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Take One - Preproduction: Props, Costume and Makeup

In the final days as we build up to our shoot, we now have to consider everything else which will be needed before filming can go ahead.


The first of these is to acquire all the props. Now it may appear that your film doesn’t have any props at all, but I would suggest that you need to think again.

Read the script through once again with “props” at the forefront of your mind. Yes, I know, by now you may be so familiar with your script that you are sick to death of it, but remember, you have been reading it previously as the writer or as a location scout. As the writer you will have been looking to improve the characterisation or the dialogue and as a location scout your thoughts will be on: “Where are we going to shoot this?” You will probably have not given a second thought to checking out your prop list.

Everything which your actors will be using in the film, are going to be listed here. Get a pen and a piece of paper and read the script carefully! It’s amazing how something can slip through the net.

In the early Summer of 2002, our comedy Someone Special was in pre-production. I was compiling my props list and was amazed at the number of items which would be required to make this film.

The opening scene stated: “Keith is washing his car and his wife Clarissa is tending to the house plants on the patio.” My list thus began: “Plastic Bucket, Sponge, Cloths, Car Polish, House-plants in pots, Baby Bio, Watering can…”

After this opening scene, the couple load their car and set off on a camping holiday. So the list continued: “Tent, Sleeping bags, Utensils, Water bottle…” and so on.

Eventually, the total list covered an entire side of an A4 piece of paper. As the film was a comedy, with many visual gags, this necessitated many more props than is usually the case.

When such a list is complete, you will then have to check to see what you already own and what you will have to borrow or buy. Most everyday items can be found in your own home, but often you will need to ask around for certain things which are not readily available. In our case, the tent had to be borrowed, as were one deckchair and one fold-up chair. Two pairs of “funny” pyjamas were acquired from charity shops and these can be an ideal source for cheap “costumes”.

As most locations are several miles from home, it is a good idea to gather all your props together and check them off the list as they are loaded into the car. As no method yet devised is foolproof, often you will find that something essential will be left behind.

The camping scene was set up on three separate occasions and each time everything had to be in exactly the same place. Our props were checked off each time, including camera equipment and accessories. However, on shoot 3 we discovered that the tent pegs were missing. The prop list just said “Tent”, which was present and correct as were the tent poles but alas, no pegs! To enable the shoot to go ahead, we gathered a few twigs from under nearby hedges, which held the tent up, long enough to get some scenes, “in the can”.

A good idea is to take along some sticky tape, string and safety pins etc., for emergency repairs.


Costumes are not only needed for period dramas, anything the actors wear are costumes, even if these are their own everyday clothes.

Some thought needs to be given to the style of dress your actors will adopt, as this will help convey a persons’ character. As amateur movies are usually quite short, some stereotyping is unavoidable but can also be an advantage.

Therefore an unshaven actor with greasy, untidy hair and wearing dirty clotheswill offer the audience instant clues as to his character. This obviously saves us precious screen time as preconceived ideas will come into play.

Costumes should therefore be seen as another weapon in the armoury of film language, which can be used to quicken the pace and advance our narrative.

As mentioned above, trawling around charity shops can be a useful exercise when looking for a source of cheap clothing for our actors to wear. As a side-note it is worth mentioning that often when buying a totally outlandish item such as a hat, a helpful volunteer has remarked: “What a lovely hat. Are you going to a wedding?” Best not to mention that this is a comedy film we are making and the hat was the most ridiculous one we could find!

Often someone in the cast or crew can help with clothing and also theatrical hire shops can be useful. These are often fairly inexpensive and can be a lifesaver when something unusual is needed.

One point worth mentioning when choosing clothes, is that it is best to avoid strong colours, especially red! Although many of us now shoot on digital equipment and colour bleed which is very annoying on VHS copies (and can even show up on S-VHS sometimes) could be considered to be a thing of the past, this tends to be the format which copies of our movies will end up on for many people who only have a standard video recorder. So avoid red clothes.


Make-up has been used a number of times in our films. Of course, it is standard practice on TV and in professional films to use make-up on everyone, but amateurs rarely do.

Make-up, therefore, is usually confined to “special effects make-up” such as cuts, bruises, bloody wounds and so on. Blood nowadays can be found in joke shops as well as in some costume hire shops and this can look very good. Home made blood can be quite tricky and often looks like what it is, tomato ketchup. Experimentation can lead to some realistic looking blood and a mixture of poster paint with everyday kitchen ingredients including food colouring, can sometimes save the day.

In the scene in Someone Special where Keith is stung by Bees, Carol applied blotches from her make-up bag to create the right “look”, without overdoing it.

Of course it can be argued that for comedies, costumes and props do not have to be perfect, but it can be so easy to go overboard and kill the humour. I have learnt that subtlety is best. Let the actors and the script be funny. Don’t rely on a “funny” look for the laughs!

In a serious drama, every element is even more critical and it only takes one mistake to ruin the illusion of reality, which we are painstakingly creating.

Finally, check your script against the list. Is everything ready?

As we approach the next vital stage, the actual shooting of our film, a schedule will be needed to plan when actors and locations are available, which scenes will be shot on which days and an estimate of how many filming sessions will be needed.

A question which I have been asked many times is:

“How long does it take to make a film?”

These is no simple answer to that one, as every film is different.

So many factors will dictate the time each stage will take to complete. The more complex and lengthy the script, the number of locations used and the more personnel you have involved, the longer it will all take.

As amateurs, we are making our movies in our spare time, in our case, usually at weekends. Therefore, as we all have other commitments beyond film making, you will find that as your cast and crew grow in number, so does the complexities of finding a suitable schedule which will please everyone!

In The Power of Three, a supernatural movie which we made last year, one actress was free to film midweek, but found weekends difficult. Another actress, who had several scenes with the first, worked for 6 days a week and preferred filming to take place on Sundays. Several of the cast had plays to rehearse for and full or part time jobs to work around. In addition, the house that was used as our primary location was vacant on certain dates but unavailable at other times.

A complex grid of squares was drawn on a piece of paper, with days and dates along one side and a mass of initials, ticks and crosses in the boxes to show what could be filmed and when, including notes such as “Prefers morning…”, or “Only available for 2 hours…”

Eventually, what started out as a wide range of options was gradually whittled away until only a few possibilities remained. After a set date, we would enter the holiday season, which would involve long delays and horrendous continuity problems involving suntans and changes in hairstyles. All lots of fun for the amateur film maker.

Therefore I would advise as much flexibility as possible when planning your shoot.

As a rough guide, allow one day for every three pages of script, though of course this will depend on many other factors which will be discussed in part five of the series.

“The shoot”.

- By Ken Wilson (first published in FVM)

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Page updated on 11 October 2011
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