Written by Sareesh Sudhakaran and Josephine Babirye.
So you decided you want to make a movie. You’ve learned how to work your camera and audio equipment. You have an awesome idea for a script.
Great! Roll up your sleeves for some work.
Movies are made in three stages: pre-production, production, and post-production.
In this article I’m going to teach you about pre-production, because believe it or not, if you don’t get pre-production right, then you might as well throw your great idea in the trash, because:
Movies are basically made in pre-production. Every opportunity or mistake you face while shooting your movie is a direct consequence of a decision you made in pre-production.
What is Pre-production?
Pre-production is the stage between coming up with your idea and shooting your movie. It’s when you plan, procure, arrange, organize, discuss, finalize, rehearse, scout, negotiate, schedule, budget, cast, manage, meet, rig and prepare.
Pre-production is when you plan out each and every single detail of how you’re actually going to turn your idea into the final movie.
Let’s visualize pre-production with an analogy: Cooking. Here’s a side-by-side comparison:
|Getting a recipe off the internet or from a friend||Getting a ‘locked’ screenplay|
|Looking around for the ingredients, finding bargains||Interviewing the crew|
|Finding the key ingredients||Auditioning|
|Set up the kitchen and workspace||Scout locations|
|Collect the tools and utensils||Decide and arrange for gear|
|If you don’t have the right tools, it’s back to the drawing board||Rework the script|
|Prepare a shopping list||Budget|
|Write the recipe down||Schedule|
|Finalize the recipe||Prepare the shooting script|
|Shop for ingredients||Finalize cast and crew|
|Ingredients not available?||Redo interviews or conduct more auditions|
|Shop for ingredients||Rinse and repeat, sign contracts|
|Bring everything to the kitchen table||Logistics|
|Get the tools and utensils in order||Project management|
Just like cooking, pre-production is all about making sure you have the resources in place to put together a fabulous movie.
Now that you have a top-level idea of what goes into pre-production, let’s dive in even deeper and understand exactly what goes into pre-production.
There are six fundamental divisions to pre-production, all related to one another, and all put together by the producer. They are:
- Management – This is the core, the only part that knows everything
- Administration – The paperwork
- Writing – The ‘Plan’
- Talent – The people who feel they are the most important
- Location – The work that needs to be done but nobody wants to do it
- Production – Everything else
We’re going to look at each of these divisions by breaking them up into the different people involved in the pre-production process and their specific roles, as well as how they all tie into each other.
Management is the focal point of any production. It is the first to form, and the last to disband once production is complete. It includes key positions such as the Producer (and all its variants), Writer, Director, Unit Production Manager, First Assistant Director, etc.
And it all starts with the producer.
Who is the producer?
A producer initiates, coordinates, supervises and manages the creation and production of the film. They may be hired by a production company, or the may work as an independent contractor.
The producer is the person in charge of pretty much everything in the production of the film, from approving the screenplay to hiring the rest of the team to budgeting to sourcing funding to overseeing post production to marketing the film… the list could go on and on.
Here’s a quick video:
Naturally, especially on big-budget films, one person can not do this alone, so the producer role is often broken up into the following;
The executive producer is usually the one who supervises all the other producers on set, and often puts together the entire production team. They make sure that the production runs on schedule, remains within budget, and sticks to the agreed upon technical and artistic standards.
The executive producer may be affiliated with the production company or be an independent contractor, especially in bigger productions. In smaller productions, the screenplay writer or the director may take on the role of the executive producer.
In most cases, the executive producer is also in charge of financing the production, whether they invest in it themselves looking to make a profit, or find other means to raise the funds for the production process such as finding sponsors for the production. To do this successfully, the executive producer needs to have good business sense, as well as a deep knowledge and understanding of the entire production process.
It’s very common to find that the executive producer is not directly involved in the hands-on parts of production; they instead delegate this to the other team members and focus on the finance and organization part of the production process. This brings us to the other producers.
The co-producer normally works with the executive producer directly to source funding for the production. It’s quite common for the co-producer to also be another member of the production team such as the director, a lead actor, etc.
What earns this other team member the title of co-producer is the fact that they help finance the production, typically by putting up their own money.
