If you want to know what filmmaking is, you’ve come to the right place. Let’s get started.
Who is a filmmaker?
A filmmaker takes the onus of a feature film from beginning to end, and most commonly fulfills the dual role of producer and director (or more if impelled to do so).
Traditionally, the roles of producer and director are clearly demarcated.
The responsibilities of each position are great enough to keep a single person occupied for each role. It’s inefficient for the roles to be combined.
However, when budgets are tight, often it is the director who must take on producer duties as well, which includes raising funds, managing contracts, insurance, legal papers, and a host of responsibilities that distract from the task of film direction.
To know how these two roles are different, I urge you to watch this video:
A filmmaker has no clear demarcation of responsibilities. He/she must do whatever it takes to get the job done, because most independent filmmakers work outside the ‘system’.
Filmmakers are not ‘hired’ but are the originators of a feature film from concept to execution to release (and beyond).
Now that you know what a filmmaker is responsible for it’s time to know where everything starts (the easy part), and where everything ends (the not-so-easy part).
What are the steps involved in filmmaking?
We can divide the entire filmmaking process into these steps:
- Writing and Development
- Pre-production (or Prep)
- Post Production (or Post)
- Marketing and Publicity
- Release, Sales and Distribution
- Royalty and Maintenance
Let’s look at each step one by one.
1. Writing and Development
The stages involved in this phase are (not always in this order!):
- Writing an “acceptable” screenplay
- Breaking down the script by locations, casting, scenes, etc
- Budgeting and Scheduling
- Raising Finance
- Creating the legal and accounting backbone of the project
- Signing Cast and Crew
Depending on who you are and what you are capable of, you might think you do not need a screenplay. You might feel you will be able to “get by” with a treatment, a synopsis or even a logline.
Eventually, you’ll realize a screenplay (or script, doesn’t matter what you call it) will have to be written, with both action and dialog. Writing one draft (a version of the script) isn’t enough. You’ll write multiple drafts, until you come across an “acceptable” screenplay.
An “acceptable” screenplay is one that is exciting to read, tightly written, has great characters, is professional, is formatted correctly, and is ready to be produced. If it’s weak in any one of these areas, you are shooting yourself in the foot right off the bat.
Most movies fail for one simple reason: The people involved couldn’t recognize a good script even if one jumped up and slapped them across the face.
If you are not a master of the screenplay, partner with someone who is.
I’m not talking about emotional breakdowns.
A breakdown is the process of dividing up the script into parts that make sense. You do this usually for production purposes.
The three most commonly used breakdowns (at least by me) are:
- by Scene,
- by Location and
- by Talent.
Creating breakdowns are a meticulous and demanding exercise . Only people with good organizational skills can execute breakdowns correctly.
If you’re not skilled in these areas, find someone who is. An error in breaking down a script will cost you dearly. It is always wise to have someone else check your work to find mistakes.
Successful First Assistant Directors and Line Producers (or Production Managers) are masters at this exercise. They are in charge of all the breakdowns in a movie.
I show you how I breakdown a scene and script in the Ultimate Guide to Shooting Dialogue Scenes.
Budgeting and Scheduling
Scheduling is preparing a prep, production and post schedule based on the breakdowns created earlier.
True mastery is only attained after having worked on several productions, and the responsibility of a schedule falls upon the first assistant director.
Budgeting is the process of putting a monetary value to the entire process, and somebody who doesn’t have experience in the entire filmmaking process will prove inadequate to this task. A film budget is usually prepared by the Line Producer or Production Manager, and then verified and refined until it’s as precise as can be.
If you think these two steps are a joke, the joke will be on you in the end.
There’s a reason why the Line Producer/Production Manager and First Assistant Director is credited first at the end credits.
I’m not going into the details of this right now, except to say there are only three legal ways to make money: Win it, Earn it, or Ask for it.
Legal and Accounting
So you think you don’t need a lawyer and an accountant?
A feature film that is not protected right from the start is doomed. As soon as your budget is prepared and funding raised, you need to maintain perfect accounts.
