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Line Producing 101 – The WHAT-HOW-WHO of Budgeting

Greetings! It is with great pleasure that I accept the opportunity to guest blog with Hurlbut Visuals on the topic of budgeting. Shane and I first met on “Terminator Salvation” and now that Hurlbut Visuals is jumping full force into producing, I’ve become their go-to Line Producer.

On the set of "Terminator: Salvation"

On the set of “Terminator: Salvation”

The basic concept of Line Producing is easy: break a script down into its various physical components, discuss with the creative team how these components will be captured on screen and then figure out what each item costs.

Simple enough.

But ask any professional Line Producer in Hollywood how they learned how to make a budget and they’ll simply answer, “You just know.”

For some, however, it may take years to develop that sense of just knowing, by working through the ranks as an AD, Unit Production Manager and Production Supervisor. Developing that sense of “just knowing” how much things cost comes down to filing away every experience and paying attention.

But what about the Independent Producer that wants to make their own movie now without years and years of set experience? How does one actually do a budget?

No matter what size the project is, the process is the same: Figure out the WHAT-HOW-WHO of the script.

The What-How-Who is all you need to know in order to create a budget and schedule that works.

First step is figure out WHAT each item is and HOW much it costs. Then find out what the additional costs are (for example, you could call up Cinemoves and get a standard rate quote for a 50′ Technocrane). Pretty simple.

Oftentimes the result of figuring out what each item is and how much it costs.

Oftentimes the result of figuring out what each item is and how much it costs.

But then you have to keep in mind that the Technocrane is a significant piece of equipment that is more than just one item. It also comes with two techs, a trailer, fuel for the trailer, and possibly travel expenses for the techs, depending on where you are shooting. All the information is out there. Problem solving, logic and anticipation of needs are the basic skills needed for Line Producing.

Now that the WHAT and the HOW of the script is done, the only thing left to figure out is the WHO. It takes a lot of people to make a film. Your average studio feature project employs a crew of about 100-150 during production — a summer blockbuster might require somewhere in the neighborhood of 400+ — whereas a commercial or music video might require 25-40. Knowing the answer to the question of WHO is the part of the puzzle that requires logic and forethought. For example, if there’s only three or four people in your script and they are mostly in one location, then perhaps you won’t need as many Set PAs, Costumers, Props Assistants or G/E crew than if your story requires a military unit running through a crowed street. The HOW will guide you on the number of WHO.

Shane, as you know, is enamored with the Canon 5D and 7D. When it comes to shooting in an HD format rather than film, your first assumption is correct — it is cheaper. However, despite the convenience and portability of the cameras, the scenes should be treated with the same amount of forethought and artistic merit as film. Being a former film-snob, I’ve come to love the 5D and 7D for their ease of use and ability to handle a film-like image for a fraction of the price. When budgeting, don’t forget to throw in some funds for grip and electric or possibly even a remote controlled helicopter. You’ll be surprised at how far a little bit will go when dealing with such awesome advancements in the HD digital world. Use a fraction of the money you’re saving to up the production value and the audience will thank you.

Now that we’ve covered the basics, this blog is open for questions. So tell me: What would you like to know about breaking down a script, budgeting it and the actually making it happen?

 

What questions do you have regarding the WHAT-HOW-WHO scenario?

To be continued next time with a discussion and cost comparison of the Canon 5D/7D vs. 35MM film stock.

-Andrea Vestrand


Is an Independent Line Producer and professional Production Coordinator. She’s been in the “biz” since 1997. Learn more about her here andreavestrand.com
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Author: Andrea

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25 Comments

  1. Hi there, very interesting article and thank you for leaving it open and asking what people would like to know about rather than a closed post.

    My query for a break down would be when dealing with visual fx reliant sections of a script i.e. how to figure out costs for one or multiple vfx companies as well as vfx supervisors & their requirements. To go beyond that, for smaller films were you’d do the visual fx yourself, how to factor in the costs associated with taking on the role yourself.

    Thank you for your time!

    Post a Reply
    • Hi Jack!

      For using companies, you would simply call up several companies, tell them what you need and get some quotes for that type of work. Use your instincts on this, for as you might know, most people will SAY they can do anything but you want to make sure they can provide sample footage.

