Saturday, July 4, 2009

The FILM lifecycle

Let me take you through the lifecycle of how a film is made from the scratch. It is an exhilarating experience being in a shoot and if you have been in one – the enormity of the scale of production and how logistics are handled is itself is a remarkable breakthrough.
But with the independent film sector exploding in past years, it becomes increasingly imaginable for any given person with a good idea, more frequently a bad one, to undertake a film project.

In the United States, Michael Moore’s pit-bullish documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) and cult breakout Mormon-inflected narrative film Napolean Dynamite (2004) both cost less than a half-million dollars to make. Did you know that Jonathans Cauette’s autobiographical film Tarnation (2003), about his relationship with his mentally ill mother was edited at home on his laptop, reputedly cost $218?

Now that you have had your lessons in this blog on film studies and some background history: let me take you through the first stage of a film making experience:

PRE PRODUCTION : This is followed by – logically enough - production and post-production, and together these three steps describe the process of making movies at whatever scale, from artisanal solo efforts at home or on the soccer field, through larger yet still modest productions such as Moore’s with location shooting and a sizeable crew, to extravagant studio productions with the imprimaturs of Kong or big name directors in Japan or New Zealand or Sound Africa.

Pre-Production: Involves the elaboration of an idea from inchoate premise to a plan of movie-making and includes all the tasks one requires to plan for movie-making and one must complete before actually shooting a film. In the case of small scale film, pre production begins with elaborating on an idea over several written stages. A proposal sketches the idea in a nutshell, whether it’s focus for a documentary (follow eight kids through a spelling competition), an experimental film (put one camera on the Empire State Building for eight hours), or a narrative film (tell the story of 1919 ‘black sox scandal, when the Chicago white sox baseball threw the World Series). (These proposals incidently evolved into Spellbound (Jeffrey blitz, 2002), Empire (Andy Warhol, 1964), and Eight Men out (John Sayles, 1988) respectively).

A proposal evolves into more elaborate version, still a nascent idea, called a “treatment”, in which , for a narrative film, the characters but especially the structure and logic becomes clearer, a treatment explains how the plot advances, how dramatic action unfolds, and how characters function in terms of that structure. From proposal to treatment, from treatment to script or screenplay: a screenplay follows a common format and supplies full dialogue between characters, the location of every numbered scene, and all the action in the story.

Formatting the screenplay according to a standardized protocol allows everyone who might be involved with the production of a narrative to understand every scene’s components and demands. Popular software packages such as Final Draft or Sophocles permit to make it possible to identify a scene during shooting a scene where each scene is numbered. Because each page of a screenplay occupies roughly one minute of screen time, knowing the page count of a given scene is crucial.

From screenplay to shooting script: this expanded version of the screenplay adds all of the information necessary to transform the screenplay into actual images and sounds. To realise the film, every shot, every camera setup, and every movement is planned in advance in the shooting script and often to storyboards, sketches of every shot which suggests further visual information about each shot’s realization, from scale to proportion, to angle, to screen direction. While some directors rely more heavily than others upon storyboards in pre-production planning, the work of pre-production maximizes the chances of making a good film in the end.

Subsequent stages of pre-production follow from having a screenplay or a developed film property, and whoever is ultimately responsible for financing the film must give it a “go” or a “green light” before it enters the following phases of pre-production, planning. These includes casting (of principle actors, extras, stunt doubles and the like, either through an agency or casting director or by choosing your friends wisely,) location scouting, research – production design.

Production Design (generating the overall “look” of the film through the art director’s supervision of set d├ęcor, design and illustration, as well as costume design), set construction and costume. All these activities must, therefore, adhere to a strict budget, administered, and supervised by a line production, so called because the budget divides along a line containing “above the line” costs of story rights, scenario, producer, director, cast and fringe benefits; and “below the line” cost of just about everything, including extras, staff , art and set costs, light platform, labor and materials effects and miniatures, and the like. The production budget determines all that follows in the next phase.

The production phase technically encompasses, for a feature film, only the activity of principal photography, that is, the shooting and sound recording of the principal performers and the essential actions. But even principal photography enlists the services of the small army of talented labourers. Captured by the first unit of production, the director, and principle actors, the principle photography is the meat of the film, supplemented by the work of the second unit, which contributes inserts, backgrounds, aerial photography, special location shot, action sequences, and the like. For a smaller production, various combinations of technical expertise in crew draw from these general structures.

Assistant Director: Assisting the director, a crew of five involves itself closely in decision making on set and, perhaps most crucial, in tracking what actually gets from script to film. Formerly known as the “script girl” (definitely a gendered term!!), the script supervisor keeps track of what is to be shot (and what sound recorded) in each scene as well as that is actually shot; the supervisor times the script, anticipating the final length of the assembled film and records detailed notes to assist the director in moving from scene to scene. For those viewers who avidly note mistakes in continuity ( a character is bare-headed when leaving the house, but miraculously appear with a beret in the exterior shot), the script supervisor, the dialogue director tracks changes in dialogue from rehearsal, where actors often forge new approaches to the script or tweak its details, to what makes its way to the take. And finally, Cuer who work with cue cards and Teleprompters if they are to be used, records out the director’s crew.

Directors work closely, of course, with actors, primarily with those principal actors (often called lead actors) or stars, and, as we know, not every lead actor is a star.

The cinematographer or director of photography generally chooses cameras, film stock to slating takes and taking production stills to use in publicity. Frequently the cinematographer sits at the director’s side to watch rushes or dailies, those take recorded during each day of shooting, to evaluate what needs to be re-shot.

Sound crews similarly record all elements of production sound, usually divided into the categories of sync sound (recorded in synchronization with the camera) and wild sound (not synchronized), both of which belong to the category of live sound, recorded during shooting (as opposed to post production). The production sound crew assists with booms for microphones (operated by the sound assistant or, predictably, the boom operator) and affixing smaller microphones on set. Later the sound crew, led by a production mixer, combines a preliminary sound mix, much of which changes in the post production phase, when our Foley artist steps in to perform replacement sound effects, from footsteps through squealing tires to raindrops dancing on tin roofs.

Rounding off the production team, a Flock of managers attempt to control the chaos of principle photography. In addition, a film publicist stokes interest in the production in the trade press, leaking bits of the story or tales of the production to maintain interest until the film’s carefully calculated release date.

Finally, there is also a mysteriously named crew responsible for electricity, and a crew responsible for moving and hauling work together on set. The gaffer is the set’s key electrician, his assistant the best boy. The key grip is the supervisor of the grips, who do the physical work of setting up dollies and cranes, laying tracks for dollies, controlling camera cables, and the like.

As these physical labours of filmmaking yield to touches of buttons, and as analog film yields to digital media, increasingly films are actually made in the post-production phase, a world rapidly changing due to the constant invention of software used for digital effects or computer generated imagery.


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