I love pre-production! It is a period of time in which you are fully committed to your project and you get to wield all of your creative powers in your head, unfettered by financial and logistical pressures.
In this post I will describe my personal pre-production checklist: a list of issues that I systematically go through when preparing a project.
A reader once e-mailed me to ask whether I find pre-production tedious. My answer is that I passionately love it, because it has an incredibly high signal to noise ratio: a lot of creative output with virtually no logistical drama.
The significance of pre-production
During pre-production, the project is created from scratch in the director’s mind.
This means that you must see the finished product clearly in your head in its entirety: camerawork, composition, actors’ performances, color schemes, overall tone, and of course the all-important editing. All of this means that you will be working closely with your heads of department to brief them on your vision, particularly the Production Designer and Director of Photography.
The First Assistant Director also plays a big role in pre-production, particularly with respect to scheduling, which for big projects is a non-trivial issue that can only be adequately dealt with by a true-blue 1st AD.
You can always make last-minute tweaks while you shoot, but a clear, comprehensive vision is essential. This unifying overview is the whole point of the Director’s profession.
An important note for beginners
If you are a rookie filmmaker, let me warn you right now that your work as a fledgling director will be 95% preparation before you shoot and only 5% improvisation on the actual shoot.
As a beginner, you are not yet in a position where you can recognize creative opportunities while you shoot and seize them appropriately, because you do not have enough practical directing experience. Most of the quality that fledgling filmmakers inject into a project comes from the preparatory stage, which is exactly what this post is about.
1. Shot list
This is a numbered list of shots that includes a description of the shot in terms of composition, camera movement and other issues. I also like to include points that have important editing implications, as well as any directions for actors, when they make a difference to the camerawork.
Do not be afraid to come up with your own style of shot list, as long as every shot is uniquely numbered and unambiguously identifiable, because the 1st AD will be producing the schedule on the basis of your shot list.
If you haven’t done so already, download my shot list template. You can adapt it to your needs as you see fit.
Storyboards are basically sketches that depict the composition within the frame for a given shot, and can also include details such as zooming, panning and tracking.
Storyboards can be very elaborate when drawn by professional storyboard artists, but fancy storyboards are only really necessary when you are trying to convince someone to support your project, either to raise money, or to win a bid for a TV commercial.
If you are a newbie, I strongly recommend that you sketch some storyboards for your first project. Don’t worry if you don’t know how to draw — you do not have to show them to anyone: they help you in disciplining yourself to pre-visualize good shot compositions in advance.
Nobody has ever seen a storyboard I drew — I draw them only for myself, and then communicate what I want to the Cinematographer verbally. It has always worked exceedingly well because I have no trouble communicating verbally.
Well-drawn storyboards become more important if you are a director who struggles to communicate verbally with the crew. If you have trouble making yourself understood by your DP or camera operator, good storyboards will help with that. In this case you would be shifting some of the directing burden from the shoot to pre-production, when you will be directing the storyboard artist.
A huge issue to resolve very clearly and firmly during pre-production is the tone of your film.
The tone of the project is basically its flavor. Is it a dark vampire movie? Or is it more a tongue-in-cheek vampire movie?
You don’t have to feel hamstrung by a particular genre — although film marketability must always be taken seriously by independent filmmakers — but you do have to decide very clearly in your mind what kind of movie you are making.
Switching tone in a movie after it has been established is one of the most reliable ways to make the film fail.
The most spectacular tonal failure I can think of is Spielberg’s “Artificial Intelligence,” which suddenly switched from a heartfelt sci-fi movie to a weird alien/supernatural plot that simply did not fit with the rest of the movie. This sudden and disconcerting tonal switch is in my opinion primarily responsible for that film’s disappointing box office performance.
Tragedies need the occasional comic relief; comedies need the occasional serious scene. But do not betray your film’s established tone, or you will pay dearly.
4. Directions for actors
You must develop a very clear idea of precisely what performances you want to get out of your actors. This includes making detailed notes, and you may decide to include the most camera-critical actor directions in the shot list as well.
A number of readers have written to me expressing concerns that they are very vague and find great difficulty in expressing themselves clearly to actors and crew members. I will not sugar-coat the fact that this is a major liability for a director and is an issue that you must work on proactively, because it is really going to hold you back.
One way in which these directors can mitigate their communication problems is by deciding clearly in advance what they are going to ask their actors and crew members — and I mean literally writing down complete sentences for what you are going to ask your actors and crew members to do. I might write a whole post about this is in future.
Another valuable actor-related pre-production activity that you can fruitfully pursue is rehearsals and readings with actors. In principle this can save time on the shoot, because you have already directed your actors in advance, but in practice it doesn’t always bear fruit.