Before we move on to the next kinds of producers, let’s talk about “above-the-line” and “below-the-line” crew. Above-the-line are typically all the producers we’ve talked about, as well as directors and other crew that are in charge of making the big decisions in the production process.
Below-the-line crew are the rest of the crew who do the actual work of production such as grips, lighting, etc.
Majority of the time, above-the-line crew are the ones that make the most money from a film production.
And this brings us to the line producer.
The line producer is basically the person that liaises between above-the-line and below-the-line crew of a production. Above the line producers often delegate tasks such as hiring crew, equipment, location management, etc to the line producer, who then goes on to assign and oversee the tasks of the actual production process.
The line producer doesn’t typically begin work until the budget has been determined, and they then come in to determine what costs are “above-the-line” such as directors, producers and cast, and which costs are “below-the-line”, which is everything else as we mentioned above.
Hence the name line producer.
During pre-production the line producer often does the heavy-lifting when it comes to setting up the production office, hiring crew, location scouting, acquiring permits, you name it.
They won’t typically work actively on set during the production process, but will instead hand over the day to day running of the actual production to the unit production manager, which is a role we’ll look at when we tackle production.
Associate or Assistant producer
The associate producer works as an assistant to the producer, and often gives creative input to the production process, be it rewriting a script, working closely with the editor in post, making sure the scripts are in order, etc.
The actual role of the associate producer varies from production to production, so some people consider the title to be a token credit to writers or other cast and crew that offer their creative input to the production of the film.
Depending on the size of the production, there may be other types of producers such as the supervising producer, coordinating producer, segment producer, etc, but we won’t go into many details, as these are often below-the-line positions, and aren’t required on every single set.
Now that we know the different positions that take up the management part of pre-production, here are the steps involved in management.
The first thing you do is setup an office space from which the management team can operate. At the bare minimum this includes a room with four walls, a computer, and optionally a printer. A full-fledged production office will have space for meetings, charts, posters, files, and many other functions.
An office keeps you focused, and more importantly, it ensures your team is all in one place.
Office setup also includes all the legal stuff like incorporating your company, since by deciding to make a movie you are technically setting up a business. It’s a good idea to involve an attorney at this stage, or if you can’t afford one at this point, do a ton of research to make sure you’re setup properly from the get go.
Scheduling is traditionally decided by the First Assistant Director in tandem with the Director. Realistically, only the director knows how long he or she will take to pull off a movie, and according to this, the schedule is drawn.
There are many factors that affect the schedule such as
- Where do we meet?
- What do we do?
- Who has to show up?
- When do they have to show up?
There is a schedule for pre-production, production and post-production. This is a critical task, as many other factors depend on its accuracy.
Based on all the other factors, a full detailed production budget is drawn up. The concept of dividing pre-production tasks as outlined in this article demonstrates how complicated setting up a budget really is.
Big budget studios can afford to overrun their budgets, independent filmmakers cannot. Underestimating the budget is one of the greatest causes of production failure, and it is usually the result of the inability of the filmmaker to acknowledge reality.
The responsibility of preparing the budget lies with the Production Manager.
Production Management is the running of day to day operations of a movie. The person on whom this responsibility is thrust is the Production Manager.
While the creative departments focus on the art, the production team runs the machine.
Meetings are the most time-consuming parts of pre-production. People from every department have to meet, at some place or another. It doesn’t always have to be at the production office.
Catering begins as soon as a production is green-lit. Everyone has to eat, and this responsibility is handled by the production team, headed by the Production Manager.
Everyone has to be fed well (doesn’t mean greasy comfort food). A well fed crew is an efficient and motivated crew. If you can’t afford to treat your crew well, get ready to face hell.
And that wraps up our overview of the management stage. Now on to administration.
Administration on a production set is just what it sounds like; making sure the back-end, non-production stuff is all taken care of. This is often the key responsibility of the Production Coordinator. Let’s look at this role in a little more detail;
A film production coordinator typically handles the day-to-day activities in the office of the production, performing a variety of administrative tasks to support a film crew.
Their duties often involve coordinating the crew, tracking schedules, ensuring projects are operating within a budget, making copies of scripts, handling equipment and footage, accommodation, and generally any sort of paperwork related to the production process.