You need to register your production company (no matter where you are). You need to protect your intellectual rights (called IPR). These include the screenplay, the title, any other ideas, images, sounds, people, etc that you might have created or have had created for your company.
Bottom line, if you don’t protect your film from the start, it might never get sold.
I won’t go into details here as this is not intended to be legal advice. You need to consult a lawyer and an accountant who has experience in your country for correct representation. Choose these people wisely, as they might be with you for the rest of your career.
Signing Cast and Crew
Once you have:
- your contracts drawn up by a lawyer, and
- an accountant who will file your checks and bills, you are
ready to sign your talent and crew. Depending on how high or low you aim, the processes and difficulties here can vary.
One thing you cannot escape from is that you need signed release forms of everyone involved in your project, in any shape or form, or you might never reap the benefits of your labor.
Once you know who’s going to be working for you, you need to get them insured. Skip this at your own peril.
A good lawyer is the only person you can trust with this sort of thing, so I strongly advise you to weigh all the options available in your country and decide on something that will protect you, the crew, the cast and the film in times of calamity.
It’s funny how an article on filmmaking hasn’t even started to talk about anything creative. But make no mistake, the order is the order in which movies should be made. Even if a director doesn’t “see” this, the producer does.
When you’re a filmmaker, you have no choice but to tackle and handle all this. When you do it early, you give yourself the space to tackle creative challenges later.
Trust me, you don’t want to be doing both at the same time.
2. Pre-production, or Prep
Filming a movie is the middle. We call it production. What comes before is pre-production, or prep.
The stages involved in prep are not always in this order, and not all of them are necessary depending on the type of film that you are making; but here they are:
- Location Hunting, Research
- Information and Database management
- Communication and workflow
- Office and Accounting
- Final Preparations
This can include anything from cards on which individual shots are handwritten, to complex 3D previz (pre-visualization) sequences that are animated with sound and music.
The goal of storyboarding is to tackle framing and camera angles, camera movement and actor blocking early. By doing this, you find potential challenges or problems that can be corrected before you’re on set.
Once you’re on set, money flows down the tube per minute. You have a lot more time in prep, and that’s when you should be thinking in advance.
The level of detail one opts for in a storyboard is primarily dependent on two factors: the confidence of the director, and the complexity of the production. Some directors want every shot storyboarded precisely, while others don’t decide on their shots until they reach the set. Only experience can teach what works for you.
This is how the great Akira Kurosawa did it:
Research and locations
A good writer and director would have already parsed the script for scenes that are not practical to shoot, or that which are too expensive to shoot under the stipulations of the budget.
But it’s one thing to write a fight scene in Starbucks, and it’s another to actually film it in a real Starbucks.
In this phase, one actually goes hunting for the sets, props, costumes, images, ideas, information, etc., that will bring the screenplay to life.
This is one of the toughest phases of prep, in which there are always far too many or far too few options to challenge the director. The director and crew members have to come up with creative solutions to gain maximum leverage from the choices he/she has.
It is also the most exciting part of prep, and your days will be packed with meetings, travel and lots of fun.
Information and Database management
What a boring title!
All the data that comes in from various departments have to be sorted, assimilated, stored and studied. This responsibility usually falls upon the assistant directors, who, if wisely chosen, will care enough about the project to flag any issues, creative or otherwise, immediately, before they happen.
Most production companies have secretaries, accountants and office staff to take care of these ‘back office’ jobs. On larger productions, this staff is linked to the production department, which studies spending, analyzes call sheets, etc, on a daily basis, so that the crew is always one step ahead of any potential issues that might crop up in due course.
On low-budget productions, the filmmaker will either need to be a supreme organizer, or find a secretary or friend who will fulfill this role diligently and professionally. The documents and paperwork that are generated over the course of production are all critical to having the film distributed and protected legally. If you disregard the importance of this aspect of production, your project will mostly likely end up a train wreck.
What’s the point of breaking down scripts, having lots of paperwork, storyboards, photos, telephone numbers, emails, budgets, if you can’t find them when you need them?
Communication and workflow
Filmmaking is a collaborative effort, and man-management is probably one of the cornerstones of this endeavor.
If you’re not good with people, this isn’t the business for you.
