From Visions to Visuals: A Pre-Production Journey
Here's a story for all you storytellers out there; It's the story of how you visually bring to life something that only exists on a page. There is an ocean's distance between the pages of your screenplay & the AD calling "That's a wrap!" on set. How do you cross that ocean? Fear not. There is a way.
I'm Justus Page, Cinematographer of "Neighborhood". In this post, I'm going to lay out the process I went through with Micahel Merrell, the Director, to bring his film to life.
LAYING THE GROUNDWORK
Michael initially approached me to shoot this movie in late-November, and sent me the most current copy of the script. As a Cinematographer, this is a very key moment in the entire process. The best practice for us is to read the script through several times before going back to the director. That's exactly what I did with this script. My first read-through is only to read the story. I'm not thinking about anything else. The second time I read the script, I allowed myself to think visually - and logistically. I had some ideas - and some questions.
I went back to Michael and said "I have two questions: When do you plan on filming this & do you have the location?" He said, "Yes we have a location, and I was hoping to do it in January". We talked about my availability, and ended up agreeing on end of February. And with that, we began.
Michael kept me updated on new drafts of the script, and we causally discussed a few logistical things over the next month. Then we began meeting. Due to the fact that I have a 1 year old, I had to attend some of these meetings on the phone or individually with Michael. We also had a Group Chat where we could all ask questions, and get to know each other.
By January, we were on the phone almost every weekend discussing updates, changes, and ideas. It was at this time that I built out one of the key pieces of preproduction; The Look Book. I use ShotDeck to create mine. The Look Book can be many things, but what it needs to achieve is creating an understanding of the visual style, tone, and color you're aiming for to get everyone on the same page. This can also include lighting references, photography references, paintings, poems, etc.
For more of the daylight scenes, I took a lot of inspiration from cinematographers like Robert Richardson and Bradford Young. Particularly from films like "Arrival" and "Kill Bill", which are very "classical" looking films with strong Kelvin tones, and soft, striking lighting that's both very naturalistic, and sort of fantastical. For the nighttime stuff, I was very drawn to Pedro Luque's cinematography in "Don't Breathe".
The sharp blue-green nighttime vibe with the sort of otherworldly lighting felt right for what we were trying to convey in this movie. I sent the Look Book to Michael, and he agreed! So I distributed it to all the attached members of the lighting and camera team to make sure they understood our intent. Establishing this basis of visual understanding among the key creatives on the project is something that should happen early, and prevents other issues along the way.
So let's review these steps real fast:
1. Michael and I talked about the script, and discussed ideas to make sure we were riding a similar wavelength.
2. We met as a team to become familiar with one another and establish roles and responsibilities
3. We established the basis of our visual plan, and shared it with the team via the look book.
Easy enough, right? Laying your foundation is so key, and not very hard, but it's a step I see a lot of indie filmmakers miss that holds them back.
BRINGING VISIONS TO VISUALS
The script was now in a place we were happy with, and we had our Look Book. Next came discussions about equipment rentals and budgeting stuff, which I'm not qualified to talk about as much as the Production team is! (Maybe they'll hit on that in another blog post *wink wink*)
We had an understanding of the vision. Now it was putting vision into actionable things. We had the location, so Michael, my Gaffer Ash, and myself scouted it to discuss a game plan and get some reference. Below are the reference photos I took that day.
These are 3 of the actual frames from the film that align with the scouting photos, for comparison.
Clearly, there's some things that changed from scouting photos to actual filming! Which is how it should be. That's why you scout. Things changed, yes. But the spirit of the photos remained.
Doing the scout allowed us to see where we could plug in lights, where we wanted to place lights, allowed me to think composition, and get a feel for the spaces and challenges we might have to work with.
Once we had a feel for the space and the script, Michael and I ordered (and reordered) the strip board for several days until we were happy with the order we were gonna shoot the scenes in. Once we knew all the meal breaks, company moves, costume changes, etc. and knew they'd all been accounted for in our order, that's when shotlisting began.
Above is a snippet of our shotlist for Neighborhood.
The process of creating your shotlist can be very unique, and extremely different from film to film. On "Neighborhood", Michael gave me a lot of freedom with the shotlist because we had discussed everything so intently over the past few months, and knew we were on the same page because of the Look Book.
Using apps, such as "PCam Pro" and "Cameras + Formats", I was able to do a lot of technical planning on lenses, Dynamic Range needed for specific scenes, data usage, etc. All of which made its way onto the Shotlist.
An example of the Field of View Preview Tool in "PCam Pro" ($24.99 in the App Store)
An example of the Data Calculator in "Cameras + Formats". ($9.99 in the App Store)
Extrapolating all this data allowed me to give as much possible information to my team as possible, down to what lens they'd need, how far away our subject would be, and when we were moving locations. This allowed the right equipment to always be on standby, and for my lighting team to always be prelighting the next location. Something that proved invaluable during the shoot. This part of turning visions into visuals is more than essential to have a smooth shoot. If I hadn't figured these things out at this stage, in the comfort of my living room in front of my computer, we would have lost countless hours on set for lighting setup, fiddling with the camera, and discussing shots that we should've already figured out long ago. We wouldn't have been able to finish the movie.
