Pre-production in film or television represents a major pivot point in the life cycle of any project. It’s during the pre-production stage that a project officially begins its metamorphosis from a concept that exists on paper to an experience that exists on screen.
But while that pre-production definition sounds nice in theory, what is pre-production in the real world? What does it mean in practical terms? What is the actual work of the film or TV pre-production process like on a day-to-day basis?
In this post, we’ll explore the essential elements of pre-pro in order to go beyond basic definitions and bring you an in-depth understanding of what happens during pre-production stages in film, television, and commercial filmmaking.
To properly define pre-production, let's distinguish this stage from the others that come before and after.
Pre-production in film, television, or commercial filmmaking technically encompasses all the tasks that happen after the project’s initial development phase and before cameras actually start rolling.
Basically, if your production has a greenlight but hasn’t started shooting, it’s in the pre-production stage. Watch Ryan Connolly of Film Riot discuss his pre-production process for his short film.
In most cases, contrary to some pre-production definitions on the internet, examples of pre-production steps do NOT include tasks like securing film financing or “finalizing” the screenplay.
If you’re still arranging for financing, your project has not exited the development phase. And, as for the screenplay, it won’t be “finalized” until well into post-production. (In fact, somewhat ironically, one of many recurring pre-production steps for the production department will be to keep track of script changes and communicate them to key crew.
Making sure that everyone is operating from the same screenplay version from greenlight to wrap is an essential component of effective production management.)
The purpose and meaning of pre-production in film, television, or commercials is literally to prepare for production. The individual elements of pre-production are, therefore, those that connect the dots between ideas and reality.
Let’s clarify by focusing on some specific pre-production steps.
The pre-production stage can be surprisingly variable in length, depending on whether we’re talking about pre-production in film, television, commercials, or some other format altogether. There can be very long pre-production timelines, just as there can be stressfully short pre-production timelines.
Yet the meaning of pre-production work dictates that many of the same basic tasks be performed regardless of the length of your pre-production timeline. What happens during pre-production on a long pre-production timeline will look similar to the pre-production steps performed on a short pre-production timeline. The exact length of time allotted to the pre-production stage does not matter.
And what does that tell us about the elements of pre-production work from a practical point of view?
It tells us that different commercial, film, or TV pre-production steps frequently have to happen at the same time.
Typical explorations of the pre-production definition tend to describe the pre-production stage as a straightforward, linear process, but that’s generally not the case. In fact, different pre-production steps must often be performed in parallel to one another.
For the purposes of this post, we’re going to break down individual pre-production steps in a loose order, focusing primarily on the overarching concerns of the production department. However, it’s vital to remember that jumping forward or backward to different elements of pre-production throughout the pre-production stage is not only acceptable but will often be crucial to your project’s success.
As we explore various pre-production steps, we’ll occasionally point out critical differences between pre-production in film and other formats.
By the end of this post, you’ll be able to form your own answer to three big questions about the meaning of pre-production:
With that in mind, let’s outline each step during this stage of a production with a pre-production checklist.
Now we’re ready to jump in...starting from the top:
During the pre-production stage, everything stems from the script. Pre-production meetings revolve around the script. Pre-production teams constantly reference the script. Pre-production planning, quite frankly, can’t happen without the script, (yes, we know this isn’t always the case- Mad Max: Fury Road started with storyboards).
And that’s why the script breakdown is so critical for pre-production in film or television.
A script breakdown identifies and catalogues all the important elements of a screenplay. From locations to characters to individual props, the script breakdown builds an initial list of components required for your project.
As you might guess, the script breakdown will go on to inform countless tasks within the pre-production stage.
Everything from budget-building to casting to location-scouting to scheduling to arranging the most minute of details will be impacted by the contents of the script breakdown. It is the first of many documents critical to coordinating your crew, arguably second only to the screenplay itself.
The production department’s breakdown offers a detailed overview of the project, but it’s not uncommon for individual department heads to perform breakdowns focused on their specific areas of interest.
If you were to ask an assistant director, for instance, they would tell you their initial breakdowns focus on locations, characters, and page counts. Meanwhile, a production designer’s initial breakdown might focus on props and sets.
