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Steve’s Film School: Introduction - How it Comes Together

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Steve's Film School: Introduction - How it Comes Together

Postby Steve Grisetti » Sun Sep 14, 2008 10:20 am

Welcome to the first in a new series of articles I’ll be writing for

My goal with this series is to discuss what’s commonly called “the language of movies.” In other words, in this series, you’ll find less emphasis on the technical aspects of how the equipment and software we use to make our videos works, and more on how we communicate with the medium of videos and film.

I’ll teach you everything I know (It could be a very short series…) about film and video theory - how to shoot, how to tell a story with what you shoot, how to compose a scene. We will cover such basic but important principles as three-point lighting, depth of field, the angle of action, continuity, shot composition, structure and mood and tempo. My goal is to explain these principles and their uses in such a way that you can use them to your advantage, making movies that are rich and professional, that take full advantage of this exciting medium and, above all, that tell the stories we want to tell as dramatically as possible, whether scripted or documented.

You will notice, by the way, that in my discussions I will make very little distinction between scripted, or narrative movies and non-scripted movies or documentaries, as far as production goes. This is because, in my opinion, the language for both and the goals of each are the same - to tell great stories. A great documentary is every bit as thrilling as a great narrative movie. And, while the director of a narrative film has the advantage of pre-planning shots and scripting the action, the principles of great production are equally important to either.


Before we get into the meat of our class, however, let’s take a moment to fill in some not-particularly-essential
-but-interesting background - just to let you know how movies are made and what all those guys who are listed in the closing credits actually do.

How to read credits

Ever see anything like this in the fine print of an ad for a movie?

· Walt Disney Pictures presents a Pixar Studios production of a Brad Bird film, produced by Brad Lewis

Well, here’s how to read those credits:

Walt Disney Pictures is presenting the movie cause they are the distribution company for the film. See, no matter who actually made the movie, it eventually ends up in the hands of a distributor, the company that is responsible for getting the movie into theaters. In this case, Disney is such a large conglomerate that it can both produce and distribute its own films. Many smaller producers need to peddle their films at conventions or film markets (such as the AFM, or American Film Market, a huge gathering of filmmakers and distributors which takes place every year in Santa Monica) or at film festivals, like Sundance or Cannes. If a producer can’t find a distributor, the movie may go straight to video or will unlikely be seen by any major audience.

The next entity listed in the credits is production company. Pixar Studios, in this case, is a joint operation of Walt Disney Productions and Pixar, the group of creative people who essentially invented animated CGI feature. The production company, for the most part finances the production and, quite often, supervises it to make sure it’s up to the studio’s standards. In this case, however, Pixar has enjoyed such success that even Disney is probably pretty hands-off. (A relationship that’s especially rare for this historically very controlling company.)

Let’s skip Brad Bird’s credit for the moment and go to the producer’s credit. The producer, in Hollywood, is perhaps the most ill-defined role in filmmaking. Generally speaking, the producer is the person or persons who pulled the deal together. He, she or their team represented the project when it was just an idea, and they are the ones who sold the studio on the idea of financing it. They are also responsible for making sure it stays on budget and on time and that the director delivers what he’s obligated to deliver, that the actors show up on time and that the whole production is proceeds as it should.

I say that the word “producer” a bit ill-defined in Hollywood because, beyond the executive producer credits for the people who put together the movie project, producer credits are handed out rather randomly at times in Hollywood. If the story was based on your life, for instance, the producers might give you a producer or associate producer credit just so that you can claim part ownership. Sometimes someone who made a creative or other contribution to the film are also given producer credit. In short, in can simply be a way of recognizing someone’s part in the production.

(Producers, in television, are a whole other entity, by the way. A producer on a TV series is commonly part of the creative or writing team, which is why TV shows like “The Simpsons” have something like 27 of them.)

Speaking of creative contributions, do you know how to interpret screenplay writing credits? There’s actually a code to how they are written out, believe it or not. If you see an ampersand (&), for instance, between two writers’ names, that means that they worked together on their draft of the screenplay. The word “and” between writers’ names, on the other hand, indicates that writers didn’t collaborate but that the writer listed later took over the screenwriting job from the writer listed earlier - probably because the producers or director were unhappy with the former writer’s work.

As for the “story by” credit, that usually indicates that this credited writer’s work was so heavily rewritten by later screenwriters that only the basic ideas remain.

Finally, we come to the credit “A Brad Bird Film”. What does that mean, exactly?

Well, simply put, Brad Bird is the director. In fact, Bird (who also directed “The Incredibles”) is a very high-profile director, and his name can help sell the movie. No doubt Disney decided there could be real “marquee value” in stressing Bird’s work in the film.

Directors, by the way, didn’t used to get their names listed “above the title” in this way. Frank Capra was perhaps the first “star” director who was powerful enough to demand his name get as much prominence as the name of the movie itself. Others followed, with people like Alfred Hitchock’s and Steven Spielberg’s name above the title not only likely to get an audience’s attention but also implying a certain level of quality and type of film. Unfortunately, like most such highlighted credits, it’s become cheapened with overuse. Virtually every director demands it now, and so you commonly see the names of directors you couldn’t care less about listed above the title, advertised as a Somebody Something Film.

And what about the other people in the credits?