As a producer, you will have to network with all sorts of individuals, and as a director, you will need to work with actors and crew. Since a filmmaker is both, there is no escaping this!
Organization and logistics are tough fields to master, and a young filmmaker usually does not have enough experience or skills in this area.
Unfortunately, people skills cannot be taught immediately to someone who is all set to make a film. It takes years of practice to change yourself. If you’re looking for a good starting place, I can recommend Dale Carnegie’s exceptional book: How to win friends and influence people.
Auditions and Casting
During all the mayhem that prep entails, the filmmaker is confronted with the terrifying task of deciding which actors will essay the roles which until now have only existed on paper.
Sometimes, a filmmaker will already know which actors are going to be cast in which roles, and might even have written the characters tailored for them. But, what if your actor backs out, or has an accident, or worse, dies? These things happen more commonly than you think, and a filmmaker who shirks this responsibility is showing disrespect to the art of filmmaking.
It is okay to have a badly shot film, but it is unacceptable to have a movie with bad or miscast actors across the board.
Some filmmakers interview hundreds or thousands of actors to find that perfect fit. There is no formula, and the best advice I can give is to follow your intuition. When you have found the right actor, your heart will tell you loudly and clearly. There will be no doubt.
A lot of movies don’t have rehearsals. Sometimes it’s because the actors are so ‘big’ that they don’t think rehearsals will do them any good. Sometimes the director feels it’s not a good idea to lose spontaneity in the actors.
On the other hand, many directors swear by rehearsals. They get the actors together to go through the scenes to make sure everything’s playing together. If it works for theater, it can work for film.
People have made great films with both strategies. Whatever side you’re on, know why you’re on it, and pay the price either way.
Final preparation, for me, is the time when everything is in place and the first day of production is only a few days ahead. Is there anything left to do?
Of course there is. The most important of them being: You have to recharge your own batteries.
Now that you have pressed the ignition and geared up, it’s time to focus on the road ahead. For the best drive you need to ‘forget’ all the technicalities of driving.
Don’t be so exhausted that there is no room left for feelings. Make sure your immediate cast and crew – the line producer, the first and second ADs, the DP, etc., also have a good break before filming begins.
Most decisions you have made as a filmmaker cannot be undone at this point, so focus on how best to utilize what you have in hand to get the job done.
From this moment on, your physical condition and mental strength will be put to the test.
Let the roller-coaster begin!
I won’t go into details on production, as most people know what it is, at least theoretically.
In brief, production is the part of actually filming the movie. The camera rolls, the actors act, and the moment is captured.
There is no substitute for experience, and no amount of reading or film school will prepare yourself for the real world. You only have one chance most times. Mistakes are not easily forgiven, and there is always a price to pay for one – especially if you’re the filmmaker.
As a beginner, you will make mistakes, just hope they are not fatal ones.
What it feels like:
You are like a conductor orchestrating a giant group of musicians. You cannot take a break, you cannot look dull or disinterested, you cannot look incompetent or unwise, you cannot become angry or sad, you cannot lack in confidence or appear unsure, you cannot take anything for granted, you cannot even seem to sit still and relax!
Money is ticking along with the clock. Everybody is waiting for your cue.
Stand and deliver. If you have taken care of your production duties in the prep stage, the director side of you can now take control. This is the point when most filmmakers wish they hadn’t taken on both duties – but it’s already too late.
4. Post Production
What happens after production is post production. You mean there’s more work ahead?
Here’s an excellent video I made on the subject:
The stages involved under post production are:
- Sound recording, foley and editing
- Sound mixing
- Visual effects, motion graphics and titles
- Color grading
- Finishing and authoring
- Censor Certificate
- Data integrity and storage
Everyone ‘knows’ what editing is, but few know how to edit well.
Few have spent hours upon hours looking at takes and retakes and endless reels of film or clips of video. It is tedious to the uninspired, and difficult for the technically handicapped.
In this day and age, there are too many file formats, codecs, frame rates, bit rates, and deliverable requirements that the successful editor must know exactly how to go about this job.
