Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Preproduction: A Neglected Art.

One often-underappreciated aspect of filmmaking is what is commonly referred to as preproduction. It really amounts to that planning phase of filmmaking, once the script is finished or selected and before principle photography begins. For those who might have been working in the film industry, this should be nothing new. However, I have noticed a disturbing trend among indie filmmakers. Preproduction often gets very little focus.

Talk about starting off on the wrong foot. Filmmaking is all about overcoming limitations. There are only so many hours in the day; your budget is only so big; your experience only so deep. Planning is possibly the most important part of making a film. The more prepared you are, the more creative freedom you allow yourself. And while this may seem quite obvious, I’ve been involved and observed too many projects that lack real planning. Often, preproduction is a rush-job done quickly in order to get to “the fun stuff.” As one crewmember on a project I worked on a while back put it, there is this tendency to end up with a reverse pyramid among many indie filmmakers.

Here’s what he means. Think of a pyramid, with its wide base and narrow top. Let the wide base represent the amount of time ideally spent in preproduction for a project and the top portion of the pyramid represent the amount of time spent in postproduction (editing and sound mixing, and so forth). The middle then is production, or the amount of time spent actually shooting the film. So the pyramid is divided into three sections. This is just a visual guide for the relative amounts of time we might ideally invest in a project. Spend a good bit of time in preproduction planning your film’s shooting carefully, securing locations, finding actors, getting contracts signed, and working out all of the other detail needed to make your film. This way, you can spend a concentrated amount of time shooting, where you and your crew are able to make the most of the time you have to shoot the film because things have been carefully planned out ahead of time. Even when unexpected surprises pop up (and they most certainly will), because of your preparation, you will be ready to address these surprises and work through them. Then, once filming is done, because things have been planned out well in advance, you can go into the editing room and have the film cut in about half or a third of the time it took you to preproduce the film. Can you see the pyramid?

Now, I know, this is an ideal scenario. And of course, films with quite a few visual effects shots to be created in postproduction will not fit this pyramid scenario exactly (but that’s a different story). But I do think this pyramid servers to demonstrate my point here. What the crewmember I mentioned above meant by his reverse, or upside-down pyramid, is that too often inexperienced indie filmmakers invest very little time planning their production. Then shooting doesn’t go smoothly—big surprise—and production falls behind schedule. In the end, not knowing if what was shot is going to actually cut together as a coherent and effective film, the filmmakers spends quite a long time in postproduction trying to salvage the film in the editing room. This can often be three, four, or five times (if not more) the amount of time they spent in preproduction. There are plenty of nightmare stories of projects dragging on in postproduction for years as the filmmaker behind it tries to come up with a finished product that is coherrent and effective.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this sounds like a pretty self-refuting route to go, as well as being a great way to develop a heart problem from multiple stress attacks that could actually be avoided. Yet, for the new filmmaker the temptation is to shoot first and ask question later. This may be fine for film school, but is not acceptable when you have investors putting money into your project and have hired professional cast and crew.


The Advantages of Planning

Now, let me share with you from personal experience why I love preproduction. The most successful of the short films I have made have all had serious periods of preproduction leading up to a very concentrating production time, always mere days. The longest production period for any short film I’ve directed was five consecutive days. And even that short film would not have been accomplished without serious planning ahead of time. For all of my short films, we have always had months to plan ahead.


One of the things I love about having a lengthy preproduction period is that all of us involved are able to have a life outside of the film itself. More importantly, this also allows time for flaws in the script to come to light and affords us the opportunity to do re-writes because, well, golly-gee, we’ve got the time to do so. In the end, we’ve always arrived at a stronger film because of this.

Having time also allows for a chance to address other problems that may come up. Maybe a location falls through, maybe an actor backs out. Either way, having set aside time to prepare, you and your crew are better able to address these issues.


Planning leads to freedom. There are those out there, and I’ve met some of you, who think that planning stifles creativity. Not true. Not true at all. Quite the opposite. The more you plan, the better you see your options, consider all angles (literally). Let me give you an example.

