It starts with a finished script. Unless you are intentionally doing something different, the finished shooting script is the structure that supports the film. There will be many questions that aren’t answered by the script and will require the director’s input; however, without the script, no one will even know what questions to ask. So, it really does begin with the script, and once you have the finished shooting script, you are ready to begin.
Step 1: Break Down Your Script
Have you broken down your script? How many actors, how many locations? Hint: one actor in one exterior is going to be easiest. The more complex a script (more pages, more characters, more props, etc.) the more likely you will want some script-breakdown software (and lots of practice). How many days is this realistically going to take to shoot? Every script breakdown is different, and it will be fluid as things change, but you must start somewhere and the only way to do it is to do it. Best start with a short script, and go through all the components you will need to get your film shot.
Step 2: Plan Backward
Start with your delivery Date. When must this be finished? Without having a delivery date, you risk having your film fall into the never-ending filmmaking limbo, then build a calendar, go through all the steps below, and fit that into your calendar just to get an idea of when you need to start, and what milestones you need to hit. This is your calendar, your schedule, and as you keep planning, you will note how your dates change. Did you really think that you could do your audio post on a feature-length movie in one day? Maybe schedule a day of audio post for every ten minutes of running time, and that doesn’t include any dubbing, or generating effects. Don’t worry—it takes a while to get accustomed to this way of thinking but, trust me, movies live and die by their schedule, and once you do it a few times, you will come to appreciate all this planning and scheduling.
Step 3: Storyboard
I can’t draw, and storyboarding is an agonizing process for me. I usually end up just drawing maps of the locations with camera positions, but that comes after you’ve scouted locations. So, knuckle down and create story boards—everyone will thank you. Once you’ve started storyboarding, you might look at pre-visualization software, as well. Pre-Viz has become extremely popular, especially for effects shots, and can help you figure out if the shots in your head (or on your storyboard) are even physically possible to accomplish in the real world. Storyboarding and Pre-Viz software can be extremely useful at this stage.
Step 4: What is Your Delivery Format?
Are you shooting in that format? Do you need multiple delivery formats? How is this being distributed? The answers to this question will guide your choice of recording format, as well as post-production path, which brings us to the next step.
Step 5: Post Production
How are you taking this through post? How are you handling effects, or music? Royalty-free Music? Do you have an editor? In what file type does the editor want the footage delivered? Does it matter? Ask your editor how they like to work, because If they want a DNx variant, and you deliver ProRes (or vice versa) this will entail transcoding, which may add to costs and time. Are you planning on using more than one camera? Perhaps a “B” camera for a few shots?
Contrary to popular belief, the camera isn’t, or shouldn’t be, chosen first. Really, the camera choice is only significant for the sensor in the digital days. So, don’t choose your DP based on their camera package—choose the camera based on its appropriateness for the film. Do the cameras match? Do you want to match the cameras on set? If so, use picture profiles, or at least shoot color charts with the cameras together.
Step 6: Location
Exteriors, interiors? For exteriors, what equipment do you need? Do you need reflectors, or even lighting? The more gear, the more crew. Do you need permits? Check with your local Film office.
Step 7: Visual Effects
On-set/in-camera, or in post, or both? Any gunshots? Gunshots are a whole world unto themselves and if you are thinking of using anything that looks like or fires like a gun, then budget for an expert in this field, because there are safety concerns and laws about using guns in movies, and these laws vary, depending on where you are working.
Step 8: Crew
Are you going to produce, direct, shoot, record sound, and edit all by yourself? Or are you going to have crew to handle the positions? Be bold, be strong. Filmmaking is a collaborative process, but you are making the film, so don’t worry, you have the final say. It is good to lock down these positions before you start shooting, especially for any editing or post-production sound work.
Step 9: Casting
Now that you have figured out all the rest, it is time to turn your attention to perhaps the most important part of your film, after the script. Casting your talent. SAG-AFTRA or not SAG-AFTRA? There are many actors out there, and although it is simpler to use non-union talent, it isn’t always the best choice. So, don’t limit yourself in the audition, you just might find that perfect actor you are seeking.
Step 10: Budget
Are you paying your cast and crew, or are they all friends? Read the B&H Explora article, Why a Well-Run Crew Keeps Your Film Production Together, for a good explanation of the value of an experienced crew. How are you handling transportation, feeding your cast and crew? These logistical choices are best not ignored, but planned. Sometimes the subway/metro is sufficient, but often you may need to supply or pay for transportation. A friend with a van can be a blessing, or you can probably find an affordable van rental. Just remember—you are the filmmaker, you are directing this, and that is a job with heavy responsibility. I can tell you from personal experience that expecting someone to take your car and pick up the actors is a disaster waiting to happen. So, budget and plan, or leave your credit cards home.