The Visual Planning Process That Will Make or Break Your Film

The Visual Planning Process That Will Make or Break Your Film

This is a guest post from Nick LaRovere. You can find more in-depth articles on directing, producing, and entrepreneurship at his site Storyteller.


As filmmakers, our primary job is telling stories visually.

You might be thinking, “Duh, Nick. Obviously, that’s what we do.” And you’d be right. It's pretty self-evident. However, it's easy to get lost in the dozens of intersecting elements that make up a film, and miss something extremely important.

I’m not just talking about the fact that what you include or leave out of the frame affects your audience. Those considerations are extremely important.

I’m talking about a visual planning process that, if you neglect it, will create loads more work for yourself, cause much frustration, force you into editing decisions, and generally cause you to end up with a film less desirable than you would have hoped given all the sweat you put into it.

As a (mostly) self-taught filmmaker, I’ve had to learn many things on my own, and some of those lessons have been pretty rough, leading to a lot of unnecessary (or perhaps necessary) challenges.

I’d like to give you a head start; maybe you won’t have to deal with some of the issues I did. Let’s get started!

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Do sweat the small stuff - your audience notices

Modern audiences are bombarded with visual content. Not only that, but they’ve had the past 100 years of moviegoing experience to—at the least—know when something ‘isn’t quite right,' or they ‘don’t like it,' even though they can’t articulate why.

Here's what I'm getting at.

If you do not deliberately design every shot and all the visual elements of your film—including what’s in them (aka mise-en-scène)—you are setting yourself up for failure with your audience.

So before we get into the steps I use to visually plan my films, here are a few mindsets you'll need to adopt.

(Assume) your audience is visually literate.

Attention to detail is always the best policy. Your film is made of a thousand small details, and you should never leave any of those to chance.

This means that your audience has years of film conventions to compare your film to. They can interpret many subtle elements, consciously and not, that audiences just wouldn't have picked up on in the early days of cinema.

That means that we Storytellers have our work cut out for us. You have to be very careful in how you piece together the visual tapestry of your film. If you leave an element to chance or neglect it, that is something your audience can pick up on. Sure, sometimes there are happy accidents, but you shouldn’t count on that.

(Assume) your audience is highly perceptive.

As a rule of thumb, it’s safe to assume that your audience will see that paper you decided to leave in frame. ‘Eh, they won’t see it.' Yeah, they will.

Attention to detail is always the best policy. Your film is made of a thousand small details, so you should never leave any of those to chance.

(Assume) your audience won’t be able to articulate.

This isn’t so much a tip as it is a warning for you to expect this sort of behavior.

Though on a subconscious level, your audience knows what to expect, most viewers won’t be able to identify exactly what about your film causes them to like or dislike it. They may identify a scene, but even that can be misleading.

Pre-production is king. This is a pretty common thing for people to harp on, but the more I learn and the more films I make, the more I realize it is very true.

The problem is that scenes and minutes blend together, and one scene may affect their experience of another. You or I may be able to verbalize exactly why we like certain parts of the film, why we don’t, and what stood out; we can compartmentalize the film into its elements.

But for our audience, that's generally not the case. Say you make a stylistic choice, but it didn’t elicit the desired reaction, or just didn’t work at all. Your audience can’t always separate that bad experience from the other scenes.

They are only left with a general sense of what they felt. Most viewers don’t see a movie to do deep analysis. They shut down and sit down to watch something that will take them on a passive ride; no work required.

With that in mind, let's dig into the steps for effective visual planning.

Thoughtfully "design" each element of your film

I used the word design for a very specific reason.

One definition is “purpose, planning, or intention that exists or is thought to exist behind an action, fact, or material object.” We need to go into production with a precise purpose for each storytelling decision.

In fact, this mindset/approach is absolutely vital, as there are various ways the visuals of our film can impact the audience, both consciously and subconsciously. Let's examine both.

The conscious effects of content on your audience.

Sometimes, there are visual elements in your film that will obviously reveal things about the story, motive, and character. These are the elements that make up the common vocabulary of films and more clearly move the story along.

In this stage of visual planning, you should consider the information you want your audience to pick up. What do you want—and need—your audience, after watching a particular scene, to consciously understand?

One way to communicate specific information is by controlling what is revealed and how. This is very important when you are writing your script, and it will determine what approach you will take in a scene.

Say your film starts with a catastrophe. Will you reveal it to your audience through the view of someone experiencing the event? What about through the news on a TV in the background—with a character who's totally clueless? What if the main character opens his door to find a friend, bloody and breathless, just having experienced the event?

Each of these approaches will tell your audience something different; who the main character is, what is most important in the film, and more.

A famous example is the intro scene in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. Here's the scene in case you don't remember it.

Welles begins by telling his audience in a very straightforward manner that there is a bomb and it plays a significant role to the story. He shows it in closeup, then being placed into the trunk of a car.

It's no secret how the scene is going to end. Welles could have allowed the explosion to be a complete surprise, but by intentionally focusing on the bomb, he creates rising tension (since you, as the viewer, know what might happen, while the characters are totally unaware), and tells you clearly that both the identity of the bomber and the bombing play a key role in the story.

There are a dozen ways he could have approached this scene, but he thrusts the audience right into the scene, watching as events unfold.

Conveying information effectively is the key. It is easy to simply show a particular event taking place as if you are documenting something, but you must be aware of how you are delivering information and what conclusion your audience will reach based on how and what you show them.

It is difficult to isolate exactly where conscious communication to your audience ends and the subconscious, subtle cues begin. In fact, it is difficult to write about the conscious effects without talking about the subconscious effects.

The subconscious effects of content on your audience.

One manifestation of these less obvious elements is the construct of genre, which is a familiar set of expectations from your audience that includes themes, visual styles, and messaging. People refer to this collective, subconscious effect as a genre because of the general emotions that type of film typically evokes.

If you asked a child what a ‘thriller’ was, they wouldn’t be able to tell you, but the concept of a thriller will elicit a reaction from adults that have seen many films in that category and understand the feelings and reactions they have associated with the genre.

More specifically, each visual storytelling decision you make as director is going to influence the audience in a number of subtle ways.

When you are making these decisions, you have to ask yourself a couple questions:

  1. Will this method evoke the reaction or emotion I want from my audience?
  2. Is this the most effective way to elicit the response I want?

Working through these questions will force you to grow as a director as you continually add to your directing tool belt.

There are a ridiculous number of subtle choices you can make that will have different effects on your audience. Some of these more obvious choices are lens and camera, camera movement, color grade, framing, and other common topics of discussion among filmmakers.

Part of the reason storyboarding is valuable is because it forces you to spend time drawing a frame and considering all facets of your shots, and think, ‘why am I even doing this shot?’ It forces you to think from your audience’s perspective and adjust.

This is a perfect segue to the next topic, all about why you need to make these choices ahead of time.

Director’s prep and the visual blueprint

Your best bet is always to plan these many decisions ahead of time—at least, as many as you possibly can.

It takes a lot of brainpower to work through these issues in pre-production, shifting yourself back and forth between the shoes of your audience and the hat of a director.

But the less of your brain capacity you have to use while on set, the more you can focus on creative problem-solving in the moment (oh, and it’s less stressful).

Directors prep is the cornerstone of the production.

As directors, we're often our own harshest critics, and we rarely hit the mark we aim for. I know that holds true for me. However, you always stand a better chance spending quality time in prep.

I’m going to address steps I think you should take when prepping.

Storyboarding is an exercise in visualization.

I know, not everyone can draw, but it only has to be good enough for you to understand, really. You will get better as you do it. Learning the basics of sketching, including perspective, can help you storyboard better as well.

As long as you and most others can tell what’s going on, you’re good to go.

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 Does this look like the panel of a master storyboard artist to you?

Part of the reason storyboarding is valuable is because it forces you to spend time drawing a frame and considering all facets of your shots, and think, ‘why am I even doing this shot?’ It forces you to think from your audience’s perspective and adjust.

It forces you to flex your mental muscles, and over time, this will cause your visualization skill to improve.

Specifically, storyboarding helps in prep by forcing you to:

  1. Identify what you want to see in frame why.
  2. Consider from the audience perspective what the content of that frame conveys to them.

