How to Own the Pre-Production Process

Karen Mc Guinness
Karen Mc Guinness, Customer Success Specialist
9 min read
9 min read

This year Animade embarked on its biggest project to date. Tend, their debut studio film, premiered at OFFF Barcelona in June and since then has taken the team to festivals all over the world and clocked tens of thousands of views online.

Realising a project of this scale presented a lot of firsts for Animade as a studio – their first time working as a collective and the first time they found themselves hitting the festival circuit with a vengeance. It was also the first time their pre-production path was modelled on that of traditional film.

Pre-production is everything that happens before you start to tangibly make your project; the initial work needed to get your idea off the ground. We’re going to talk you through how to own your own pre-production process and share a little insight into how the folks at Animade came to create Tend.

Your pre-production process might look a little different – maybe you’ve got casting to do or locations to scout, but the salient goal of pre-production is universal: to successfully steer your project into realisation.

Funding and Commissioning

Opening Setting the scene – Tend

Nobody said making art was easy – and it’s the first hurdle of the pre-production process that claims the most victims. Accessing traditional funding opportunities is often a process that can take months and to add insult to injury, government funding for the arts is at its lowest in years. As a result, artists and creatives are increasingly turning to the private sector for funding in a bid to get their work seen.

Animade were approached by WeTransfer with the opportunity to create a short film that would sit on their new content platform, WePresent. After a series of creative meetings with the WeTransfer team, the project got the green light in August 2017.

Whether you’re applying to major funding bodies, pitching to the private sector, crowd-funding, or you’ve made the decision to self-finance something a little more modest, it’s important to know from the get-go that you’ve got the means (financial and otherwise) to realise your project.

Concept and Writing

Daughter in house Inside the hut

Animade’s project with WeTransfer was awarded on the back of a strong portfolio of creative work and they were given the opportunity to devise their own concept. Aside from the briefest of briefs they had complete creative control.

The brief: “A short film, at least five minutes in length, non-dialogue, characterful and emotive with a humorous edge.”

The gift of artistic agency is a privilege, but it can also present its own problems. Don’t underestimate the propensity for your work to drift into complicated territory without the reassuring pull of a comprehensive brief to keep your feet firmly on the ground.

Tend went through many incarnations before it became the film it is today. The working title was ‘TBTITW’, an acronym for The Best Thing In The World. The original premise centred around an obliging genie-like device that could manifest whatever your heart desired. It wasn’t too long into the writing process before the team realised that there was no way they could package such a complex, abstract narrative into a five-minute film.

It was time to strip everything back. Creative Directors Tom and Ed started to explore the concept of fire as the greatest thing in the world owing to its ability to provide all of our basic needs; sustenance, warmth and light. The narrative of Tend was borne from this metaphor. The result was a simple, universal story that still packed an emotional punch.


Rock closeUp Good times

A good storyboard gives you the freedom to explore a world that you haven’t even built yet. The more detail you put into your storyboard, the less likely it is that you’ll run into problems when you move into production. Rumour has it that Alfred Hitchcock’s storyboards were so intricate, he didn’t even look through the viewfinder of his camera when making his masterpieces!

Storyboarding is also the first opportunity to see if your story checks out on consistency and accessibility – both of which are more difficult to hone when it comes to film and longer-form projects. The Tend storyboard (built in Boords, naturally) was the first opportunity to share the full narrative of the film and gather crucial feedback from the wider team.

Boords also became a place for the team to share sources of inspiration and gather reference points. Boords was used to compile specific camera shots and also a home to mood boards that would go on to inspire the environment of Tend.


Extreme Closeup A thoughtful moment

Whether you’re working with your original storyboard moving in sequence with a soundtrack or you’re animating a sketchily drawn version of your project, this stage of the pre-production process is your chance to watch a skeleton version of your project – the bare bones. Your animatic will help you gauge the pace and momentum of your project. It’s also easier to identify scenes that don’t quite land or a cue that isn’t quite realised when your work is presented in animatic form.

At this stage, you’ll also want to make sure you plot camera angles and any key shots needed to support your narrative. Throughout the writing process, Animade knew one of their biggest challenges would be presenting the innermost thoughts of their troubled protagonist. Dialogue-free by design, Tend uses visual devices to ascribe meaning – so in lieu of a heartfelt soliloquy from the protagonist, they said it with a shot. The extreme close-up indicates the moment Father feels remorse for his actions towards his daughter. This intention was clearly articulated in the storyboard and subsequent animatic. You can check out our blog post on 16 of the most common camera shots for some inspiration.

Team Animade had to produce the animatic for Tend the old-fashioned, arduous way – but the good news is that Boords now has the functionality to instantly turn your storyboards into animatics. Simply click on the ‘play’ button at the top right of your project. Lucky you!


Trees Tree strippin’

A crucial part of the pre-production process is establishing visual cues - particularly if you’re working dialogue-free. You should use the design process to hash out your key visual themes and motifs – play around a little. It’s these experiments that will help you figure out whether your concepts are going to translate to screen.

In addition to Animade’s considered effort to signify certain emotional cues with camera angles, they also strategically used design themes to shape their narrative. They experimented with the scale of both Father and Daughter – his large, looming presence presented in stark contrast to her slight stature. They also channelled the humour called for in the brief with Father’s size as he strips trees barehanded with comedic ease.


Fire Making fire

Creative block, changing expectations and rapidly approaching deadlines are just some of the factors that can easily throw your project into a tailspin. It’s in your best interest ensure you’ve got someone to direct the non-creative aspects of your project – someone that exhibits a keen eye for process, excellent diplomacy skills and the ability to fight fires. A cool-headed enabler.

Having a firm grasp of logistics ultimately gave Animade the freedom to take bigger creative risks. During the pre-production stages of Tend, they made the decision to incorporate a blend of animation techniques and develop the film to its fullest potential – expanding the size of the team and the length of the film in the process. From managing a team of freelancers to meeting new in-house deadlines, the changing scale of Tend was easily navigated as a result of meticulously kept spreadsheets, good communication and strict time management.

Pre-production Casualties

Production Father collecting wood

Don’t despair if your project doesn’t make it to the hallowed stage of production – you’re in good company. The likes of Edgar Wright, Guillermo Del Toro and Stanley Kubrick have all had high-profile movies fall through during their pre-production stages. The projects made to projects scrapped ratio of any studio will attest to the fact that perseverance is key.

It’s also worth noting that whilst you might desperately want to see your project realised, the pre-production process is also a good litmus test to gauge your projects’ viability. If your pre-production process presents questions you can’t confidently answer (like “what happens if we go over budget?” or “what if our talent drops out?”) you might want to consider to nipping that project in the bud before the investment of time and money gets very real.

Sometimes abandoning your project will be completely out of your own hands – maybe your funding has fallen through or your biggest stakeholder has unceremoniously pulled out. At this point you have very few options but to lick your wounds and move on.

Take a look at your previous pre-production process and identify the exact point your project started to unravel. If your stakeholder backed out, try and figure out why – did you miss the mark on their brief or take too long to respond to their e-mails? If budget was the undoing of your project, now is the time to study-up on other funding opportunities – and maybe try your hand at making some rich, powerful friends.

Whether you go back to the drawing board to work on something new or just spend a little time refining your existing project, learning from your mistakes and having a good sense of humour are key to making it through to production.

What does your pre-production process look like? Have any tips or questions? Let us know in the comments.

Karen Mc Guinness
About the Author

Karen Mc Guinness is a Customer Success Specialist at Boords. Originally from Ireland, she currently works from sunny Greece.