Multimedia Pre-Production: Comprehensive Breakdown

Pre-Production encompasses everything you do before you start recording audio or video. This phase of your project is extremely important. Everything you do in pre-production will save time and aggravation during production and post-production. Pre-production work is made up of various steps, but those steps are often overlapping or enmeshed. The following diagram provides an overview of pre-production tasks.

Media pre production process flow chart

This document is designed to help you get the most out of pre-production work. It is divided into the following sections:

  • Project Conception - Describes the different types of projects and provides tips and information about each.
  • Writing - Demystifies the writing process for media projects.
  • Pre-Visualization - Discusses how visualizing your project, either through traditional storyboards or using other tools and techniques, can save you time and effort in the long run.
  • Production Planning - Describes the types of planning that you can do to make your media recording and post-production tasks go smoothly.

Note: The discussion in this document often refers to video. You may be working on a media project that does not include any video (a sound collage for example). The steps and processes described usually apply, with minimal alteration, to other forms of media.

Project Conceptualization

Before you can start working on your project, you have to figure out what it's going to be. That sounds obvious, but it's very common for students to start recording video and audio without really knowing what the finished project is even about. This section will help you to think about the big picture of your project and to plan out the rest of the pre-production work you need to do.

Out in the artistic world, projects often begin with an idea or inspiration. That might also happen for you while you are in school, but you may find that your projects are more likely to be imposed on you by an assignment. There is no magical procedure to take you from an instructor’s prompt to a project idea. Instead, you need to find a method that works best for you. You can use many of the same methods you might use to conceive of research papers or other academic work: brainstorming, concept mapping, free writing, etc.

You may find that doing some research helps you generate ideas as well. Just as a research paper starts with a topic that you refine into a strong research question that leads to a thesis, the idea for a media project can be revealed through the process of research.

At some point during your thought about your project, you should address your themes or thesis. Not every project has a thesis, which is a claim or argument just like the thesis in an essay, but almost all multimedia projects explores or exposes one or more themes.

Themes and Theses

"Theme" is the subject that the work is about. Usually, the themes of a media project are separate from the characters and subjects, with the specific subjects providing a lens with which to view themes. For example, you might make a video about the Occupy Seattle movement that follows several characters who have corporate jobs but are involved in the movement. While the specifics of your work are about the Occupy Seattle movement, the work is really about the discontent of corporate workers.

When used in a literary sense, themes do not make moral judgments. Your hypothetical video about Occupy Seattle has a theme of corporate discontent—it explores that issue. If the video makes conclusions about its subject matter that can be thought of as taking a stance, like if it shows how much happier the characters are after they all quit their corporate jobs, then it has a thesis.

You may not think that you have themes and theses when you start working on your project, but you should be aware of how others might project them onto your work. If you go beyond simply stating facts (which almost all works do) you are probably making thematic statements and forming theses even if you aren’t consciously aware of it.


No matter what kind of project you are working on, it will be improved by some sort of writing before you start production.The most straightforward project to write for is a narrative piece. Narrative projects usually have a script that contains all of the dialogue along with directions for staging and filming. Sometimes documentary projects have a script, for narration for example, but even if yours doesn't, there is probably writing to be done.


Whether or not your project required a script, every video project (as well as other multimedia projects with visual elements) can be made more easily if you spend some time doing pre-visualization. Pre-visualization is usually thought of in terms of storyboards, but there are lots of ways that you can do it. The goal of pre-visualization is to think through what your finished project will look like, so that when you are doing your production work (filming or animating) you will know what you need to do. Adopting a pre-visualization process for your project will help you cut down on inefficiency while filming by reducing the number of setups you'll need and by reducing how much footage you shoot. Time spent pre-visualizing your work will save you time in production and post-production.

Deciding to Pre-Visualize

One of the most difficult things to decide when thinking about pre-visualization is how much to do. One the face of it, this is a personal preference. Some videos are made with almost no pre-visualization. Complicated videos (especially those with a lot of action or digital post-production requirements) are often visualized completely before filming begins. For example, the prequel Star Wars movies were storyboarded in their entirety before production began.

Production Planning

So you've put some time into thinking about what your project will be, you've written a script or plan, and you've pre-visualized the finished work. The last bit of pre-production work to do is production planning. This is the step in the process when you make plans based on all of your hard work to ensure that shooting video goes smoothly. Planning your production is not exciting or creative work, but it can mean the difference between getting the project done and going over budget on time or resources.

The best place to start is with the kind of project that you are working on. For our purposes, there are three broad categories of projects: narrative projects, documentary projects, and non-narrative or art projects. There are some things that all of these types have in common, but each has its own spin on techniques and issues.

