Sean Mannion is an independent filmmaker based in Brooklyn. He has produced a feature film and over 100 short films, web series episodes, event videos, advertisements, and educational videos. He is also an instructor with BRIC Media Education where teaches production and post-production methods.


You’re ready to make a feature film! Or maybe it’s a short film, industrial video, documentary, web series, or a wedding video for your cousin Clyde. Before you grab your camera, though, make sure you take care of pre production.

Production is the fun part. That’s when things come together and the magic happens. The fun part is really only fun, though, if we take the time to do the work of pre production. The tasks of pre production can’t be ignored. Well, you can try, but every pre production task eventually needs to be addressed. If you don’t do it at the beginning, you will have to take care of it later, and it’s much harder then.

Below we have what needs to be done for the pre production process. The order is approximate as many of these tasks overlap and influence one another. Some continue even through production. In short: your mileage may vary.


Pre-Production Step 1: Write it Down

For a narrative feature or short film hopefully you have a full screenplay written in the proper format. Write the screenplay in a word processor designed for screenplays. There are many out there from FinalDraft to Celtx. Choose one that works for you and get those wonderful words down on the page.

If it’s not a narrative you may think you can skip this part. Not so! Are you doing some kind of improvised comedy short or feature? Write down the story! You may not have a strict script, but you’ve got some situation those actors are going to improvise in. At least get together an outline.

For documentary projects, what story are you trying to tell? Maybe it will change but start with some idea of what the project is supposed to look like. Create lists of what to shoot for B Roll. Write down your interview questions for subjects, if nothing else.

Regardless of the project you’re going to need to do at least a little writing so you can plan for what to shoot.

Writing Resources

Pre-Production Step 2: Have a Breakdown

Breakdowns are so named because when you’re done you’ll be sobbing in a dark corner of your home wondering why you would ever want to make a film in the first place. Once you have your script or a robust outline for your non-narrative project you’re going to need to figure out what elements you’ll need to actually make it. That means you need to breakdown the script. Depending on your budget and the size of your production this may be your task or something your production manager or assistant director does.

A script breakdown involves going through the entire script beginning to end and identifying every single location, character, costume, sound effect, prop, visual effect, practical special effect, and group of extras needed for every single scene of the film. Anything that is seen of heard will need to be accounted for so that it can be available when it’s time to shoot or created in post-production as needed.

As you move forward with the Pre-Production process some of the elements in this breakdown may change and be sure to update it fo the shooting script. More on that later.

Breakdown Resources

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Pre-Production Step 3: Get Organized

When you start a film project, you are starting a business, figuratively and sometimes literally. Now you know what you’re shooting and you should have a good idea of what you need to shoot it. It’s time to get serious about getting organized. The extent that you do this is going to depend on your budget and the scale of your project. For some people you may just be arranging a folder on a hard drive with all the needed materials. For others you’re going to be setting up a Limited Liability Corporation (LLC), which will be responsible for the legalities of your project and liable should anything unfortunate happen.

This stage may be where you bring in a Production Manager or your Assistant Director, if you haven’t done so already. Getting organized means you’re going to start planning and setting aside time, and space, to work on the rest of the tasks of pre-production and setup necessary meetings. This may be in an office space you rent. It may be in your shed. It may be in the back of the coffee shop. Regardless you’re going to need to make the space and make the time to take this project forward.

Organization Resources

Pre-Production Step 4: Fun with Budgeting

Once you have your script breakdown and you are starting to get organized, it’s time to start getting the budget together. Money, everyone’s favorite part of the filmmaking process. How much do you have for the project? If you haven’t established that yet, it’s time to do it.

Some projects, like an industrial, come with a budget. Many don’t. For a large scale project you likely have an accountant, but some of your may be dealing with this yourselves.

First, figure out how much money you want for the project. Go through your breakdown and create an estimated budget for the best case scenario. If you could have everything you wanted any way you wanted with all of the stars and the greatest crew you could possibly hire, how much will that cost. This is going to take you a lot of research on how much the people, locations, and everything else cost. This is going to be a big number. This is a lovely target number. Look at that big beautiful number. Best of luck with that.

Second, figure out a more restrained budget for the project. Same process but aim a bit lower in your ambitions. Find cheaper options for everything. Still something exciting for you, but maybe a bit less exciting. Maybe this one will work out.

Third, what’s the minimum amount of money you can make the movie for. For this version you may have to cut some expensive scenes or locations. Think about if you can do the whole thing in just one location. Take out the helicopter shot of the yacht being pulled by Orcas away from a whirlpool full of baby sharks. It’s not happening at this budget level. This is the bare bones version of the film.

Now that you’ve got some versions of your budget, you have to go and get the money. Maybe that’s your rich uncle (can you give me his number again by the way? I totally misplaced it). Maybe you are going to go and hang out in the finance district of Manhattan and make some new special friends. Maybe you hook that big fish actor and you can do foreign presales. Maybe you try crowdfunding.

