The six steps of film pre-production

Follow this step-by-step guide to learn the modern process of planning a film in Milanote, a free tool used by top creatives.

Pre-production is an essential stage of any film project. It includes all the brainstorming and planning that happens before cameras start rolling. From developing a concept, exploring the look of your film, storyboarding scenes and much more. Whether you're making a short film, music video, documentary or feature film, a solid pre-production plan will set your film up for success.

1. Project plan

Set up a place to plan your project

Traditionally, a project plan might be scattered across various emails, to-do lists, spreadsheets, and documents, making it hard to keep track of everything. A central project plan combines these artifacts into one easy-to-access place. It will evolve over the lifespan of your project but usually includes:

  • The script
  • Your ideas
  • Inspiration and moodboards
  • Storyboards
  • Time and location of the shoot
  • Shot lists
  • Workflow checklist
  • Gear checklist
How to do this in Milanote
  1. Create a new board for your film project plan

    Create a new board

    Drag a board out from the toolbar. Give it a name, then double click to open it.

  2. Choose the Pre-production Plan template

    Choose a template 

    Each new board gives you the options to start with a beautiful template.

2. Brainstorming

Transform an initial idea into something big

Every film begins life as a fleeting idea—just a spark. It's at this stage you need to harness your creative energy and turn that idea into something real. And brainstorming is the perfect technique for the job.

Brainstorming is a classic creative technique that helps you create lots of ideas in minutes. You can use it to explore the topic for your film, dream up new characters, locations, or even the visual style you're after. It’s best thought of as a way to light up our imagination. As ancient philosopher Plutarch said, “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.”

First, open the Ideas board

You’ll find the board for brainstorming on your Pre-production Plan board. Double click the Ideas board to open it and start brainstorming.

How to do this in Milanote
  1. Double click the Ideas board to open it.

Start with the central idea for your film

What's the idea or concept for your film? This is your starting point. It might be just a rough idea at the moment or a topic that you want to explore, but this process will help you see how far you can take it. Add a note that describes the film in 1 to 2 sentences to get started.

How to do this in Milanote
  1. Add a note to describe the concept of your film.

    Drag a note card onto your board

    Start typing then use the formatting tools in the left hand toolbar.

Pro tip:

Your initial idea doesn't need to be something groundbreaking, you'll transform it over time. As Steven Spielberg says "All good ideas start out as bad ideas, that's why it takes so long."

Add as many ideas as you can

Now it's time to get creative. Invite your team and start adding any ideas that relate to your initial concept. Think about the characters, their relationships, the locations you could use, visual styles, and the topic's history. Explore every thread until you fill the board.

Don't worry about evaluating your ideas yet, that will come later. Setting a timer for 5 minutes is a great way to create a sense of urgency and prevent people from judging their thoughts.

How to do this in Milanote
  1. Invite others to add their ideas.

    Invite editors to your board

    Open the "Editors" menu from the title bar of your board. Add email addresses of the people you'd like to collaborate with—they'll receive an invitation via email.

  2. Add a note for each idea.

    Drag a note card onto your board

    Start typing then use the formatting tools in the left hand toolbar.

Add inspiring imagery, motion & sound

Sometimes it's easier to communicate an idea with an image or video, especially if it's a mood or style you're trying to express. Gather reference imagery, videos and sound and add them into the mix. These can become the foundation for a moodboard as your film project evolves.

How to do this in Milanote
  1. Use the built-in image library.

    Use the built-in image library

    Search over 500,000 beautiful photos powered by Unsplash then drag images straight onto your board.

  2. Drag images from your computer onto the board.

    Upload a image or document  

    Click the "Upload file" button or just drag a file onto your board. You can add images, logos, documents, videos, audio and much more.

Finally, organize your ideas into themes

Once you've explored every idea, the next step is to make connections. This is where you see the magic of brainstorming!

Start by grouping similar ideas to uncover patterns in your thinking. Add a title to each group so it's easy to scan. You might find your ideas fall into groups like characters, costumes, locations or aesthetics but there are no rules about how you do it.

You're done brainstorming

Now that your brainstorming session is complete, you have a strong foundation for your film! Remember, just as creativity and inspiration is constantly evolving, so are ideas. Come back and add to the brainstorm when inspiration strikes, or refer to it as you start your script.

3. Moodboard

Organize inspiration & references

During brainstorming, you imagined the different parts of your film. It's time to start exploring some visual directions with a moodboard. Moodboards can help you visualize any aspect of your film. You might want to focus on how the lighting or color could look. Or they could be centered around the set designs or costumes you want to use. You can create a moodboard for each of these separately or mix them all into one board. There are no strict rules.

Your moodboard will also be a fantastic reference for your team—from the director to the costume designer—it helps everyone visualize the end result.

First, open the Moodboard

You’ll find the board to make your moodboard on the Pre-production Plan board. Double click on the Moodboard to open it and start adding your inspiration.

