Part 2: How to Take Your Indie Film to the Next Level

In Part 1 the Development Phase of production was discussed with thoughts on how indie filmmakers might better approach their film production efforts. Keep in mind that time is the one asset that indie filmmakers have over big budget films. Spent wisely an indie film can be elevated to a much higher level, even rivaling big budget films. Here in Part 2 the Preproduction Phase will be discussed along with thoughts on process and approaches.


Many indie filmmakers dread preproduction. Why is that? Perhaps they think preproduction is simply logistically based and as such is more tedious than exciting. Whatever the reason, it is misplaced. Preproduction is the opportunity to ensure your production comes off as flawlessly as possible. It is a creative process, as well as, logistical. The Production Phase, aka principle photography, is the execution of what is achieved in preproduction. If you give short shrift to preproduction you guarantee a lackluster production.

Many indie filmmakers generally do little to no serious preproduction and certainly nothing like I will advocate here. Nonetheless, they tout the shear volume of pages they shoot in a day. As many as 10 – 15 pages or more a day are boasted about. They strut about as if it were a badge of honor, as if page count is a reflection of their filmmaking prowess. If your focus is on page count then you cannot possibly be focused on story, and story is everything.

Major motion pictures average 5 pages per day. They have big budgets, large crews and have done due diligence to preproduction. So, why would an indie filmmaker with comparatively no budget, a skeleton crew, and generally poor preproduction, think they are so at the top of their game awesome they can punch through 2 to 3 times that number of pages?

Preproduction is the process of designing a film, communicating the vision, and planning the logistics of a production. It goes well beyond hiring cast and crew, finding locations, renting equipment, and arranging for craft services. It goes beyond finding props, creating schedules and crafting shot lists.

By the time preproduction is complete everyone involved should know how the film will look, feel, and sound, as well as, how the process of making the film will proceed, and what will be needed to accomplish it. That’s not to say that things will not change or evolve. It is however critical that everyone is linked to a united vision. It is where collaboration and refinement conspire to make a great film possible.

You cannot rely on written or verbal communication alone and expect that others will unequivocally grasp the vision. Filmmaking is a visual medium, so communicating a vision must necessarily also be visual. Photography, sketches, concept paintings, sculptures, storyboards, previz, animatics, blueprints, models … any and every visual communication tool is viable. They help establish a unified understanding of the mood, emotion, and look of the film to inform choices in lenses, lighting, props, wardrobe, makeup, sets, locations… the list goes on.

Without “visualizing” the vision you are resorting to playing the children’s game of telephone, where the message is lost in translation from one person to the next until the result is nothing like the original intention. Not only does that set you up for uninspired story telling, but it wastes time on set trying to figure out what you are doing.

The emotionality of a film is not only expressed visually but also acoustically. Sound design is yet another critical element of preproduction. Sound design is the “symphony” of all things sound in a film. When sound is designed well, it will help tell the story and elevate the production. By not addressing it in preproduction you strip away cohesion between the visual and acoustic aspects of your film.

Accepting the premise that story is “everything” when developing a project and writing a screenplay; we must also accept that it transcends the written page and permeates every element of the production. Camera tells the story with lens choice, subject, focus, and movement. Lighting tells the story with direction, intensity, falloff, and shadow. Actors tell the story with emotion, movement, and dialogue.

Those are the obvious ones; yet everything from makeup, to wardrobe, from sets, to locations, to props… the list goes on and on, they all are important tellers of story. Not paying attention to any one of them diminishes the final film. They all work in synergy and it takes time to blend, and meld, and formulate the perfect chemistry; that time is preproduction.

If it’s seen or heard in the film, it must be designed and not left to chance on set. Both the design and logistics aspects of filmmaking influence each other directly and indirectly with overall consideration paid to the budget. You cannot roll cameras and expect that serendipity will rescue you and create a great film.

Regardless of actual crew size it is important to fill all production positions even if that means each crew person fulfills the duties of several jobs. By doing this you ensure all aspects of production are accounted for and a real person is accountable and reporting on progress.

In a production where each person is wearing multiple hats, longer preproduction time is required. Taking too long however, can cause interest level to decline which is especially true of low/no budget productions were crew motivation and moral are the only incentive for commitment.

Organization is critical to successful filmmaking and it’s the key to effective preproduction. Filmmaking requires a hierarchical structure to coordinate the production. Additionally there needs to be a production pipeline to manage the process. It is just as important to the indie filmmaker with limited resources as it is to a big budget production. Without them your production will bleed money, waste time and good will, and result in a film that fails to meet expectations.

There are two conflicting forces at work; financial management and creative expression, yet they are inextricably linked to one another. If you hope to have a successful film both artistically and commercially you must perform meaningful preproduction. From a financial point of view preproduction saves money and time in both the production and postproduction phases. From a creative expression point of view preproduction allows for greater creative freedom and exploration.

A film production is a work of art, but contrary to what many indie filmmakers may think, that art is created in preproduction. The Production Phase (aka principle photography) is the execution of the artistic vision, and the Postproduction Phase is the assembly, refinement and polishing of the artistic vision.

