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How movies are made. The stages of film development – understanding the steps it takes to bring a movie from idea to the movie screen.

Filmmaking involves a complex process to take a movie from a concept to a blockbuster movie on screen. An idea must be developed into a screenplay, casts and crew must be hired, budgets created (and followed), and locations scouted and selected – all before the concept is even applied to film. A filmmaking project is a massive endeavor that requires a defined set of steps to ensure a smooth, efficient process.

The stages of film development

With an average picture cost of up to $500,00 per day, it is important to be efficient, and organized. To promote efficiency and organization, film schools teach that there are five (sometimes seven) stages of film development with each stage of filmmaking broken down into sub-stages and steps (which sometimes overlap).

The entire filmmaking process begins with a concept in someone’s mind.

Stage 1 – Development

The idea

Scene from The Great Train Robbery (1903)

The development of a film begins with an idea. The idea can come from a film studio executive, movie producer, director, actor, or even from prior works (e.g. a book, autobiography, or sequel). Some writers and directors keep detailed notebooks of ideas – newspaper clippings, overheard dialog, characters seen on the streets. Ideas can come from current events, trending topics, novels, plays, video games, comic books (yay!), or even from old movies. Sometimes these ideas are taken to studio executives by a interested filmmaking party and “pitched”.

Movie ideas ultimately end up with producers and film studio executives who meet to discuss the idea and how it can be developed into a movie. Film studio executives (film distributors) have the final say. They are of course, interested in concepts they think will make money.

During this initial stage, they may even have ideas about who they want to direct or star in a potential movie and agreements may be reached with those persons at the very beginning of the process. Once the idea is “green lighted” by the studio, financing is agreed on and the idea can then be turned into a script.

The script

The intent of the script is to turn the story idea into a linear form, via scene narrative, action descriptions, and character dialog. A professional writer must be hired to create a script for the movie.

A writer is hired

To begin, a writer is hired or contracted by the studio. A typical contract for Hollywood writers allows for one draft, one revision, and one “polish”. The writer is paid 80% of their fee after the first draft with the remaining monies paid in stages.

The plot is created

Executives may give writers some direction but for the most part, the basis of the plot is provided by the producer and the writer is given plenty of leeway to exercise their creativity. The producer lets the writer know the beginning and end of the plot. Then the writer outlines the middle, fleshes out characters, and forms the plotline to make sure it moves along and keeps the viewer interested throughout the movie.

The plot is typically worked out using “revision cards”. Revision cards used to be physical index cards but today it is mostly done digitally. Cards are used to plot the story from beginning to end. Cards make it easy for the producer and writer to move plotlines around, rearranges scenes, etc. The revision cards are then used to create the screenplay.

The screenplay is written

Original screenplay of The Godfather Part II - National Museum of the Cinema in Turin, Italy

Screenplays (final scripts) have a fairly standard format that is used by all movie productions. This standard format lets everyone quickly understand what is expected.

The screenplay describes the scene and the dialog the actors will use. Each page of a screenplay equates to about one minute of screen time. A typical script has a little more than 100 pages.

It is not uncommon for a film project to be stopped at this point and the script rewritten if it does not turn out as expected. The screenwriter may rewrite the script several times to improve dramatization, clarity, structure, characters, dialog, and overall style.

Occasionally a project can be dropped at this point too – if the script is deemed too weak. It is quite common for a script to sit on an executive’s shelf, never to see production.

If the script is given the greenlight, it is time to prepare for the movie-making process.

Stage 2 – Pre-Production

By this time, the script is complete and actors are beginning to learn their lines. While the actors are preparing for their part, the planning for the project must be completed before cameras begin to roll.

Preparing the filmmaking project

A production company is created for the project and a production office set up. A production company separates the movie’s finances from the film studio’s finances. Similarly, it isolates the film project legally from the parent studio and protects the studio from lawsuits.

A production budget is created and insurance is purchased for the project. Meetings are held to brief everyone and to organize and plan a schedule. Once the schedule is complete, venues (and other supporting companies) are contacted to make sure they can meet the schedule.

Creating a storyboard

Spider-Man 2 Storyboard

With the logistics out of the way, the film is then designed from the screenplay script. A storyboard (board of drawings) is created to help visualize the shots to be filmed. Called previsualization (previs or previz), the storyboard shows actors where they should be, how lighting should be set up, and how sets should look.

The storyboard helps the director decide on things like camera angles, camera movement, and shot sizes. It is also used to communicate what is expected to the cast and crew. Storyboards are usually hand drawn by artists but can be created using digital software or even by photographing mock actors.

Although the cast is typically selected after the storyboard process, sometimes the director and cinematographer are selected earlier so they can help with storyboarding. Once the storyboard is complete, it can be used to construct a shot list.

