Why pre-production is essential for all videos and films

Benjamin Franklin famously said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!” In the world of video production, no other saying is more accurate. Pre-production, or Pre-Pro, is dreaded by many; some consider it tedious, non-creative work. However, it doesn’t just save you money and time but also enhances the creative process. Let’s see how you can use pre-production to reduce stress and make your videos amazing.

In pre-production, you’ll write or review the script and make any desired changes. Then, you’ll select your cast, find locations and make your plans for production and post-production. Pre-production is just as important for non-scripted work as well.

Even if you don’t have a script, you need to figure out the message or story that you’re trying to convey to your audience. This will help you decide everything from the camera shots you’ll want, to what the audience will hear. Pre-production for a documentary-style shoot involves developing the questions you’ll be asking your subjects during filming and deciding on your planned approach and visual style.

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Pre-production is your time to plan out your entire project. Even though the focus of productions can differ greatly, from capturing a live event to the telling of a fairy tale, the pre-production process doesn’t differ all that much. You’ll always want to start by asking yourself the same three questions:

  • What story or message do I want to tell the audience?
  • What style and techniques do I want to use to tell the story?
  • How will the audience view the production?

Story

Every good story begins with an idea. When you are working for a client, the idea often comes from them. This is the point of the process where a lot of video producers get into trouble. Let’s say, for example, that your client hires you to produce a video about dogs. You and your client have great discussions about the content and messaging. Then, you say, “Okay, I’ll go off and produce this thing.” You come back to show your client your masterpiece about Great Danes and they say, “No, it’s all wrong. We wanted a video about Chihuahuas.”

Photo by Ellen Levy Finch / en:User:Elf (uploaded by TBjornstad 14:51, 17 August 2006 (UTC)) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]

This is where you need to remember that it’s a lot less expensive to work out the story or message of your production on paper than in front of the lens. Having a strong idea of what you want your finished piece to be—before you shoot—will help you relate that idea to everyone involved. It will help them and you stay focused on your goal. There are several efficient and proven ways to plan your production before you shoot. Let’s take a look.

Outlines

In our video business, our clients are usually non-technical folks that have no background in video production. As such, these clients have a hard time helping us produce outlines prior to production, but that’s okay. These clients always have one technical skill that can help you create an outline for them. That is their command of PowerPoint.

We have literally produced thousands of videos that started out as PowerPoint presentations. That doesn’t mean you should use the presentation as video content; it means that all of the important data is there for you to construct a really amazing video for your client.

Once you have the raw data, you can turn it into an outline with relative ease. Many writers use outlines to define the beginning, middle and end of their stories. They may also include plot points or story beats of major events that will happen to their characters throughout their production. For a documentary-style shoot, your outline may be as simple as a list of questions you want to ask your documentary subject. For an improv piece, your outline could be a simple list of scenarios for your actors.

Treatments

We use treatments in our video business every day to show our clients what their finished videos will eventually look like. It’s important to be careful when using treatments with clients. Like the dog example earlier, a client can read your treatment and think one thing, while you go on to produce something completely different.

Treatments are a powerful tool for conveying your thoughts to a client but don’t stop there. Develop your treatments into scripts before you shoot so there is no confusion when you’re on the set. Treatments can range in length from a few paragraphs to a few hundred pages. They tend to cover the important plot points of your story, as well as the characters and locations. Written in a narrative style, a treatment reads like a short story of your film.

For a documentary-style shoot, a treatment can help you decide the type of footage you’ll need to tell your story before you shoot. For an improv piece, your treatment might include character sketches that each actor will portray.

Scripts and screenwriting

If you’re planning to shoot anything, whether it be an indie feature or a training video, you’re going to need a script. Even most 30-second commercials have scripts. Let’s be clear on something that’s very important: do not shoot one second of footage until you have a final, client-signed script in your hand.

A script isn’t only about dialogue; it tells you where the action is taking place and what it looks like.

Screenwriting isn’t only about dialogue. A well-developed script is a road map to your story, as well as a road map for your entire production. The importance of a finished or near-finished script can’t be overstated. New video producers often say they’ll just shoot what they can and fix it in post. However, there is no worse feeling than being in the edit bay and realizing the one shot you forgot to shoot is the one you need to tie the whole production together.

Scripts are typically written in a specific format that is familiar to cast and crew. There is software available like Final Draft or free software like Celtx that you can use to write your script. You can also set up a simple two-column script format in MS Word. The goal here is not to have something complex, but instead to have a guide that you can use to navigate through your production.

