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What is Pre-Production for Actors? (with Video!)

What does pre-production mean for on-camera actors? You may not realize it, but every audition you’ve ever attended has been for a project in “pre-production.”  Pre-production is the phase of any film, TV show, commercial, music video or print shoot when everything that must be in place for principal photography is chosen and arranged.  That means locations, equipment, crew and, yes, actors! However, pre-production for actors means much more than just casting!

Everything involving actors from the initial audition until the moment you’re on set ready to shoot falls in the pre-production project phase. For commercials, pre-production may be just days or hours during which actors may have wardrobe fittings or even pre-shoots to test lighting, wardrobe, make-up, or to create props and background material for the shoot (like when actors appear in a scene with a picture of themselves as a prop or set decoration).

Pre-production time tends to vary by the size of the project, especially the part actors tend to see. A lot of preparation goes into creating a commercial, but by the time auditions begin, the schedule usually moves pretty quickly. For feature films, pre-production may last days or many months before principal photography begins. Television shows tend to fall somewhere in between, though depending on the notes a television pilot gets, pre-production (and casting) may begin all over again once a network orders a full or partial season.

The shooting schedule is created in pre-production.  That’s when locations are scouted and the script is divided into workable shooting dates. The goal of every shooting schedule is to keep costs down. So shooting schedules are usually divided up by location because moving a production from one location to another takes a lot of valuable time and money. Occasionally shooting schedules are divided by key talent. A project may divide its schedule to work around a key actor’s schedule rather than re-cast that role. On-camera actors know to expect that even short commercial projects often shoot out of scene order. On-camera actors practice non-linear performance techniques in acting classes for camera, so they’re always ready to film out of sequence.

Rehearsal is only sometimes part of an actor’s pre-production experience. Rehearsal time is often sacrificed, even in big budget films, because so much of that big budget is paying for other things, like named stars, special effects, CGI, huge set pieces, etc. Actors might participate in table readings or read-throughs with all department heads present, full rehearsals on or off set, or you might be walked right into your scene to perform–on the spot. It all depends on the project.

Pre-production can be quite involved with weeks or months of rehearsals, multiple meetings with costume designers and wardrobe for fittings. Actors are sometimes paired with trainers, coaches, tutors or other consultants to help them prepare specific skills or talents for the role they’re to play. And there are still screen tests when actors are filmed to see how particular make-up, hair, costume, lighting or location choices might affect the look the director wants.

For actors cast in special effects projects, playing creatures or characters with significant special effects make-up, prosthetics or elaborate costuming, have a lot to do during pre-production.  In the video (above), child actor Logan Schaefer underwent a different kind of casting – one involving latex and plaster as part of the process to create the extensive make-up prosthetics that will transform him into a space alien for his upcoming feature film (read Lucas’s exclusive interview—HERE). Yes, even very young actors are sometimes cased in goo to create the amazing transformations modern audiences often expect and have grown to love.

Pre-production is opportunity for discovery, growth, and fun.  The length of pre-production varies greatly. For actors, the more involved you get to be in pre-production, the more cast and crew you’ll have a chance to meet, the more advance peeks you get at what the shoot will be like, and the more insight you’ll have into what you’ll be doing (and need to prepare for) once you’re on set.  All of this adds up to feeling more comfortable and at home on set when principal photography begins.

Actors who take themselves seriously are always in a kind of pre-production. Ready actors stay that way with regular acting training.  Even young actors stay sharp with acting coaches or acting classes for kids and teens.  Acting schools that specialize in on-camera and non-linear acting techniques are especially helpful in preparing performers for non-linear shooting.  And auditioning alone does a lot to help actors prepare for the spontaneous rigors of pre-production, principal photography, and shooting out of sequence as well.

Knowing what to expect, and preparing accordingly, helps actors of all ages stay competitive and get cast!

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