What is Film Production?

Film production is the start-to-finish process by which a movie is made. But that doesn’t tell us the whole story. With three decades of expertise, charlieuniformtango answers the question “What is film production?” so you understand the end-to-end process in depth. Think about the last film you watched. If it was any good, you got lost in the narrative and didn’t think at all about who funded it, insured it, edited it, or filmed it behind the cameras. Film production is much like enjoying your favorite meal in a restaurant: you get the perfectly plated result. You don’t see the dirty dishes, the chefs, or the farmer who grew the food. You get the drift. But if you’re curious to discover more behind-the-scenes of filmmaking, we’ll take you beneath the final cut and show you the five stages of production, their processes, and the professionals that make up every great film production.

What Is Production In Film: 5 Stages of Film Production

There are five sequential stages of film production: development, pre-production, production, post-production, and film distribution.

Let’s start with a brief summary of the five stages of production. The development stage, also known as the concept development phase, is where the idea for the film is born and financing is secured to make the movie. The pre-production stage is the scriptwriting and planning phase of film production, where the story is finalized on paper and the preparation for casting, locations, equipment, costumes, art design, set design, hiring a film crew, and scheduling the daily filming is completed. The production stage, also known as principal photography, is when the filming of the story takes place with cameras, cast, and crew. The post-production stage is also known as the film editing phase, where the raw film footage is assembled and sound, visual effects, color grading, graphics, narration, and voice-overs are added to make a final cut. Finally, the distribution stage, also paired with the marketing phase, is when the film is packaged and sent to cinemas and other streaming platforms, as well as promoted through the press and social media.

The Film Production Process

Another way to simplify film production is to break down the five stages into smaller steps called the film production process. Though the depth of the film production process depends entirely on the film’s budget, each of the smaller steps is critical to completing any film. Let’s take a look at the individual steps in a film production process flow chart.

Before we go into the five stages of film production in depth, let’s summarize the film production process. The steps of the development stage include concept development, finding investors, securing financing, applying for tax incentives, purchasing insurance, and creating a budget for the film’s many expenses. The steps of the pre-production stage include payroll, scriptwriting, production planning, casting, location scouting, storyboards, costume design, art direction, set design, hiring a film crew, lighting and film equipment rentals, shooting schedules, shot lists, and call sheets. The steps of the production stage include set construction, equipment setup, shooting the film, B-roll capture, and securing the film’s video footage. The steps of the post-production stage include assembling the raw footage of the film, creating an edit decision list, editing a rough cut of the film, reshooting any missing or corrupted scenes, adding sound, music, visual effects, color correction, graphics, narration, and/or voice-overs. Finally, the steps of the distribution stage include creating the film’s final cut in a digital cinema package that can be distributed to theaters and online streaming services, as well as editing promotional previews for the press and social media.

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1. Development Stage

The central goal of the development stage is to obtain funding for the film’s production. This planning phase is the intersection of idea development and logistical planning to outline a working framework for the film’s story, budget, and crew. The development process of most film productions involves a central producer who assembles a collection of elements—called a package—in order to get funding for the film. These elements may include a piece of intellectual property, a script, a movie star, and a director. The development package establishes the value of the film in the eyes of potential financiers, who will ultimately write large checks for the funding of the movie.

Intellectual Property

Every film is born out of an idea, a spec script, or intellectual property like an optioned book. Though undeveloped ideas are harder to package, a spec script is ideal because it is a fully written screenplay that a writer has made on their own, which gives the producer something to pitch investors. Spec scripts get to producers through an agent, an independent film festival, or on the black list. Intellectual property (IP) is another initial step in packaging, where a creative work like a book or an article is legally protected with copyrights. Producers like to purchase or option pre-existing IP in their packages because books and independent stories have already proven to be popular with audiences.

Script Development

Once the idea for the film is optioned or conceptualized, a producer will work with a scriptwriter to expand this idea into a more detailed script. The goal is to align the script with what the producer feels is needed on the page visually in order to sell the idea to investors. This is done by writing the script with its’ full production in mind, as well as summarizing the script into a proposal, including a brief overview of the film, other movies it can be compared to, market research, and a summary of the finances involved. The producer and scriptwriter will also develop a Logline, which is a one-sentence summary of the general tone and plot of the film. 

