Film Production


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Film Production

As a general term, film production is all the work that goes into the making of a film, including its planning and realization. What is actually produced during this period is an approved, final negative. During the distribution phase that follows production, multiple prints are struck from the negative, and the movie is released, marketed, and exhibited.

As a more specific term, production is one phase of overall production activity, essentially the shooting phase. Every film goes through the following stages: development, when the project is conceived, written, and financed; pre-production, when the shooting is prepared for; production, when most of the script is staged, shot, and recorded; and post-production, when the picture and sound are edited and polished.


A few definitions are necessary here. A shot is a continuously exposed piece of film, or the continuous view that is presented between one cut and another. One may not get a perfect shot on the first trial, or take. A take is an attempt to photograph and/or record the sound of a particular shot. Most industry cinematography is done on 35mm-negative film. Takes approved by the director are printed, evaluated (in the form of dailies or rushes--that is, daily rolls of rush-produced picture and transferred synchronous sound--so that the director, cinematographer, and actors can see and hear the results of the previous day's shooting), and eventually cut by the editor into a workprint (a trial version of picture and sound, to which the original camera negative may be matched and cut). A shot, then, may also be thought of as a printed and edited take. A particular shot is taken by one camera, equipped with one lens, from a particular vantage point--that is, from a particular camera setup. An entire scene could well be photographed from three or four setups and then edited into ten or twenty shots.

In an edited film a scene will usually consist of more than one shot, and a full-fledged dramatic encounter in a given location (in dramatic and narrative terms, a scene) may entail a variety of setups and as many shots as desired. A sequence is a consecutive series of shots and/or scenes, and it is not restricted to covering action in a single location. In the climactic baptism sequence in The Godfather (1972), for example, the scene in the church is cut together with scenes of the preparation and execution of several murders in widely dispersed locations. Each of those scenes comprises several shots, and all the shots and scenes together make up that particular sequence. On the other hand, a sequence may also be made up of individual shots that have no necessary relationship to any scene, as is the case in the avalanche of images concluding Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927).

Independent and Studio Production

In the Golden Age of Hollywood (approximately the late 1920s through the early 1950s), a major studio had vast resources, a regular audience, and self-contained facilities that allowed it to develop, produce, and release as many as 50 pictures a year. A studio such as M-G-M, for example, had a lot the size of a small town, and it included the studio office buildings, the script vaults, a world-class film laboratory, thousands of costumes worth thousands of dollars each, a virtual lumberyard, propmaking shops, standing outdoor sets, editing and mixing rooms, a restaurant, and a large number of sound stages (windowless, soundproofed buildings in which interiors--and some apparent exteriors--were lined up like great concrete barns.

Today, however, many studios survive by renting out their facilities to independent filmmakers and to those in the business of making movies for television. It is common for a studio to participate in the financing of a picture, or to buy it when it is completed, and then to release it under the studio logo. Thus a virtually independent production, or even a foreign import, may well be released as A Paramount Picture, even if Paramount had little creative input. Nevertheless, most of the studios do release several of their own pictures each year, and to that extent the studio systém of doing things still prevails in Hollywood.

A truly independent producer is one who finances and realizes a picture without help from a studio, and who is then free to license the film to an independent distributor. Many independent producers raise money by borrowing against pre-sold distribution rights, and by showing the script, budget, and the proposed talent package--usually the director and the stars--to a bank or loan company.


Development begins when someone gets an idea for a movie. That person might be the head of a studio's story department, a director who wants to adapt a favorite novel, a producer who anticipates a market demand for a certain type of picture, an agent who is skilled at putting people and properties together. Most often, it is a writer. Legally, development begins when the producer hires a writer.
The writer may begin with a treatment, or scene-by scene story outline, which is eventually expanded into a full-length screenplay. The writer's key contribution is the structuring of the narrative. While the director is more responsible for the style of the movie, the writer is the one who determines the tale to be told. The screenwriter has far less creative autonomy, however, than the novelist, and surrenders all control over the script when it is sold.
The script is then broken down, or analyzed as to its production requirements: how much each scene is liable to cost, what props and costumes will be necessary, and how efficiently the scenes may be arranged into an economical shooting schedule. It is normal for the scenes in a movie to be shot out of sequence, that is, in an order that is practical and convenient rather than in the order of the script. All the scenes on a given set or location, for example, will most likely be shot at one time.
Once the script has been written, legally researched for possible libel or other actionable qualities, approved, and broken down, and budgeting and financing has been secured, a start date is set--or the project is, for one reason or another, denied final approval and put in turnaround (offered to anyone who will reimburse the costs of development).


Pre-production is the period of converting the screenplay into a blueprint for the production of specific scenes; finding locations, hiring the cast, fixing the final budget, and determining the shooting schedule; designing and constructing the sets, making or buying the costumes, designing the makeup; researching to determine the accuracy of details; and working out the mechanical special effects--those that can be staged before the camera, as opposed to optical special effects, which are done in the laboratory.

