Last week I began shooting my feature film – WHITE CROW – which has been going exceptionally well so far. Unlike some of my other films, which have been more spontaneous and called for a lighter pre-production phase, this feature required loads of time in prep and a lot of attention to detail. I knew early on its success would ultimately be dictated by how well prepared we were, so I did everything in my power not to fail before we started.
This is a trap too many films fall into. They don’t focus enough energy on pre-production, or they focus it in the wrong areas, and ultimately set themselves up for failure before production even begins. Without a thoughtful, purposeful pre-production process, no film can succeed – no matter how beautifully it’s shot or how much production value it may have.
Over the coming weeks I am going to be sharing loads of content about WHITE CROW here on the blog… But for now, while it’s top of mind, I wanted to kick things off by sharing some of my thoughts on pre-production – why it can entirely make or break your movie, and how to use it to heighten your creative vision. Everything I’ve outlined below has helped me immensely in my journey on this latest feature, and I hope these same fundamentals can benefit your next production too.
Here we go –
There is no formula…
There truly is no one size fits all approach to pre-production, so don’t believe anyone that tells you there is any kind of set formula. Emulating what someone else did, or copying how some other production did it will never work. A dramatic, dialogue heavy film will have different needs than a sci-fi epic. No two films are alike. It’s up to you to truly take the time to understand what your film needs, and to figure out how to allocate time and money accordingly. Every project may go through the same phases of pre-production, but how those phases are executed is always different.
Planning for your pre-production process is just as critical as what you actually do during pre-production. Your time is your most fleeting resource, and the last thing you want to do is waste effort on one insignificant element during prep, at the expense of another that may need it far more desperately. To avoid this, you need a game plan for pre-production. A plan for the plan. Consider your film, your team, your resources, and your creative vision early on… And map out exactly how to allocate your limited time to the areas that truly count. This is your first step.
Overlooking anything is gambling with your movie…
The #1 goal of pre-production is to prepare so well for production, that when you show up to shoot your only job is to make sure nothing goes wrong. But this is only possible if you absolutely immerse yourself in prep.
That’s not to say you have to micro-manage every last detail of your film as you prepare for the shoot… But rather that you will need to pick and choose which aspects to focus on more than others. And the aspects that get little (or no) time at all, will ultimately be left up to chance as to how they play out from a quality standpoint. They might be brilliant or they might fall flat. You just can’t know… So if you do neglect any aspect of your film during pre-production, just know you are effectively relinquishing your control over it.
For example, some directors may choose to not hold any rehearsals with their actors. This will definitely save them time during pre-production, but will also mean they’re heading into production blindly – at least with respect to performances. It’s possible their talent will show up to set perfectly prepared and will nail every line. But it’s just as likely that the performances will go off the rails, and the production will suffer as a result. Whatever is not prepared for will be left up to fate.
Directing lives in pre-production…
A lot of filmmakers seem to rush through pre-production, hell-bent on getting to set where they will do their “real directing work”. The thing is though, real directing lives in pre-production, at least as much as it does anywhere else.
I believe the director’s role on a film is to be the filter for ideas. Different team members – cast and crew – will share thoughts and perspectives on the project, and it’s up to the director to filter everything out, so what’s left are the exact ingredients needed to put together a very specific film, with a specific vision.
While this certainly applies to the actual shooting of the film, it’s just as relevant when it comes to pre-pro. Every decision made before production begins – whether it’s the color of a piece of wardrobe or how a scene will be covered, is an opportunity to direct. Failing to recognize this and make the most out of these opportunities will ultimately hurt your ability to have creative control over your finished product.
Casting dictates the tone of your film…
It’s been said that 90% of directing is casting, and I couldn’t agree more.
The actors you choose will completely shape the mood and tone of your film, so it’s absolutely crucial that you make the right choices during casting, and give it the time it needs. Whether you’re working with a casting director, or you are doing it all yourself, never make compromises when it comes to talent. Take as much time as you need to find those perfect actors, and treat this process like your entire project depends on it… Because it does.
Don’t buy into the narrative that you need name actors, that your actors have to belong to a union or have X amount of credits. All that matters is that they can perform well, that they can take direction, and that their style matches your vision.
Look long and hard for the right collaborators. Schedule call backs. Do screen tests, and whatever else necessary to be 100% certain you’ve found the right collaborators. Great actors can take your script to new heights and make your life as a director so much simpler – so choose your talent wisely.
Cast your crew like your actors…
If 90% of directing is casting, the other 10% hinges on how you “cast” your crew. The biggest mistake you can make when building out your crew is solely focusing on ability and skill set. There’s so much more to the picture.
