pre production

What Happens in Pre-Production?

“Action!” After learning to say this word with intuitive conviction, you can (finally) expect all eyes in the room to not be on you, for once before—

“Cut!” Then it’s back again to the countless questions and metaphorical fires for you to put out.

But take heart! In this article, we’ll break down the following essential elements of what happens in pre-production:

  1. Choosing a screenplay
  2. Working with your D.P.
  3. Putting together your shot list
  4. What to expect when working with a Producer
  5. Finding locations
  6. Casting and working with Actors
  7. Getting scheduling right

“Oh Captain, My Captain”

Becoming a Film Director is nothing like becoming a Brain Surgeon. What I mean is, some of the best Directors in the industry never went to film school. Can you imagine a Brain Surgeon saying with unforced confidence, “I learned on the job”?! Well, in the film world, it does happen. Quentin Tarantino never went to film school; neither did James Cameron. You can teach somebody to perform a surgery, but you cannot teach somebody how to respond to a trial by fire. Experience is the only training mechanism for nearly every single job within the entertainment industry — mostly because every film is its own organism, every set is different, and each crew member shows up (always 15 min early) with their own assumed experiences, pet-peeves, and expectations. The list goes on.

Oh — and did I mention — it’s all entirely up to YOU to tame this chaotic beast and make it dance?

Before Cut & Action

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “If there’s no quick path to becoming a Film Director, why should I keep reading?” Well, I’ll tell ya why: because you don’t need to be Tarantino or Cameron in order to be an Indie Film Director. What I mean is, whether your production costs you $50 or $50,000,000, your directing venture will include a standard list of check marks you can expect to cross off your list. Today, we’ll begin the check marks you’ll need to cross off, in order to find yourself at the helm of a production.

So, yeah, becoming a Film Director has no set path. Sure, nepotism and dumb luck can certainly play a part for some — but becoming a successful Film Director often has nothing to do with a framed diploma (although it can help), sheer chance, or Mommy and Daddy — it mostly comes down to working your ass off and wishing you had gone to school to become a Brain Surgeon. Thus, before you dive into the scalding waters of an indie film shoot, you’ll need to first perfect your season and spice, aka your pre-production.

Rock It Before Rolling

Great pre-production sets up your safety net while creating a best-case-scenario forecast for how your shoot will be executed. Many first-time Directors are simply excited to get behind the camera, lift a megaphone, and start bossing people around. Hit the breaks there, Coppola — ya gotta crawl before ya walk. And, I hate to burst your bubble but the harsh reality is only about 25% of directing actually happens behind the camera. It’s not just The Academy Awards; if you want to be an Indie Film Director, you’ll need to get used to anticipating problems, managing personalities, and compiling spreadsheets.

It’s really this simple: if you have a great pre-pro, you’ll have a smoother production, if you neglect your pre-pro, your production will suffer. So will your crew and so will you.

Now that you know why pre-production is so desperately important, let’s cover the various aspects of what role the Director plays in this ever-changing dance.

You can teach somebody to perform a surgery, but you cannot teach somebody how to respond to a trial by fire. Experience is the only training mechanism for nearly every single job within the entertainment industry — mostly because every film is its own organism, every set is different, and each crew member shows up (always 15 min early) with their own assumed experiences, pet-peeves, and expectations.

Choosing a Screenplay

“Mommy, where do films come from?”

“Well, when a Director loves a screenplay very, very much….”

I once read an article many years ago titled “10 Things to Consider Before Directing Your 1st Feature Film.” I’ll never forget #1: it said, “Number One: Don’t Do It.” This is not a cynical statement but a merciful one. If you’re serious about filmmaking, it will eat you alive. You’ll love it. You’ll hate it. You’ll wish it was over. And then you’ll miss it. All dramatics aside, being a Film Director is like opening the Ark of the Covenant; it’s as beautiful as it is terrifying and has the potential to be just as dangerous. You have to make sure you’re dedicating your time to something you really believe in, or the next several months will be agonizing, not only for you but for everybody you drag through the process with you. Make sure you’re head-over-heels in love with the screenplay or don’t do it at all.

Trust me — there are already enough bad movies in the world — and many of those lackluster films were born from spectacular screenplays. Where was the disconnect? The Director. Therefore, when it comes to choosing a screenplay, understand your decision can give a literal Caesar’s thumbs-up or thumbs-down to somebody’s own story — the Screenwriter. Or, maybe you wrote the screenplay? Either way, it’s your duty to get that screenplay off the pages and onto the screen. It’s your job to transform the periods and commas into audible “Oohs and Ahhs.” The Director justly breathes artistic life into a screenplay — or ruins it forever. No pressure. Just understand, you can’t do a screenplay justice if you’re going through the motions. So, have a clear decision in mind of why you want to shoot this film, what you want to communicate, and how it’s going to look.

Working With Your D.P.

It’s a given that nobody can be taught how to visualize their film. That’s far too existential, even for an article on pre-pro. The important thing to understand is how to communicate your vision of the screenplay, shot-to-shot, scene-from-scene, line-after-line. The choice is yours – but not entirely. Enter your D.P., the Director of Photography.

There is a quote by Reed Morano (The Handmaid’s Tale) I often reference when discussing the cinematic arts: “A lot of cinematography is intuition. It’s an art, not a formula.” On some level, you have to hand over the reins of the film to your DP. Therefore, you must trust them to do their job. The relationship between DP and Director is probably the most crucial in order for the film to be a success.