Director and Actors

Armed with the script, proposal, and Logline, the producer may also organize live table reads, where the movie’s director and potential actors read through the script together to generate excitement in front of the film’s potential investors. If the producer can secure a well-known director and box-office movie star(s), this is further evidence to financiers that the film will be profitable. Martin Scorsese needed to be “packaged” with a high-profile actor in order to get investors to fund the low-budget film Taxi Driver. Scorsese recalls, “De Niro had just won the Academy Award for Godfather II. [Producers] figured they sold the two of us together into a sort of package.”

Financing

With a big-name director and movie star(s) on board, the producer has name recognition and a historical record of the talent’s box-office success. With these elements of the package in hand, the producer has multiple ways to approach third-party investors to pitch the film’s concept (and value) in order to negotiate funding. Producers may also develop a proof of concept—a short film or scene—to immerse investors in the story and convince backers that their investment will pay off.

Budget

When a producer is able to successfully obtain funding from a film studio, production company, or independent investors, the film is greenlit and given permission to move forward with the film production process. In this final step of the development stage, the producer creates an estimated budget that can cover the costs of each step of pre-production, production, post-production, and distribution. Producer’s budgets include costs for any licensure, authorizations, and permits, locations, production insurance, and hiring of cast and crew, among other considerations. In the final budget, a failure to account for potential costs may cause unnecessary interruptions during the film’s production. But there is some good news for producers because films shot in America can take advantage of state-by-state tax incentives for film production.

2. Pre-Production Stage

Once you get everything in the development stage squared away, you have the green light to move to the pre-production phase. The pre production stage of the film production establishes an advance framework for every aspect of the film shoot from storyboards, location scouting and equipment procurement to final budgeting, and hiring of cast and crew members.

Storyboards and shortlists

Storyboards are graphical illustrations of a script. While these might sound like they replicate the script, they don’t and are very useful. Storyboards give you an actual picture of a scene, making it easier to visualize shot sizes, camera angles, and so on. They are also instrumental in explaining a shot to talent or designers. A verbal description is one thing, but illustrations can make things smoother. Shortlists are also done in pre production. These describe what’s needed in each scene. Again, these help in schedule planning and budgeting.

Production scheduling

Bearing that filming a movie is an expensive affair, it’s imperative to have a schedule and stick to it. A production schedule tells you what will happen, when, and the workforce needed. This must be in place before cameras roll. A production schedule can be on a spreadsheet, chart, or day-by-day calendar. Another thing the production team needs to do in the pre production stage is develop a call sheet. A call sheet instructs the crew on who is needed on set, where, when, and what their role is.

Budget

A budget lets you know how much money you will need. It also helps you stick to a preconceived plan and track expenses at every stage of the production process. This has to be settled before you ever shoot your first scene. It’s good if your expenses align with your budget as you move from one production stage to the next. If not, you can find ways to get back on track before a massive shortfall. Here’s an essential list of the things to budget:

·        Payroll (actors, designers, extras, PR, scriptwriters, producers, directors and so on)

·        Locations

·        Equipment purchases or rentals

·        Props and costumes

·        Insurance for the entire production team and crew members

·        Marketing, advertising, and promotion

Hiring Cast Members and Crew

Your script will tell you the cast needed and any costume specifics, while your budget informs who you can afford for each role. Hiring casts can include auditions, script read-throughs, and screen-testing. It can also be as simple as calling actors and actresses who would be great for varying roles. It’s customary for major productions to have backups for actors, just in case. A similar process goes on with the crew. With interviews, looking at their reels, and so on.  

Location Scouting

One of the importance of having your script and storyboards ready is that it helps with location scouting. Location scouting is finding suitable outdoor and indoor spaces that fit the descriptions in the script. Some places require bookings, permission to film, and permits from local authorities. Similarly, narrow down on the equipment needed and when to make the bookings or purchases. If there are unique costumes, look into rentals or get and instruct a designer on the designs needed and the deadlines. Take your time to work through the nitty-gritty of pre-production as it creates the framework for successful film production. If you need to correct something, whether it’s budgeting, scheduling, location scouting, or hiring, it eats into your time, which affects your budget.

