Pre Production | Devil In The Details
Although a somewhat mundane conversation to have for most people who work in production, pre-production and prep is the most valuable part of the process, and is crucial to success on set and in the editing room. Camera department knows this all too well, but I’d like to focus on it as far as directing is concerned, and illustrate how much of a difference the carpenters rule can make in the heat of the moment.
I am of the mindset that 80% of directing is done before you show. Preparation for a shoot is almost more important than anything else. The work you put in before you show up on set, frees you up to be reactive and free in the moment. It allows you to play, and it also helps the machine run like a swiss clock. Peace of mind is freedom.
Of course this process looks different for every person, but these fundamentals below are what I’ve found to be incredibly effective.
Arguably the most important part of the process, it’s your bible, your north star and the blueprint for building the project. Without a solid treatment, the client can’t see the vision and you and your team are essentially improvising the process. A good treatment can set you apart from other directors stylistically, and add a layer of trust and professionalism with your client and crew. It provides consistency and a scaffolding for the logistics of production.
Vision: It’s a document that communicates your vision. It should impart the essence of the project to your crew, and provide a clear prompt as to what you are executing.
Aesthetic: It establishes the visual language of what you are making. This is especially important for your DOP, as he/she will be able to build a team and source equipment to execute the desired aesthetic.
Deeper Message: If you have themes, metaphors, or deep esoteric messages that are an underlying theme of the piece, this is a place to express and impart those feelings.
Budgeting: The harsh reality of our business is that you are restricted or liberated by the budget. It’s important to be pragmatic when writing a treatment as it will help your producer build a realistic plan of attack.
Once your treatment is solidified, you need to sit down with your DOP/Cinematographer and discuss how to bring this vision to life from a technical stand point. Often times I consult with a DOP before writing the treatment so that we don’t scope creep. If it was up to them, they’d have a batman-esque cave full of toys to fight crime with, but sometimes this is not possible due to funds. So, having a pragmatic conversation about what is doable and how you will technically accomplish the goals of the project is super important. Same goes for wardrobe, art department etc.
Write a Script:
Whether it’s a documentary driven project, comedy, drama or a commercial I find it helpful to write a script and story arch. It’s more of an outline than a script, but basically, make sure you layout the 3 acts and how this thing will flow.
Obviously if it’s a narrative concept, it’s going to have an existing script. In that case, still write a story arch or outline. How will this line of dialogue be visually portrayed? What is the tone of the scene? This can be done with story boards or a written outline.
With Documentary, this is even more important. You have to visualize the story as an edited piece before executing. Otherwise your time will be spent in the wrong areas. You will overshoot, and likely be scrambling for shot selections as you get into the cut. This allows you to be effective with your coverage, and makes your documentary film shine like a scripted narrative concept.
Once you have a treatment, or a script it’s time to reverse engineer that treatment into a breakdown of shots. I try to do this in a loose schedule format so I can take it to the producer and let them retrofit it into an actual schedule on the client side. This buys you freedom on set. There have been times where I’ve literally scratched scenes on the fly, because I know we got better coverage of the scene prior, and it’s freed up hours of a production day to experiment.
Once on set, this will all reveal it’s value. As a director when you are on set, you are the general. You are the leader. People look to you for answers. Sometimes you do not have those answers, but deliver decisions anyways. All of this preparation will allow you to feel confident and give you deep conviction in those big decisions.
Another helpful hint for being on set is to think like an editor while directing. How will these clips bump up against each other? Will they create an effective scene? What sort of coverage do you need to pull it off? If you can visualize how this thing will be constructed in post while on set, the completed project will be closer to what your vision was in your treatment. Visualization is half of completion.
The basic idea is that you do the leg work ahead of time so that you are not ever overwhelmed during the process of constructing the project. The carpenter’s rule is a great analogy for what we do because at the end of the day you are the foreman constructing the building with your team. If the foreman has no idea what he is building, he cannot communicate effectively to his team, and the project will suffer. We are craftsman first. It’s a skill, and it requires tact to execute.
Rarely does the vision in our heads align with the final product, but by following the steps above hopefully this will give you a better chance at success, and get you closer to bringing that idea in your head into the world in a pragmatic and effective way.