Production planning and why it’s essential

Even the simplest program depends on planning. Last time, we talked about getting your act together by developing the content of a new video project. Now let’s cover taking it on the road by planning the production. Production planning can be so complex that Hollywood production companies devote whole departments to it; but you can cover the essentials by wrangling just five elements: people, places, things, plans and budgets.


People means cast and crew. Finding and managing them is worth an article in itself so let’s focus on the most difficult problem with amateur (unpaid) helpers: loyalty and responsibility.
You may be passionately devoted to your project but face it, your friends are only in it for some fun and a bit of ego gratification. Sometimes they seem willing to show up and work only when they’ve nothing better to do. “I can’t come Saturday; I have a golf date.” “I can only stay an hour today.” “Sorry I didn’t show yesterday; something important came up.” If a crew member finks out, you can probably cover the job somehow; if cast members don’t show up, you might just as well quit for the day.
To improve their reliability, you need to pay your people – not in money (dream on) but in a little Tender Loving Care. Briefly:


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  • Stress their importance to the production. With actors, especially, explain that if they don’t show, everybody else’s effort is wasted, because you can’t shoot anything.
  • Take them seriously. Pay honest attention to co-workers’ ideas. People want to feel that they’re contributing, and, who knows, some of their suggestions may be good ones.
  • Acknowledge and praise their work. This is especially true with crew members, whose contributions are not as visible as the performers’.
  • Give them ownership. Even if you yourself are doing more jobs than Orson Welles, stress the collaborative nature of the project and make your colleagues feel like indispensable contributors.
  • Put their names on the screen. Everyone likes credits – the more the better. Though you can only promise this before post production starts, your people will believe you.
    To prop up flagging spirits, try this ploy: compile a rough cut of your show progressively as you shoot, including the front and end credits. Then show the cut to everyone at the start of each shooting session. Those credits will remind everyone that their names will soon be known around the world (well, around several city blocks, anyway). Also, seeing the production grow toward completion reassures volunteers that their efforts will pay off.


    Places usually means locations, and when you scout them prior to production, look for several things. First, find out who’s in charge and establish friendly relations. People such as building superintendents, security personnel and custodians can facilitate your production or put obstacles in its way, depending on their attitude.
    Next, check the facilities. Is there power for lights? Is there a lockable room for valuable equipment? How about a comfortable space for cast and crew to dress, apply makeup and hang out between setups?
    Don’t forget creature comforts, meaning food, rest rooms and parking. If you can’t afford more than a box of Krispy Kremes, is there a fast food place close by? If you’re out in the boonies all day, can you at least field a porta-potty and a blue tarp enclosure or tent? As for parking, nothing develops a bad staff attitude like a half mile shlep between their car and the location.
    In addition to power, look for other video requirements. Is there too much contrast or too little light? Does the nuclear power plant in the background ruin the feeling of trackless desert? Notice these problems in advance and prepare to overcome (or evade) them.
    The same is true of audio. Even if you have access to a professional dubbing facility, you need to get good quality audio tracks. How bad is the traffic noise? Will heating, air conditioning or interior motors louse up your sound track? By checking beforehand, you can select microphones and plan setups that minimize problems.


    There’s almost nothing worse than setting up at a distant location, only to find that someone’s forgotten a prop or costume or an extra battery – maybe even blank tape. To avoid this, you need to wrangle all your stuff by completing a three-step process: obtain it, check it, list it.
    Make sure you’ve assembled all your camera equipment, including nuisance items like tripod quick-release components. How about special rental items like tele-extenders or a few extra movie lights?
    Costumes can be a real hassle. Start by having cast members bring a few alternative outfits so that you can coordinate styles and colors. Then, if possible, keep the costumes. That way, you don’t care if your star won’t show up in blue jeans on one day and shorts on the next.
    Do the same thing with props: obtain the oil lamp, the shotgun and the deed to the farm well in advance and then hold on to them.
    Don’t forget releases and permissions. Each performer should sign a talent release and each owner should execute a permission form for shooting on his or her property.
    When you’ve assembled production equipment, costumes, props, etc., check every item to see that it’s working. For instance, discharge and recharge all your batteries, to get the longest possible life out of each. Record and screen a short test shot on each blank tape (defective ones are very rare, but I’ve run in to them).
    Finally, inventory each type of item to create lists you can use before you head out to shoot. This won’t eliminate omissions (Murphy’s Law will see to that) but it will minimize them. Obtain your stuff, check it out and write a list.


    The biggest part of planning is scheduling. Romeo has a scene with Juliet and she has another scene with the Nurse; you can only get the vintage Ferrari on Tuesday; the robbery takes place at night – you get the idea. Most often, the easiest way to schedule is by grouping by place, personnel, props (things) and (if you’re outdoors) conditions.
    Generally, it’s easiest to shoot everything that happens in one location at the same time. That way, you have to transport cast, crew, equipment, etc. to that place only once.
    Next, schedule your performers. Schedule Romeo and Juliet to shoot their scene at 9 a.m.; then schedule the Nurse for noon to shoot with Juliet and let Romeo go for the day. That way, the nurse doesn’t waste a whole morning waiting and Romeo doesn’t lose the whole afternoon.
    You may have to organize by special props or locations. For instance, if you can shoot in the store only after it closes, you may need to return on several nights to complete your scenes there. That Ferrari costs $500 per day to rent and it’s used in three places. To control rental costs, you may have to schedule those three locations on one day, even though you may also be shooting there at other times.
    Finally, outdoor conditions may drive your scheduling, especially night scenes. Though shooting day-for-night is fairly simple (see Hollywood’s Dark Secret: Shooting Day for Night, July 2001 Videomaker, for how to do it), night-for-day requires more lighting expertise – not to mention beaucoup lights and the power to heat them up.
    Many exteriors look best at Magic Hour, that time before twilight when long shadows, clear air and warm colors lend images a special glow. In scheduling to shoot then, you’ll want to budget time beforehand for rehearsing several setups at once. That way, you can move quickly from one to the next while your natural light lasts.


    The last big pre-production item is the budget. (“Big deal,” you say. “How hard could it be to allocate 25 bucks?”) On the contrary, the smaller the money pot, the more carefully you need to pre-plan your expenditures.
    For instance, you should never have written that Ferrari into your script without checking its rental rate and verifying that you have the dough to cover it. Tape costs and special equipment rentals are obvious budget items, but don’t forget makeup and costumes you may have to buy.
    Finally, never start shooting without a contingency fund: a stash of emergency money to pay for unexpected expenses and generally thwart Murphy. How much should you allocate? If you’re shooting a training film in a company office, you shouldn’t need much. If your script requires bright sunshine in Seattle, you’ll need a hefty reserve. Even on bare-bones personal projects, $25 to $50 can provide a comforting hedge against the unexpected.
    If you discipline yourself to do solid production planning, you’ll have a much better chance of completing a smooth, hassle-free production. Of course, there’s always that old joke about the P.A. announcement on the crew-less, fully automated airliner: “So sit back and relax because nothing can possibly go wrong…go wrong…go wrong…”
    Good shooting!

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