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Filmmaking: The order of production

Posted: Mon, 26th Apr 2004, 2:44pm

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Simon K Jones

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Filmmaking

The order of production

Making a movie is a particularly convoluted and multi-disciplined business. Bringing all the different elements together can be a daunting task and it is all too easy to lose your way once the production has begun. The key is in the planning.

Of course, filmmaking benefits as much as any other creative enterprise from a good deal of spontaneity, but a solid initial plan can be vital to keeping everything on track, giving you a stable foundation from which you can depart when necessary, knowing that you have a clear path to return to should things go awry.

The following is a suggested ‘order of production', drawn from knowledge of common practice as well as personal experience. As with all plans, this is just a rough guide, but should prove to be a good starting point.

There are four main stages:

Development
Pre-production
Production
Post-production

Each section has clearly defined objectives, which we shall examine in more detail below.

Development

This is where it all begins. Exactly when development begins is arguable, but a likely point would be when the idea for the film is first formed. Development involves crafting the idea into a fleshed-out story with involved characters, plot and themes, drafting the script and getting a general sense for what the movie may become.

By the end of the development phase, you should have a firm concept of what you hope the movie to be, and should be able to describe it succinctly to potential crew members and/or financiers. The screenplay, a solid treatment and any preliminary artwork can prove useful at this stage, especially if you need to convince others of the viability of the project. Concept images for the film can often fire other people's imagination even if the script does not.

The development stage is a particularly risky one, during which the majority of projects fall through and never progress any further. This could be due to lack of interest from others, or because you decide to move on to bigger and better things. Either way, this is the time to decide if you want to dedicate your time and effort to the project, because once you leave the development stage the work will suddenly become a lot harder and more serious.

By the end of development, you should look to have completed the following:

The basic concept for the movie
A solid story treatment
At least a first draft of the screenplay
Secured finances for the full project (if necessary)

Pre-production

Once the project is a definite ‘go' and you have a script, it's time to move to pre-production. This is an absolutely crucial stage that will have great influence on everything that follows – get this stage right, and the rest will hopefully fall neatly into place.

With your story in place, it is time to start planning how to translate it from page to screen. Of course, the screenplay will no doubt change many times and the narrative structure itself will not be fully locked until the final edit is complete but, with that in mind, you can still start to plan out every element.

The more detail you go into in pre-production, the clearer your vision of the movie will be – and your cast and crew will also have a better idea of what they are working on. Pre-production is when you take the abstract concepts in the script and turn them into actual things, ready to be put into the movie. Props and sets can be designed and built, locations secured, storyboards drawn, cast and crew assembled and a schedule laid out carefully.

When you finish pre-production, you should be comfortably ready to roll the cameras, and should have completed the following:

Script breakdown, to work out exactly what is required
Every scene planned to some extent
Full schedule for the entire production
Actors and crew assembled
Props designed/acquired
Costumes designed/acquired
Sets built
Locations found
Equipment secured

Production

This is the part that everyone looks forward to – the moment when you get to turn on the lights, roll the cameras and shout ‘action!' The production phase is when you take all the preparation of pre-production and put it to good use. It can often be the most difficult part of making a movie, as everything stops being theoretical and the schedule becomes all-important. It can often feel like you're running just ahead of a train, frantically laying tracks whilst it bears down behind you.

The shoot is also the period where you have to be most in control. You have an entire cast and crew to control and if you don't demonstrate that you know what you are doing, things will rapidly become difficult and strained on the set. The more you planned out the shoot, the smoother everything will progress.

Of course, no matter how much preparation you do, the event itself will always offer up a few surprises. Always try to have contingency plans should something interfere, and be open to last-minute adjustments. If the weather turns on you and the rain starts pouring down, don't abandon the day's shooting – instead, go inside and shoot a different scene, or rework the scene itself to benefit from the weather. Remember that you don't need to shoot in story order – you can film scene in any order, as long as you keep continuity in mind. It's often a good idea to have someone on set specifically to ensure that continuity is retained from scene-to-scene and shot-to-shot.

The crucial thing is to keep up the pace, especially with a low-budget or amateur production. Try to keep the entire shoot as short as possible, don't let it drag on or have huge gaps between shooting days, as your cast and crew will swiftly become bored or even abandon the project altogether.

By the end of production, you should have completed the following:

All the main footage for the movie
The main part of the actors' work

Post-production

Having accumulated all your footage during the production period, now is the time to piece it together and craft the movie itself. Post-production is in many ways the most complex stage of a film's creation, and the ultimate success or failure of the product in question can often ride on the decisions made in post. The raw materials are all there, waiting to be forged into a coherent movie.