How to do this in Milanote
  1. Double click the Moodboard to open it.

Collect existing material

Start by adding any existing material you have—this could include stills from previous shoots, client references or images you've saved as inspiration. These might not make it into the final moodboard, but they're still a great place to start.

How to do this in Milanote
  1. Drag files from your computer.

    Upload a file or document  

    Click the "Upload file" button or just drag a file onto your board. You can add images, logos, documents, videos, audio and much more.

Add inspiring imagery

The imagery you bring into your moodboard helps you express your film's look and feel. Images can define things like tone, cropping, lighting and color.

You can start by saving visual references from around the web. There are lots of fantastic sites where you can find great visual inspiration for free, like Film GrabInstagram, or Pinterest. Don't worry about organizing the images just yet, that step will come later.

How to do this in Milanote
  1. Use the built-in image library.

    Use the built-in image library

    Search over 500,000 beautiful photos powered by Unsplash then drag images straight onto your board.

  2. Install the Milanote Web Clipper

  3. Save images from other websites straight to your board.

    Save content from the web

    Roll over an image (or highlight text), click Save, then choose the destination in Milanote. Return to your board and find the content in the "Unsorted" column on the right.

Transform your board from messy to organized

Once you have all your inspiration in one place, the next step is to arrange your ideas to create the perfect layout. Start by exploring composition and introducing hierarchy. Place a key element to anchor your board, and change the size and position of the remaining elements to indicate their importance and relationships to one another.

How to do this in Milanote
  1. Resize your images to add hierarchy.

    Resize images

    Drag the corner of an image to resize it. Double-click the corner to return it to its original size.

  2. Crop images.

    Crop images

    Double-click an image and press edit to crop or rotate it.

You’ve finished the moodboard!

Now that your moodboard is complete, you have a powerful visual reference for your film. Remember, you can create multiple moodboards to explore different directions at any time.

Next, we'll create a storyboard to map out the key parts of your film.

4. Storyboard

Visualize the key parts of your film

Storyboards are a powerful way to visually organize the composition, action and look of a film before you start bringing it to life. As director, producer and screenwriter Martin Scorsese said, “The storyboard is the way to visualize the entire movie in advance.”

Many people devote their entire careers to storyboarding as it combines disciplines and techniques such as illustration, writing and production. Traditionally, a storyboard would be created with analog sketches, but with a modern digital tool you can use photography, animation, color and notes to highlight key characters, scenes and objects.

First, open the storyboard

You’ll find the empty Storyboard on the Pre-Production Plan board. Double click the Storyboard to open it and start adding the mapping out the key scenes.

How to do this in Milanote
  1. Double click the Storyboard to open it.

Map out the key scenes

When creating a storyboard, it’s crucial to know what story you’re telling. The best starting point is to break up the script or narrative you’ll be working from. Identify the key scenes and start to map them out on your storyboard.

How to do this in Milanote
  1. Add a column for each frame.

    Drag a column onto your board

    Name it, then drag any relevant notes or images into your column

Add images or sketches

Now it’s time to begin visualizing each scene. Some storyboard artists might begin sketching with a pen and paper first, but you can use reference photography, illustrations, screenshots, location shoots, and even motion to communicate each scene.

How to do this in Milanote
  1. Upload images for each frame.

    Upload a file or document  

    Click the "Upload file" button or just drag a file onto your board. You can add images, logos, documents, videos, audio and much more.

  2. Use the built-in image library.

    Use the built-in image library

    Search over 500,000 beautiful photos powered by Unsplash then drag images straight onto your board.

Describe what happens in each frame

While each frame is a static image, try to communicate how it's going to look and feel as a moving sequence. Describe the style, mood, and behavior of characters. Consider how the camera will move through the shot and how you'll transition from scene to scene. Add details about the sound to help your team imagine the emotion and drama you're trying to capture.

How to do this in Milanote
  1. Add a note to describe each frame.

    Drag a note card onto your board

    Start typing then use the formatting tools in the left-hand toolbar.

Share it with your team

When you're ready, invite your team to review your storyboard and share their feedback. This is the perfect moment to see how others interpret your vision for the story. It's also a great opportunity to make any final tweaks while in pre-production. Adjust the order of your frames or edit the content based on everyone's feedback.

How to do this in Milanote
  1. Share the storyboard with your team.

    Invite editors to your board

    Open the "Editors" menu from the title bar of your board. Add email addresses of the people you'd like to collaborate with—they'll receive an invitation via email.

  2. Start a comment thread.

    Start a comment thread

    Drag out a comment from the toolbar on the left and place it on your board. Other editors can reply to your comment.

  3. Mention teammates to get their attention.

    Mention teammates to get their attention

    Type '@' in any text field to mention someone who has access to your board. They'll receive a notification and be able to respond to your comment.

Your storyboard is done!

