There are lots of elements to a successful pre-production strategy, and it can be stressful to remember them all. But doing it right will save you time, money, and many future problems.
This film pre-production guide looks at everything you need to do during the pre-production. But first, let’s start with the basics…
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What Is Pre-Production
The term pre-production is used in many creative industries to describe the planning stage before a project begins. You can have pre-production in industries such as theater, music, and games. In filmmaking, it refers to the second stage after the development phase.
Development is the very first stage you go through when making a film. Before you enter pre-production, you need to find a screenplay and an initial budget. The script development stage might involve a producer hiring a screenwriter to work on an original idea. Alternatively, a producer might source a spec script or adapt an existing story (such as a novel adaption).
When the producer has found a screenplay, they will need to start financing the film. Even before you start the film pre-production, you will need some funds to pay the screenwriter and key crew. To figure out the exact production budget, you will first need to complete a script breakdown.
After you’ve chosen a screenplay, you will have some idea on what type of budget you will need. And this will depend on genre, script elements, and your own experience as a producer. A complete script breakdown allows you to figure out the exact budget that you will need to acquire before pre-production can begin. Being organized with your budget is especially important in filmmaking.
To begin a script breakdown, divide your screenplay into scenes, and make a list of every element you can see. Elements are everything that create a scene – actors, props, wardrobe, vehicles, and locations. By breaking down every scene, you will have a list of how many locations you need to find; as well as a breakdown of props and other critical elements you will need before making the film.
You also need to list characters and decide how large of a crew you want to work with. When you have broken down the screenplay, you can begin to estimate the budget.
Will your film be a union production? How many shooting days do you need? What type of distribution are you looking for?
Creating a rough shooting schedule is one of the most critical steps toward determining what your budget will need to be. If you don’t know how many days you need to be shooting, it is difficult to arrive at an accurate budget.
The majority of films average shooting about five screenplay pages a day while a low-budget can plan to shoot as many as ten. You’ll need to figure out what the proper number of shooting days is for your film.
Usually the scheduling process happens with the 1st Assistant Director working together with the director and producer to create the stripboard schedule, or, one-liner. From there, a Day Out Of Days report is generated to help visualize the number of work days that will be required for cast and crew members.
Professional Stripboard Template for Excel
Hiring Crew (Above-The-Line)
When a film has funding, it has effectively been ‘greenlit,’ and pre-production can begin. Your first step is to pay your screenwriter and have them sign a contract that allows you to use their story. After this, you need to hire your key crew members, also known as above-the-line crew.
Your above-the-line crew means all of the film crew you will need to hire in early pre-production. Without hiring these key crew members, the film process can not begin. These key crew members are the screenwriter, director, producer, director of photography, and production designer.
Sometimes a director is brought in during the development stage. Or the producer will need to find a director from researching, networking, and contacting agencies. A producer will likely know a director before hiring them or from a recommendation. For low-budget productions, you could ask film schools to introduce you to upcoming talented directors.
Your director may be able to recommend you a Director of Photography (DP) and Production Designer. If not, you will need to search and find these people independently. Your shooting schedule might also need to be changed to fit around crew availability.
It’s also worth mentioning that you might want to start looking for your lead actors at this stage. Finding the perfect cast is a vital part of filmmaking. A well-known actor can help increase the budget, and you might also need to change the shooting schedule based on their availability.
Once you have all of these people together, the creative process can begin!
One of the director’s first jobs is pre-visualization. Which means communicating their vision and overall aesthetic look to the rest of the crew. They do this in two ways: through shot lists, and through storyboards.
A director will read through the script and make notes on what type of shots they want to use per scene in the film. They will discuss their ideas with the DP, and together write a shot list for each scene. The producer will then look over the shot list and check that everything is financially doable. For example, some films may require specialist equipment like a Steadicam or Car Mounted Crane. Is there room in the budget for this equipment to be hired?
(link to storyboard article) Storyboarding consists of panels depicting individual shots in each scene. The director and DP will work together to create these storyboards. You might also wish to hire an artist to draw storyboards for you. Pre-visualisation and concept art are especially important in specific genres, such as fantasy or sci-fi. Films that are heavy in digital effects will also need careful visual planning.
During this stage, the production designer will be working with the director and DP to create a visual color palette. All key creatives must be on the same page. The producer will also keep a close eye on the pre-production film budget.
Pre-visualisation happens throughout pre-production. Shot lists and storyboards will change over time depending on the actor’s performance and locations.
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Hiring Crew (Below-The-Line)
Throughout pre-production, you will be incrementally hiring a crew. Since above-the-line crew includes only certain pre-production positions, it makes sense that below-the-line crew includes all other crew members. Depending on the size of your production, you might need to rent out a production office space and a production team. And the larger your crew, the more administrative help you will need. The production team includes a line producer who will help you with below-the-line hiring.
All heads of department (HOD) are hired first — this includes hair and make-up, costume, sound, lighting, and grip. Each HOD will likely have their own assistants they wish to bring on board. The director of photography will have a big say in the camera department and the production designer with the art department. The art department is typically the largest department on set. If you struggle to find people, you can always use film commission crew databases or advertise on film job sites.
