production begins. This process requires the fine-tuning of many small parts that must later come together to form a seamless whole during filming. This precise coordination, which also includes deadlines and costs, requires a lot of individual effort on the part of those involved and a great deal of teamwork.
What’s in the preproduction checklist?
Many of the items on our pre-production plan checklist overlap in practice. When choosing locations, for example, it is necessary to coordinate different interests that do not always easily coincide or overlap.
That’s why, when in doubt, our checklist prefers to list one criterion under two categories rather than omitting it. So you can be sure that our points contain all the important procedures in the preparation of the shooting.
Before we dive into each stage of pre-production and explain the steps and their order in detail, we’ll give you an overview of what you need to have in place before you start shooting:
- Screenplay (Picture Lock)
- Create film budget
- Find a production platform
- Fill key positions in the crew
- Script Breakdown
- Draw storyboard (from word to picture)
- Finding locations (location scouting)
- Art Department brief
- Clarify administration and legal issues
- Create shooting schedule
- Engage remaining crew
- Create shot list (finalization of the shooting schedule)
- Location tour (Tech Scout)
- Order equipment
If you complete these 15 tasks in this order, you will then be able to start shooting successfully without any problems or nasty surprises.
So let’s look at the pre-production checklist step by step:
1Screenplay (Picture Lock)
A screenplay doesn’t just live on stories. But it also leads its own life: from the first version to the shooting version there are always adjustments and changes.
For pre-production, this can become a problem. That’s when you already start with the preparations for the shoot, but the work on the script is not yet finished. If you do, you may be planning a scene that won’t be there later. Or that suddenly requires a different location or different actors.
So that you do not work into the void with the Preproduction, there is the so-called Picture Lock. This means that no changes will be made to the script from this point on. The content is, in a sense, “closed” (hence the English word “lock.”).
Pro tip: Of course, there are always adjustments to the script in practice. In an ideal world, shoot preparation always follows content. In reality, especially with smaller films, it can happen that you have to adapt the story to a location and rewrite it.
To ensure that everyone involved notices these changes, scenes that are rewritten after the start of pre-production are printed out on different coloured paper and inserted into the script (another reason why a script always has brackets!). In the case of big feature films, this sometimes looks like a rainbow: red script pages indicate the first change, yellow pages again indicate adjustments made later, etc.
It sounds more complicated than it is. Imagine that one of your actors has internalized his role and speech texts early on and doesn’t get script adjustments. That kind of thing causes a lot of trouble on a movie set.
2Create a film budget during pre-production
If you’ve done your homework, you’ll know roughly how much money you’ll need for the shoot, thanks to experience and/or a rough calculation. After all, you can only start pre-production if you have a budget committed.
Before you can make any decisions about film production, you need to know where to spend money on what.
Your film budget is key to the smooth pre-production process in film.
That means you need a proper, robust film costing now. You can’t do it without a film budget. That’s why the script comes first and the budget comes right after.
3Find a production platform
You may be able to write or plan your film in your kitchen, but you need a professional platform for the contracts, banking relationships and insurance.
That can be a film production you partner with. Or that you start yourself. If you want to have your own company, you need to be aware that money and lawyers are also necessary to start it. A great name alone is not enough.
Also keep in mind that as founder of a commercial production or video production company, you’ll need a lot of energy for other things. Pre-production is always a war of forms and paperwork. If you not only have to get your film off the ground, but also the production company for it, it will take a lot of time. Time that is usually better spent on your film.
If you team up with an established production for preproduction, you don’t just have a production office and access to all the expertise for preproduction. You will also benefit from experience from other films and get access to the network of this film company. This will make it easier for you to find those talents for your film than if you have to start from scratch as an unknown filmmaker.
4Fill key positions for the crew
You can’t make movies without help. Ok, the computer animation may be an exception to that. But if you’re going to single-handedly create a full-length feature film like this without any help, you’ll probably need so much time to do it that the premiere will coincide with your entrance into a retirement community.
In short, you need employees. First in pre-production you cast the most important roles. Cinematographer, Director (if you’re a producer), Producer (if you’re a director yourself), Composer, and Production Manager. You start with these key positions. The production manager (which is the same as the production manager) is one of the most important people for the preparation of the shoot.
Because each person who works on your film costs money, you try to get by with as few employees as possible in the beginning. One by one, the production manager, together with the cameraman and director, will determine and engage the rest of the crew.
To get started, you simply need all the people on your team to help you flesh out your film and move it forward.
Because good people always have work, it is advisable to approach the desired candidates for cooperation at an early stage. Otherwise, you never know who will be available when.
Note on the right size of the team
Basically, you adjust the team size to your project, of course. Depending on the story and the size of the film, you may want to hire a production designer or 1st assistant director for pre-production right from the start.