And while on set, your storyboards help you by:

  1. Providing a great blueprint to fall back on when it’s crunch time and you have to make quick decisions.
  2. Reducing your stress because you largely already decided what you need to capture.
  3. Allowing you to focus brain power on your actors’ performances and delegation of work to crew, since you did your mental gymnastics in prep.

Lookbooks and visual references

You should always create what’s commonly known as a ‘lookbook’ (I call it a visual design book) for yourself and your crew to reference. I'll go over this process briefly, but I provided in-depth look at how to create a director's visual reference in another article.

Crafting a visual reference forces you to consider every artistic element of your film. (Wardrobe style, color palette, environments, etc.). The process of making the reference forces you to make conscious decisions for those elements based on what you want your audience to experience.

The lookbook also does a couple other great things for you. Not only does creating a visual reference force you to dial in your vision, but the lookbook helps your crew be efficient by truly understanding that vision.

If your crew has an at-a-glance understanding of the moods and visuals you desire in parts of your film, they can then work more autonomously. You don’t need to micromanage them if they are on the same page with you and can act without needing your approval for everything. This, in turn, frees up your brain for other tasks and allows you to make a better film.

This is very important because being a good director is just as much about being an effective leader and director of people as it is being a creative.

Here's how I put my lookbooks together.

I create my lookbooks using Google Drive folders, organizing by topic such as ‘makeup,' ‘wardrobe,' ‘visual/lighting design,' and other categories. I also tend to break these down by scenes or parts of the film when those parts have very different styles.

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Once I’ve created the folders for each topic, I place my specific references and inspirations in the folder.

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Last, but not least, while going through the visual planning process is generally helpful, building a visual reference is an important step when you are trying to create a believable world for your film.

Planning for the edit

So, here you are, victorious! You’ve completed your film, and now it’s time to figure out how this puppy will go together—right?

Wrong. You may know this already (or maybe not), but it sure was a revelation for me when my short film Sacramentum gave me hell in the editing room, for this very reason...

I did not plan for the edit. Bad, bad Nick.

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Well, believe me, I learned my lesson.

The processes I’ve lined out above will save you time and frustration in editing, and your film will turn out better because you anticipated the realities of how things will come together in post.

If you do the above things, and you’ve really considered your film from all angles, you won’t have the problem I had.

My problem when I made Sacramentum wasn’t that I didn’t consider many of the artistic aspects. I did. I spent hours preparing costumes, set decoration, props, and casting, among other things.

But I didn’t do any planning for the visual storytelling, really. I left it entirely up to my DP who (also) did not create a visual plan of attack, thereby not anticipating the edit. We just didn’t know. We had to learn the hard way.

The processes I’ve lined out above will save you time and frustration in editing, and your film will turn out better because you anticipated the realities of how things will come together in post.
  ‘Look at that beautiful art production!’ ‘Yeah, okay, but the film isn’t very good, so who cares?’

‘Look at that beautiful art production!’ ‘Yeah, okay, but the film isn’t very good, so who cares?’

If you don’t plan properly, you will run into visual issues that you may be stuck with because you’ve worked yourself into a corner, having not anticipated a potential issue.

When you are doing your planning, focus first on getting the shots you need to tell the story, but try to allow some time for on-the-spot creativity and coverage to cover your butt in the edit. Stuff happens (like continuity errors).

Five vital steps of director’s visual prep

So let's recap everything we've covered here, because it's a lot to take in.

  1. Do sweat the small stuff - your audience notices when you get lazy.

  2. Thoughtfully design each element of your film so you have intention behind each decision and tell an effective story.

  3. Go through director’s prep and make a visual blueprint so you think through all facets of your film.

  4. Get your crew on the same page by making lookbooks and visual references.

  5. If you follow the above steps, you will have planned for the edit and save yourself headache.

Basically, to sum it all up.

Pre-production is king

This is a pretty common thing for people to harp on, but the more I learn and the more films I make, the more I realize it is very true. I used to think storyboarding is pointless, but now I’m a believer. Even if all these things are overwhelming, I encourage you to try at least one out on your next film and see how it goes.

Break a leg!