In addition to writing and revising your script in pre-production, you may want to consider having a table read of your script. In a table read, you typically have different people reading the characters’ dialogues as well as a narrator who reads the action and location descriptions. Hearing your script read out loud is a great way to gauge if the dialogue is working or not. If you do your reading in front of an audience, you can get some valuable feedback.

How you tell the story

Video producers should be storytellers. When you gain this mental mindset, your perspective changes for the better. Writing your thoughts down on paper forces you to create a good story way before you shoot any video footage.

Writing your thoughts down on paper forces you to create a good story way before you shoot any video footage.

There are many different tools to help you develop the style and techniques you’ll utilize to tell the story in your production. From storyboards and shot lists, to lookbooks and playlists, there are various ways to get your ideas across to your crew about how your production should look, sound and feel. Even if you are a crew of one, these techniques can help you develop your materials as well as keep you organized.

Storyboards

If the story you’re telling relies heavily on visual elements or if you have complex visual effects shots, storyboards can be a big help. Storyboards are illustrated breakdowns of the shots of your film. They can be as simple as line drawings placed in comic-book-like frames. Some storyboards can be quite detailed, like the oil paintings director Akira Kurosawa (“Seven Samurai”) created for many of his films. A storyboard isn’t needed for all productions, but it’s especially useful in the development of motion graphics, animations and dramatic videos where scene changes and camera angles are important storytelling tools.

Storyboard
Storyboards help a lot in pre-production. Use descriptions if needed to clarify your drawings. Image courtesy @happyyellowart.

Shot list

You should create a shot list for each and every production you tackle. A comprehensive shot list can easily be generated from a well-written script. A thorough shot list will ensure that you don’t miss any of the important shots you need to make your video top notch. A shot list is a breakdown of every shot you’ll need for your project. It can be integrated into your script, or it can be its own document. A shot list can be helpful to ensure that you’ll get all the shots you need for the finished piece and help you decide what order to shoot them in.

Lookbook

For traditional film production, the production designer develops a lookbook after reading the script. The book is a collection of images, often a mixture of photos, paintings, illustrations and fabrics, which show the desired style or look of the production. This book is used as a guide to all decisions on costumes, props and sets. The director in pre-production often reviews the lookbook and requests any necessary changes. Even if you don’t have a production designer, you can still put together a lookbook.

Playlists

Playlists are not just a group of music tracks to be used as a score, but a guide to how you want the audio of your production to feel. Some directors use playlists to inspire visual and thematic elements as well. Director David Lynch (“Blue Velvet”) is known for putting together musical playlists for his films and even listening to tracks from them in between takes while he’s shooting.

Budget

Once you have your story and you know how you will tell it, you can work on your budget. Even if you’re creating a small project that you’re paying for yourself, it is important to figure out a budget. Not only is it good practice for when you start working on larger projects, but it will also help you determine and track all the resources you’ll need. It will also ensure that you have enough funds to finish your project.

Even if you’re creating a small project that you’re paying for yourself, it is important to figure out a budget.

There are sample budgets for all types of productions available online as well as books dedicated to the subject. For feature films, Movie Magic Budgeting is a popular software tool, although you can find templates online that work with Microsoft Excel.

Your budget should contain all the expenses you think you’ll incur on your project from pre-production through post. Budgets typically include a 10 percent contingency fee, money allotted to unforeseen disasters. Again, this is important to ensure that a lack of funds won’t keep you from finishing your film.

One important point to remember, if your client is paying for the production, they may have their own budget constraints. Often, you will have to re-work your ideal budget to fit the client’s budget. Even huge Hollywood films have budget constraints; so don’t be discouraged if your client comes back with a reduced budget figure. Find a way to make their production happen within the confines of what they can spend. This will not only get you a satisfied client for the long term, but it will also exercise your creative skills.

If you have products or services that are being donated to your production, it’s a good idea to figure out their value as well. This can help you budget future productions where you may have to pay for everything.

Scheduling and production logistics

Scheduling and production logistics are two of the most important aspects of pre-production. The more you schedule, the less you leave to chance. Even if it’s paperwork you’re going to be doing, schedule it. This will help you prevent common mistakes like committing to doing more than is possible in one day.  Also, remember to include mundane tasks such as: securing vehicles to move cast, gear and crew between locations and food for everyone on the set along with their dietary restrictions. Always remember a full crew is a happy crew.

If you schedule all of your tasks for your project and track the actual hours worked, it will help you to create better schedules and budgets in the future. It might help to keep production schedules on a custom Google calendar and give the staff access to add events, as they need to. The production coordinator should be the only one who has the authority to delete any production events. This way, everyone is on the same scheduling page when it’s time to produce a video.

