Beginner’s Guide to the Pre-Production Process
Everything you need to know to jump start your first video shoot.
There are so many reasons you may decide a video is right for your company. Video has been proven time and again to sway consumers into decision making purchases more than any other medium. By 2021, 80% of web traffic will be attributed to video and if you haven’t done video yet, 80% of your competitors already have. If your companies strategy doesn’t include video, you’re way past being behind the times!
What we’ll cover
So, you know you need video and you know it’s effective! If it’s a production company you’re after to help start the process of creating a real professional piece of content, it can be overwhelming! First off, do you need a producer or a videographer? Where should the video live? How long should it be? Don’t worry - we’ll cover all these questions and then-some.
Before you you say ‘action’ on set of your latest commercial, there’s a pre-production process to follow in order to guarantee organization and success. In other words, all the stuff that happens before you begin shooting.
The Role of a Production Company
Let’s start at the beginning: why a production company?! You might be thinking you know exactly the kind of content you’d like to shoot, so why not just pay for labour and be done with it? For some people, that is for sure a feasible solution.
However, before you decide think of it like this - if you’re renovating your home, do you want to hire a contractor or do you want to hire the individual trades people yourself? This would mean scheduling each worker and their timeline, permits and managing anything unexpected yourself. Depending on the job, that could be just fine! If you have a small plumbing problem or electrical fix, you can for sure manage that job since it will probably involve only a couple trades people.
Similarly, some clients decide to hire videographers who do everything efficiently and at a low cost (and quality). If you’d like something easy and you know what you want to shoot, this works. You tell the videographer what you want them to shoot, and they oblige - usually throwing in editing into their pricing.
However, perhaps you’d like to ideate more. Perhaps you’d like a more strategic and creative approach. Or maybe the vision you have is outside of your wheelhouse of knowledge and too great for one camera person to capture on their own. This is where a knowledgeable production company comes in!
Production companies act like contractors. We’re the grand organizers, knowledge experts and gatekeepers to skilled labour in our field. We handle all the paperwork, permits and budgeting like any good contractor! We also manage your expectations and communicate between you and whatever is happening with your production. In this article, we’ll do a deeper dive into the production companies role in the pre-production process.
Roles in the Pre-Production Process
Who is involved in the pre-production process? Teams expand and decrease according to the scale of a project. Here are your basic characters you’ll expect on any given commercial production
Producer - Producers, as we said, are you contractors. They’re your main point of contact and the one who facilitates the project. This is most likely your first point of contact, but that may shift to the line-producer as details around actual shooting are finalized. In some cases, the Executive Producer is merely the head honcho at the production company you hired - you may not even speak with them while a different producer will be tasked with being your contact. Every project and company operates differently. The important thing is with producers is that they are managing and communicating.
Line-Producer - Line-producers are hired by producers to handle the logistics of the shoot. This is all the headache-y kind of stuff you don’t want to be worrying about on the day of the shoot. Things like location considerations, parking, permits, scheduling and labour! In short they are the producers boots-on-the-ground. The producer you speak to will have their hands full facilitating communication and showing up to every production meeting, where as line-producers will be brought on closer to the shoot day to organize the actual shoot. Depending on the size of your crew, the producer may just take on these tasks themselves! Production in this age is all about staying nimble.
Director - Directors are often a crucial piece of the creative puzzle. They are steering the ship into the direction we want to go. As you might have already gathered, a director is there to make sure the piece achieves the look, feel and emotion your film is after. They make sure all the performances are being achieved from the actors and that the camera is capturing exactly the vision they (and you!) are after. Directors are creative, but are also your quality control specialists. Directors are also often represented by the production companies, and so any communication to them will be done through your producer contact.
DOP - A DOP, Director of Photography or Cinematographer is the person in charge of the camera and lighting. Depending on the production, the DOP might have a camera assistant who is manning the camera or they could be doing it themselves. They also dictate their lighting changes and needs to their whole team. It’s the DOP’s department if anyone is moving a light or plugging a piece of equipment in. The Director and DOP have a unique relationship in achieving each shot. A good DOP can make a piece truly shine, much like a good director.
As with any production, there can be an infinite number more of people on set, but during the pre-production phase these are the ones in the meeting rooms with you that are most important. More people, like Locations Managers, Casting Directors, Storyboard Artists and more will come in as the pre-production process comes closer to the shoot date!
Your First Production Meeting
First production meetings generally have a few objectives:
Introduce yourself and your role
Number one, is to introduce the team and make sure everyone is clear on everyone’s roles and responsibilities. Production teams can be large, and it’s important to strike a bond and get familiar! It’s also helpful to learn how creative and concepts will be approved moving forward.