The Shot List

Shot List from the movie Momento

A shot list is often created in conjunction with the storyboard, sometimes in place of the storyboard if the creator is not comfortable with a graphical representation of the scenes. A shot list can be as simple as a spreadsheet that lists the scene, setup, shot, description of the scene, equipment to use, camera movement notes, the lens to use, estimated time of the scene, camera to use, sound requirements, any special effects, cast personnel to use, etc. It may have something like a checkbox on the line to indicate it is the best take or shot for the final film reel.

The shot list helps the director and cast visualize what they want in the scene. These specifications can get very technical. For instance, the director may specify the types of shots to use for the scene in order to get the right coverage (shots are used to “cover” a scene).

  • The extreme wide shot (shows large landscapes in the scene)
  • The wide, also known as a long shot (characters can be seen from head to toe and in relation to each other)
  • The full shot (like a side shot but focuses on a single character)
  • The medium shot (shows the character from the waist up)
  • The close-up shot (frames the character’s face)
  • The medium close-up shot (halfway between a medium and close-up shot – used if you want to capture a little more body motion)
  • The extreme close-up shot (tight on the face to show facial detail)
  • The establishing shot (can be a mixture of shot types but shows the viewer the scene where the action is about to take place in)

The director may also use the shot list to specify the camera angles to use for the scene.

  • Standard angle (neutral and eye-level with the character)
  • High angle (character is shot from above)
  • Low angle (character is shot from below)
  • Dutch angle (the horizon is tilted slightly to create an uneasy feeling with the viewer)

The shot list is used to organize cast, crew, equipment, and locations, It is used to create other documents used in the filmmaking process such as call sheets, technical specifications, license agreements, etc.

Finally, notes are often added to the shot list during filming. These notes are then used to help the editor determine which take to use and how to process it.

Casting

During development, the cast must be selected. Assembling the cast and crew for a movie can take quite a bit of time. The following personnel are typically used in the making of a movie. Note that the various positions can be hired earlier in the filmmaking process too (particularly the producer, director, and key actors).

Producer

George Lucas directing Stormtroopers

The producer handles the logistics of making the movie including hiring, managing the production budget, scheduling, assembling the initial team, managing production, overseeing post-production, marketing, etc. They also act as senior management over other personnel such as location manager and production designers.

The producer reports directly to the studio executives or financier of the film. They are often the first person hired, sometimes even when the film is just a concept.

Many of the producer’s duties overlap with the director’s tasks. In fact, the producer and director work hand-in-hand during the filmmaking process.

Director

The Director makes the call on the look and feel of he movie. This includes “directing” actors and other crewmembers to get the right shot. The director can be hired much earlier in the project, months or years before production starts, so that they have a part in the entire project from beginning to end.

Storyboard artist

The Storyboard Artist creates the storyboard visual images that a director uses to communicate their ideas to the production team.

Director of Photography

The Director of Photography oversees the photography of the entire film. They oversee the cinematographer, camera operator, and lighting crew.

The Cinematographer makes decisions about lighting, camera angles, etc. They typically work closely with the director.

The Camera Operator is the person who runs the camera to actually capture the shot.

The Lighting Crew are responsible for positioning and setting up the camera lights.

Production sound mixer

Burn Notice Explosion

The Production Sound Mixer is the head of the sound department. They oversee Sound Designers, Sound Editors, and Composers.

The Sound Designer creates the sound conception for the film.

The Sound Editor records all sounds for the movie including dialog and any sound effects that will be added during the editing process.

The Composer creates new music for the move.

Production designer

The Production Designer oversees the visual aspect of the production. They manage the Art Director, Hair and Makeup personnel, and Costume Designers.

The Art Director is responsible for making the production sets.

Hair and Makeup personnel apply makeup and effects to make the actor look like their character.

A Costume Designer is used if the required costumes are unusual or unique. They manufacture elaborate costumes, pull existing costumes from inventory, fit actors into the costumes, and make sure every costume looks good prior to filming.

Actors

Auditions are held to help find the best actors for the required roles. Actors are selected and then given a copy of the script so they can decide if they want to work on the project.

Location scouting

Game of Thrones location scouting at Klis Fortress, Croatia

Using the screenplay and storyboard, potential filming locations are scouted, selected, then visited. Often the cinematographer and lighting professionals assist. Pictures are taken of the location to help determine the best angle and layout for the shot. Backup locations are usually selected too.

Once locations are selected, local authorities are contacted to get approval to use the location for the shoot.

Stage 3 – Production

Production is the stage where the movie is created and recorded to film. It involves set construction, filming, and other activities required to support recording of the film. The most important task in the Production phase is of course, Principle Photography.

Principle Photography

Principle Photography refers to the shooting of the film. The first few days of principle photography can take more time as kinks are worked out. As the crew becomes accustomed to the process, shooting becomes more efficient.

Principle photography film crew shooting in Paris

Various units are involved in Principle Photography. While the main unit is filming, there may be another crew, the second or splinter unit, simultaneously shooting another scene somewhere else. A separate unit may also be used for establishing shots (the wide shot of the scene that gives viewers an overview of the scene layout) and stunt scenes (which require extra preparation).