An accountant might also be a good investment. On major film sets, there will be an accountancy team and cashier in every department. For low-budgets, make sure that someone is in charge of managing the budget and payroll. By now, all departments will have started to independently prep and plan for production. But of course you can’t make a film without a cast.
As mentioned, when hiring your above-the-line crew, you might begin casting lead actors. Having a star actor on board can help immensely during distribution. And a star actor might work on an independent film if they like the script and can fit the role around their busy schedules.
Great acting will vastly improve the quality of a low-budget film. To help you find actors, you might wish to hire a casting director. The casting director will organize auditions, contact agents, and negotiate working rates. Every actor who appears in your film will need to sign a contract (including a non-disclosure agreement) and talent release form.
The director and producer will determine the cast. You will also need to hire actors for every role in your film, sometimes even including background extras. Actors will then have costume fittings and make-up tests. Once the locations, crew, and cast get sourced, you can begin tying up any loose ends.
An important step in pre-production is to source locations. You might wish to hire a locations manager whose sole purpose is to find and secure sites. Locations play a big part in the look and feel of a movie. Not only do locations need to look right, but they also need to be safe and accessible for your crew. Every site you use in a film needs to have a permit, and a signed location agreement between you and the location owner. This permit outlines the shooting arrangement and payment terms.
Before choosing a location, an initial location scout (also called recce) will take place consisting of the key crew. Both the producer and director will have the final say on sites. Several location scouts will take place to plan and prepare before production begins.
Specifically, a technical scout consisting of all heads of departments will happen to determine how accessible each location is. For example, the script supervisor will take note of possible continuity issues. The gaffer will check power sources and plan lighting setups. Locations will plan out where crew parking should be.
Location Release Agreement
Throughout the film’s pre-production process, equipment will be getting bought and rented. Renting equipment (also called “hiring equipment”) can apply to every department, not just the camera department. So, your production designer might bill you for equipment rental (for example, work tools for set construction).
Your director of photography will have ideas on camera choices. The producer, director, and DP will all need to agree on aspect ratio and shooting frame speed. It’s beneficial to discuss technical details like this before production begins. How you wish to distribute your film will have a big say on your camera choice as well. For instance, if you plan to stream on Netflix, they have production and post-production requirements.
As a producer, you will need to check that every department has all the equipment they need to begin production. Sometimes it’s financially smarter to buy equipment rather than to rent. You will also need to consider hiring vans for equipment transportation. One thing independent filmmakers often forget to buy is hard drives. Always double-check that you have enough storage space to properly back up your movie.
Not every director will rehearse with actors, but some genres, such as action films and musicals, will require it. Additionally, rehearsing may be done on location (also known as blocking), allowing the actors to plan their performance accurately. Rehearsals are also vital if you have any stunt work or special effects where there is little room for mistakes.
Table reads of the script will also be done with actors and additionally with all HOD’s present. The director will likely carry out a read-through of the screenplay with all lead actors. And this will allow the actors to get comfortable with one another, experiment, and sharpen their dialogue. A table read with crew allows everyone to understand the script and discuss any issues. There will also be several production meetings with the film crew before production begins.
It’s nearly time to start filming, so we need to make sure to clear any red tape before we begin.
Permits & Insurance
You don’t want to get sued, end up in debt, or be unable to distribute your film. A lot can go wrong during production, so make sure to cover yourself as much as possible. Production Insurance is needed even for low-budget film sets. This includes public liability insurance so that you can film in public locations. Studios often require larger films to purchase a “completion bond” or “completion insurance”, which is a form of protection to ensure that the film gets completed even if something goes wrong.
Film equipment is costly, so make sure that you have equipment insurance. Your cast and crew will need worker’s compensation that will cover medical bills as well as sick leave. This is especially important if you have any potentially dangerous stunt work. For a documentary, you must have release forms signed by everyone you interview. Not doing so will stop you from being able to distribute your film in theaters and on streaming platforms. Good production insurance should cover everything and everyone on set.
An important legal document many film productions require is the non-disclosure agreement. This ensures that confidentiality is kept by your cast and crew members. Check out our free non-disclosure agreement template to help you get started.
You are near the end of pre-production. You have hired everyone, completed all prep work, and you are finally ready to start shooting. Now for the final touches!
Firstly, revamp your schedule based on current availability. Your shooting schedule will have made changes throughout the pre-production film process. For example, your star actor might only be available for one week.
You will also need to refine your budget, and likely there have been some spending changes. Make sure you are still on budget and on schedule; if you’re not, make adjustments. Your final crew hires will likely be additional transportation, set security, and catering personnel.
Lastly, your 2nd AD will finalize the first week’s schedule, distribute important schedule breakdowns, and prepare the first shooting day’s call sheet. Hopefully, your pre-production has paid off, and there won’t be any surprises during production.
The day before you begin shooting, you may have a company meeting in which all the crew is gathered together to understand the vision of the project, receive specific instructions from department heads, and meet their fellow department crew members.
You’re now ready to shoot your film! Congratulations!
Are you producing a film? How far into pre-production are you? Share with us your best pre-production tips in the comments section below!
We hope this article has helped you understand the complete pre-production film process.
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