Project management for video production: A professional’s guide

Whether you’re a freelance wedding videographer, a streaming video producer or an aspiring filmmaker–you must make choices as a filmmaker. Moreover, it can be far too easy to focus on the technical aspects of your craft and ignore the administrative requirements. So, if you want to make the jump from hobbyist to professional, you need to learn a very important administrative skill in filmmaking: project management.

At its core, project management for video means figuring out what needs to be done, in what order and by what time. Then, you must assign each task to a person to ensure accountability for getting it done.

Don’t miss the bus!

It’s tempting to tell yourself that if you are good enough at the work, everything else will fall into place. Unfortunately, that’s not realistic. Consider this scenario. Imagine thinking that if you love your small children enough, they will make it to school safely on their own every morning.

All the love in the world is no substitute for your actual presence. Without you, how will they know which roads to take, which strangers to avoid, or even how to safely cross major intersections. All the love in the world is no substitute for actual instruction either. Love is an abstract concept and only correct action protects those we love from stepping out in front of a 800 pound car. Filmmaking operates in a similar fashion.

Take a moment to think of what it takes to get your kids ready for school. You might have to get the kids out of bed, get them dressed, cook breakfast and pack lunch. Then, you probably have to collect schoolbags, put your kids in the car, drive them to the bus stop and drop them off. Of course, you’ll need to complete all of these tasks in a specific order and by a specific time so that your kids don’t miss the bus. 

Furthermore, you can break each of those tasks down into smaller sub-tasks. “Cook breakfast” requires certain resources: ingredients, clean dishes, working equipment. Whose job is it to buy breakfast food: yours, your spouse’s, someone else’s? Whose job is it to do dishes? Did they do them? If they didn’t, is there time to do the dishes now or are you having toaster tarts for breakfast again?

Figuring out how to get your kids to school on time in the morning — the breakdown of tasks, the assembly of resources, the division of labor — is a basic and intuitive project management exercise.

Making a film is similar to getting your kids to school on time. It can be broken down into a series of tasks. However, project management for video is much more complex.

A film or video project is a complicated matrix of intertwining requirements.

A film or video project is a complicated matrix of intertwining requirements. Scripting, casting, location scouting, insurance, permitting, equipment rental, bookkeeping, hair, makeup, blocking, shooting, cutting, IT infrastructure, test screening; the whole thing is a giant interconnected web. Nobody can realistically keep all of the jobs, tasks, personnel and resource requirements in their head. This is where the skill of project management comes in.

Simple tools for project management

The most basic form of project management for video is the checklist. You can keep a checklist on anything, like a whiteboard or in a plain notebook. For example, if you’re shooting a video of an exploding beer can at home with equipment you already own, your checklist might look something like

  1. Buy beers
  2. Buy cherry bombs
  3. Rig lights
  4. Set up camera
  5. Set up exploding beer
  6. Action! KABOOM!
  7. Teardown
  8. Clean up yard
  9. Apologize to spouse
  10. Drink leftover beer

As your shoots get bigger and more complicated, your requirements will expand. At that point, a simple checklist won’t get the job done anymore. You may need to invest in a planner of some kind. You have to be an organized, list-oriented kind of person in order to make full use of a planner. However, as far as analogue tools go, the right planner just can’t be beat. 

Man writing on white board.
Project management solutions come in many forms. For smaller projects, you may be able to use something as simple as a whiteboard to keep track of tasks.

The problem with a planner is that it’s only really good for one or two people at most. Any more than that, and you’ll need to have multiple planners for multiple roles, and that sort of thing snowballs quickly. Once your project gets big enough, you really need to start looking at online solutions. Some folks just transcribe their planners into a shared Google document, so that their entire team can see the breakdown of tasks and lists. This can sometimes be perfectly adequate, but as your project scales up, even the shared Google doc gets confusing very quickly.

Apps for project management

Fortunately, there are apps that are specifically intended for project management. Trello is a popular free project management application that lets you create virtual cards representing a task. You can then assign those cards to various team members. Once the task is completed, you can mark the card complete. Visually speaking, these cards can be a very useful way to track of the progress of a project.

Trello usually works best with smaller collaborative teams, or larger teams with a relatively flat reporting structure. Imagine a project where you have to get footage of a dozen different exploding beer cans from a dozen different videographers, pay those people, and edit all of the footage it into one “You Won’t Believe What Explodes!” video. Trello would be a smart choice to manage that project. You could assign each videographer a card to shoot their footage. Paying each of them could be a card, editing the video could be a card assigned to your editor, and reviewing the edit could be a card assigned to you.

asana website
Asana is a robust project management platform that allows you to collaborate with your team on highly detailed productions. It’s best for projects with lots of moving pieces.

Asana is another popular app. It feels more like an old-fashioned planner list than Trello’s card structure, but Asana has powerful organizational, timeline and accountability tools built-in, and its functionality is expanded with a plethora of integrations. It works better for traditional top-down team structures, the kind with department heads and clear lines of reporting. Asana lets you take a larger, less granular view of a project than Trello or a planner notebook. It allows you to see which departments are on schedule, which aren’t, and who’s dropping the ball. Asana would be well-suited for a traditional Hollywood-style movie, for example.

Don’t overthink it

There are many other tools available, each with their own quirks and focuses. The most important thing for you as a project manager is to realize is that no one tool is the best at everything. The smartest thing to do is to use a tool that is just complicated enough to meet your needs, but no more.

You can use Asana to plan shooting footage of an exploding beer can in your backyard, but it would be a huge waste of time and energy. “Who’s my director of photography? Um, me, I guess. Who is he accountable to? Me again! OK, now where is he on this budgeting spreadsheet…” Similarly, you can use a whiteboard to plan a Hollywood blockbuster, but it had better be a whiteboard the size of a Jumbotron in a room big enough to seat a thousand people at a time.

If you are really interested in this topic, you can take a variety of courses on project management. Some are quick and free, and some, while not free, can eventually lead to professional project management certifications. The Project Management Institute is the most widely recognized certifying body, and they offer a variety of certifications based on your goals and requirements.

It’s not glamorous and it may not be as fun or as cool as being behind the camera, but whether you’re shooting church videos, editing streaming promos or trying to break into documentary filmmaking, project management is an essential skill to master if you want to make your craft a career.

Mike VanHelder
Mike VanHelder
Mike VanHelder is a working writer, photographer and videographer in Philadelphia, PA.

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