I am actually of the opinion that rehearsing with actors before you shoot does more harm than good if you are dealing with talented professionals. Particularly for very intense scenes, the less you tamper with their freshness, the better. This also means that, for exceptionally intense scenes, you only have a few takes to get them right, because the more the actors go through them, the more awkward and ineffective the scene becomes.
In any case, talented professional film actors only need light direction in most cases, if you chose the right actors for the job. In the current circumstances of the independent film industry, we have unprecedented access to some seriously professional and experienced actors, and you really have no excuse to cast anything other than true professionals in your projects. We have never had so much access to real film actors — many of them are languishing at home wondering if they will ever get a role again!
Get your act together with a well-organized project and contact them. The availability of these actors is a bright light in an otherwise bleak landscape for independent filmmakers. Capitalize on it.
Cast the right actors in your project and getting awesome performances from them will not be difficult if you have a modicum of directorial talent — the adage “directing is 50% casting” does have a grain of truth in it.
5. Production design
As the director, you must develop a coherent look for your film, in consultation with the Production Designer. You can use all the visual references you can think of: paintings, art magazines, quality photographs, and of course other films.
You should collect these visual references and present them to your Production Designer and Director of Photography, because they will need them to give you what you want.
When I first started I used to have magazine cutouts and other clippings, but a more efficient method I have used more recently is to collect these visual references as digital photographs on a specific webpage that I create, and then simply send the Production Designer and Director of Photography the URL of the page. It works beautifully.
6. Location scouting
Depending on the size of your project, you will be spending significant amounts of time traveling to different locations to assess their suitability for your project. For a feature film, this will be a lot of driving around!
Finding locations is a big task in itself, because you need to find the right location at the right price for every scene in your project. This can take a long time.
Don’t forget permits – a particularly serious issue in cities like Los Angeles (they need the money).
Having locked your locations, you will then have to do a Tech Scout with your heads of department.
7. Pre-visualization videos
A pre-visualization video is any video that you shoot for the purpose of testing a particular idea and experimenting to see if it works.
The whole point of pre-visualization videos is that they do not cost anything to shoot: you do it with whatever cheap camcorder you can get hold of, using toy figures and other objects as stand-ins.
You can also ask friends or relatives to help you. When I was in pre-production on my very first project, I tested several shots using my parents as stand-ins, more than a year before I shot the project.
Those pre-visualization videos helped me in the following ways:
– I was able to check whether the shots I had in mind were as good in practice as I thought they were in theory;
– through trial and error, I found the best way to get the shot I had in mind;
– I refined and improved the shots by experimenting and trying things, which costs nothing but time when you are just doing it with friends and a camcorder.
The testing and experimental benefits of pre-visualization videos can add enormous value to the project, because when the time comes to shoot, with the inevitably tight schedule and expensive equipment being paid for by the day, you will be in a strong position to direct everyone confidently and make the most of your production values.
I strongly recommend pre-visualization videos, particularly if you are less experienced.
Unsure of whether to use a long or wide lens for a particular shot? Grab your camcorder, invite some friends over and test it!
Unsure of whether a particular cut you have in mind will work? Film the shots quickly with your friends and your camcorder, import the shots into your editing application and cut them together to see if the cut works!
With this approach you will (a) learn an enormous amount and become a valuable filmmaker, and (b) get the best possible results on the actual shoot.
It is through practical experimentation with cameras and stand-ins that you truly develop your filmmaker’s eye. It’s how I did it, and as a filmmaker, you have many more practice days than actual shoot days.
Musicians practise on their instruments; fledgling directors practise with a camcorder. Do it.
What about fresh ideas while you shoot?
I’m a big fan of making improvised tweaks while I shoot as a direct result of having a fresh idea at the last minute, recognizing an unforeseen creative opportunity and seizing it appropriately.
However, the paradox of making the most of fresh ideas while you shoot is that you are in a better position for improvisation when you have prepared thoroughly beforehand.
The more preparation the director has done, the more the director will be in a position to make the most of last-minute ideas on the shoot.
For this reason I remain a huge fan of thorough preparation.
Very experienced and talented directors can afford to leave more room for improvisation on the shoot. For example, Steven Spielberg reportedly improvised many of his camera set-ups on “Munich,” which is made all the more remarkable by the fact that this film has some of Spielberg’s most complicated camerawork. However, do bear in mind that, in addition to having preternatural talent, Spielberg has also been directing for literally half a century (he started his path as a young teen).
Most other directors need to do their homework 🙂
It is worth repeating: it is in pre-production that the director really makes a project. The rest is simply execution, sprinkled with last-minute inspiration — assuming you have competent actors and crew members.
Free from the stressful pressures of principal photography, the director can let the imagination run wild during pre-production, experimenting with different ideas with no cost other than time. It really is a remarkably enjoyable phase — the calm before the storm.
I enjoyed sharing these tips and I hope you found them useful. Good luck! 🙂