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Before You Shoot

The Need for Preproduction

By Richard Harrington with James Ball, Robbie Carman and Matt Gottshalk


The ASMP Bulletin’s Year End 2010 issue featured an excerpt from “Before You Shoot: The Need for Preproduction,” chapter 3 of the book From Still to Motion: A Photographers Guide to Creating Video with Your DSLR by James Ball, Robbie Carman, Matt Gottshalk and Richard Harrington, copyright © 2010.


The print article discussed important details of preproduction planning, developing the creative vision and crewing a video project. Here, Harrington and colleagues offer expert tips for surveying a shoot site, including who should attend, what kind of gear you should bring, things to look for during a site survey and crewing the project to ensure that all members are working in support of a collaborative team effort.


Jacket photo
This excerpt was used with permission of Pearson Education, Inc. and New Riders. Available from booksellers or direct from . For more on this subject, check out the book From Still to Motion: A Photographers Guide to Creating Video with Your DSLR by James Ball, Robbie Carman, Matt Gottshalk and Richard Harrington. Copyright © 2010.
ISBN10: 0321702115
ISBN13: 9780321702111

Who Should Attend a Site Survey

Just who goes on the site survey largely depends on the size of your crew. If you’re a one-man band, you’ll likely be joined by your client (or perhaps you’ll fly solo). But as the crew size grows, you’ll want to include more attendees to ensure effective planning for the main shoot. Here’s a list of important players:


Director of Photography: As the principal photographer, you should always scout the location. This allows you to identify shooting angles, lighting requirements, and any specialty gear that may be needed.


Director/producer: Your project may have a director or a producer, or the job may be one in the same. It is important that the project’s leadership agree. The site survey will have the greatest impact on project planning, so it’s important that the key decision makers are present.


Client: If you can get your client to attend your site survey, do so. This is an excellent opportunity to talk through the fine details of the project. It is also the
point at which the project becomes very real, so it is an opportunity to resolve loose ends and finalize budget and technical details.


Technical department heads: Depending on the size of a shoot, you may be able to hire additional crew (such as lighting or sound professionals). If these people are able to come on the survey, bring them. If time or budget won’t allow for their attendance, it’s important that someone on the scout be assigned to collect (and convey) essential information. The goal is to prevent any surprises on the shoot day that can cause expensive delays. We’ll explore the crewing process later in this chapter.



Don’t let a little distance be the cause of bad planning. You can often hire a location scout who can examine potential shoot locations and take notes and photographs to help with project planning.

What Gear to Bring on a Survey

While there’s no need to haul out all your gear to do the site survey, a few essential items are necessary. Being properly equipped allows you to make the most of your visit and ensures that you have accurate information for future review during preproduction planning. Here are some items you’ll need:


Digital camera: Two types of images should be collected during a site survey. One image type is a visualization of the physical space. These are wide shots that provide those viewing them with a real sense of the place. The images should include the dimensions of the room, the available lighting, the height of the ceilings, the color of the walls, obstructions, and so on.


The other image type consists of previsualization shots. Experiment with camera angles and actually shoot some frames that might serve as a digital storyboard in the actual space. The goal is to capture representative shots that allow you to plan shot composition as well as the order in which the shots will be used.


The camera quality is up to you, but a high-end camera with interchangeable lenses will help you create digital storyboards. Although bringing your camera body and lens kit is desirable, it won’t always be practical. You may find that a cell phone camera is enough. Some people prefer to bring their standard DSLR camera body and a single zoom lens onsite to shoot sample shots of the locations with a stand-in actor.


Digital audio recorder: A recorder lets you capture audio notes at the location, which is faster than writing notes. You can also record the ambient noise of the location to get an idea of the amount of audio interference you’ll encounter. The recorder quality is up to you. We’ve used everything from an iPhone to a digital recorder depending on gear availability.


An Internet connected device: Make sure you have online access when needed. From checking the budget to reviewing the script, it’s likely that you may need to confirm details. We find that a laptop is best, but we can often get by with a web-enabled phone.


Notepad and pencil: You’ll often need to sketch site drawings to help identify camera placement and power sources. If you really want to work like a pro, you can hand out a “tech pack” to the crew. This typically includes location photos and set and location drawings. The items generate great questions from the newly informed crew that you might not have thought of.


Compass, SunPath Calculator, and GPS: Whether you’re shooting interiors with windows or exteriors, you’ll want to know where the sun is at any given time on shoot day. Several great software programs are available — such as SunPath and Helios — that can provide this data anywhere in the world, months in advance. This information is even more essential if you are relying on the sun as your principal lighting source.


Another tool to consider is an inclinometer, which is useful if you are trying to determine shadow angles. You might be able to calculate the perfect time to shoot your beautiful, backlit subject as the sun emerges between two buildings. Adding a GPS is useful if you want to get precise coordinates at your locations (especially for outdoor and remote locations).


Distance measuring devices: Tape measures, electronic or manual, are needed to measure anything that requires precision in placement. From the width of a doorway to the height of the ceiling, these measurements can be useful for a range of setups, from rigging ceiling lights to laying dolly track.


If you need to measure long distances, take a cue from the fairways. A digital golf rangefinder can help gauge point-to-point measurements using a laser. This is an easy way to measure approximate distances of a few hundred yards with accuracy.


Circuit tester: A simple circuit tester from any hardware store lets you assess available electricity. Testing identifies which outlets are hot and whether or not they are grounded. You’ll learn more about lighting in Part II of the book, but many lights (such as HMIs) are ballast-based lighting fixtures that draw a lot of power.


If you’re working with multiple or large lighting fixtures, be sure to check out the main electrical distribution box to at least find out the size of the breakers in the box. It’s a good idea to also get a sense of how the power in a space is laid out. Having four outlets in a room doesn’t necessarily mean you have four full circuits at your disposal. You should know the electrical capacity of your location, or find someone who does.



If you have an iPhone, check out Hitchcock. This app makes it easy to capture location photos and organize them into an animated storyboard.

What to Look for on the Site Survey

Your goals for the site survey will vary depending on the type of video you’re creating. Large events (such as weddings) require lots of thought as to where multiple cameras should be placed, whereas musical performances need special emphasis on audio acquisition. Always keep your end product in mind as you examine locations. Here are a few details to consider:


Location appearance: Does the location add to the story you are trying to tell? Remember you don’t often need 360 degree coverage; but can you get cutaways and alternate angles that feel cohesive? Does the physical space need altering, for example, painting, cleaning, aging, or general propping? Can you handle these modifications, or do you need to call a carpenter?


Lighting sources: Are there any lighting challenges that need to be controlled? Windows can introduce variable light that needs to be managed or eliminated. Do you have fluorescent and incandescent lights in the same scene? Look at the available light sources with a critical eye so you can bring reinforcement lighting.


Power sources: How will you power your gear? Although battery power is possible for certain devices, it will eventually run out. You’ll need a source to charge batteries and to power devices. Make sure you have enough outlets as well as extension cords for your equipment. You should also determine where the breaker box is located.


Audio interference: Are there any items in the shooting environment that will lower audio quality? Do the lights cause a hum? Is there heavy traffic from cars or airplanes? Can you access controls to turn the HVAC system off and on? We recommend recording room tone and analyzing it in the quiet space of your edit suite to determine how it will affect your production.


Parking and load in: Getting the crew and gear into the workspace can be challenging. Once you get everyone in, decide where you will park your vehicles.


Staging areas: Where will you load the equipment? Once gear is unloaded, where can you store it so it is safe and accessible? Do you have adequate room for the crew and the action? What compromises do you need to make due to space limitations? Are there any steps that you need to take to preserve the condition of the space, such as wall or floor coverings?


Permissions: Public and private locations may require permitting or permissions to shoot. Sometimes permissions can be informal; other times they can be strictly enforced. Although you may be used to “sneaking by,” a video crew is usually large and more noticeable. Assess the situation in advance and get what you need to shoot legally. You may not need signed permits, especially with small crews and minimal shooting times. But if possible, it’s best to get official permits. A shoot can be stopped dead in its tracks if you get booted out of your location.



Looking for a comprehensive overview of the various crew positions? Wikipedia offers a detailed overview of the many jobs on a film and video shoot. Visit

Crewing the Project: Teamwork Matters

As you know, there is no shortage of people with creative talent and technical expertise. But that doesn’t mean we’d let them on our crew. The process of filmmaking is very much a collaborative team effort. Although the Director of Photography is often “in charge,” the director needs to work with a myriad of other professionals on set. Your crew needs to be comfortable offering opinions and options but in a way that respects the chain of command and project requirements. Here are some crew members we find invaluable:


Gaffer: The gaffer is in charge of lighting on the set. A gaffer often designs the lighting approach and then executes it. On some shoots, the photographer can fill this role.


Grip: A grip is a technician who helps implement lighting on set. The grip also works with the photographer to help create and manage camera support systems like tripods and dollies for smooth camera movement.


Audio engineer: The audio engineer focuses solely on capturing clear audio with proper volumes. This is a very difficult position and is one of the best hires you can make for a project.


Production assistant: A production assistant is a jack-of-all-trades. An assistant can be counted on to perform a variety of tasks during production. Although this is generally a junior position, a production assistant can still be quite helpful.


Camera assistant: A camera assistant is responsible for setting up cameras and lenses. If you are using multiple cameras on a project, it is best to hire a skilled person to fill this role. The camera assistant can also help with complex camera movements and manual focusing during a shoot.


Data technician: Video files are big, so you’ll quickly fill up your memory cards. The data technician is responsible for archiving memory cards to multiple drives and returning cards to the photographer for reformatting and reuse. If you don’t have a data tech, plan on having lots of memory cards and staying up late to clear them all off.


Keep in mind that different projects require a different number of crew as well as skills. You’ll want to select your crew based on the potential crew members’ technical expertise as well as their interpersonal skills. Both are essential to your project’s success.



A call sheet is a useful way to communicate schedule and location information to your crew and client. Harrington’s book includes customizable templates for this as well as many other valuable resources.

Determining What Gear to Bring to the Shoot

We admit it, we like gear (and chances are you do too). We have specialty lenses as well as lighting and audio gear for specific scenarios. Having the right gear makes a big difference at the shoot and in your final product. When you’re working out of your own studio, your gear is most likely close at hand. Unfortunately you can’t bring it all with you on every field shoot. As we discussed earlier in the chapter, the site survey and client meeting will help you make informed decisions about what you’ll need. Here are a few other areas to consider when deciding what gear to bring:


Story requirements: The type of story you want to tell will determine the gear you need to use. You’ve had your concept meetings, visited locations, and agreed on a strategy for telling that story. Now you’ll gather the equipment you need to facilitate the goals you’ve set. Don’t forget to bring your notes as well. You’ll need them on set for quick reference for each setup.


Basics: It’s a given that you’ll have a core kit of lenses, a camera body, and tripod support. Once a basic package is assembled, you can then decide when and where specialty items will be needed. We strongly recommend adding an HD monitor or viewfinder to your kit as well to check color, contrast, and focus.


Specialty items: Specific shots may require advanced gear. You may need advanced camera support options like dollies or stabilization rigs. You may also need specific lenses for a long telephoto shot or a super wide fisheye view. Because you’ll often need to rent or borrow specialty items, be sure to determine when and if they are needed. If possible, try to group similar shots together (even if it means shooting out of order) to save money and time.


Power requirements: You may only need a generator for your outdoor locations or if you have unreliable electrical service. If the generator is not silent, be sure to consider how you’ll isolate the noise. Can you move it far enough away from the shoot and use extension cords?


You get the idea here: Bring only what you need on the days you need it. Doing so saves you time when loading or moving locations, saves you rental costs, and lets you assign resources elsewhere. The key to success is keeping the costs in line with your client’s expectations but knowing when you need to spend extra to ensure that all will go smoothly and safely. You need to cover yourself for unplanned opportunities or surprises.



Author bio: This book’s lead author, Richard Harrington, is an internationally published author with more than 25 books to his name. His previous book, Photoshop for Video, was the first to focus on Photoshop’s application in the world of video. Harrington is a member of the National Association of Photoshop Professionals Instructor Dream Team and a popular speaker on the digital video circuit. He has been a Program Manager and Technical Chair for conferences at the National Association of Broadcasters convention since 2003. A Master’s Degree in Project Management fills out Harrington’s broad spectrum of experience.


Harrington will be a featured speaker in ASMP’s upcoming Strictly Business 3 (SB3) conferences, offering separate programs in Video Pre-production and Understanding Your Rights. Scheduled for stops in Los Angeles (January 21 through 23), Philadelphia (February 25 through 27) and Chicago (April 1 through 3), SB3 will cover a wide selection of topics?copyright registration, social media marketing, negotiating and sales, licensing and pricing, the business of video and much more?allowing attendees to design the conference to fit their specific needs. For further details and to register, visit