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Actress sitting in chair with lights on set

Actress

Male and female Actors getting out of limo on the red carpet

Actor

Gaffer aiming light on set

Gaffer

Female executive producer making a deal on her cell phone as she walks through the city

Executive Producer

Male Cinematographer shooting on location

Cinematographer

Showrunner in meeting with his production team

Showrunner

Production Assistant looking at footage on camera

Production Assistant

Choreographer teaching a dance in studio

Choreographer

Best Boy Grip adjusting lighting on set

Best Boy

Key Grip working on lights on film set

Key Grip

Foley artist in his sound studio

Foley Artist

Black female Screenwriter writing at home

Screenwriter/TV Writer

Colorist showing her editing suite to a coworker

Colorist

Armorer showing actress how to shoot a gun

Armorer

Associate producer wearing headphones on set

Associate Producer

Actors on set that showcases a 19th century production design

Production Designer

Line Producer running through the budget with an older film development executive

Line Producer

Producer talking on her phone in her office

Producer (Film)

Director of Photography looking at camera on set

Director of Photography

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Entertainment Lawyer

Film production is the part of the movie-making process that likely most people think of when the creation of films is brought up.

Bright lights on set. A camera getting prepped to film. Actors finding their spots for a scene. The Director discussing what’s needed for the shot. And of course, the iconic “action!” or “cut!” that is called out at the beginning or end of each take.

But beyond those cursory images, film production encompasses a host of people and tasks fundamental to the making and putting together what we eventually call a movie.

And we’re here to break down those roles and processes!

Film Production: A Definition (and Some FAQs)

What does production mean in film?

Anna Keizer

Production is the stage of the filmmaking process where the story described in a script is actualized with the filming of each scene depicted in it.

It’s the part of making movies that involves the use of Actors on location or on set whose performances of the action and dialogue dictated in the script are captured for later assemblage in post-production.


What is the difference between film production and principal photography?

Anna Keizer

In a word, nothing. Film production and principal photography are essentially interchangeable terms so long as the person using them understands the distinction between film production and the other stages of filmmaking, such as pre-production and post-production.

Film production is sometimes used as a catch-all phrase for the entire process of making a movie, which can get confusing to others who understand it correctly as the same stage as principal photography.

As long as you use the term film production to denote the creative execution phase of making a movie, you can use it or principal photography when talking about this phase with others.


How much does it cost to make a movie?

Anna Keizer

Oh boy, big question.

To be honest, it is possible to make a film for free. If a filmmaker calls in favors so that cast and crew are working pro bono with food and other requisite items donated for the shoot, the cost might be negligible. But… This scenario is really only feasible for small projects like a student film or an ultra low-budget short.

The films backed by a production company or studio with an established cast and crew that eventually get distributed via theaters or streaming or both often come with a hefty price tag. The unfortunate truth is that making movies is generally very expensive… like millions of dollars expensive.

All those superhero movies of the last two decades tend to lead the pack in cost largely because of the A-list Actors, huge sets, and extensive visual effects that are typically part of them. One of the more recent, Spider-Man: Far From Home, came in at a modest $160 million. However, Avengers: Endgame more than doubled that figure with $356 million1.

While those figures represent the very upper echelon of filmmaking budgets, in most cases film production is the most expensive part of making a movie regardless of overall budget.


How long does film production last?

Anna Keizer

Much like the question of what it costs to make a movie, the duration of film production can vary wildly from one project to the next. A small student film? Maybe just a single day. A full-scale, studio-backed blockbuster? Perhaps several months.

That being said, even the huge films will likely have executives behind the scenes trying to cut down the film production time to the absolute minimum, as each day of production can mean potentially thousands if not millions of dollars spent.


What should you study for film production?

Anna Keizer

It’s probably pretty clear that film production involves the expertise of many, many professionals, each with a distinct role on set.

The good news: If you’re curious about a career in film production, there’s likely a facet of it that would suit your particular interests and skillsets.

More good news: Many film schools have become specialized with programs created for several concentrations, from directing to cinematography to production design and more.

As with nearly any part of the filmmaking industry, going to school to learn one of these specialties is not a must. However, it can make it a bit easier to gain the skillsets that can get you hired once out of school. Plus, formal study can put you in touch with both peers and established industry professionals who can help to propel your future career.

If you decide to forego college or university for film, you should look for Production Assistant positions or internships that can help you gain the skills and knowledge you need for your preferred specialty. Either way, don’t forget to always be networking! The saying of “it’s who you know” is absolutely true when it comes to the film industry.

