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Pre-production. It might not sound like a particularly glamorous part of the filmmaking process, but trust us, you need it for a successful shoot.

You would never think to build a house without a blueprint, right? Or begin a road trip without your GPS directions at the ready?

In the same way, the pre-production process–which essentially means the preparation process–is key for making sure that once you get to production, you’re actually ready for it.

The following provides a deep dive into all that happens during pre-production–spoiler alert, it’s a lot!–so that if the day comes when you’re about to make your own movie, you’ll know exactly what needs to be ticked off your to-do list before stepping on set.

Pre-production: A Definition

What is the pre-production process?

Anna Keizer

Pre-production is the part of the filmmaking process that occurs prior to principal photography but after a movie has been “greenlit” or provided financial backing.

It’s during pre-production that all the many aspects of making a film–from choosing locations to casting Actors to scheduling the shoot–are decided upon, coordinated, and solidified.


Why is pre-production important to the filmmaking process?

Anna Keizer

Even if a studio or production company hopes to keep the pre-production process as succinct as possible, it’s widely acknowledged that pre-production, in general, is a must before the camera starts rolling.

Though sometimes expensive and time-consuming, each stage of the filmmaking process from development to distribution plays an instrumental role in making sure that a quality film is made… And pre-production is no exception!


How long is pre-production?

Anna Keizer

When a film is greenlit, it’s in the best interest of the studio or production company behind it to streamline the pre-production process as much as possible, as every day with crew working on the film means money being spent on it.

For a larger budget movie with multiple locations and complicated setups, it might mean several months of pre-production. For a smaller project, several weeks to a month might be all that the Director and Producers on a shoot require to get into place the necessary pieces ahead of principal photography.


Who works in pre-production?

Anna Keizer

Pre-production involves the efforts of multiple individuals, some who will only be part of this stage and some who will continue on with the project as it moves into principal photography.

As mentioned, the Director of the film and any Producers on it will likely be the most prominent individuals who are part of the pre-production process. They will also stay attached to the project all the way through post-production, if not beyond.

It’s these individuals who will bring on others such as the Cinematographer, Production Designer, Costume Designer, and 1st AD who will also start during pre-production and continue on into production. Production Managers and Production Coordinators will likewise be hired for a similar span of time.

But some entertainment professionals work primarily during pre-production.

Among these individuals are the Storyboard Artist, Location Scout, and Casting Director. Their expertise lies in those areas that must be addressed prior to production, such as how the film will look from scene to scene, where those scenes will be shot, and who will be in those respective scenes.

Where Pre-production Falls in the Stages of Filmmaking

As its name implies, pre-production takes place before the cast and crew step onto set to begin principal photography. Therefore, it occurs early in the filmmaking process, as the following stages of making a movie indicate:

1. Development

It’s during development that the script from which the film will be realized is written, rewritten (perhaps even dozens of times!), and finalized in order to send it out to the production companies, studios, and individual investors who can provide the financial backing to shoot it.

2. Pre-production

When funds are secured to film a script, pre-production can begin. If a Director is not already attached to the project, this is when they will be brought on board so that they and the Producer(s) can begin making decisions about how the film will be made.

While hundreds if not thousands of decisions will occur over the course of pre-production, they all entail making choices on how exactly that script will come to life. Who will perform the characters in the story? What technicians and artists, including the Cinematographer and 1st AD, will be hired to carry out their respective functions? Where will the film be shot? How will it look?

These are just some of the many questions that will need to be answered before the film moves into principal photography.

3. Principal photography

Principal photography, also known as production, is the stage of the filmmaking process where the cast and crew are actively shooting the scenes of the movie. Pending the scope of the film, principal photography can overlap with other stages, including both pre-production and post-production.

For instance, some of the more minor roles or Background Actors might be selected after principal photography has commenced. Likewise, footage shot early into production might be sent along to the Film Editor to begin assemblage of the film before principal photography has wrapped.

4. Post-production

It’s during post-production that the many pieces of a film, such as the footage, visual effects, and score, are assembled into what audiences would recognize as a completed film.

Post-production is the final internal stage of the filmmaking process where every last frame of footage and piece of audio from dialogue to music to sound effects are polished and put into place before going out for theatrical release and at-home viewing.

That being said, many studios and production companies may send out rough or early versions of the film to test audiences to garner their reviews and potentially make changes to the movie that they believe will yield a more favorable response.

5. Distribution

Distribution is the final phase of the filmmaking process where the completed movie is sent out through any number of distribution outlets including theatrical and/or at-home release.

Audiences can now view the film, and in addition, the investors behind it will hopefully reap the financial benefits of the release through ticket sales, rental fees, or similar cost methods.

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What Is Included in Pre-production?

