Did you finally get the green light? Before hitting the accelerator you might want to take a second to slow down…
Pre production will be your chance to line everything up correctly so when it’s time to roll camera you get everything in the can.
The problem is, trying to do it ad-hoc can be daunting, and leads to mistakes you’ll regret. That’s why we put together the ultimate pre-production checklist (including a free checklist you can download and take offline with you).
Let’s jump in!
What is Pre Production?
Pre production refers to the planning process and execution of every task that must take place before production begins. It’s an undertaking that requires a lot of moving parts and individual efforts being coordinated precisely, under time and money constraints.
What's in the Pre Production Checklist?
A lot of the items on this list can and should overlap. Different producers may order things differently, but these 15 basic categories cover everything you need to do before the cameras roll.
We'll quickly dive into each section later and go into why this order works so well. But first here we go.
Pre Production Checklist:
- Script (Lock it)
- Budget (Make it)
- Business (Set it up)
- Crew Up Phase 1 (Key hires)
- Breakdowns (from a script to lists)
- StoryBoard (from words to images)
- Art Department begins
- Dotting i's and crossing t's (Buy insurance, secure permits, talk legal, get contracts)
- Shooting Schedule
- Crew 2 The Search for more Crew
- Shot list (finalize the game plan)
- Tech Scout (a reconnaissance mission)
- Equipment and Gear
If you can accomplish these 15 tasks in roughly this order you'll ramp up to production very smoothly.
Now let’s take it step by step.
1. Lock the Script: Movie pre production begins here
While you don't need to lock your shooting script before anything else, it's a great place to start.
Everything your film will be, and everything you'll need to acquire flows directly from these pages.
Script changes will happen mid shoot, but the whole point of the pre production process in film is to head many of those missteps off at the pass.
So start with the script. Lock it in.
2. Make a film budget
Before you can make any decisions about a movie production, you need to determine how much money you'll have to work with.
Sometimes you'll have to back into a number. Sometimes you'll be proposing a number. Whatever the case may be, all you'll really need to start making a budget is a script.
And you'll need a film budget for everything after that.
That's why script comes first. Budget comes second.
A clean and intuitive order of operations is the key to a smooth pre production process in film.
3. Form a business entity
Consider this stage more about acquiring cash flow, because you're going to want cash on hand for a lot of steps after this.
Even if you can't start cash flow yet, or don't need to, look at this step as a chance to get some of your other "ducks in a row". Of course there is a lot more to it than just that.
This step includes setting up a production office, a familiar part of the pre production process. Your production office may just be a laptop and a binder. It may also be an entire floor of a building. Whatever it is, set it up in step 3.
Learn more about how to start an LLC here.
4. Hiring key production crew
You can't go much farther without at least some key collaborators. If you don't already have a director, you need one now.
You'll probably also want your Director of Photography now. This is a good time to scour your crew contact list for anyone you've worked with in the past that you'd want to bring on.
And this is why keeping a comprehensive list of all prior crew you've hired is wise. You never know who will be available.
If your project is going to have heavy make-up requirements then thats someone you'd want in during this phase. But if not, that hire can wait.
You'll tailor the "who" of this stage to your project. But the pro tip for this stage of preproduction to is get the people you need early on board early.
5. Break down the script (with script breakdown software)
Remember that script you locked? Well now it's time to break it down. But what do we mean by that exactly?
The script breakdown process is fun part of pre production. Essentially, you'll turn words into props, scenes, costumes, and locations... your screenplay is turning into a series of lists and reports. With those reports, you’ll have a much clearer idea of what you’ll need to budget.
A brief primer on the script breakdown pre production process
Imagine that your movie is a meal, and your script is a recipe. Well now it's time to make the shopping list.
In a way, you're digesting the 'concept' of your movie and it's turning into real world elements. Now is when you and your team are really starting to figure out how to make a movie.
Gorilla Scheduling vs. StudioBinder Film Scheduling
We're now one third of the way into our pre production checklist. The "first act" of this process is over and we're ready to ramp up our planning to the next stage of pre production.
6. Turn your words into images with storyboard software
Here we go! The first full creative step since you locked your script. You broke the script into reports. Now you're turning words into images. What was purely verbal is now visual.
When you make a storyboard, you’re taking a major step towards communicating and realizing the vision of the project. Both literally and figuratively. Leveraging the best storyboard software can help you and your visual team achieve this step.
How to make a storyboard in StudioBinder Storyboard Creator
7. Location sc
Location scouting is a process. So you can't cross it off your list before you move to the next step. But you can and should start it now.
There will be something of a give and take between your storyboard process and securing locations. What you see on your location scouts will inform your boards, and vice versa. We're getting to a point in the pre production checklist where there will be overlap and cross pollination.
Pro tip: Want to learn how to make a movie? You need to master the art of compromise. With individuals, but more so with limitations beyond your control.
Your director loves a location, but it'll cost a lot more to lock than you budgeted. Can you sacrifice some money elsewhere to secure the dream location? Or is the location a no-go?
Be prepared to have these conversations and/or make these calls. Sometimes asking up front for a list of deal-breakers from the director is useful. You don't want to cramp his or her artistic freedom with dollar signs concerns if you don't have to. At the same time, the director needs to accept (and work with you) on fulfilling the budget.
8. Casting during pre production
This is a big one. Like with many steps, you may have started the casting process already. Perhaps a star was attached during the development phase, but you're still going to have some parts to audition during the pre production process in film.
There are a ton of great casting resources online now. To get you started, explore some of the best free casting websites here.
So let’s get this process going! If you can't find the exact right person for a role you'll want to be able to extend the search.
