In my approach, Pre-Production gets divided into five area of consideration, which I help students remember via the acronym FRESH: file management, research, equipment, storyboarding, and heuristics. While file management is a first-order consideration, the areas themselves are not intrinsically hierarchical; rather, they often work in concert (if not recursively) to inform and guide the coming production.
One of the best ways to minimize student frustration on any digital project is to stress the importance of file management. Students routinely cannot locate files or forget what they named them (or don't know which layer refers to which thing), and the majority of these kinds of tensions and issues can be avoided altogether by paying attention to file management. As such, I begin each project with a conversation on the types of files students are likely to work with and a brief guide (i.e., architecture) for managing those files. More specifically, I tell students to first create a folder on the desktop (or in the cloud) and put everything in that one folder: media assets, project files, etc.; second, I recommend students (a) create a subfolder for each media type (video, audio, image, etc.) or (b) identify the media type as the first element of their file naming system (e.g., video_sarahinterview_camera2.mov); third, I encourage them to establish a file naming system that is easily reproducible and could be followed by any potential collaborators (I tend to use file type, file name, descriptor, and iteration, but I let each student determine what works best for them); and fourth, I stress (if not require) that students name all layers or tracks or similar project components as they bring them into the production. In many ways, internal naming conventions are just as important as the file names themselves, and in both cases a bit of attention at the beginning can dramatically improve the overall efficiency of student workflows.
In this framework research encompasses a variety of inquiry practices: ranging from issues related to the topical content of the project to the multitude of considerations for production and post-production activities. Thus, in a traditional sense, this includes standard research activities of identifying source material, taking notes and analyzing the work (and words) of others, and synthesizing the rich array of findings across media artifacts (print articles and books, webtexts and social media posts, etc). But this also includes the plethora of considerations that go into digital fieldwork or network-based media asset accumulation.
- For fieldwork, students might need to research what they can and cannot record, who might be a good interview subject (and how to contact them/set up an interview), what the restrictions are on recording people or places or activities (and whether they need IRB approval), and so on. This phase might also include the research work of finding a suitable location for audio/video capture, discovering which equipment works best for the different approaches, engagements, and contexts for production related to one’s project, or learning which software is likely best for supporting their vision (and/or learning how to use that software in some effective capacity).
- For media asset accumulation, this research stage may include learning how to access or download copies of assets, how to store or manipulate various asset types, or even learning about copyright issues and creative commons licensing.
These are just some of the base considerations as each DL/DC activity or project is likely to invite its own unique array of pre-production considerations that involve students doing research. What I especially like about this orientation, however, is that it situates the act of research as being far more than just looking up texts online or working with library database searches. These are, of course, important considerations in their own right, but research itself is far more integral to a wider range of critical and creative activities and takes place in relation to people and places and policies just as much as in relation to printed books and journals.
Equipment & Setup
While some of the equipment considerations will be covered under the research component, this element is meant to focus students’ attention on (a) the specific material items involved (audio recorders, video cameras, smart-phones-as-production material [and related applications], lighting equipment, etc.), and (b) the technical practices associated with setting-up and using those material objects (e.g., proximity of the microphone to maximize the record quality, 3-piece lighting set-up, etc.). And here it is important to note that I typically do not provide students with this information or know-how; rather, I ask them to include these considerations as part of their research engagement and then to talk with me as discrepancies or inconsistencies arise. Further, I don’t always have a ready answer for their specific issues, but together we can often figure out a conditional solution—and this to me is almost as important as students discovering industry standard practices for equipment and set-up. For example, a 3-light set is great if one has three lights and requisite stands (and space) for that approach, but if not, then how might one accomplish similar lighting effects using a window, a lamp, and some tinfoil?
Storyboarding is, in many ways, part of the invention process of any given project and is akin to outlining an argument for an essay or for oral delivery. But where this is specifically helpful with media projects, as opposed to traditional topical outlines or workflow documents, is that storyboards ask students to integrate the development of content within the steps of operation and sequences of representation—identifying workflows, materials, processes, representation, content, meaning, and the like. It’s the difference between reading the dialogue of a play and being the director of the play—where what is at stake is more than just the scripted content and instead includes a larger realization of the work (from set to timing to costumes, etc.). Storyboarding, then, is a technique for having students take these larger complexities into consideration as they begin imagining their work and thinking through their projects (and specifically grounding that thinking in the doing of their project).
There are, of course, a variety of storyboard templates available for students to use, and a quick Google search will return an abundance of examples that work for any number of projects (from podcasts to video creations, among others). But my own preference is that storyboards include the following elements: identifying information for the project and the specific storyboard use/scene/moment (e.g., project title, storyboard number, sequence identifier [scene/shot or time marker], etc.), a set plan (materials and setup for visual or audio production), a framing description (of the scene or content), action plans (production guides/ideas), and the key elements or take-aways this component intends to add to the project (which forces students to situate the storyboard itself within the context of the project and its intended meanings).
Heuristics (and heuretics)
Heuristics (and its related cousin heuretics) ask students to use the potential evaluative criteria for a project as an operative guide and/or to think about the inventive practices associated with a given media/platform/approach. Of course, most students see the grade as the end goal rather than understanding the project itself as having value and/or driving the needs of the work. As such, it is, in many ways, easier for students if you just have clearly identified evaluative criteria that can serve as de facto inventive guides (heuristics). But for a richer array projects that often posses a wider range of complexities, you might try grounding the students in inventive (heuretic) considerations. Which is to say, rather than determining the form of and evaluative criteria for a project, have student ideas themselves shape the form and function of the project, with the project's central idea, thesis, or purpose guiding invention and assessment directly. In this orientation, the content, the exigence, and the media all work together to find a critical mode and means of expression. For example, as their focus students might want to raise awareness of an issue on campus (e.g., sexual violence) and so they imagine the different kinds of projects and platforms that could be used (creating an infographic, making a public service announcement, building a website, etc.); then, as part of that process, they work to situate the ways in which those kinds of things (infographic, PSA, etc.) create meaning and/or establish their value. These latter considerations, in turn, come to operate as evaluative criteria (intrinsic to the project itself), and students can then see how the inventive process (i.e., the heuretic act) can generate the very heuristics necessary for meaningful assessment.