Film Industry, Production Process of

views updated


The film director Billy Wilder once said, "Audiences don't know somebody sits down and writes a picture. They think the actors make it up as they go along." In reality, it takes years and a virtual army of artists to make a film. The filmmaking process varies depending on budget and type of film (e.g., narrative, documentary, animation, or experimental). The process may begin with a producer who has an idea or it can start with a writer who has a screenplay to submit to a producer.

Narrative Filmmaking

Once a producer has arranged the financing, he or she can start to put the production together. As part of this process, the producer supervises crew hires. The first two positions that are filled are screenwriter (if a script does not already exist) and director, although on some films, the producer, director, and writer are the same person.


The screenplay is a blueprint for the production and is used to calculate the budget. In addition to containing the dialogue for the actors, the screenplay provides information about the characters, locations, wardrobe, makeup/hair, sound effects, music, vehicles, animals, special effects, special equipment, stunts, and extras. This information is entered onto breakdown sheets that the production manager uses to compose a production board, which consists of one vertical column for every scene. The columns are arranged in the most logical and economical shooting order, thus helping to determine the number of shooting days.

The director visualizes each scene as shots taken from different camera angles. The director also works with the actors to create memorable characters. The director is instrumental in selecting actors and much of the technical crew. The director of photography translates the director's vision into images by choice of lenses, camera angles, and lighting. The director of photography hires the camera crew, often a camera operator, a first assistant, and a second assistant. Sometimes, the director of photography operates the camera himself.

The production designer works with set dressers, prop runners, and the wardrobe designer to create scenarios that reflect the personalities and lives of the characters. In particular, the production designer works with the wardrobe designer to assure that the textures and colors of the wardrobe and the set complement each other. The wardrobe designer often conducts extensive research to assure that the clothing is accurate for the time period and social setting. He or she may buy clothing, rent it, or have it created. If a film requires special effects, the designers and builders are brought in so they can begin sketching designs for those effects.

A film might be shot at actual locations, or sets might be built on a sound stage. Most films use a combination of these two options. For a location production, the director, designer, and director of photography scout locations with an eye toward the general look as well as to practical concerns about freedom to redress the location, light rigging, sun angle, quietness, privacy, security, and the ability to block traffic. Once locations are selected, the location manager arranges necessary permits and permissions.

Many variables, such as actor availability and budget, determine the amount of rehearsal that takes place during the preproduction phase. The director and actors work on performance and movements. The director previsualizes what action will be covered in long shots, medium shots, and close-ups.


Production involves the actual shooting, which, on average, takes eight weeks. The director and actors rehearse on the set. The director chooses the camera angles to be used for each shot. The director of photography works with the "gaffer," or chief lighting person, to select and position lighting instruments, which "grips" help to rig. The location sound mixer operates the audio recording machine and works with a boom operator. The boom operator positions the microphone close to the actors while being careful to keep the microphone out of the picture.

At the start of each shot, the camera operator films a slate, which is a board that has digital numbers that allow every frame of film to be uniquely identified at twenty-four frames per second. When the hinged bar on the slate is closed, the number advance stops briefly. The audio recorder, on an inaudible track, records corresponding numerical information. When the assistant editor synchronizes the sound to the picture, he or she locates the frame with the first frozen slate number, and the tape player automatically locates the portion of sound tape with the matching numbers. The picture and sound remain in synchronization to the end of the shot. This process is repeated for each shot, and thousands of shots are filmed before the completion of a film.

Usually, a shot is filmed more than once to improve on either a technical element or the performance. For each shot, the script supervisor notes the lens that is used, details of the camera and actor movement, time length of the take, and comments. He or she also indicates which takes will be printed at the film laboratory. Once an acceptable take is made, the crew sets up and rehearses the next shot. Even a simple scene might be covered in four different angles, allowing for creative choices in the editing process.

At the end of each day, the film and sound are sent to a laboratory for processing, workprinting, and sound transferring. The production sound, generally recorded on 1/4-inch audiotape, is either transferred to 35-mm magnetic stock or digitized into a computer for editing. The key crewmembers then screen the footage of the previous day's shoot. The director assesses performances and, along with the director of photography, monitors the effectiveness of the lighting and camera movements. Even when a film is edited digitally (as opposed to the physical film being edited on a flatbed editor that runs picture and sound in synchronization at the projection speed of twenty-four frames per second), it is common to have a film workprint made for the daily screenings, or "dailies."