The essential collaboration during the development period is between the writer and the producer. During pre-production the essential creative collaborators are the director, the production designer, and the cinematographer. The crucial work of breaking down the script and drafting the shooting schedule is done by the production manager, who is the producer's representative on the set, and the first assistant director.
Of particular importance are the casting of the principal actors and the determination of the shooting location. A sound stage may be made to look like anything from a city street to a closet; it is an ideal location for the control of lighting and for the recording of live, perfectly synchronized (lip sync) sound that is free of background noise. It is also an artificial environment and may prove to offer a poor substitute for the natural and authentic. The majority of nonfiction films are shot on location--that is, outside the studio, in what may be made to pass for authentic story environments--and so are a great many narrative films. The sweep of the wheat fields in Days of Heaven (1978) could not have been shot in a studio any more successfully than the claustrophobic Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) could have been shot on location.


Production is the period of principal photography--essentially the shooting and recording, by the first unit, of those scenes in the script which involve the principal actors, under the supervision of the director. A second or third unit, each with its own director and crew, may shoot scenes with crowds or stunt doubles, big action sequences, or landscape and aerial shots. An insert unit shoots close-ups that are cut in, such as inserts of maps, documents, and so forth. The core of the picture is what is shot by the first (and, in many cases, the second) unit.

The director is the coordinator of the production team, working closely with the actors, with the power of approval or disapproval over their efforts and those of everyone else (subject to the ultimate control of the producer). The director is primarily responsible for the integration of camera work, performance, and editing, and his or her creative control extends until the completion of the first edited version. The composition of a given shot may be chosen by the cinematographer or the director.
In consultation with the director, the cinematographer determines how the shots will be lit. The actual work is executed by electricians under the supervision of the gaffer (the principal electrician). Most of the moving and hauling is done by grips, who are supervised by the key grip.
Live sound is recorded by the production sound team; in most cases one person is in charge of the microphones, another takes care of the tape recorder. Sound tracks may be recorded with or without camera synchronization: in sync, or wild.
The script supervisor keeps track of which scenes have been shot and how, if at all, they have been changed, as well as of continuity, the details within scenes that must match (or relate together logically) from one shot to another. The actors, too, are concerned with continuity, but in their case the challenge is to perform their roles in fragments and out of sequence.


The fragments of picture and sound that have been so carefully planned and executed are assembled into a whole during post-production. The rolls of negative exposed by the production camera are printed (creating the positive daily rolls that are then cut up for the workprint) and then broken down--cuts, rolled up, and stored--into labeled scenes. When the workprint has been edited or cut to the film editor's, director's, and producer's satisfaction, the original negative footage that corresponds to the workprint footage (and bears the same numbers along its edge) is trimmed and assembled. The workprint may be spliced and respliced until each cut has been perfected. One never experiments with the negative, however, which is handled as little as possible and is spliced permanently with cement.

The daily sound rolls (reels of magnetic tape in sync with the camera rolls) are transferred to mag film (sprocketed film base of the same gauge as the picture, and coated with magnetic oxide), so that there is one frame of sound for each frame of picture. The sound may be cut and spliced just as easily as the picture. The dialogue track is cut along with the picture by the film editor.
Optical special effects such as matte shots (where portions of different shots are included in the same frame) are made by an independent unit, and titles are prepared by the art department. Visual devices like fades, dissolves, and wipes are created in the laboratory on an optical printer; and all of these shots are cut into the edited negative at virtually the last moment.
The soundtrack consists of dialogue, music, and effects. The typical soundtrack includes both sync and wild production tracks, as well as other tracks that are created during post-production and synchronized, after the fact, with the picture. A good deal of dialogue is post-synchronized (particularly if the original has been marred by background noise) as are virtually all music and the majority of effects.
In most cases the composer begins to score a movie only when it has reached the workprint stage. The composer works with the music editor, who prepares, times, and cuts the music track. The sound effects editor, who works with the greatest number of tracks, assembles all those sounds which are neither dialogue nor music. When all of the tracks have been edited and re-recorded, the final soundtrack is mixed. The mix is done in sync with the workprint. Then its final product, a sound composite on mag stock, is transferred to an optical or magnetic soundtrack master, from which the soundtrack on the release print is photographically copied or magnetically re-recorded.

Once the negative has been cut, its light and color values are corrected (timed) so that they will match from scene to scene. The negative is copied, with computer-triggered changes in printing exposure, to produce a corrected intermediate positive (IP), from which an intermediate negative (IN) is generated. The IN, and subsequent IPs and INs, may incorporate further corrections. Ideally, very few intermediates separate the release print from the negative, because contrast increases and detail is lost with each printing generation.
The cinematographer, director, and editor work closely with the laboratory until a final trial composite print, or answer print, meets their approval. The negative that produced that print becomes the negative from which, at the onset of the distribution phase, release prints will be struck.

Bruce Kawin


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