Where Production Falls in the Stages of Filmmaking

Because film production is so often associated with making movies as a whole, some might be surprised that it comprises only a single stage of the five-part process.

1. Development

No script, no movie. That’s why the stages of filmmaking always begin with development. This phase is named as such because it’s when the script is developed… Characters are fleshed out, plot lines are clarified, themes are strengthened.

If a Writer is hired to write a screenplay–as opposed to having a preexisting script, also called a spec script, bought by a production company or studio–the development process becomes even more involved. Whether it’s the tweaking of an existing script or the entire creation of one, the development process can last from months to years.

2. Pre-production

Often once a project hits the pre-production phase where the involved parties begin to prep for principal photography, the timeline speeds up. This is generally the case because all of a sudden you have dozens if not hundreds of people hired to prepare for production… And that can get expensive. As a result, pre-production might go on for a few weeks to a few months.

3. Film Production

Film production begins once the camera rolls. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that pre-production and film production can overlap, just as film production can overlap with post-production.

For instance, the Casting Department might still be looking for Actors in minor roles even while other scenes are getting shot. Likewise, the Editor, who is part of the post-production crew, may begin cutting together footage while the film production crew is still shooting other scenes.

4. Post-production

In many ways, post-production is simply the assemblage of the raw materials, namely the visual and audio files, captured during film production. These materials may also be married with other elements, such as visual effects created via computer and the music dreamed up by the Composer on the project.

Depending on when the production company or studio wants to release the film, the post-production crew will typically have several months to perhaps a half-year to shape the film for audiences to view.

5. Distribution

So much of what is involved in the filmmaking process has largely remained the same for the last century. Not so much with distribution. The last decade in particular has seen widespread changes in what we call the distributing of a film.

Once reserved solely for movie theaters, distribution now includes any number of streaming platforms that may premiere a film simultaneously with its arrival in a theater. For this reason, distribution in theaters has also considerably shortened in duration of time, going from months to perhaps a few weeks.

Who Works in Film Production?

Some film professionals might work on a project for a single day. Others, perhaps years.

Moreover, the group of people who we call a film production crew might also have roles during the development, pre-production, post-production, and distribution phases.

With that said, let’s discuss some of the main players in film production!

The roles described below comprise the central figures who are typically part of a film production crew. However, depending on the nature of the project–is it a super indie film or a huge blockbuster movie?–will certainly impact who is hired for it.

In the instances where there’s a tight budget, some individuals might wear multiple hats, or the lead figures may decide to forego having someone in a particular position. In contrast, the bigger the budget, generally the more specialized the roles and larger the crew.

Producer

A film might have one Producer or several dozen, each with a different responsibility on the project. In general, though, a Producer of any type is tasked with making sure the film gets made. Period.

They take a supervisory role and typically are the individual who hires everyone else on the film. For this reason, it’s the Producer who is usually the first person on the project and the last one to move on from it.

Director

After the Producer, it’s the Director who often is attached to a project for the longest duration of time. If they’re strictly a Director for hire, they may very well be present for just mostly the film production phase with a bit of overlap into both pre-production and post.

That being said, this role can be involved as early as the development of the script all the way through post-production. As a result, their direction of the Actors on set is just one facet of this role with multiple responsibilities.

Actors

In theory, you could have a film with just a single Actor, but in most cases, you’ll have a few to a dozen to perhaps a hundred professionals hired to perform in a movie.

Should they come on board a project as strictly an Actor (as opposed to those who may also produce on a movie), an Actor will be part of a film for mostly the principal photography phase and possibly part of pre-production should there be rehearsals prior to actual filming.

Cinematographer

The Cinematographer is the person responsible for the way a movie is filmed. Shots captured, lenses chosen, cameras used, lighting configurations set up… All of these elements of filmmaking are the purview of the Cinematographer.

But this professional doesn’t simply show up on the first day of shooting to do their job. They too will be a major figure in the pre-production phase, as they will work closely with the Director in making the decisions of how the project will look on film.

Production Designer

But what will the Cinematographer be capturing during the shoot? Is it a medieval village? A space colony from the future? Something in-between? It’s up to the Production Designer to make sure that the world described in the script is faithfully brought to life for the film.

And like the role of the Cinematographer, it takes time and preparation to successfully ready that world for production, which is why the Production Designer will be a central figure during both pre-production and production.

Costume Designer

Even if the world of the film is not one set in the past or imaginary future, the realism of it can only be achieved with costumes that work in harmony with the production design.