A filmmaker’s role is to get this data in the best possible way to the editor, who oftentimes, is the same individual. There is scant hope then, for the filmmaker who cannot invest in learning new technologies. You can destroy all the hard work you have put in, if you don’t understand the technology.
Editing is one of the oldest pillars of filmmaking. It must be given its due time to shine.
Sound Recording, ADR, Foley and Editing
The greatest mistake most first time filmmakers (and even experienced ones) make, is to neglect sound.
Everyone’ll tell you sound is 50% of the movie. Yet, it’s amazing how many filmmakers somehow manage to forget it when the time comes!
You need to record the best quality dialog with room ambiance, get realistic foley and effects, and then edit them neatly and crisply in a way that is appropriate to the sound design of the movie.
Wait, did I say: Sound design?
Did you painstakingly storyboard the entire feature, work endless hours with your DP and Production designer to perfect the look of your masterpiece, but forgot that sound needs equal thought?
The good news is, you can start sound design after your film has been shot. The bad news is, it’s going to cost you more.
I could have put it up in prep, but I didn’t. If you’re making a list of things to do, make sure you put sound design in its right place.
Mono, Stereo or Surround? Dolby, THX or DTS? 5.1, 7.1 or Atmos?
Have you prepared your sound design for surround, or didn’t you care? If not, now’s the time you will clutch your head in shame and wonder how stupid you have been.
Trust me, I’ve been there, as have most others. If your film sounds awful, nobody will like it. But if your film looks amateurish but sounds great, it will still be watchable. Ever thought about that?
Think now, and act before it’s too late. Find a reliable, artistic and hard working sound designer. Next to finding great actors, this is the most important thing you could ever do on a production. Take my word for it.
Visual Effects, Motion Graphics and Titles
Do you have visual effects or motion graphics in your film? Then you need to plan early, as early as the screenplay, in fact.
As a filmmaker, you need to know before you write whether or not you can deliver a convincing effect under the budget that you have. If you can’t, don’t put it in the script.
Visual effects (VFX) cost time and money. If you want Hollywood level effects, you need Hollywood-level artists. Look for artists. If you can’t find them in advance, stay clear of VFX.
Or you’ll hate that great shot you wrote for the rest of your life.
If you have planned and shot well, you really don’t need to color grade your footage extensively. There might be a few shots here and there that you could correct, but grading from scratch is a sure sign that the photography is wrong.
Whose fault is that, I wonder?
Grading takes time, and money. Without properly calibrated equipment and a colorist who knows his craft in and out, this is a hit and miss operation where you will more likely miss.
Yet, color grading is a fascinating and under-appreciated tool. Take a look:
Finishing and Authoring
Putting audio and video together, along with all effects and titles, is “finishing”.
The best quality file of your film is the “Master”.
From this master, you create your “Deliverables”. E.g., the master might be a DPX image sequence or a Prores 444 file. The deliverables could be YouTube versions in H.264 or H.265, film festival versions in Prores HQ or DCP, television channel or OTT platform versions, and so on.
You need to know beforehand who’s going to see your movie, so that you can plan on making the movie in the right format. There’s no point spending extra money and time on 6K or 8K, or true 24 frames a second, if you’re never going to screen it in theaters. E.g., The Impossible Murder was shot at 25fps because I knew right from the start that this was going straight to DVD in PAL land.
It took eight visits to the CBFC office before I got my certificate, but without it you can’t exhibit your movie in India.
For other countries, check your local laws. Some countries have censor boards, other countries might only require self-certification. You could get sued (or sadly, jailed) for the wrong certification, so be careful here.
Data Integrity and Storage
The backbone of the post production workflow is data management, storage and archival.
You have to plan on how your data is going to flow from editing station to VFX to graphics and back, and on how sound is going to be cut with picture, etc.
It’s not easy. If you’re thinking: “I’ll just copy it on to a USB drive and shoot it off to my editor”, you’re badly mistaken.
This again harks back to my earlier warning on how the filmmaker must know technology in and out to leverage the best out of it. Ignore it, and it will cost you more.
To better understand what I’ve been saying, read Making The Impossible Murder series.
So now you’re movie is done. Or is it? What I cover next will make or break your career as a filmmaker.