Contrary to film or TV pre-production, the script breakdown has a more casual role in the pre-production stage of a commercial.
Because commercials are not generally built from a standard screenplay format, the idea of a script breakdown as an individual document is often a non-starter.
However, the script breakdown’s basic functions will have to be compensated for with other documents, tasks, or communications. Even without a breakdown, your crew will need to remain on the same page and make sure that it is accounting for the totality of your project’s needs.
If a crew fails to do so, trust us, the client will let the producer know.
Next to the screenplay, what is pre-production’s second strongest driving force?
From the very beginning of the pre-production stage, pre-production planning must proceed within the constraints of the production’s budget. To do otherwise would create major problems for the project’s future production and post-production phases.
Pre-production in film carries the advantage of operating from a single budget that can evolve over time. That is not to say that building or tracking a budget for a feature film is easy, but it does allow for a certain simplicity of focus.
In TV pre-production, on the other hand, budgets have to be managed with both individual episodes and entire seasons in mind simultaneously. Going significantly over budget on a single episode early on, for example, might seriously impact production on the season finale. For that reason, budget-building during TV pre-production often requires a great deal of long-term strategy.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the challenge of budget-building in commercial filmmaking is in its raw speed. The commercial pre-production stage moves fast. Initial budgets are built according to the AICP bid form as a prerequisite to contracts being awarded in the first place, meaning that entire productions are dependent, in part, on early budget precision.
Regardless of format, the budget will act as a critical guideline for making decisions throughout a project’s pre-production phase.
Whether you’re entering pre-production in film, television, or on a commercial, you’re going to need to hire key crew members early on to get the process started.
If you’re a savvy producer, you’ll likely begin this effort with your core pre-production team.
Next, you’ll focus on hiring department heads.
In coordination with the director, department heads will be the driving creative forces with whom you’ll strategize to get the project on screen on time and, preferably, under budget.
After that, department heads will largely take over filling out the rest of the crew leading up to the start of production.
While some members of the cast may be brought onto your project before it enters the pre-production stage, it’s important to prioritize casting of other key roles early on.
Whether it’s pre-production in film, television, or on a commercial, talent availability is a major factor in determining the production’s shooting schedule.
The primary difference between casting’s role in pre-production in film versus television or on a commercial is, again, the timeline.
The vast majority of a feature film’s casting will likely be accomplished before the production schedule is set.
The casting of a commercial often happens very fast according to a pre-established timeframe.
And the casting of a television show can vary. Lead and recurring roles are generally cast before a season sets its schedule, while guest roles may be cast much closer to shooting dates, with some roles being cast while earlier episodes within a season are already in production.
Locations represent another major factor in determining a production’s schedule. Combine that fact with the influence locations have over a production’s myriad logistical concerns and it quickly becomes clear that location scouting is one of the most important elements of pre-production in film, television, or on a commercial.
The process of choosing the right location is multi-layered and can take considerable time. In order to ensure that your project’s creative needs remain the top priority, it’s best to start the work of scouting as early as possible, and get your location release form signed.
Once you’ve reached decisions on your various locations and their places in your schedule, don’t forget to obtain proper permitting. The Wrapbook blog maintains several resources to help you navigate that process in most North American production hubs:
And if you’re shooting in Los Angeles or New York City, Wrapbook has also put together comprehensive permit eBooks to guide you through the process step-by-step.
The shooting schedule will likely be one of the most hotly debated items in every pre-production meeting you attend.
Because the shooting schedule will act as the framework for the entire production and there are literally hundreds of factors that it has to take into account before cameras start rolling.
The director, producer, cast, department heads, and more will all have unique constraints and areas of concern, each of which is more or less valid and each of which the schedule must attempt to address.
More than that, along with the budget, the schedule is a fundamental operating document.
From background talent bookings to special equipment rentals, there are a multitude of decisions that must be made in sync with the shooting schedule. And, in any form of filmmaking, almost every decision carries an associated cost.