3. Production Stage

The production stage centers around filmmaking, when the cameras capture the performance of the actors. The production stage is characterized by shooting hours of video footage based on the specific scenes outlined in the screenplay, as well as additional footage called B-roll that isn’t the main action. The production stage of filmmaking is facilitated by many behind the scenes personnel, with the most notable being the directors and cinematographer.

Producer

The producer is directly responsible for the film financially and logistically. The main producer, also called the creative producer, is the person who raises the money to make the film, and strategically acquires the story for the film by optioning the rights to a book (or creating an original script) and commissioning writers to adapt it into a screenplay. The creative producer also hires the director that they think is the best fit for the story they want told. Ultimately, the producer is responsible for overseeing the film production process from start to finish (with the help of executive producers, associate producers, co-producers and line producers).

Film director

When shooting begins, the director is responsible for spearheading and turning a script into a captivating story to be enjoyed on screen. To do so, they control and manage the creative components of a film, from the actors to the filming crew, while sticking to the shooting schedule.

Assistant director

While the director takes center stage with all aspects of the creative process, the assistant director has to work closely with the director. They also manage other logistical processes. During filming, the assistant directors are responsible to:

·        Track daily progress against the outlined filming schedule

·        Prepare daily call sheets from shooting schedules so that only required persons are on set

·        Maintain order on set during the entire production

·        Collaborate with location managers to ensure location permits are on hand

·        Oversee the health and safety of cast and crew on set, including conflict resolution

Cinematographer

A cinematographer or director of photography’s role is to shoot a film as per the director’s vision. This means taking care of lighting, bending light, and capturing light in a way that best captures any scene’s essence. To do this, they provide instructions to electric and grip departments, over and above heading the camera department.

Production designer

They work on visuals for the set by bringing together set design, props, locations, graphics, costumes, camera angles, and lighting.

Script supervisor

Script supervisors are also known as continuity supervisors. Their role on set is to spearhead the continuity of the motion film. In pre-production, script supervisors assess the shooting script regarding cast actions, hair and make-up, wardrobe, props, and story days. When shooting commences, they monitor filming closely to ensure that the shot scenes can be edited to form a continuous, well-flowing narration.

Line producers

Line producers wear many hats to ensure the actualization of a film. They will hire, mitigate problems during the shoot, ensure actors and crew are paid, handle contracts, and manage legal issues.

Prop master

Your script mentions props for different scenes, which you then budget for. Prop masters then take charge of the storage and transportation of each day’s shoot, going by the filming schedule. If the props have to be made, prop masters will identify the carpenters and manage the process to ensure whatever is needed is ready on time.

Shooting the performance

The cast and crew work collaboratively to ensure a seamless film shoot. During shooting, actors take on the set, acting out the scenes with dialogue, body language, and other nuances to tell the story from the script. This is with direction from the film director. As they do this, the filming crew captures raw video using varying camera angles and lighting to get the best take. All the shot clips are stored, and rough cuts of the movie can progress as more lips come in.

4. Post-Production Stage

The post-production stage is the editing phase, when the film is pieced together into a final cut. Post-production takes place after shooting, and the performance is complete. There are five stages that answer the question “What is post-production?”: editing, visual effects, sound design, color, and graphics.

Editing

Editing takes a lot of time, skill, and keenness to tell the story as it is in the script and visualized on the storyboard. Editors work together with the director to gather the best shots assemble and sequence the raw footage in a rough cut of the movie. Then the film post-production team adds visual effects, sound effects, a music score, color grading, and graphics. The visual images on the final product are night and day compared to the rough cut. Short films run to 40 minutes, while feature films go on for 75 to 210 minutes. Editing ensures that these timelines are kept without negating the entertainment and storytelling value.

Visual effects

While the director ensures to make the film captivating during filming, visual effects might also be required to enhance and complement the action. Visual effects (VFX) integrate external imagery into the captured scenes. VFX can also be used to correct mistakes and remove things and people from scenes.

