Film 101: Stages of Filmmaking

by | Sep 9th, 2009 | 4:38PM | Filed under: Film 101

In past Film 101 installments, we've talked about things that happen during pre-production (location scouting) as well as post-production (sound editing).  However, we never actually explained what pre-production and post-production are, so I'm going to remedy that today.  There are typically five major stages in the filmmaking process, so let's take a high-level look at what happens during each one.  But first I'm going to bring up the same disclaimer I've mentioned before: there are always exceptions. Generally, however, the following steps need to transpire in the following order to bring movie-lovers another title to fawn over (or despise).

Moviescript Development – In this phase, we've got everything that's necessary to turn a story idea that's nothing more than a glimmer in some producer's eye into a signed contract that says "this thing's gonna happen." 

When a lightbulb goes off in a producer's head and he's come up with the concept for what he's sure will be the next Citizen Kane, he gives his writer friends a call and they develop a plot synopsis.  Next comes a "step outline," which consists of numbered, scenes (each usually a paragraph in length) that provide much of the detail that a screenwriter will need to develop the full screenplay.  A "treatment" is also created in this stage, and this document reads like a short story that's told in the present tense. It also might include some sketches to help the reader be able to visualize what would be transpiring on-screen.  There are different kinds of treatments that are used for various purposes, but overall, both step outlines and treatments are necessary to not only help the chosen screenwriter understand the vision for the film, but also allow studio executives to easily and quickly understand what a project is all about in order for them to decide whether or not they're interested in backing it.

Development ends when a script has been finalized (which can sometimes take years) and the official green light has been given by whatever party will be financing the film. 

Pre-Production –This stage is all about organizing and getting ready to roll tape.  The cast and crew are hired, as is the director.  (Sometimes the involvement of a big-name star or director is a negotiation point in development, though.)  Location scouting begins, sets are designed, costumes and props are made, a detailed day-by-day production schedule is created, and eventually a read-through of the entire script will take place with all of the major players. 

Movieshoot Production — This is the phase most people are familiar with, because popular magazines and web sites often tout set pictures of, say, the latest Twilight installment… or the Sex and the City sequel while filming is underway. (Don't click those links if you want everything about those movies to remain a surprise!)

So you've probably already figured out that production entails actually shooting the film.  The director will oversee cast rehearsals of dialogue, movements, stunts, and so forth — and will continue with as many takes as he needs to ensure he captures exactly what he had in mind for a given scene.  There are a ton of things that need to be done to prepare for filming each and every day, such as tweaking the lighting, getting the actors and actresses in their outfits and makeup, touching up sets and putting extras in place.  At the end of what is often an extremely long day, the director and others may review the "dailies" — unedited footage that was captured either that same day or possibly the day before.  After several weeks or months, production usually ends with a wrap party for everyone who worked on the project.  For big blockbusters, we're talking hundreds of people.  Party on!

Post-Production — The fun part's over… now the technical whizzes are on task to make everything look and sound as it should. Shots are pieced together, the film is edited, sound is mixed in, and then sometimes a test audience is shown a preview to determine whether anything needs to be taken out, added or re-shot.  (You may remember how disturbed I was that a test audience was responsible for the untrue-to-the-novel ending of The Time Traveler's Wife.)  Not all titles get the, um, "benefit" of a test screening. though.

Movie_tickets Distribution — Now it's time to see if all of the hard work from the previous four stages was worth it… the film either goes direct-to-DVD or hits theaters, usually on the heels of a glamorous premiere, a press junket, a website launch and an advertising campaign.  This is where we common folk come in; after thousands, millions, tens of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent getting a movie to the cineplex, we have the power to determine its overall success. 

This entire process could take anywhere from a few months to several years, and recouping the film's budget is never a guarantee.  So what do you think?  Is your job sounding better or worse?  (Despite all of the blood, sweat, tears, time and money that goes into filmmaking, it still seems like a pretty awesome career, though, doesn't it?)


4 Responses to “Film 101: Stages of Filmmaking”

  1. Livia
    Posted on September 9, 2009 at 7:03 pm

    I like watching movies but it takes a long time to make them and distribute them but the best part of the movies is seeing it in the theatre and after getting the DVD release which I can’t wait for The Time Traveler’s Wife & Julie & Julia to come out on DVD!!! But entertainment is so expensive these days so it would be good to ask what movies you want on DVD for Christmas, that’s your best bet unless you really like a movie.

  2. Nick
    Posted on September 10, 2009 at 9:07 am

    Very informative. I love this series. Keep it up!

  3. Jason @ Filmmaking Stuff
    Posted on September 13, 2009 at 9:35 pm

    This is a great overview!

  4. Bianconiglio
    Posted on September 14, 2009 at 9:00 am

    Fantastic way to describe these five processes: easy, short, effective and also funny! Awsome article! I can answer this way to your last question: this is one of the reasons why I hate so much “easy judgements” about movies, because those judgements are done in so few time and usually by a single person, who often doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about, while the movie (good or bad) takes so much time to be done and so many people at work!