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A Serious Amateur's Guide to Making Movies - Step 2: Plan the Shoot(s)

By  Aug 10, 2010

Topics: Digital Audio, Video

So you know what you’re doing before you do it.

In Step 1, you came up with a good topic idea and learned more about it. This research should have helped you understand what your story was going to be about.

Yes, I did say story. A good movie—a watchable movie—should have a story. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the story of how cherries get off the trees and into a truck that takes them to a packing plant or the story of your kid’s big soccer game. The point is that it’s a story and you need to know the story before you can tell it in a movie.

Story Components

A story has three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has plot and characters. It might even have dialog and a theme.

Let’s take a closer look at each component of a story.


As you might imagine, the beginning is where the story starts. Cherries: from Tree to Truck starts in an orchard in June. It describes what happened before the beginning—cherries have been growing on trees and now they’re dark red and ready to be picked (refer to Figure 02-01)—as a way of introducing the audience to the topic. It then goes into a discussion of the first part of the picking process and the pickers.

Figure 02-01: Near the beginning of the cherry harvest movie, I explain that the cherries are “dark red and ready to be picked.”

A movie about a kid’s soccer game might start with some background about how the team got to the big game. Or how your kid made the team. Or how the field is prepared before the game begins. It might then go into the actual start of the game: coin toss, kick off, and opening plays.


The middle is what happens next. This is easy if your movie is a chronological retelling of an events, like my cherry harvest movie is. In my example, I simply told the step-by-step process, spending most of the time with the cherries. I did, however, leave the cherries to show something else going on at the same time they were being picked: loading the bins to bring them to the orchard.

A movie about a kid’s soccer game could take a different approach. Keeping in mind that minute after minute of play “action” will likely bore viewers. You could tell the story of the game chronologically based on great plays (goals and saves) and other memorable events (injuries, parents acting out, dog on the field, etc.). Or you could mix play action with back stories of the players. This all depends on your topic and approach.

Keep in mind that in a real story—one with the elements of drama—you’d introduce conflict or challenges or a “dark moment” and bring the story to a climax. That isn’t necessary in a documentary, but if you are making a movie of a topic that might have these elements, keep them in mind when you shoot.


The movie should not leave the viewer hanging. In my cherry harvest movie, I ended with the truck driving away (refer to Figure 02-02) and the narrator summarizing what happens next. The story has come to a logical end.

Figure 02-02: This shot of the departing truck was an obvious end to my cherry harvest movie.

A kid’s soccer game could end when the game ends, but you’d likely want to take it further, with the triumphant team and end-of-game celebrations. (You do plan on making a movie where your kid’s team wins, right?)

If you had any conflicts or challenges, they must be resolved by the end. It’s never a good idea to leave loose ends.


Characters are the people (or things) that appear in the movie. In my cherry harvest movie, the cherries themselves were the main characters. The pickers, swampers, and forklift operator were supporting characters.

Figure 02-03: The characters in my cherry harvest video included the cherries, pickers, swampers, and forklift operator.

In a movie about a kid’s soccer game, your kid is likely to be the main character. But if the movie is about his/her team, then the team members would have equal status. Or maybe the movies is about coaching; then the coach would be the main character. Supporting characters are the others who appear in the movie and help tell the story.

If your story has drama, you might have a protagonist (good guy) and an antagonist (bad guy). If that’s the case, make sure the conflict between them is resolved by the end.

The plot is what happens. It’s the story that you’re telling. Simply put, the beginning, middle, and end tell the story of the plot. My plot was simple. The cherries start on the trees and, though the efforts of various people and machinery, get on a truck that takes them to the processing plant.

In a movie of a kid’s soccer game, the plot would probably be the story of the game itself. But it really depends on the story you want to tell. The plot is that story.


Most stories have a theme, even if they don’t intend to. In my cherry harvest movie, the theme is stated right up front in the narration: it takes a lot of people and specialized equipment to get the job done.

A theme for a soccer game might be the teamwork that’s required for a win. Or the preparation that goes into the game. Or how great a player your kid is.

No matter what the theme is, you need to keep it in mind throughout the planning, shooting, and editing process. Knowing the theme will help you stay focused.


In documentary movies, dialog can either be a discussion between two characters (true dialog) or commentary by individuals talking to an interviewer or the camera (a “talking head”). Interaction between characters or interview footage is a great way to communicate the story points. It makes it possible for characters to tell the story instead of a narrator.

My cherry harvest movie didn’t have any dialog. No one wanted to be interviewed! But maybe you’ll do better. Dialog can really round out a movie by presenting the viewpoints of people involved in the story.


Once you know the structure of your story based on these components, you can create an outline or storyboard for it. A true movie making storyboard often includes images in a comic book-like format. Unless you have drawing skills, you can skip that. Just create an outline of what you want to show and tell in the order you want to show it in. That’ll help you get the logical flow of the movie.

If your movie will be narrated, you might take this opportunity to jot down passages of narration that you expect to include. The same goes for interview questions that you might want answered by one of your movie’s characters. Be as detailed as you can.

For my cherry harvest movie, instead of creating an illustrated drawing board—which is completely beyond my capabilities—I created a script using a relatively standard script format (see Figure 02-04). This is easy to do with the table feature of a word processor. Just put a list of what will be shown in one column with the corresponding narration or dialog in the cells beside it. Not only does this meet the requirements of a storyboard, but it helps set you up for creating your shot list.

Figure 02-04: The first page of my script. I used a two-column format that included a shot list in the left column with the corresponding narration in the right column.

Creating a Shot List

A shot list is a list of all the shots you plan to include in your movie. At a bare minimum, it should include a visual representation of any narrated points and the things you must show to tell your story.

The simple script I created for my cherry harvest movie (refer to Figure 02-04) included a basic shot list—that’s what you see in the left column. You might want to get more detailed and specify how the shots are to be made: “close-up of picker basket,” “zoom out from orchard,” etc. Generally speaking, if you have a specific idea for what you want to include, add it to your shot list.

In my example, the orchard where I would shoot had a long, straight driveway that the trucks came and went on. Right from the start, I knew I wanted to end the movie with a shot of a truck driving away down that road (refer to Figure 02-02. I added it to my shot list so I wouldn’t forget.

Nothing is Set in Stone

Remember, as with everything you’ve done so far, nothing is set in stone. You can make changes at any point in the planning and production process. Storyboarding and creating a shot list are just exercises that will help you develop a solid plan for your movie. Without a plan, it will be difficult to remain focused and finish the job without a lot of extra efforts.

In the next part of this series, we’ll look at Step 3: Shoot the Video.