10 Easy-to-Overlook Pieces of the Film Pre-Production PuzzleA handy pre-production checklist to keep track of important details.
“Leave as little as possible to chance. A well-planned film shoot lays the groundwork for a well-executed one.”
When you think about pre-production for a film, what comes to mind? What needs to happen before you can call “ACTION!” on Day One?
Holding casting calls, drawing up storyboards, creating shot lists and coverage maps, refining equipment lists… Such tasks are front-and-center of the preparatory phase of filmmaking, but there are other less obvious details that must be tended to, which – if overlooked – can put tremendous strain on a production.
What are they?
Well, in a nutshell, they’re everything you must arrange while wearing the Producing Hat. As an indie filmmaker, it’s common to have to wear many hats – juggle multiple roles – but the role we’ll focus on here today is the role of the producer, specifically in context of pre-production.
Without further ado, let’s make a checklist of often overlooked but no less essential details you’ll need to confirm, coordinate, or otherwise oversee as the producer during a shoot’s preparatory phase. Take care of these ten tasks, and you’ll be well on your way to a smoother film production.
I. The Script
The script is one of the most used tools on a film set. And yet, roughly once a month, I’ll have a Lights Film School student tell me that they’re ready to jump into pre-production, even though they haven’t finished their screenplay. Their enthusiasm is admirable, but it should be channeled into the writing process, not into premature pre-production.
In the words of entertainment lawyer Richard B. Jefferson, “Any film project begins with the script… Trying to make a film without a script would be like trying to cross the ocean without any type of navigation.” He continues:
“It is the blueprint that everyone working on the film refers to when they are fulfilling their part of the process. Usually everyone working on the film has a copy and they refer to it throughout the making of the project.”
More specifically, the screenplay is important because it tells you:
- What scenes you’re shooting.
- Where those scenes take place.
- Whether they’re happening indoors or outdoors.
- The time of day during each scene.
- What actors are involved in each scene.
- What those actors are doing.
- What elements need to be created and/or found for each scene: wardrobe, props, art, and the like.
- Although cameras and equipment aren’t quite the focus of our discussion today, you’re also probably already thinking about the gear you’ll need to realize the aesthetic the script suggests.
So, Item One in our master checklist: have a finished script in hand before you try to move onto other details of the shoot! It is your foundation.
II. Project Budget
Developing a budget can feel like a chicken or egg sort of problem. Do you plan your shoot around your budget, or do you plan your budget around what you know you’ll need for the shoot?
Some filmmakers answer this question right off the bat in the script phase, by writing to their constraints. Others find it useful to walk through some or all of the organizational steps we’ll discuss here in order to get a realistic sense of budget for the project in question, and then either find a way to get the financing together or shelve the project in favor of something more affordable.
It’s worth noting that indie film shoots run the gamut of size. Some movies can be pulled off with a cast of two and a skeleton crew, while others require a colossal cast and crew of dozens. You’ll have to figure out where your project sits on the spectrum and budget accordingly.
For example, how big is your team? How does that ripple through and affect every element of our checklist? Generally speaking, the bigger the team, the more mouths you’ll have to feed, so you’d do well to budget more for catering. And of course, creative decisions also affect the budget! What camera gear and equipment do you need in order to bring the director’s vision to life? How does that affect the bottom line?
It can be intimidating, but try to approach everything related to film planning with an open mind. Rather than limit your thinking and lock yourself into an idea of how things “should be”, identify the facts. If you want to produce script (x), what are the implications? Does it seem like a micro budget project or one that needs studio-level financing? If the latter (and assuming you don’t have deep pockets), could you make alterations to the script to put it more within reach?
Here at Lights Film School, we’re big fans of writing to your constraints, but that shouldn’t necessarily discourage you from reaching for the stars – especially in a first draft!
III. Shooting Schedule
Once your script is finished, you can start building a schedule, that gateway to greater organization. Professional film shoots tend to use three different types of scheduling documents during pre-production and beyond: the one-liner, the day out of days, and the call sheet.