Now that your storyboard is complete, you have a clear vision for your film! Let's move on and create a shot list to plan the scenes you'll shoot during production.

5. Shot list

Plan each shot you need

Coordinating a shoot can be stressful and costly, especially if that critical shot is missed on the day. But a clearly defined shot list will make sure nothing slips through the cracks.

A shot list is a simple checklist of each shot (or scene) you need to capture on the day of a shoot. It usually contains a list of specific shots, some visual references and extra details like camera angles or lighting set-up so you don't forget a thing.

First, open the shot list board

You’ll find the board to make your shot list on the Film plan board. Double click on the Shot List to open it and get started.

How to do this in Milanote
  1. Double click the Shot List board to open it.

List the things you're shooting

Start by listing the main scenes you'll be filming. Adding reference images or sketches will make your shot list easier to scan—even if they're just rough photos you've taken on your phone. It will also help your crew visualize the type of shots you're planning to capture.

How to do this in Milanote
  1. Upload images to your board.

    Upload a file or document  

    Click the "Upload file" button or just drag a file onto your board. You can add images, logos, documents, videos, audio and much more.

List the individual shots you need

This is the heart of the shot list. It's where you list each individual shot you require. Some details to include are: camera angle, location, position of the camera, and shot size (how big or small the subject is in the frame).

How to do this in Milanote
  1. Create a new to-do list for each of the specific shots.

    Drag a to-do list onto your board

    Start typing then press "Enter" to create a new item. Add a title to your to-do list using the left hand toolbar.

Add a simple gear list

What equipment will you need to shoot these scenes? Imagine being half way through filming when you realize the spare battery pack is still in the studio. Adding a simple gear list will ensure you have everything you need on the day. It's a lifesaver!

Use the Film Production Equipment List template if you have lots of gear to keep track of.

How to do this in Milanote
  1. Add a note to list your equipment

    Drag a note card onto your board

    Start typing then use the formatting tools in the left hand toolbar.

Reference it on the day

Traditionally, you'd print out your shot list to refer to on the day, but digital shot lists can be accessed on phones or laptops. This way, you can check off each shot or adjust it as you need.

How to do this in Milanote
  1. Download the Milanote mobile app

You’ve finished the shot list!

Now that your shot list is complete, you have a clear plan for the scenes you need to capture during the shoot.

Next, we'll create a call sheet to schedule your team…

6. Call sheet

Organize your crew & talent

You may have witnessed a disorganized shoot before—the actors were late, the crew forgot the lighting or the set wasn't ready. One vital document was missing—the call sheet.

The call sheet is a simple, but incredibly useful tool for organizing your shoot. It outlines everything your talent and crew need to know before the day of the shoot. Crucial elements like the location, contact details, the schedule, and most importantly the arrival time.

First, open the Call Sheet board

You’ll find the board to make your call sheet on the Pre-production Plan board. Double click on the Call Sheet to open it and start laying out a plan for the day of the shoot.

How to do this in Milanote
  1. Double click the Call Sheet board to open it.

Add the location and background information

Add background information about the shoot for your talent and crew. Next, add the location of the shoot and any details that will help people arrive safely and on time. Explain where the parking options are, nearby public transport and any details about to get into the building.

How to do this in Milanote
  1. Add a note to describe the project.

    Drag a note card onto your board

    Start typing then use the formatting tools in the left hand toolbar.

  2. Embed a Google map to show the location.

    Drag a link card onto your board

    Copy the share link from Google Maps, paste it into the link card in Milanote and press Enter.

List your talent & crew

Who's involved in your shoot? List your talent and crew along with their contact details. This will save you hunting around for phone numbers when plans inevitably change on the day. Next, add any specific arrival times so each person knows exactly when they're expected.

How to do this in Milanote
  1. Add a note for the details of your crew.

    Drag a note card into your board

    Start typing then use the formatting tools in the left-hand toolbar.

Outline the schedule

Probably the most important part is the schedule—specifically the general crew call time. The general crew call time is when everyone needs to arrive on location. Under this, add the key events for the day so everyone can clearly see what's on and when. Don't forget lunch!

How to do this in Milanote
  1. Add a note to describe each activity on the schedule.

    Drag a note card into your column

    Start typing then use the formatting tools in the left hand toolbar.

Refine & share with your team

Once you have everything you need, it's time to organize your call sheet so it's easy to scan. Then share it with your team so everyone can start preparing for the shoot.

How to do this in Milanote
  1. Create a column for each part of your call sheet.

    Drag a column onto your board

    Name it, then drag any relevant notes or images into your column.

  2. Publish and share the call sheet with your team.

    Add a welcome message to your board.

    Write a welcome message under the "Publish & share" menu. This will display the first time someone views your board.

You're all done!

Hopefully, this guide has helped you become more organized during the pre-production stage. If you're just starting a new shoot, use the Film Pre-production Plan template below to get set up in minutes.

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