Creating the perfect shot list before filming a video

Checking the shot list before shooting

Your shot list is one of the most important documents in your movie production process. It has implications for your shooting schedule, your gear list, and your location choices. If your goal is to successfully complete a film shoot, you’ll need to learn to wield a shot list. Don’t stress, it’s just a spreadsheet.

Here’s what you need to know about shot lists.

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What is a shot list?

Film production is all about organization. Without a detailed plan of when and how each part of your movie or video is filmed, you’ll wind up wasting a lot of time.

That’s where your shot list comes in. Much like it sounds, your shot list is a planning document that goes through every setup in your project shot-by-shot and lays out everything you and your crew need to know to make it happen. From there, you can create a shooting schedule, draft call sheets, adjust your budget, and call in whatever favors you need to create your magnum opus. Having a shot list also makes postproduction easier later on since your editor can use it to reference which pieces go where when they’re assembling the finished product.

What’s on a shot list?

The exact elements of your shot list will likely differ depending on the complexity and type of shoot. A shot list for a one-man film shoot on a phone will have a simpler setup than those for the Michael Bays of the world, who probably have a whole column just for explosions.

To give you a sense of the core elements of a shot list, these are some of the basics you’ll want to consider including:

  1. Scene and shot number. This one is a must, since it’s more or less the entire reason the shot list exists. A typical organizational method is for each scene to have a number and each shot within that scene to have a letter so that each shot name is “scene number, shot number” — for example, shot 2A would refer to the first shot (A) of the second scene (2).
  2. Shot description. You should include a quick overview of what’s happening in the shot so you don’t get lost in the alphanumeric soup of your shot numbers.
  3. Shot size. This is essential since your shot type and size (i.e., wide shot vs. medium shot vs. close-up) has implications for choices like lens type and lighting.
  4. Camera movements. Whether it’s a simple pan or a soaring, high-drama drone shot, if your camera moves, you’ll want to note how it moves.
  5. Any relevant gear or tech. Include what gear you need to get the shot right. If you have a dolly shot but forget your dolly, some unlucky crew member may have to commandeer a shopping cart. Your gear notes should also include more basic things, like what kind of lens you’ll be shooting with.
  6. Talent. Unless your movie is the gripping tale of two empty chairs, jot down which of your actors you’ll need.
  7. The where and when. Your location and shooting time make a big difference to your schedule. You can’t shoot a sunset kiss at noon, and you can’t have a shootout in a restaurant at 8 p.m. if the restaurant only gave you permission until 5.
  8. Sound. Sound is an essential part of any movie, and you’ll need to know how you’re capturing it. What equipment do you need and where?
  9. Any extra notes. Some shots might have miscellaneous notes for the cast and crew, but include these sparingly. You should organize as much of the shot information as possible so your crew can reference it at a glance instead of wading through paragraphs of notes.

How to make a shot list

My colleague Tiffani Bauer is a video producer at Descript who knows her way around creating a shot list thanks to working on numerous shorts and sketches. Here are the tips she has for the newbies among us:

  1. Start with the storyboard. “I like to visualize the shots a little more…and then I create the shot list off of the storyboard,” Tiff says. Filmmaking is a visual medium, so it will likely be easier for you to describe more technical elements like camera angles and lens types once you’ve figured out what the movie looks like in your mind.
  2. Devise an organizational scheme for yourself. Even if you find a shot list template you like, don’t be afraid to play around with it so it reads in a way you’re comfortable with. “Everyone has a different preference [for] how they want their shot lists organized and what makes sense to them,” Tiff says. In her case, she finds it useful to include space for her storyboard thumbnails so she can visualize the action.
  3. Create a plan and then be ready to adjust it. Since filmmaking has so many moving parts, Tiff recommends creating the first draft of your shot list on your own before involving other members of the crew. Then, “consider talking to whoever’s shooting it to get information on how long they think setups will take,” Tiff says. In other words, do your best to come up with a plan that works for everyone.
  4. When in doubt, include more. “You can’t be too detailed on the shot list,” Tiff advises. And when in doubt, shoot more than you think you require. Nobody knows what chaos might erupt on your shooting day, but if you’re prepared, you and your intrepid crew can probably weather the worst of it and deliver what your editor needs.
  5. Prioritize ruthlessly. On the other hand, you have limited time to actually capture all the footage you need, so if and when you hit a time crunch, you’ll want to know what’s cuttable. That’s why Tiff recommends ordering your shot list in a way that ensures coverage of the big stuff. “Realistically, you want to do your master shots first…You do one big setup, and then you go in for your more detailed shots,” she says. “If there’s a cool insert shot that you think would be great but it’s a ‘nice-to-have,’ if you start running half an hour behind, you gotta be ready to let go of it.”

Final thoughts

Coming up with a final shot list design that works for you is a matter of trial and error, so don’t be discouraged if your first shoot hits a few snags. Knowing how to create a shot list isn’t the sexiest of skills, but it is one of those fundamental abilities that makes the rest of your life — and your crew’s life — a whole lot easier.

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