      The VFF/CGI realm is very popular and full of independent individuals that do this on their own — a simple craig’s list or mandy.com ad will help you find those up and coming folks with talent and skill but who are willing to work for little to nothing.

      Who you use all depends on the how detailed the effect needs to be vs. what you have to spend. VFX is time consuming and therefor costly. How much you will spend depends largely on how much work they have to do.

      However, all the programs used for this type of work are available to the general public and there are slews of online toutorials on how to use the programs. Again, the biggest factors about doing it yourself is time and skill. If you consider your time vaulable, you might just want to cough up the funds to pay someone to do it. If you have nothing but time, then go ahead and do it yourself. Factoring in the costs for doing it yourself is really just a matter of figuring our how much the programs you want to use cost, if you don’t already have them. Other than that, it’s mostly a matter of time on the post side and if you are doing it yourself, you’re probably not paying yourself for your time.

      Now when it comes to the production portion of VFX, there are some things to keep in mind, for example:

      * Do you need a green screen? — Having to use a green screen will take up time in your shooting schedule and you can either find a stage to shoot on or bring in a rig to the location as a backdrop. Traditional green screen work is time consuming both in Production and in Post. In production, the green screen needs to be lit evenly. If you bring one to the location, it will take a good amount of time to get the lighting right. And if there’s any daylight, forget it. There are new technologies out there that allows for easy green screen work out in the field. Learn more here: http://www.reflecmedia.com/video/

      Now, there are some small stages available (especially in L.A.) that are fairly inexpensive to rent and usually these mom and pop shops can be negotiated down to what you have in the budget. Normal rates are about $300-$1000 per day, depending on the size of the stage. Either way you do it, plan for extra time, which does mean extra money — crew payments, equipment rentals and feeding your people for the additional time needed cost money.

      *Perhaps you don’t need a green screen. I once produced a low budget Doritos Commercial for that Superbowl contest thing they do. We had a VFX shot that involved a Dorito growing into a Doritos tree. Besides a small amount of additional art department purchaes, it didn’t end up cost us anything more for the effect. How? Easy — I didn’t need a green screen, so therefore the cost was saved there. I found a VFX guy early on — someone who wasn’t involved with a company but rather spent most of his off time learning how to do these things on his own. He didn’t charge me as he already owned the programs and was looking to build his reel. We provided him with a still plate of the location for about the same time, angle, camera lens and set up that the final shot would be in. He then spent three weeks prior to the shoot working out the details of the tree growth. After production , we gave him the footage so he could combine that with his effect and BOOM! A Dorito Tree was born! (to see the final effect, go here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gcSqngSuPmU) So maybe not Terminator worthy effects but for a total cost of $2000, I say the commercial came out pretty decent. Didn’t win that year… mostly because I think we made a Coke-style commercial and not a Dorito-style commercial. Story IS everything.

      My main point of all this — unless you want to become a VFX person, find someone to do it for you for whatever you have to pay them, if anything. The quality of the work will get better the more you spend but having simple VFX portions of your script does not automatically mean you have to spend a lot of cash. In this industry, finding up and coming talent that is willing to work for practically nothing is fairly easy. Why do something yourself when there are loads of talented people that specialize in these areas, just trying to get their name out there?

      Long-winded but I hope this helps. Best of luck on your projects!
      ~AV

      Post a Reply
  2. The idea of teaching real production practices is of the best things ever in this blog! Thanks, so much.
    I would like to know how the responsibility for determining the “what” and “who” is split among the different departments. Meaning: as a cinematographer, people expect me to provide detailed info on equipment and crew availability for every scene and location of the production or is it a task of the Production Supervisor?

    Post a Reply
    • Hi Henrique,

      Thank you so much for your comments!

      In the pre-production stage, it becomes a little bit of the responsibility of both.

      Early on in prep or even development, the Line Producer breaks down the script and budgets accordingly. It is helpful to know who the DP is early on so that speciality equipment needs can be discussed during the budget stages. Usually, however, that is not the case.

      So what you end up with is a budget done by a bean-counter with little forethought to creative concepts.