Good production coordinators need to be very highly organized people, great at communicating with others, good team leaders, and preferably have really good computer skills, as there’s likely to be a ton of software elements that go into making sure the administrative side of things works really well.
The production coordinator often works wit a team of production assistants in order to accomplish all these tasks. Production assistants, also known as production runners, do the actual administrative legwork required to run a film production.
They will make all the necessary calls, print out call sheets and scripts, write production reports, book the drivers and vans, make sure that the pescatarian actress has an ample supply of lobster and crab available to her on set, etc.
In the pre-production army, production assistants are the foot soldiers that do all the work on ground.
Other administrative roles
The production coordinator also works very closely with other professionals that aren’t directly involved in production, but whose services are often required during production, especially on big budget films.
These include lawyers, accountants, medics, caterers, marketers, advertisers, merchandisers, etc. Whatever a film needs outside of the actual production process to make it successful will typically fall under this administration stage.
Some of the key tasks that are done at this stage include;
Legal and Accounting
Every production must have a solid legal foundation. The day-to-day accounting tasks are carried out by the production team, but at the end of the day all debits and credits will flow through certified accountants, who will minutely inspect every detail.
These are checks and balances that are in place to ensure everyone’s doing their job, and no money is being wasted or robbed.
Permits will have to be obtained from locations, individuals, agencies, governmental organizations, private organizations, and so on.
These permits are not scraps of paper, they are legitimate documents valid in the eyes of the law. They are usually prepared by the legal team, and enforced by the production team.
Contracts are also prepared by the legal team, and they have to be duly signed.
The next stage in the production process is writing.
Writing involves the actual creation of the script. It could be a screenwriter’s original idea, an adaptation of another type of entertainment, or an idea by the director or the producer.
Many times, if a screenwriter creates the story on his own time, he can then pitch the script to a producer or director, so this step would technically be the first step. However, there is more to this stage of production than simply typing out a script.
Before you ever write a script, you start with an idea of the film you want to create. You outline the idea into a treatment and write a precise logline that captures the essence of what your film is about.
The next step you need to take is to research.
Because by researching the content of your script, you add so much depth to your story.
Let’s say you want to create a film about a young female NASA scientist that picks up an ancient coin on her way home and magically gets sucked into a fantasy world of mermaids and unicorns and falls in love with a centaur. Yes, this is a ridiculous idea, but just roll with it.
You might be tempted to reference different fantasy and Sci-Fi movies you’ve watched and dream up your own version of the film. The problem with this is you’ll probably come up some cliché movie that won’t be very compelling to your audience. It’s why we have some many sub-par movies coming out of Hollywood these days; too many filmmakers are simply rehashing movies that have already been done.
The better way to go about it is to research. As yourself, what’s it like to be a young female scientist working at NASA? What’s it like to be a young, single woman driven by work and not interested in love at all? What are the origins of fantasy worlds and creatures like mermaids, unicorns, and centaurs? How do they really behave? Is the fantasy world only made up of lush forests and fairies, or are they intelligent enough to build massive cities?
You get the point.
Ask yourself as many questions as you can about your story, and find answers to them. Talk to experts, read books in libraries, watch documentaries about the different elements of your idea. Google. Talk to a real life young female scientist who works at NASA and learn her perspective of the world.
Keep every bit of information you find in a notebook or single document, and reference your findings when the time to write your script.
This kind of research is gold for your film because you’re able to develop much stronger characters and worlds because your content is based in reality. You’re even able to learn things you never would know from watching a Scif-Fi or fantasy movie.
A word of caution; set at a time-limit for yourself during the researching phase. Keep it at a maximum of 3 months, and use whatever resources you have available to you. This will keep you from procrastinating in the name of research.
It’s also important that you have a clear idea of what you want your story to be about. This will help you ask the right questions, and avoid getting sucked into a deep void of research where you end up researching stuff that doesn’t build your story at all.
And finally, remember that you are a creative filmmaker, and keep the story front and center. Just because you found out a ton of intriguing information doesn’t mean it all has to be included in your film. So stay true to the most important facts, but get creative when crafting your film.
