Film School: Visual Research

'Always do these 3 Things in Pre-Production!' | Film Riot 'Always do these 3 Things in Pre-Production!' | Film Riot

Techniques for getting yourself and your collaborators on the same page ahead of production.

Film is a visual language – and expressing yourself in that language is not just about what you say, but how you say it. Collecting references is a great way to articulate what you want to express – for you, and for the people you’re working with.

Mood Board

Examples can help to both nourish your vision and communicate that vision to your collaborators – not necessarily literal images from your story, but more general elements: colours, aesthetics, textures, props, costumes, lighting…

Film School: Visual Research
‘Always do these 3 Things in Pre-Production!’ | Film Riot

Stills and Scenes

Many of the best-known films steal from films before them. A great way to prepare is to collect stills and specific scenes from movies that have done things you want to do – or want to do differently:

Film School: Visual Research
‘Always do these 3 Things in Pre-Production!’ | Film Riot

Theme, Character, Tone

Ryan from Film Riot creates individual mood boards and notes for Theme, Character, and Tone. Being thoroughly detailed helps to answer the many, many questions that come up during any production:

  • Theme – informs choices such as locations, production design and overall style
  • Character – personality and past (“who”, outside the story) inform action, dialogue, performance, wardrobe and more (“why”, inside the story)
  • Tone – a playlist to listen to, and a lookbook to look at, to help create a feeling during writing, which in turn informs the other two boards, Theme and Character


This process isn’t only useful for narrative films – documentarian and cinematographer Mark Bone talks through his “three layers of pre-production” (words, images, audio), offers a look at pitch decks and treatments side-by-side with final films, and demonstrates the online resources he uses to create his mood boards:

Further Viewing

More from Mark Bone on creating and working with pitch decks:

In Depth Cine offers A Cinematographer’s Guide To Pre-Production – which doubles as an overall guide to small- or no-crew, micro- or no-budget productions:

What’s the difference between taking inspiration from, stealing from, and adding to the conversation about other movies? We look at ways famous directors reference other films:

When your visuals are in service of a story, it helps to clarify the beats of the story by putting together a beat sheet:

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