Pre-Production. Or is it preproduction, one word? Maybe just pre-pro. Either way. Blah! Who needs it? I have a good script and I know mostly how I want the film to turn out. I have my shot list ready to go. My film will come together in the moment.
Let’s skip pre-pro and just get to shooting, right?
Not so fast.
If you’re anything like me, you feel like perpetual planning is holding you back. If the cameras aren’t rolling, nothing is getting done. It’s easy to buy into this way of thinking – been there, done that! Unfortunately, taking this haphazard approach to preproduction is not harmless or artistic. It makes for a chaotic and costly experience on set.
The reality is that success is 90% in the planning and 10% in the execution.
Pre-Production is the stage between the script and shooting. It is the first step to seeing a visual representation of the words on the page. This can be achieved through storyboards, photographic images, or even 3d shots edited together. Nearly every animation studio does extensive pre-visualization and a growing number of live action studios have adopted the practice to help set up their days and figure out how many FX shots they will produce.
Pre-Production mockups can be crude like Martin Scorsese’s raw sketches for Taxi Driver or highly detailed, including special FX like any Marvel movie.
Of course, shot lists are a vital first step in pre-production planning. Some directors use Excel to set up their list, divided by scenes while others, mark up a script to show how long each shot should take. Once you have your shot list, script markup, or both ready, it is time to get an idea of scene blocking and how you want each shot to look. This can be done by creating storyboards or computer aided pre-visualization process.
Does it help if you do? Sure! But look at the Scorsese drawings again. He is doing ok as a Director and his boards aren’t museum ready. I can barely draw stick figures, but I still make a point of doing thorough pre-pro simulations.
For one of the films I directed, I used 3D animation to prepare my shot plan. Every single shot of the short film was created in Maya (animation software package by Autodesk) and cut together in Adobe Premiere Pro. Being an animator was certainly beneficial, but there are innovative products that can
help you automate the drawing process. If you have a slightly higher budget, you may also hire storyboard artists, or pre-viz animators to help you.
The main tool that you need to do pre-pro is an eye for composition. Knowing where to put the camera to get the best shot to tell your story is key. The ability to draw helps and understanding 3d space may be a bonus but knowing how to put the pieces together is something, as a visual storyteller, you should strive for.
When you can show your vision tangibly, it takes away a great deal of guesswork that your crew would otherwise have to do. Doing pre-pro helps your team in various departments in a number of different ways both creatively and productively.
The DP can see what shots you want and what they must do to accomplish that. Got a long oner? Now they can see where you want the camera to go to plot out their path of action. My DP for my current feature film said that without doing pre-pro is like running full speed down a trail you have never seen before and expecting not to get slammed into a tree. That sounds too painful to me.
The first AD needs to know what number of shots you want so they can help the Line Producer figure out how many days you need to shoot certain scenes. This will also allow them combine scenes or order shots to get the most out of their days and which actors need to be on set when.
Plotting out the shots shows what coverage you have, to not leave the Editor hanging in post, wishing she had another shot to cut to. Most editors like to be involved earlier than after production because they want to get a head start on the flow and feel of the film. Their suggestions even in pre-pro, can help get the director their vision. Who doesn’t want that?
How many times on set do you set up a scene only to not shoot that one side of the room? What a bunch of wasted time. Your production designer will love you forever if they know they don’t have to design/dress an entire set. Their skills can be used to what actually goes up on the screen. Only shooting on two walls? Don’t design the others and only dress what you need.
The actors can greatly benefit from some sort of pre-pro as well. When they can see the director’s idea, it helps channel their creativity in the right direction. It also helps them with the basics like finding their marks. Explaining is one thing – showing is so much more powerful. This allows an actor to focus on the performance, not the blocking.
As you can see, good pre-pro can help the entire crew but the person who benefits the most is the director. Pre-pro is the time to play with the shots to see how it all flows without the pressure of a paid cast and crew, waiting on you. Is it a frenetic camera with a lot of cuts? How will the cross-cutting work? What if the shots are combined instead of editing from one shot to the next? Reframe?...I could go on and on.
Being able to see drawings or even moving character in 3D allows you, as a director, to experiment with new shots and ideas. Oh sure, you can do this on set but that costs money. Want to try a different camera movement? If you are lucky, you don’t have to change the lighting setups too much, but it still takes time to:
If you are working with a huge budget, go for it. Most of us mere mortals can’t afford to play on set, so that way of working is out the window.
A nice fringe benefit of doing pre-pro is that now you can show other people, besides your crew, what your film is going to look like. Instead of pitching a log-line and showing a look book, you can give a taste of what your design sense is. Got some gore in a horror film? Show that in your pre-pro. Got some action? Show it off.
A lot of the financing type are not necessarily creative, so envisioning a film based on just a script can be challenging for them. Spark their imagination with a look at your film in previz form. That’s Hollywood!
Granted, SOME may not have a clue what they are looking at but most will at least be excited to see something – anything.
And it may just be enough to give you money to do your next film.
Still think it’s okay to skip pre-pro?
Mike Gasaway is an award-winning Director with over 8 years of directing/producing experience, specializing in computer animation.
He’s directed more than 20 hours of television and won an Annie Award for Best Children’s Animated Series and was nominated for an Annie Award for Best Directing in an Animated Series.
In 2008, Mike's team of directors was nominated for an Emmy Award® for Outstanding Directing in an Animated Program. The following year, Back at the Barnyard earned an Emmy Award® for Outstanding Animated Program Special Class.
The prequel to his first feature, a short film titled, Help Me First!, was shot in early spring and premiered with rave reviews at Fantastic Fest 2016. The website for the movie can be found at www.helpmethetmovie.com.
Mike has been teaching animation online for over 12 years. Most of that time is with Animation Mentor as well as teaching individual animation students around the world. In the spring of 2017, Mike started teaching at the University of Cincinnati. He’s helped build the animation program as the only teacher, fostering the Certificate of Animation program within the Digital Media Collaborative.
His first feature film, Beaten Path, is in the middle of securing financing of $2mm. He hopes to shoot the film in the spring of 2021.
Finally, in his spare time, Mike created a software development company called Filmatick. They secured funding from a major grant, employing 6 people. The company’s flagship software, a pre-visualization tool for filmmakers, is now available for purchase.
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