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Film scheduling

The importance of scheduling

Scheduling is very important. There are so many people involved in the making of a film that without a schedule your project will eventually deteriate into chaos. If you decide to skip the schedule then you must spend the time watching American Movie.

First I will describe a variation of the classic right way to make a schedule. Pretty much the way the big studios do it but less complicated. Then I'll show you another option.

The classic right way

There are two important questions concerning the schedule:

  1. How many days is it going to take.
  2. In what order should we shoot things.
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How many days will it take

Use the following information to decide how many days your film will take. Do this very carefully and realistically. Once you start shooting you have to make every effort possible to stay on schedule because

  1. Actors and crew are expecting do do certain scenes on certain days and if you fall behind even one day you will waste even more time getting everyone rescheduled.
  2. Your budget will grow as you have to feed people whether you are staying on schedule or falling behind.
  3. It's very unprofessional to fall behind. Your financiers will NOT be impressed.
  4. Financing of future films will be effected on how well you stayed "on schedule and on budget" with your previous films.
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Your experience with doing short films will help you get real when you try a feature length film, but you will probably find you don't do any better doing a feature film. Your crew and actors will get faster as they get into the groove of the daily grind, but everyone gets tired after a couple of days.

As a good rule of thumb for all films at all budget levels is that you can shoot up to 6 pages a day if you work really, really hard, or 3 - 4 pages of a screenplay in a day at a reasonable pace if:

  1. Your actors know their lines pretty well and have rehearsed until they have a good idea how to play each scene.
  2. You are doing about three angles of each scene and three to six takes from each angle to get the best performance.
  3. You only move locations every couple of days.
  4. You are putting a reasonable effort into lighting the set and recording decent sound with a boom mike.

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The pages per day rate will get worse if:

  1. Your actors and crew don't know what they're doing.
  2. You don't know what you're doing.
  3. You are in many locations.
  4. You are outdoors and weather becomes a problem.
  5. You have crowd scenes.
  6. You have animals or children in scenes.
  7. You are trying to achieve special effects.
  8. You have scenes involving fights, gunfire, explosions, car chases, etc.
  9. You have limited access to your locations.
  10. You are a perfectionist.

You could potentially shoot as many as 30 to 40 pages of screenplay a day if:

  1. Your cast has spent weeks perfecting their performances to where they never blow a line or are really good at improvisation.
  2. You do one take of each scene from one angle.
  3. All the scenes are in one location and you rarely need to adjust the lights. (What lights?)
  4. You aim a shotgun mike at the scene and don't worry about how bad the sound will be.
  5. You work as fast as you can for 12 to 14 hours or more each day

Roger Corman's original feature length Little Shop of Horrors was shot in two days. It can be done but it won't be pretty.

The fact is that any no-budget film needs to be filming at least 6 pages a day because you want to finish filming in about 15 days because you can afford to feed people for any longer than that, to say nothing of equipment rentals and the big problem of people not being able to take off more than 2 weeks from work to help with your film.

In what order do you shoot the scenes?

Now that you know the estimated number of days you are ready to create your schedule board.

A spreadsheet program such as Excel really helps with this. There are scheduling programs made specifically to help with this but Excel will just fine to start with.

The following exercise will take most of a day for a feature length film and much shorter for a short film, at least on the first pass. I assume you have some skill with Excel or can find a friend who does.

Work very carefully and keep double checking as you go. If you miss anything your entire schedule will be messed up and you will have to redo a lot of the work. Have a colaborator double checking you as you go.

First write out (you can do this by hand on a piece of paper) a list of all the locations you will be filming and number them starting with "1". Anytime you have to move the lights, even to a different room it becomes a new location. Go through the script carefully scene by scene so you don't miss any locations.

Next make a list of every actor. If there is a crowd scene then consider the crowd to be an actor. If there is a specialized crew person that will only be needed for a few scenes and has limited availability then they should get a column also.

Next create a spreadsheet in Excel and label the first column "Date". The next column should be labeled "days". The next column should be labeled "Scene". The next column should be labeled "Time", the next "location" and the rest of the columns should be labeled with the names of all the actors who are in your movie.

In the "scene" column list the scene numbers and a couple of words of description going down the column for every scene in the screenplay from first to last. Then put in how many days it will take to film the scene in the "days" column. If the scene is 3 pages long and you believe you will film 6 pages a day then the scene is .5 days of filming. You will enter a lot of little fractions of number in this column.

In the next column put a "N" or "D" if the scene is Night or Day, then put in the location number from your handwritten list in the location column.

Now in the columns for the actors put a "X" for each scene depending on whether the actor is needed in that scene.

Triple check your work and save the file.

Now use Excel to sort the entire spreadsheet by the "location" column, followed by the "time" column. You are tying to get to where you have a schedule that lumps the locations and actors together such that you waste the minimum amount of everyone's time. Save the file under different file names so you can go back easily to different versions of the schedule.

You may decide to try sorting different ways until you have the most logical schedule you can come up with. If you have an actor that can only film on one day then you need to sort on that actor's column so they're scenes get grouped together.

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Next step is the start at the first row and count up the fractions of days for each scene until you have a full day and put a real starting date in the "date" column. Start counting again until you have another full day and put in the next filming date. Eventually you will have a date next to each group of scenes. This is your first draft schedule. Save the file under a different name than all the other versions.

Now you will need to contact every person involved in the film to find out about their availability. This is where you start to really appreciate having a small cast and crew. Everyone will have conflicts with some date. Getting everyone together in one room at some point will often speed things up a lot.

You need to be developing the ability to convince people that this film is the most important thing in their lives. Your male lead must believe it is fine to skip the birth of his first child if it falls on the same day as one he is needed on the set.

Eventually you will have a schedule. You will also understand why it is so important to stay on schedule. Slipping even one day will mess up everyone's personal schedule and require a recalculation of the entire effort.

Another option for making your film

What I've just explained seems like a lot of work and you're wondering why you just can't take you friends out this weekend and get started. If your film is short and simple enough, you can do exactly that.

If your project is more complicated you seriously risk going way over your budget, way over your projected time, risk losing your actors and crew as other things interfere and risk never finishing your film after spending a lot of money. A schedule represents disipline and being a successful filmmaker requires discipline.

The now well known director, Christopher Nolan (Momento, Insomnia, Batman Begins) took a different approach when he did his first feature film: Following. He had only three actor friends do the speaking roles (plus his father plays a police detective in a final scene). Of course he had a truly Great Script to start with.

He only filmed on days when the actors were not working, usually weekend days. He did his own filming with a crew of one or two others who did sound and minimal lighting. Depending on which actors were available he would do whatever scenes they were all in and use whatever friends apartments or businesses were available.

When one actor had to get a short haircut for a play he was in, Chris rewrote some lines to make that make sense. It took months to finally get everything shot but the result is a minor masterpiece. While it's not a perfect film it was good enough to get financing for Momento. After that brilliant piece of filmmaking he has been in high demand.

He still had to work a schedule but he stayed on top of it and kept revising it as he went along, never losing sight of the final goal. He didn't know how long it would take and he must have had very generous friends who took no pay and fed themselves, or a rich aunt.

You are the filmmaker. You are the artist. Use one of these techniques or create your own, but use a schedule.

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