Over the last twelve years at Pixar I've done a lot of pipeline design and development for animated films (I've co-designed the production pipeline for two features, and contributed pieces to several others). So I figured I'd apply the diagramming and analysis techniques I use to create a general film production pipeline overview that basically applies to all films at all budget levels.
Film production, like screenplays (and anything else that is initiated, proceeds, and then completes), can be broken down into a three act structure:
Simply stated, preproduction is everything that happens before you start shooting, production is all the stuff that happens while you're on-set and shooting, and postproduction is everything that happens afterwards. For animated films, "shooting" is everything that happens starting with layout and ending with rendering.
The diagrams and summaries I'll present are influenced by my big budget feature work, but the way to apply them to smaller budget films is to simply scale them down. In doing so, some pieces may fall off if you don't have a friend who can do them for low enough cost (storyboarding and previsualization being the main pieces of preproduction that are most easily cut).
Preproduction starts when a project is greenlit.
In some studios, a greenlight is first given to go into first phase prepro / advanced development in which only script revisions, storyboarding, early production design, and preliminary budgeting are happening.Â But once the film is put into real preproduction, a number of other things quickly follow in order to prepare to go into full-blown production. Here is a visual guide to preproduction, followed by a summary of the process:
Casting Crew Leads and Actors
Depending on the approach at the particular studio or production company, the very first person cast may be a Writer, a Director, or a Producer.
In order to proceed from development into preproduction and have it be maximally successful, all three of those positions need to be cast before moving on. And in order to proceed with certain tasks in preproduction, you then need to cast your Cinematographer, Production Designer, Production Accountant, Location Scout, Casting Director, and First A.D. You will need these people to do the first script breakdown (Producer, Director, and First A.D.), and then begin technical / craft preproduction as well as scheduling, budgeting and financing.
Casting your on-screen leads will have a very direct impact on both script and story development and budgeting and financing. If you cast someone with enough stature relative to your film's budget, you will be required to give them some say in the development of the story in return for the fact that their signing-on will be a major step towards securing financing (and may increase your budget, too, depending on how big a name they are relative to your project's size, balanced against how friendly they are towards you and your vision). And, the earlier you cast, the earlier this input can be gathered, which means better preproduction results, as well as an earlier opportunity to start rehearsals.
A script breakdown involves taking the pre-shooting style script and breaking it into shots in the style of a shooting script. People generally think of the first shooting scrip breakdown as happening right before going on-set, but it really needs to happen before you can start budgeting and scheduling, which you'll need a first pass on before you can start to go out for financing.
The first script breakdown also helps the Cinematographer design appropriate camera tests, and the Production Designer, Location Scout and Casting Director to start finding the look, key places and key on-screen talent for your film. A different kind of breakdown is needed to deliver the script into the Storyboard department (if you'll have one), but the first pass at a shooting breakdown is essential for Previsualization (if you'll be doing previs).
Everyone in preproduction will be working off the script breakdown, so it's crucial to do a complete pass on this before moving forward.
Budgeting and Scheduling, Financing and Legal
Money, time and contracts all must be managed in order to actually produce a film. Budgets and schedules are simple to conceptualize, and difficult to get right. A schedule is just a detailed list of things you want to do, with how long each will take and who (cast and crew) and what (locations, equipment, sets and props) needs to be there.Â The budget is derived from the schedule by figuring out how much each of those things costs per day, and adding it all up (remembering to include preproduction and postproduction as fully scheduled and budgeted aspects of making the iflm, as well as overhead, with potentially substantial fixed costs like permits, fees, film duplication, etc. called-out as line items).
You then use the budget and schedule to help determine financing needs, and plan the actual production. The early budgets and schedules will be used as part of the financing process, so the producing staff knows how much to be asking for. As cast member salaries (and, sometimes, story demands) boost the budget, this must all get revised.
Early design, scouting, previs, and camera tests will also influence the budget and schedule. As you refine what it is you're trying to do, you will almost certainly be forced to repeatedly decided between something you really want -- a cool shot, a great location, an expensive cast member, etc. -- and the realities of your budget. Sometimes, if you're early enough in the financing process and sufficiently skilled at getting people excited about your project, you might be able to boost the budget once -- but usually not.
It's best to keep the very first iterations of all this stuff to yourself for as long as you can financially afford to do so with whatever seed money you bring to the project (and whatever free time your crew might give you).
If you're lucky enough to be doing a big studio project, all of this happens on their dime, though how it then may get deducted against gross and therefore any back end you may be lucky enough to have negotiated (though probably not) is something for the lawyers to work out.
And, indeed, there are a lot of things for lawyers to work out in terms of financing agreements, cast and crew contracts, rights agreements, and so on. It's crucial to have a professional, full-time entertainment lawyer with extensive film experience available to you throughout the process, especially if it's your first feature film.
Script Revisions, Storyboarding, Production Design and Previsualization
Script revisions come from notes received from big name cast members, the Director, the Producer, and if it's a studio film, the studio executives (either they read it alone, or from table reads and rehearsals -- though rehearsals often don't start until the moment after preproduction because on-screen talent often won't commit the time until on-set production is greenlit, so there's often at least one prepro iteration after prepro has officially ended).