Some of you may be looking at this and saying “I’m a DIY Guerilla Filmmaker™ and my project is no-budget!” Cool. You’re still going to spend money. Figure out how much it is. Do the budgeting above anyway so you have a better sense of costs.

Budgeting Resources

Pre-Production Step 5: Assemble Your Crew

It’s time to figure out who is going to shoot this project of yours. You’ve established your budget, you may have secured the funding already, so it’s time to start recruiting your crew. If you don’t have them yet, start with the Production Manager and Assistant Director. Then, together work on bringing together your department heads. You’ll need at least a Director of Photography, Gaffer, Production Sound Mixer, Art Director, and a Lead Makeup Artist. That’s not a comprehensive list of people you need by any means, but it’s a start. Depending on the scale of your project some jobs may be combined or shared. Know who is taking responsibility for the tasks of each position regardless.

Once you have your department heads lined up, work with them to get the people they need within your budget constraints. Let them bring on the people they’ve worked with and like working with so long as it fits your budget. They know what they need and who they work well with. Trust the people you’re working with to make the right decisions. Besides, you still have a lot of other pre-production work to do.

Crew Resources

Pre-Production Step 6: Gear Up

Now it’s time to arrange for that amazing gear so your crew can execute on all these plans and make this amazing project a reality. You’ve probably already had a gear wishlist from early on. Shoot on an Arri Alexa. Light with the Litepanels Astra 1×1. Pick up that seven page monologue with a Sennheiser lav. Now that you know when and where you’re shooting and what the technical challenges are for your locations you can solidify that gear list and start making plans to rent the gear.

You know what would be great, though? If you could get that gear just a touch cheaper from other filmmakers. Oh, and if you had the option of getting instant insurance on your rental at the lowest rates for gear rental in the industry. Someone should build that. They should call it something like Sharing Your Gear or Splitting Kits or … I’m being told that this is a thing already. It’s called KitSplit and the gear is here for you to rent from fellow creators 24/7/365! Amazing!

Gear Resources

Pre-Production Step 7: Casting

Who will be bringing your project to life in front of the camera. It’s time to start getting the roles for the project cast. There are a lot of ways to do this. Did you write a role for someone? Go and get them for it! Okay, now that you’ve learned Orson Welles has been dead for decades (sorry you had to find out this way), maybe try casting. This is also going to be driven somewhat by the scale of your project. Large scale with a good budget means you get a Casting Director and let them leverage their connections to find you some great actors to put in front of the camera.

Smaller projects mean you get to discover wonderful talent. Head on over to the bus station and start handing out your card to every pretty face that just arrived in town. Okay, that may be a little creepy. Try casting services that are available online like Casting Networks, Backstage, or Actors Access. There are a lot of talented actors out there and you can find the ones you need to help bring your characters to life.

There are a few methods for casting your roles once you post to a service like Casting Networks, Backstage, or Actors Access. The typical approach is find an inexpensive rehearsal space or meeting room and schedule actors to come one at a time and read lines from a scene of the script with you. Record these auditions so you can review them later. Take the time to consider what you need for the role and what each person can bring to the part whether it’s the lead or a character with just three lines.

If you’re making a non-narrative project, this process is different. You may be doing interviews instead. Rather than the above casting process, now is the time to start putting in calls and getting commitments from people to appear in the film. You may schedule those interviews, you may not, but take time to pitch the project to these interview subjects and give them time to consider being a part of it.

Casting Resources

Pre-Production Step 8: Rehearse It

For narrative project you shouldn’t wait until you’re on set to hear the actors perform together. Depending on your available time and budget try and schedule a few rehearsals of the script with at least your lead actors, but preferably as much of the cast as you can bring together. This is the time to work out the kinks in the script. Is a line a little clunky? Rewrite it! Rehearsals are a great opportunity to test the material before you commit it to film (or memory card as the case may be). Find a rehearsal space and work with the cast on their performance and refine the script.

Rehearsal Resources

Pre-Production Step 9: Legalese

In all of this process there’s another little wrinkle that is almost as much fun as money, dealing with all of the legal concerns of a film. This is a pretty expansive topic. Legal comes down to things like setting up the LLC mentioned previously. There’s a lot of paperwork and things like confirming your company name is unique and drawing up the necessary legal documents to establish the company. Then there are contracts and agreements you need to have between the LLC and everyone involved in the film. You need a papertrail for everyone establishing what is expected of them and how they are being compensated. That’s just the beginning.

Legal also means dealing with things like Production Insurance, Errors & Omissions Insurance, and any other kind of insurance that your particular project may require. How much it will cost and how much it covers is going to depend on the individual project. Make sure you are covered.

Legal also covers other intellectual property you may need for your project. Want characters watching a particular movie in once scene? Does the climax of the film hinge entirely on Barry Manilow’s “Mandy” starting at just the right moment? You need to get clearances. You don’t want to mess with the music industry. They’re scary.

