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My approach to pre-production as a Director – an Overview

Three weeks today and we’ll be more than halfway through filming my short film, Changing Tides.

Being the Writer, Director and Producer, you might be wondering what I’ve been doing to prepare. (If you know me through work you might be wondering, what haven’t I been doing?) Truth is, I’m a preparer. That might not sound very ‘creative’, but I firmly believe the more you prepare the more creative you can be. And in filmmaking being prepared is extremely important.

Today, I’m going to share an overview of the pre-production work I’ve been doing with my Director cap on (not an actual cap because they all make me look like Slash, which is great if you’re Slash, not so great if you’re me). Plus, why I think preparing is so important.

In future blogs I will delve deeper into my process and share my approach to writing and producing.

So, why is it so important to prepare?

In film, it’s common practice to shoot out of sequence. On our shoot, we’re filming all the outside walking scenes in the morning and the kitchen scenes in the afternoon. Friday and Saturday are all the living room scenes. And Sunday we’re heading back outside for more shooting. It might sound counterintuitive to do it this way, but it actually makes sense.

Each location has different technical set-ups (camera, lighting, sound, etc.) and it takes time to travel between locations. Shooting linear would make everything a lot slower (time is money), create more work for the crew and break up the narrative flow even more for the actors. Having this all planned and shared in advance means everyone knows what they are doing and what is expected of them. They'll always be logistical hiccups on the day, but planning in advance means you're only dealing with hiccups and not the whole kit and kaboodle whilst also trying to film.

Shooting out of sequence means the Director needs to know the script inside and out. I wrote the thing and lived the experience, but doing my Director’s script analysis (all 10,000 words of it for a 20 min short – told you I’m a preparer) taught me things about the characters and story I hadn’t noticed before.

Script analysis helps you find the ‘spine’ of the characters, the emotional ‘beats’ in each scene and the overarching narrative themes of the story. Script analysis is a bit like being a life coach for the characters. You look at each line of text, verbal and non-verbal, and continually ask questions. Why did they say this and not that? How did they want the other person to feel? What do they really mean when they are saying this? What are they hiding? The questions are endless and so are the options for delivery. It’s not a Director’s job to make the character choices, that’s what the excellent actors are there for. But it is their job to make sure the overarching narrative, story ‘spine’ and themes are coherent and present throughout the whole story. I guess it’s a bit like being a conductor in an orchestra, everyone plays their own important and skilled part and the Director makes sure they’re all playing the same song, in time and to the best of their ability.

Directors also do script analysis so they can visualise the script and know how they want to capture it on camera. What camera angle serves the emotional intention and narrative arc of the scene and story? They then work with their Director of Photography (DoP) to map this out in a Shot List. I’ll share more details on my approach to script analysis and shot listing in a future blog.

Now remember I said we shoot out of sequence? It’s the Directors job to make sure everyone knows exactly where they are in the script, what that scene is saying for the bigger story and what happened just before and just after, so it doesn’t look like an incoherent mess when you come to edit. They must have the big narrative picture, the small scene narrative and each character’s emotional journey etched on the brain. It’s a lot for one person, like rubbing your tummy, patting your head and spinning three plates all at the same time. But if you’ve done your prep all those things will be etched on your brain (and most likely in your folder with your script and other notes), so you are in control from the start.

Now do you see why I think prep work is so important? Without it each out-of-sequence scene could tell a completely different story, your cast and crew would be at their wits end and you’d end up with a finished film that makes no sense at all.

Lucky for me, I’m a planning geek, so I’ve really enjoyed the process.

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