How a Pre-Production Checklist Can Help Your Production
Filmmaking is a puzzle. Let’s examine what a pre-production checklist might look like for a low-budget, narrative short film.
Unless you’re Terrence Malick, the pre-production process will most likely play a very important role in your filmmaking endeavor. Without proper pre-production, you won’t be able to answer the myriad questions that come your way on shoot day. These will come from the DP, actors, and any other crew members that may become confused by a lack of planning.
While it’s an important step, pre-production is naturally different for every film. Many factors help shape the stages of the process, including the type of project, the budget, the size of the crew, etc. For example, the pre-production steps on a film shot on location is going to look vastly different from a production shot primarily on a sound stage.
For this reason, it’s important to create a checklist to make sure you’re not missing anything. You want to have answers ready when your crew asks where to stage equipment, where to park, or where they can go to the bathroom.
While I’ve tried to put this checklist in chronological order, many of these steps are ongoing and will overlap. Some steps might not apply to your particular project, so customize according to your specific needs.
Write the Script
Naturally, a good place to start is with a script. If you didn’t already write one yourself, find someone who did and ask to collaborate. Or, you can go the Drake Doremus route and improvise your way through production with a loose outline. Just be ready to give your actors something to work with.
Break Down the Script
To really understand the script, you’ll want to break it down into the various production elements. These include cast members, props, sound, and anything else you’ll need to think about before heading out to shoot. The script breakdown will guide the creation of a shot list and shooting schedule.
Create a Look Book
As the name implies, the look book captures the overall tone and feel of your film. This can be very loose, with nothing more than a few pictures. Or, you can throw in everything you can think of, including a log line, synopsis, storyboards, camera preferences, and cast and crew bios.
This particular step can start as soon as you have your script and look book prepared. Whether you’re crowdfunding or applying for grants, the more information you have to show, the better. Be aware that grants are available for all steps of the filmmaking process, so you might constantly find yourself in the fundraising stage.
Make a Distribution Plan
If you plan on applying for grants or asking for money from investors, many of these folks will want to know your distribution plans. Will it be as simple as a film festival run? Do you have money in the budget to distribute it digitally? It’s good to ask yourself these questions early on.
Research Your Dream Crew
Watch demo reels, check out headshots, and ask for résumés. From the cinematographer to the actors, assemble a list of local cast and crew with which you’d like to work. If you’re feeling lucky, put together a dream-team list where budget isn’t a factor.
Create a Preliminary Budget
To create a preliminary budget, you can simply reach out to prospective crew members and inquire about their rates. With the script and look book complete, this is a good opportunity to see if you can set up a meeting to actually pitch your idea, which will help get people on board.
Attach Key Crew Members
Again, creating a preliminary budget can work in parallel with attaching key crew members. Simply bring your script and look book, and pitch away. Be transparent about the funding of your project and how they’ll be paid. In a perfect world, you can scoop up several key team members (like a producer) that will help get some momentum behind your project.
Scout the Locations
When scouting locations, bring as many department heads/crew members as you can. The cinematographer will want to know where the sunlight is coming from, your producer will want to know where cast and crew will park and use the bathroom, and your sound engineer will want to listen for trains, planes, automobiles, and construction sites. Snap some pictures and put them in your look book.
Write a Storyboard/Shot List
With a cinematographer on board, you can now tackle storyboarding and shot listing. Use the script, look book, and your team’s expertise to map out the visual language of your film. Remember that you can rewrite your film several times throughout the process, including on-set with cinematography and in-post via editing.
Cast the Film
If you can afford a casting director, get one. A casting director might be able to land you a well-known actor, which can bring so much extra to your film — including a possible audience. And as you know, actors like to work with other good actors. If you can nab just one known actor, you never know how far the project will go.
With the cast in place, gather everyone together for a table read. Make sure you schedule time for rehearsal on the day of the shoot, or maybe even the day prior. You can always film the rehearsal, as many actors will bust out their best material on the first go. Or, if you have Robert Pattinson on set, you might skip the rehearsals all together in favor of spontaneity.
Schedule Your Shoot
You’re almost there. With the cast and crew ready to go, and all of the script elements in place, it’s time to schedule the shoot days. If you did a good job breaking down the script, this step should be relatively straightforward. You’ll be able to see which actors you need on any particular day, and you can group scenes by location to streamline the shoot.
Permits and Insurance
Now that you have the shoot dates in place, it’s time to apply for the proper permits. This step should go hand-in-hand with scheduling the shoot dates. Check out the steps to secure a permit, which will generally require insurance. If you have a small enough crew, you might be able to get away with shooting for free.
If you’ve completed all of the steps above — and you’re not totally exhausted and/or broke — then you just might be ready to get out there and shoot something. Good luck!
Looking or more tips and tricks for your production? Check these out.