Catch up - Get the entire team up to speed. If creative has been approved, re-present it with the client and the director present so everyone is of the same understanding of what is trying to be achieved.
Scheduling - With everyone present, now would be a great time to work on a schedule together. Start with the ideal launch date for the final cut(s) and work back to a shoot day that works for everyone. Marketing schedules and the schedules of the crew (especially busy directors) are main focuses here.
Deadlines - Now that you have a schedule, create deadlines for other deliverables to help move things forward. This can include but not limited to - casting audition days, casting decision deadlines, storyboards and finalizing locations. Further down the line once this is all finalized, the DOP and director will work together to send the client an approved shortlist.
If you can achieve all of that in your first production meeting, your well on your way! Here are some of those other tasked we mentioned in detail.
Creating A Work Back Schedule
Here is an example of a well-planned work back schedule, with proper times allowed for each process. In this schedule, we’re shooting a credit card commercial in studio with two actors and a choreographer for a dance / movement sequence. Obviously in the real world, many more logistical and scheduling things would have to be considered, but this is a pretty well laid schedule as is:
April 19th - COMMERCIAL TO BROADCAST
April 12th - SEND FINAL CUT TO DISTRIBUTORS
March 30th - April 10th - EDITING AND FEEDBACK
March 28-29th - SHOOT DAYS
March 22th - March 26th - REHEARSALS WITH TALENT AND CHOREOGRAPHER
March 18th - COSTUME FITTING / DIRECTOR INTRO / SHOTLIST CONFIRMED / LOCATIONS CONFIRMED
March 14th - CASTING CONFIRMED / STORYBOARD DEADLINE
March 12th - LOCATIONS VISITS
March 11th - CASTING AUDITION
March 6th - LOCATION SEARCH BEGINS
In every step of the pre-production process, the involvement of you (the client) is so dependent on the concept. Of course when it comes to casting, every client wants to have a say for who is going to represent their product as a performer on camera. However, with all steps, you many choose to be less involved and focus efforts elsewhere like location, script writing or whatever!
Casting is usually done initially by a casting director. They’ll bring you tapes of their choices, and you and director / producer will find a time for call backs. Alternatively, you can help pick the first batch of performers together. Next, these performers come back for another audition in front of all these decision makers. The first round of auditions is free, but actors are always paid for call backs - so feedback and direction should be unanimous at this point.
You may decide to do one round of auditions in person and skip a self-taping or initial casting round. That’s fine, and should be decided in tandem with your producer and the requirements for the role.
Leave no stone unturned! Casting can very rarely be undone: once you make someone your star performer, there are many rules in place to keep that decision made from unions and out of respect for your actor. Make sure they’re the one and ask your director and producer for their feedback and advice. They have an expert viewpoint on the creative vision in the end.
Storyboards are usually done with storyboard artists in unison with the director or simply the director’s treatment. It’s a rough comic book style frame by frame of the commercial. It should give you a general idea of what the camera will be seeing and capturing.
This is an important stage to cite any viewpoints or shots you don’t see. It can cost only $20 for the storyboard artist to add another slide (that’s an estimate I’ve heard) but an innumerable amount of money to re-shoot a crucial shot. Get it in the plan now!
Again, this is another subtopic for a blog post all it’s own. However, a skilled locations manager (or maybe simply a good line producer!) will save your butt. Basically, a locations manager see’s the treatment and maybe the storyboard and tries to find local locations that match. The name of the game is finding locations that match creative which are also feasible for crew to travel too within a shoot day. It can get complicated, so a good locations manager is a logistics master with connections to nice people with nice places to shoot!
The locations manager also managed parking, cast resting areas, craft and food areas, shooting areas, tech and amenities of the location and general location safety. Anything to do with being ‘on location’ and getting settled on the day of the shoot - while also keeping the landlord’s or people you’re renting from super happy with you! You want everything to go smoothly on that front for sure.
Talent & Travel
As your production company, it may also be their job to take care of the hospitality of any out of town clients or talent. This should be just another thing you shouldn’t have to worry about! But if you’re curious, there are for sure some things to keep in mind.
Booking hotel rooms, cars and plane tickets should not take place until your shoot days and locations are %100 finalized. After all, last minute scheduling changes are prone to happen, and if you can get insurance on any flights, the better.
This is the first experience these people are going to have with your production. Make sure everything is taken care of for them. If they have to take their own car or uber to their lodgings, be sure that is communicated before hand with ample time to organize. Everyone should be feeling calm and ready before shooting begins
Allow time for rest. No one wants to land and be brought right on to set - although that may also be the case! If so, proper communication and for-warning is necessary to make sure the talent and clients understand what they’re in for.