For complex projects, in addition to the 1st AD, a Line Producer and a Production Coordinator are often on board from the first day of preparation.
In extreme cases, a makeup artist can also be part of your core team. Namely, if your main character in the film has very special requirements here. If aliens play an important role or if your leading actor has to wear a full mask in the movie (like Gary Oldman in the feature film “Darkest Hour”), you can’t avoid it.
The “who” in this phase determines your project. But the pro tip for this stage of pre-production is to get the people you need on board early if at all possible (budget!).
5Script Breakdown to be worked out in pre-production
What a Picture Lock is, you have already read in advance. Now comes the point where you go one step further: In the fifth step of the pre-production you start with the so-called “Script Breakdown”. What is meant by this is not a breakdown, but the fragmentation of the script according to individual, logical requirements.
As nice and round as the plot reads in the script. Now the script is dissected with surgical precision and broken down into its component parts. All locations are marked and end up in a list. All props mentioned in another listing. So are the roles, supporting roles, all the extras, costume descriptions, times of day.
Remember that script you locked? Well, now it’s time to break it up. But what exactly do we mean by that?
What was once a script is now turning into a series of lists and reports. With these reports, you’ll have a much clearer idea of what you need for the shoot. You can also formulate the budget much more concretely.
Think of your movie as a meal, and your script as a recipe. Well, now it’s time to make the shopping list.
With the Script Breakdown, you and your team really start to figure out what kind of movie you’re getting into production-wise.
There is professional software for creating a breakdown. Depending on the program, you can even have your script automatically assigned to the respective categories (location, actors, etc.) and export it as a list.
Excursus: Film software for the preparation of the shoot
But despite production management software, you’ll have to control a lot of things manually, discuss them with everyone involved, and make adjustments. That’s a lot of work. That’s why it’s so important not to work uncontrollably on the script at the same time. Otherwise, your team will be doing the same work multiple times and you’ll be spending money that should be going into shooting instead of pre-shooting.
Once you’ve completed the Script Breakdown item, you can ramp up your planning to the next level of pre-production. Because with this, you have already successfully completed the first third of the preparation for the shoot.
Let’s go! After all those lists, it’s time to get creative again. In the last step, you broke down the movie script into reports. Now you’re turning words into pictures. What was purely verbal and written before is now visual. The script becomes a drawn comic.
The storyboard illustrates the vision of the film. In this step of the pre-production, the director and cameraman determine the realization in the picture. This provides a further, important planning basis for further preproduction.
Whether drawn with special software or by hand, whether as a rough sketch or a detailed drawing: a good storyboard does not have to be beautiful, but clear in its message. It has to explain and convey things that cannot be conveyed with words before. This is why the storyboard plays an important bridging role between the script, the director’s vision and the finished film during pre-production.
7Location scouting (finding filming locations)
Filming locations don’t sit like chickens on a roost. The locations you need for your film (and that fit into your film budget) are not available at the supermarket. Location scouting is a process. You can hardly do the searching and finding of the location in one step and check it off as one item. But you have to start doing it in pre-production now that you have the guidelines for it from the storyboard. Even if the search overlaps with the following tasks.
In practice, of course, there is a kind of feedback here: you or your location scout has found a place that meets three points out of five requirements and two that do not. Because there are no alternatives, the decision is made in favour of this location. What doesn’t fit is adjusted in the story and storyboard.
Preproduction is also the art of negotiating and balancing different interests. This is especially true for location scouting.
The start of casting is again an important step forward in pre-production towards filming. If there are big stars in your film (maybe you only got money for your film because a famous actor is in it), they are of course already set before you start shooting. The date of the film shoot is then already coordinated with the star’s availability.
To find the performers you need not only a creative and artistic decision. This one comes from the director. But you also need a lot of other information.
How many days is an actor required on set? Are these days consecutive or must the assignment be staggered or on single days. You already have some of this information in the current state of pre-production from the Script Breakdown. Another part will be created later during the concrete planning of the shoot.
A casting goes through different phases. First, important roles are cast, then the other characters to go with them. Speaking roles have priority. Extras and extras are searched for and determined later.
Casting can be done in-house or by a specialized agency. In feature films, the roles are almost always filled by an outside specialist. The casting director is in charge here. He or she works closely with the director to do this.
9Type Department letters
The art department can be quite crucial to a film or not “happen” at all in your film project.
Low-budget films are often filmed on so-called original locations for cost reasons. A location is chosen in such a way that, if possible, everything that is necessary for the film is already on location. The prop master adds props to what is in the script, but which are not already present on location more or less by chance.
