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The stages of motion picture development and the odd movie lingo that goes with it

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On Geek Slop, you often hear us mention movies being “in development” or “pre-production” stages, but what do these movie terms really mean? Filmmaking or film production consists of four steps that define the process of making a movie – development, pre-production, production, and post-production. Each of these stages is discussed in detail below.

Development state

The production and filming of moviesDuring the development stage, the project’s producer selects an idea he thinks worthy of a motion picture. He may get this idea from a book, play, comic book, or real-life experience. Occasionally actors themselves have an idea for a part they would like to play and they approach a producer or produce the movie themselves. Once an idea is selected, the producer then works with a writer to create a “step outline” which breaks the story into one-paragraph scenes. Then the writer prepares a “treatment”, a 20-30 page description of the movie, its mood, and a character outline. The “treatment” has little dialog or stage direction but may contain drawings or artwork to better illustrate the idea.

Next a screenwriter writes a screenplay. The screenwriter often goes through many re-writes as investors, producers, and studios suggest (or demand) changes based on their idea of the target audience’s preferences and actors/actresses who they feel might play the main character roles (and sell tickets). Interested parties are always looking as the potential “A.I.S.” or “asses in seats” numbers when deciding on the screenplay’s contents. The screenwriting process typically takes several months to complete.

The producer then takes the screenplay and prepares a “film pitch” for prospective financiers. If the pitch goes well, the producer is given the “green light” meaning someone has offered to financially back the production of the movie (typically this backer is a film studio). By this time the film has a pretty good background and the target audience is defined.

Pre-production stage

Film clapperboardDuring pre-production, the development process is carefully designed, the movie concept “storyboarded” by illustrators and artists, the budget laid out, and a “production company” and “production office” established. Insurance is put into place and the crew hired. The crew can be as small as 7 people in a cheap independent film but in larger productions, typically consists of the following:

Director – primarily responsible for the storytelling and creative decisions.

Unit Production Manager – manages the production budget and production schedule. They also report, on behalf of the production office, to the studio executives or financiers of the film.

Assistant Director (AD) – manages the shooting schedule and logistics of the production.

Casting Director – finds actors to fill the parts in the script. This normally requires that actors audition.

Location Manager – finds and manages film locations.

Directory of Photography – the cinematographer who supervises the photography of the entire film.

Directory of Audiography or Sound Editor – supervises the audiography of the entire film.

Production Sound Mixer – the head of the sound department during the production stage of filmmaking. They record and mix the audio on set – dialogue, presence and sound effects in mono and ambience in stereo.

Composer – creates new music for the film.

Production Designer – creates the visual conception of the film, working with the art director.

Art Directory – manages the art department, which makes production sets.

Costumer Designer – creates the clothing for the characters in the film working closely with the actors, as well as other departments.

Make up and Hair Designer – works closely with the costume designer in addition to create a certain look for a character.

Storyboard Artist – creates visual images to help the director and production designer communicate their ideas to the production team.

Choreographer – creates and coordinates the movement and dance for action scenes (e.g. fight scenes).

Production stage

Filming cameramanIn the video production stage, the movie is actually shot or recorded on film or digital video. The shooting days can be grueling, often lasting 14 to 18 hours a day in remote locations.

The crew shows up on location along with the actors (who usually show up later, after makeup is applied). Crew members set up scenes and then move ahead to the next scene while the actors stay behind and film. The actors rehearse the scene, guided by the director, and then as many “takes” are made as needed.

A typical shoot sounds like this:

Assistant Director: picture is up!

Assistant Director: quiet everyone!

[waits for quiet]

Assistant Director: roll sound

[sound recording is started]

Production Sound Mixer: sound speedFilming set

Assistant Director: roll camera

[camera begins filming]

Camera Operator: speed!

[Clapper claps the clapperboard]

Clapper: marker!

Assistant Director: action background (if background actors are involved)

[at this point the Director steps in]

Director: action!

[actors do their thing]

Director: cut!

Director: that’s a wrap! (if he deems the filming of the scene complete)

Once a scene is complete and the Director has told everyone to “move on”, the crew will “strike” or dismantle the set for that scene. At the end of the day, the director approves the next day’s shooting schedule and sends a daily progress report to the production office. “Call sheets” are distributed to the cast and crew to tell them when and where to show up the next day. Later that day, the director, producer, and possibly the actors themselves will review the day’s footage called “dailies”.

When the film is done, it is “in the can” and the production phase is complete. There is usually a big “wrap up party” for the crew and actors.

Post-production stage

Movie reel film cannisterDuring the post-production phase, the video or film editor is assembled. Color is corrected and scenes are trimmed as needed. The soundtrack is assembled, music added, and re-recorded if needed. Special effects are added (mainly CGI).

If the movie was recorded on film, a digital copy is created and the film is duplicated for distribution, press kits are developed and distributed, posters are created, and marketing kicks into high gear. There is usually a launch party, press releases, and interviews with the press.

The post-production phase typically takes several months to complete.


Sources: IMDB, Wikipedia, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Movies and Film