Planning your pre production processDec 13, 2022
Planning your pre production process
Congratulations filmmakers! You’ve crossed a major milestone and made it to the pre-production phase. Kudos to you for getting this far. Not only are you now pretty clear on your documentary idea, but you’re finally edging closer and closer to actually making your film.
You’ve probably also managed to finance your film – woo hoo! Or at least secure some seed funding to get you started. If you didn’t stop to pop a bottle of bubbly when you got a financier (or financiers) across the line, then do it now. Please! You deserve it.
Now it’s time to dig into the pre-production phase.
During pre production, you’ll map out the flow of your film, lock in your on screen talent, scout locations, finalise your budget, think about the type of equipment you’ll need and build a comprehensive shooting schedule.
Essentially, you’ll do all the stuff that needs to be ticked off before you get your gear out.
I know I know. It sounds like a whole lot of planning and not so much doing – but I promise this part of the documentary making journey can be creative and visual. And if you cast your mind way back to part 2 of the How to make a documentary series, you’ll remember that I showed you how fun and rewarding planning can be.
If you’ve got a solid plan in place already then I’m pretty confident that you’ll find pre-production a total breeze.
What is pre-production?
When this part of the filmmaking process is completed effectively and with care, it will lay the foundations for a successful production. Music to your ears, right?
But much like building a house, the planning part can take longer than the actually making part. So don’t let crumbling motivation get the better of you if this part of the process feels like it lasts a while. Filmmaking is a marathon, not a sprint – especially if you’re making a feature length film.
Along with using the pre-production period to figure out who you’re going to work with (both crew and talent), pick locations and outline a filming schedule, you’ll also use this phase to get clear on the flow of your documentary before you start producing content.
But I’d like to put a big caveat up top here – documentary storylines do tend to shift and morph as you get deeper and deeper into the project. The “three act structure” is a big deal for narrative films but it doesn’t always apply perfectly to documentary films.
For documentaries, the way you imagine your story will play out on screen can change quite significantly the more content you capture and the more people you interview. So don’t feel like you have to be too wedded to a particular “story arc”.
Which is what pre-production for …
Map out your documentary journey
And this means everything from a rough storyline through to locations, sets, talent, props and any visual effects or creative treatments.
The team and I at Moonshine Agency find the best way to do this is by writing on index cards (which are easy enough to find at a stationery store) and sticking them to a wall.
Not only will this give you a visual overview of your project, you’ll also be able to easily move things around when something new comes into play or you decide you want to steer the film in a slightly different direction.
Having a clear and accessible overview of your project will help focus your mind on the task ahead (and anyone else you’re collaborating with).
What should you include on your index cards?
Anything and everything, truly! The beauty is that you can reposition or completely remove the cards as time ticks on. Here are some of the key elements I like to include:
Now, you might be thinking to yourself ‘How can I do this when I haven’t even shot anything yet?’ It’s a great point. As a rule, we never write scripts for our impact films (unless a project funder as specifically asked for one).
Documentaries are supposed to be unscripted after all – but they do still have a storyline. And while the exact narrative probably won’t fall into place until you’ve captured the majority of your footage, you can start piecing together a general idea of what you’d like to film and how you’d like it to hang together.
Think about the people you plan to film with and the messages they might share. How might these stories fit together in your documentary? Have a go at linking them –remember, you can shift them around! This process can really help to get your creative juices firing.
Getting music rights can take a long time – and developing a score with a composer can take even longer! So it’s a good idea to get a head start and begin thinking about the sound of your documentary during pre production. Considering music ahead of time will help you visualise your documentary and how you might shoot it too. Write down some music ideas and stick them to your wall.
Again, this might sound impossible when you’ve really not started shooting anything yet! But remember all those pre-interviews you did? If any of the conversations you had made you stop and think, write them down – they’ll probably be just as compelling or eye opening for your audience. And therefore worth including in your film.
Take note of any talent you plan to interview that you believe will be really emotionally-charged, funny or simply out of the ordinary. Consider how you might want to work these scenes into your documentary and stick it on your visual map.
If you want to incorporate animation, drone footage, time-lapse or other more “creative” shots into your documentary make a note of them and add them to your map. There’s no need to be too precise about where they might “fit” in the overall story.
Interview and shot list
Write down who you plan to film with and where they’re located. You might not be able to film with every interviewee – and every person you interview might not end up in the film. But it’s a good idea to have a visual overview of who you plan to film with.
Other production elements
Is there any previous footage you have captured that you want to include in this documentary? What about archival imagery from your talent – will you need to request any? Make a note of this and any stock footage you may need to purchase.
What to do with your map
Once you’ve got all these key elements mapped out, you’ll be able to start working on your production schedule.
Your production schedule will itemise who you’re shooting with, where and when. It’s one of my favourite parts of the filmmaking journey and I’ll be getting into all the nitty gritty in an upcoming post.
But before that happens, I’m going to take a closer look into licensing music, stock footage and imagery. So be sure to tune in next week where I’ll be covering all of this.
Until then, good luck mapping out your journey!
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