Vaders' Photoshoot by Chris Isherwood

Welcome back. This is the third part of a series that gets you from no skills to basic in making your movie… or at least that’s the idea. Remember, if you have any questions, comment below.

From part 1 I left you with a shot list. A shot list for every scene hopefully. If not, then at least have a shot list created before you decide to shoot those specific scenes (unless you’re the type that can keep images in your head for long periods of time).

The shot list is the absolute minimum needed before shooting a scene, in my opinion. You’ll noticed I haven’t talked about storyboarding because in my experience, I’ve never really had to “make boards” unless it was an intricate and complex sequence (group of scenes) or I had multiple people helping out that I needed to communicate my vision to. But most of the time, I work off a shot list and shoot organically* during the process.

*By organic, I just mean letting the way a shot looks in-camera develop or transition through some instinctive compulsion. Yes. I’m compulsive.


// Decide who your cast is.

Let’s face it, if you’re reading this for basic skills, you’re more than likely going to be using friends or family. Or a friend of a friend who directs live performances for your local theater group (although they tend to be divas and will probably try to direct your production). Either way, your choices shouldn’t be that difficult. Since most of them aren’t going to be trained actors, the best you can do in this situation is cast according to who fits a character more believably compared to who your actors prefer to be.

Note: In the writing process, I tend to write with people already in mind so it’s not so much of a stretch of skill when you approach them for the role.

Of course you could just cast people in whatever and it could turn out fine. Could. If it’s for a comedy, this might work.

If you’re planning on auditioning people other than friends or family, then just remember to cast for believability. This should be common-sense. Have each person try out for other characters as well and not just who they prefer to be. They may just surprise you. If the person you’re auditioning is believable to you, and it feels right, go with that instinct.

// Build your crew (if necessary)

For the most part, on a low-budget or no-budget production you’ll be wearing most of the hats,  and it will frustrate you, I can pretty much guarantee you that. But even for a lone-wolf, there are some positions which benefit greatly from a helping hand.

Sound Recorder + Boom Operator

If you’re planning on using double-system sound, which is recording the audio separate from the video/film, then a sound recordist/boom operator is essential. Sometimes the sound recordist is separate from the boom operator but for our nifty little budget let’s combine that position and call it “the sound operator.”

Why would we use double-system sound?  The quality from equipment solely focused on sound is far better than most camera’s on-board sound. Not to mention film cameras don’t even have sound recording capability. Plus, with a separate sound operator we can bring the mic closer to our actors instead of it being stuck on the camera which makes for a better signal-to-noise ratio (i.e. clearer conversations and tonal quality).

Assistant Director (AD)

The second position that is immensely helpful would be an Assistant Director. Allow this person to keep you on track of the production. What shots need to be done? How many more hours do we have in a location? When’s Lunch? Did that lunch cost too much? Make calls and get the actors and crew to the right location. Pretty much, most of the non-creative work we will dispatch to the AD.

Feel free to add more positions if you must (producers, grips, camera operators, etc.), be aware of what crew positions are essential for YOUR production. You certainly don’t need an entourage and too many people standing around with nothing to do is a waste of money (assuming you’re paying them).

// Location scouting

For each scene of your script, there’s a location tied to it. What did you write down in your slug line? It’s time to find out where, physically, those scenes are going down.

If you have some places already in mind, write them down specifically in your script (You’re gonna have to tell your cast and crew how to get there). Then, we go for a walk.

Explore your area, your city, neighboring cities, however far you plan to go. You can do this either solo or with your crew.

Bring along a notebook with a pen, and a camera, or if your phone has both then, your phone. Take notes as you explore, and snap pictures of possible shots. Also keep in mind that most public places you’re free to shoot in as long as you don’t impede traffic or create an event, otherwise you’ll need to seek a permit from your state. Private buildings and estates you’ll need to ask permission for and probably fork over some money. If you’re going to shoot in public places, keep it “guerilla”: small crew, minimum gear, and work fast. Also, don’t get caught.

Let’s go back to the script.


// Group scenes by location

Remember the scene headings, aka slug lines, we labeled in part 1? Now that we have a good idea where EXACTLY those places are, we can prepare for the upcoming shoots.

Two things.

1. Let’s write down the locations and/or addresses for each scene heading in our scripts. Jot it down next to the scene headings or with the other scene breakdown notes.

2. Create a list of each scene by number, description of scene, and physical location.

With this scene list, group scenes by location.

You may have to rewrite this list. Sorry. You could also highlight each scene in the same location with one color. Or circle same-location scenes with a colored marker. Whatever way works for you. Heads up, I do use a highlighter when scheduling production days because it’s easier for me. I talk about that further on.

Note: Creating this list as a spreadsheet makes it easy to move around rows as you’re grouping. If you’re using paper you may have to rewrite your list.

By doing this, you’ll shoot your movie more efficiently since you’ll only have to transport and setup gear for each location and NOT each scene. This also means you’ll be shooting OUT-OF-SCRIPT ORDER. But most movies aren’t shot in linear order anyway for this exact reason.

//Schedule production days

Pick a day. Pick a location. Make some calls. Agree to meet up. Boom.

How many production days depends on how much of the script you estimate you can finish each day. Don’t mistake production days for calendar days. Production days may not be back-to-back. Because other people in your cast or crew may still have day jobs, you may only get one Saturday every weekend. So if it takes you three production days to shoot all your scenes, and you can only arrange one Saturday per weekend, that’s about 3 weeks until you’re finished shooting.

As a rule of thumb, I usually aim to get done at least 2 full scenes shot, or 2-3 pages of script per production day.

That list you made, grouping scenes by location, can now be used as your schedule for production days. Here’s a simple method to use:

– highlight each scene that will be tackled on particular days. Example: highlight all scenes in green for Day 1’s shots, highlight yellow for Day 2’s, and so on.

– cross out scenes as they’re completed.

I know. Simple. Sorry.

//Pack your gear

Every scene requires certain gear. You should have this written down in your script notes when you broke down each scene. For every production day, make sure THAT gear is packed and ready to go the night before or if you’d like, early morning.

Advisory: bring extra batteries, cables (xlr, power, extensions, AV, HDMI, etc.), memory cards, the small stuff. These always seem to be the unexpected surprises I get out in the field because they don’t work or get lost. Trust me. Also, charge your batteries before every shoot, and bring the charger also, just in case.

I think we’re ready to shoot. Or in industry speak: We can now start PRINCIPAL PHOTOGRAPHY.

Let’s RECAP.

We’ve decided who’s in our cast.

The two most helpful crew positions for your small production.

Location scouting.

My super-minimalist way of scheduling production days.

And a reminder to pack your gear.

In part 4 we’ll discuss shootings your scenes: blocking your shots, getting enough coverage or getting coverage at all, and what your job(s) as an all inclusive filmmaker entails during production.

Stay tuned.