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Planning your film

Drawing a storyboard

At the planning or pre-production stage you work out your filmmaking idea and how you will tell your story, then get ready to film.

The 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 do this, you probably need to rethink or simplify the idea. 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.

Planning the shots

You can make storyboards to help plan how you’re going to film a scene. Working out the shots in advance will help you make sure you get everything you need on the day. Storyboarding will also help you film shots that 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.

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.

Places

Check out each location where you’ll film your movie. Do you need permission to film there? Can you get it? Will you have to pay? 

Do a recce (location visit):

  • Is there space to get all the camera positions you need?
  • Are there any potential hazards? What can you do to reduce them? 
  • What’s the light like? Will you need to bring lights or reflectors? 
  • Will there be any interruptions? 
  • If you’re planning to record live sound, are there any distracting background sounds? 
  • What is the sound quality of the space like? Hard walls and floors can cause echo. Can you reduce this by bringing soft furnishings, rugs and curtains? 

People

For a drama film, you’ll need to choose your actors. Audition them and see how they perform in front of the camera. For a documentary, you’ll need to work out who to film or interview. 

Make sure you agree any fees, and get everyone to sign contracts or release forms, before you film them. You don’t want to be arguing about these after you’ve completed your film.

Organising the shoot

Then you need to plan in detail what you’re going to film and when, and what you’ll need on each day. If your film is complex, you’ll need a shooting schedule. Then for each day of the shoot, you should make a a call sheet that lists the people and things you need. 

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


Tom Barrance

Tom Barrance I teach all kinds of people to make films. I provide training for businesses, arts organisations, nonprofits and education. I’ve worked on film education projects with Apple Education, the British Film Institute, Film Education, Film: 21st Century Literacy and many more. My publications include Making Movies Make Sense and Editshots