      If the script is a basic comedy or drama and the director wants basic two shots and whatnot on a dolly, no problem. But if the script is magical and you, as the DP, want to do some crazy-awesome shots with movement and height and sweeping angles that follow the character from three flights up, through the window and down a tree trunk, well, that’s going to cost some money.

      How the responsibility is usually broken down is like this: A DP tends to know what s/he wants to use equipment-wise. Work long enough with the same companies and they just know that So-and-So usually orders this kind of lens package and that kind of camera and this particular dolly, etc etc. Same with crew. After awhile you’ll have your people — Key Grip, Gaffer and Assistant Camera people. That’s all the crew that you’ll need, no WANT, to worry about. They’re your right and left hand… you should get to pick them.

      It becomes the responsibility of the Production Supervisor to get you what you need to do your shots for what the company has to pay for it. You tell them what you want and they will negotiate with the equipment houses and even your crew to pay what is in the budget already. Sometimes, they have to wrangle you back in with equipment needs but they should do everything possible to balance the difference between what you need and what they have to spend.

      As far as the location needs are concerned — I assume you mean they expect you to know what you need to do when you walk into a location for the first day of shooting there? That is correct and the entire purpose of having a tech scout with ALL the department heads — including your Key Grip and Gaffer. As with anything PLANNING ahead is the key to success.

      Thanks again! Please let me know if you have any follow up questions!
      ~AV

      Post a Reply
  3. Andrea,

    Such awesome advise, I wish I was able to read this post 7 years ago when I was thrown into a position of doing a budget for a tabletop commercial in NYC. I had the task of choosing the studio with 3 days of production shooting. I was an intern at the time but I wish I knew the WHAT-HOW-WHO. I spent tons of time calling, looking at prices online, haggling, and figuring out what each studio would charge in the way of electric and other production needs. People should really pay attention to this because all types of indie productions need to understand that good line producing saves time, money, and frustration.

    Thanks

    -Don

    Post a Reply
    • Thank you, Don! You are absolutely correct — that process of calling around, haggling, figuring out what the additional costs are is EXACTLY what a Line Producer does. Looks like you had a natural instinct for it! :)

      ~AV

      Post a Reply
  4. Tidbits of info like this are priceless.
    Thank you Andrea Vestrand, and Shane Hurlbut.
    I look forward to reading more.

    Post a Reply
    • Thank you, Alex! Feel free to ask anything you might be curious about! We’ve just open this forum up to the entire filmmaking process. Very exciting!
      ~AV

      Post a Reply
  5. So now you know what you want/need after the breakdown right? I’ll use Craft Services on a one day shoot with 10 crew members. I know I will need a rolling breakfast, lunch, dinner and a second meal. It’s simple Call the Craft Services people and ask how much, right? Wrong, because they will ask “but what do you want?” They need to know what you want for breakfast, lunch and dinner/second meal, it is going to be different if you want cereal, sandwiches and pizza, then if you want pastry/egg sandwiches for breakfast, lasagna for lunch and a roast beef dinner etc.. This applies to all areas of budget making knowing exactly what you want before you call is paramount to getting the proper quote for want you need. It’s a quote; you can always modify it later if needed before you sign the contract. Having an idea of what you can spend before you call is always good.

    Andrea, good post in an area we all can use help in.

    Bill

    Post a Reply
    • Hi Bill,
      Oh yes… you are correct in assuming that one should never take the answer of one individual at face value. Even my own advice should be tested, tried and commented upon. This is how we grow as a community.

      From my experience, the actual items of the craft service is something that should be figured out by the craft service individual. Yeah, I could say I want bagels in the morning, chocholate and snacks all day, water and diet coke (oh man, don’t forget the diet coke!) but want makes a good craft service person is their ability to keep the crew interested in the food items for the cost alloted.

      The surefire easiest way to keep a crew happy — even a crew working for free — is to feed them well.

      My advice is to separate your crafty budget from your catering budget and keep it to two different people. Even if you are on a ultra low budget shoot and your lunch consists of Panda Express family meals (ugh), you still want to have one person dealing with getting that and one person making sure there is always coffee, waters and snacks available to the shooting crew. The craft service person has a full time job fulfilling those needs and has to be responsible for it. They need to know that if you’re outside shooting a long scene, your camera peeps are thirsty — take them some water and maybe some snacks.

