Preproduction for Commercial Cinematography

Preproduction is one of those things, that if rushed can destroy any potential in a project.

Art vs commerce is a serious issue in the world of commercial filmmaking. In the commercial industry budgets are tight, time is limited and the vision is almost never in line with the resources. As a cinematographer, it’s our job to oversee all technical aspects of the production – that might include telling production to stop rushing. After all we are making movies, not a vaccine to stop malaria. Nobody is going to die if we release the commercial a week later, but it will reflect poorly on everyone involved, if the film looks like subpar.

In this article, I’d like to give a glance at what preproduction at budgets of around 10.000 – 100.000 Euros looks like. This is based off my experience in the German commercial industry, your experience may vary.

Finding the look

The first thing I’ll do is talk to the director. I’ll ask him the following questions: What story are we telling? What’s the mood? What were your inspirations for the script? This is vital. If I don’t know where the journey is heading, I won’t be able to make any decisions artistically.

The next step is to search the internet and literature for references and inspirations for camera work, lighting and color palette. All cinematographers have their own sources for artistic input. It’s simply about finding material that you can show the director and ask: “Is this what you want?”

Some sources to find good reference material are:

The nice thing about Pinterest is that you can find images based on prior research. It’s not just a  book with a finite number of images, but an ever-growing dynamic gallery catered to your visual taste. Click on an image you pinned and it will show you images that are visually similar. It’s impressive what you can find that way.

I keep a library of videos, stills and art at my disposal. It makes it easier down the line to quickly find reference images for projects to come.

After a little back and forth I should have an idea of where the journey is going.

Making the look

After deciding on the look, we need to find the location that carries it. In my opinion, location is 40% of the look, another 40% is lighting, 10% is framing and 10% is the camera itself. I’ve shot great looking imagery on consumer cameras and have shot boring looking films on expensive digital cinema cameras.

A good production always has location scouts. Take advantage of them. Location scouts don’t just offer the benefit of knowing your location and getting into the vibe, it’s also the best time to collaborate with the director. It’s most likely the only time you’ll get alone time with him or her before the actual production. This is where you will discuss framing, lighting and get a chance to chime in on the blocking.

There are two types of locations: Interior and Exterior. Depending on your budget exteriors can be easy. Find something that looks good and be happy. To harness the sun, I just bring along some butterflies and some LEDs so I can cheat for the close-ups.

Interiors are way more complex. When I go scouting I always bring my moleskin, a pen, my Fuji X100T and my trusty Sekonic Lightmeter.

The first thing I do is take a walk around the set. Checking angles. At my first job as a AC the cameraman gave me some good advice: “When you walk into a room, walk up to every corner and look across.” Now I’ll argue that that’s a very simplified rule, but for a location scout this a great way of getting a feel for possible angles.

Then I’ll get going on a floor plan. I’ll jot down, windows, wall sockets and any unmovable furniture. As well as figuring out what the electric grid of the location looks like. This is important for planning lighting diagrams later. I take a light meter reading in every room, so I know what the ambient exposure of each room is naturally.

A general rule of thumb: White walls suck, but are not impossible to work with. I’m mostly worried about depth and natural and practical light sources. The art department can fix most of the other issues.

The whole scout shouldn’t last longer than an hour. I let the producer handle the negotiations with the location owner, I’ll just relay my questions to the producer. Some of those questions are: Can we get our production vehicle as close as possible? Where can we store our equipment? Where is the circuit breaker? Are there any smoke detectors?

The biggest deal breaker is aesthetics and time in a location. If the location doesn’t match the vision: it’s out. Second to none must be not being granted enough time. I once only had fifteen minutes to a shoot dialog scene set in a dark warehouse, after exactly fifteen minutes the grumpy location owner turned the lights back on and our shot was ruined.

It’s difficult to write a shot list without a scout, so make sure you attended the scout or visited the location on your own later.

Ideally I sit down with the director to talk through the entire script or concept, based on what we saw at the location scout and how we can apply the script and look to that. This can take a couple hours, but it’s crucial, because otherwise you are simply taking stabs at the dark while writing the shot list.

The more detailed your shot list the easier it is for the line producer to make a call sheet from it. I do make sure that every shot is accounted for. The line producer won’t give you any more time than you said you needed and unplanned shots will set you back on your schedule. Resulting in rushing or dropping shot altogether. That’s considered highly unprofessional and you don’t want to be one receiving end of a rant of a disgruntled line producer.

Previzing the film

Depending on the budget of the production the director might want to storyboard the commercial for the client. This can happen without me being involved. This is mostly irrelevant to me and is mainly intended for the client. Who has no idea what a “Push in to CU of Actor#2” is.

After shot listing all heads of departments will be gathered for a tech scout. This is where everyone goes out to the locations and talks about what needs to be done to make this happen. As the cinematographer, I talk to the art department about the color palette and to my gaffer about rigging lights.

To make sure everyone’s on the same page, I will draw up lighting diagrams for my gaffer. I use Shot Designer for this. Pen and paper is equally as viable. If you keep to industry standards you should be fine.

Currently there is some hype around Cinedesigner a tool by fellow cinematographer Matt Workman. I have prevised a TV-commercial with his plugin and was happy with the results. However, we are talking about budgets over 150.000 Euros. In this example, this piece of software doesn’t fit into the tight production schedule of low budget commercials.

Closing Thoughts

The very last step of preproduction is to order equipment. I make a meticulous list of all camera and lighting gear needed. A missing clamp can mean life or death. I then get in contact with our local rental house and secure the equipment as soon as possible. When picking up equipment I make sure to check that everything is there. I’ve rented a dolly and they didn’t pack a seat. The wooden bar stool on top of the dolly was a rather odd sight for sure.

The whole point of pre-production is to make sure everyone is on the same page. So, that when production starts, you can all work on achieving a unified goal.

Always remember: Deadlines are artificial.

Do you have any questions regarding preproduction or cinematography in general? Just shoot me an email