An editorial team that includes a picture editor and several assistants and apprentices usually works from the first day of shooting. Assistants synchronize and prepare dailies. The editor, with a nonlinear computer system such as Avid, cuts scenes as they are shot. Digital editing requires that the picture and sound dailies be transferred to videotape, which is then digitized (i.e., converted from an analog format to a digital format) for use on a computer. The editor is then able to organize the selected shots by using the computer keyboard and mouse, rather than physically cutting and taping together bits of film. While an assembly of the entire film may be completed within one to two weeks after the principal photography has been finished, it will be anywhere from two weeks to two months more before the director's cut is ready. If the director has gone over the allotted time for the production process, an accelerated postproduction schedule is required.

The production process results in miles of film. Individual shots must be located in minutes. The filmstrip or the digitized computer image is coded with a set of numbers that identify each of the millions of frames. A system of organization, which can vary from editing room to editing room, is used to catalog each of the shots. One method of organization is to enter shot information into a computer so an editor can locate shots using key words or numbers. The editor spends countless hours in fine tuning the length of a shot down to an individual frame. The film may go through various edited versions before a decision is made on which version works the best.

A music editor is hired when the editor's assembly cut is near completion. The music editor helps devise a temporary musical score based on preexisting music. The music supervisor aids in selecting source music, such as music emanating from car radios or stereos. A sound mix of dialogue and temporary music is completed so the film can be shown to preview audiences. A film can be tested as few as two times or as many as fifteen, with each time employing picture recuts and other editorial changes.

Once recuts are complete, a supervising sound editor oversees a team of sound recordists, editors, and a composer. The supervising sound editor, along with each specialty editor, spots the appropriate tracks to determine where and when sound is to be added or altered.

Automated dialogue replacement (ADR) editors focus on the clarity of each word of dialogue. Despite judicious microphone selection and placement, sound elements such as air traffic may preclude quality recordings. The ADR process may also include adding or changing lines. To re-record lines, the actor watches the picture while listening over headphones to the original production recording. After rehearsal, the actor performs the lines, usually one or two at a time, while watching the picture. The re-recorded lines, known as loop lines, are meticulously edited to fit the mouth movements on the picture, often by trimming out pauses or sections of words.

Dialogue editors split the dialogue of various characters to multiple tracks based on the microphone placement that was used in the original recording. The dialogue editor also splits off the tracks to be replaced with ADR. The creation of separate dialogue tracks gives the re-recording mixer control over sound balance.

Some films, such as horror, action adventure, and science fiction, employ a sound designer (as the head of the sound team) to design certain effects and to guide the editors to deliver a consistent sound. Many sound effects libraries exist, some specializing in items such as different types of doors opening and closing. When unable to find an appropriate prerecorded sound, sound designers often create their own effect. The sound of a rocket ship might be created by combining the sounds of various home appliances altered by manipulating speed, reverberation, backward play, and equalization. The foley artist creates sound effects such as footsteps and clothes rustling by actually walking or rustling material while watching the picture, in order to time the effects precisely. These effects are later edited to synchronize perfectly with the picture.

The music editor prepares a music cue sheet for each section of planned music, noting the time of every cut, the dialogue, and significant action, since composed music often must accentuate specific moments in the film. On a feature film, a composer often has only two to four weeks to write forty-five to one hundred minutes of score. The composer writes music in synchronization with the picture, and the music is recorded that way, often by a full symphony orchestra. While some films use much original music, others use previously recorded music. Use of preexisting music must be cleared for copyright permission. On smaller films, the composer, using home studio equipment, might also perform a full score. The music is matched to the picture and edited by the music editor.

Frequently, while all the sound editing is going on, the director and editor make a change in the picture. Such a change requires all of the other editors to make conformations, or changes, in their working copies and to reedit their sound tracks. When the sound tracks are completed, the film goes to the mixing studio where, depending on local union regulations, one or more re-recording engineers sit at a huge multichannel audio console and mix the hundred or so tracks. The mix can take several weeks to complete.

A negative matcher retrieves the hundreds of rolls of camera original film and cuts it to match the final edited version of the film. The film laboratory takes the matched camera original and adjusts the color and brightness of each shot. The laboratory then makes a master from which hundreds of film prints are struck.

The extent of theatrical release depends on the distribution budget and the anticipated audience-drawing power of the film. Additional sources of revenue include home video, product placement, merchandising, and foreign distribution. Sometimes, the sales of film-inspired toys or soundtracks can generate more revenue than the film itself.

Documentary Filmmaking

The production process for a documentary varies greatly depending on the type of film. Unlike narratives, documentaries often do not begin with a screenplay because real events are filmed as they unfold. Historical documentaries, however, often rely on a screenplay that is based on years of research; instead of live-action shooting, they involve animation-stand shooting of photographs and other archival materials.

The crew for a documentary can be composed of only a few people, with the director also functioning as producer, writer, editor, and cinematographer or sound mixer. Or, the crew can include separate individuals who perform each of these functions. The production crew is often kept small so as not to disrupt the events that are being filmed.

