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FILM PRE-PRODUCTION – THE ULTIMATE GUIDE (WITH FREE TEMPLATES)

filmmaker walking in the desert

Good preparation for your film is the cornerstone to getting a result you’re happy with. Sloppy, poor preparation will likely lead you into a stressful and morose path as you stumble through the filming process dealing with curveballs hitting you left, right and centre and having little autonomy to navigate your way out of it.

Pre-production is exactly that, it’s the process of preparation. It’s where you gather all of your resources together and set out a clear plan for shooting the film. If you nail your pre-production, you’ll feel the results of your work when you get into shooting and post-production.

BABY STEPS

The real work begins after you’ve completed the final draft of your screenplay.

It’s a part of the filmmaking process that’s more administrative than the nitty-gritty of filming, yet it’s also time-consuming and can be stressful if not correctly managed, so you’ll want to schedule out a solid block of time to complete it.

Begin by thinking about deadlines. Are you aiming to release the film by a particular date? Perhaps a school deadline, for a festival or before a particular life event? It’s a good idea to spend time researching film festivals that you think your film will be a good fit for and look at submissions dates. I recommend aiming to have the film 100% complete a week before festival deadlines because of course, things often take longer than you would expect.

FILM TITLES

It will be easier to officially name your film now before you start inviting anyone else onto the project. Going with a working title is, of course, a viable option but it’s not going to be as simplistic as settling on the right name now. This will allow you to purchase a domain name for your film title early on, very useful for marketing later on.

LEGAL

tall corporate buildings from low angle
Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

Copyright and other legal infringements can reside in your script without you realising. It’s a good idea to have a lawyer look over your script if you can afford one. I find acquiring as much legal know-how to be one of the most valuable things you can do as a filmmaker. Pre-production isn’t the only part of the process that legal issues can arise but it’s possible that the seeds of a big mishap can fall here due to the fact that contracts with locations, crew and talent are created at this phase. This is why I strongly discourage rushing your prep process as you can easily miss the smallest detail in an agreement that you’ll truly regret later on.

PREPPING FOR PREP

Block out the period of time you will do your pre-production. The amount of time needed depends on some key factors:

*Amount of items in your script (eg. talent, crew, locations, props)

*Length of the film and number of scenes

*If any kind of choreography, stunts or effects are needed and the amount required.

For a 10 minute short film with less than five key characters, locations and without any effects, I’d recommend scheduling at least 6 weeks to prepare yourself before filming.

It’s also important to consider whether you will take time off to work on your film. Working a 9-5 will mean you will need to schedule all of your prep after hours and on weekends. If you’re taking time off, don’t forget to factor your living expenses into your budget. 

If child actors are utilised, you might need more days of filming due to industry restrictions. That means more preparation as well.

I recommend building a folder for your film at this stage. You’ll want a reliable computer and a secure, decluttered email account to work off to make things run as smoothly as possible.

SOFTWARE & ORGANISATION

glasses sitting on top of laptop on desk
Photo by Jesus Kiteque on Unsplash

GOOGLE DRIVE & DOC’S

When you are working with other people, you can eradicate some logistical headaches by basing your pre-production workflow in the cloud. Here’s a folder structure you can follow or download my template to make things easier.

coloured folders in google drive - film pre-production

STUDIOBINDER & SET HERO

Both Studiobinder & Sethero offer free versions of their pre-production software. I’ve used both and can safely say they are super helpful in making the entire process streamlined and offer a ton of tools for you to use. 

PROJECT MANAGEMENT SOFTWARE

Freedcamp is a good free tool to use in seeing what work needs to be done and delegating tasks. You can integrate your Google documents with it as well, to make the process more synchronous.  This is a good alternative if you don’t want to go with a dedicated production management software.

EMAIL FOLDER STRUCTURE

As a producer, you can benefit from having a dedicated folder structure set up to handle all of the emails coming in from cast and crew. Here’s an example you can copy or tweak to your needs.

film pre-production producer email structure

BOOKMARKS

If you haven’t already bookmarked filmmaking sites you use over and over again, go ahead and bookmark your email, casting websites, gear rental houses and everything else you’ll be using repeatedly. It’s a big time saver in the long run. 

GETTING INTO IT

Once you’ve figured out how you or you and/or your team will manage the labour, you can begin the process. Here’s a proposed list of items to consider….

  • Script breakdown
  • Initial Budget 
  • Location scouting
  • Finalise budget
  • Get permits and reserve locations 
  • Casting
  • Time and line
  • Crew
  • Gear
  • Shot list
  • Schedule 
  • Storyboard

Of course, this sequence may or may not suit you depending on your circumstances. If you are set on using a particular actor for the film, you may need to get in contact with them to confirm their interest and availability before you can start the rest of the process. You may also need to secure particular assets in order to receive funding as well. You’ll want to consider what’s most important for your project and adjust accordingly.

BREAK IT DOWN

In order to get an accurate indication of what your film is going to cost, you’ll need to do a script breakdown. This is where you list all of the elements required to make the film. This includes the following:

Locations

Cast Members

Stunts

Extras

Props

Makeup/Hair

Costumes

Vehicles

Effects (Special & Visual)

Set Dressing

Sound

Animals (Animal Handler)

Music

You can download a script breakdown template here.