An art department helps determine the look of the film during pre-production. From the locations, studio buildings, equipment to costumes and colors (in collaboration with the director and cinematographer).
★Administration and legal issues
With this point the last third of the pre-production starts. You’ve already got a lot of important points in place for the preparation of the shoot, you’re practically on the home stretch to the start of the shoot.
Now, despite the anticipation of the shoot and the approaching end of the pre-production, there are some administrative and legal things to be clarified. These include the following questions:
- Have all contracts with the key people involved been signed?
- Do you have the filming permits for the locations?
- Do you have all the necessary insurances?
The mother of all pro tips is the following advice: if something bad happens on your set and you don’t have insurance, your problems will be far beyond what you can imagine.
Sure, there are people who make their movie just like that. You may get away with it nine times out of ten. But you don’t want to be the tenth! Anyone who takes risks here has vigorously misunderstood the romance of independent filmmaking. Because that way you’ll ruin yourself and – even worse, unfair and irresponsible – you’ll also ruin the work of everyone else involved in your film project.
So follow all the rules. Get smart and play by the rules. Otherwise, your first movie will not only be your last movie, it will never be a movie at all.
★Create shooting schedule
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, shooting schedules were effortlessly drawn up from cardboard maps and strips of colored paper.
Once upon a time. Today, you can use professional software as well as free film planning programs to create your shooting schedules and stripboards during pre-production.
Script breakdown is where you break the script down into its component parts. For the shooting schedule, you go one step higher: to the scenes. The shooting schedule organizes the scenes into a sensible sequence.
You can shoot a film chronologically and in the order of the scenes in the script. The first scene first, then the second, until you have everything in the can. Of course, if the book jumps from one plot location to the next and back again, you don’t drive from A to B and back again for that. That would be nonsense. In the same way, you can look for other criteria that you can use to optimize your shooting schedule.
If you only have an actor available for a certain period of time, you will want to shoot all the scenes with him in a row. Likewise, you won’t want to shoot one day during daylight hours and the next day at night and then again the following day for a daytime scene. Here you form shooting blocks so that the crew doesn’t get jetlag from the constant time change and is just tired and unmotivated.
Weather can also be a good reason to shoot scenes in a different order than in the script. Normally, those scenes that require specific weather are scheduled at the front of the shooting schedule. Simply because this way (if weather conditions don’t cooperate) you can still move them back on the timeline. Conversely, indoor locations are usually reserve locations that can be switched to in case of bad weather.
This is where pre-production makes a significant contribution to the risk management of a film production.
ACompletion of pre-production: remaining crew to be engaged
With the shooting schedule you now know the exact framework conditions for the shooting. That puts you at a point in pre-production where it’s time to sign up the rest of the crew.
To do this, your key people will suggest suitable people to you. Sometimes in the form of a wish list, sometimes almost as a condition for cooperation.
Cooperation on film projects is always a matter of trust. Whenever possible, you should follow the suggestions of your key employees. Their motivation and a good mood on the set will reward you.
BCompletion of pre-production: create shot list and finalize shooting schedule
The shot list is a sub-level of the shooting schedule. It is also created during pre-production. It lists not the scenes, but the settings that make up the scenes. You can also combine the shooting schedule and shot list in one document.
It is possible that the development of the shot list will lead you to revise the shooting schedule as well. Because this step (like the entire pre-production) also serves to plan the shooting as efficiently and optimally as possible, this is part of it.
CCompletion of pre-production: location tour (Tech Scout)
The so-called Tech Scout is a location tour with the “technical staff” of your film. This includes camera crew, lighting crew, stage, production management, possibly the art department. The director may be absent here. He has seen all the locations in advance and communicated his vision to the cameraman.
The inspection of the location with the technical crew helps them to advance their own planning in a targeted and concrete manner. An example: only on site it can be said how spotlights can be positioned (in the room, outside?) or where the electricity (generator? power connection in the kitchen?) for the light battery can be obtained.
DCompletion of pre-production: Order equipment
After the Tech Scout, it is determined how much equipment is needed for each location. This is also summarized in lists. With these, the production management can obtain specific offers from various suppliers (film equipment is always rented for the duration of the shoot), check them against the budget and schedule, and then order cameras, spotlights, dollies, etc. bindingly.
Pre-production is your chance. Here you can and should prepare and coordinate everything you need to do during production.
But preproduction is also a critical phase. Any mistake you make here will come out during production and will be magnified by the shoot.
You can find information on overall planning in the Reader’s Questions section under: How do I plan an image film?
Therefore, take the time necessary for pre-production. Work constantly, slowly and precisely. And ask all the questions, really all the questions, and find the right answers for your project. If you did that during pre-production, the shoot will go over effortlessly.
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