9. Art department pre production
This step is a question because in some cases the answer may be “very little.” Say you're prepping a short film that you'll shoot in your apartment – production design tip numero uno when you’re on a tight budget. Some set dressing. Some props. Nothing crazy.
On the other hand, I once produced a short where we had to build a greenhouse, and a hut in the middle of a desert. On that project, the art department needed a lot of prep time.
So here is where I'd get my art department's engines revving. Especially if your movie production requires any kind of build.
10. Filing paperwork: Dotting I's and crossing T's of pre production
Act 3 of our pre production checklist begins here. This is the home stretch.
By now you've got a lot of the key components in place. Before you go any further, you've got to button things up.
Pull permits for locations.
Buy a production insurance policy.
Consult with legal if necessary.
I like to start permitting with plenty of time. Sometimes a location will fall through because of permitting issues. Sometimes the city won't issue a permit without a lot more legwork from you.
You may have a location on your list that requires a fire marshall. You never know until you start working with the permitting office.
If you’re shooting in Los Angeles, you’ll be filing with Film L.A. But do your research wherever you are shooting and find out who you need to permit with.
And trust me…You should permit your locations. I've been on sets where neighbors complained and if we hadn't been properly permitted, we'd have been shut down. Try explaining that to your Executive Producer. Or studio.
Same goes for insurance. This is one of those things where you'd be shocked at how many productions do without.
Just one more big cost, right? Better to spend it on a sweet lens pack instead, right??
Pro tip of all pro tips: If something bad happens on your set and you don't have insurance, your problems will go far beyond not getting all your shots done that day.
There is a little bit of romance about filmmaking, usually indie, that happens "outside the lines".
If nine times out of ten you can get away with it, that’s fine for nine people.
But you don't want to be the tenth.
So button it up. Go legit. Dot your i's and cross your t's.
When one asks “what is pre production,” it’s all about making sure your project can happen. If you’re not shooting legally than arguably your project can’t happen.
At the very least, you're going to send a message to everyone else on the project. That you are a true professional.
And that’ll serve you in the long term no matter what.
11. Create a shooting schedule (use film scheduling software)
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away shooting schedules were created using cardboard charts and strips of colored paper.Not anymore. Today you can create shooting schedules and stripboards with free film scheduling software.
Learn what makes it pain-free to create a shooting schedule
You might wonder why I've got such an important step in the pre production checklist all the way down here.
Well you can't have it come much sooner. Ideally, you’d want to lock in your locations and talent before this step because of availability. And you'll want to start the process of building any sets before this too, because that timeline directly affects this step.
12. Crew Up: Fill out your crew roster
You've got the main players in place (your keys), but now they need support, and we're getting close to DAY ONE. So it's time to crew up.
I like to start by asking production heads if they have anyone they want to bring on. People like the shorthand they have with certain peers. It's good for the overall morale, it's also good for productivity.
Plus if you're all going to be in the trenches together, better to trust the person next to you.
If your keys don't have recommendations, or need some help rounding out the team, then that’s when I go to my production crew contact list. I might have just the right person.
StudioBinder offers a living contact list that grows with you over time.
If that fails too, there are a lot of great crew hiring resources online like ProductionBeast.
By hook or by crook, you're gonna crew up at step 12.
13. Create a shot list
You're so close you can taste it. A little nervous? Check. A little excited? Check. A lot hectic? Double Check.
Planning is everything. Whether you’re using a shot list template or a shot list software like StudioBinder, you’ll want to work with your director, AD, and DP to finalize the daily shooting gameplan.
If you’re looking for shot list inspiration, check out our Youtube playlist where we review the signature looks of iconic directors and the shot lists that made them possible.
Time is going to be your most precious resource during shoot days, and the ticking clock your greatest foe. The more you have set in advance, the more time you have onset to adjust. Because the curveballs are coming.
What is pre production all about?
It’s about finding ways to maximize production time.
14. Tech Scout: A pre production meeting checklist
To me the tech scout is one of the final critical pre production steps. You and the pertinent crew will travel to the locations and walk through the plan.
This is can be super useful for the crew because it's a reconnaissance mission. The soldiers giving the future battlefield a once-over.
So much of a production boils down to logistics. Think supply lines. Where will the best boy stage all the gear? Where will the truck(s) park?
Where will holding be for extras? How about the honey wagons?
Do we have access to HVAC and power?
What type of last minute planning and changes should be made?
Think it through. Walk it through.
This day (or days) of tech scouting can also serve as an opportunity for every department to go over needs and concerns. Prep for the your tech scout by checking out our location scouting cheatsheet.
15. Equipment and gear in a movie production
Last step. Are we ready for "Lights! Camera! Action?"
Well... not without lights and a camera we're not.
Sometimes you'll start the gear or equipment list a lot earlier than this. It can be an evolving process, and you certainly might need to place some items on hold.
But for the most part, you don't want to jump the gun until you know precisely what you're going to need for your crew. At the tech scout your DP and/or his/her Gaffer and Key Grip will make their final lists.
And… they'll need to see the locations in order to know what they'll need to achieve the shots.
Let's go back to the idea of order of operations once more. The shot list will inform the walk through at the tech scout. Which will tell you exactly what you need equipment wise.
Each step in the 15 step pre production checklist feeds into the next. That way you don't do anything before you're ready to. You go into each phase of preproduction, and ultimately production itself, as prepared as possible.
Pre production is your chance to line up everything you need to do during production. It's a critical phase to get right. A mere misstep here is magnified during production.
The idea of this pre production checklist is to help you take on those important tasks one at a time. Each one feeding into the next, so you build the proper momentum, and miss nothing along the way.
A great way to get started is with pre-production management software.
All the stress of going from ideas on a page to a full blown movie production can be overwhelming.
So take it step by step, and before you know it, you'll be rolling.
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