The research phase will probably continue throughout the rest of the production process as you begin to work with other members of the team like the producers and directors, so be flexible. However, this preliminary research will be the most important for your production.
The next step is to actually write out your script.
Screenplay or Script
First, let’s briefly look at what a script is.
A script is a document that outlines the story of the film from the begin to end. It’s important to note that it outlines because throughout the production process, the script can undergo several changes based on the director’s input, the editing department, or it could be re-written along the way.
However, it does serve the very important purpose of guiding the entire production process, so it’s important to write it well. The ‘finished’ draft of a screenplay is the basis of any production. This draft will be scrutinized in minute detail by many individuals, from every angle imaginable.
Scripts follow a specific formatting style depending on the type of film being created. (Here are some pictures to show you what different scripts can look like.)
You can manually type out a script, but this will probably take you much longer to produce the script. So it’s best to use a scripting software such as Celtx so that your script looks professional and follows the appropriate structure.
As you draft your script, it’s always important to remember that film is consumed visually, so your script needs to SHOW the story, and not TELL it like a novel.
The next step in the writing process is to breakdown the script, which is where you identify and tag all the different elements you need in each and every scene in order to bring it to life, and this is normally done by the 1st assistant director. The breakdown is then used to decide on the production schedule and the budget.
There are specific methods of how to break down a script which we won’t go into in this article. It can be done manually, but again this takes time to do, so you can find different programs to speed up the process. Once a script has been completed and the producer has given it a thumbs up, the script is ‘broken down’ into the following elements:
- Cast / Characters
- Set Dressing
- Special Effects or VFX
- Special Equipment
There are no limits to the types of breakdowns you can do, and not all will apply to every single production. So use what’s relevant to your specific project.
To sum it up, a breakdown is just a list of items of that particular type, organized, sorted, studied and tabulated for easy understanding and review.
Previz or Storyboarding
Storyboarding is the art of drawing or rendering frames as visualized by the director. Usually this is done by a storyboard artist.
When it is done on computer, you call it Previz, or pre-visualization. This can take the form of still frames, presentations, motion, 3D animations, and anything else that catches the director’s fancy.
The main purpose of previz is to give all the relevant crew and cast members of a production a visual representation of what the final film is going to look like. It makes it easier for everyone to get on board with the production, brainstorm ways to bring the story to life, and also anticipate any challenges that may come up during the production process and brainstorm ways to solve them ahead of time.
I go into more details on previz and storyboarding as well as tools you can use in this article.
This is the final step in the writing process. Once the director is locked in on how he or she wants to tackle a production, it is time for them to sit with the first assistant to prepare the shooting script.
While the screenplay is a tool that is used to sell the story, the shooting script is tool that is used to guide the actual production of the story. It covers all the technical aspects of the shoot itself such as specific camera angles and movements, lighting, etc.
The director and director of photography will often add their notes to the shooting script so that all other members of the crew can stay updated on the shoot.
The shooting script can often change many times during the production process as scenes are added, removed, or altered. The original version of the scene will always be kept, and the new version will be denoted by a change in page number. For example, if the original scene was on page 7, the amended version will be marked as page 7A. If a scene was excluded from the shoot, it will remain in the shooting script, but be labelled as “omitted” so no one thinks it was simply forgotten.
The shooting script can be a very difficult document to read, but it is absolutely vital to have during the production process. Usually, the shooting schedule is often derived from the shooting script as well, which helps to keep everyone on track.
And that wraps up the writing stage of pre-production.
The next stage of pre-production is Talent, and this involves all aspects relating to the cast of the production. Who you decide to put on screen for your film has a massive impact on the success of your film. A great cast with amazing chemistry will bring even a mediocre story to life, but a terrible cast will ruin even the best story idea.
It starts off with auditions and casting, but first, let’s look at who’s in charge of this part of preproduction.
The Casting Director
This is the main position held when it comes to talent. Many times, this takes on the form of an agency that sources talent both for on-screen acting and voice-only acting.
The casting director first meets with the producer and the director to go through the script and “see” what kind of people they need to cast. During this process, they take notes of details such as the looks and appearance of the character, what speaking parts are involved, and other details needed to cast the right actor.
