Thomas Edison famously said that genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. Filmmaking can take that idea one step further: a genius movie is 1 percent realization and 99 percent preparation.
Here’s a hard fact: even the most brilliant director cannot possibly record one frame of great film unless she comes to the moment absolutely ready to capture her vision. It’s a trap many have fallen into, from film school students to big budget Hollywood pictures. Too often, the excitement of an idea becomes so intoxicating, the auteur just wants to rush to it as quickly as possible.
And I get that. I’ve been there. You get drunk with your awesome idea. It has to be seen by the world immediately! But getting behind the wheel of your car when you’re drunk is never a good idea. Making a film is a tricky, twisty journey and the last thing you want your awesome vision to do is to swerve off the road, down a cliff, and burst into flames – just like some awful scene from a movie. So, it’s time to sober your brain up, drink some mindfulness coffee, and prepare, prepare, prepare.
This means pre-production. What is pre-production? It’s the process of getting everything you need together to successfully execute your film – before you even start shooting. It’s the weeks and months of the planning, the gathering, the equipping, and the staffing of a project. And every serious production must do it.
Typically, the time to start pre-production is after you’ve crafted your idea from a pitch into a finished screenplay. From there, a lot of things have to come together. Below is a guide for filmmakers to follow. Not every step is always 100% necessary, and you don’t need to follow the order I provided, but using this checklist can help any filmmaker prepare to create anything from a DYI YouTube video to an ad, or even a feature film.
Time to find people who believe in your vision and will commit to bringing their own talents and hard work into the production. If you’re doing this indie style, that may mean friends and family at first, professional colleagues later. And almost always, the first thing you need is a fellow producer, someone who will share the work of organizing the million and one things that need to happen for the film to get made. Besides filling in crucial positions, this first stage of crewing up adds energy to your effort and gives you the confidence to push forward. Often times in indies, each individual can wear many hats. So that actor or DP could also be one of your producers. However you get it together, having partners reaching for the same goal injects life into the project. You have a team now – the game is on!
Next up is making the screenplay come to life with storyboards. Storyboards are illustrated realizations of the screenplay. Looking sort of like a comic book, they’re a crucial visual aid which shows what the edited film will look like, scene by scene, shot by shot. The initial effect for the filmmaker is striking: for the first time, you can actually see what the work you wrote will look like. That’s a hugely invigorating moment. But on a practical level, the storyboard gives creators the ability to share their internal vision externally with cast and crew. Every single function on a film set can be informed by storyboards, from actors and set designers, to cinematographers and even gaffers. It’s the central visual tool which not only reflects the film, but can even change its course. If your screenplay is your guidebook, the storyboard is your roadmap.
Your screenplay has already told the story – but now you have to figure out the logistics. Shot by shot, scene by scene, you must outline as well as you can what will be needed to fulfill the camera image and movement for each cut. In this way, the shot list is a form of pre-editing. Before you hit set, you’ll know what the blocking needs to look like, what order to do camera setups in, and many other necessary details. This will help department heads determine needed crew and equipment and will help you plot a shooting schedule, budget, and more. The shot list, like the storyboard, issues from the creative side of the production, but in effect creates a bridge into the real world equations of actually making the film. Besides helping in pre-production, the shot list should always be on set to help organize production and ensure that every shot the project needs is captured.
The script breakdown is essentially a scene by scene inventory of absolutely everything which will be needed during the production. This includes, but is hardly limited to props, wardrobe, camera & lenses, sound equipment, power source, locations, makeup, crew members, cast, and just absolutely everything you need in front of and behind the camera. You need to be meticulous, no detail should be left uncovered. It’s best not to do this alone if you can avoid it. Gathering department heads to go line item through line item with you makes this process much more efficient. Shared brainstorming will cover items you forgot and bring up opportunities you never even thought of. Take your time with this one. It’s a true lynchpin of pre-production.
