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A 101 Guide to the Pre-Production Process

Did you know that, according to Zippia, the US film industry plays a crucial role within both the American economy as well as our culture? The film industry annually generates about $42 billion of economic activity, and it’s expected to have an 8.3% compounded annual growth rate between the years 2021 and 2027.

While the film industry is something people usually associate with Hollywood movies, the process of ‘filming’ or producing a video is something that happens everywhere, that people and businesses do every day at a variety of levels. This visual medium impacts lives, affects opinions, informs and entertains people across the globe.

What Is Pre-production in Film and Video?

In this guide, we’ll review everything you need to know about the pre-production process to help you understand what tasks are required to prepare you for production, which is where the filming actually takes place. Some of these tasks are sequential, others may overlap, and some, like your budget, you may return to again and again as you work through other steps.

Creative Development

You have an idea, or a need, or even a requirement to fulfill and making a film or video is the medium of choice. Where do you begin? You begin by defining your goal – what is the key thing you want your audience to experience, learn, or know? You define your target audience. What are their demographics? To the “who is your audience” question, many might say, everyone! Wouldn’t it be fantastic to have an audience of 8 billion people? But more honestly and narrowly, who is your primary target audience – it could be a subset of the general population, potential customers, or your employees. What do you know about them that might help you reach them? You then define your project’s budget and timeline, and what kind of approach, generally, that appeals to you. To this last question you might not know and a production company like Rock Creek Productions, can help.

Considering and answering these basic questions is crucial to communicating your ideas to others.

Going beyond those very early ideas, Creative Development typically involves a kick-off meeting with project stakeholders where you discuss high-level concepts and make some ‘big-picture’ determinations about your creative approach to the material. You may then write a treatment, which is a short visually descriptive document that presents an overall look and feel of the program, and a content outlive that provides rough ideas of the storyline or teaching points.

We have another article “7 Things to Know before Contacting a Production Company” that delves more deeply into this early aspect of pre-production.

Planning and Administration

This task may seem obvious, but it’s important to set your project management parameters early on, especially if film or video production is new to you. Often, creative and content decisions are made by or in conjunction with your clients or project stakeholders. Establishing clear lines of communication and responsibilities are important in enabling firm decision making and in avoiding disputes that may arise. As a collaborative art, film and video production require the ideas, opinions, and expertise of many different individuals and skill sets. Being able to manage that is an art unto itself and establishing boundaries at the beginning of the process is important to enabling success later on.

Scripting

Scripts come in two primary formats – two-column scripts where the video and audio descriptions sit side by side that makes a one-to-one comparison of the visuals and the narration easy, and film-style scripts that is more conducive for reading scene descriptions and dialogue in dramatic scripts in a linear fashion. Whichever format appeals to you, it’s important to maintain consistency in style and descriptions – to make sure character names are the same throughout, references to locations are consistent, even references to props, etc., remain consistent. It’s important, too, to include all the important details

When scripting dramatic characters, it’s important to give them backstory. Backstory consists of more in-depth character descriptions, their history, their likes and dislikes – a few details that help define them as individuals. Such information helps your director and actors bring their characters to life and offers you, as a scriptwriter, opportunities to flesh them out more fully on screen, to give them unique voices. We also highly recommend reading your scripts out loud before finalizing them. What looks good on paper or on your screen does not always translate into spoken language.

If you are creating a documentary-style, interview-driven program, your research and conversations with stakeholders and subject matter experts will lead you to a script that is less definitive than those described above, and more

Script Breakdown

Once the script is written and approved, you then need to deconstruct it – break it down into its component parts. How many scenes are there? What kind and how many locations or studio sets are required? Is travel involved? How many actors and extras are required and in what scene combinations? Are special wardrobes, props, or furnishings required? Are vehicles involved? Are there areas that require additional scrutiny on set, such as food, children, or animals? These factors, when considered against the estimated duration of the piece, begins to give you an idea of how many days of production are required. This breakdown can be iterative as you make pass after pass pulling out details, making actionable lists, and examining every detail.

Shotlists

The Script Breakdown leads to the next level of detail, which is creating shotlists. Here, you begin to break down each scene into its component shots. Types of shots (long shot, wide shot, medium shot, close-up) and camera motions (jibs, dollies, gimbals, vehicle mounts) and camera positions (angle on actor A, angle on actor B), etc. Creating these detailed shotlists requires a high-level of detail as you define and refine what will happen and how on each production day. By careful organization of details and an eye on the big picture, you may find or realize efficiencies in your plan. Shotlists are then finalized and arranged based on what is expected and in what shooting order for each production day.

Budget

While most people begin this endeavor with a general idea of their overall budget, as the process proceeds through scripting and breakdown and shotlisting, you continue to revisit your budget to ensure you are on track.

On being ambitious: There is nothing wrong with setting your sights high. You may find however, that you are over extended or that an element you had your heart set on is out of reach. Understand that in filmmaking there are always many ways to achieve the same or similar ends and so when you run into an insurmountable challenge, don’t give up, look for another way around. Filmmaking often employs the art of illusion and there are always many avenues available to tell your story.

Legalities

Legal issues may be little or they may be large. Perhaps you need a signed release from a property owner to shoot on location or a talent release from on-camera interview subject. Perhaps you need to obtain the rights to use a popular song or to negotiate the compensation for a celebrity appearance, or for a particular product placement that is important to your story. Or maybe you need to acquire production insurance to protect your project from liability. Whatever the issue is, it’s important to recognize any potential issues and to get in front of them. No one wants their project – a project they’ve poured their time, energy, and money into – held up at the very end by some oversight that has now grown into a legal liability.

