Production Boards and Scheduling
by Myrl Schreibman
Presidents Day 2008 found me in a box at the Santa Anita Race Track. I went there with my friend who is president of a major television production company associated with Twentieth Century Fox. We do this from time to time to get away from the bustle activity of the industry. In the box next to us were four people who, between races, were talking about the pending end to the writers strike and their hopeful return back to studio work. They, like us, were there having a good time winning and losing from race to race.
I introduced myself to the guy sitting in the box next to me and found out that he was the construction coordinator on the show The Unit and was now doing the same, waiting for the strike to end, on a low budget independent feature. He was telling my friend and me that he was going to see the producers of the movie he was doing and insist that he receive a producer credit on the film.
I found that quite curious and pressed him to tell me why he wanted that credit. Finally, he told me that he was making the producing decisions as it related to the pre-production of what he does because the young producers did not have the slightest clue how to “connect the dots” as it related to actually getting a project on its feet nor what they were doing while it was shooting.
I asked him how old his producers were and he told me they were in their late twenties and early thirties and basically got their training in film school programs. He wasn’t commenting on their education but instead on their lack of knowledge as to what the industry requires of any producer or filmmaker when they go to work. When they need to speak a language that seasoned people understand. When they need to creatively communicate to people who understand entirely that the process is collaborative and is founded in mutual respect, integrity, a basic knowledge of production and ego.
He got specific with me in his explanation and I found out that the people he was working with couldn’t make decisions and continually changed their minds time and again for whatever was the overnight whim of a writer, director or cinematographer. This forced him to make the decisions that he expected from producers in order to get anything done. Between each of the races, he and his friends were yearning to get back to work with industry professionals who understood timelines, deadlines, and bottom lines while being creative at the same time.
So how are young filmmakers planning out their movies? How do they approach the production of the project? One thing is for sure! There is no substitution for pre- production. Absolutely None! And a clear, concise and direct vision of theme, story, and character must be prevalent at all times. Sure! That is what they learn in school. But after school is completed and they go to work in the industry they are faced with the professionals who have been “doing it” for years and years. And if they don’t want to pay the dues that the industry requires or don’t speak the syntax of the industry and know how to gain the respect of the people they must work with, they meet construction coordinators like my race track friend. New filmmakers must learn the tried and true methods of the industry both in pre-production and production.
On a recent meeting between a film student and myself, I was shown his production schedule: a list of scenes and characters he wanted to shoot on which day. I asked the student if the schedule would give him the greatest latitude to be creative. He said he didn’t know. I asked if the schedule allowed for that unforeseen that could happen? Again, he said he didn’t know. I explained to the student that a production schedule should have an organic element to it and asked if the schedule talked to him? Telling him what he must do to stay on track.
He looked at me strangely and then I showed him a production board explaining that it was the mainstay of production for the industry and the roadmap for the creative logistics of production. That it had a relationship to the budget of a project and the ability to assure success during the most volatile stage of the filmmaking process – production.
The boarding process has been around for decades and it indeed talks to the filmmaker. It lets the filmmaker spend the time he/she needs on the sequences that are important to the story while at the same time tell the producer where and how the money should be spent. It speaks to directors, cinematographers, construction coordinators, assistant directors, production designers, accountants, and production managers. It tells the director what is the best and most creative way to schedule the project and provides solutions when Murphy’s Law hits. It shows the producer what to do when an actor doesn’t show or the director fails creatively. It is the front line and best friend of the creative producer.
Producers must make hair-trigger decisions constantly. They must know that the decisions they make in pre-production have an affect during production and be ready to continue to make them during production as there decisions set the course for the philosophy of the producer.
The board consists of individual strips representing each of the scenes of the movie. Each strip contains important information that tells everyone on the project who is in the scene, where it takes place, how long the scene is in the script and any special shooting techniques or mechanisms that must be considered in order to shoot the scene. It allows for visualization of the choreography of production each day. But most importantly, it contains the specific dramatic or emotional action of the scene and how it relates to the story.
The production board is the schedule. It is organic because it may change and adjust every day as problems occur that require solutions or logistics and creative decisions are made by the writer, director or producer. It is the direction that the production takes. And it will speak to the creative producer or director and becomes the bible of the project so there is no last minute guess work. There is an expression: “if it is not indicated on the board, then it doesn’t happen”.
The board is based on a lot of variables and creating the right board before production begins is absolutely key to creativity and success. A couple principle factors must be taken into consideration. In general, in production a company gets more work done before lunch than after lunch. So the more difficult scenes might want to be scheduled before lunch. Directors should also consider what scenes are needed to be completed before lunch and shoot for that as their target. They should also consider what time they want to execute the first shot of the day and the first shot after lunch. This will keep Murphy’s Law from sneaking in. Directors must always decide what scenes are important to the story on which they need to spend time and the production board must be scheduled around those scenes. Not every scene needs to have complex coverage and only the director doing his/her homework can make that determination.
A production can make only one full company move to a different location in a production day with the expectation that a director can finish within a twelve hour work day. So the movement of the production must be considered as part of the day, or locations must be found within one specific area to avoid a move. It is never cost effective to shoot a project in a story or script order and only in very rare situations is it ever done. It is imperative that the project finish what is scheduled each day and the thinking through of the production board does exactly that.
The first day of shooting is always the most important as it is needed to help set in the “ease factor” – the amount of time it takes for individual crewmembers to know the idiosyncrasies of one another, the director and the cinematographer and reach a comfort level for working in a harmonious environment. Without this, you don’t stand a chance. There are some production issues that are stayed away from on the first day because they rely heavily on the ease factor already being present.
First, delay stunts. They involve a lot of rehearsal and onsite planning and execution and therefore work better later in the production schedule. Second, avoid shooting love scenes unless the love scene is motivated by the characters meeting one another for the first time. Love scenes are tough to do well and actors need to be comfortable with one another before asking them to be intimate on camera. Third, stay away from special effects. They are time consuming. Fourth, stay away from crowd scenes. Working with large number of extras is difficult enough and doing it on the first day only reduces the odds of completing the first day’s work.
These are basic to any production shoot. But not thought about by students of film when planning out their projects. When film schools teach their filmmakers to shoot specific shots at specific times of the shooting day they are working against the creative process that has been established for decades. There is something to be said for the methods the industry has established to make movies and it is best if new producers and directors learned about them before they enter the business.
Myrl A. Schreibman is a Producer/ Director, taught at UCLA Film School, and wrote the books, “The Film Director Prepares, A Practical Guide for Directing Film and Television” and “The Indie Producers Handbook: Creative Producing From A to Z.”