      Now, how to figure the cost. They are standard industry expectations for the food budgets per person — about $7-$10 per head for crafty and about $10-$14 per head for catering. That’s the easy answer but how to come up with this is simple logic. Say you are throwing a party for 25 of your friends… you know about how many beverages to get, about how much chips and burgers and whatnot to get. I’m sure most people have either thrown a party or have been to a party. The concept is the same — feeding people with enough variety for a limited cost. Spending $200 on a bbq is fairly normal. Spending $200 a day of crafty for 25 crew members is fairly normal.

      My advice — NEVER NEVER NEVER skimp out on the food. You can get people to work for food. If you have limited funds, lower their rates but feed them well and your crew will not complain. Strange, but it’s true.
      ~AV

      Post a Reply
  6. I’d like to know more about using softwares to do the budgeting and scheduling. Never work in the real industry but I have taught myself plenty but still are things I am not clear on.

    Post a Reply
    • Hi Marcus,
      I use both Movie Magic and Point Zero (which is an excel based program). I’ve also created my own excel worksheet budget templates before I had either. Both programs are easy to use and are simple data entry templates. It’s nice because they figure out the union stuff for ya — fringes and payroll taxes, etc. But on a non-union shoot, it’s not a requirement.

      The software is all about making the process easier, but they don’t do the leg work for you. It adds a nice, professional look to your budgets and has the categories set up for you but it’s not at all necessary. You still need to know what numbers to input into the software in order to create the budget.

      If you have a program you are using and are getting a little lost somewhere, let me know how I can help. If you are looking to purchase something and don’t know which is better, my advice would be to play around with making budgets using one of the many free templates available online. If you do a google search for “free film budget template” so great options pop up. Otherwise, Movie Magic is the film industry standard — you can download a free week trial online, if you’d like to play around with it — and Point Zero is the commercial industry standard.

      Thanks!
      ~AV

      Post a Reply
  7. If you wish to get a bid on vfx then contact a vfx producer or vfx supervisor or vfx company.

    As the saying goes, you get what you pay for. You can get someone for free on craigs list but that applies to every other postion on your crew (DP, actors, grips, etc). Remember that while you may ask a favor of someone to help for a day of shooting, a vfx person may have to put in 3 weeks of time to do the work. You’re essentially asking for a bigger favor of the vfx people.

    Saying you can just buy some programs to do it is the same as saying anyone can buy a cheap HDSLR and be your DP. Buy a tape recorder and record the sound. IT’S NOT THE EQUIPMENT OR SOFTWARE THAT DOES THE WORK. You can buy a scalpel but that doesn’t make you a brain surgeon. It takes real skill, knowledge and experience to do vfx well. You should hold the level of the vfx and vfx personel to the same level as the DP and the rest of the project.

    Making up a number for the vfx doesn’t cut it. The studios learned that long ago and now have vfx producers on staff. Producers do not know vfx well enough to determine the methodology and the related costs. Get an expert.

    The worst thing (and most expensive thing) you can do is shoot it and then bring in a vfx person. That’s like shooting it with no sound recordist and then bringing in a sound mixer in post. Contact a vfx person in pre-production so they can plan it and make sure it’s shot correctly.

    Post a Reply
    • Hi Scott,
      Yes, yes yes. All very good advice and really it speaks to the vast amount of levels that Independent Film Making operates at in the modern age.

      The standard variables of Time vs. Quality vs. Cost applies to VFX as well as most things in life — you only get to pick two.

      Say you want the VFX of high quality and quickly… well, that will cost you. Say you want low cost and high quality… well, that will take some time. Keeping these three variables in mind is the ONLY way to go about figuring which angle to take for each particular project.

      Thank you for your comments and insight!
      ~AV

      Post a Reply
  8. Hey Andrea,

    Very interesting post – thanks. My big question would be what you factor in for wiggle room…and who makes that call.

    Does the producer say, “We’ll have two days at this location for this scene,” and is it your job to say, “But Shane likes to over shoot these types of scenes. Should I go three days?” Or is that out of line for you to say, and it’s the producer’s and director’s fault if they dilly-dally?