Yes, it’s important to have people on your team that are technically proficient and experienced, but that in and of itself isn’t reason enough to bring them on your team. They need to be the right fit, not just a good one. Take your DP for instance… If you don’t “cast” a DP that shares your creative sensibilities, it doesn’t matter how good they are, every day will be a creative battle.
Attitude is just an important. You may have an amazing grip you can work with, but what if he/she only works on larger productions that yours? Is it possible they may not thrive in an environment with far fewer resources and a much lower budget? This type of mis-match could equate to a bad attitude on set and a poor work ethic. Just because someone is capable of doing good work, doesn’t mean they will be capable of doing so within your means. Look for people that genuinely love your film, are talented in their own right, can bring something to the table that you can’t, and will come to set with enthusiasm. All of the matters so much more than what’s on their résumé.
Your shot list is as important as the script…
Some filmmakers say the screenplay is a blueprint for production, but in my opinion the shot list is the true blueprint. The screenplay may contain the dialogue and basic scene direction, but the entire visual language of the film is crafted in the shot list, and it can have just as dramatic an impact on production as the script.
When considering your shot list, you want to think both creatively and tactically. From the creative side, this is your opportunity to define the look and feel of your movie. To break away from conventional coverage (if you choose to), and try new ideas on the page. Without this type of preparation, most directors go to their old bag of tricks on set, and end up shooting a lot of scenes in the same way (i.e. film school coverage). Prep work allows you to challenge yourself to come up with new ideas and break the mould…
But it also gives you the opportunity to organize your ideas in a way that is logistically sound. You may want to capture 10 shots for that 1 page action scene, but you only have time on the schedule for 5. How can you consolidate shots or use unique camera movement to achieve what you need to, with less time than you really need? If you don’t focus on the logistics (in addition to your creative vision), you may wind up with a great shot list on paper, but one that isn’t even remotely shoot-able.
Locations will make or break you…
So much can go wrong when it comes to locations, and making the right choices is about more than just aesthetics. Obviously the visual side matters – especially if you don’t have much budget for art department, and need your locations to work “as-is”… But that’s only one side of the equation.
Again, the practical-side (logistics) matters just as much. What good is that location you found at the top of a mountain, if there is no parking for your crew near by? Or that amazing old house that you want to shoot in, but that doesn’t have enough power for your lights?
There are solutions to all of these issues, but they have to be figured out in pre-pro. By the time you get to set and realize you can’t achieve the lighting setup you thought you could, or there is construction next door and the sound department is screwed, its too late. Every location you shoot in should be scouted multiple times. The first time will likely be a creative scout, but you will need to go back again and again to tech scout, pre-light, production design, and make sure everything is perfect before it’s time to roll camera.
Identify weak spots…
Every project has it’s weak spots, but successful filmmakers understand how to turn their films weaknesses into its strengths. And in order to do this yourself, you need to start by identifying the problem areas in your production.
Unless you are shooting a $100MM feature film, chances are you have made compromises. Maybe one of your actors isn’t quite as polished as the rest of the cast… Maybe your DP isn’t skilled at operating handheld (and that’s what you need). Or perhaps there is one particular scene in the screenplay that you just couldn’t seem to get right on the page.
Whatever the case, for every problem there is a solution. Any weakness in your film can be preemptively addressed during pre-production, so long as it is identified as a problem and a thoughtful solution is developed. It’s just common sense, yet so many filmmakers cross their fingers and hope they will figure it out on the day… But there is no time like pre-production to iron out all the kinks. Literally. It can’t be done on set or in post… At least not wholly, so take advantage of your ability to problem solve these major issues before you paint yourself into a corner. Never run away from your film’s weaknesses – that will only give them power. Face them head on and use them to make your film stronger than it would have been otherwise.
Leave no stone unturned…
There is no such thing as a flawless pre-production process. You can plan as much as possible, and still run into issues on set – it’s just a reality that filmmakers need to live with. There are so many moving parts and not everything is going to work according to plan…
But at the very least, you can strive for perfection. You can give your film the attention it deserves, and truly spend as many days, weeks, or months, preparing for those few special days when you’ll have a chance to make your dream a reality. It’s okay if not everything goes according to plan. It’s okay if some of your ideas just don’t translate once you get to set… But it’s not okay to simply not try.
Remember that you only have a tiny sliver of time to actually be on set and capture your vision… Believe in yourself and your project enough to give it the time it needs, and do your due diligence at every stage to set yourself up for success. You can never guarantee yourself a perfect production or a masterpiece at the end of that process, but you can certainly give yourself a running start.
As I mentioned at the top of this post, I am in the midst of production now on WHITE CROW and will have a lot more to share in the coming weeks. In the mean time, if you want to follow along with some of our behind the scenes content, be sure to check us out on social media using the links below: