Writers On The Web: Ringleading Your Circus in Pre-Production

You are large and in charge!

If you’ve never produced before, the process can become daunting and overwhelming quickly. One thing leads to another and costs and responsibilities can snowball into infinity before you know it.

As the Producer of your web series, you are the Ringleader, the Big Kahuna, the Top Dog–the Buck Stops With You. Ultimately the success or failure of your production is in your hands. It’s important to remain in control and be able to manage all of the moving parts. I was not always good at this.

For my first web series years back, I partnered with a friend of mine and we wrote a few webisodes together. We filmed some test footage and showed it to a some friends (who kindly tried to remain positive) but in reality, the scripts just weren’t working. We did some rewrites and hired a cinematographer acquaintance to film the series over a 3-day shoot. Two days before the start of our shoot, the cinematographer called to say he had just now read our scripts and didn’t realize that we were filming three episodes within the three days.

I was, of course, aghast that although we hired him weeks prior, he hadn’t bothered to look at our scripts until two days before the shoot. He then demanded more money because we were shooting “multiple episodes.” We countered, saying that we did mention it was for multiple episodes, and besides, that fact didn’t change the number of shoot days or the amount of footage we’d be shooting, so who cares if the footage is shown over one webisode or three? Well, he did, and demanded hundreds of dollars of more money, which we, of course, didn’t have.

Mistake #1: Miscommunication and not getting our agreement in writing.

ALWAYS communicate the expectations and parameters of the job clearly to your crew and ALWAYS get your agreement in writing.

So our project was dead in the water. I lamented my situation to a more established writer friend with whom I was working on a different project. Determined to help out, she volunteered to help us pull together a small crew and keep on our shooting schedule. Meanwhile, she would come on board as director and co-writer. Desperate to keep on our shooting schedule since I had taken shifts off of work that I couldn’t get back, I readily agreed and convinced my other partner to do the same.

We quickly re-wrote and punched up the scripts, making some significant changes because the scripts still weren’t working. My writer friend hired a skeleton crew as well as a new cinematographer. Because I couldn’t get out of work, I wasn’t able to personally interview this new cinematographer or the crew.

Mistake #2: Not meeting the people you’ll be working with in advance and leaving the hiring decisions to someone else (who wasn’t the one paying them). 

Particularly if it’s a small crew, be sure to personally interview each person you’re hiring. All it takes is one not-so-pleasant personality to ruin an entire shoot.

In hindsight, it obviously would have been better to push the shoot somehow to be able to properly assemble a crew. Alas, the saga continues…

This cinematographer, who had attended a top film school, started to become, in my estimation at least, quite bossy, and started trying to run the show. I started to feel like I was beholden to her rather than the other way around.

Meanwhile, the partner I was working with originally didn’t like the changes to the scripts and was quite upset about it. (Insert Nasty Arguments Here.)

Always shake the hand and get a good look at the person you're hiring. Do you trust this person?

Always have a face-to-face meeting with your crew in advance.

We ended up only shooting one webisode rather than the three we had originally planned for, and costs began to escalate well past the budget.

Also, because I wasn’t directing, I didn’t look at the footage as it was being shot. I was acting in the piece, and the director didn’t believe I should see the footage throughout the day, to avoid becoming critical of my own performance.

Mistake #3: Not checking the takes after each scene.

If you are producing and/or paying for the project, you have every right to watch the takes to make sure you are getting what you want. After all, it is your ass on the line if the project is a bust.

Fast-forward to the end of a very, very long shoot day. Everyone’s been talking about how great the footage looks, and I’m anxious to get a look at it. (This was back in the ancient times of Mini-DV tapes, when dinosaurs roamed the earth.)

I rewind the tape, and notice something very strange. All of the footage had a thick bright orange border around it. Every single take.

“What the heck is this?” I asked.

It turns out they wanted to put a filter over the lens, and it wouldn’t stay put, so they taped it on with bright orange gaffer’s tape. Only the tape overlapped onto the lens and was recorded in every shot.

Really? And while shooting for 12 hours, nobody, not the cinematographer nor the director, noticed that every frame of the footage was bordered in bright orange tape?!

I tried to hide it on set, but I was beside myself.

The solution given was: “Fix it in post.”

Mistake #4: Assuming you can fix something in post.

Unless you are a professional editor, you very well may not be able to fix it in post. ALWAYS get your footage and your sound as good it can possibly be while on set.

If you’re like I was then, editing on Windows Movie Maker on my five-year-old-about-to-crap-out PC, your chances of fixing issues in post are almost nil. Even when I graduated to a Mac and Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere there are still plenty of mistakes that can’t be fixed in editing.

In the case of the orange-trimmed footage, I was able to “push in” AKA crop the footage to eliminate the orange border, but that also (duh) cropped the footage itself. What was once a close-up of my face was now a close-up of half my face. My two shots became one-and-a-half shots, my wides became mediums and my mediums became close-ups. You get the picture. Might have been fine if we were producing an experimental artsy piece, but we were shooting a comedy. We also had no budget for hiring a professional editor or post house, and no budget to reshoot the day. So…

My project was dead in the water. Again.

What we're trying to avoid...

What we’re trying to avoid…

And ultimately, whose fault was it?

Mine.

I still cringe when I think about all the months we spent writing, and all the time and money we spent on casting and craft services and wardrobe and equipment rentals, all down the drain in one fell swoop. Our previous day of shooting was also a bust–since I hadn’t looked at the footage, I didn’t know that the lighting was off and so some of the scenes were dark, grainy, and unusable. I continued to try to edit the footage for awhile afterwards, but I was never able to make it work. Eventually, my project just ascended to Web Series Heaven.

I’m sharing this because I believe the first step in pre-production is taking the reins and acknowledging that you are the boss. A kind and generous boss, but the boss nonetheless. Owning this will help you throughout the production process, in everything from budgeting to hiring the crew to casting to negotiating contracts to talking to distributors. Don’t give away your power.

Over the next several weeks, I’m going to be discussing different stages of pre-production and costly mistakes (that I probably made) that you can avoid.

In the meantime, just remember that YOU are the creator. Therefore YOU have the creative control and YOU get to make the decisions.

Kind of exhilarating, isn’t it?

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3 thoughts on “Writers On The Web: Ringleading Your Circus in Pre-Production

  1. Pingback: Writers On The Web: Ringleading Your Circus in ...

  2. AJStarr

    Thanks for your honest account Rebecca! I’m a writer who is venturing into producing and have struck some similar hurdles as I work through four short films. Your experience and advice are invaluable and will stand me in good stead as we press on. I found myself smiling and nodding as I read, and didn’t feel quite so bad that I didn’t get it all together the first time around. Nice work.
    Cheers,
    Amanda

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