The production stage is what filmmaking is all about. It’s that ‘Lights! Camera! Action!’ thing. The most obvious, most visually exciting part of the process. Film production represents the massive challenges that all filmmakers face. Bringing cast and crew together in the same location at the same time. You summon order out of chaos to get the shots scheduled for that day. It’s having a back-up plan in case the weather goes nuts, the location becomes unavailable or specialist equipment doesn’t arrive on time.
But it also represents the triumphs of filmmaking. A diverse team pulling together to transform a script into an exciting experience for the audience. Everyone using their unique skills to create magic, solve problems and have loads of fun while doing it. Production is the time when you form strong friendships and bond with a team of creative people who will want to work together in the future.
What is Film Production?
Production is a time of huge successes, occasional disasters and very long days. It’s when you record, gather and categorise the raw materials of the movie. The editor uses the pictures and audio to shape the story.
The popular view of production is that it’s centred around the director and the camera. True, but not the full story. The director works closely with the cinematographer, the production sound mixer, other department heads and the actors to make sure the look, mood and performance is consistent with their vision. While everyone has their title, on an independent film, with a small crew, everyone mucks in to help out.
A movie isn’t shot in script order. If there are several scenes in a particular location, you shoot all these scenes together.
If the movie requires visual effects, then a digital artist will be busy creating backgrounds, vehicles and characters to be combined with live action. The visual effects supervisor will make sure material and data are gathered on-set for keying and compositing, tracking and lighting CG elements.
Digital technology has transformed the way we shoot and record sound. You don’t need to wait for film to be developed. You can see immediately how the shot looks on a preview monitor. You can even apply a LUT to the image and get an idea how it appears after the colour grade.
When recording audio, you can plug several boom and radio mics can be plugged into one digital field recorder. And you can reliably sync the camera to the sound recorder with a wireless device.
Who’s Involved in Film Production?
The crew of an independent film need to be fluid in their roles and help each other out. But once the shooting starts, everyone needs to be in their positions and focused on the current scene.
The most visible roles are the director, cinematographer and sound recordist. They are accompanied by the assistant director, at least one camera assistant and a microphone boom operator. Traditionally the 1st AD has the loudest voice on-set. They keep the production running to schedule and call for quiet when shooting’s about to start. If your phone goes off, prepare to feel their wrath! If the shoot has a large cast, you’ll need more assistants to manage them.
The cinematographer might be accompanied by a DIT. The DIT monitors the brightness and contrast of the picture. There’re responsible for on-set displays and backing up video files. They might create custom LUTs for preview purposes. Also there for moral support when you plug everything up and… NOTHING. FREAKIN’. WORKS.
The heavy lifters of the crew are the lighting and grip team. Depending on the scale of production, the lighting crew might be led by a qualified electrician. Director of photography Jay Halben puts it like this, ‘The electricians make the light, the grips make the shadow.’ So the lighting team are responsible for lighting and power, while the grip team rig diffusion and flags. The grips are also responsible for camera support such as cranes, cable cams, track and dolly.
The unsung hero of production is the script supervisor. They work with the director, cinematographer, production design, wardrobe, hair and makeup to ensure continuity is maintained, shot to shot, scene to scene and throughout the whole movie. The script supervisor keeps track of how much of the script’s been shot and how much remains. They also prepare reports for postproduction, keeping the post team in the loop with scenes shot and what rushes will be delivered that day.
Depending on the scale of the movie, the production team might be based in an office away from the set, or it might be one person on-set with a laptop and a phone. If the production is a train, then they’re the ones laying the tracks in front of this speeding locomotive! They’re always thinking ahead, making sure everything’s in place for up-coming shooting days.
A Typical Production Day
A production day starts early. Before the camera rolls, the set needs to be dressed, the lights setup and the actors in makeup. If an actor requires prosthetics, this can take an hour or more to apply.
Each scene follows a similar pattern. The scene is blocked, then it’s rehearsed and then shooting takes place. Blocking is the process of figuring out where the characters will be positioned relative to the camera and relative to each other. By this stage, the actors should be familiar with the script, but the crew need rehearsal time too. If there are camera moves or a focus pull required. If multiple microphones are required to cover the scene. If the lighting needs to change during the take. All these actions need to be rehearsed so the crew feels confident about executing the shot.
Each scene is broken down into smaller units. Lighting setups are different lighting plans used in a scene. Each shot is from a different camera position and angle. A take is one run-through of a shot. Usually several takes are required before both cast and crew are happy with the shot.
So that’s the pattern. Block the scene, rehearse the scene, shoot the individual shots that make up the scene. All this doesn’t just happen without a great deal of planning. A good, fast moving production requires are very thorough and very detailed pre-production. The more planning you do, the smoother each days shoot will be. The more you prepare for what could go wrong, the less surprised you’ll be when it does.
Once all the shots for that day have been completed, the DIT and assistant sound mixer make back-up copies of the latest media files. Those files are then delivered to postproduction ready to be logged and added to the rough cut.
Before everyone leaves for the day, it’s typical for a production assistant to give everyone the call sheet for tomorrow. This is an important document that includes information such as one time everyone should arrive in the morning. Where they can park and where the set is located. The call sheet lets the actors know which scenes they’re in that day and when they need to be in makeup. It also includes contact information for the producer and director.
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