Scheduling, scheduling, scheduling. - lots of times people just assume they can leave set whenever they have to. The days on set are long, and can often push 12+ hours which may be a surprise for people who haven’t had a lot of on set experience. Be sure to communicate how long you need everyone for, and when their return flight back home is at. Communication and time are your best friends. You can never confirm too many times.
Other things you should(n't) worry about
If you’re head is spinning right now, not to worry. All of this knowledge is good to know however a good production company will do these tasks seamlessly and without you even needing to check-in. However, knowledge is always power. Even if you don’t know how to cast the perfect performer, find the best location or create a vivid storyboard that’s fine - it’s totally not your job! But now that you know this is how things are done, you can ask for them by name in the language your production company should understand. If they don’t do a storyboard - why not? You can ask them and know that this is part of the pre-production process for sure!
So what else should be happening during the pre-production process? Here’s a brief list of miscellaneous stuff that we may not have covered yet:
Shotlist - inspired by the storyboard, this is a detailed and technical breakdown of every single shot and lighting set up for your filming. The director and more importantly the DOP will create this together sometime after the storyboard. They may decide to do this after visiting the location so they have a more logistical understanding of their day. The shotlist will have abbreviations and details like CU = Close Up or MS = Medium Shot to describe the frame. This shortlist will dictate the day’s schedule, how long each shot should take and how long the crew will need to set up. It’s super important that this gets done, so there is a basic understanding of the day’s agenda and how long everyone should expect to be working! Going over the schedule is to be expected in film, but going in without a plan will surely mean the day will be longer than most!
Production Design - The production design, done by the production designer and their team, covers all the set design and props. Basically, everything on the frame that isn’t a performer, the lighting or already part of the location (but they would be in charge of changing that too if need be!) Of course depending on the production, this can be a huge undertaking! Be sure the production designer at the helm has a portfolio that you feel fits with the look and feel of your production.
Call sheet - The final piece of pre-production preparation! A call sheet basically tells all crew and performers when they should arrive on set. It has all crew members, cast members, nearest hospitals, how long your shift is and when you can expect to go home. Like a lot of pieces of production, there’s a bit of tradition ebbed in this document - namely, if you have a ‘big name talent’ on set then they always go top of the call sheet! Call time doesn’t really matter in terms of the order (ah the ego of film production!). You should expect a call sheet the day before the shoot, and a new call sheet for every shoot day (3 shoot days = 3 call sheets). As the client, you should be on there too! Check in with your line-producer (or maybe a PA or Production Assistant).
The Golden Rules of Pre-Production
Now that you’ve mastered the basics of pre-production, you’ve likely noticed some patterns in how things are properly executed. That’s good! Your production company should indeed operate like a flexible yet well oiled machine. Here are some golden rules to take us out to remember across the board:
Communication - The pre-production process is all about filling YOU (the client) in at every step and every stage. This is the stage of the production where all the planning, and changes, can occur. Since you’ve hired a company (smartly) to take care of all of that for you, it’s simply important you hear from them so you understand what is going on. This can mean weekly in-person production meetings, phone calls periodically or just being on call at all times (especially closer to the shoot date). If you rather take a hands off approach, your trust is valuable! Just communicate when you’d like to be filled in and any producer will have an innate understanding of what you need to be filled in on.
Transparency - Close to communication, transparency just means exercising radical honesty at every point of communication. A production company should be clear about the challenges, problems and fires they encounter - not to just fill you in and give you piece of mind, but so you can work as a team to make the production go smoothly. So much of the pre-production process is a team effort, and transparency makes sure everyone knows what the other departments are up to.
Planning - Most of the planning should be done by the production company, but that being said planning is a two way street! Be sure you know exactly what is going on when you get on the shoot day. Nothing should be left to chance: not even the weather (aka is there a rain check date)? That being said- some creatives like to plan for freedom to see what they can shoot. That is totally fair - keep in mind you hire directors to do their creative work, and every creative person has a process. There is such a thing as over planning! Let the creatives breath and work their magic. Trust in the decisions they make before you ask for confirmation.
So, if you’ve read this information on the pre-production process you will 100% blow away your production company as a first timer in production! This is the basics of the production process, that every good producer knows innately. That being said, experience is the best teacher. This may seem complicated on paper, but once you’ve done this once - you’ll understand everything so much better the second time around.
And if you have any other questions - please! Reach out to us with any questions. We love a curious mind when it comes to production. See you on set!