Schedules have a profound effect on budgets and resource allocation. If one location appears in different parts of the film, it’ll be far less costly to schedule all of those scenes to be shot in the same block of time. This is called “stacking production” and it makes logistics easier, shoots cheaper, and reduces wear on the production. It’s just one of the many efficiencies a schedule offers. You can plan when to shoot day scenes and when to shoot night scenes. Limited availability of an actor or location can dictate when those scenes are shot – and what scenes should be shot around them. Without a proper schedule, your simple viral video could be spinning around in frustrating circles as shooting becomes redundant and disruptions come with greater frequency. Never skip this step.
This one speaks for itself. You’ve already outlined everything you’re going to need with the previous steps. Now it’s time to attach a dollar amount to each and every budget item. You don’t have to go nuts. You could estimate some parts, like equipment rental fees or transportation. Budgets can always evolve over time (for better or worse), but you need to know what you can reasonably afford and not afford from the start. Use spreadsheets to keep it all straight and adjust as you go. The budget stage can impact a film before it gets started. Scripts can change if budgets won’t allow certain scenes. Production could be delayed as more fundraising needs to happen. Or a surplus will let you get that car chase you wanted in there. Even such tiny expenses can add up. You owe it to yourself to know what resources are truly available to your vision.
Where the storyboard was the fundamental visual guide to the filmmaking process, production design is a far more fleshed out look at what the overall look of the film will be. For example, a funny romantic piece set on a tropical beach is going to feature a lot of sun, vibrant colors, ocean scenes, and swimwear, whereas a Gothic horror short will be using a lot of night shots, high contrast lighting, and graveyards. It helps decide the visual themes of the film and assists every department from wardrobe to makeup and set builders. Production design can help guide location scouts or have a cinematographer select color temperatures to saturate over the piece. If the storyboard was the dynamic comic book, the production design is the static fine painting which captures a mood rather than the flow. Now all of your creative collaborators can augment your vision with their crafts.
By now, you’ve probably got a good chunk of your core team. Producers, department heads, maybe even some actors. Now you have to make sure you have all the crew members your script breakdown requires. That means everybody: grips, electrics, PAs, drivers, prop people, camera operators, boom operators – everybody. Start making calls. See who’s available. Nail them down for the shooting schedule. And make sure they have backup crew who can take their place in case something changes. Trust me, All the planning in the world won’t prevent somebody from not making it, so have contingencies in place and ready to go. You don’t want to be looking for a sound mixer from set at 5:30 AM!
Without actors, you have nothing. You could have written the best script since Casablanca, but without a Bogey and Bergman, it could all have been a big waste. Put out a casting call. Schedule auditions. Get as many people as you can to read for you. Be picky – or as picky as you can be – and seek actors in every corner: schools, ads, the web, through colleagues, whatever it takes. Schedule table readings. Hear how the story sounds out from real human voices. Switch actors up for different roles. Gather an audience of friends and peers to evaluate the work. This will all help you ensure you have the right cast, one that has an ability to impact audience the way you want them to. I will also add what should be obvious – rehearsals. But that should only happen after every aspect of scheduling is locked down.
I personally love this part. There’s a sort of tactile reality to driving around, checking out potential shooting locations against what your storyboard looks like and really standing in those places. The desert at the edge of the mountain. A popular shopping mall. That hometown restaurant with the funky back room. Or even the set you’ll be building in your neighbor’s garage. Now you’re actually stepping onto your own scenes. Negotiate with the owners, try to get the space for a good rate or trade favors. See if you have friends or family who own that hardware store or auto repair shop or horse farm. Or see what fits into your budget. Strike the deal and seal it as best you can, with some kind of deal memo, if possible (see below).
This part is the worst and dreariest part of your journey, filled with thorny legal concerns and expense run-ups. And you know what? A lot of productions do without it. In fact, if you’re planning on just working in your house with friends, using your own equipment, you can skip this whole part. But if you are shooting anywhere in public or on any property you don’t own, or with equipment you don’t own, I highly advise the following:
INSURANCE: Insuring the production protects damage to the equipment and location and covers claims of physical injury to members of the crew. Yes, it costs money, but if you shop around or share insurance with another production, you can save a bit. Burn this into your mind! Being uninsured when something goes wrong can really cost money. Like thousands, tens of thousands, or even more. Many film insurance policies cover up to $1 million. I’d rather pay the fee up front and sleep better. Also: virtually all rental houses will NOT let you use their equipment without insurance.