Scheduling during pre-production in film or television can be a massive undertaking, while scheduling a commercial is simplified slightly thanks to relatively short shoot durations. The trade-off, of course, is that commercial schedules must be constructed faster and with much less room for error than those of feature films or television shows.
Fortunately, in most cases, the 1st AD is responsible for the most challenging aspects of scheduling. However, the responsibility for coordinating, communicating, and keeping everything up to date with the steady stream of schedule changes falls squarely on the shoulders of the production department.
As the creative vision for your project evolves, it may be necessary to create tools or documents explicitly designed to communicate that vision with various crew members.
The process of creating these documents is not the responsibility of the production department, but coordination and communication are always chief production concerns.
Traditionally, storyboards and shot lists are the pre-production weapons of choice in this arena, but new technology is constantly opening doors to surprising possibilities.
Software like Backlot allows filmmakers to pre-visualize their projects in excruciating detail well before principal photography begins.
This can save time, money, and effectively change the came when trying to win bids.
Throughout the entire process of pre-production in film, television, or on a commercial, you’re going to be juggling an incredible assortment of details that we won’t be covering in-depth here, most of which will require extensive documentation.
I’m talking about all of the little-but-critical tasks that tend to get left out of your average pre-production examples.
They may not be glamorous, but all of these steps (and more) are important. They’re the steps that get your production ready to roll in a safe, legal, and efficient manner. The production department must perform its due diligence with these little details and documents in order to set their project up for a successful production phase.
Of course, doing so is made much easier with Wrapbook.
Wrapbook is a powerful platform for production management that combines innovative entertainment payroll solutions with top-class production insurance and a constantly growing array of unique features.
Throughout pre-production in film, television, or on a commercial, things are constantly changing.
The cast changes. The crew changes. The schedule changes. The equipment list changes. Everything changes, so on and so forth, until pre-production ends, the producer ends up in therapy, or some combination of the two.
Fortunately, there is a silver lining.
There comes a time when the changes must stop and decisions must be locked in.
Services must be scheduled. Payments must be rendered. Commitments must be made.
This is the home stretch of pre-production and is often the most challenging part of a production department’s pre-production experience. It requires that directors and department heads be coaxed into transforming abstract possibilities into definite choices. It’s where all the i’s are dotted and all the t’s are crossed.
As you can imagine, locking everything in before a project enters the production phase of its life cycle requires enormous effort and attention to detail, but the process is often its own reward.
As each detail solidifies, the production department is highly aware that the project is taking another step forward on its journey from imagination to reality.
And that’s what filmmaking is all about.
Before we wrap up our exploration of pre-production, let’s touch briefly on an outlier situation:
Pre-production in animation.
Because of the nature of animation, the lines between post-production, production, and pre-production in animation are less clear than what we might expect from live-action filmmaking, but the broad principles of pre-production still apply.
Budgeting, scheduling, and planning are still crucial in animation pre-production. Hiring the right cast and crew still means the world to an animated project’s success. Storyboards and other pre-visualization techniques not only still exist but take on monumental importance for an animated film.
The primary difference between pre-production in live-action filmmaking and pre-production in animation is the way that pre-production in animation overlaps with other phases of a project’s life cycle.
As stated above, the lines between traditional production phases are blurrier in animation, but this also extends to the development phase. While there’s a clear cut from development to pre-production in most live-action filmmaking, elements of development are often essential to the pre-production stage in animation.
Story beats, character designs, and aesthetic styles are all subject to changes great and small throughout the process of an animated film’s creation.
What we’ve discussed in this post forms the bones of pre-production across multiple formats, but our list of pre-production steps certainly isn’t exhaustive.
The most important thing to remember in getting any project ready for its production phase is to remain open to possibilities and vigilant against potential challenges. If you suddenly realize you have to figure out how to start a production company, in order to produce your next project, don’t panic; simply focus on the task at hand.
Scouting production locations? We’re breaking down 10 states with considerable film tax breaks so you can get the most bang for your budget buck.
Wrapbook's newest resource is our podcast, "On Production," which features experts in the field and tips on how to navigate the production world. Check it out!