When you think about it, pre-production is all about making sure that the world depicted in the script–including its locations and characters–can be brought to life once the Director calls out “Action!”

That’s why this part of the filmmaking process is often so involved.

The many moving pieces in pre-production typically include:

  • Budget itemization
  • Script breakdown
  • Production scheduling
  • Crew hires
  • Shoot coordination
  • Scene storyboarding
  • Role casting
  • Scene rehearsal

It’s a lot, right? This shows just how important this stage of the filmmaking process really is–and how critical it is to not overlook or shortchange it.

What Is the Process of Pre-production?

Okay, let’s get into the weeds, shall we?

We briefly broke down what’s involved in pre-production, but the following provides a more detailed look at what each part of that process looks like…

1. Setting a budget

We’ve mentioned several times that pre-production begins when a film has been greenlit or provided funds for principal photography. It’s important to keep in mind that no film gets carte blanche, or limitless financial backing.

Even films with millions of dollars to work with have to lay out a budget that identifies precisely where those dollars are going. Between the Producers, Line Producer, and often the Director, hard numbers must be decided for where those funds are spent.

2. Breaking down the script

Setting the budget typically occurs alongside breaking down the script, which means figuring out exactly what is needed for each scene from location to production design to cast and crew. It’s those many elements that will largely determine the cost of each scene, which then affects where those budget dollars go.

3. Making a production schedule

To keep costs down, a film is very rarely shot in chronological order, as that would require the cast and crew to move back and forth from one location to the next, which quickly becomes exorbitantly expensive.

Instead, a production schedule will be drawn up that maximizes the use of a single location with all required scenes shot there before moving onto the next locale. A detailed production schedule is hugely important to the overall success of a shoot, as every single day of production can cost thousands of dollars.

4. Hiring crew

As mentioned, the Producers of a film, as well as the Director in many cases, will begin to onboard other crew members who can help bring a film to life.

From the Cinematographer to Production Designer to more specialized roles such as Stunt Coordinator or Animal Handler, every person who plays a role in pre-production or production is typically hired at this stage.

5. Coordinating the shoot

As the crew is onboarded, they will need to start coordinating with each other to ensure that principal photography is a smooth process.

For example, that means the Production Designer and Costume Designer talking to each other about aligning their respective ideas about the look of the film’s world, to the Cinematographer and VFX Supervisor discussing specialized shot requirements, and everything else in between.

6. Storyboarding the scenes

Speaking of shots, it’s during pre-production that the scenes described in the script will be storyboarded to provide a visual representation and blueprint for the Cinematographer and Director.

Storyboarding in particular is essential to the pre-production process, as it assures that every person involved with the look of the film is on the literal same page about how it should be depicted from scene to scene and shot to shot.

7. Casting roles

While all the many components of pre-production are equally critical to the overall success of the filmmaking process, often the most attention is put towards who is cast in each major role in a movie.

Especially when a film is based on an existing intellectual property like a book (Harry Potter!) or comic (Marvel!), fans typically are very interested in who signs onto a film, which happens during this stage.

8. Rehearsing the scenes

Truth be told, rehearsal is sometimes a luxury during the pre-production process that doesn’t always end up happening.

In particular, a tight budget might mean little to no rehearsal time. In other cases, a Director might forego rehearsing scenes in the hopes that it’ll make for more spontaneous performances on set.

That being said, scene rehearsal is a common enough part of the pre-production process that it should be included as part of it.

What Are Some Examples of the Pre-production Process in Film?

Instead of just writing about how pre-production works, how about we show you?

For instance, here’s a great video that depicts shot for shot how fundamental storyboarding is to the actual filming process:

And remember when we were talking about the importance of casting roles? Casting Director Amy Hubbard explains all that goes into selecting Actors for a project:

The right location, like the right Actor, will help to make any world (whether it’s Montana or Mars) feel believable to audiences. This clip explains exactly what goes into location scouting for movies:

Hand in hand with a great location is great production design. How every space is dressed in a film will help to convince audiences that they are indeed being transported to a specific place and time.

This clip highlights some of the most successful examples of production design:

In Closing

When it comes down to it, there’s no production without pre-production. While all the various stages of the filmmaking process play a pivotal role in the creation of a movie, much of the “heavy lifting” takes place in pre-production.

From what is happening on a given day to where it is happening to with whom it is happening–not to mention for how much!–the pre-production process lays out (when done successfully) exactly what every cast and crew member can expect throughout the course of principal photography.

Though pre-production may not include a single frame of footage shot, its importance in terms of how each frame will eventually look and cost signals just how crucial this phase of making movies truly is.

Want to know more about the filmmaking process? Our blogs on on set film production and post-production explain these vital stages in bringing a movie to life.
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