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How Cinematographers Prepare For A Shoot

How Cinematographers Prepare For A Shoot

The shoots which are executed the easiest and best, are more often than not those that come with a strong pre-production plan. There are exceptions to this rule such as Wong Kar Wai and Christopher Doyle’s relationship, which includes large amounts of improvisation and sometimes even writing the script or a rough outline for a scene the day before it happens.

However, not everyone is Wong Kar Wai. In the vast majority of cases being prepared is going to be a good thing. The pre-production process starts by being more conceptual, based on ideas, which progressively evolves to become more about the practical execution of those ideas leading up to the shoot. In this article, I will break down my approach to preparing for shooting a project by going over the different stages of pre-production.

In reality, the prep process can be very fluid and there may be a lot of overlap between these stages, but for the sake of simplicity, I’m going to simplify prep into four different parts. There are many ways of organizing your ideas, from writing things down on paper to using a word doc, but in this article, I’ll be using Milanote. Milanote is kind of like a digital wall where you can put up sticky notes, photos, storyboards, research, or whatever you like.

It’s a versatile platform, great for creating structure out of ideas, and can be used as a one-stop-shop for the entire pre-production process. That’s why it's been my recent tool of choice whenever I brainstorm a new project. If you’d like to give Milanote a try on your next film or are brainstorming a new script, sign up for free.


Character motivation and ideas

Usually, a cinematographer’s introduction to a project will start with a director reaching out, whether that’s through a request to sit down for coffee, emailing a script, or having a chat on the phone. Sometime’s DPs are brought in early on, for example, a regular director may mention a project to them before it's even been written or received any funding.

Other times cinematographers can be signed up to shoot a project at the last minute with almost no prep where things are already logistically in place. When first meeting with a director about a project broader ideas are most important. It’s helpful to try and get a sense of the kind of tone, thematic ideas, or character motivation which the director envisages.

The cinematographer’s job is to then take the director’s vision and try to refine it visually by making suggestions. On Milanote create a new column for the project and add an idea board. To this board, I’ll add a section for research where any necessary articles or videos about the subject can be added.

you can also create a new note where I’ll jot down any ideas the director has for the project. If there are specific references, such as a trailer or a music video, these can also be added to the board. The more we talk the more we’ll start working out the cinematic language for the film.

Sometimes this will involve implementing rules, such as only using natural light or not moving the camera. If for example, the director feels the story should be very personal and have an intimate feel, then you could suggest using a handheld camera, with lots of close-ups on wider lenses.

You could also start making more technical suggestions, such as shooting with a squarer aspect ratio, which is nicer for framing individual portraits of characters. The more ideas are bounced around the more the visual language will begin to be refined.


Mood Board

After that initial meeting, I find it useful to create a mood board for the project. This is where you compile a collage of images to try and create an idea of visual tone based on the ideas which have already been formed. Going over various images and references is a great way of seeking out and getting inspiration for a visual language for a film.

These images can be dropped onto a Milanote board and could come from paintings, photographs, other films, or any visual art form which you can think of. Even if I’m mixing mediums though, I like to compile images that are visually similar in terms of lighting, color palette, effects filters, or film stock.

Consistency will clarify your vision better and allow that vision to translate to others when you send it through to them.
As everything about this is collaborative there may be a lot of back and forth between the cinematographer and director during this phase. Milanote allows you to share an editable board which is useful, as the director could add images as you both work on the board, come up with new ideas or make comments or give feedback. How Directors Collaborate With Cinematographers.


Once the visual language starts taking shape the next step is to compile either a shot list or a storyboard.

I like to sit down in person with the director for this, go over the script or outline and come up with a list of shots that we’ll need to achieve. You could list these out by creating new columns for each scene and describing and numbering each shot in written form.

A great feature of Milanote is that it’s easy to quickly add photos or references to a written description to clarify specific shots. Another option is either sketching storyboards, employing a storyboard artist - if the budget is large enough - or going to potential shooting locations and taking photos or video clips there to work out the shots you need.

These test shoot clips or storyboards can also be edited into an animatic or a rough version which will mimic the final cut. This is particularly useful for short-form content with a limited running time or complex sequences, such as a car chase or VFX scene, which require specific shots and pacing.


By this stage, the prep has started transitioning from being more idea-based to planning the technical execution of those ideas.

The creative team should go on a recce of the shooting locations. During this recce, it’s helpful to take photos which can be uploaded onto a new board. The DP should work on a gear list and different lighting plans. I like to use the location stills which I’ve captured and use them to draw up a plan for the lights in each location and where they will be placed.

I then send this plan to the gaffer to ensure it's feasible and see if they have any further creative or technical suggestions. When I compile a gear list I like to create a new column for each specific department. Under each, I’ll lay out the camera gear, grips gear, and lighting gear which will need to be rented or sourced for the shoot.

This information can then be shared with the relevant crew HODs as well as production who will facilitate the rental process. For larger projects, it’s also possible to conduct camera tests, where a combination of cameras, lenses, and filters can be tested to find the best possible combination for the job.

During this stage, it may be useful to start testing different looks, or LUTs, on the camera, to nail down how you’d like the final image to come out. If working with a colorist you could create a new board and begin collecting inspiring color references there. During this period you may also start having meetings with crew members.

Sharing a collection of boards on Milantote is a great way to quickly get your collaborators on the same page. For example, you may want to meet with the production designer. Having a completed mood board that can be shown to them, with a suggested color palette and props, will make their job easier and produce a film with a coherent visual look.

Around this time you’ll also help to create a shooting schedule in collaboration with the 1st AD, production team, and director. A cinematographer should always try to push for their input here, as, whenever logistically possible, you want to shoot at the time where the natural light is correct for each scene. This may require requesting different scheduling.

Finally, there may be another last location recce with technical crew members such as the gaffer and key grip, with who you can further refine any gear, grip builds, or lighting placements and concepts before the first day of shooting begins. 


Last words

Whatever medium you decide to do your pre-production work with, whether it’s a physical notebook or Milanote, it's important that you find a workflow that is the easiest for you. As I mentioned at the beginning, the pre-production process for each project is going to always be a bit different, but having some level of structure and preparedness is a must for any shoot.

Even if the shot list goes out of the window on the first day, the very process of thinking through the film in pre-production and creating that shot list will still inform and aid how you shoot. I hope you enjoyed this article. If you did please share this with your friends and  Let me know in the comments how you like to prepare for your films since there’s no one size fits all approach to this.

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