The Brutal Master Plan That Can Keep Your Dystopian Epic From Turning Into A Disaster MovieS

You have a brilliant script for a short science-fiction film that'll blow the doors right off of the internet. You've even managed to find enough people with the expertise to help you get this thing off the ground. Now what?

Congratulations, and welcome to pre-production! Though often maligned and groaned about incessantly, pre-production is actually the moment where you're going to be making the crucial decision: whether you're making a good film, or just an adequate one.

Oh, and here's a quick disclaimer: Filmmaking is a complicated process, with many steps and a lot of factors to consider. Our "Filmmaking 101" series just serves to give you a few pointers to help you get started, and hopefully figure out a few things that a beginning filmmaker wouldn't have been told before. As a filmmaker and a student, the best wisdom I can offer is that all filmmakers are always learning. Including me.

The Brutal Master Plan That Can Keep Your Dystopian Epic From Turning Into A Disaster MovieS

The amount of effort you put into planning and organization before you shoot your first frame will be in direct proportion to the quality of your experience, and your finished product. Every filmmaker I know has a story about how he or she skimped on proper planning, and suffered for it in the end. Filmmakers can always tell you a specific moment where, if they had just done storyboards/scheduled better/gotten more crew/done a reshoot/polished the script, their movie would have been closer to what they'd wanted.

One of the most boring tasks, but one of the most important ones, is scheduling. You're going to need to make a proper shooting schedule, because you're going to run out of time. There is almost never a single film shoot where at the end, the director sits back and says, "Wow, we got every single little thing I wanted and then some. AND we ended early!"

The Brutal Master Plan That Can Keep Your Dystopian Epic From Turning Into A Disaster MovieS

There's also never a film shoot that doesn't have its share of problems. One of the things my friends and I all repeat like a mantra (I'm sure we picked it up from a professor) is that filmmaking is problem-solving. Everything goes wrong — all the time. Last semester, we made a short film where we were delayed by two hours to fix a camera malfunction. Before that, it was thirty minutes trying to find a location we could shoot in, after the first one fell through. Actually, come to think of it, that happened twice on two separate shoots.

You will have problems. But preparing a proper game plan will help you face those problems head-on when they happen.

The first step is to break down your script. Make a spreadsheet that includes every single scene (number them, it'll make your life easier than giving them nicknames), a short description of the action, the actors needed for the scene, location, whether it's night or day, interior or exterior, and so on. Anything you think will be important — it probably will be.

The Brutal Master Plan That Can Keep Your Dystopian Epic From Turning Into A Disaster MovieS

Take your breakdown and get a good sense of your script. Start making lists and take a deep breath, because you're about to get to the part that trips up a surprising number of people.

You have to let go of chronological order. Completely.

It's not exactly a secret that movies aren't shot in chronological order. But so many people think that's just big feature films, and when they go to do their short they just go in order, because what else would you do?

For most of the people on the set, chronological order makes sense. The director can keep a sense of the story, the actors can keep their characters' development clear and easy to portray, the wardrobe department doesn't have to lose their head to make sure people are wearing the right clothes, the props department doesn't have to keep stacks of props in various states in order to fill in various holes of the action. And the script supervisor's life would be so much simpler.

But there are two departments that would be horribly affected by going in order: camera and lighting. The camera and lighting departments are the most expensive ones, and the ones that take the most time to get from one scene to the next. You want to make their lives easy, because that in turn reduces your costs and shooting time, and it keeps them from losing their minds and walking off muttering curses under their breath at you. They're the only parts of your crew that will likely be consistently working. Every other department goes in fits and starts, but camera is usually working.

The Brutal Master Plan That Can Keep Your Dystopian Epic From Turning Into A Disaster MovieS

The breakdown that you made will help you take all the factors into account when creating your schedule. In general, you want to shoot out one location before you move on to the next. You should try to group together the scenes where each actor is working, so that they can do their work in one chunk and go home. When you can shoot things from one script day together, it's preferred because costume and art department changes are a bear, but that should probably be your absolute last consideration. I worked in wardrobe last summer, and it pains me to say it, but it's much easier to get a costume change in while the DP tweaks a light than it is for them to move the camera and the lights back and forth.

The Brutal Master Plan That Can Keep Your Dystopian Epic From Turning Into A Disaster MovieS

Once you've made up your schedule and your shot list (something I'll get into at another time) you have to put on your pessimist hat. Pretend you're Tim Gunn and start looking at things with a brutal editing eye. Do you really need that moment? Does it advance the story? Do you need it or just want it?

You don't have to ditch anything yet. You might decide to, but you need to start thinking of the priority level of each shot. How important is that shot to your story? Can the audience figure out what's going on without it?

The reason you have to do this is because once you get to the shoot, it's entirely likely you're going to have to start axing things. When we lost those two hours, we had to take our shot list and see what we could combine and change in order to still tell our story. We only dropped one or two shots, but we managed to wrangle ourselves back on track eventually. Throughout the shoot, before you move on to the next shot, ask yourself one more time "do I need this?"

The Brutal Master Plan That Can Keep Your Dystopian Epic From Turning Into A Disaster MovieS

You should always make sure that you can still tell your story intelligibly. In that respect, a good script supervisor is invaluable. You can look at them and ask if things will cut together without the shot you were planning, and they should be able to answer you.

You've probably heard that filmmaking is a lot of "hurry up and wait." It is that, but at the same time, your shoot will fly by so quickly, you won't be able to figure out how you got anything done at all.

Filmmaking has this curious ability to completely fill any amount of time you allot for it. If you think it'll take two hours, and you give yourself three, it'll inevitably take three and a half. It's just the nature of the beast, and the nature of having a quality crew who all want to do good work. Doing your best work on a set takes time, and everybody is going to use every second they can get. Some films shoot only a page a day, which amounts to about one minute of screen time.

The Brutal Master Plan That Can Keep Your Dystopian Epic From Turning Into A Disaster MovieS

On top of that, you have tons of technical equipment that can break and need fixing. You have problems like weather delays, talent not showing up on time, accidents on set, blowing circuit breakers, and more things than I can come up with.

Having a properly prepared schedule and knowing how important or unimportant each and every shot will be is what will save you from those delays in the end. You may have to lose a shot you thought would be beautiful, but just keep it in the back of your head. Like writers, filmmakers rarely just kill an idea. They just re-purpose it for another day.

Star Wars set pics from CoolStuff, BlueHarvest and the Official Star Wars Blog on Flickr. Star Trek: TNG set pics via TrekCore via GlobalNerdy.