Expert’s Guide to Pre-Production: Definition & More


By Assemble

January 17, 2023

Pre-production is a critical step for any successful production. It can determine the outcome, quality, and potential cost of the finished product.

This article will define pre-production and provide a comprehensive breakdown of each step in pre-production. Our goal is to ensure that you understand the importance of pre-production and feel confident tackling this phase of your production.

What is Pre-Production? Our Pre-Production Definition

Pre-production in film and TV is the process that precedes any production. It is also often referred to as “pre-pro.” It is the period of time during which every decision about a project is made. Pre-production involves various tasks and activities, including developing ideas, budgets, scripts, and storyboards, hiring cast and crew, selecting locations, and securing safety permits.

The pre-production process also includes securing financing and equipment, doing marketing and research, and scheduling.

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How Long Does Pre-Production Last?

The pre-production phase can last anywhere from a few weeks to several months, depending on the size and scope of the project. Smaller projects, such as short films, may only require a few weeks of pre-production. Larger projects like feature films may require up to six months or even longer.

Ultimately, the duration of pre-production varies greatly depending on the individual project and the tasks' complexity. Projects with fewer elements and tasks can have a shorter pre-production duration, while larger and more complex projects can require an extended pre-production period. Understanding the duration of pre-production is essential for project planning and successful execution.

Who is Involved in Pre-Production?

Pre-production is an essential part of creating a successful film. Every aspect of a film is figured out before and during pre-production, so it's vital to have the right people on board. The most common people involved in pre-production include the director, producer, line producer, assistant director, production managers, production coordinators, and art director.

The director is responsible for the overall vision and aesthetic of the film, while producers ensure that the correct crew and necessary equipment are available. The art director creates the project's overall look and recruits the production design team.

The line producer develops budgets and shooting schedules, and the production coordinator is responsible for all production logistics and the script breakdown. The assistant director helps them manage the staff and coordinate the filming locations.

The Pre-Production Checklist 

A production can’t just jump right into the shooting without first preparing. The pre-production stage is essential for a successful production. This stage usually involves a few commonly used pre-production steps such as cultivating the story and script, creating a budget, casting actors, hiring a crew, and scouting locations. Set design, as well as wardrobe and makeup, are also important for creating the aesthetics of the production.

These steps make up the pre-production definition. Fortunately, we’ve created a complete pre-production checklist template which you can use to play your next film.

1. Finalizing the Script 

If a project was greenlit, it’s very probable there is a script, but that doesn’t mean the script is finished. This is the point in the production where the writers, producers, and director begin to polish the script.

They can add new elements or trim the fat to end up with the most polished script possible. While the script may change once shooting is underway, it’s important to have this document. This will serve as the basis for all other phases of production going forward. 

2. Breaking it Down by Scene

Once the script has been completed, the process of breaking down the script begins. This requires creating a planning document that will include a schedule of shooting times, locations, equipment needed, and practical effects. Typically, this step is managed by the line producer, with help from the production manager and first assistant director, also known as the first AD. 

3. Estimating a Budget

The next step after finalizing a script is to create a budget that will outline the cost of the production. This is made much easier once you’ve created a planning document, as you can estimate how much each day of shooting will cost approximately. It’s important to be precise with the budget because going over budget can end a project before it’s completed. 

4. Finding a Cast and Crew 

Finding the right talent, crew members, and vendors for your project is crucial. This includes casting roles for project. The crew, while working behind the scenes, is equally important. A good crew can ensure the production goes smoothly and stays on-budget. 

5. Scouting and Securing Locations

Scouting and securing the right locations involves finding locations that are suitable for filming. For this task, location scouts pore through the script to find locations that best match each scene. 

For projects with lots of CGI special effects, this may require renting a large sound studio with space for a set. On the other hand, modern productions may choose to secure a virtual production volume, while productions with larger budgets may decide to shoot on-location.

6. Set and Costume Design

The design phase of pre-production will set the tone visually for the entire production. This involves major contributions from the art director, with help from the design, wardrobe, and makeup department heads.

On some productions, like Severance, it may require designing custom furniture and electronics that further expand the aesthetics of the show. Though not all productions will go to the lengths of big-budget projects, wardrobe and set design will undoubtedly be part of the pre-production process. 

7. Renting Equipment

Equipment rental depends on whether the production companies involved with the production own the necessary equipment, which isn’t always the case. With cameras like the Arri Alexa LF body costing upwards of $98,000, it’s natural that most production companies will prefer to rent the equipment. It makes financial sense, especially if using multiple of the same camera for coverage on every scene.

Aside from cameras, it’s also possible to rent lenses, tripods, gimbals, cranes, dollies, lights, filters, and audio equipment. This step gets more complicated if you’re shooting with multiple crews, or if you’re renting equipment for on-location shoots abroad. 

Planning Makes Perfect

Pre-production isn’t often considered as important as production itself, but it is. It's the most important step to having a successful production. Simply put, the pre-production definition is a comprehensive process involving tasks such as writing the script, budgeting, creating storyboards, shot lists, and production schedules.

Ultimately, pre-production is about planning and preparing for production in advance. In the end, a well-made film is a result of well-prepared production.

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