Shooting is determined by the unfolding events, and it occurs at real locations instead of constructed locations. The challenges of location shooting are great because the environment cannot be controlled as it can in narrative filmmaking. Depending on the subject matter, a documentary might be shot over several years or several days. The edited film may run anywhere from several minutes to several hours.

If the content focuses on a few people, the director often spends time in preproduction with the subjects so they become comfortable with and trust him or her. The director often strives to reveal not only facts, but to get at the underlying feelings about events.

Concurrent with filming, the director, editor, or assistant logs each shot. Interviews are transcribed. The editor uses these logs to create an edit on paper, figuring out how to structure the material in a logical and emotionally moving way. It is typical for a documentary to have a very high shooting ratio. As much as one hundred times more footage is sometimes shot than is used.

Whereas editor of a narrative film works according to the structure of the preexisting screenplay, the editor or writer of a documentary creates the screenplay from the footage and point of view of the film. In addition, whereas the editor of a narrative film decides which angle to use for any given shot (since the same material is shot multiple times from different camera setups), the editor of a documentary generally has only one take per shot to work with because actions usually cannot be restaged from multiple angles.

Distribution outlets for documentaries include video, CD-ROM, the Internet, public television, art houses, festivals, museums, educational and public library venues, and, for some feature-length documentaries, limited urban releases.

Experimental Filmmaking

Experimental films generally explore alternative content and forms. Often compared to poetry and to the other plastic arts, experimental films deal with a wide variety of subject matter, from personal issues and interior psychological states to the very nature and ontology of the film image.

Experimental films are usually independently produced, with one individual often acting as producer, writer, director, sound mixer, and editor.

Photographic equipment employed in experimental films ranges from a state-of-the-art 35-mm camera to a child's toy camera. Some filmmakers bypass the camera completely and draw, scratch, or otherwise work directly on the celluloid, or they construct their films from found or archival footage. A film might be scripted down to the individual frame, or it might be spontaneously and instinctively shot, much in the manner of abstract expressionist painting. One film might have a different image on each frame, while another might consist entirely of one long shot taken by a static, stationary camera.

Though generally short, due to the financial exigencies of independent filmmaking, experimental films might run a few minutes, a few hours, or be virtually endless as in the case of film loops. Experimental films can cost less than $100, or they can cost many thousands of dollars. Distribution outlets for experimental films are similar to, but often more limited than, those for documentary films.

The Future

The process of filmmaking has changed more since the early 1980s than it did in the preceding eighty years. Changes from analog to digital technology have increased the variety of ways in which images and sounds are recorded, manipulated, and edited. There is no longer (if there ever was) one standard process for making a film. The only certainty about the future is that further changes are inevitable.

See also:Film Industry; Film Industry, Careers in; Film Industry, History of; Film Industry, Technology of.


Brown, Blaine. (1995). Motion Picture and Video Lighting. Newton, MA: Focal Press.

Dmytryk, Edward. (1984). On Screen Directing. Newton, MA: Focal Press.

Goodell, Gregory. (1998). Independent Feature Film Production. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Hollyn, Norman. (1990). The Film Editing Room Handbook. Beverly Hills, CA: Lone Eagle Publishing.

Holman, Tomlinson. (1997). Sound for Film and Television. Newton, MA: Focal Press.

Katz, Steven D. (1991). Film Directing Shot by Shot. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions (in conjunction with Focal Press).

Kerner, Marvin. (1989). The Art of the Sound Effects Editor. Newton, MA: Focal Press.

Laybourne, Kit. (1998). The Animation Book. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Madsen, Roy Paul. (1990). Working Cinema. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Mamer, Bruce. (2000). Film Production Technique. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Miller, Pat P. (1990). Script Supervising. Newton, MA:Focal Press.

Murch, Walter. (1995). In the Blink of an Eye. Los Angeles: Silman-James Press.

Rabiger, Michael. (1997). Directing the Documentary.Newton, MA: Focal Press.

Rosenblum, Ralph, and Karen, Robert. (1980). When the Shooting Stops… the Cutting Begins. New York: Penguin Books.

Rosenthal, Alan. (1996). Writing, Directing, and Producing Documentary Films and Videos. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Seger, Linda, and Whetmore, Edward Jay. (1994). From Script to Screen. New York: Henry Holt.

Singleton, Ralph S. (1984). Film Scheduling. Beverly Hills, CA: Lone Eagle Publishing.

Viera, David. (1993). Lighting for Film and Electronic Cinematography. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Wiese, Michael, and Simon, Deke. (1995). Film and Video Budgets. Newton, MA: Focal Press.

Lilly Ann Boruszkowski

About this article

Film Industry, Production Process of

Updated About content Print Article