Three Kinds of Projects

There is room for almost infinite variety in multimedia projects, but most of them that you encounter in school can be classified as narrative, documentary, or non-narrative. While many of the processes and techniques are shared between these project types, each has its own idiosyncrasies.

In the rest of this document, the pre-production steps will be discussed relative to these three types of projects.

Narrative Projects

A narrative project is one that tells a story. It has characters that interact in scenes, and the scenes come together to form a cohesive storyline. Some narrative works are fictional, while others are non-fiction. When you create a narrative project, you know the story before you start. You should have a script that contains all of the words that your actors will say, and that describes the places and situations of the story.

Most popular movies are narrative, as are almost all scripted television programs.

In some ways, a narrative project is the easiest media project type to approach. You can follow a fairly straightforward process to get at least passable results predictably. In others ways, narrative projects are particularly challenging. You have to have a pretty firm script ahead of time in order to schedule shooting and you have to work with actors, adding logistical and artistic complexity to your production.

A narrative project contains:

Characters - Stories are about characters, the agents of action in the events the story describes. When you start thinking about your narrative project, you should spend some time thinking about characters. The characters you choose should be compelling and meaningful to your audience. They should also have the right attributes to convey the themes of your story effectively.

Situation - Stories are about characters in situations. You need to know what situations your characters are going to be dealing with. One of the most common problems for students is creating situations that are too broad to convey. You may be making a film about "The Occupy Movement" but that is too broad to be your situation. You could tell a thousand different stories about that subject. The challenge of a multimedia project is to make statements about big issues by showing specific stories that are revealing.

Setting - Your story has to happen somewhere. Some subjects have settings built in. If you were making a piece about people in Occupy Seattle, you know that downtown Seattle is probably your primary setting. When creating your story, remember that complicated settings can be hard to realize during production, and that every separate location that you put in your story means more work changing shooting locations later on.

Documentary Projects

A documentary project is one in which reporting facts about the world is a primary goal. As the name implies, documentary works document something. Most documentaries are put together using narrative forms, just like a narrative project, but they often have unpredictable elements such as interviews or on-the-scene footage.

Documentary projects can seem straightforward, but they are far from easy. Much of the work on a documentary comes in post-production, as you edit your footage to get the story you want. The process means that you, the editor, have a lot of control over the final product (even more so than you do in a narrative piece) but it also means a lot more editing is required. Figuring out your pre-production tasks and getting organized can help you minimize the post-production work.

Just like a narrative project, a documentary has characters, situation, and setting. However, they may take slightly different forms in a documentary:

Characters in a documentary are usually real people. Instead of getting actors to portray your characters, you will interview people or talk about people. Sometimes you will use actors, to read a letter for a voice-over, for example.

Non-Narrative/Art Projects

Some projects are non-narrative, that is, they don't tell a representative story at all. Video art and sound collage are often non-narrative. You might think that you don't need to, or can't, go through a structured process of pre-production for an art project, but you can and should. Just as with other types of projects, investing in the pre-production process will make the rest of your work easier.

Non-narrative projects might seem freeing, because they tend to be limited only by your imagination. That can be exhilarating, but it can also make your project hard to conceptualize and manage. Without a narrative structure on which to hang your themes and meaning, you must carefully think about every aspect of the work. Don’t be fooled into complacency by a freeform artistic project—it may require more thought and planning than any other project.

So why Pre-production?

Pre-production is the vital first stage of filmmaking where you structure your ideas into a script that will express those ideas with strength, coherence and intention. This is also the stage where you transform your completed script into a production plan that will allow you to maintain control over your project during the high-pressure production/shooting phase.

The Idea

Every project begins with an idea. Your first challenge is to develop that idea. Dream, brainstorm, and decide what you want to say and how you want to say it. The goal here is to generate a guiding light for your project that will help you make creative decisions later on. You want to be able to say, “This project is about X,” and then use that core concept to determine what details belong in your story.

Before you launch into writing a script, consider your ideas and ask yourself: What is your thesis, your theme? What is your attack or angle on the subject matter? What is your personal connection to the material? Why do you care about this story? Why do you need to tell it?

This is also the time to research your topic using both external and internal sources. External research involves gathering detail from the world around you. Internal research is about mining details from your own experience. You can use memories, dreams, and the details of your past to hone your attack and forge that personal connection that will carry you through the rigors of media production.

The Script

Once you have gathered and developed your ideas, it is time to begin writing your script.

Cinema is a temporal medium. Your ideas will play out in linear fashion along a timeline. As such, screenwriting is about transforming ideas into visible detail, and then sequencing those details into a story. When you write a script, you basically decide when to show what you want to show.

How do you make those decisions when you’re faced with limitless choice? This is where structure comes to the rescue.

