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Advance Planning: How to Stay on a Video Production Budget

Even beginners should know that every video production needs advanced preparation. The necessary equipment, crew, cast, locations, scenes, script, props and every other detail should be carefully thought out before actual shooting begins.

Of course, in some “fly on the wall” documentary productions, spontaneity is king. Even this impromptu shooting style doesn’t rule out advanced planning. A videographer must be prepared for that unexpected shot or it can be easily missed.

On major productions, advanced planning is an integral part of the process. The larger the production, the more planning goes into it because a single missed step can result in huge cost overruns.

However, even the smallest production benefits from knowing in advance the elements that must be dealt with on the actual location. This planning involves people, equipment, locations, props and budget. Thinking through each of these will not only help ensure a smooth production, but can save a lot of unnecessary expense.

Start with the largest cost — crew and, if you are using actors, the cast. There is a reason experienced directors and producers tend to work over and over with the same people. It is because they have a proven skill set and always do the job reliably. This is one of the key reasons on most motion picture sets that every crew member and actor has worked their way up through the ranks.

On low budget productions, people with less experience are often employed. If your production involves the use of firearms or dangerous stunts, be especially aware of using inexperienced people. It can lead to disaster. If you need proof, just look at the recent production of the low-budget film, Rust, where an accidental gunshot caused a crew member’s death.

Of course, hiring the best people is always influenced by the budget. On some very low-cost productions, volunteers are often used. Many will work for free just to be involved in a production — any production.

Be careful never to put untrained and untested people in positions where skills are essential. Volunteers are fine for getting coffee and helping move props around, but never use an amateur for essential tasks.

Pre-plan where your production will shoot. Knowing the intricacies of locations in advance can save a myriad of problems during the shoot.

Ask every conceivable question. Is the place quiet? Does it have adequate electricity? Is there a place to securely store equipment? Is there adequate parking for everyone? Are there restrooms for the cast and crew? Will there be unexpected interruptions at the site that you can’t control?

All of these factors are important to know in advance. If any essentials are missing, you will have the extra cost of providing it at the last minute. Make sure everyone is comfortable and has all the necessities to ensure a successful and smooth shoot.

When scouting a location in advance, find out who is in charge and become friendly with them. If obstacles do occur on shoot day, these locals can help solve problems without costly interruptions.

Also, check the shooting environment at the time of day you plan to shoot there. How is the light at that hour? Is the sun going to benefit the production or not? Are there buildings, power lines or other visual obstacles that will detract from the shot you plan?

Also, listen for sounds. Can you get clean audio on this location? Are there ambient sounds near the location that can prevent recording good audio?

If it’s summer and you are planning an indoor shoot, is the air conditioning system quiet enough? If not and it has to be turned off, how long before it becomes too hot to shoot in the space? In the winter, is the heating system noisy? Are there clanking radiators? Know these details.

Once the cast and crew are chosen and the locations are identified, detailed logistics come into play. From costumes to lenses to microphones, every detail matters. How many batteries will you need? What mounting gear will you need for the camera? What filters will be needed? How much recording media should be on location? How much gaffers tape?

What you don’t already have, must be bought or rented. How many days will you need each item. Each expenditure must be accounted for in both the budget and the script.

Don’t fool yourself into thinking you can just figure it out on location. The “gotchas” can overwhelm anyone. You must check every detail of every scene in the script, get every item needed and then make sure it is readily available on the location.

This includes props for each scene. Everything from chairs, tables, lamps, weapons, books or paper documents needed to be checked for authenticity and accounted for. Someone on the set needs to make sure every prop is in working order. There is nothing worse than having an essential prop not function on a set and a replacement is not available.

Before going to a location, a checklist should be created and double-checked on an item-by-item basis. Mistakes will still probably be made, but a list will help reduce the chance of an error.

A producer of the popular radio broadcast, A Prairie Home Companion, once told me the crew carried a list of local hardware stores whenever traveling on the road. They always forgot something, he said, and that’s where they’d go to buy it.

A schedule is also needed to make sure the work is done in the time allotted in the budget. It is easy to go over the scheduled time and this puts the production behind, which translates to higher costs.

Most productions shoot all the scenes at a given location at the same time, rather than in the sequential order of the story. This way, all the gear and crew have to visit and set up in a place only once.

This can complicate pre-planning, because every item for every scene must be available at once. Continuity is essential, and someone must always check for tiny missed errors that can throw the viewer in the finished edit.

Certain shots look best at specific times of the day, so this has to be incorporated into the scheduling. If a shot works best at golden hour, be ready to take advantage of that time to shoot the scene. Running late on another scene can cost a missed shot when you want it.

Budgets rule all preproduction. With a larger budget, experts can be hired to do the detailed work. On smaller budgets, those with less experience might be required. The less money a production has, the more important this planning becomes.

It is best to have an emergency fund for the mistakes that will inevitably happen, no matter how good the advance planning is. Put aside as much as possible for contingencies. I can’t remember a situation where it wasn’t needed.

Doing the homework before any video shoot is essential. It is a key to doing professional work and the only way to bring in a production on schedule and budget.

Writer at Broadcast Beat
Frank Beacham is a New York-based writer, director and producer who works in print, radio, television, film and theatre.

Beacham has served as a staff reporter and editor for United Press International, the Miami Herald, Gannett Newspapers and Post-Newsweek. His articles have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, the Village Voice and The Oxford American.

Beacham’s books, Whitewash: A Southern Journey through Music, Mayhem & Murder and The Whole World Was Watching; My Life Under the Media
Microscope are currently in publication. Two of his stories are currently being developed for television.

In 1985, Beacham teamed with Orson Welles over a six month period to develop a one-man television special. Orson Welles Solo was canceled after Mr. Welles died on the day principal photography was to begin.

In 1999, Frank Beacham was executive producer of Tim Robbins’ Touchstone feature film, Cradle Will Rock. His play, Maverick, about video with Orson Welles, was staged off-Broadway in New York City in 2019.
Frank Beacham
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