Sound design

Sound editing is the first phase of sound design. Sound editors clean up the dialogue recorded on-set and balance the volume so nothing is missed. Many times, new audio will be recorded by the actors in a sound studio to replace unusable dialogue from the film footage. The sound design stage of pre-production is also where foley artists record or enhance sounds that could not be captured clearly on set, like explosions, rainfall, and footsteps, to name a few. The sound department creates a soundscape by including or emphasizing sounds in the scenes. Finally, sound design involves music editors and composers who’ll create the background music within the film. Combined, visual and sound design help to create an immersive atmosphere.

Color

Color editing includes both color correction and color grading. Color correction adjusts color in footage to make it more true to life. One of the most critical aspects of color correction is getting skin tones right and ensuring that you color match all shots, start to finish. Color grading, on the other hand, is more artistic and brings in more intentional, albeit less natural, picture color. With grading, you can change palettes and hues on the whole frame or bits of it.

Graphics

Graphics are often the final stage of post production, where graphic editors create title cards, subtitles, credits, chyrons, and any other necessary graphics for the films beginning and end. These features set the tone for the introduction and credits of the final cut. The scale and complexity of graphics always varies, depending on the screenplay, with some modern films using graphics throughout the entirety of the movie. The end of post-production should leave you with the film’s final cut, which is the finished product audiences will watch from title sequences to the closing credits.

5. Distribution and Promotion

Film distribution is the exploitation of your film in specific territories, through various channels that maximize your return on investment. The goal of your film’s distribution is to reach a specific or broad audience for a fee so that the film can generate financial returns in order to pay back investors, and generate future royalties to you on an ongoing basis. To reach the widest audience, you can distribute the film yourself or hire a distribution company (see Filmhub, A24, and Neon). Traditional distribution involves the licensing of your film to a company that will distribute your film, and hopefully, help you market the film as well. Self-distribution requires an understanding of the different platforms available like transactional video-on-demand (TVOD), subscription video-on-demand (SVOD), and advertising-based video on demand (AVOD). Distribution and promotion is the final stage of film production, and by far the most important phase when the movie is made available for viewing by an audience. The distribution process takes a minimum of three months, with even more time required to pitch your film to larger players. To maximize your ROI, your distribution plan needs focus on making money through multiple platforms, boosted by marketing and ad buys.

Historically, filmmakers used reels to distribute films to movie theaters. In the streaming age, 2K resolution called Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI) is the standard for distribution on many formats including television, consumer media, and film. That said, digital technology continues to advance with emerging resolution like 4k video production, and 4k, 6k, and 8k cameras that capture film in the highest possible resolution for super sharp images and stabilized footage. Whether the film is distributed to online streaming apps, movie theaters, blue-ray, or broadcast syndication, the movie must be marketed and promoted to let the masses know it’s available. This is a costly process, and extremely important to capture the attention of audiences. The distribution and promotion stage employs the marketing plan set in place during the pre-production stage.

It’s a Wrap!

The 40-minute or 2-hour film you watch at home or the movies is often a snapshot of years of planning and a summation of the 5 stages of film production. The whole process of filmmaking is essential and builds on to the next. If you follow the process and get each stage right, you are likely to stick to your budget, wrap up by the deadline, and have a great film to show. And of course, charlieuniformtango is here to help you on your next project. In the nearly 30 years we have been operational, our full-service production company has delivered award-winning films from start to finish, as well as industry-leading video production services and post-production for film, TV, and video content. Bottom line: whether your needs are turnkey or à la carte charlieuniformtango has the talent and technology to deliver world-class video production for any and all of the five stages. Let’s Tango.

Justin Wilson

Director/Editor/Musician

Justin Wilson is an award winning filmmaker who combines a love for motion pictures with a positive mental attitude to create films about the human spirit. For 17 years he has been a director and editor with Charlie Uniform Tango for Super Bowl commercials, documentaries, brand campaigns, music videos, product demos, social media videos, and more. His videos regularly garner millions of views and he is a digital content contributor for video production websites.

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