Once they have a good idea of who they need, they also have a meeting with the legal and finance departments of the production team to understand what they can afford to spend on the cast, as well as set up drafts for contracts needed.
The casting director will then make a list of cast members they may already know that can fill the role, and run this list by the directors and producers. In some cases, the lead actors are selected at this point and don’t need to go through the audition process.
The next steps involve setting up auditions, contacting and negotiating with agents, reviewing auditions, conducting call-backs, overseeing signing of contracts, sourcing extras, finding replacements throughout the production process for whatever reason, etc.
It’s a very involved process, and the casting director needs to have a great eye for talent, a lot of patience, and be able to give clear and concise direction.
Auditions and Casting
Auditions and Casting are managed by the Casting Director and Director. Sometimes, these are filmed for later scrutiny. On most productions, the director is present during auditions.
Agents and managers of actors are usually heavily involved in this process to make sure the actors they represent get the role and are paid accordingly.
This part of production is heavily dependent on the budget available. In some cases, “bigger” actors may agree to take on a role in smaller productions, and in return they are allowed to give their creative input, and often times will take on one of the producer roles or even the director role. It’s often a great way for these actors to gain experience in the other parts of production outside of acting.
Casting is critical to the production process, and there are very few directors who think casting isn’t the most important part of any production.
Once the cast and crew are in place, it is time to rehearse. This period might be one reading (a day), a week or a month. Depending on availability of talent, and what the director feels is required, this period may vary.
Rehearsals are an excellent time for everyone to study the structure of the production from a safe distance. Changes at this point can still be made without loss of time and money.
Rehearsals are also a key moment where the actors can develop chemistry amongst themselves. Great chemistry will always reflect on screen and produce phenomenal results.
Of course, this is an ideal scenario.
It’s not uncommon to find actors who completely hate each other’s guts while working on the film. If they are really talented and professional, they can always keep their issues off screen and the audience will never know. But sometimes it can affect the production process, and so cast replacements may become a necessity to keep things running smoothly.
With the talent stage complete, the next stage to tackle is Location.
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).
Locations involve both on-screen and off-screen locations, including sets, where the cast trailers will be located, where the production office will be located, where meals will be served, etc.
The job of location scouting (finding the right locations) is handled by the location scout.
Similar to the casting director, the location scout first meets with the producers and directors to review and understand the script. They pay attention to the location of the scenes in the film, the mood it needs to convey, the genre of the film, and other such information.
With this in mind, they typically start with what’s called a “file search”, where they reference locations that they already know of that could work for the scene. This is similar to the casting director’s process of listing out specific actors ahead of time.
The next step is to physically visit the different locations, usually with a camera in hand to help document the locations as well as view locations from the perspective of the script.
During scouting trips, the locating scout may work alone or with a team of assistants. They take detailed notes of the elements in the scene, whether or not it will help build the scene aesthetically, the logistics of transporting the entire production onto the scene, etc. The more detail they can give the directors and producers, the better.
Location scouts are also often in charge of acquiring permits to use a location, negotiating terms with property owners, issuing out and collecting location release forms, and any other manner of paperwork required to legally use a location. They also work hand in hand with the production accountant to make sure that everything stays within budget.
While location scouting isn’t a very technical role, it’s always beneficial for the location scout to have a basic understanding of lighting, sound design, and general production in order to assess whether or not the location will be appropriate for the scene.
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.
Let’s now look in more detail what goes into the location step.
Location Scouting and Approvals
Location preparation begins with moving 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.
Now, let’s move on to the final step in this process.
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.
Before the actual shooting can beginning, a few things need to be done.
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.
Hiring crew and support staff is most often the job of the line producer. It can be a tedious process, but the effort is worth it. It helps for the line producer to be well connected and maintain a great working relationship with crew and support staff. A golden reputation will make crew more willing to work on a project, therefore speed up the hiring process.
The crew also has to be professional in everything they do. Any misstep could bring the entire production process to a screeching halt. One gaffer forgetting to flip a switch could easily cause a light to over heat and burst into flames. A bit dramatic, I know, but these things really do happen. So it is imperative that the crew is very professional, especially on bigger budget films where a lot more is at stake.
