48HFS 003: Pre-production

Writer-director-producer Richard Trombly discusses the importance of pre-production.

Richard Trombly is a film, television and stage writer, director and producer. He has served as an international film festival programmer, has lectured on film and media at numerous Chinese universities and is the founder and director of China Indie Film. His credits include shorts such as The Waiting, Analysis and Bittersweet 《火方》. We talk with him about prepping a film project, how (and how not) to spend your budget and what to do when it comes time to making that go/no go decision to shoot.

The following is part of a special series we’re doing in the run-up to the 2019 48-Hour Film School in Shanghai (August 31-September 1) and Beijing (September 7-8). Check the bottom of this page for details on how you can sign up to be a part of the action.

EastIndie: Why is pre-production such an important part of the overall filmmaking process?

Richard Trombly: Pre-production is perhaps the most overlooked part of filmmaking. I think shooting a film is very much like shooting an arrow, because if your aim is not well-targeted you can do nothing to correct its course when it is in flight. When you shoot a film, the course of its success or failure is often determined by the pre-production. In short, it’s the process of planning and preparing for success.

EI: What would be your typical starting point for pre-production?

RT: You generally start with a completed screenplay that tells a story someone believes needs to be told. The breakdown phase is to determine what it would take in the form of talent, props, locations, equipment, crew and other resources to properly make the story come alive from the page. This important step not only determines budgeting, but also helps to understand the challenges and bottlenecks and allows the creative staff to overcome them.

If we understand the spine, then we know what is literally essential to the production.

EI: Who are the key team members who need to be involved in pre-production?

RT: Ideally, every department head in every phase of the production—from wardrobe to editor—will all be involved and will bring their insights. With a small crew for a short film, you want everyone on board so the entire production goes smoothly and everyone’s suggestions have been heard and their questions answered.

EI: When starting on pre-production, what’s the first question you usually ask?

RT: What is the spine of this production? If we understand the spine, then we know what is literally essential to the production. We can scale certain elements, lose some fat, sometimes even cut some meat if the budget is tight or the time is short, but we must never break the spine of the story.

EI: What do you think are the most important boxes that need to get checked during the process?

RT: There are the obvious points of assuring every aspect has been dissected, studied, planned for and prepared. But, then there must be backup plans for when—not if—something goes amiss.  Have enough cash, people and resources to be able to address the what-ifs. Have action plans for scenarios you might face but be flexible because there are always those unexpected elements that must be tackled.

Safety is absolutely key for me. […] Protecting your talents’ safety is the number one priority.

EI: Is there anything you feel often gets overlooked during pre-production?

RT: Safety is absolutely key for me. A film set—be it a professional sound stage or on the sidewalks or in a friend’s apartment—is a very dangerous and actually potentially deadly environment. Protecting your talents’ safety is the number one priority. Also, as absolute gospel, plan the sound production. Bad sound is absolutely unforgivable to an audience and has been the downfall of more productions than any other perhaps.

EI: What is the biggest danger filmmakers should look out for when prepping a project?

RT: The most likely failure is over-reaching. Filmmakers have high hopes and aspirations and they want their projects to be so stellar that they try to do more than they can. Keep it simple and assure that whatever you start, you can complete. Also, less is more. Short films should be concise and tight and often simple is better. Do not try to add in high-production-value shots that will bog down a production and endanger the ability to complete it. The other biggest problem is lack of resources. So, plan around what you have and do what you know you can complete.

EI: When planning your budget, what should and shouldn’t you plan to spend it on?

RT: You should plan to spend as little as possible on everything. Concentrate on the people, their food, comfort and safety. Even if everyone is a volunteer, invest in their valuable talent and labor and inspiration they are bringing to make your story spectacular. Everything else? Beg, borrow or stea… umm… barter. A great camera will not save a production that everyone has lost faith in.

Pre-production is the most valuable phase and the cheapest or only way to fix problems. It’s also where the most creativity can happen.

EI: How can filmmakers get creative in maximizing their return while minimizing their costs?

RT: Look for donations, volunteers and sponsorship to get more people involved and there might be assets and resources available that you did not even know about.

EI: Lastly, how do you know when you’re ready to wrap pre-production and start shooting?

RT: When you absolutely have to. Pre-production is the most valuable phase and the cheapest or only way to fix problems. It’s also where the most creativity can happen because during a shoot everything is happening too fast. But, there are deadlines and budgets and the plan has to be put into action. Make sure you get the most value out of this time. To go beyond the deadline set for pre-production is a serious decision. When the set deadline is reached there is a need for a go/no go decision. This is a hard choice as delays can be devastating. However, deciding that a production is not ready and delaying or even tabling it will save the heartbreak of all the folks whose time could be wasted on a failed production… as well as all of the budget and resources involved.

The Shanghai 48-Hour Film School will take place on Saturday, August 31 & Sunday, September 1 at Shanghai Filmspace, 3/F 102 South Xiangyang Road, Xuhui District, Shanghai / 上海市徐汇区襄阳南路102号3层. For details and registration, click here.

The Beijing 48-Hour Film School will take place on Saturday, September 7 & Sunday, September 8 (venue TBC). For details and registration, click here.



Michael Thede

Michael Thede

Founder & Contributor

Michael Thede is a Canadian writer and editor. He studied Film & Philosophy at the University of Western Ontario and is a graduate of the Writing for Film & TV program at Vancouver Film School. He is currently based in Shanghai, where he is also the founder and organizer of the Shanghai Screenwriters Workshop. WeChat: michaelthede78

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