So, what should happen during preproduction? First, it cannot be thought of as a standalone process distinct from other phases of a production. None of the phases should be thought of as separate and distinct, but rather part of a continuum that is initiated as the first seed of an idea is germinated, and grows until the completed film is ready for distribution. The five phases of production are merely a way to organize the approach to making a film so that it is logical, economical, and efficient.

I’m going to focus just on the creative side of preproduction since that is where many opportunities to take filmmaking to a higher level reside. These elements are either under utilized, or worse not used at all in indie filmmaking.

Visual Development which is the process of designing the “look”, “mood”, and “feel” of the film. It is accomplished through the use of visual communication devices and is how the Director’s vision is “visualized” for all to see and understand. These efforts inform all other aspects of the production. They are not a luxury as some might be tempted to suggest; they are how you build high production value, continuity, and cohesion into your film. It incorporates everything that is seen on screen.

The digital age has provided great tools for filmmakers. This includes software for photo manipulation, sketching, painting, sculpting, drafting, compositing, 3D modeling and animation etc. They are as much a part of the indie filmmaker’s toolbox as cameras, lenses, tripods, jibs, dollies, lighting, nonlinear editing software, and sound editing software, etc.

Concept paintings, drawings, sketches, and photo manipulation can quickly yield renderings that represent the Director’s vision. Digital sculpting can provide 3D models of anything required, but also, when combined with 3D printing can “manufacture” real physical versions of a 3D model, such as props, maquettes, set designs, miniature set pieces etc. With today’s software, making changes on the fly is relatively easy and quick. The imagery is then used by other departments to inform their choices.

Indie filmmakers that apply visual development into their process can increase production value, maintain unity and cohesion, save time during principle photography, and reduce unanticipated postproduction issues.

Storyboards, Previz, and Animatics these three interrelated processes are another valuable set of tools to express the Director’s vision, identify needs, solve problems, and perhaps most importantly save time during principle photography. Storyboards are a strategic mechanism whereby the Director and Cinematographer can construct the look of each shot and develop shot lists.

Previz (short for previsualization), is created in a 3D application and is a huge help in identifying camera angles and movement in complicated scenes that are difficult to plan or visualize on traditional storyboards. They allow for a digital mock up of a scene with virtual cameras, actors, scenics, and props. The cameras and digital “puppets” can be animated to reveal what the shot will actually look like when shot.

An animatic is the cutting together of storyboards and previz to create an animated representation of the film. This is useful for developing the initial timing of the scenes and placement in the storyline. It helps identify problems, and suggest improvements, in advance of shooting saving money and time during principle photography. Temporary music and sound effects can be added, as well as, recorded dialogue from a table read. You can essentially experience the film before shooting it.

Blocking and Staging can be generated in preproduction using software and allows for experimentation and refinement prior to principle photography. This imagery can help inform shot lists, equipment requirements, placement of props, set pieces, camera movement, actor movement etc. Planning can be achieved without having cast and crew on hand, and later used as a solid starting point for working with cast and crew during rehearsals. It helps to reduce the number of set ups saving time and money on set.

Visual Effects (VFX) starts in preproduction and ultimately carries through production and into postproduction. Visual Effects have become an integral element in big budget filmmaking and can be used to great effect in indie films as well. They cover a wide array of possibilities far too many to include here.

Nevertheless, one that can be put to good affect by indie filmmakers is, matte painting techniques that include: set extensions, sky replacements, fully realized photorealistic backgrounds and more. The possibilities for VFX are nearly endless and should be considered when developing a film project. The potential is available to rival the quality of high end visual effects shots from big budget films. They can quickly elevate production value and save time and money.

Lighting Design for each set/location. On set lighting is not there to simply illuminate the scene so the camera works better. Lighting is an important story telling tool which requires manipulation and control. Lighting requirements are established by visual development where various renderings determine the look and mood of a scene. Lighting instruments are then selected and plots designed to match that look and mood.

Waiting until the day you shoot to determine lighting wastes time, risks employing bad or improper lighting, and leads to uninspired storytelling. Designing and planning lighting in preproduction will pay huge dividends in production value and minimize issues in postproduction.

Sound Design; firstly to be clear, I am not a sound designer, but I have studied a bit of sound design and you don’t have to be an “audio guy” to know; most indie films not only suffer from poor quality sound but they also lack any sound design whatsoever. Why is that? Perhaps it’s due to the fact most indie filmmakers pay no attention to sound until postproduction.

Wait, what? Indie filmmakers have a sound recordist and boom operator on set, so how can I say they don’t pay attention to sound until post? Even though they do indeed have sound recorded on set it is almost never reviewed until post. For that matter neither is most footage; so all audio work tends to be mashed up in post. No design, just mix it, stick it in the timeline, sync it and forget it.

The soundtrack of a film incorporates several elements; production sound, wild sound, atmosphere/environment, sound effects, Foley, ADR, and score. They are the “clay” if you will that the soundtrack is sculpted from. Yet the design of the “sculpture” should take place in preproduction.

Why design sound? Sound evokes emotion, establishes mood, and feeling. It is telling the story acoustically and mostly in a subconscious way. It needs to flow, merge and intertwine with the visuals. It only makes sense to design it right alongside the visual design process.

There is of course much more involved in preproduction, too much to cover in this short article. Nevertheless, I hope you grasp the tremendous benefit of the creative side of preproduction and apply it to your indie film productions.

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