A Great PreProduction Equals a Smooth Production
This is a post about our short film “A Life Retold” and our workflow. This was a small production. The script was five pages. We had a crew of five. It took one and half days to shoot. Simple right? Easy peasy. Well it was actually. Everything went well and we had no major problem on set. The editing was smooth and everything fit. So what the heck is this post about. Well it is about the reason why everything went so buttery smooth. This post is about preproduction and how it plays such a crucial role in the production and the postproduction.
Let’s start from the beginning. We had an idea for a short. Take an object and make three short stories about that item. The goal was to make the audience get an emotional reaction from the inanimate object’s story. So I talked to my friend David Lebrun, who is an amazing script writer, about the idea and he started writing. In no time he had a first draft and then we refined it from there. Boom, just like that we had a script that we could shoot. But not so fast. We still had to take those words on the page and translate them into a shot list and visual language. Why? What’s the importance in that? keep reading.
I took an excel document and made a shot list. I went shot by shot, giving an explanation of the camera angle, the equipment that will be used, the lenses focal length, lighting notes, frame rate, location, and which cast was required for the shot. I did this in sequence. By the end of the script, I had 30 shots. Not bad. So I take that roadmap and I import into this magical software call ShotLister for the iPad. It is a wonderful program and you should check out their website for more information. Once imported, we started creating the schedule. This part is all about efficiencies. Finding a way to shoot the shot needed without duplicating a setup or wasting time. So we looked at all the fields in the shot list, from type of equipment to the lighting setup needed for each shot. We created a shot order based on what would take the least time to turn around. We had a lot of slow dolly shots that needed tracks. So we made sure to knock off all of the track dolly shots first, regardless if the shot was from episode 1, 2 or 3. We made sure to mark which episode the shot was for so we would know which state the sock should be in.
There we go, we got ourselves a shotlist. From that, the ShotLister can create a PDF call sheet that can be emailed to all of your crew. I find this process so important to any production, especially a narrative as this. The most important reason is that you know what you are shooting. When you wake up on the day of production, you don’t have to worry about what you will be shooting and think of how each shot will fit into the structure of the story. You know that on the day you have 30 shots to shoot, and if you get all of those, you know that you can cut something together no problem. You can concentrate more on each shot and make them as best as you can, without the pressure of coming up with the next shot. And that leads me to the next reason why I think this is hugely important. You are not wasting time. Let me rephrase that, you are not wasting other people’s time. See as the director, your require to put in the time. You are expected to take this from start to finish. It is your project and you making this come to life, so you are expected to put your time in the project. But when you have other people on set, wether they are volunteering or getting paid, you do not want to waster their time. Take advantage of this opportunity where you have a group of skilled people to help you. Have everything setup and always have food! Knowing what you will be shooting next is great way to show leadership. As you are done with the shot, the crew is already setting up the next shot. No waste of time and you look like you know what you are doing, and hopefully you do.
Another bonus with using ShotLister, is that it keeps you on time. You can setup how much time each shot will take, and from that the software calculates the total time your shoot. On the day of the shoot, ShotLister also tells if you are ahead of schedule or running behind. It is a great indicator of how you are doing or if you have to pick up the pace on the next shot. You can also move, delete or add shots on the fly as the day progressing. This is a godsent for first AD’s. No more callsheet full of read scribble marks. Did I mentioned that I really like this app.
One more rant, and I promise all of this is over. Now your are probably thinking, that is lovely and all, but what about the happy accidents or being organic and shooting in the moment. A lot of people say that is where the best shots come from. Filmmaking is an art and your putting everything in conservative box that doesn’t let you think outside. My response to that is, “Zip your face! I didn’t say that.”. Let me clarify, by no means am I saying that you cannot get any other shot then what is on the shotlist. I am not saying that if there is a perfect shot behind you with golden sunset and a pure white unicorn walking into the horizon that you cannot turn the camera around and shoot it. What I am saying is that on shoot day, you have an roadmap. You know that if you go out and shoot what is on the shotlist you have yourself a film. But only use it as a roadmap. I don’t care if the first AD screams at you, if you got a great moment with an actor, take advantage of it. Maybe get a second shot of him. Use your judgement. But in the same sense don’t mess up the whole shooting day because you want to get a particular shot which is just not working out or taking up to much time. It is all about negotiating Give and take. It is your vision. But if you don’t move on you won’t have a film. Know when to stay your grounds but also recognize that you will have to leave shots behind. Often times I had to leave shots behind and go with plan b which in the end probably worked out better.
And I stop here. I am all flustered now and my fingers are cramping up. If you made it all the way to the bottom, what I am trying to say is that the more prepared you are, the better things will flow. You will be less stressed out during the shoot and will be able to be more creative with your shots.