The Costume Designer is responsible for achieving this feat, and again, that person will be part of the project starting in pre-production and continuing through the completion of film production.

Hair & Makeup Artist (HMU)

An Actor doesn’t just slip on their costume and walk on set for their scenes. Rather, to complete the look of that figure in the story, there’s hair and makeup to be done! And depending on the nature of the story, these elements can be quite extensive. (Think Zoe Saldana’s depiction of Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy.)

For this reason, the Hair and Makeup Artist, also called the HMU, will generally come on board a project during the pre-production phase to work out the look of each character and stay on until the final scene is wrapped.

Sound Recordist

Often the emphasis in film production is how the movie will look, but the audio captured on set (dialogue, ambient noise, sound effects) are just as important. And it’s the Sound Recordist who takes on this responsibility.

Though often any part of the audio can be rerecorded or created in post, that means extra time and money spent. As a result, the role of the Sound Recordist in film production should not be underestimated.

How Does Film Production Work?

The following provides a general idea of the main undertakings on a film set. Some are carried out daily, and some happen only periodically. Often they are happening at the same time!

Performance direction

Many people have come to identify the collaboration between Director and Actors as the main component of film production–and for good reason. Without great performances, you can’t have a great movie.

But every Director is different. Some go through extensive rehearsals and walk the Actors through each shot. Others are fairly hands-off and give direction only when asked for it.

Camera and lighting setup

With every single shot comes the set-up of the camera and lighting. This often takes up the greatest amount of time on set, as a camera that’s out of focus or a dimly lit set means a wasted shot, so the individuals in charge of these elements will want to make sure they have it perfectly configured before the first take.

Costume and HMU preparation

To cut down on the downtime that the Actors might have before the day starts or between shots, they’ll often get their hair, makeup, and costuming addressed so that they’re ready to go the moment that the Director calls them to set.

Set dressing

A single set might be used for days at a time, which might mean that it’s dressed for filming only once, minus the replacement of props in their proper place and other minor tasks at the end of each day.

Other times, the production team might be using several sets during the course of one shooting day, which means that the production team will be busy making sure each is ready to go once it’s time to shoot with them.

Scene filming

Between readying the Actors, prepping the set, and getting the camera and lighting equipment into just the right place, it will finally be time to shoot a particular shot.

That shot might last mere seconds or several minutes, depending on the shooting style of the Director. They might also wrap a shot in one take or several dozen. All to say that the actual shooting part of film production can be considerably shorter than any other facet of it.

Sound capture

With rare exceptions, the sound of any given shot, whether that’s dialogue, ambient noise, a special effect, or another type of sound, will be recorded along with the visual images. So with every call out of “action!” or whatever phrase or word the Director likes to use, both the camera and sound equipment will be rolling.

Location changes

Most movies require the use of more than one set or location. To save on time and money, the film production crew will typically shoot everything they need to capture on film in a particular location before moving on to the next.

But once it’s time to move on, it might mean several hours or even days before the next shot can be filmed, as it requires all the above elements–set dressing, Actor preparation, camera and lighting configuration, and possibly travel–to be carried out all over again.

What Are Some Examples of What Happens During the Film Production Process?

If you really want to know what it’s like to be on set during film production, you should listen to the people who do it.

We decided to highlight the three roles that tend to get the most attention during principal photography: the Director, the Cinematographer, and the Actors.

To begin, here’s a fascinating look at how two-time Oscar winner Quentin Tarantino approaches his role as the Director:

The Cinematographer tends to work–literally!–side by side with the Director on set to ensure that what is being captured lines up with the Director’s vision for the film.

Here we get the perspective from several renowned DPs on what it’s like to collaborate with the Director and Actors on set:

Finally, we have the Actors. Of course, films can be made without them (anyone with a love of documentaries or experimental film knows as such). That being said, they have come to be the most identified professionals within the filmmaking sphere.

Again, we have the firsthand outlook of multiple famed Actors who discuss what inspires them on set and how they approach their role as both a character and fellow collaborator on a film:

In Closing

Film production is simultaneously a thrilling and tedious phase of the movie-making process. Even veterans who have been working on sets for decades will come to the first day of shooting with an adrenaline rush for the creative experience to come. But the day to day of film production can involve long down periods and equally long shooting periods.

At the end of it, though, is hopefully a faithful execution of what was first imagined on the page that will next move into the post-production process where the next group of movie-making professionals can shape it into a future beloved film.

Want to know more about the filmmaking process? Our blogs on pre-production and post-production explain these vital stages in bringing a movie to life.
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