Remember that analogy earlier in which we compared being a Director to being a Brain Surgeon? Well, if the Director is the Brain Surgeon, then what is the DP? The Nurse? Nope. The Anesthesiologist? Nope. The Scrub Tech? Nope! I would say if the Director is the Brain Surgeon, then the SCALPEL is the D.P. The D.P is the tool by which the Director materializes their vision. In order to do that, the Director needs to trust their D.P. as a person, and understand them as an artist.

Putting Together Your Shot List

A huge part of pre-production is done with your D.P. After you envision your film, you need to communicate the sequences to your D.P. by way of a shot list. A shot list will breakdown every single shot that will be edited together, before becoming your finished product! Most professional shot lists contain the following:

  • Scene Number: By way of reference in your screenplay.
  • Shot Number: The number of shots accumulating in sequential order.
  • Shoot Date: The day which you’ll get the shot.
  • Camera Used: Some films require multiple cameras.
  • Equipment Needed: Tripod, jib, slider, whatever equipment Camera Crew will need.
  • Location: Where is it being shot?
  • Framing: Tight shot? Medium shot? Wide shot?
  • Shot Description: Are we panning? Dollying? Tilting?
  • Shot Action: What is happening at this point, within the film?
  • Dialogue: What is being said?
  • Talent: Actors in the film will be given a number and referenced here.

A Director of Photography will expect you to make choices on how they should convey a scene. Some will ask for visual references (storyboards). Others will want to focus on color palette and emotional atmosphere. Again, it’s really a crapshoot when it comes to creating a film; no D.P. works the same. That being said, one thing you can always count on is this: you have to make a D.P. “see” what you “see.” Then, in many instances, your D.P. will relay this information to the film’s Gaffer or Lighting Coordinator.

After several meetings with your Director of Photography, you’ll be able to avoid any foreseen pitfalls or major little red flags that they may advise against. Trusting your D.P. is essential and walking through each shot and what they can expect on set is a requirement of any Indie Film Director.

What to Expect When Working With a Producer

Throughout all of this, your Producers will have been in constant contact with you. Emailing you endless threads on possible shooting locations. Phone calling you about alternative casting options. Texting you daily reminders to schedule out your shot list. Essentially, Producers will always be on your case. It’s (part of) their job to make sure you’re doing your job. Producers do the heavy lifting so that you don’t have to, so you must always be respectful of their time because their time is YOUR film’s money. Let’s briefly touch on what you can expect from your Producer relationship during pre-production.

It’s really this simple: if you have a great pre-pro, you’ll have a smoother production, if you neglect your pre-pro, your production will suffer. So will your crew and so will you.

Finding Locations

You’ve got a general guideline for what’s needed location-wise for your film. Well, Producers will send out Location Scouts to find tangible possibilities for which you can shoot. At the invite of your Producer, you’ll approve these locations, often visiting the place before giving them the a-okay. During these scouts, your Producers may ask you to conduct a walk-through. At this time, they are essentially trying to make sure that you’re game plan isn’t overly ambitious or even dangerous. After all, they’re the ones who have to provide insurance, keep the show running, and take the blame for when something goes wrong.

Casting and Working with Actors

There’s no movie without Actors. Producers will help to set-up casting calls. In more advanced settings, this will also be done with the aid of a Casting Director. In any case, Actors will show up and attempt to convey what they believe the screenplay is conveying. For casting, it’s important to take note of how an Actor responds to your direction. If a performer reads the script perfectly, that’s all the more reason for you to have them try the delivery in an alternative way — not because you didn’t like their first attempt but because you need to sweeten the deal by making sure they can take direction. Word to the wise: do NOT cast great Actors, cast great people. After the roles have been cast, you should plan to go through a process with your Actors that will get them in the mindset for their characters. They should be clued-in on what to expect during the coming shooting process — and never expect an Actor to do ANYTHING on camera that you wouldn’t do yourself.

Getting Scheduling Right

Remember that shot list from earlier? Well, now that you have solidified your locations and cast your Actors, you can finalize the shot list and prepare it into a shooting schedule. The schedule is used to determine the length of time one can expect to be on set shooting, what time the Actors should show up, and when you’ll break for lunch. The schedule will also be reviewed by your Director of Photography to clarify that certain aspects of the shoot can be accomplished within the scheduled amount of time. Then, a Producer will give the final stamp of approval or make revisions as they see fit.

Filmmaking Is Not a Formula

Consider this disclaimer: filmmaking is not a formula. Some may scoff at the idea of pre-production being watered down into such simple terminology and seemingly trivial events, but at the end of the day, pre-production is simply covering your bases for The Actual Production. If you have an idea, a camera, and a game plan then that’s your pre-production.

Understand, the previous pre-production phase we’ve just covered can take weeks, months, or sometimes years, depending on the film. Nobody can ever foresee the hoops they’ll have to jump through during pre-production. But the fact of the matter is that these previous steps are at least the beginning foundational standards for any serious Indie Film Director. Now that we’ve created our game plan, it’s time to get on set and be prepared to put it into action, within the (much more popular) phase of on set production, which we’ll cover in my next article. From there, we’ll move on to the surprising world of post-production!

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