BUDGET

gold and silver coins on dark rough surface
Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

You’ll now use the elements in your script breakdown to put together a budget. Here you’ll also want to include every expense you can think of. You’ll likely need to do some research to get an idea of what things are going to cost. It’s better to overestimate a little bit. Believe me, you can always use some extra money in film production.

You can download a budget template here.

LOCATION SCOUTING

Here I’ll refer you to my article on locations to bring you up to speed on the location process. This is a really crucial step as you won’t be able to create a reliable shooting schedule until you’ve booked all of your locations. 

CASTING

In my own experience, I’ve seen an audition tape for an actor and almost immediately known they were right for the role so I advise you to trust your gut when it comes to making the right choices. Sometimes it’s better to choose someone who’s more reliable and easier to work with over someone who’s a better performer but challenging to handle. The filmmaking process is usually better when you are working with people that you feel comfortable with.

I recommend thoroughly planning out your casting process. 

This includes:

*Casting deadlines ( when you will have each actor cast by)

*Audition dates

*Submission process (will you be using video auditions, interviewing actors to see if they get the part?)

*Call back dates – a secondary audition

*When will candidates know if they’ve got the part or not?

Be sure to get your release forms signed before you start production.

CREWING

The type and amount of crew needed depend on the project of course. Here are some that are widespread over a variety of productions:

*Producer

*Cinematographer

*Camera Assistant

*Gaffer

*Assistant Director

*Make-Up & Hair

*Production Designer

*Editor

*Production Assistant

*Sound Recordist

*Caterer

if you’ve only had a little bit of experience making films, employing a larger crew (15-30) can feel quite overwhelming. I found that as my ambitions grew, it became necessary to have more crew in order to be able to focus more on directing and make filming feel less chaotic.

When it comes to selecting the right crew, it’s very much the same principals involved as hiring actors. You want people that are reliable and easy to work with. Crew meetings are also very important. You want to spend time with your department heads discussing your vision so that not only they understand it themselves and can communicate it to those working underneath them, but you can get potential suggestions ahead of time instead of on set where you’ll be busier and under more stress. 

I believe both the little details and the big picture are important, one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made in previous projects is not thinking about all of the tiny details in the world of your film. It can be something as small as the colour of a picture frame in your protagonist’s apartment, but it still matters. 

It’s better to work with crew you’ve seen in action on other sets. You can also find crew on websites like Star Now, Mandy Crew or your local industry directory.

THE IMPORTANCE OF CREW CONTRACTS (DEAL MEMO’S)

A deal memo is a document signed by the crew member and the producer that outlines what services will be offered for the amount paid. It’s really important to have this organized before working with any of your team. 

RELIABILITY = QUALITY

It’s usually better to work with people who you’ve met personally and preferably, worked with before on your own projects or on someone else’s. Reliability is a crucial component in your talent and crew. Anything can happen before, or after filming, so it’s ok to have some other contacts you can call upon if you discover your actor won’t be able to participate or complete the filming after initially committing.

GEAR IT

If you’re getting all of your gear from one rental house, you may be able to get a discount to free up some extra budget. I personally shell out the extra money for damage waivers to save myself problems in the long run. 

TIME IT

Start a timer and read all of the dialogue in your film at the speed you imagine it would be said. Estimate how long unspoken components will run for by playing the film in your mind. 

LINE IT

When you line your script, you decide what shots will cover each part of the script. See example below: 

lined screenplay film

This information will eventually be translated into the shot list. Too little coverage is likely to be problematic in assembling the end result and too much coverage can waste time, effort, money and drive down crew morale. You’ll likely have a clear vision of how you want each scene to look so I recommend spending some time meditating on that, to get this really concise. It’ll help the entire effort later on.

SHOT LIST

I suggest putting together a detailed shot list that fits you, the cinematographer and the AD. Again, this one varies for the individual. Getting the shot list right has always been an important milestone for me, possibly because I’m particular on how I want the film to look. If you assume that it takes on average  20-40 minutes to get through each shot in your film, then you’ll see that your time on set is precious. You can download a shot list template here.

SCHEDULE

Once you’ve allocated a duration to each of your shots, you can use this information to create a comprehensive shooting plan for your production. A realistic schedule is one of the cornerstone pieces to great pre-production and being strategic is a key element in achieving it. Create your schedule with the needs of your cast and crew in mind. It’s best not to begin the most challenging scenes at the end of the day when energy and morale are at their lowest. Conversely, the trickier stuff can be filmed earlier on. Offering enough meal breaks is a huge deal in keeping things running smoothly as well.

You can download a production schedule template here.

STORYBOARD

A storyboard can be helpful to communicate your ideas to cast and crew. It’s not a necessity, especially if you’ve already written up a detailed shot list but as someone that prefers to work with a visual reference, it’s super worthwhile to have on hand when I’m directing. Download a storyboard template here.

THE FINISH LINE

checkered finish line on race course daytime

At the end of pre-production, you’ll have an idea of what the journey ahead of you might look like. If all has gone well until now, then you’ve likely cleared the space for a shoot that’s more creative and fun than pressing and exhaustive. If it’s the night before the shoot and you’re still missing some key components, sometimes the best thing to do is delay production to make sure you’ve got a grip on what’s ahead of you.

In some cases things don’t stray too much from what was laid out, other times you’ll be rewriting your script on the day of the production. At the very least, your cast and crew will likely respect you more for thinking far ahead. 

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About the author

Tim is a Filmmaker, Videographer and Photographer based in Melbourne, Australia.
2 Responses
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