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Paper (pixels) are the cheapest thing you have

When most people think about video production, they think about the big sets, the sense of community, the creative energy, and the excitement.  While these things are certainly awesome, we have found that this is not where the production succeeds or fails.  There is something more, something a little less glamorous that really  determines the final quality- and it happens long before you pick up a camera.

What I’m talking about (of course) is paper.  In the craft of filmmaking we have found that paper (or pixels) are the cheapest things you have.  “Fix it in Post” may be a clever phrase, but it’s a horrible strategy and can turn into a real nightmare.  Paper on the other hand, when used correctly, can save you days of time and help you create infinitely better final results.  So how do we use paper correctly?  Here’s the White Knuckle guide.

1.  Script:  Write with intelligence.

Everyone knows you need an interesting concept and solid story, but most beginners write far above their budget and skill level.  As you write think about the following:

Locations.
A.  How many locations?  company moves take time and money.  If you have 40 locations are you really ever going to get your film finished.
B.  Are these real locations you can practically get to?  If you live in a small OK farm-town should your script really include a NY city street?  Can you realistically fake it and make it look good?

Props.
A.  As you write your epic scene about the aliens coming out of the white house covered in green ooze think to yourself, “What building do I know of that could pass for the White House?  Who do I know that could make realistic alien costumes?  Can I make green ooze and how much do those ingredients cost?  Can I afford it?
B.   Think about what you have and write based on that.  Unless your buddy is a 3D animating master, you might want to leave the 1940s world war two tank out of your script.

Skill level.
A.  Yours:  Be realistic about what you can and can’t do.  If you can’t do a rack focus dolly jib up then don’t write it into your script.
B.  Your Actors:  Can your actor pull off the emotion it takes to attend the funeral of his father and make it look good?  If not, then maybe write something different.

2. Shot list:  Don’t pick up a camera until you have one.

Not every shoot requires a storyboard but even the simplest shoots can benefit from a shot list. This can be simple or complex. The idea of the shotlist is to put every single shot on paper in order of location, not the order of the script.  Make sure to mention the location, the actors needed, any special props/ animals/ etc, what type of shot (ie handheld, over the shoulder, high angle, establishing) and then check them off the list as you go.  If you’ve thought through your shot list well enough you should have no need for pick-ups later.

Of course there is more you can do with paper such as storyboards, script breakdowns, call sheets, lighting diagrams, script supervisor notes, budgets, and more… but these are , in my opinion, the basics and absolutely necessary to keep the production from spinning out of control.

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