Script revisions can also come from other phases of the preproduction process, because the major reason for the preproduction process other than the budgeting and planning of the shoot is to do things that reveal problems in the film before you start incurring the high costs of being on-set.
Storyboarding and Previsualization processes are in fact specifically designed to generate script revisions (and because of this, they are often omitted, particularly by Directors who -- right or wrong -- believe they don't need to incur the expense as they've already "got it all in my head").
Production design is the development of the visual look of the film. The Director and Cinematographer are generally the only ones participating in this other than the Production Designer (and sometimes, not even the Cinematographer, who may come in after design is basically finished).
Production design establishes the basic look of the film, drawing, painting, and finding reference for major sets, costumes, buildings, vehicles, and even characters. All this feeds into the production art department, as well as location scouting, camera, and casting departments as the production design packets are the physical embodiments of the Director's visual goals.
Storyboards (and animatics cut together from boards) are a way of working out structural, character, and visual storytelling elements before more expensive stages of production begin (camera tests, previs, and real production).
Story iterates with the writer(s) on the script side, and production design and the camera department on the visual elements. Done properly, storyboards are like a first pass at both rehearsals and camera tests, without having to hire any actors or camera crew.
Camera tests may then be done on specific shots that have been boarded (and/or previsualized) in order to find the best looking, most efficient and effective way to achieve them, whereas finding the shot during a test can incur higher costs due to space and equipment rentals (and finding a shot on-set can be project killing if you haven't done enough prepro work to make the changes happen within a solid framework of production, and know enough about your own goals to get the changes done quickly).
Previsualization is a 3D computer graphics approach to exploring shot composition. Some people use this instead of storyboards, but generally boards have better "acting" in them (skilled board artists draw more relevant and convincing character emotions than you're going to get out of previs-grade 3D chracters). This makes them superior to previs for acting-driven sequences.
3D previs is particularly useful for shots with complex camera movements, staging, and choreography. In those cases a board artist may make shots look feasible that aren't (or, at least, aren't on your budget).
A cost effective, simple 3D previs with a system that models real cameras and real grip gear such as FrameForge is a good way to test the viability of shots in a 3D space (a setup in a package like Maya can be even better, if you know what you're doing). Very complex, expensive films also use (high end) previs extensively just because there's so much going on it becomes an effective way to establish and communicate all the on-set needs for very complicated shots.
Camera Tests, Location Scouting and related work
Technical and craft scouting and tests are essential parts of preproduction that are fed by and feed back into both story development (if you an't get a crucial location on time and budget, then you need to change it) and production design.
Camera tests in particular develop and refine the look, both in terms of the production design aspects of color and value in frame, as well as the compositional and pacing goals established in storyboarding and previs.
The purpose of camera tests is to establish what camera, lenses, stock, and light kit will be the foundational basis of the shoot by proving that the combination can actually achieve the desired look by doing it.
Going ahead with a shoot without doing any camera tests is foolish, and any Cinematographer who suggests this isn't worthy of the title. Every film has differences, and they need to be analyzed and understood before huge costs are being incurred on-set.
Location scouting can be as essential as casting, especially in films where locations are basically characters (a chase across Mt. Rushmore is much different than a chase across "a big hill"). Location availability and cost also has a potentially big impact on budgeting and scheduling, and the physical aspects of the location impact production design and the work of the camera, electrical, and sound departments.
Related tests and scouting may be done on some films where there are particular needs in terms of on-set sound (sound tests), music (bringing on a music director early to start establishing rights), or particular costumes, set pieces, vehicles, or other props that are key to the film and need to be established during preproduction in a manner other than merely being designed by the Production Designer. But generally most or all of this sort of thing happens during early production -- the part that secretly isn't actually on-set despite going on-set appearing in the most common definition of production -- because that's when you've actually received all the money and go-ahead needed to go on set (which is really when production starts).
If you look at the diagram, you'll notice lots of arrows that show one phase feeding into another, and that phase then feeding back into the prior phase. That's because preproduction (and really all filmmaking) is an iterative process. The results of taking the results of one part of the process and refining it in another may cause something in that prior part of the process to change.
Filmmaking isn't an "all at once" process. Think of iterating in preproduction a bit like doing takes on-set: with all the "moving parts" involved in making a movie you're terribly unlikely to get anything right the first time, so you need to actively plan to fail to do so.
Iterating during preproduction is the least expensive opportunity to iterate and get more things right, and it is by doing so that you're able to effectively plan to fail to get things right on set and still manage to make the film you actually want to (or something close to it, anyway).
Preproduction is the most overlooked, downplayed, and underappreciated part of filmmaking. That's because it is actually the most essential step in making a film, yet people generally want to skip most or all of it.
Without sufficient preproduction, you're going into production and postproduction with no real idea of what you're doing. Even if you've made films before, at the beginning of every new project you should just assume you have no idea what's going to happen and why, and set about developing an good idea about that before you go on-set.
You really, really don't want to be figuring all these things out for the first time when five, fifteen, fifty, or five hundred people are all staring at you, wondering and asking: "what's this scene about and how should it look?" (And all the hundreds of details that implies.)