Planning your film

In this stage you work out your filmmaking idea and how you will tell your story. You must have an idea or story, however simple, and you need to make sure it’s clear. Try writing it down in 50 words or one tweet: if you can’t, you need to rethink it or simplify it. Film story tips and ideas

Once you’ve got your idea, you can think about how to turn it into a film. There are lots of different ways of doing this. A mindmap, where you write down all the ideas that might help, can be a good place to start.

You could write a treatment. This is a detailed description of the story and how it will look and sound on film. Here’s an example: James Cameron’s original treatment for Terminator.

If your film has actors and dialogue, you should write a script. There’s a standard script format.

If your scenes are complex, you can make storyboards to help work out how you’re going to film them. Working out the shots in advance will help you make sure you get everything you need on the day. These are a good way to make sure that the shots make sense together.

If you can’t draw, use a digital still camera or just make a list of shots and check them off as you shoot.

There are free downloadable storyboards and shot lists on the Film planning templates page.

Do a recce: visit the settings where you’re going to film. Check that you can get permission to film there, if you need it. Check the light. Check that there won’t be any interruptions or distracting sounds. Check there’s space to get all the camera positions you need.

You could draw plans of the location to help you work out where to put the actors and cameras. Remember to follow the 180 degree rule.

Make sure you have all the people and all the gear you need before you start shooting. You can use call sheets to organise this.

Make sure you get any legal agreements – e.g. actor release forms – signed before you start shooting: you don’t want to be arguing about these after you’ve completed your film.

Planning factual films

If it’s a news or documentary item – where you don’t know exactly what’s going to be there – you still need to plan. Find out as much as possible about the place or story and make a list of the kinds of shots you’re going to film.

If you’re going to interview people, make sure they’re available and draft some questions to ask them.

In some situations, you can’t visit the location in advance. You might be covering a news story in a different part of the country or abroad. But you can still plan. Find out as much as possible about what the place looks like; get in touch with someone local if you can. You can even storyboard the whole thing before you get there. That will give you a basic list of shots to work with; you can then shoot extra shots and things that you see when you get there.

This is a simplified version of the planning process. For commercial movies, planning has two stages:

  • development covers the idea, getting rights and funding, writing a screenplay
  • pre-production is the detailed planning (eg storyboarding) and preparation for filming. 

The next stage: Filming

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