production 101


A movie or television program begins with the kernel of an idea, an image, or some small piece of a story or character. From there, the original concept is built into a working story treatment. The treatment is developed into a screenplay, and the screenplay is made into a movie.

A film or television program is the sum of its parts. The making of a film depends on each person, each player, and each contributor individually. If one link in the process of making the film is weak, the entire aspect of the film is weakened.

There are a number of steps any film project takes before it shows up at your local theatre. They are:

 Development
 Pre-Production
 Production
 Post-Production
 Marketing and Distribution


During this phase, a script is drafted by or bought from a writer. The screenplay may go through several drafts and rewrites, but once the producer is satisfied with the working screenplay, a preliminary shooting budget is established. This budget must take into account the cost of equipment, film stock, talent, set design, locations, etc. Simultaneously, the producer will line up the project’s key personnel: the director, cinematographer, production manager, production designer, location scout and talent.

Still in the development phase, the producer will approach funding agencies, larger corporations and personal contacts to raise money for further development and production. The producer must be able to “sell” the story and creative talent in order to green light the project.


Once the development phase is complete, the project moves into pre-production. This is the preparatory or primary planning stage. One of the first things a producer does is set up the production office and start hiring and running a dedicated production staff.

It is during pre-production that costumes and sets are designed, the remaining crew hired and locations scouted and chosen. Shooting schedules are also developed and casting continues. Absolutely everything that can be done prior to principal photography is considered.


Production is the “active” process of making a film or television program. The script is put to the camera, in studio and on location, with actors, full costume, make-up, lights and sound. It is often referred to as “principal photography”. This stage is expensive, time-consuming and requires extensive financial and logistical planning.


Post is the compilation phase. The director and/or producer will work with the picture and sound editors putting together the hundreds of shots and sounds taken during principal photography. This is when special effects are added and shots are adjusted technically, aesthetically and for greater narrative impact. Dialogue is fine-tuned. Soundtrack and audio effects are matched to the visual content. Slowly, the film goes from a rough cut to the finished, polished, final version that audiences will see in theatres.

Marketing and Distributing

Once the picture is completed and approved, it is marketed and distributed. If the producer has already lined up a distributor, the movie will be marketed using advertising in the theatres, television, radio, print media and online. This process builds an audience for the film even before it is released. Marketing is part skill, part guesswork and definitely creative. Good marketing can make a small film into a huge success. It can also leave a giant, expensive film floundering.

Production Cast and Crew

Producer – The producer usually originates the idea and finds the money to make the film. The producer also hires cast and crew and not only supervises the production process but the film’s distribution and theatrical release as well.

Screenwriter – Screenwriters develop original screenplays or adapt existing material such as books or plays. Sometimes a screenwriter is hired to write a script. In most cases, however, a producer purchases a spec script, which has been submitted to his office by the writer or an agent.

Director – The director breaks down the screen play, visualizes how the film should be shot and works with cast and crew to carry out his vision. The director is a movie’s main creative force.

Production Manager – The unit production manager reports to the producer and is responsible for scheduling and budgeting for the film. Production managers also handle permits as well as the day-to-day running of the production office.

Continuity Supervisor – The script or continuity supervisor works closely with the director to ensure that shots will cut together in the editing room. This involves taking photos and notes to help establish continuity of props and input from the director.

Casting Director – The casting director picks actors and works out their contracts. In most cases, the producer and director are also involved in the casting process.

Actors – The actor’s job is to create a believable character from the screenplay. The actor does this with a sense of the role and input from the director.

Director of Photography – The director of photography (DP), or cinematographer, works closely with the director and is responsible for the photographic look of the picture. In small films or documentary films, the DP may operate his or her own camera and adjust light as well. In studio films, the DP instructs camera operators, gaffers and grips on how to arrange shots and lighting.

Other Positions

Location Sound Mixer – A location sound mixer has a very important job, using an audio recorder and microphones to record and mix dialogue during shooting. Often, location sound mixers are assisted by a boom operator.

Camera Operator – The camera operator operates the camera based on instructions from the director or director of photography.

Camera Assistants – The duties of a camera assistant include pulling focus, changing film stock, cleaning camera equipment, filling out camera reports and slating shots.

Gaffer – The gaffer is not only in charge of electrical work but also works closely with the DP to create a look, style or mood through lighting. The gaffer is usually assisted by a best boy.

Key Grip – The key grip supervises the grips who set up and adjust camera and dolly equipment on the set.

Production Assistants – A production assistant is a general assistant. This role is considered an entry level movie position.


The Creative Producer

Although the producer’s job is essentially that of finding the money and running the business side of the production, a creative producer will often generate the original idea for the film or television program. A producer may be attracted to a novel, a magazine article, a play or a spec script submitted to his office. Other times, the producer might simply have a great idea for a film and will hire a writer to script the screenplay.

Once the original idea is actually generated and secured, the producer is responsible for hiring cast and crew, the budgeting of the film, raising the money, making sure everything runs smoothly, and marketing and distributing the film.

