Executive Producer & Owner of Shalalala Productions, Robert Lee, shares a few pre-production tips, a few don'ts to avoid and how budgeting and timeline work into planning.
PH: Once you sign on board to a project - what happens next?
Robert Lee: The short answer is that at the start of the project, I review it again with the client to make sure we are on the same page as to goals and objectives. Most production details are hammered out when we draft the contract, but it never hurts to double-check. After that is done, I focus on working with my crew in developing a production schedule at which time we review the workflow/process. The critical step here is to ensure clear communication in all directions -- to make sure the client, as well as the team, knows what to expect and when to expect it. It’s important to spell out who’s doing what, which days we’re filming, the hours required on-site, and any contingencies such as possible need for a back-up location or substitute talent. Clear communication is essential for staying on deadline and on budget.
PH: What does the beginning of the pre-production process look like?
Robert Lee: It depends on the kind of project. If the production is to be scripted by us, this step generally means working with our writers to craft the script for the client and then securing client approval. If the project is purely filming for documentary purposes (like a conference, lecture, or event), pre-production focuses on lining up personnel, clearing permissions, mapping out logistics, securing resources and coordinating with vested stakeholders in planning how the venue or topic will be covered.
PH: What are some critical elements that need to be decided in pre-production?
Robert Lee: Interestingly, the most critical element for me is not on the creative side. It’s purely practical because it affects every stage of production. That is -- identifying the client’s key personnel. Key personnel is the decision makers who can approve changes, react to unexpected occurrences (such as bad weather), and provide quick answers that will continue to move the project forward. If you do not have access to these decision makers, find out who the stakeholders are and who controls the purse strings. Otherwise, you can be faced with expensive, frustrating delays. Other critical elements include leaving the first pre-production meeting with a consensus, securing budget for all phases of the project including retainers or down payments, designating who on the client side is going to get necessary approvals, permits, and resources, and assigning tasks within your organization. At ShaLaLaLa, we are an adaptive company, knowing when to put together a small or a large team for the benefit of the client.
PH: How does budget and timeline work in this planning?
Robert Lee: The budget is an ongoing guideline for us in deciding on resources or actions to support the project. As any producer would likely agree, there’s never enough budget – we always want to do more, better, easier -- but a realistic budget, is a gift. That’s not to say we won’t work with what we have, but a budget that is based on the carefully researched quotes we provide is a constructive way to start. The smaller the budget, the greater the need to be resourceful and creative in finding solutions. That takes time and energy. Sometimes this means locating our own resources rather than using those suggested by the client. In this case, we advise the client and give them an option to go with it or to increase the spend.
PH: How do the pre and post processes work together?
Robert Lee: I operate with an editor’s mind and work backward. It’s important that through storyboards and scripting, we marry the visuals, and I keep many of these images in my head. That means picking up the shots and angles that will cut well; capturing the small details and nuances that will help tell a story. Basically, we need to anticipate what we will need in post-production. If some of the ideas cannot be done on camera, we note it in pre-production or catch it during production, with a plan to address it later. The best scenario, of course, is to first “fix it in Pre,” and, then “fix it in Post”.
PH: Can you reference a few of your own projects and what the pre-production process looked like?
Robert Lee: Some of our earlier projects were true collaborative efforts. When we started out with one of our first client in the health sector, we had several meetings upfront to learn what they wanted to accomplish and how we might do it together to contain costs. They used the term “sharpening their pencils,” to emphasize the point. Together, we hammered out a timetable and budget. We divvied up the tasks. For example, they secured permission for us to film onsite and provided us with the necessary security clearance. They tapped their staff and scheduled people to appear in the video, which eliminated our need for finding actors, screening them, and paying them. This saved us time and money, and because the client was so closely involved, their input added to the accuracy and credibility of the production.
PH: What are some lessons you've learned from earlier projects?
Robert Lee: Each client has a different level of comfort in collaboration, and as producers, we need to understand and respect that. Some clients want total control and demand to see everything along the way. This means building in extra time and cultivating extraordinary patience. Other clients are hands-off, and ‘don’t want to know’ or simply don’t have the bandwidth to get involved. The earlier in the process that our role is defined, the better it is. It’s important to know the dynamic, so we can either step back or be assertive. Some clients want us to take the lead, some see us as colleagues or peers, some view us as specialists whose advice they value, and others want us to simply implement their ideas, not ask questions. You might say, much of my early experience has been more in learning about people than production.
PH: What are a few "don'ts" in the pre-production process?
Robert Lee: Don’t feel you have to accept the job. If a client is not prepared to do the work, or take the work seriously, do not proceed with filming. A viable client must be able to clearly state their goals and purposes at the outset. Don’t let them off the hook. Ask them how they are planning to use the video, whether they need different broadcast lengths, sound or no sound, various file formats. Do not make a video for the sake of making a video. There must be a budget – not the promise of getting a budget, “if we like what you propose.” This is a business, after all. Do not leave it to chance with outdoor shooting. Weather is unpredictable, so don’t pick just one day to shoot. You’ll want a backup filming date for safety. Never assume; when in doubt, ask. If you’re not sure about your client’s expectation or their specs for usage, or if you are uncertain about the resources they’re going to provide (talent, props, setting), ask the question again.
PH: What upcoming projects are you working on?
Robert Lee: We are operating in two capacities – as our own production house but also in providing support services and consultation for others. This past month we covered the annual New England Direct Marketing Association conference at Bentley University, and are in talks with NEDMA about other events. This is a growth area for us as many event organizers see on-site video as an incentive and value-added for sponsors. We are also working with individuals in producing interview videos that they can post on their websites or use in social media. This is always interesting because the subject matter is so varied. We recently interviewed a musician and a behavioral coach, and we will soon interview an author. In working with other production companies, we are providing staffing, advice, and managerial expertise, as well as hands-on technical and logistical assistance. One of the projects we’re pursuing is a legacy video for a new client and another is in developing creative content. The nice thing about video is that it’s always evolving.