Film Production Tips for the Unschooled Masses

Updated: Dec 27, 2019



If I had to say what is THE single most important thing you can do to give your project the best chance for success, it’s gotta be good preparation.


It’s really the cornerstone to getting a result you or anyone else will be ultimately happy with. Sloppy, poor preparation will likely lead you into a stressful and morose path as you stumble through the filming process dealing with curve-balls hitting you left, right and center and having little autonomy to navigate your way out of it. It can literally be like six guys jumping you in an alley.

Pre-production is exactly that, it’s the process of preparation.


It’s where you gather all of your resources together and set out a clear plan for shooting the film. If you nail your pre-production, you’ll feel the results of your work when you get into shooting and post-production.


BABY STEPS

The real work of course begins after you’ve completed the final draft of your screenplay.

It’s a part of the filmmaking process that’s more administrative than the nitty-gritty of filming, yet it’s also time-consuming and can be stressful if not correctly managed, so you’ll want to schedule out a solid block of time to complete it and do it properly.


Begin by thinking about your deadlines. Are you aiming to release the film by a particular date? Perhaps a school deadline, or for a festival or before a particular life event? It’s a good idea to spend time researching film festivals that you think your film will be a good fit for and look at submissions dates. I recommend aiming to have the film 100% complete several weeks before festival deadlines because of course, things often take longer than you would expect.


It also matters what festivals you can get into as well. If you’re looking to distribute to a larger distributor, your awards from the Scranton International Film Festival with their 400 seat theater isn’t going to look all that hot to a distributor.


FILM TITLES

Surprisingly, this is something a lot of film makers really don’t think about, but it, like everything else is very important. It will be easier to officially name your film now before you start inviting anyone else onto the project. Going with a working title is, of course, a viable option but it’s not going to be as simplistic as settling on the right name early. This will allow you to purchase a domain name for your film title early on, which is ultimately very useful for marketing and your overall business plan later on.

Don’t leave out the value either, the right name and domain combination obtained very early on can end up meaning hundreds of thousands, if not millions more dollars to a film’s value. Like I said, very important.


LEGAL

This is an area which has literally eaten film makers in the past. It is a beast known only as Legal. It’s a dumb name, not really that scary sounding, not derived from some ancient and feared Norse God of film, but a creation this industry adopted very early on in its history for one reason and one reason only… more money.


Copyright and other legal infringements which can sink your film as it would be doomed from the very beginning can reside in your script without you even realizing. It’s a good idea to have a lawyer look over your script if you can afford one. I find acquiring as much legal know-how to be one of the most valuable things you can do as a filmmaker.

Pre-production isn’t the only part of the process that legal issues can arise but it’s possible that the seeds of a big mishap almost always fall here due to the fact that contracts with locations, crew and talent are created at this phase. This is why I strongly discourage rushing your prep process as you can easily miss the smallest detail in an agreement that you’ll truly regret later on.

I know this first hand as I lost my entire production company and almost a million dollars back in 1998 due to a tiny clause on page 24 of our first major film job for a big studio. See? I’m trying to save your life, so come with me if you want to live… J I always wanted to say that!


PREPPING FOR PREP

Make sure to block out the right period of time you will do your pre-production. The amount of time needed depends on some very key factors:


*Amount of items in your script (eg. talent, crew, sets, locations, specialized make-up, props etc.)


*The length of the film and the total number of scenes to shoot.


*If any kind of choreography, physical stunts or special effects that are needed and the amount required.


For a 10 minute short film with less than five key characters, locations and without any effects, I’d recommend scheduling at least 6 weeks to prepare yourself before filming.


It’s also important to consider whether you will take time off to work on your film. Working a 9-5 will mean you will need to schedule all of your prep after hours and on weekends. If you’re taking time off, don’t forget to factor your living expenses into your budget. They tend to still exist in movieland.


If child actors are utilized, you might need more days of filming due to industry restrictions that may apply. That means more preparation and concessions as well.


I recommend building a folder (backed up) for your film at this stage. You’ll want a reliable computer and a secure, de-cluttered email account to work off to make things run as smoothly as possible.

SOFTWARE & ORGANIZATION

GOOGLE DRIVE & DOC’S

When you are working with other people, you can eradicate some logistical headaches by basing your pre-production workflow in the cloud. Here’s a folder structure you can follow which I’ve used before and certainly helps to make things easier for the majority of productions.


STUDIOBINDER & SET HERO

Both Studiobinder & Sethero offer free versions of their pre-production software. I’ve used both and can safely say they are very helpful in making the overall process much more streamlined and offer quite a few tools for you to use.


PROJECT MANAGEMENT SOFTWARE

Freedcamp is a good free tool to use in seeing what work needs to be done and delegating tasks. You can integrate your Google documents with it as well, to make the process more synchronous. This is a good alternative if you don’t want to go with a dedicated production management software.