More so than the previous sections, the order you undertake each part of post-production is very important. Doing everything in the correct order can make the procedure a lot simpler and faster, reducing the amount of back-and-forth required.

Editing
First you need to go through all the gathered footage and piece it together into a rough form of the movie. There is more freedom at this stage than you might think – indeed, many films have been completely reinvented at the editing desk. The possibilities are endless and can often become overwhelming – which is why you always need to keep the original screenplay to hand, to use as a guide should you wander too far off the path.

Keep an eye open for unnecessary scenes or shots that last too long. The tighter the editing, the easier it will be to retain your audience's attention. Bear in mind that ‘tight' editing doesn't necessarily mean keeping everything short and having hundreds of shots than only last a couple of seconds. It is all about identifying what is needed to tell the story and removing anything that wastes time.

Just as the script was the blueprint while filming, now your rough cut becomes the new blueprint for the final stages.

Visual effects
Special effects are not just limited to big budgets and sci-fi epics. Even the smallest of movies can feature effects shots, perhaps to replace scenery or superimpose a more dramatic skyline or sunset – but, then, as you're reading this at FXhome you will already know this!

You should always try to have at least a rough edit done before embarking upon difficult special effects, as that way you will not waste time and effort working on shots that might not even appear in the final cut. By editing the entire movie and using place-holder cards to stand in for the missing effects, you will know the general pacing and will have a better idea of how to integrate your effects with the main natural flow of the movie.

Of course, it is often still an idea to do preparation work for the effects early on, especially if you need to develop new technologies or learn new techniques.

Compositing
After the visual effects stage is complete, you should have every visual element that you require for the completed movie. You can now composite the movie together, using a program such as Chromanator, so that the visuals are all in place. This can also be a good time to add any titles and the opening and closing credits.

Grading
Once your visuals are secured, you should grade them using a program such as DigiGrade so that there is a common aesthetic look throughout the movie. This can also be useful to smooth over lighting mismatches and help integrate visual effects even more convincingly.

When used in coordination with on-set lighting, colour grading can be used to evoke even more mood from the visuals, or focus the viewer towards a specific area of the frame. Post-production grading can prove particularly effective at enhancing digital video, which otherwise can suffer from a relatively flat dramatic appearance when compared to film.

Sound and music
The very last thing to be done in most cases is the sound. An area that is often overlooked, sound adds the final touches of realism and power to your movie. As the sound needs to match up with the visuals, the visuals all need to be in place before the sound can be completed – therefore it is logical to leave the sound until last, otherwise you will be forced into constantly revising the sound mix as the images change.

A film's soundtrack is usually largely fabricated, using very little sound recorded on the actual set. Dialogue is looped in a recording studio, with actors repeating their lines for clarity whilst carefully lip-syncing to a playback of the scene. Sound effects recorded on-set tend to lack the punch that makes for an effective soundtrack. Most sounds, from footsteps to explosions, are created by mixing hundreds of separate sound together, often from unexpected sources. The shotgun sound effect in Terminator 2 , for example, uses the sounds of a cannon firing, a lion roaring and several different weapons to create the desired earth-shattering ‘booom!'

Once you have gone through all the stages described in these chapters, you should find yourself with the first version of your film. As they say, ‘art is never finished, only abandoned,' so you will no doubt be tweaking and fixing elements right up until the point that the movie needs to be premiered. Hopefully this tutorial will make the long process that little bit easier!

Posted: Thu, 7th Jun 2007, 8:01pm

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The Editing Room

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that was really helpful thanks!!
Posted: Thu, 7th Jun 2007, 8:12pm

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NickF

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Wow... this thread has been on FXhome since before I signed up!
Posted: Thu, 7th Jun 2007, 11:05pm

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pdrg

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Tarn does miss a crucial sub-step out at the end of the production phase - sleeeeeeeeeeeep, and catching up on yourself after a long, stressful few weeks! wink

(Never underestimate how dull, tiring and hard work the shooting phase is...don't plan on doing anything useful for a few days after any shoot longer than a week!)
Posted: Fri, 8th Jun 2007, 7:58am

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Simon K Jones

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pdrg wrote:

Tarn does miss a crucial sub-step out at the end of the production phase - sleeeeeeeeeeeep, and catching up on yourself after a long, stressful few weeks! wink
Ah, but I wrote that tutorial when I was young and full of energy, and didn't need such things as sleep.

If I wrote it now, of course, it'd be an integral part of each step of the process.
Posted: Fri, 8th Jun 2007, 8:35am

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Whong

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A very helpful and nice tutorial! Thanks Tarn! Very nice! biggrin
Posted: Sat, 21st Mar 2009, 6:12pm

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Paradox Pictures

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veryveryveryveryverynice!