Below the Line Positions That Can Make or Break a Movie
The terms above the line and below the line refer to the top sheet of a film budget. According to The Movie Business Book, the above the line costs “…are finalized prior to the start of principal photography,” and include the Writer (or story rights), the Producers and the Director (along with their support staff) and all casting costs, including the Casting Director and the Actors. All the other talent is below the line. The below the line talent is the crew involved with the day-to-day operations of getting the film made and can be broken down between production and post-production.
Everything you see and hear in a movie has been created by below the line talent, from the clothes the Actors wear to the spaceships gliding through space. So in spite of the term suggesting something “lowly,” below the line talent is just as critical to filmmaking as above the line talent. That is why the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognizes these crucial players during their yearly Oscars ceremony. But on top of that, there are other important players that are below the line who are vital to the filmmaking machine. Below is an overview of department heads, who, if they aren’t eligible for an Oscar, should get a Badge of Honor.
Below the line positions typically include:
- Line Producer
- Assistant Director
- Production Designer
- Costume Designer
- Hair and Makeup
- Production Sound Mixer
- Script Supervisor
- Sound Mixer
- Visual Effects Supervisor
Let’s start with the Line Producer. Though the Line Producer’s “line” usually falls within the production costs and is technically below the line, the Line Producer pretty much is the line. Once the project has been developed, it is the Line Producer who calculates the below the line costs and oversees all the day-to-day operations of a film from pre-production through wrap. Additionally, it is the Line Producer’s responsibility to make sure the film is finished on time and within budget. Talk about high stress!
The Assistant Director, aka the AD, runs the set. While the Director has the vision, it is the AD who coordinates all the elements needed to shoot each scene. The AD is brought in during pre-production and helps breakdown the script and determine the most efficient way to shoot it, coordinating with all departments to clarify their needs. During production, The AD must keep a vigilant eye on time and make sure the crew stays on schedule — which includes the Director! Definitely worth of a Badge of Honor.
The Cinematographer, sometimes called the Director of Photography, is responsible for the overall look of the film from a camera perspective. This includes lighting, framing, camera movement, etc. The Camera Operator, the Grips, Gaffers, and Electricians all work under the Cinematographer.
The Production Designer is responsible for everything that the Cinematographer shoots. From the use of color to deciding on locations, the Production Designer is concerned with pushing the visual narrative, and the role of physical space. What does a location say about the characters who live in them? What clues can be put in the environment to add layers to the story? The Production Designer creates the artistic look of a film and must collaborate with many departments — props, costume, construction, and camera — to do so.
Everything you see and hear in a movie has been created by below the line talent, from the clothes the Actors wear to the spaceships gliding through space. So in spite of the term suggesting something “lowly,” below the line talent is just as critical to filmmaking as above the line talent. That is why the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognizes these crucial players during their yearly Oscars ceremony.
The Costume Designer collaborates with the Production Designer and is responsible for what the characters wear. The most obvious costume design is seen in period films, but a Costume Designer is just as critical on a present-day film. How people dress is an expression of who they are, so a Costume Designer must understand character, and each outfit they put on an Actor should have meaning and support the visual story.
Hair and Makeup
Hair and Makeup are also integrated into production design and costume design. How much makeup an Actor might wear or how her hair is styled must reflect the character and flow with the look of the film. Hair and makeup must also follow the script and keep makeup consistent through principal photography, even though most films are shot out of order.
Another category in the Makeup Department is special effects makeup. These guys often work with prosthetics and fake blood. For example, prosthetics can be used to make a character look more like a historical figure, or to create something like a monster or alien.
Production Sound Mixer
The Production Sound Mixer, sometimes referred to as the Sound Engineer, is responsible for recording all the production sound in a movie. This includes the dialog and other sounds that you hear on screen – car engines turning on or off, ambient sounds, the Judge slamming the gavel down, etc. It also includes getting room tone, (an important tool for post-production) in which the entire crew stands still and doesn’t make a sound for at least 30 seconds…but feels like an eternity for a time-crunched crew.
The Script Supervisor can usually be found right next to the Director, taking detailed notes and ensuring continuity from take to take. The notes will include which character’s lines are on screen and what kind of coverage the Director is getting. Each time the camera resets to do another setup or take, the Script Supervisor also makes sure that the Actors repeat their action the same way – for example, putting a coat on right arm first or sipping a drink with the handle turned left. These notes are all intended for the Editor. At the end of each day, the Script Supervisor sends her notes to the Editor to let them know what has been shot and what still needs to be shot, so the Editor doesn’t start a scene before they have all the footage.
Though editing is mostly a part of post-production, the Editor is usually brought on during principal photography (production) to edit the scenes together as they are shot to ensure that the footage is, indeed, working and to anticipate any extra coverage they might need to get. The Editor is responsible for watching the footage, choosing the best takes and piecing the visual story together.
Some people know right away that the Costume Department is where they want to be, or that post-production sound turns them on, but not everyone has such a clear path. It’s okay to make discoveries as you go through film school or after you land your first job on set.
The Composer is the one who takes home the Best Original Score Oscar. Though a Composer is often consulted early in the process to start thinking about themes and moods for the film, they are usually brought in once the movie is cut together and do their real magic once the picture is locked (completely finished). The Composer works with the Director to decide where music cues should be, and writes and records the score.
Supervising Sound Mixer
Overall, this might be the most misunderstood department. The Oscars have two post-sound categories: Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing but there are even more elements to these post-sound categories. Let’s talk about the main credits we usually see on a film. The Supervising Sound Mixer supervises the overall post-sound team and according to Sopan Deb, in his New York Times article, “[S]ound editing is about collecting the sounds needed for a film. Sound mixing refers to what is done after they are collected.” So take a movie that has spaceships and growling monsters — the Sound Editor would collect the sounds (sound design) and the Sound Mixer would mix those sounds with the dialog and the music.
Visual Effects Supervisor
The Visual Effects Supervisor, aka VFX Supervisor, is responsible for all the visual effects on a film. They are usually brought on as early as possible and stay until the bitter end of post-production. They start by breaking down the script to see what VFX are needed and discuss with the Director and the Producers the best way to achieve them. This can be anything from green screen scenes or motion capture to shooting miniatures or simply removing signs of the modern world for a period film. A VFX Supervisor works very closely with all departments and the more “world-building” there is, the more collaboration there is with the Production Designer.
Finding Your Career Path
I can’t say everyone starts their film career below the line because some people have been known to forego it altogether. But many do, and it’s not only where they learn the ropes, it’s where they meet fellow filmmakers and make lifelong professional relationships. On the other hand, staking out a career below the line can be a very smart choice. Writing, directing, producing, and certainly acting aren’t for everyone. Some people know right away that the Costume Department is where they want to be, or that post-production sound turns them on, but not everyone has such a clear path. It’s okay to make discoveries as you go through film school or after you land your first job on set. It’s okay to wander the departments as a Production Assistant before you know where you fit in. It’s also okay to think you want to direct and discover what you really like is production design.
Directors depend on below the line talent, and most of them expect their department heads to have a vision and are inspired by creative partners. You can have a very illustrious career below the line. That’s why The Academy hands out the Oscars. And they may not hand out a statue for it, but I challenge anyone to make a film without an AD or a strong Line Producer. These positions are the backbone of production and hold the line for everyone up above.
- Squire, Jason E (2016). The Movie Business Book. Routledge. Retrieved 16 September 2019.
- Deb, Sopan (2 March 2018). “Confused by Sound Mixing vs. Sound Editing? We’ve Got You.” The New York Times. Retrieved 16 September 2019.
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