As for dedicated software, I’ll do a post soon about all the titles I’ve used and which was the best overall. Hint Movie Magic :D


EMAIL FOLDER STRUCTURE

As a producer, you can benefit from having a dedicated folder structure set up to handle all of the emails coming in from cast and crew. Here’s an example I’ve used and you can feel free to copy or tweak to your particular needs.


BOOKMARKS

It may seem silly and insignificant, but… If you haven’t already bookmarked frequently visited filmmaking sites you use over and over again, go ahead and bookmark your email, casting websites, gear rental houses and everything else you’ll be using repeatedly. Over the course of a production It’s a big time saver.


GETTING INTO IT

Once you’ve figured out how you or you and/or your team will manage the labor, you can begin the process. Here’s a tried and true list of items to consider….


Script breakdown

Initial Budget

Location scouting

Finalize budget

Get permits and reserve locations

Casting

Time and line

Crew Gear

Shot list

Schedule Storyboard


Of course, this sequence may or may not suit you depending on your circumstances. If you are set on using a particular actor for the film, you may need to get in contact with them to confirm their interest and availability before you can start the rest of the process. You may also need to secure particular assets in order to receive funding as well. You’ll want to consider what’s most important for your project and adjust accordingly.


BREAK IT DOWN

In order to get an accurate indication of what your film is going to cost, you’ll need to do a script breakdown. This is where you list all of the elements required to make the film. This includes the following:


Locations

Cast Members

Stunts

Extras

Props

Makeup/Hair

Costumes

Vehicles

Effects (Special & Visual)

Set Dressing

Sound

Animals (Animal Handler)

Music


You can download a script breakdown sheet at VineHill’s website using the link provided here.


BUDGET

You’ll now use the detailed elements in your script breakdown to put together a first draft budget. Here you’ll also want to include every expense you can think of. You’ll likely need to do some research to get an idea of what things are going to cost. It’s better to overestimate a little bit. Believe me, you can always use some extra money in film production. My rule of thumb is to always add an additional 20% under “contingency” and more often than not it has saved my butt.

You can download a simple template to help. Get it here.


LOCATION SCOUTING

It’s often good practice to make sure you haven’t set yourself up to fail by looking at all the locations in your story and considering how you’ll pull it off. If you’re a beginner filmmaker with little funds to spare, you will be locked out of certain options for now, such as hiring a mansion to shoot in (unless you already have access to one).


Of course, your network can be extremely helpful. Reach out to other filmmakers, creative communities, friends and family because they either have a location you can use or will recommend somewhere they know. With a very small network and budget, your opportunities will be limited so this is where you’ll have to think carefully about how you execute your script. You may realize there’s no way you can access the kind of locations you want and sometimes that means going back for a rewrite or shelving it and starting fresh until you’ve got something more realistic.


Even with a small budget, it’s easy to feel tempted to want to spend just that little bit more when you find the perfect fit but that’s when it’s important to think things through. You can create a spiral into hell for your film by overdoing any component of your budget. Keep in mind that locations are one component of the filmmaking process and other elements like set, dressing, costumes and cinematography make up the overall look of the film. It’s possible that a cheaper location can be dressed and shot in a way that’s closer to your vision.


This is a really crucial step as you won’t be able to create a reliable shooting schedule until you’ve booked all of your locations so don’t be afraid to spend a good amount of time on this.


CASTING

In my own experience, I’ve sat through entire days on end with studio executives and casting directors trying to find an actor for an important role. I’ve also seen a 5 minute audition tape for an actor and almost immediately knew they were right for the role, so I advise you to trust your gut when it comes to making the right choices.


Sometimes it’s better to choose someone who’s more reliable and easier to work with over someone who’s a better performer but challenging to handle. It’s also a great help to have the writer present for their feedback if you can have them at a casting session. They know their characters well and can be a mountain of help in the process. The filmmaking process is usually better when you are working with people that you feel comfortable with but a lot can be said for the knowledge and experience writers bring when, well… telling stories.


I recommend thoroughly planning out your casting process.


This includes:


*Casting deadlines (when you will have each actor cast by)


*Audition dates


*Submission process (will you be using video auditions, interviewing actors in person to see if they get the part?)


*Call back dates – a secondary audition


*When will candidates know if they’ve got the part or not?


Be sure to get your release forms signed before you start production.


