“There are no rules in filmmaking. Only sins.”
When the late director Frank Capra said this, he was referring specifically to the quote-unquote sin of dullness — in a film’s plot line, the performance on-screen, and production as a whole.
But if that’s a cardinal sin, neglecting or mishandling the pre-production process is certainly one as well.
Whether you work in film or video production, the time and budget available to you is usually inflexible. It’s up to you to make the most out of what you have for planning, filming, and editing each new project.
Without pre-production planning, the entire production has no foundation. Filming locations aren’t booked, shot lists aren’t created, and the talent isn’t hired.
Mishandle pre-production, and your crew isn’t as prepared as they should be to do their best work or make quick adjustments when production issues happen.
What you do at this stage impacts everything else. Depending on your approach, production and post-production will either go smoothly, or it won’t. It’s as simple as that.
That’s why it’s so important to establish a good pre-production process now, not later.
Refining your pre-production protocol
Once you’ve settled into a good pre-production routine, it’s only natural to stick with it. Why should you try to fix something that isn’t broken, right?
Well, the only trouble with this rationale is that you risk closing yourself off to new and improved processes. You start to forget that there’s always room for improvement — regardless of how streamlined you think your current workflow is.
Because, when you really break it down, a career in film and video production is one continuous learning curve.
To refine your pre-production protocol, the first thing you need to do is take a good long look at your team’s dynamic.
Does everyone on your team have what they need to do their job? Is your DP on the same page as the producers and director? Are there any communication gaps?
In a small team, fewer people take on more responsibility, but communication is easier. In a large team, the responsibilities are evenly distributed, but it’s harder to keep everyone on the same page.
So before you do anything else, check in with your team to make sure that you’re able to recognize and remedy any major blindspots when it comes to pre-production.
Think of this blog as a step-by-step guide for helping you do that.
1. Be more detailed in the treatment
The end-all-be-all of pre-production is the treatment.
This master document outlines everything from your project’s concept and tone to the aesthetic choices you want to make to what animation and VFX you need. Do you need to invest in green screen lighting? Book travel for talent? Schedule out extra days of post-production to pull it all together?
The treatment is the go-to resource for everyone on your team and a high-level reference for all of the decisions that will be made going forward.
In the video above, we share everything we include when writing treatments for music video productions and why. Things like casting references, mood boards, and reference pictures help your team bring everything to life during production.
If you notice that your cast and crew ask the same types of questions from one project to the next, this is a sign that you should expand your treatment and add more information about your vision for the project.
To save yourself from fielding tons of questions all the time, write a detailed treatment that your team can refer back to anytime.
2. Look at the budget (and where you can spend it)
The treatment outlines the direction for your film or project and gives your team more structure during pre-production. But the budget is what you rely on to decide what is and isn’t actually possible.
This early stage of pre-production is where you weigh your options, sort out your priorities, and then decide how much money will go toward the location, gear, and talent.
Maybe the treatment calls for multiple locations with a very specific look — i.e., a house full of windows, a massive warehouse, etc. — and booking the right locations is priority number one.
Maybe you’re planning to film two music videos and can actually save more time and money by booking one location for both shoots.
Visuals and aesthetics matter, but before you invest half of your budget in locations, consider your alternatives. It may be possible to make a little go a long way and create different set designs for the same location.
Investing in gear
The second major expense for any production is the gear. We’re talking lighting equipment, camera rigs and stabilizers, and audio equipment.
Pre-production is the time when you create and fine-tune shot lists and lighting overheads, but before you can do that, you have to know what gear is available to you.
And here’s why: If you plan on capturing footage with a drone, dolly, or other piece of equipment that you don’t have and can’t afford, your camera operators will be scrambling last-minute to find the best alternative.
Ultimately, you have to make due with the gear that you have access to. And if you can’t purchase new or used gear, you always have the option to rent the gear or use stock video and audio instead. (Here’s a resource to help you do just that.)
The casting process takes up a lot of time and budget during pre-production. It’s something that you want and need to get right, so the pressure is on immediately.
For every team regardless of the type of production, casting starts with the treatment.
Here’s an example of what we mean.
When scouting out talent for this GLASWING music video, our creative team’s producer connected with many different people in search of nine unique talents.
Because there was choreography involved, our casting requirements became more specific: Not only did we need to hire nine people, we needed nine people who were comfortable moving and able to do it well on camera.
Casting looks different for every team on different productions — it really depends on what the project is, how many actors are involved, what the casting requirements are, etc.
If we had decided to go an entirely new direction with the treatment or budget, our priorities during casting would have shifted. And the music video would look very different.
3. Leverage templates to your advantage
One of the best ways to improve your pre-production process is to take advantage of the free resources available to you.
By using templates as a base for essential pre-production documents (i.e., shot lists, storyboards, call sheets, etc.), you don’t have to repeatedly make new documents from scratch for every production.
It’s a simple and effective way to save time and organize all of the information your team needs in the right places.
If you want to streamline your workflow by using templates, here are a few resources worth checking out and also free to download:
4. Plan the audio setup
Sound techs don’t just show up out of the blue or in the final hour leading up to filming. They need to hit the ground running when production starts, which is why it's so important to set aside time to plan the audio setup in pre-production.
In the video above, Soundstripe’s very own mix engineer Ken Baumann breaks down the proactive steps he takes to get the best audio quality during production. Here’s the main takeaway:
Anytime you plan on recording live audio and mixing it in real-time, you’ll need to make an input list during pre-production. Essentially, this list details what needs to be plugged in at every filming location.
This allows you to label every piece of audio equipment you have and make it easier for your team to set up all of the audio equipment as soon as they arrive on set.
5. Expect the unexpected
Despite your best efforts, it’s inevitable that things will go wrong during production at one point or another. And that’s true even when you put in the work to keep everyone on your team informed and on the right track.
When a last-minute issue occurs, all of your planning doesn’t immediately go out the window (though it might feel like it). What matters in these moments is that your team can adapt quickly and work out a solution.
It takes time and a fair amount of trial-and-error, but gradually, your team will continue getting better at dealing with the unexpected.
That's a wrap
For some people, it’s easy to underestimate the importance of pre-production and assume that everything worthwhile happens after a director calls “Action!”
But that’s not the case for you.
As someone involved in the production process, you know that filmmaking and all other types of video production are only possible because of the work that goes into pre-production.
No matter how great your process already is, make sure that you’re not closing yourself off to new ways of improving your pre-production workflow.
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