What is Pre-Production?

I cringe every time I hear a new filmmaker say: “The script is ready. I’m planning to shoot next month.”

It’s like buying a pair of running shoes and hoping you’ll win an Olympic medal, except you’ve never set foot in an athletic event. Or, if you prefer to stick to our industry, it’s like saying: “I’m making this super-cool movie that’ll win every award on the planet. Which camera do I get to make it happen?”

Every production, from the simplest web video to the most complicated blockbuster, has to have the following stages:

  • Pre-production (also called Prep or Preproduction)
  • Production (the shooting part)
  • Post Production (also called Post)

 
In this article we’ll look at what pre-production is, and why it is more important than production or post production.

Pre-production is like dominoes
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When do you do Pre-production?

I know this is a weird question, but you’ll appreciate its importance when you hear the answer:

You should complete all the tasks under the Pre-production (or Prep) stage BEFORE you commence production and/or post production.

What? Am I pulling your leg? Didn’t you know that already? Of course you do. Yet, even many experienced professionals fail to complete all the tasks associated with pre-production before production.

They might put off casting minor roles, confirming locations, planning their shot-lists or schedules, or any of the myriad decisions that need to happen before the first day of shooting. Stick around for five minutes in this industry, and you’re bound to hear the words: “We’ll deal with it on set.” This is worse than: “We’ll deal with it in post.”

Sidney Lumet mentions in his seminal book Making Movies: There are no small decisions in movie making.

Yet, even those who should know better gamble with the small decisions, either putting it off, or taking them for granted. Eventually, you have to deal with these tasks. Do you really want to deal with them during production, when there are a whole other set of problems to confront?

Those who neglect to fulfill all the tasks in pre-production risk scrambling to complete them in production, and therefore waste valuable time, resources, money and respect.

What is Pre-production?

Pre-production is that stage where you plan, procure, arrange, organize, discuss, finalize, rehearse, scout, negotiate, schedule, budget, cast, manage, meet, rig and prepare. For what?

Let’s learn pre-production with an analogy: Cooking. Here’s a side-by-side comparison:

CookingPre-production
Getting a recipe off the internet or from a friendGetting a ‘locked’ screenplay
Looking around for the ingredients, finding bargainsInterviewing the crew
Finding the key ingredientsAuditioning
Set up the kitchen and workspaceScout locations
Collect the tools and utensilsDecide and arrange for gear
If you don’t have the right tools, it’s back to the drawing boardRework the script
Prepare a shopping listBudget
Write the recipe downSchedule
Finalize the recipePrepare the shooting script
Shop for ingredientsFinalize cast and crew
Ingredients not available?Redo interviews or conduct more auditions
Shop for ingredientsRinse and repeat, sign contracts
Bring everything to the kitchen tableLogistics
Get the tools and utensils in orderProject Management
CookShoot

Producing a video is a complicated affair. You can’t play with other peoples’ time or money, and there’s always tremendous pressure to deliver every single day. The point of the above simplistic comparison is to show that cooking does not begin when you put your ingredients in the oven. Cooking begins a whole lot earlier.

In fact, if you don’t know anything about cooking, then why do you have a kitchen in the first place? It sounds funny, but it really isn’t, I’m sorry to say. Too many newcomers ‘invest’ in cameras and lenses, and all the fancy stuff they see in magazines and websites; but don’t see that these are just small parts of the larger whole.

“If I could only get hands on that camera and that lens, I’ve got it made!” Yeah, right. If it were that easy, everyone would be doing it. Guess what? Everyone is doing it. They’re all making the same mistakes!

It’s not entirely the newcomer’s fault, by the way. It’s like entering a crappy hotel. If the foyer is pretty, you can be forgiven into thinking everything else will have the same level of ‘prettiness’. Any aspiring filmmaker has access to gear reviews and magazines at the click of a search button. If you’re reading marketing material right now, and drooling over that silhouette of a new camera you know nothing about, then consider this: When was the last time marketing ever pointed at something bad?

Where are the magazines dedicated to the boring and mundane stuff? They should have a union for ‘Hard workers’ but they don’t. They are too busy working hard.

There’s something I’ve left out in the above example. You need to know how many people you’re cooking for, and what their tastes are. Many independent filmmakers sleep through this step, and only wake up when no distributor returns their emails.

Cooking

Why is Pre-production the most important stage of ANY production?

In cooking, the failure of a single ingredient or step can destroy the final dish. At best, what you get at the end is edible but not perfect.

But don’t kid yourself. Small mistakes are reserved for chefs. Amateurs make many mistakes, the effects of which are compounded.

Pre-production is critically important because it is the cheapest part of any production. You have the time to move slowly if you wish, and all you’re losing is time. You have the time to carefully weigh your options, meet as many people as you like, speak to distributors, festival organizers, producers, and many other people who might be the difference between a forgotten movie and a profitable movie.

If you’re so concerned about losing time, remember this: No movie ever suffered from being shot a few months later. If at all, the misguided filmmakers might have started their pre-production a few months later. Most people fix their production dates before they have calculated their prep time! Whatever time’s left between then and today becomes the prep time.

Look at my analogy again, and carefully estimate why and how it pays to move slowly (as slow as possible without standing still or lazying around). You build momentum from the moment the script is locked all the way to the end of production. If you’re blowing full steam at the beginning, you’ll burn out mid-way during production.

By now you should have a clear understanding of what pre-production is. In The Different Stages of Pre-production, I’ll enumerate the various stages involved, with details of what each stage entails.

I hope you realize how important pre-production is. If you rush through it, you are planning to fail. Resist every temptation to do so.

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