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First Time Filmmakers: 5 Things To Do Before Shooting Your Film

Noam Kroll

As independent directors, we have a lot on our minds before starting a shoot. While most of us typically want to focus on the creative, there are other ways to prepare that can be just as important.

If you’re getting ready for your first film shoot, or haven’t shot in a while, this list is for you. Here are 5 essential tips and reminders on what to do during they days leading up to your film or video shoot:

1. Script Breakdown and Shot List

Screenplay Shotlist

Unless you have a very particular shooting style, you’re not going to be shooting your script in sequence, which means your script breakdown is critical in order to keep your production flowing well and as organized as possible. By now, you’ve probably given some thought to what scenes will be filmed when (or if you haven’t you need to get on that right away!).

It’s also really important to make sure you’ve listed out everything needed for the production of your scenes (cast, costumes, props, etc.) onto your breakdown sheet. You’ll use this a means of documenting all the important items you need from the various crew members you’ve employed to assist you on set that day, and it will allow you to efficiently communicate the logistics with your crew. You might feel that you can get away without this step, but I assure you that you can’t! The smallest prop that you forget to bring to set could waste an entire day on troubleshooting, so make sure that you are thorough.

Remember that ‘he who fails to plan, plans to fail’. This old saying couldn’t be more true when it comes to preparing for your shoot (and specifically getting your shot list in order), which is one of the best ways to keep your shoot as organized as possible. Simply put, your shots should be dictated by the action that is happening within a given scene, and how best to capture that action to tell your story authentically.

You as the Director, and your Director of Photography, absolutely must sit down and decide what kind of shots (and how many) will be necessary to effectively represent the text in your script, from a visual perspective. Remember that the more time you take at this stage, the better your final film will end up looking. You might think you have it all in your head, but when you get to set, problems will start to arise that could have been nipped in the bud if you had planned appropriately. The impact of these decisions will transcend you and your DP, and will help your crew prepare all the necessary equipment, actors, props and determine how best to use your location. So be sure to share your shotlist with anyone and everyone necessary.

Confirm Your Cast and Crew

Sounds simple, right? And maybe it is, but you wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve been on set when a cast member showed up late (or didn’t show up at all) because they didn’t get the memo. Perhaps you’ve been in pre-production for a few months, or a few weeks, and some time has passed since you last sent your shoot details to the cast and crew. You absolutely can not rely on your entire cast and crew to remember the details of your shoot as intimately as you will. They are surely passionate about your project, but let’s face it – on a small scale production, your crew is likely juggling many other projects as well meaning that unlike you, they aren’t solely focused on your project. Not to mention, your cast at this level of production is probably not dealing with an agent or manager to keep their schedules in check.

Just take the time that you need to reach out to your cast and crew as much as you need to, so that they actually show up to set. The best way to do this is with a call sheet, but if for some reason you can’t get one out in time, a phone call or e-mail will suffice, as the last thing you want when you arrive on set is to have any surprises (though, you can count on those too).

Gear Check

Equipment For Set

One of the most exciting aspects for amateur and seasoned filmmakers alike, is choosing the camera you will shoot your project on and accessorizing it with all the necessary gear and equipment that you might need. From lighting and lenses, to tripods and rigs – there is no shortage of things to consider and account for a day prior to shooting.

With that said, do yourself a favor and make sure you have absolutely everything you need to get the job done properly, from the smallest items (like allen keys and memory cards) to the bigger items (like lenses, filters, rig components, etc.). Try itemizing these things a day prior and not the day of, to avoid unnecessary stress and anxiety. From my experience, it’s nearly always the smaller items that get left behind (specifically memory cards), so be sure to make a checklist before hand and go over it twice before your shoot. On my first feature film I had forgotten the RED Mags at my apartment and only realized when I was 3 hours away, already on set. I learned my lesson the hard way, but you don’t need to!

Food! Food! Food!

Food on set

If you’re not hiring craft services for your indie film, there’s a good chance this is just another task you’ll have to take care of yourself; and relative to all the other things you’ve had to consider it may seem like the easiest or least important item on your list of to-do’s. The truth is though, it is one of the most important things to focus on for a number of reasons. First, if you aren’t feeding your cast and crew well – they are not going to be happy. The least you can do for them is make sure they have meals ready for them throughout the day, especially considering the fact that much of your cast and crew is likely donating their time. And when you haven’t prepared properly, one of the biggest time sucks will be when you need to figure out which food to order at the last second.

Be sure to make your meals a priority, and start by taking note of dietary needs or restrictions any one on your cast and crew may have. Once you know your options in that regard, all that’s left to do is buy (or whip up) the food yourself. Also make sure that you decide early on whether you will in fact buy everyone food or prepare it yourself. Making the food yourself is great but when you’re dealing with a crew of 10 or more, it can be a lot of work! So make sure you’re aware of the time it may take. Planning ahead for these things can save you time, money, and aggravation, not to mention that you will literally see a difference on screen in your final product when your cast and crew actually have energy and motivation to keep pushing on.

Mental Prep

Whether this is your first film or you’ve done too many to count, the angst you feel leading up to production doesn’t seem to go away with time or experience. This is very likely because ‘everything that can go wrong, will go wrong’ on set, and those of us that have been on set many times know just how true this is.

That said, the amount of anxiety you feel about your production is often directly related to how prepared you are, or at least how prepared you feel that you are. You should be able to mitigate this anxiety by making sure everything on our list of to-do’s has been addressed. Creating lists to get your thoughts down on paper is half the battle. Checking those items off the list is the other half. The truth is, the less you are doing, the more time you have to think, and the more you become vulnerable to your anxieties – so don’t waste time over-thinking and over-analyzing. Just get to work and do what needs to be done and the anxiety will subside. The good news is once you get through the prep stages and you actually get on set and get the first shot in the can, you’ll feel nothing but energy.

Final Thoughts

Ironically, as much as we as filmmakers can be hyper focused on the creative process (and not focused on organization and structure), it’s really only when we do place an emphasis on being organized that our creative vision can thrive. You need to spend as much possible time on set working with your actors, your DP, and focusing on the creative tasks at hand. In order to do that though, you need to get a lot of the organizational details out of the way first. You can either choose to do them on your own time, before you get to set, or you can choose to ignore them and deal with them on set when you should be focusing on directing, not ordering lunch.

These 5 points are really just the tip of the iceberg. Make sure that you do anything and everything you can to be prepared and you will leave as much time open for yourself to be creative on set, when it really matters.