Auditioning and Casting

Finding the right talent, whether that’s a voice-over artist, an on-camera narrator, or an ensemble cast of actors can make or break your production. You need to carefully consider the age, gender, and ethnicity of your actors to ensure your audience identifies with them and, of course, you need to cast for acting talent – an ability to bring your characters to live, to add depth to their portrayals, to precisely render their lines, and to share chemistry with the rest of the cast and the director. Most importantly, your actors must also be able to take direction and deal with serendipity on set. Even the most carefully crafted script must sometimes bow to on-set inspiration, and having actors who can make quick adjustments is key. When we audition actors, even if we feel their first read was flawless, we like to give them different direction to see how they may react.

We also recommend working with professional casting directors. These days there are many social media outlets offering access to non-professional and professional talent. These are fine to use, but they do put the burden upon you to manage the process, and if you don’t find exactly what you are looking for, you may be stuck without many options. Casting directors have wider access to acting talent, can help manage the auditioning process, and can move quickly when something arises, such as a principal actor becoming ill or needing additional extras.

Another decision to make is whether to hire AFTRA/SAG union or non-union talent. This decision may be driven by budget, accessibility to acting talent, or other factors. Depending upon your locality, you may be able to mix union and non-union talent. Local casting directors or your local AFTRA/SAG affiliate can offer guidance. If you do choose to use union talent, you’ll need to find a paymaster to facilitate payments. You’ll still write the same check at the end of production; the paymaster handles payroll, insurance, retirement, and healthcare deductions on the other end, so you don’t need to worry about any of that.

Location Scouting

Every location called for in the script needs to be physically identified, scouted for suitability, and approved for production either by agreement of the property owner or by negotiating payment for its use. Assuming you have identified a location and have acquired access to it, you need to scout it. Location scouting considers both aesthetic and technical issues: camera placements and fore and background looks are important, but also assessing the location for camera equipment, lighting and power considerations and sound concerns. The most aesthetically pleasing location in the world is rendered unsuitable if there’s a jackhammer tearing up the concrete next door.

We have written another in-depth article on just this topic – Location Scouting.

Studio Set Design and Construction

There are a variety of reasons you might want to use a production studio to shoot your film or video. Sometimes it’s as simple as wanting to shoot over an infinity wall or cyc – which is essentially a seamless, cornerless, edgeless environment. Or perhaps you want the control that shooting on location doesn’t offer. Shooting on location can be great in terms of realism, but it also may mean that you have to give up some control over your ability to control sound or lighting. Studios, like ours at Rock Creek Productions, offer an ability to stage several sets at the same time which facilitates easy moving between scenes.

Being able to define your needs – the number and types of settings you need, how they are to be furnished and propped, and how many days of production are required – are important when approaching a film and video production studio. There may be higher up-front costs incurred when shooting in a studio, but the versatility, efficiency, and control studios offer make them the perfect place to produce your program.

Equipment and Crew

Employing a professional crew to assist you during production is crucial in so many ways: We referenced the fact that film and video production is a collaborative art, and putting a solid production crew together is evidence of that collaboration. Of course, budgets can dictate the make-up of your crew, but having an experienced Director, Director of Photography, Camera Assistant, Sound Recordist, Gaffer, Grip, Make-up Artist, and Production Assistant to name some of the most important and common roles on set enables you to move efficiently and to achieve superior results.

If you employ professional freelance crew members, which is typical in the film and video production industry, you’ll need to begin reaching out to them as soon as you have production dates in mind. The folks that are good are working all the time. It’s important to get them onto your team early.

Production Coordination and Scheduling

Coordinating and scheduling all the various stakeholders and acting talent and crew and other service providers to ensure everything comes together seamlessly during production is a large part of what a producer does. Sometimes schedules are defined for you, for instance when you are being hired to shoot an event, or when you have to produce a video to be shown at an event. In those cases, your deadlines are set and you have to work to make things happen at those specified times. For other projects, your schedules may be determined by other factors such as your budget, contractual deadlines, or availability of actors, subject matter experts, or locations. Putting all the pieces together can be an challenge especially when something unexpected occurs, but it’s also a rewarding task to complete and production really starts to feel real.

Call Sheets

The final step prior to production is to create a call sheet for each production day. Call sheets go out to all project stakeholders – clients, crew, and actors – and contain everything needed for the day – call times, location address, wardrobe requirements, scenes to be shot, parking information, and other things such as breakfast, lunch, or dinner information. The call sheet condenses everything into a single page or two and makes sure everyone knows where to be and when. No excuses.

Taken together, these tasks make up the bulk of the pre-production effort. Of course, depending upon the project, there may be more or less emphasis placed on any particular task and some tasks may not be required at all. If you have a grasp on these tasks and play close attention to the details, your production effort is sure to go smoothly.

Now that you’ve learned about the steps you need to take when going through the pre-production film process, you might be looking for video production experts to hire to help you create your film. In this case, you should look no further than Rock Creek Productions.

More on Pre-Production Film Process

At Rock Creek Productions, we’re experts in producing highly effective and engaging videos. We are a full-service video production company and in addition to offering pre-production services, we offer complete digital cinema production services, post-production services, and finishing services.

To discuss your video production needs, contact Rock Creek Productions now.

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