How a Producer Finances a Film

There are a number of ways to finance a film. Once the screenplay is completed and rights secured, the producer works out a detailed financial budget for every aspect of preparation, production and post-production. This budget allows for every eventuality and conceivable project, from the cost of crew and talent to the price of film stock.

With the screenplay and budget completed, the producer will approach a bank for a credit loan. To obtain a bank loan, a producer will need to prove financial viability, ownership of the project and, most likely, a future distribution deal for the picture.

New or smaller independent filmmakers might find distribution deals difficult to acquire. An independent filmmaker may need to consider other sources for funding. In particular, the independent or low-budgeted producer will want to be familiar with grant and funding applications. International co-production treaties, tax credits and government subsidies can all be accessed.

If funding agencies or banks prove unsuccessful, the producer may investigate other avenues for funds including family, friends or the producer’s own savings. Plenty of independent filmmakers have borrowed funds from their nearest and dearest to make their way in production. In fact, it’s a time-honored and well-practiced tradition.


Scripts are the skeleton of the screenplay – the framework of the film. It is the screenplay that structures the thematic story of the film and provides the plot and characters. Scripts supply the linguistic and structural blueprint to a visual, motion medium. They provide language, order and organizational coherence for the filmmaker.


The screenwriter is the one who develops, originates (sometimes) or creates the script. It is the screenwriter’s job to put the words on the page and to develop identifiable character arcs, narrative structure and themes. A writer may be hired by a producer to develop a treatment or draft, or write a “spec” (speculative) script, to flog to agents and producers.

Process of Writing a Script

Any script needs to find its own voice. This means that it must have its own independent sense of structure or story development. The idea initiates the writing of the script. The writer may choose to take a concept from daily life or experience, some bizarre fantasy, an historical element or event or an artistic reference that is intriguing. The writer may also wish to develop a screenplay from another specific source, such as a work of literature. Keep in mind, there are NO truly original stories. Even if the writer’s presentation is innovative and intriguing, chances are, someone else has already done something similar. That said, with skill and hard work, a writer can create a polished, intriguing script.

Once a concept has been chosen, the writer is ready to develop an outline. Characters story development and major narrative arcs are sketched. With these in mind, the writer can rough in a treatment detailing each development in the story. If this is accomplished before casting the dialogue of the film, the writer has the opportunity to read for story. This involves looking at the basic ideas to see if they make sense and if they are interesting or intriguing to an audience.

In the draft stage, it is the writer’s job to bring life to words on the paper. Developing distinctive mannerisms in dialogue and language will help. Before starting a draft, a writer will create a story map. This identifies the patterns and progressions, the relationships, and their highlights and failures. The writer will choose which aspects of the story should jump out at the audience. These are used as tools to sustain dialogue and the natural progression of the story. Once complete, the story map is put aside, and the writer is ready to start scripting.


Directing is a creative occupation that incorporates both the technical and aesthetic organization of filmmaking into the vision of one “lead” person in the production. Directing is more than good planning. It is artistic leadership focused on a technical medium. It is essentially cumulative and collaborative, combining knowledge of everything from the artistic elements of a production to knowledge of the practical type of rigging and electricals used on set.

The director has the deciding vote in everything from casting to the drafting and redrafting of the script. It is the director who determines the details of the shooting script, from story development to shot lists to settings, The director chooses the angles of the shot (in collaboration with the director of photography) and approves everything that goes into the look and setting of the film: sets, audio, lighting setups, costumes, color schemes and locations.

On set, the director is the final authority. It is the director who will set the pace, the atmosphere and the working conditions. If the director is relaxed but still clearly in charge, the set will likely be a comfortable working environment. If the director shows confidence, the crew and actors will trust that their work is appreciated. They will, in turn, be more willing and able to stretch their skills to provide the director their best possible contribution to the film.


Acting is a pure, learned art that is acquired through workshops, classes and technical training. Acting is an instinctive, emotive art. It is also a craft, developed through experiential knowledge, imagination and the ability to displace oneself in the quest for a different character or perception.

Acting is an art form that delves into the psyche of one’s soul, character, story and society. It can be intellectual, sensual, thoughtful, educational and escapist. It is, most often, emotional. Acting is the chance to try out a different life or state of being. It is an artifice, created and crafted to provide the audience with a window or hook into the development of story and character.

In filmmaking, acting is the raw performance that exists for the camera and director. In the finished film, acting becomes the substance of that performance, retained and manipulated by the director and technical crew as they edit the story to narrative and visual advantage. A good performance can elevate a film beyond the boundaries of a limited script. A poor performance can turn a decent script into mind-numbing dreck.


The Cinematographer

The director of photography (DP) works closely with the director, coordinating the director’s desired presentation of the film story with the primary technical equipment of filmmaking: camera, lights and film stock. Collaborating with the director, the DP organizes the shots and shot sequences, determining the type of lighting needed and the creation of a visual mood. The DP must take into account the source and quality of the light, the color of the set and costume, and the skin tone and makeup of the performer. The DP chooses which lights and which placement of those lights will create the image desired: day, night, shadow, visual depth and focus.