Depending on the size of your project, you don’t have to get this formal – sometimes a good old-fashioned pen and paper will suffice! The key is just to get organized in terms of time. “The process includes figuring out what scenes can be shot together in the same day,” this post explains, “scheduling actors to work consecutive days, and how to tighten the schedule so the film can be shot in fewer days.”
One informal way to start scheduling along these lines is to make lists.
First, make a list of all of the locations your film takes place in, and under each location, list all of the scenes that take place there.
Then, under each scene, note:
- Whether it’s an “Interior” or “Exterior” setting.
- The time of day.
- The actors involved.
- The elements you need: wardrobe, props, art, and the like.
When you’ve done all of this, you can start to group scenes and use the end result as a springboard into building a schedule.
Specifically, group scenes by location, and within location, by time of day. You’ll probably want to shoot scenes that happen during the day in the same location back-to-back, and scenes that happen during the night in the same location back-to-back.
Also, within time of day, try to schedule actors’ scenes back-to-back. For example, if you have three scenes in a church during the day and Actor A is in two of them, try to schedule Actor A’s scenes back-to-back, so that they aren’t sitting around waiting (and eating your budget).
Do you see how breaking down your script can help you get a sense of how much time and money you’ll need to shoot everything?
I strongly encourage you to read our overview of professional pre-production documents to see if they’d help you. If it’s overkill, then you can make lists or otherwise create a schedule in whatever way works best for you. The key is simply to do it! Leave as little as possible to chance. A well-planned film shoot lays the groundwork for a well-executed one.
IV. Hair, Makeup, and Wardrobe
It’s list building time again. Go through your script and determine what each character is wearing in each scene, along with their general appearances.
The script may specify such details, especially if they’re important to character development and plot. If the script doesn’t mention wardrobe or other elements of appearance, however, you still need to figure them out. If you don’t, how will you know what an actor should look like onscreen?
Remember the scheduling work we did? Then you should know that depending on location, time of day, actor availability, and other variables, not all scenes that take place during one story day necessarily are shot on the same production day. Maintaining a list of what each character looks like in each scene will help you keep track of hair, makeup, and wardrobe specifics, so that you have the materials and costumes you need, when you need them.
This also amounts to a cheat sheet for continuity. Whoever’s working as script supervisor will have to watch actors’ appearances between shots, ensuring that they’re consistent. They’re also in charge of watching props, which we’ll discuss next. There’s little more frustrating than having, say, a soda can in the wrong place from scene to scene, shattering the illusion of continuous time that many scenes try to create!
Depending on the size and complexity of your shoot, you may be able (or need) to work with dedicated hair, makeup, and wardrobe departments. In this case, noting hair, makeup, and wardrobe requirements can facilitate discussion and ensure that you’re on top of your game. Basically, as the producer, it’s your job to manage departments and ensure that they have what they need.
V. Props and Art
Make another list that identifies all props and art requirements for each scene. For example, if you’re shooting a scene in a lawyer’s office but need it to look like a doctor’s office, what materials can you bring in to transform the space?
As with hair, makeup, and wardrobe, the script may specify details, but it’s entirely possible that you’ll be left to your own devices. A scene with the heading “INT. DOCTOR’S OFFICE – DAY” probably won’t mention every single facet of the room. Instead, it’ll be up to you come up with and secure the necessary props and art.
On larger shoots, you may have a prop master on hand to help. They’ll find, store, and manage everything you need from scene to scene. If you don’t need or just don’t have a prop master, then a list will help you get organized and keep track of the details.
When working on your shooting schedule, you figured out which scenes take place at which location. Of course, you’ll need to actually get out there and find those locations in the real world! This means identifying a place you want to use, connecting with whoever owns or is in charge of it, determining if and when it’s possible to shoot there, then securing location permits and paying location fees if necessary.
You’ll want to take these factors into consideration when evaluating a location for your shoot:
- Is the location available when you need it? If so, is it within your budget?
- Where is the location relative to your other locations? How, if at all, does this affect your transportation plans and requirements?