CREWING

The type and amount of crew needed depend on the project of course. Here are some of the majors that are most used over a variety of productions:


*Producer

*Cinematographer

*Camera Assistant

*Gaffer

*Assistant Director

*Make-Up & Hair

*Production Designer

*Editor

*Production Assistant

*Sound Recordist

*Caterer


if you’ve only had a little bit of experience making films, employing a larger crew (15-30) can feel quite overwhelming. I found that as my ambitions grew, it became necessary to have more crew in order to be able to focus more on directing and make filming feel less chaotic. In the early days it had the opposite effect however, I soon learned that making sure you have the right people in the major departments and letting them handle their teams, I could (without too much trouble) run a crew of 140 and not be found at the end of an 18 hour day in a puddle of my own vomit and urine twitching and you can too!


When it comes to selecting the right crew, it’s very much the same principals involved as hiring actors. You want people that are reliable and easy to work with. Crew meetings are also very important. You want to spend time with your department heads discussing your vision so that not only they understand it themselves and can communicate it to those working underneath them, but you can get potential suggestions ahead of time instead of on set where you’ll be busier and under more stress.


The beauty is, as time goes on you’ll get the chance to work with many of the same people again and again, and come to know what to expect from your dream team.


I believe both the little details and the big picture are important, one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made in previous projects is not thinking about all of the tiny details in the world of the film. It can be something as small as the color of a picture frame in your protagonist’s apartment, but it still matters. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched even big budget majors and spot issues that are obvious and distracting from the story… trust me, it all matters.


It’s better to work with crew you’ve seen in action on other sets. You can also find crew on websites like Star Now, Mandy Crew or your local industry directory.


THE IMPORTANCE OF CREW CONTRACTS (DEAL MEMO’S)

A deal memo is a document signed by the crew member and the producer that outlines what services will be offered for the amount paid. It’s really important to have this organized before working with any of your team and hold on to those memos! They are very important come time to deliver your film to a distributor. Come to think of it, keep ALL your paperwork, forever. Well, ok maybe not forever, but seriously, don’t get rid of it until your family checks you into that old folks home when you’re 85.


RELIABILITY = QUALITY

It’s usually better to work with people who you’ve met personally and preferably, worked with before on your own projects or on someone else’s. Reliability is a crucial component in your talent and crew. Anything can happen before, or after filming, so it’s ok to have some other contacts you can call upon if you discover your actor won’t be able to participate or complete the filming after initially committing.


GEAR IT

If you’re getting all of your gear from one rental house, you may be able to get a discount to free up some extra budget. I personally shell out the extra money for damage waivers to save myself problems in the long run.


TIME IT

Start a timer and read all of the dialogue in your film at the speed you imagine it would be said. Estimate how long unspoken components will run for by playing the film in your mind.


LINE IT

When you line your script, you decide what shots will cover each part of the script.

This information will eventually be translated into the shot list. Too little coverage is likely to be problematic in assembling the end result and too much coverage can waste time, effort, money and drive down crew morale. You’ll likely have a clear vision of how you want each scene to look so I recommend spending some time meditating on that, to get this really concise. It’ll help the entire effort later on.


SHOT LIST

I suggest putting together a detailed shot list that fits you, the cinematographer and the AD. Again, this one varies for the individual. Getting the shot list right has always been an important milestone for me, possibly because I’m particular on how I want the film to look. If you assume that it takes on average 20-40 minutes to get through each shot in your film, then you’ll see that your time on set is precious. You can download a shot list template here.


SCHEDULE

Once you’ve allocated a duration to each of your shots, you can use this information to create a comprehensive shooting plan for your production. A realistic schedule is one of the cornerstone pieces to great pre-production and being strategic is a key element in achieving it. Create your schedule with the needs of your cast and crew in mind. It’s best not to begin the most challenging scenes at the end of the day when energy and morale are at their lowest. Conversely, the trickier stuff can be filmed earlier on. Offering enough meal breaks is a huge deal in keeping things running smoothly as well.


You can download a Production Schedule here.

STORYBOARD

A storyboard can be helpful to communicate your ideas to cast and crew. It’s not a necessity in all cases, especially if you’ve already written up (as you should have) a detailed shot list but as someone that prefers to work with a visual reference, it’s important for me to have on hand when I’m directing. Download a copy you can use with relative ease right here.


AND FINALLY

At the end of pre-production, you’ll have a detailed and specific idea of what the journey ahead of you looks like. If all has gone well until now, then you’ve likely cleared the space for a shoot that’s more creative and fun than pressing and exhaustive. If it’s the night before the shoot and you’re still missing some key components, sometimes the best thing to do is delay that principle photography date to make sure you’ve got a grip on what’s ahead of you.


In most cases things don’t stray too much from what was laid out, other times you’ll be rewriting your script on the day of the shoot. At the very least, your cast and crew will likely respect you more for thinking far ahead and as a matter of fact you better your chances for distribution as well.

I always tell film makers that these days they must have a complete business plan for their film, and doing your due diligence here is a great first step to that goal as many of the questions you’ll have to answer in a BP will already be known by the time you’ve done all this production stuff.

Now, go make something fabulous!

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