There is an old saying in the business world that goes, "Poor prior planning leads to particularly poor programs." This is especially true in the video industry.
If you go out into the field or studio without a plan for your shoot, you will end up wasting a great deal of time deciding what you want to do. In this industry, as in others, time is money. It is much more cost-effective to make your shooting decisions sitting at home alone or with a small pre-production team than to make those decisions on location while the cast and crew wait for you to make up your mind.
Why and Who
The first place to start in planning your shoot is with a look at the purpose of the video and the intended audience. Knowing why you are shooting your footage, as well as the audience for which you are shooting, is very important when planning your shoot.
For a promotional video, you have to decide what shots will best show the wonderful assets of the organization or location. If you are trying to persuade an audience, identify those shots that will best support your point of view. For instance, if shooting a fundraising piece for a new facility, you would want images of the facility looking its worst, showing worn-out equipment and using a telephoto lens to make the rooms look smaller and the spaces cramped. For showing an audience how to weld, you would have to include the equipment setup, safety features and procedures, prepping the materials and the welding process itself in a step-by-step process.
Knowing the purpose of the video will also help you plan for special equipment you may need. Do you want smooth-moving shots that need a dolly? Maybe you'll need several cameras to catch one-of-a-kind actions from multiple angles. Walk your client through the purpose of your video, so that very little catches you by surprise on location.
Knowing your audience is also very important when planning your shoot. If youre shooting for a younger audience weaned on MTV, you will need to make your camera movements quicker and less fluid, with perhaps moving angles and more camera movement than for productions for an older audience. This doesn't mean you go out and shoot handheld grungy video just because you are shooting for a younger audience. You can still shoot with a plan, a tripod and a purpose; you just need to be willing to move away from conventional steady video and maneuver the camera on your tripod in a more seemingly haphazard way. Really good haphazard shooting that emphasizes the message you're trying to send is done with a great deal of planning, superb camera control and, above all else, a plan.
Where and When
One of the best ways to prepare for a video shoot is to do a location scout. Evaluate your location to determine if there will be any problems and to see if the location fits your needs - not only aesthetically but also physically. On your location scout, determine power availability (do you have enough for all of your lights, camera, etc.?); parking for the crew, cast and client; access to location (are you going to be lugging equipment up five floors because the elevator is out!); restrooms; food (a fed crew is a happy crew!); and water. Make sure you visit the location at the same time of day that you will be shooting. This will let you accurately evaluate noise levels coming from both inside and out (are you on a major flight path or ambulance route? Is there a big barking dog nearby?); traffic (is the traffic noise especially heavy at that time of day?); and light (will you have sun coming through the windows?). You will also have to figure out how weather will affect the location.
What and How
Now that you know why and for whom the project will be shot, as well as where and when, you need to concentrate on what to shoot and how to plan that shoot. Most people jump into these areas first, but they are actually the last steps in the planning process.
If you've done a good job with the who and why part of the production plan, what to shoot is totally determined by your script - the blueprint for the production. If you dont have a script, you will need to go back to the who and why part of the plan, and take a hard look at the what that will satisfy the reason for your production. Shooting a production without a script is much like building a house without a set of blueprints. You get the whole thing built, only to find that you cant get into the bathroom because you forgot to plan for a door.
The best way to determine the what is to make a comprehensive list of everything you want to see and hear in the video. This list will eventually become a shot list, but you have to do a few things to it before it becomes final. This is where the how comes in. Making a huge shot list will not be very helpful if you end up shooting various parts of it at different locations and at different times. The large list of shots and sounds is just the beginning. You then break it down into locations and a shooting schedule.
When creating a shooting schedule, you have to take into account a number of parameters that will help you create the most efficient schedule that will save you time and money.
In order of priority, you first plan your schedule around locations: schedule the hard-to-get-locations before filling out the rest of the schedule. This doesnt mean they have to be the first shots, just the first to be scheduled. You also want to consider travel time and ease of access - combining a number of close locations on the same day, etc.
The second priority is cast member or other talent availability. Again, this does not mean you have to begin when they are available; you just have to make sure the schedule works around their availability. It is very important to have both a location and talent standing by if there are cancellations or changes due to location availability or weather. Always schedule your exteriors towards the beginning of your schedule, so that, if it rains, you can catch up later. Again, you will want to have an interior shoot location standing by, just in case Mother Nature becomes a bit of a pain. Any time you schedule a shoot at night, you have to have plenty of rest time for your crew. As you go through your plan, try to schedule around all of the previous parameters first, but then add sequential shooting to the mix to keep everyone on the same page.
If you use children, you have to schedule around them. Child actors have very strict rules on their education, time on the set, shooting conditions and time available. You also must schedule around the child's parent or guardian.
You also have to schedule around time of day, time of year, special events, special equipment, stunts and other one-of-a-kind problems. Aim to plan the shortest shoot schedule possible, especially if you have to rent equipment and pay crews and actors. Remember the weekends! Renting equipment on the weekends gives you three days of use for the price of one.
Once you have your schedule, write up your shot list, including all of the coverage you will need for each shot. Coverage includes all of the different angles and shot sizes you may want of each action. Dont forget the cutaways! Plan them in by making a list of possible cutaways found at each location. The more specific your shot list, the easier it will be when you get on location.
Remember: Plan Your Shoot and Shoot Your Plan!
In scuba training, they teach you to plan your dive and dive your plan. Even what seems like a simple diversion from your dive plan could have deadly consequences! Planning your shoot and then shooting the plan may not save lives, but it will definitely save time and money.
Dr. Robert G. Nulph teaches college-level video and film production and is an independent video/film director.