Idea to Screen: The Pre-Production Process

This is Part 2 of a five-part series on creating your video from the birth of an idea to its digital reveal. The series will cover Development, Pre-Production, Production, Post-Production and Distribution. 

How hard can pre-production be anyway? You’ve got an idea, a camera, a victim or two to stand in front of the camera. Maybe you even have a couple of props and an approximate idea of where you’re going to shoot your footage. That ought to be good, right? Once you get started the creative juices will flow, you just know.

If you really think that’s a successful path to a cool and informative video, then you’re going to have a crew and talent who will spend a lot of time shaking their heads. Guaranteed. You’ll also find it quite challenging to get them to be involved the next time you want to do a video.

“It is ALWAYS a good idea to be prepared on set,” said Erica Deshner Cornwall, the Creative Director and COO of Argos Productions. “Spontaneous sets can get frustrating for the whole crew.”

In other words, this ain’t improv. Even a well-oiled production can be a time-consuming slog at times with multiple takes, various angles, cutaways and lighting issues, not to mention getting your audio clean and perfect during each of those elements.

Erica says the only time a spontaneous production will work is when it is a collaboration video with a clear idea of the story line and messaging, and there is a knowledge and appreciation of the skills and ideas brought to the production by those in the crew. You have to know how the video starts, and you have to have a darn good idea of when you have achieved an appropriate exclamation point to that all-important message. Wait — that still sounds like pre-production, doesn’t it?

If you really want to navigate a video project, you’re going to need a map…

The Most Important Step

“The first thing to do is create a budget,” Erica said. “Be realistic.”

If you can’t do that, you will be hard-pressed to ever get to your next video. It’s really not much different than opening a short-term business. If your budget goes off the rails, well …

“You may have to go with small crews and volunteers,” she said. “No matter what, you need to get excellent craft services that fit your planned budget.” The quality of your crew needs to match the quality of your idea to the best of your budget’s ability. Hiring an assistant director (AD) is an important part of getting this done. (And the good ones are always in demand. So don’t assume you’ll be able to find one at the last minute.)

Argos Managing Director Jeston Cole Lewis says scheduling is also one of the key first steps of any production. “Having a good schedule will help create expectations among your cast and crew,” he said. “Work with your AD on this so you can be on the same page. This is key to keeping your set running smoothly.”

The Crew and Checklist

Now you’re ready to fill in the rest of your crew and work on your checklist. You’re also ready to start scouting locations. Is your choice of location(s) appropriate? Is it available? Is there a better time of day to use the location? Is it supportive of your message rather than a distraction? Can it be used in more than one way? (Remember those budget numbers.) You want a location that makes sense. (And please, oh please, do not stand people up against a wall like it’s the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre.)

  • Scout locations
  • Secure an Assistant Director
  • Secure an Artistic Director
  • Secure a Director of Photography
  • Along with the Artistic and Photography directors, check out the locations and firm them up. Acquire any necessary permits.
  • Figure out your color palettes and necessary props in conjunction with the Artistic Director.
  • Line up or obtain whatever gear, props and permits you need.
  • Do you need a Costume Designer?
  • Hold auditions, hire your actors and create a rehearsal schedule.
  • What about Hair and Make-up persons?
  • Secure Craft Service, or Crafty, person(s) who can take care of a variety of jobs, substantially overseeing food and water, but can also cover everything from grips to gaffers and more.
  • Figure out all your logistical needs, such as travel, housing and food.
  • List every shot you will need or even think you’ll need. Nothing is worse than needing a shot you never bothered to take. Those extra shots — known as B-roll — can come in extremely handy in the editing stage.
  • Create your Shooting Schedule and accompanying Call Sheets. This way everyone knows when and where they need to be.
  • Break down the shooting schedule by scenes, including costume notes, hair and makeup details, props and any necessary set design information.

“Most modern script tools will help you create any reports you’ll need: props, shot lists, characters per scene, etcetera, giving you the major tools in preparing before you ever get on set,” Jeston said.

The better you prepare each of these elements, the smoother everything goes, and thus the happier everyone will be. A happy crew is a productive crew, as the saying goes.

Simple Outline

Erica suggests this simple outline:

  2. HIRE
    1. Crew members
    2. Crafty crew members
    3. Hold auditions
      1. Select Cast
      2. Hold rehearsals
    1. Secure those locations
      1. Obtain location permits
      2. Note the lighting/optimal time of day
      3. Determine any audio issues
    1. Shop
    2. Build
    3. Paint
    4. Costume
      1. Fittings
      2. Costume rehearsals
  5. DRAFT
    1. Scene breakdown
    2. Shot lists

Your map is now ready

“Once you have your paperwork organized, your call sheets laid out and your crew signed up, now you can get on set and start making your project,” Jeston said. 

Do the work now and you won’t have people standing around staring at you wondering why you didn’t bring a map, because essentially, that’s what all this work is — it’s a map to your destination.

If you don’t have a proper map, people could, even literally, get lost. Costumes won’t fit, actors won’t know their lines, or where they should stand, or why there isn’t enough light, or even why the cops are talking to the producer about what you all think you’re doing anyway. So many things can go sideways on even the best of shoots. You want to be as prepared as you possibly can. Backup plans and troubleshooting is certainly not uncommon in even the most anal of pre-production preparations.

That’s probably why the secret to Pre-Production is not terribly surprising:

“Organization and patience,” Erica said. That pretty much summarizes much of this stage. But save some of that patience for later. You’re going to need it again.

Bonus Video

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