This part of the production is handled by the Production Designer. Their job is to understand the script in detail and design a set that sets the mood, time, location, and any other visual elements of the story that help to situate a scene.
For example, if your film is set in a rural diner in the 1960s, it will be completely inappropriate to have USB ports show up in frame, because they simply didn’t exist in the 60s. That could seem like such a tiny detail, but the audience is smart, and their minds will always subconsciously pick up on such discrepancies, which will inevitable reduce how much they enjoy the film.
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.
Great production design isn’t always obvious. A set that’s designed well simply works to advance the story, and will often go unnoticed by the audience, but will still ground the story, which is exactly what you want.
Music perhaps plays one of the biggest roles in conveying mood and emotion of a scene in a movie, and great care must be taken to find or create the perfect score to a scene. Many times music also helps to establish the time and location of a scene.
There are many ways to decide on the music to be used in a film, but the most effective is to compose an original score. The advantage of doing this versus sourcing pre-recorded music is the score is often written to match the cadence of a scene exactly, thus heightening the emotion of the scene.
In many cases, the director will select a prerecorded song that captures what he needs and hand that to the editor to edit an initial draft of the film, and then forward this draft to a composer who then uses this as a jump of point to create the final score.
Of course in other cases, pre-recorded music can be licensed for the film for creative reasons. However even then there is often some slight alteration done to that song to make it fit the scene. Something as simple as panning the song from the left speaker to the right speaker can have a tremendous effect on the scene versus leaving it to play as a stereo track.
Sometimes filmmakers like to have pieces of music arranged beforehand to use during the shoot. It all comes down to the director’s preferences and style of work.
Action and Stunts
While we often think of stunts as things used in big action movies, even simple movies might have small bits of action that need to be properly handled. 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. Even dancing or tripping down a flight of stairs is considered a stunt. What you think is easy might end up being too complicated or dangerous.
This is where stunt coordinators come in handy.
Stunt coordinators are in charge of making sure that any cast and equipment used to perform any stunt in a film are done so with proper technique to prevent any kinds of injury to the cast or unnecessary damage to equipment.
Stunt coordinators are often involved in the choreography of a scene, which we’ll look more into shortly. They also tend to work with fitness trainers to get actors in shape to perform a stunt.
They are responsible for sourcing and working with stunt doubles who are key to performing complex stunts that an actor may not be able to perform. Unless, of course, you’re dealing with Tom Cruise.
Stunt coordinators also work closely with engineers to design and set up any complex mechanical stunts such as explosions, or with the rigging department to set up actors walking on ceilings and other such stunts.
During filming, the stunt coordinator is often working directly with the director and the cinematographer to foresee any challenges, give feedback on performance, decide on the best camera angles to use, etc.
Some projects like music videos have choreographed dance routines that need to be designed and practiced well before principle photography.
However, it’s not just music videos that need to be choreographed.
Fight scenes need to be choreographed.
Oners (scenes that are filmed in one continuous shot) need to be choreographed to make sure the cast is in the right position at the right time in relation to the camera and it’s movements.
Extras in a static shot need to be choreographed.
This is all the responsibility of a Choreographer.
Choreography on a scene follows the lead of the director and the DOP to work effectively. Good choreography takes into account the camera position, angle, blocking, as well as the action of the cast within the scene.
Something as seemingly small as a child crouching to tie up their shoelace while the lead actor walks backwards in that child’s direction needs to be perfectly timed and well thought out in order for the scene to have the impact that the director is looking for.
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’. So it’s totally normal to have ten similarly blood-stained t-shirts on set for the lead actor to use in a particular scene.
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. It could be camera gear and accessories, lighting, trucks, specialized vehicles, rigs, you name it. 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, and are overseen by the set design department.
Set designers work very closely with production designers. While the two jobs may seem similar, they are, in fact, different. The production designer is responsible for determining the look and feel of the scene, taking into account the director’s wishes and the needs of the scene, while the set designers is responsible to actually bringing the production designers vision to life.
The set design department often comprises of other professionals like carpenters, sculptors, painters, and other construction- and design -type positions. This is especially necessary when creating a set that doesn’t already exist in the real world.
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.
To avoid falling into this trap, you can learn more about cinematography here.
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.