Productions tend to average shooting three to five pages of script per day, but it can vary greatly depending on the experience of your crew, the complexity of your shots, the number of setups, etc. The more you shoot, the easier it will be to determine how much you can do in one day.

If you’re using multiple locations, you’ll want a shooting schedule. A shooting schedule can be created on industry software or you can create a schedule using a spreadsheet. For this, you’ll group your shots by location first and then by the cast involved. It’s most cost-effective to shoot everything in one location before moving on to the next, which is why most productions are shot out of script order, or non-linearly.

Casting

In our business of corporate production, our actors are often our clients’ employees. Even in these situations, you may need to cast certain people for certain parts. For example, don’t pick someone who can’t weld for a welding scene.  One of the other considerations is choosing actors that show the diversity of the clients’ workforce.  As companies become more diverse, it’s important to highlight this to show the company in the best light.

If your production is a creative piece with scripted dialog, then you’ll likely need to set up a casting call to hear different people read their lines to you and your clients. These casting calls can be done in person or over video either online or recorded. The goal here is to see how a person looks and “feels” on-camera when delivering your lines. It’s better not to choose actors by their headshot only to find out that they can’t deliver their lines on camera. This will save you time on set.

Location Scouting

Location Scouting, or what we call site surveys, is a great way to find just the right place to shoot a certain scene. The process of traveling to a location ahead of time to check out the site is priceless in smoothing out productions.

For example, let’s say you pick out this great old barn for a shot in your video. You really like the place from the pictures that a friend sent you, so you decide to drive over and take a look. The place looks perfect, but something isn’t quite right. You look up to see a power transformer on a pole that is making a really loud buzzing sound, way too loud for you to record clean audio. This is bad enough but right then a train passes by and shakes the whole place. You wouldn’t have known of any of these issues without scouting the location first.

Meetings

Everyone in your production should believe that they are working on something important. One of the easiest ways to do this is to meet with them before you shoot. Let them know the focus of your production and how they can help. Take note of their ideas and thoughts as well. You may have to schedule many separate meetings, but the production will be much more focused.

Also, offer the opportunity for your crewmembers to bubble-up their ideas to you on-location. However, you should name a point person for crew members to give these ideas to in the field. As a producer/director during a shoot, you’ll be really busy juggling a lot of tasks simultaneously. Having a dedicated person will allow you to do your job and review the ideas later. Some of the best ideas can come from crewmembers during a shoot.

Plan for the worst

The shoot day has come and you’ve done all of your pre-production planning. You’ve assembled your crew and actors and they know their roles. You’re talking to your client and getting ready to shoot the first scene when you hear a loud bang. You look over to see one of your lights has fallen over and is lying on the ground between your lighting person and one of your client’s experts. In this scenario, no one was hurt and you got really lucky. The best practice for any video business requires having general casualty, liability and worker’s comp insurance. This is particularly true for the videographer who is venturing into full productions, whether it’s shooting weddings, corporate videos or a web series.

Production insurance can protect you from lawsuits that can arise from accidents on set. If you have a company, your business policy may also cover your creative work under the Errors and Omissions clause. Additionally, many locations will not allow you to shoot without insurance. Larger industrial companies will not even let you on their property without at least $1 million of coverage and some will also insist on Worker’s Comp and automobile liability. It’s also important to remember that production insurance may or may not cover gear rental losses. Most rental houses will not lease you gear if you do not have insurance or they may require larger deposits. Being prepared is important for pre-production, but it’s also a necessity for protecting yourself and your business from any unforeseen accidents that can occur.

The audience experience

If you’re shooting a dance competition for a website, your audience can view your video from their living room TV or from their phone. If you’re shooting a short film to send to film festivals then your audience will be watching your film on a movie theater screen. Planning ahead for how your audience will view your production will help you with everything from how you frame your shots to how you mix your audio to the size of your graphics. How a video is distributed will determine what formats you will need to master. For example, you may need a digital file, Blu-ray or even a DVD. Planning for these deliverables in pre-production helps ensure that your post-production runs on schedule and within budget.

Conclusion

The best set is a calm and happy set. Whether you’re leading a crew of one or 100, your disposition and outlook will affect everyone on the production. The easiest way to ensure a calm, cool director is through a smooth production. The best way to ensure a smooth production is with proper preparation and thorough pre-production. Remember pre-production is the way to go if you want to make some dough.