In Part One we looked at the major groups involved in pre-production. We covered Management, Administration, Writing and Talent.
In this part we’ll cover Location and Production.
These are the group of activities that deal with, you know, locations. Don’t underestimate even the ‘easiest’ location (which is the sound stage or studio).
The tough part of this group isn’t handling one location. It’s handling all of them in the most efficient manner possible, within a short duration.
Location Scouting and Approvals
Location preparation begins with moving your butts from place to place, hunting for those ‘ideal’ spots that will end up as backdrops in your video or movie. In my opinion it’s a mistake to scout for locations without all of the key heads of departments being present; mainly, the Director, Cinematographer, Production Sound Mixer, Production Designer, First Assistant and Unit Production Manager.
Some people try to save money by hoping one or more of these individuals aren’t that important on a scout. They get what they deserve in the end. Even worse are heads of department who think location scouting is beneath them. Fire them before it’s too late.
During a location scout the cinematographer is looking for angles, light, blocking, and whatever else it is that interests him or her. The production sound mixer will listen for potential audio problems. A good production mixer will also look for unique opportunities to capture important ‘snippets’.
The production designer will look at the aesthetics of the location, in close discussion with the director and cinematographer. If they are smart, they will include the production mixer in their ‘discussions’.
Everyone else will study the location from a logistics perspective.
It should go without saying that every location must have written and legally valid permits or releases.
Logistics is the art of moving man and machine within physical, budgetary and temporal constraints. A small crew is nimble and easy to move. A large crew demands military precision.
The bulk of this responsibility lies in the hands of the production manager. Every item and person has to be at a specified location at a predetermined point of time. Executing this on a feature takes a lot of foresight, experience and wisdom.
To a small crew, transportation might at most be a car or public transport. When moving more than fifty people from place to place, it’s called a nightmare. If you’re the type who doesn’t have the patience to find parking in a mall, you’re not fit to be leading this challenge.
Set Design and Construction
Once the set design is fixed and approved, construction and decoration will commence. These activities must be completed before the unit (everyone) arrives to shoot there. It’s like a construction job where the deadline is etched in stone. You fail, and you’re fired.
Complementary to set construction, the electrical crew will also set up the rigging work for lights and any other devices that need power. In studios and sound stages power is readily available, but on location it might be tough even with generators in tow.
Electrical rigging is common when night street exteriors have to be shot. It takes a long time, and usually a small crew is working ‘ahead’ of the unit.
To summarize, when production is underway a unit is like a juggernaut, seemingly large and unstoppable. Unfortunately, this isn’t true. All it takes is one idiot to bring this machinery to a grinding halt.
Production involves everything else, the fun part. When novice filmmakers start out, they only look at this aspect, and avoid (or forget; or don’t even know about) the rest. This is why I put it last.
If none of the above stages are completed, whatever is planned for this stage will not come to pass.
Hiring Crew and Support Staff
Hiring a good crew is critical to the success of any production. It’s okay to get friends along for your shoot, but ask yourself if you and your friends have ever completed complicated projects as a team before. If not, it is unlikely you’ll hit pay dirt on your first try.
There’s no time to learn on this job. Once a project gets underway the momentum always builds. Don’t take the excitement you see at the beginning to mean ‘stamina’ to sustain oneself till the end. I’ll take the quiet nod of a professional over an excited firecracker noob.
Production Design begins with the shooting script and storyboarding or previz. The person in charge is the Production Designer, under whom the Art Director, the Prop Master, the Costume Designer, etc. works.
Sometimes filmmakers like to have pieces of music arranged beforehand to use during the shoot.
Action and Stunts
Even simple movies might have small bits of action. It’s easy to look past this during the rush of pre-production but it’s critical you discuss all action, no matter how silly it sounds, with an experienced Stunt person. What you think is easy might end up being too complicated or dangerous.
Some projects like music videos have choreographed dance routines that need to be designed and practiced well before principle photography. This is the responsibility of a Choreographer.
Wardrobe and Makeup, Prosthetics, Costumes
Small projects might not have any of this. But having a makeup artist is extremely important. A minor ‘touch-up’ can be the difference between a poor shot and a great shot.
On most films, wardrobe is part of the production design, and needs to be designed carefully. Not only do you need perfectly matching clothes, you need backups of these, because they will tear, get stolen or be ‘misplaced’.
Prosthetics is a specialized field and demands professionals who have dedicated their lives perfecting it. No, your makeup person is not a prosthetic expert.
Rentals are everything that need to be rented. On a large project, many items are rented only for a few days. Keeping tabs of what comes in and what goes out on a daily basis is a job in itself. You miss a day and you pay extra.
Props are important, especially ‘hero’ props which are critical for a scene. On a large project there are usually thousands of props – all of them important. Keeping tabs on them is tough. Designing them, and creating backups for each, is another job altogether.
This is the department that ‘loses’ the most items during a shoot.
Camera, Grip, Lighting and Audio Equipment
If you land up on set and your camera goes kaput, you can still shoot on your smartphone. But if you have a million dollar camera, but nothing else, you’re shooting naught. That should tell you where camera and audio gear lies in the pecking order.
Newcomers put too much effort into this one department, wasting precious time and resources that are needed elsewhere. It is a never-ending story that new filmmakers often sideline important activities to fulfill gear-lust. Hey, look on the bright side. You won’t have a great movie, but you’ll still have your camera to sleep with.
On movies that involve keying or visual effects, it’s good practice to have an ‘expert’, usually the Visual Effects Supervisor, on set. Their advice is invaluable, and the cost of having them on set is negligible compared to the cost of correcting mistakes later in post.
Stills and Publicity
Finally, we have stills and publicity. If you’ve done everything perfectly up until this point, go ahead and hire a photographer and publicist to record and promote your endeavor. If you haven’t, then it might be a good idea to not let the world know what happened.
This has only been a general overview of the pre-production process. No matter what kind of project you’re into, short films, documentaries or features, you would do well to consider all of these aspects – if only as a check-list.
Being thorough is mentally tough, but is a great habit to have. It always feels good when you’ve got your bases covered, and know you have planned for everything. Once you have a solid Plan A you can start thinking about a few Plan Bs.
Know the easiest way to tell if a project is doomed to fail? Watch how filmmakers handle their pre-production. There isn’t a surer sign.