Michael was diligently going over the shotlist once I'd finished a scene to make suggestions and give his approval. I'd send approved scenes to my camera and lighting team to give them time to become familiar with the location changes, and make notes of when they'd have to be ready for specific things. This communication stream was constant in the week leading up to the shoot. We were nearly there.
Let's quickly review what this stage entailed:
1. Scout, Scout, Scout. Never walk in blind when you can help it. Planning camera moves, lighting, and staging for a location you haven't been to is self-defeating. IT will inevitably not work. Use scouting to allow the visuals to speak to you, and make reasonable plans.
2. Coordinate, Translate, Communicate. Figure out your order. Get feedback from the key heads. Make adjustments. Then dive into writing out your shots. Have the shots reviewed and revised with the director. Then pass that info onto your team as soon as possible. Your visual plan is useless if it's not shared with the people who have to help you execute it, such as your Gaffer, and your Camera Assistants. To say nothing of the art department and the cast!
A vision is nothing until you ground it in your reality. Find your locations, plan around them, and put pen to paper. Then review, revise, repeat. That's the mantra.
AIRTIGHT & IRONCLAD
We were coming up on less than a week before filming. This is when things are in the biggest flurry. I had arranged to be at equipment pickup the night before the shoot with my Gaffer to inspect all the gear, and make sure we had everything we need. This was so important. If I had just trusted the pickup order without inspection, I would've regretted it later. I discovered an important cable we needed that we didn't have, and some well-used equipment that we switched out for better condition versions. We also found something they'd forgotten to put in the van, which we informed them of, and they then provided. Making sure your tools are in order BEFORE you try and use them may just save your shoot. Our planned visuals would have become scrapped if the tools hadn't worked for us. Nothing is too big an inconvenience to ensure your shoot runs smoothly.
With some final adjusting of the shotlist, we were ready on the back-end. Paperwork was in order, our plan was in order, and now came the other oft-neglected part of the process. The mental preparation.
It's not enough to just show up and get to work. You don't lead that way. The night before the shoot, after the equipment had been secured, and the physical side of the production was assured, I wrote out an email to my team. I went over the documents, reminded them of the game plan and things to be aware of, some safety tips, transportation, and some words of affirmation. Adding this final piece of personal communication to my team adds an extra level of trust and understanding between us.
For myself, I made sure to get a good night's sleep. People rely on my mental sharpness and energy to make a day, and I can't let them down. Don't neglect yourself.
1. Make sure your tools are in order. BEFORE it's too late.
2. Make sure yourself and your team are putting in the effort to be your best selves mentally and emotionally.
It's time! We walk onto set. We have the paperwork, we have the vision, we have the planning, we have the tools, we have the spirit. And now, you execute! Let's lay out all our steps here concisely.
1. Introduction: Michael and I talked about the script, and discussed ideas to make sure we were riding a similar wavelength, in terms of what we saw visually.
2. Get Familiar: We met as a team to become familiar with one another and establish roles and responsibilities, and made ourselves familiar with the script.
3. Look Book: We established the basis of our visual plan, and shared it with the team via the look book.
4. Scout, Scout, Scout: Use scouting to allow the visuals to speak to you, and make reasonable plans. Include as many people as you can on this. Never walk in blind when you can help it. Planning camera moves, lighting, and staging for a location you haven't been to is self-defeating. It will inevitably not work.
5. Coordinate: Figure out your shooting order. Get feedback from the key heads. Make adjustments. Repeat.
6. Translate: Then dive into writing out your shots. Have the shots reviewed and revised with the director. Fix as many problems as you can before they become problems. This stage is where you'll know more about obstacles and needs.
7. Communicate: Then pass that info onto your team as soon as possible. Your visual plan is useless if it's not shared with the people who have to help you execute it, such as your Gaffer, and your Camera Assistants. To say nothing of the art department and the cast!
8. Gear Check: Make sure your tools are in order. BEFORE it's too late. If you don't make your day because you forgot to check if a bulb worked, you're going to feel like an idiot, and odds are, it'll be justified.
9. Mental prep: Make sure yourself and your team are putting in the effort to be your best selves mentally and emotionally.
This is how you take a vision to visuals.
There's a lot of things I didn't address here that I might address in a different post, such as equipment and staffing. I didn't talk about what camera we used, or what our lighting kit was, because these things matter little in bringing a vision into something real. You can take those 9 steps above, and execute them with any camera, any lighting kit. Knowing what equipment you'll be using is the fun part, but it's not THE vision. I can apply those 9 steps to a fun projects I'm gonna do with my buddies on a point-and-shoot, and I can apply them to a $60 Million production too. Planning is universal, and that was my focus with this blog post. Failing to plan is planning to fail.
With that, I hope you have a better understanding of how you bring those visions in your head out into the world to share with all.
Thanks for reading,