    Thanks,
    -Christopher

    Post a Reply
    • Hi Chris,
      Good question! First thing to note when working with Shane is that he knows what he wants, what the director wants and how to do it quickly, so with him, it’s never a problem. :)

      Now… with others, this situation comes up often. Planning ahead is key. Being a good producer means knowing what each department needs to get their work done and balancing that with the time and money alloted. All the variables of set up time, shoot time, rehearsal time, location and actor availability are all things that go into making the schedule. The longer the shoot, the more likely that schedule will change.

      Once the schedule is planned and you’re rolling along shooting, then yes, it is the Producers job to make sure the project comes in on or under the budget and within the time alloted. So, if the director is dilly-dallying, or any other department for that matter, then it is the producers job, with the help from the Assistant Directors, to keep the company moving along.

      The second part of this is the “wiggle-room” question. All budgets are made with about a 10% contingency. This is, essentially, a Producer’s financial “wiggle-room” because even the best laid plans can come undone.

      ~AV

      Post a Reply
  9. Thanks for clearing up a rather concise explanation on the Line Producer. It has been hard to find out what it is this role entails. I produce and film in the corporate world and use the HDSLR’s as a personal and financial choice. I love them but I also love the Arri Alexa too, its a no brainer! How would the Line producer’s role within my own working enviroment as a small independent filmmaker Andrea.
    I have come to realise that I should not give any ideas of cost over the phone until the client sends me details but it is wise to have a rough figure ready to give them?

    Post a Reply
    • Hi Gavin,
      You are correct to assume that you cannot discuss any concepts of cost until you have at least the bare bones details. Usually, your client has an idea of what they think they want to spend. I’ve found that getting that information out of them from the get-go is usually difficult but imagine the time you would save budgeting a project if you knew what the client was comfortable spending!

      Each project is so different that it might seem like a no-brainer to say that one project might come in around the same as another and in the corporate world, it might be realistic to assume such things. But in the narrative world — being film, commercials, music videos or whatnot — it all depends on the story the director wants to tell. Something as simple as a director saying they want the camera to be floating throughout will cost more money than them saying they only want harsh static shots.

      Never quote a project until you know what you are dealing with because it will usually be more than you first think.

      ~AV

      Post a Reply
      • Hi Andrea,

        Good stuff, both from you and the question asked.

        As you note, the client/production company always has a budget figure in the back of their head but it’s difficult to get them to tell you what that figure is. I’ve had some success by (truthfully) telling them I’m always on their side and if they let me know what that figure is, I’ll work my tail off to deliver the best possible final product within their budget. It’s like everything else in life, our best work is done when trust is a given.

        Post a Reply
  10. Hi Andrea, thanks for this article. VERY INSIGHTFUL! I had a question, I’m a student filmmaker producing a short film for school. Breaking down the production costs is one thing, but how do we anticipate/prepare for post-production and marketing costs?

    Post a Reply
  11. Hi,

    We also put on the Canon Boot Camps in Burtbank (www.canonbootcamp) and we ran the numbers of the cost of a 35mm film camera package versus a Canon 5D. Our numbers show it to be 85% cheaper to go with the 5D. Happy to send the spreadsheet over to you.

    All the best,

    Fletch
    818 841-9660

    Post a Reply
    • Fletcher Murray, unforunately not the way I roll out the 5D. It is about 40-50% savings
      with Cinema Glass. I think what Andrea was describing was a overall savings of 30-40% because of using a 5D pkg.

      Post a Reply
  12. Hello,

    Thank you so much. This article was great to read.

    I’m currently a film student and very interested into following the route of producing.

    I was just wondering how you managed to get to where you are in the industry and how you began your career? Also, if there was any extra advice you would give to apsiring producers like myself?

    Many thanks,

    Lionelle

    Post a Reply
    • Lionelle, I began my career thinking I was going to be a DJ. Then fell in love with film. Once the bug was in me I never looked back. But I have to say that the film bug was for producing not being a DP. I hated lighting, can you believe that. You never know where you will end up. My advice is to follow your heart, never say die,work harder then everyone else and have a shit load of passion, this will always separate you from the herd.

      Post a Reply

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