Also, if you’re working with union cast or crew on this project, it’s time to make sure you’re going to be in full compliance with the appropriate union contract you signed. You’ll need to find the right union contract for your level of project by the way. It defines how much cast or crew is to be paid and also defines how long a shoot day is allowed to be, when breaks are, and other nuances of the work environment.

Legal Resources

Pre-Production Step 10: The Shooting Script

Now that you’ve done some rehearsals and had the heartbreaking reality check that is budgeting it’s time to finalize your shooting script. If you changed lines, changed props, excised some scenes, or even added some things, it’s time to put that all down on the page and produce a final shooting script for your team to work off of. You’re going to need to go through your breakdowns again revise them based on this, and there may be further changes to come but settle on your shooting script and prepare to get shooting.

Shooting Script Resources

Pre-Production Step 11: Get Your Locations

You have to figure out where you are going to shoot this thing. Your garage can’t be every location. Yes, it can be a garage in the film. No, I think it’s a great garage. No, I don’t have a tone. You have a tone.

When you did the breakdowns you identified the locations you need for the project. When you did the budgeting you figured out how much you could afford to spend on those locations. When you worked with legal you got insurance in case you break those locations. Now, you have to find those locations and convince them to let you shoot there at the rate you want to pay them. If you have a good size project and budget you probably will have hired a Locations Manager to work with you on this. If not, you may be running out to different location yourself to scout them and negotiate with the owners of the property.

Locations Resources

Pre-Production Step 12: Production Design

Your Art Director or Production Designer will need to get a good look at these locations you’ve selected. Yes, the cathedral is perfect but does it have the right kind of pews for what is described in the script? It may need to be dressed to look older or newer. Perhaps you prefer red to purple and some new cushions are needed. Production design is going to help bring the look and style of your film together and make it feel consistent.

Production Design Resources

Pre-Production Step 13: Set the Schedule

Scheduling has been happening in broad strokes pretty much from the organizing stage but as you get later in the process it’s time to get much more granular. Start big. What is the general block of dates you’ll be shooting? How many days does your team think is needed for shooting the whole project? Will there be holidays to work around? Get the sense of these big questions first. As you work on locations, casting, and legal it will help you understand in greater detail what your schedule needs to look like.

Your shooting script and final breakdowns will help you and your team decide when scenes and sequences can be shot. Cast and crew availability will come in to play. You’ll try to be as efficient as possible but that can be tough. Trying to balance it all is one of the hard parts of the process.

In this stage you’ll put together a Shooting Schedule. The Shooting Schedule will define what you are shooting when. This will drive one of the most important documents you’ll have on set day to day, the Call Sheet. While the Call Sheet is something you see more during production, and it’s one of those pre-production tasks that continues through production. The Shooting Schedule is the broad strokes of what you’re shooting, when you’re shooting, and the cast, crew, and other resources you need. The Call Sheet then is distributed to everyone ahead of each day to let them know what to expect from each day on set.

Scheduling Resources

Pre-Production Step 14: Put Together the Shot List

Now let’s talk about what shots exactly you need for this project. The shot list may have been started early in the process. It may have helped figure out the budget. As you get through the shooting script, final breakdowns, locations, and scheduling it’s time to finalize the shot list.

The shot list is going to determine what is shot on each day of the project for each scene. It’s going to be a document that defines for the whole team what needs to be setup for the day. So, take the time and plan it well.

While you’re at writing up the shot list, you may want to take some time to storyboard the project as well. Pre-visualize what the film will look like. This may be something you do yourself with stick figures or storyboard software like Celtx Storyboarding or FrameForge. This may be something you hire a storyboard artist for. It can be a really good way of getting an idea of what the project will look like before you even power up the camera. It’s like rehearsals for your shot list.

Shot List Resources

Pre-Production Step 15: Tech Scouting

As mentioned before you’re going to need to scout locations to see if they meet your vision of the film. You’re also going to need to scout locations for technical purposes. Department heads will need to get an idea of how the space will work for their jobs. The Director of Photography and Gaffer are going to need to figure out where they can place cameras and lights. Your Grip and Electric department needs to figure out how power is going to get to that camera and those lights. Your Production Sound Mixer is going to explain to you that this amazing house is right next to the airport and she can’t stop the planes from flying overhead and it’s going to mess up all the dialogue. You’ll tell her she’ll figure something out and when your back is turned she’ll curse you. Those boils are going to be really painful.

Tech Scouting Resources

Now You’re Ready for the Fun Part

Whether it’s a large scale production with a big team to support every step of this process or a tight dedicated team of friends and volunteers that just want to make this work because they believe in the project, don’t skip your pre-production. Consider every part of the process, and address these elements before the camera rolls. With everything here it’s not a question really of if you do it but when you do it. These tasks will need to happen and it’s much easier to do them first than to try and back track and take care of them later in the production process.

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