A part of the Principle Photography phase is set construction. Sets and lighting rigs are set up according to a schedule. Grips set up filming stands and dollys, Props are constructed and sets are “dressed”. This production crew stays one step ahead of the camera and film departments. While one scene is filming, the production crew is already preparing for the next scene. If they fall behind, actors use the extra time to rehearse the script (often with the Director).

The filming of the scene is a very involved process. Crew and actors are given a call time and must arrive at the set or location at that time (after the set is constructed and ready for filming). The actors arrive for costumes and makeup, the move to the set and film the scene.

The steps to filming a scene during principle photography

The steps to filming a scene are like a well-rehearsed dance. The director (or assistant director) calls “Picture is up!” to let everyone know cameras are about to roll. Then calls, “Quiet, everyone!”

Principle photography film crew shooting in Paris

Once everyone is ready, the director calls “Roll sound”. The production sound mixer starts the recording equipment. They may have an assistant that writes down information about the take. Then they call “sound speed” when they are finished.

The director then calls “Roll camera!”. The camera operator responds with “Speed!” once the camera begins recording. The clapper stands in front of the camera with the clapperboard, calls “Marker!”, then slaps it shut. Then the director calls out “Action!” and the actors begin acting out the scene.

When the scene is complete, the director calls “Cut!”. The camera and sound stop recording and the sound and camera crew write down technical notes on their report sheets. Here are the filming steps in order:

  1. Director: “Picture is up!”
  2. “Quiet, everyone!”
  3. “Roll Sound”
  4. Sound Mixer response: “Sound speed”
  5. Director: “Roll camera!”
  6. Camera Operator: “Speed!”
  7. Clapper: “Marker!”
  8. [Slaps clapper shut]
  9. Director: “Action!”
  10. [Actors film scene]
  11. Director: “Cut!”

The scene may be filmed several times with production characters making adjustments to perfect the scene. Each time a take is made the steps above are repeated.

The art of filming a scene

Movies play out smoothly from beginning to end. The scenes blend and continuity ensures the action makes sense to the viewer. But movie makers must follow specific techniques when filming to make that happen. It’s not nearly as easy as it would seem.

Clapperboard in use

For instance, at least two versions of each action are shot with different camera positions and framings. The editor will cut these together, cutting during a movement rather than in between movements to make the shot seem natural.

Another example is the 180-degree rule. When separate shots are used, the filmmaker is careful where the camera is placed so that all shots seem to be a part of the same space. They do this by keeping the camera on one side of the “axis of action”. Everything in the shot will be filmed from the same side of this imaginary line. If a shot were made from the other side of the line, the viewer would get confused and disoriented. It would seem as if the actors were facing in different directions which would be especially confusing during dialog.

Filmmakers are also careful to ensure eyelines match when two characters are talking, that the camera position changes by at least 30 degrees between shots, and that sound spans across editing cuts (e.g. “split edits” where the sound and image change at different points).

Filmmaking truly is an art.

The Wrap

When shooting is complete for a scene, the director declares a “wrap”. The crew will then “strike” or dismantle the set used for the scene. Equipment is packed up and moved to the next location.

The film may be passed to the editor at this time so they can start the editing process. It’s better to know while you are still shooting if the “coverage” is working or not. If the editor finds something missing (e.g. a continuity mistake), they can get with the director and schedule a reshoot, hopefully before the crew has moved to the next location.

Paperwork

At the end of the shooting day, the director approves the schedule for the next  day. A daily progress report is sent to the production office (call the “football”). The director, producer, and other management heads may meet to watch the footage for the day (called “dailies”).

“In the can”

Finally, when the entire film is shot, it is considered “in the can” (referring to the old metal cannisters that held movie reels). A wrap party is held to thank all the cast and crew for their efforts.

Stage 4 – Post-Production

In the Post Production phase of filmmaking, the film is edited by the film editor. The rough cut of the film it edited into the final movie. Things like sound effects, music, visual effects, and color correction are all implemented to create the best possible scene. Scenes are then stitched together to make the movie.

Test audiences

Audience watching a movie

Once the movie has been edited, it is usually run through audience tests. The movie is screened before an audience to see how they react. If the testing goes poorly, scenes may be reshot as needed. For instance, Steven Spielberg reshot the ending of ET. The test audience couldn’t stand seeing the little alien die so the end of the film was changed.

Finalizing the film

Once the audience tests are complete, editors fix or change anything discovered during the movie tests.

Once everything is finalized, the film is considered complete or “locked”.

Stage 5 – Distribution

The locked movie is then duplicated onto film or hard drives and distributed to cinemas for screening. Press kits, posters and advertising materials are created and sent out. A B-Roll clip showing select scenes may be released to the press.

Key personnel (stars of the show) go on promotional tours where they appear at premieres and participate in interviews.

With the movie in the hands of theaters and promotional campaigns in full swing (or completed), the film is then released into a few select venues. Occasionally a movie goes immediately into a wide release. If not, the film is released at different times at different places until it has been fully distributed.