Every story has a beginning, middle and end.
In the beginning, or act one, you introduce your audience to your story’s settings, characters, and problems. This is where you say “here are my characters, here is their world, and here are their desires.”

In the middle, or act two, you show your characters struggling against forces that prevent them from getting what they want or need. This is the heart of your story where problems and conflicts intensify, allies and enemies appear, and main characters make decisions that advance the story. All of this builds to a climax where challenges are overcome and goals are accomplished.

In the ending, or act three, you show how your characters have changed and how their change has altered the world around them.

Conflict is the engine that drives stories. Your main character, or protagonist, wants or needs something, but problems, or antagonists, stand in the way. The clash between these opposed forces results in conflict. As protagonists solve problems, they make decisions, take action, and advance the plot of your story.

In this way, plot is character. We learn about and judge characters based on their decisions. It is important to write your story in such a way that your main character is making decisions because, again, decisions, action, propels story from one scene to the next.

It is also important that protagonists experience change. When they make choices and overcome obstacles, they learn, and the audience learns with them. Story is in part an illustration of how a character changes and grows. In the beginning, you introduce your characters and what they want or need. By the end of the story, they are changed by the journey they’ve taken to achieve their goals. This change does not have to be drastic. It can be subtle. It can be a lesson learned, or a peace established.

After you have established who your protagonist is and what he or she needs and what antagonists stand in the way, you can begin to arrange the key conflicts along a spine or arc. These key instances of conflict are known as plot points.

You can map your story on a diagram called a story paradigm. Here is an example:

Story paradigm diagram

The inciting incident is also known as a call to adventure. It is an event that sets the story in motion. The act one plot point is where protagonists decide to go after what they need. During act two, they encounter increasingly difficult obstacles. At the midpoint, protagonists reach the darkest place, the innermost cave, where victory seems at its most remote. After they overcome this most difficult act two challenge, they proceed to the act three plot point, also known as the climax, where tension is at its highest. It is here that protagonists face and overcome their greatest challenge. Finally, a denouement shows the outcomes of the story and draws the action to its to a conclusion.

Pre-Visualization / Storyboards

Once your script is written, it is time to begin translating text into image.

Your script answers the questions of what needs to be shot and why. Pre-visualization helps you answer the question of how you intend to shoot what you wrote.

Cinema is a complex visual language made up of shots. Each shot is an image defined by lighting, framing, performance, and movement. How do you want to use those elements to depict visually the concrete images in your script? This is the challenge of pre-viz. The more detailed your work here, the easier production and post-production will be later. Your pre-viz is your visual plan that will guide the rest of your production.

Pre-visualization can take many forms. You can storyboard using software or paper and pencil. You can use a still photography camera to generate the key frames in each sequence. You can use a video camera to shoot a rough draft of your script, working out your framing and blocking in a fast and loose manner at your actual locations. The idea is to begin to translate word to image, to rough out your content, to get it on its feet.

Production Planning: The Script Breakdown & Budgeting

Multimedia projects are complex ecosystems, decision jungles that threaten to swallow the unprepared mind whole. In order to survive the production process and produce your best work, it is essential to structure your ideas into actionable plans. The screenplay is that actionable plan, even if it doesn’t appear to be at first blush.

What turns a screenplay into a production plan is the script breakdown. The core concept of the breakdown is to identify the physical elements in your script that you will need to obtain before you start shooting.

Here’s how it works:

Go through your script and circle the physical elements that you will need to shoot each scene. This includes everything that is concrete and visible: locations, actors, wardrobe, props, etc.

Next, organize those elements according to kind. Once you have a list of elements in hand, you can schedule your shooting days according to what is needed when.

For example, if you have ten scenes in your script that take place in a warehouse, you can shoot those scenes together and save yourself the time and expense of moving between different locations. This is one reason why many films are shot out of script sequence: It saves time and money.

You can use the script breakdown to pull the scenes for one character from the script and lump them together into on continuous set of shooting days. This is particularly helpful if you cast an actor who has limited availability.

The script breakdown also helps you to identify which scenes could be simplified. It is often wise to look at every physical requirement for a scene and ask, “Is this critical to the story?” Every time you eliminate a physical detail from your script, you save yourself the time and expense of acquiring that thing for your shoot.

After you boil your script’s physical demands down to the essentials, you can budget your project. As the cost of your production rises, you may feel the need to rewrite scenes and eliminate more physical requirements.

Once your project is budgeted, cast and scheduled, you can finally move into production knowing that your hard work during pre-production will save you time, heartache and expense on set. When you shoot with a plan, you give yourself the best chance at producing a strong film.

We hope this helps you understand pre-production a little bit more in-depth. If you have questions or comments please contact Salem Levesque at

This webpage was last updated: 12/19/2012
Developed by Jay Loomis and John Boucher