A Quick Guide to Planning your Pre-production Schedule

This article draws on What is Pre-Production and an Overview of the different Stages of Pre-production.

If you have read the above articles, and if you’re new to filmmaking, you’ll no doubt have been intimidated by the magnitude of the tasks ahead of you. The sheer number of activities is daunting, even if you’re experienced.

Where do you start, then? How do you plan your pre-production? How many months should you give for it? This article attempts to answer these questions and more.

Pre-production Schedule

For the purposes of simplification, refer to the chart above (click to enlarge).

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The three time-zones

To start thinking about an activity, it is simple to think in terms of:

  • Before you begin the activity
  • While you perform the activity
  • Completing the activity

It sounds over-simplified and redundant, but as you’ll soon see, it is a powerful yet simple technique to organize your pre-production schedule.

Defining a time-period

Tasks take time to complete. It could be a few minutes, hours, days and so on. For the sake of organization, tasks that only take a few hours still need a day. The principle reason being how the payment terms are defined in our industry. If you hire someone for a task, you pay a day-rate and ensure you get the best out of them. Even if you’re hiring a freelancer for a contractual period, it is highly unlikely the period will last for less than a day.

For this reason, we group our time-periods as follows:

  • Days
  • Weeks
  • Months
  • Years

For most tasks associated with filmmaking, one tries to reduce the number of days it takes. To begin organizing your pre-production schedule, the most important skill you need to have is the ‘knowledge’ of how long tasks actually take. The two individuals who are burdened with the responsibility of budgeting and scheduling (one can’t live without the other) are:

  • The Unit Production Manager
  • The First Assistant Director

It is for their critical roles that they get first billing during the end-credits. I honestly believe they deserve top billing, but let’s save that for another day.

If you study the chart you’ll notice how I’ve grouped the major time-zones (for lack of a better word) and sub-divided them into time-periods. This is the foundation of each task. All you need to do then is find out how much time each task takes. I’m going to be using the same classification schemes I’ve outlined in the different stages of Pre-production.

The following are brief notes on each. As an important side note: I’m sure you’ve heard of the phrase ‘YMMV’, which stands for ‘Your mileage may vary’. With respect to the unpredictabilities of the filmmaking business, I will rephrase that as ‘Your mileage MUST vary’. You must always be hunting for faster and better ways to do things.

Small mistakes add up.

Notes on Writing

How the different categories under ‘Writing’ are arranged:

  • Screenplay should be complete before you begin, and it might take years.
  • Scene breakdowns (and other breakdowns) is a pre-production activity, and usually takes a couple of weeks.
  • Research might take a few months. A lot of research goes into the screenplay as well.
  • Previz or storyboarding only takes a few weeks.
  • The Shooting Script is a document that undergoes changes continuously, based on many factors beyond a filmmaker’s control. This happens even on big-budget films. For this reason, it is only deemed ‘complete’ at the end of pre-production, and takes months.

Notes on Management

How the different categories under ‘Management’ are arranged:

  • You set up your office before you begin, and it should only take a few days.
  • Your production schedule goes hand in hand with many other factors, and isn’t completely pinned down until the end of pre-production.
  • The initial budget is drawn up after the screenplay is confirmed. This is the budget that gets the ‘green light’.
  • The final budget is a constantly changing document, and will continue to change during production and beyond; until the film is delivered to the producer/client/studio.
  • The Unit Production Manager is hired before you commence pre-production, and it takes a few weeks to do this. Ditto for the First Assistant.
  • Meetings are conversations. It’s never-ending.
  • Catering starts from the moment the office is set up to the delivery of the film.

Notes on Administration

How the different categories under ‘Administration are arranged:

  • Legal and Accounting work must be complete prior to commencing a project. You only hire people once this is in place. You don’t buy or commit to anything until this is in place.
  • Permits must be assessed and obtained prior to pre-production. It takes a few weeks if you’ve hired an experienced crew.
  • Contracts take a few months. The major signings must happen prior to pre-production.

Notes on Talent

How the different categories under ‘Talent’ are arranged:

  • Casting is a long process, even for low-budget films. If you have stars involved, it might take a long time. Unless you are an in-demand Hollywood director, you can think in terms of years for A-list talent, and months for everyone else.
  • Rehearsals take a few weeks, but rarely stretches to a month. Some only rehearse for a day or two, others never.

Notes on Locations

How the different categories under ‘Locations’ are arranged:

  • Location scouting might take months, and might involve hiring of more than one location manager, who is usually a ‘local’ well versed in that area.
  • Approvals take time, depending on the locations. You never have a location until you have it in writing. Even then you always stay on your toes.
  • Logistics – moving man and machine – is complicated, and the more the locations the more time it takes to carefully plan everything.
  • Arranging transportation is relatively simple once logistics are in place. The biggest problem with transportation is getting the advanced booking down at cheaper rates – if your crew is traveling by plane, ship or long-distance trains. For this reason it might take a few weeks.
  • Set Design and Construction can take weeks, but rarely months. Ideally, you’d want to spend as less money and time as possible. You are paying for labor, as well as for the locations.
  • Electrical rigging can follow set construction, or can also be independent (street fixture rigging, etc.). Very rarely do you need to spend more than a week in one location for electrical work.

Notes on Production

How the different categories under ‘Production’ are arranged:

  • Hiring of crew continues for months, as and when required. This is an activity that needs to be completed before pre-production is complete.
  • Production Design takes a few weeks, if you’re working with an experienced Production Designer. If you’re working on a large-scale extravaganza, then it might take months.
  • Music takes a few weeks not more. This is pre-production music. Final mixing almost always happens in post production.
  • Action and Stunts usually take a week of planning. The actual stunt co-ordination will happen on location.
  • Choreography planning takes a few days. Actual choreography will be refined on set. Professional dancers only need a few days of practice to learn their routines.
  • Wardrobe, Makeup, Prosthetics and Costumes only need a few days of prep on most productions. Costume dramas and horror shows might have extended periods.
  • Rentals are usually only a phone call or email away.
  • Props don’t take much time, unless they need to be specially made for the show. Assembling all the props required, and getting them ready for filming, might take months.
  • Camera equipment is also a phone call away, and just need to booked in advance. The DP usually inspects all equipment.
  • Visual effects work might take months, depending on its scope. This is one item that varies greatly depending on your screenplay.
  • Stills and publicity is a simple hire. Usually the person only pops in once a week or fortnight.

I hope I’ve given you a starting point from which you can plan your pre-production. Once you have a rough idea of the time it takes, you can start estimating costs. A fully drawn-out pre-production schedule will involve actual dates, specific activities and timelines. They just look big, but are only an extension of the chart I’ve given.

I use Microsoft Excel for all scheduling and budgeting work. Not only does it have all the tools, but it is also the most customizable. Once you build a template, you can reuse it for the rest of your career.

Exclusive Bonus: Download my free guide (with examples) on how to find the best camera angles for dialogue scenes when your mind goes blank.

3 replies on “A Quick Guide to Planning your Pre-production Schedule”

  1. Hi, I was wondering if I can buy/use your template for pre-production scheduling. I’m having a terrible time trying to customise things in excel.

    Kind Regards
    Malcolm

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