Film is a practical art. The lights and cameras require a great deal of power. The DP coordinates closely with the gaffer (head electrician) and camera operator to meet the needs of the picture. Establishing a shot is a painstaking and time-consuming process. It requires a responsible approach to electrical engineering and safety.


Production design is the “look” of the production. It is the tangible interpretation of the visual concept of the story. More specifically, production design is the script made real by the choice of prop, architecture or color scheme. Production design at its best is a complement to the progression of the story. It correlates the visual artifacts on set with the portrayal of the story, providing the audience with an evocative, referential background for the characters. Good production design should draw the audience in, encouraging an emotional, empathetic response to the characters on screen.

Production design is the artistic elaboration of the narrative story, but it is also a practical art. Production design reconciles the functional requirements and obstacles of production with the aesthetic intentions of the director. It includes every visual aspect and practical design element of the set: color schemes, props, costumes, art direction, makeup, stage and set design. Different kinds of expertise are needed, but there is one goal: to achieve an articulated, accurate rendering of the design plan.

The Role of the Production Designer

The production designer works in tandem with the director to create the look of the production. Just as the DP is responsible for capturing the image, the production designer is responsible for articulating the material elements that will build that image. It is the production designer who must visualize the settings of the film, translate the themes into a design plan and implement set development accordingly.


Movie Sound

Movie sound is dialogue, sound effect and music. It is the audio element of filmmaking that directly complements the picture on screen. Sound provides a parallel frame of reference for the movement of the story. Sound, like lighting, sets the mood for the film sequence. It provides atmospheric definition or emphasis, and complements narrative and visual characterizations on screen.

Production Sound

Production sound mixing is the recording of live dialogue and sound effects during principal photography. Recording of dialogue and sound effects can also take place in studio or during post-production.

Recording usable, clean dialogue on set is difficult, particularly if you are shooting on location. The job of recording good sound belongs to the movie’s location sound mixer. Usually equipped with a Nagra tape recorder (or DAT deck) and a variety of microphones and booms, the production sound mixer decides where to place the microphones and how to best record the dialogue. Often the production sound mixer is assisted by a boom operator.


Sound and music are often subliminal, speaking to the subconscious, emotional nature of the audience and cueing the spectators’ response to the production. In films like “The Mission” (Roland Joffiè, 1986) and “GoodFellas” (Martin Scorcese, 1990), the music is both articulated and subconscious in the perception of the viewer. In other cases, music is an obvious, pronounced signal to the audience of imminent action or turn in the story. When we hear the music from “Jaws” (Steven Spielberg, 1975), the first thing we think of is, of course, danger.

Choosing the perfect music is key to a movie’s ability to evoke the appropriate emotional response. A film can use pop tunes or classical compositions that are immediately recognized by an audience.

The disadvantage of using pop tunes is the cost of the copyright. If the song is not in the public domain, the producer must purchase the right to use the song for either a definite or indefinite period of time. Depending on ownership, this can be a long and complicated legal procedure, involving artists’ copyright agencies, lawyers and possibly massive media conglomerates.

The Sound Mix

The sound mix is one of the final stages of a film’s post-production process. As mentioned previously, the production sound mixer’s job is to record clean dialogue tracks and ambient sounds. The composer’s job is to create a score suitable to the mood and emotions of the film. All of this, in addition to ambient tracks and sound effects, is mixed by the sound mixer in a specially constructed sound theatre. The sound theatre consists of a projection system and a multi-track machine. All the various audio elements and tracks are finely balanced, equalized and mixed together.

Role of the Composer

Rather than incurring substantial legal and “right of use” costs, a filmmaker can turn to a composer to create a new, independent musical score to complement the film.

The composer’s job is to provide an original musical illustration of the visual image. The music is not intended to take over the film. Instead, it should provide the audience with an additional hook into the story. Working with the director, the composer evaluates and interprets the script. Looking for narrative development and nuance, the composer identifies the key elements of the story and plot line. It is the composer’s task to articulate those elements through musical intonation.


The Basics

• Everything that can be done before the camera rolls should occur during the pre-production process.

• Pre-production is planning. Planning is the key to any successful production. Planners get to make their movies. Dreamers don’t.

• Pre-production is about structure. Every project must have structure and design.

The Producer

The producer is the key decision maker in the pre-production process.

• The producer is the business head of the film or project, the person who assembles all of the pieces of the jigsaw—the script, actors, cash, director, etc.


Program Development

• Vision
• Format
• Concept – “The Idea”
• Research and Development
• Storyboards
• Working Script

Schedule and Budget Finalized

• Shooting Schedule
• Permits
• Legal Releases
• Script Breakdown

Assembling Crew

• Grips
• Production Assistants
• Make-up
• Camera
• Director
• Sound


• Location Scouting
• Locations Finalized
• Travel Arrangements
• Final approval on locations from owner/manager

Equipment and Set Design

• Equipment Needs
• Rentals
• Set Design and Content
• Props

Shot List

• Shot Breakout List
• Available B-Roll