Prep

One of the first things I ask after being hired is, “How much prep time will I have?” It’s a very important question because preparing for a project is in many ways more important than actually shooting it. Every script presents unique problems to solve; from establishing the “look”, to figuring out how to achieve some special shot safely and within the budget. These two examples are quite typical, but are only two of literally hundreds of issues to be addressed, talked about, storyboarded, tested and finally resolved as being in the movie or omitted because of expense or impracticality. Prep is a time of discovery, where all the big script ideas are sliced and diced, parsed and defined. It’s exciting and also stressful, because you might read a scene that has a shot that has never been attempted before, the director wants it and you have to figure it out. This will go to the top of your priority list.

At times in pre-production, the script can be a moving target. The studio wants changes, the director wants changes and the producer is demanding changes because of budget considerations. Script delays are maddening, because they usually involve big ticket items that are prep intensive. Oh well.

Prep time varies and is usually based on what your job is and budget. On “Flight of the Intruder” I had six months. Just five days for “Rest Stop”, three weeks for “Salem”. For short preps I resort to project “triage”, where I address as many of the big ticket items first, then all the secondary items while shooting. It can be done, though certainly not any department heads preference.

I always wonder why more time isn’t spent in film schools discussing this critical phase of production. Very few film students know that the first hire on almost every film or television project is the Production Designer. Why? Because, just like Earth, the screenplay’s world has to be created before the people show up. This takes time and certainly more than seven days!

At the very least, student films need a schedule, budget, location, props, a cast, a camera system and a crew.  Feels like a few days of prep to me.

Working out problems before you begin principle production is one of the main objectives of prep. Certainly everyone can agree that winging it while shooting is very unproductive and can cost someone their job. Everyone hopes that the project finishes on time and on budget. Prepping thoroughly is the first step in achieving that goal.

I love art  - wish I could draw better, paint better an expert at Photoshop.

Production designers do all of these things - and at a very high level.

What cinematographers have in common with production designers, is an acute sense of light and space and how to capture it through a lens. Cooperatively, our combined efforts strive to advance the story, visually. Words turn into light, color, texture and setting. And if they can’t build it - they’ll find a good location that is camera and production friendly.

The production designer will have worked for weeks on a project before the cinematographer starts prep. The initial design of the film is one that I have to agree with or at least get used to. However, in starting later, I’ve never been alarmed by what I see and in fact, always enjoy seeing the plans, sketches and conceptual art coupled with the enthusiasm and energy of an art department busy designing a film.  In most cases, the production designer can’t wait for the arrival the Director of Photography*. DP’s illuminate and frame the drama. A production designer needs to know the lenses a cameraman plans to use, the lighting design, camera movement and the tone he wants to create photographically. Here, we forge a wonderful bond that blends the three dimensions of reality with the two dimensions of photography.  Ours is a quiet but amazingly exciting relationship where we can imagine, create and promote; and be free and inventive till the realities of schedule and budget bring us back to earth. I love this part of prep and I have never had a bad relationship with a production designer. This is a sand box for grown up kids.

Virtually every aspect of the physical project is reviewed in prep. Here are some examples of what might be talked about: add a window here, make this wall “wild”, go with wallpaper instead of paint, don’t use chrome, not so many mirrors please, I’ll need a ceiling piece for the bedroom set, can a dolly fit through that door, make these light switches practical, we’ll use backings instead of a green screen for the big window in the living room… etc.  Lots of things to discuss and agree upon.

The director is very much a part of this process too. He might have a pet color he likes or a location that he likes better than us, but if the DP and the PD present a unified case for something, the director will usually go along with their plan.

It’s important to resolve as many issues as possible during prep, because once the shooting starts the whole mindset of the team changes. It’s not unusual that set construction is still taking place during principal photography. When time permits, I’ll always walk over and see the progress of the new set and start thinking about camera and lighting ideas now that there are walls.

Throughout photography, and on a daily basis, the DP and the Production Designer continue to talk about the daily work and what’s ahead. The PD will watch dailies and will get a clear sense of how the picture is being shot - what is seen and unseen. With this knowledge he may turn his energies to props and set decoration, or foreground elements. He might not worry about the deep background as much since it’s being kept dark in the lighting scheme. He might urge the DP to shoot slightly wider establishing shots to highlight the sets a bit more. It’s a fair request too – the art and construction departments work very hard to build great sets on a tight budget with limited time.

From early on, the Production Designer and the DP work very closely together planning just about everything the audience will see in the film. All that’s missing are the actors, and they’ll weigh in on their new world soon enough.

*A Cinematographer goes by more than one title. Director of Photography, DP, DOP, and Cameraman are all names that describe the same person and the same job.

The Art Department

In a directors mind, the “look” of a project is job number one and the reason why the Production Designer is hired first. The PD is in charge of putting together an art department whose sole initial task is to help the director achieve their vision. Every subsequent action supports and builds upon this vision, so it must be achieved at least in broad strokes, in short order. First step in prep - nailing down the visual theme of the picture.

Mise en Scene, (staging) a beautiful French phase meaning everything the camera sees. This is the responsibility of the production designer, the art department and by extension, props, set decoration, wardrobe and hair and make-up. The PD is informed first by the script, and with thoughts from the director, supported by his art team and a staff of researchers, the mise en scene begins to emerge. Put thirty highly motivated artistic specialists together and prepare to be amazed. The talent of a top flight art department is truly impressive. There are art directors, illustrators, graphic designers, photoshop and sketch up experts, concept painters, set designers, model makers, researchers and coordinators. My first stop on any project is the art department. The walls are covered with concept art, reference photo’s, drawings of sets, props and location photo’s - right away, the visual  direction of the project is obvious and ambitious. Soon, this fantastic new world the art department has created will have to be budgeted, and that’s when reality sets in.

For the no budget student filmmaker, this whole art department concept probably seems like an alternative universe. The truth is, you can make far bette looking films with very little effort. First, spend more time location scouting, both interiors and exteriors. Every town has interesting old and new architecture, don’t settle for this first thing that comes along. Do a light study, because that drab looking building you visit in the morning may light up like Shangri La in the afternoon. Consider ease of access, noise and crew safety as well. Everyone desires a stunning background, there has to be dozens of options in your home town! Don’t shoot in tiny dorm rooms with white walls! Choose a bigger place that gives you room to light, a sense of depth and more options for actor action. These tips will lend your next project a professional appearance, enhance your story, and impress your professors at little or no expense. You can make a no budget film with a no budget art department!

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