- What, if any, modifications will you need to make to the space? Are you allowed to do so?
- More generally, what are the rules and conditions of using the location? Are you able and willing to abide by them?
- Is electricity available? If not, do you have the budget for a generator (and have you thought through the production sound implications if so?)
- Is there a bathroom nearby? If not, where is the closest one, and how can you get people there conveniently? Will you have to rent a porta-potty?
- Is there running, potable water? If not, budget for water bottles (many film productions budget for them even if there is).
- Is there offscreen space for staging the equipment? What about for craft services? What about for actor holding?
If the location looks good and meets your requirements, then by all means, move forward!
Depending on the size of the shoot, you may have a location manager to coordinate this part of the pre-production process. Otherwise the responsibility falls on your shoulders.
Don’t underestimate this responsibility – and especially the importance of securing location permits, where relevant.
I once produced a film in a mid-sized city and made sure to get location permits from the film commission. Because our budget was under a certain threshold, we weren’t charged for the permits, and we were given permission to shoot where we wanted. We were even given a police escort to one of the location since it was in an abandoned part of town!
I was especially glad I’d gone through the permitting process when, as we were shooting outside of a municipal building, some police officers came up to us to see what we were up to. They told someone on the crew that they were going to have to shut us down, and that we weren’t allowed to be shooting there. Thankfully, I had the permit ready to show them. I think they were embarrassed for jumping to conclusions and wanted to save face, because they kept watching as we shot our scene and then insisted that we couldn’t stage a fight scene in the location.
As a part of the permitting process, I’d been required to submit script pages to the film commission. I’d let them know about the fight scene. “The permit says right here that we’re shooting pages 4-6,” I told the officers, “And those pages were approved by the commission.” In the end, the officers thanked me for being so thorough and wished us the best.
Make no mistake, though – if I hadn’t had all of those bases covered, we would have been shut down for the day. That would have led to twenty crew members with nothing to do on a majorly important day of the shoot during a super tight 10-day schedule. We just didn’t have that sort of time to lose.
Don’t risk it. Get permission to use the locations you want to use. You may be surprised by how amenable most people are to helping you out.
VII. Staging Areas
From a producing perspective, securing a location is only half the battle – the other half comes in when figuring out how to use the space available!
Here are just a few of the things you’ll need room for:
- Equipment in use.
- Equipment not in use but which will be needed later.
- Hair, makeup, and wardrobe materials.
- Props and art staging and storage.
- An area for actors to rest while they’re not on set (this is called “holding”).
- An area for snacks and food to be served and readily available (craft services).
It’s very important to be strategic in your use of space. Why? Well, it can really affect the morale of the cast and crew. For example, actor Daniel Day-Lewis opened up about his experience of shooting Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, which takes place in a Georgian townhouse in London. “It was awful,” he said:
“We were living on top of each other. It was an enormous unit. There was no space… You work in a room then you have to move all that shit into another room, and that space becomes a storage space. That entire house was like a termite nest.”
Sometimes, “termite nests” are unavoidable, but do your best to keep order and use space wisely. It’ll make for a better experience and could save time – or even lives. Don’t leave cables lying about!
VIII. Cast and Crew Agreements
On many indie films, cast and crew members are friends of the director or producer who’ve agreed to work for free. That sort of all-hands-on-deck, small-scale “favor economy” can work really well – “you be my DoP for this shoot, then I’ll be DoP on yours!” – assuming that everyone’s on the same page.
If you’re not working with friends, however, it’s even more important to align expectations. When should crew members arrive each day? How long is a work day? What, if anything, are you providing in terms of compensation?
It’s worth noting that in the United States, shoots can be divided into two types: union and non-union. Union projects employ cast and crew members who belong to labor unions that oversee what they do – The Director’s Guild (DGA), The Writer’s Guild (WGA), and The Screen Actors Guild (SAG AFTRA), to name a few.
Unions do a lot, but one of their primary roles is to protect their members when it comes to wages and working conditions. That means that when you hire a union cast and crew, you’re going to have to play by their rules when it comes to things like compensation and day duration.