PERMITS: For just about any public space, you’re going to need permission to shoot, and in most cases, that means securing official permits from local municipalities. Most major cities have film offices that issue them, but in more rural areas, contacting the county seat may be in order. Sure, you don’t need a permit, but then you run the risk of the police shutting down the production. By the way, almost all permits require proof of insurance (see above).
DEAL MEMOS: Deal Memos are essentially short contracts. You don’t really need these unless you’re paying people, or you’re worried cast and crew will make claims later. I’ve never used them for indie filmmaking, but if you start spending more money than expected, this is an easy way to keep terms of service and payments straight.
WAIVERS: Any time anyone appears in a film, or any trademarked image makes it on screen, you technically need people’s permission to have those images used. Getting a signed waiver saves a lot of worry. In a documentary, this is especially important – as you don’t want interviewees to suddenly have their attorneys send you a cease and desist letter. As for trademarks, avoid filming them whenever possible, but if you’re in some local business and get a store sign in there, getting a quick waiver signed by the owners can save you trouble down the road.
Ready to beg, borrow and steal? Professional film equipment is expensive stuff. If you’re just shooting something off your mobile device for a Periscope session, that’s one thing. But if you want to make something that screams of professionalism, you need serious cameras, sound recording equipment, film lights, sandbags, electric cable, and so much more. Start comparing rental houses for prices. See if your crew can bring their own equipment (they’ll often give you a deal combining services and rental fees). Maybe you can buy used stuff cheap and recoup costs renting it out later yourself. Whatever it is you’ll need, get it all lined up, don’t wait for the last minute. And as always, have contingencies waiting in the wings.
You’re just about ready to shoot your masterpiece. Now you have to make sure the final superficial touches are in place. Obviously, wardrobe communicates a lot about a character. Try and have multiple sets of clothes for each of the main cast. Things get dirty, scene changes may call for altered versions such as tears or stains. Wardrobe needs to be cared for and kept in just the right state so shots done at different times don’t lose continuity. Then there are the props. Think of props as anything on set that isn’t clothes or part of the architecture or environment. Some examples: cars, Frisbees, food, guns, baseball bats, TV sets, a box of tissues – anything not nailed down that isn’t being worn. Those are props. A simple lunch scene will need hamburgers, soda cans, ketchup bottles, napkins, a salt shaker, and maybe 10 other items. That’s a lot of inventory. Make a list, make sure every item is accessible and organized. Try not to buy props if you don’t have to. Borrow from friends, from your own house, go to the Goodwill – get creative. And make sure all the stuff you need is ready to roll.
A final word on this pre-production checklist. There’s always more prep you can do, and I encourage you to do a lot of it. But at some point, all that needs to be let go. You have to find a way to be comfortable in the balance between your vision and your resources. It’s OK to sacrifice a scene or rewrite dialogue to fill an added, unforeseen location. These sort of choices and countless others come up for everyone from the home movie maker to JJ Abrams. It’s all good: limitations can create great art, too. At some point, stop with the prep, let go, and move forward. Trust your vision to some degree. Too much preparation can make the creation rigid. The right amount of pre-production can give an auteur the time and space to improvise as she goes, and perhaps discover many happy accidents that make the original idea that much better.
Argentinean-born New Yorker Miguel Cima is a veteran of the film, television, and music industries. An accomplished writer, filmmaker, and comic book creator, Miguel's movie, Dig Comics, won Best Documentary at the San Diego Comic Con and was selected for Cannes. He has worked for Warner Bros. Records, Dreamworks, MTV, and more. Currently, Miguel creates content for multiple platforms and media. His formal education came from New York University, where he earned a BFA in film. World traveler, culture junkie and major foodie, he is happily unmarried to the same gal since the mid 2000s, devoted to his family & friends, and slavishly serves his true masters - two dogs and a cat.