I am a big proponent of detailed shot lists. I can’t draw very well, but I will even create storyboards for complex scenes, or scenes with a particular camera moves or special effects. The shot list is my guide on set. It allows me to communicate with my cinematographer about what needs to be shot, and how. It allows me to communicate with my actors about what the game plan for the day is. It allows me to communicate to the sound department about where they can best capture audio and what actor they should be covering. The shot list keeps us all on the same page. That’s why I distribute a shot list to all these departs on my films.

But do I always stick to the shot list? No. Filmmaking can be unpredictable. But because I have a game plan and know what I would like to shoot, I am better able to know what shots on my list I can cut to make up for lost time should we (more like, when we) fall behind schedule. At times, I have found that a particular shot we have just taken accomplishes all I wanted from two or three shots I had listed. Suddenly, I may realize I actually don’t need quite as many camera set-ups as I had thought I would. This is a fine position to be in. Ultimately, my shot list is an ideal mental checklist of what I want to accomplish, but I am still free to deviate from it when schedule dictates or serendipity presents a better option.

I can see it already, those of you who don’t like all this planning business are thinking: but Mikel, if filmmaking can be unpredictable, why plan at all? Here’s why. I’ve been on sets before with directors that have not planned, who do not have a shot list. And this is what happens: they stand in the middle of the room, or pace about, scratching their heads or their chins, looking around from one spot to another, and finally thirty, forty, or fifty minutes later, we at last do the first camera set-up for the day. Then, we might do the next set-up the director came up with on the fly, maybe another ... then ... everything stops again while the director tries to think about what to do next and whether or not what was just shot accomplishes all he or she thinks is needed for good editing.

Don’t kid yourself. Unless you are a veteran director, you’re not going to show up on a set and just know what needs to be covered. You’ll either error on the side of thinking you’ve got enough when you don’t (and painfully discover this in the editing room), or error on the side of shooting far too many camera set-ups and fall way behind schedule, wear your actors and crew out, and have more footage than any sane editor wants to deal with. Thus, the best bet is to plan!

Again, I think it is worth repeating that planning does not mean you are locked into a specific method of doing things. It just means that you have already thought through what you’d like to get out of a scene and how to go about getting this. If you show up on set and find something totally new, you at least have a shot list mark and “x” through, flip over to the blank back side, and start writing a new shot list. You can at least eliminte the previous means of shooting a scene and move on to a new means.

Another important part of preproduction is having time to think through the emotional beats of each scene in your script and how you plan on communicating with your actors when shooting. This is something almost totally overlooked by new directors. As Judith Weston points out in her book, Directing Actors: Creating Memorable Performances for Film & Television, planning how to shoot your film is so much more than just sitting alone in your living room reading the script and picturing the movie in your head. Big deal. So you can see the finished film in your mind. That’s doesn’t mean a damn thing to your cast and crew. Why? Because you haven’t thought about how to communicate this vision! You have the vision, and that’s great. But have you thought about how best to communicate this vision? Because until you have, you are not ready to direct. I believe this is one thing that separates the wanna-bes from the real directors.

I recommend picking up Weston’s book. She really dives into specific techniques like using metaphors to communicate with actors that open up so many possibilities for creating great performances. But again, seeing how best to go about this means dedicating time in preproduction to breaking the script apart, scene-by-scene, beat-by-beat, so that when shooting, you are prepared to actually give direction.

Finally, having ample preproduction time allows for less stress. Having time to rehearse with actors, to talk through the script with them, eases concerns and helps everyone know what needs to be done. Having more time to plan also means that the less-than-fun things like contracts, location releases, union paperwork, call sheets, and all the other managerial work involved in making a film can be accomplished in a timely manner without having to be crammed into a couple of long, stressful days right before the camera rolls. The last thing you should be doing as a director is showing up to the first day of shooting already stressed out and half awake.

As I have gained more experience, I have honestly come to really enjoy preproduction. It is a time where anything is possible. We haven’t started shooting yet, we’re not behind schedule, we’re not facing weather delays or equipment issues. We’re just laying the foundation on which to build a great film. But without that foundation, everything we build on top of it will be shaky, and could even all come tumbling down on top of us mid-process. Great preproduction allows for time to find the potentially unique pitfalls of a given project and gives you the chance to address them well before they cause real problems on set.

1 comment:

Randal Pope said...

Thanks for writing this... it will be a tremendous help as I start pre-production in a couple of months.