Many lower-budget indie projects can’t afford or don’t want to work with union members. Instead, they’ll turn to non-union cast and crew, many of whom are just starting out or otherwise building their portfolios and connections within the film industry.
For example, most non-union actors haven’t worked on an abundance of professional film or television shows – but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t talented! Actors, just like directors and writers and other creatives, need to prove their chops before they can land those coveted higher-end gigs. Oftentimes, that means doing a lot of low-budget, non-union films so that they can build their reels and reputations.
On a logistical note, when it comes to casting, establish and maintain an open line of communication with your actors and, where relevant, their representation. If an actor has an agent and/or manager, then it’s possible that they’ll make various requests on their client’s behalf. For example, they may request that their client have their own holding space – say, a trailer – or that they have their own hotel room if you’re bringing them in from out of town.
Such requirements can seem like a burden, but it’s important to recognize that on many indie film sets, actors can get kind of forgotten. There’s so much going on that it’s easy for filmmakers to get wrapped up in the task at hand and forget that there’s an actor nearby who’s nervous about their performance and unsure where to hang out or what to do.
Acting is hard work, and depending on the script, the actor may need a place to recharge and get into character. As overwhelming as it can be to try and accommodate requests for the comfort of an actor, I encourage you to consider them with an open mind and accommodate the ones you can.
As the producer, look at their requests honestly and determine which ones you can and can’t meet. If something just isn’t possible, for budgetary reasons or otherwise, but you still really want to work with that actor, then have an open, calm conversation with the actor (or their agent or manager depending on what’s most appropriate), in an effort to reach an agreement.
What you shouldn’t (cannot!) do is ignore the requests you don’t like and then expect an actor not to notice. There’s little that will suck the life out of a set faster than a frustrated actor who’s not getting what they were promised.
It’s customary for a film production to provide full meals for cast and crew and snacks throughout the day. For example, if your day starts in the morning, ensure that you have breakfast available when everyone arrives (and coffee)! Keep your craft table stocked with healthy, energy-giving snacks, and serve lunch halfway through the day (if you’re on a union shoot, be sure that you’re playing by the rules when it comes to meal timing).
Yes, if you’re running a super small indie film shoot, food can take up a sizable chunk of the budget. But it’s worth it. Your team will feel taken care of, and they’ll have the energy to put in a long, hard workday. In that sense, you’re not losing time by letting people break for a meal. They’re simply refueling the tank.
When planning your catering, figure out how many people you’ll have on set each day. Account for cast, crew, and extras. Decide if you’ll be making food right there on set or if you’ll be ordering out. If you’re ordering out, determine where. If you work with the same place every day, they may be able to cut you a deal. Ask around!
It’s also important to have someone on set to manage catering. If you’re acting as both the producer and director, the last thing you want to have to think about is handing out sandwiches! Plan accordingly.
Almost all shoots have to deal with transportation logistics – of people, equipment, props, wardrobe… The list goes on. Once you know how many locations you have and whether or not you can store items at these locations, you’ll have a better idea of your shoot’s transportation needs and requirements.
Often, film productions rent vehicles, usually small trucks or vans. Consider investigating rental options in and around your locations and make sure you have a driver(s).
Sometimes, actors will have unique transportation requirements. I recently heard about a film shoot for which an actor’s agent required them to be transported by themselves in their own dedicated vehicle. Which brings us back to your cast and crew agreements… Be aware of and clear about everyone’s expectations!
How’s that for your Producing Hat?
If nothing else, hopefully our checklist has helped convince you that nine times out of ten, you shouldn’t wing a film shoot! Don’t be Leeroy Jenkins.
There are a multitude of planning considerations. These are just 10 of the more subtle ones which tend to get shortchanged or even forgotten by beginning filmmakers.
So, whether you’re orchestrating a production with a small group of friends or looping in dozens of cast and crew members, address these practicalities in advance. The end result will be a smoother set and greater clarity, as you’ll have the bandwidth you need to give creative considerations the time and attention they deserve.
– By Lauren McGrail
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