Video Tips & Tricks: Pre-Production

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    The script is arguably the most important part of filmmaking, yet it often seems to get overlooked. There aren’t any definitive rules or magic formulas for producing a good story. However, the best stories tend to not happen overnight. Spend time developing and refining an idea, editing it, and repeating that process 500 times until you get something you can be happy with. Follow a three act structure. For shorts, still follow a three act structure, but keep the plot simple. Get other people to read the script and give feedback. Hire an editor.

    Writing styles vary based on the type of film medium you plan on using. A short film will tend to be the most flexible, relying more on editing and cinematic cuts than a lengthy script. Documentaries require a lot of narration. Television scripts have lots of dialogue, with different writers focusing on either standalone episodes or linear story arcs that may be extended over several seasons. A screenplay goes through several revision stages and has to be formatted a specific way so everyone involved in the production stays on the same page.

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    Script Breakdown

    After the final script has been approved, the next step is to analyze it to pieces. Reread the script multiple times while marking or highlighting sections. The idea is to delineate a clear visual breakdown of all the scenes, characters, props, and locations so that the production schedule can be organized according to the needs of the script.

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    A lot of respected filmmakers blame CGI and mindless action movies for ruining cinema, while other people see independent art house films as pretentious for trying to be more profound and thought-provoking than they really are. The reality is that genres are subjective to personal taste, but a truly great film, video, or series will transcend the genre if it has high production values.

    Having a clear genre or theme to your work will help define the purpose of what you are trying to achieve. In general, it’s better to do one aspect really well than to try out twenty themes and subplots that will only get convoluted. A science fiction action comedy drama romance revenge-thriller with time travel and rumination on the nature of whether people possess free will might be a bit too broad. Keep things simple.


    99 percent of live action narrative dramas center around human actors, so casting the right people for the main roles is kind of a big deal. Everyone has seen some movies with wooden acting and unconvincing performances, which is what you as a filmmaker want to avoid if you ever want your videos to be taken seriously at the professional level. Unfortunately, most first time directors don’t have the luxury of getting to choose from a range of trained thespians, and hiring actors can be out of the budget range. You might be lucky if you can drag your biology-major roommate in front of the camera long enough to halfheartedly read a few lines before refusing to do any more.

    Not having access to actors who are comfortable taking stage directions makes it somewhat difficult to produce a compelling video. Do the best with what you have to work with, and be sure to thank your volunteers for trying. Try to at least get the person to do a practice walkthrough and line reading before filming. Shooting everything in one pass is a recipe for disaster. Negative criticism brings down actor enthusiasm, so be positive with any suggestions or requests for scene reshoots, and keep in mind that the performance isn’t going to be at the same level of an experienced method actor.

    If possible, you can try and reach out to the drama department or local theatre groups. In general it’s polite to give a little advance notice for audition times and provide a partial script. Good acting isn’t something that can be done at the drop of a hat; it takes a lot of research, practice run-throughs, and mental preparation to really get in character. There needs to be serious conversation back and forth between the actor and director over the course of multiple takes to really bring out nuanced Oscar-quality performances. Project deadlines don’t always allow for a whole lot of preparation for casting calls, but if you go on to work on any kind of films in the future, finding talented actors is something that a lot of research and effort should be put into.

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    Casting Extras

    When you need a crowd of 50 zombies for your short film, you will need to issue a casting call for background extras. Depending on the budget, genre, and date of shooting, extras may need to be fed, costumed, and paid for their assistance. Having lots of extras on location can be a nightmare to organize and coordinate, so prepare to set aside some extra time for shooting.

    The Screen Actors Guild enforces specific minimum payment amounts for actors, including extras and non-speaking roles. You might not have to worry about that for an independent short film made with friends and family volunteers, but be aware of the policies if you are wanting to produce a film that will be screened in professional venues.

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    Location Scouting

    Before you starting shooting a video or film, it is a good idea to scout out some locations. It can be rather costly to transport film crew, actors, and equipment around the world. Depending on the budget, you may be restricted to your local settings. Make the most of what is available.


    In many instances it is necessary to obtain legal permits before shooting, especially in cities, crowded public spaces, and foreign countries. Obtaining legal documentation from civic administrators can sometimes be a hassle, especially if you have no clue who to ask permission from. Usually filming regulations are determined by the state or city, and local film commission offices can generally offer help services. In certain cases there might be some fees involved. As an independent filmmaker or student filmmaker, there might be some discounts available. Bureaucracy tends to process requests slowly, so don’t leave the paperwork until the last minute.

    Some people don’t like being caught on camera, even if it is in the background of a shot. For legal reasons it is not recommended to film random people without consulting them or having them sign a contract.

    Don’t trespass on private property. Even if it appears like you are filming in the middle of nowhere, the land might belong to someone else, so make sure to check beforehand. GPS coordinates might help clear up any uncertainties. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.

    If your short film has animals of any kind, it is necessary to have a professional handler on location to ensure the animal is not harmed during the production. If said animal is a pet, make sure the owner grants permission.

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    During production, everyone is going to be too busy and stressed out to worry about sorting out minutiae. Organize everything before shooting begins. Create a production calendar and distribute call sheets for actors and crew. Make advance reservations and have back up plans for every worst case scenario. Communicate clearly with crew members so everyone is on the same page.

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