Here’s a quick reference guide to the major players on a film crew:

The Director: He’s not just the guy who positions the actors and yells “action!” The director supervises and often rewrites the script, chooses the principal cast, approves the art direction, chooses the locations for shooting, hires the cinematographer, costume designer, editor, music director and pretty much any other creative contributor to the movie’s production. This is why he or she is often (right or wrong) held singularly responsible for the success or failure of a movie. Everything from the content of the script to the mood, look, style, pacing and performances in the final film have been touched by him or her.

The Assistant Director: Assistant Directors are usually not people who are studying to be directors. They are part of the crew, and their main job is to make sure the director is able to focus on directing the principal cast and setting up shots. ADs, for instance, make sure the actors are on the set when they’re needed. They keep all the logistics in order and scramble to handle whatever goes wrong on the set. In addition, the 1st AD also usually directs the extras moving in the background of a shot.

The Cinematographer/Director of Photography: In England, they used to call the Director of Photography (DP) the Lighting Director, though the role is the same, because his job is to “paint the movie with light.” In fact, the entire lighting and grip crew report to DP. We will discuss his role in greater detail in later articles, since his role is singularly important in the production of any movie. The director sets up the shots, but it’s the DP who lights and creates the overall look of it. So significant is his contribution that, once they find one that fits their directing style, directors tend to buddy up with the same DPs for several productions DPs are usually assisted by a Puller (because he “pulls” the lens) who is responsible for measuring the shots and making sure that it all stays in focus, at least one assistant to reload the film, and a dolly grip, who moves the camera dolly, usually with the DP on it.

The Art Director: The art director works alongside the director to create the look of the film. Working from sketches and even computer animations, the art director works with the set and costume designers to create the “world” of the movie - the style, mood, color scheme and overall visual tone that gives the movie its unique look and feel.

The Script Supervisor: The script supervisor’s job is to take notes, usually right on a master copy of the script, of which shots were taken from which angles and which of this takes are to be printed. (Only a small portion of the film shot is actually printed, and only about one out of 30 shots in a feature film actually make it to the final cut.) The script supervisor also has a role in continuity, making sure that an actor who is wearing a tie in one shot is also wearing the same tie in another, for instance.

The Electrical Crew: Reporting to the DP, the electricians light the scene and make sure any other electrical needs are taken care of. The head electrician is called the Gaffer. His assistant, who is in charge of inventorying and maintaining the equipment, is the Best Boy.

The Grips: The grips are in charge of moving everything on a set that is not a hand prop. Grips move furniture, large props and, on a sound stage, they’ll even remove walls from a set so that the DP is able to shoot from a particular angle. The head grip is called the Key Grip. A Dolly Grip steers and pulls the cart on which the camera and DP are mounted.

In addition, a set usually includes a team whose jobs are fairly obvious from their job names: the Propmaster, the Special Effects Person (whose effects can be as low-tech as making a light flash on an answering machine), a Dialogue Coach, Stand-Ins (who “stand in” for actors while the DP sets the lighting for a scene), a Sound Person and a microphone Boom Operator. Finally, most major productions include a Craft Services person, whose job it is to keep everyone’s energy up by keeping a table stocked with snacks and refreshments.

Post production

Even beyond editors, post production includes a creative team of its own.

Foley Artists are sound people who provide the ambient noises for a scene. They’re the ones who record sound effects for things like footsteps crunching through the snow or tapping down a cobblestone street - often by creating the sounds live in a studio - crowd noises, doors opening and closing and other background sounds, none of which, by design, are recorded on the set.

ADR stands for “automatic dialog replacement” and it refers to the process of actors re-recording dialog for a scene that, for some reason (wind, background noise or simply a bad line reading) was unacceptable. The process of re-recording for ADR is commonly called Looping, and you’d be surprised to know how much of the final dialog in a typical movie is actually recorded this way.

Finally, the Post Production Supervisor, under the guidance of the director, mixes everything down. Working with a massive team operating a huge audio console, the post production supervisor makes sure that all of the dialog, sound effects, music, ambient sounds and whatever else has been added to the mix comes together into a rich visual and aural experience. A good post production supervisor may not be able to save a bad movie, but it’s nearly impossible to make a great movie without a great one!

One final note

If you’ve ever seen a movie being made - or even a movie about a movie being made - you’ve no doubt heard the series of commands and responses called out at the beginning of each shot. Here they are, and here’s what they mean:

“Quiet please”

This is AD calling for silence, of course.


This is the Director or the AD calling for the camera to begin rolling.


This is the DP confirming that the camera is going.


This is the sound man confirming that he is recording (a reference to the days when it was necessary for tape to get up to speed).


This is the AD calling for the extras to start their carefully choreographed movements in the background of the scene.


The director telling the principal cast to begin performing in the scene.
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Re: Steve's Film School: Introduction - How it Comes Together

Postby cdeemer » Sun Sep 14, 2008 10:34 am

Great stuff, Steve!

p.s. One thing we screenwriters learn is that the order of production companies in the credits is important, too. The most important TO THE WRITER is the last one listed because this is where the script likely was discovered. So beginning writers want to note these companies that "originate" projects because these are the ones to query about your own project, i.e. they found the script first.
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Re: Steve's Film School: Introduction - How it Comes Together

Postby cdeemer » Sun Sep 14, 2008 10:44 am

Great stuff!

I give my screenwriting students this "trick" about the credits: when the production companies are listed, the last one is the most important for their needs because this is where the project probably originated, usually with a producer in a small company reading the script ... so you don't query the big guys who don't have time for you about your screenplay, you hit the little guys with a track record of initiating projects.
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