Notes From the Field

Folks often ask me how I prepare for a shoot. While there are a multitude of ways to get ready (and therefore many ways to answer this question) I do have a system in place. This system assumes that you have more than one active role in the project. Here’s how it breaks down:

1. Journal

I bring a journal to every pre-production meeting I have with clients, directors, producers, and crew members. While digital devices are great, I can never tell if someone is glancing at their emails, checking Facebook, or actually taking notes. Writing things on paper is clear to everyone around me that I am focused on the project. Additionally, it’s easier to draw lighting setups or potential camera movements on paper.

2. Film References

I like to get the conversation going by sharing films that we like and that could have influenced the project at hand. This helps tremendously in our effort to understand, both technically and aesthetically, what the client or director are going for. As well as determine if we are a good match for the project.

I once sat down with a director who began envisioning a project as “film noir-meets science fiction-meets Kung Fu—but in a funny way”. It was great that he knew exactly what he wanted, which saved us both a lot of time as I was definitely not interested.

3. Script

The script is by far the most important piece to any video production puzzle. Do we have a script? Is it original or is it an adaptation? Is the writer involved in the project? If there isn’t a script yet, who is going to write the script and when will it be written?

This is a very important step. Even though I always write my own projects, it needs to be clearly defined who will perform this integral part when it comes to someone else’s project. I have been using a free application called Celtx and I am very happy with the results. Final Draft and Adobe Story are two, more popular, applications if you;re willing to pay the price. However, Celtx gets the job done just fine.

4. Location Scouting

I am often surprised to find how many people ignore this critical step. In cities like New York things change, and they change fast. The park that you so fondly remember is now a parking lot. And that awesome abandoned building? Well, it’s now a super luxury condo.

How tall are the ceilings? What is the color of the walls? Where are the windows? Can we turn off the ventilation system or the floor lights? Do we have easy access to power outlets? Do we have access to the loading dock and the freight elevator? Are there limited access hours? It is essential that you know the answers to all these questions first-hand before you plan your shoot. I need to see this with my own eyes and it always pays to plan ahead.

5. Shot List

As soon as I have the script, I start creating a shot list. What kind of gear do we need? Do we own it? What do we need to rent? How many shots can we accomplish in one day? The answers to these questions can vary greatly depending on location, the scene’s complexity, permits, and even the weather.

6. Crew

The two main questions are: Who would be ideal for this job? And: Who is available? The answers often don’t match up. Once you have your “dream team” in place it is important to clearly define tasks and deadlines. At a minimum you will need a director, producer, director of photography, gaffer, grip, and (most importantly) a sound engineer. You will also need an experienced editor. If you are only two people on the job, this does not mean that all these jobs go away or are not needed. It only means that each of you will be doing several jobs at once. Which is perfectly fine, but it will require more skills and more time.

7. Budget

This is the producer’s kingdom and perhaps the most important and difficult task to master. Additional gear, unreliable talent and crew, unpredictable weather, re-shoots, or client revisions can throw a perfectly calculated budget out the window. It is very easy to underestimate the time needed for post-production. Leave ample room for emergencies (loss and damages). The money always runs out faster towards the end.

8. Location Permits

This is also the producer’s responsibility and something I try to stay away from as much as possible. Since most of us don’t have access to Hollywood-style studios and production budgets, being creative is extremely important. There are several beautiful abandoned buildings on Wall Street that no one knows about. In the Bronx there are fantastic mansions that you can shoot if you know the right people. Battery Park is federal property while Central Park is not. Both require shooting permits that are issued by different offices. Having access to locations that other people don’t is a producer’s key asset.

9. Food

I believe that feeding your crew well is paramount when planning a shoot. It is the least you can do for people giving you their time and knowledge and making your dreams possible. Unless you are in high school and this is your first shoot, pizza for lunch five days in a row won’t cut it anymore.  Hire a caterer or ask friends and family to pitch in. No matter how you do it, make them happy. Happy people make happy projects.

10. Workflow

I cannot emphasize this enough: test your complete workflow before you start shooting. Test your file formats, memory cards, hard drives, editing software, and never, ever, bring gear that you don’t know how to use to a client shoot. Rent your gear at least a day in advance so you can familiarize yourself with all the bells and whistles, as well as identify any potential issues.

11. Back-Up Plan

You can control many things, but you cannot control the weather. You always need a plan B. If you show up and no one is there, what do you do? If the chosen location is not available—let’s say a beautiful conference room is now taken by a visiting big shot—where do you go next? If you have 10 people with you, how will you be moving around? I always bring a back up for any essential piece of equipment. This is common sense, but sometimes the most obvious decisions are the ones we tend to  overlook the most.

12. Apps

With the current smart phone applications available, you don’t need to bring much gear when scouting a location or on a shoot. I use Google Documents to share information with the rest of the crew in one single document (call sheet) containing the day’s itinerary, schedule, contact information, locations, weather forecasts, last-minute details, etc. Starting time changed? Are we switching locations? No problem. With Google Docs everyone has access to the most current version of any document. I also love Google Earth as I can determine accurate sunrise and sunset times, discover interesting vantage points, and even find nearby accommodations for pretty much any location worldwide. We also use Dropbox and WeTransfer to exchange large files.

I truly hope this list helps you to streamline your pre-production workflow. These are all things that I have learned from experience and that have been extremely helpful on every project. If you want to share your experiences or add something I might have missed please add your comments below.

 


Eduardo Angel is an independent Technology Consultant, Educator, and Visual Storyteller based in Brooklyn, NY. He currently teaches at The School of Visual Arts and the International Center of Photography, and mentors the photography program at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

He is a co-founder of the idea production company The Digital Distillery, author of popular filmmaking courses on Lynda.com, and regularly shares his thoughts on technology, photography, and cinema on his website eduardoangel.com.

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