Nothing beats being prepared for a project... They say.
For many years I dreamed about having $10k, $50k, or even $100k project budgets. It's exciting to think about the creative things we could do with bigger budgets. Money grants us the ability to solve many problems, but it also increases the stakes. What if, when I get one of those opportunities, I'm not prepared to handle it, or worse, I get one, and it looks the same as what I've already done. There are a few actions we can take now that cost nothing financially that could help us level up projects quickly and prepare us to manage the dream budgets.
Today we're diving into Pre-Production.
I firmly believe in the power of clear information, communication, organization, and a well-oiled process. For the most part, all of this is free but cost us the most valuable and impactful resource, time. How we use our time has a direct reflection on our outcome. It's the ultimate accountability tool. I operate each day, project, and touchpoint with the idea that I'm moving the needle of my business forward incrementally in a healthy, sustainable way (Kaizen Methodology). I wanted to share a few tips we've gained over the years that have made the most significant difference in our shoot day effectiveness.
Initially, it was all fun, and games and projects had less risk. It's easy to miss the carefree fun of jumping in and making something brand new, but we don't miss the 20-hour days we often found ourselves in because we just went with the flow. Talk about a need for better time management. Can you imagine how my team felt? Me too, because some of them left me behind, and I don't blame them one bit. We reduced the time on projects the most when we started hashing out more concise shot lists. It's not that we needed something to tell us what a project should look like, but removing the guesswork of what was required dramatically helped us stay on task. Shooting what you know you need for a project to be complete and seeing it all checked off eases the minds of all parties.
This has evolved over the years, and everyone does it differently. I don't think there's an entirely correct manner, but we have a way that works well for us. Usually, in terms of lighting and set design often. These make up our scenes for a project, and each scene has shots within it (sequences). With music videos, we always start with band-related sequences because it creates more momentum. On commercial shoots, it's the interviews and gathering story points that inform a lot about the b-roll, generating better ideas. Building our day like this lets us set the shot list in terms of priority and gives us more freedom on the more creative shots. Start simple and work you're way up. It builds confidence and usually gets the action starting quicker.
I love how Jake and Tom talk about shot lists in this episode of Quick Takes - I highly recommend their podcast to filmmakers and creatives.
02: CALL SHEETS
The next item is call sheets. These come in many shapes and sizes, and some producers get lost in their real purpose. For example, freelancers have been plagued with the 11p call sheet for a 6a call time. This is a real issue. Call sheets do several things, but information sharing and team & client alignment are the easiest way to look at them. Every successful production wants to be efficient, on time, and feel like a team with chemistry, so as creatives, we should be doing our best to use the information to create power. This can be as simple as a schedule, contact info, location, and job description, or very thorough with specifically assigned tasks. The more projects you do, the more issues you proactively identify and solve beforehand.
When I form a call sheet, I start from a place of basics; client, project type, date(s), schedule, team names and roles, client names, and talent. This is basically a CALL SHEET 101, but we usually take them a few steps deeper with camera tech, lighting details, scene details, shot lists per scene, mood boards, team and client to-do lists, and goals of the shoot. We do this because it allows us to proactively answer questions, be accountable, and, most importantly, save time. In addition, call sheets are a great visualization exercise, forcing you to estimate tasks and become more in-tune with your day. That's been a big way I reduce my pre-shoot nerves.
03: PREP DAYS
Whether renting, using your gear, or a hybrid of the two, prep days are valuable, and you should definitely be doing them. Admittedly for years, we did the bare minimum of charging batteries and maybe loading a vehicle the night before. You can get by, but today I know how I work best and what reduces my stress. It's prep days. Knowing I have every tool loaded days before a project, everything is charged, paperwork is done, and I'm waking up and heading to set to get right to work is freeing. It allows me to be present in execution without worrying I missed something and will have to find some creative solution around a critical piece of gear or delay the schedule.
Our projects vary in prep, but before every project, we look over the needed items on the call sheet, pack the cases, charge the batteries, test cables, pre-rig our camera and wireless monitors, load up the cars, and pack our hard drives. Our prep days usually take between 2-8 hours, depending on how extensive the project is and how many technical pieces there are. It's obvious, but the biggest takeaway is how much time this creates on production day for a less rushed start, but to me, it always translates to safer productions. I've hated some projects I've worked on where the team felt rushed for the sake of getting set, so we emphasize this step to ensure our team can take their time and freely communicate with the team for the best success rate.
Everyone under the sun says communication is important, but what type of communication and what topics? It's easy to have a casual call or text chain and call it communication, but how is it positively affecting your project's success rate. We've also had our share of being on set and needing more clarity on the project's goals, leaving us working reactively to every new situation. Communication is anything that shares information to empower, inspire, and prepare our team, client, or talent for the project. This impacts everything from above.
We do a few things in specific manners for a handful of reasons. Once we have the call sheet, rentals, and prep for a project placed, we like to do production calls with our team. In these calls, we go over the call sheet specifics, their roles and responsibilities, and critical things they can do best for the project, and we leave the floor open for questions or concerns they have. In addition, we like to explain how the project came to be and what it means for all. A considerable part of our team culture is treating everyone respectfully and seeing eye to eye. Transparency opens the door for trust, which makes our set experience so enjoyable for all involved.
Shot lists - Name the priorities
Call Sheets - The Plan
Prep Days - Increasing Creative Solutions
Communication - Aligning the Team Towards Common Goals
Nothing really beats being prepared for a shoot. This list works for us to reduce stress, mentally prepare, show our work, and create alignment for all parties. A few years back, we thought our only issue was limited budgets and that they were holding our creative thriving. At that time, we had some variety of these exercises in place, but we decided to double down and start preparing like we were working on more substantial budgets. It cost us time, but it paid off because we started seeing an increase in efficiency, more passion, and respect from our team, and an overall increase in our creative quality and ability to perform. None of these things are sexy, but for us, they are essential to the success of our projects.
These tips can be applied if you're a large team or small. These are helpful, even if it's dipping your toes one project at a time. The best part about these is you'll see the value each time and be able to refine your approach project after project. If you need help to start, we have to recommend the Producers Pack. This set of products was designed by us and used to build this very process. They are customizable, easy to use, and make design powerful and beautiful.
The pack includes
Profit & Loss Simplifier
Gear List Organizer