5. Marketing and Publicity
Anybody with money and tools can make a film, just like anyone with pencil and paper can draw. But to have a career as a successful artist whose works are exhibited in prestigious galleries or museums across the world is another matter entirely. It takes a completely different skill-set to sell and profit from your work.
Remember: For a successful career in filmmaking, the filmmaker must treat his projects like a business, and must make efforts to profit from it, or else it cannot be sustained. This is the harsh reality of filmmaking.
Marketing starts before the scripting phase. Before putting one word on paper the screenwriter or filmmaker must know:
- Who the target audience is,
- The marketing budget that will be required to reach this audience,
- The logline,
- The genre it falls into, and
The Target Audience
Gender, age, race, religion, socio-economic class, education, income, location, etc., determine the classification of a market. This is called Demographics.
Whom exactly are you targeting with this movie of yours?
Once you have sorted out the demographics in detail you will have to find out how many fall under this group, and where they are located.
Many filmmakers are under the mistaken impression that their movie is for “everyone”. That will end when harsh reality presents itself.
The Marketing Budget
Once you know your target audience, you will know which marketing tools to use to get their attention.
There are so many avenues – television, radio, newspapers, word-of-mouth, social media, advertising, text messaging, billboards, ad infinitum.
Which of these tools are the most efficient to use? Once you’ve noted down the possibilities, you will have to research and understand how much it will cost. Is the market too small to recover the budget of the film? Then write another story. Is the market too big for your limited budget? Then write another story or rethink your original idea to be more specifically targeted.
If you have a market in place and the budget under control, then it is time to find the message that will hit home. A logline is a short description of your movie, in not more than a sentence.
There are many ‘rules’ on the internet on how to write a good logline, so I won’t go into it here. The only thing you have to understand is, the shorter and simpler the logline, the easier it will be to reach your target audience.
Think of the logline as the text in the poster, DVD jacket or marketing material, or your elevator pitch to a potential investor or client.
Ideally, you will have written your logline before you’ve written your script.
The genre of the film has to be pinned down, fortunately or unfortunately, so distributors understand how to promote your film (if you are so lucky as to find a good distributor).
The genre and logline will decide the kind of marketing tools you will use. What posters or images? What stories or press releases? What color or mood? What kind of trailers or sneak-peaks? What kind of interviews or road shows?
Again, like the logline, the genre should be ideally identified and defined before the script was written.
Publicity includes press releases and advertising, at any stage of the filmmaking process. The goal is to build anticipation amongst the target market.
It is an extension of the overall marketing plan, but most producers, even established ones, dive headlong into publicity with stories and interviews without a clear strategy. Big mistake. If you don’t have the skills to prepare, budget and execute a holistic marketing strategy for your film, then find someone who can.
6. Release, Sales and Distribution
A successful release of a feature film, according to popular opinion, is when the film has been released in enough theaters, then into popular OTT platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV, HBO or others, and then into television, and maybe into DVD or Blu-ray, and beyond.
Once a filmmaker has a marketing plan and budget in place, it is imperative he/she talk to as many distributors as possible to gauge the potential for his/her movie, and try to find a successful release strategy for it. Sometimes this strategy might involve not releasing in theaters at all. Maybe it’s straight to Netflix, or maybe the movie was made just for film festivals.
It doesn’t matter. The important thing is to remember this is a business, and earning a profit is the only way to survive. There is no room for a big ego here. A naive filmmaker will soon learn his/her place in the scheme of things when they talk to distributors.
It is wise to have these meetings before spending any money on production, but that’s an intimidating proposition for most filmmakers.
An interested distributor will tell you on what terms they might be willing to take on your project, and then it becomes a game of compromise and negotiation. A first-time filmmaker often has no choice in the matter, and must do whatever it takes to see the project through during this phase, while trying to maintain his/her integrity.
Unfortunately, these skills can only be learnt by experience, and this is where the salesman in you must shine, or fail. A successful filmmaker must be a good salesman. If you cannot fulfill this role, find somebody to partner with who can, and hope he/she is honest in their dealings.
If you’re lucky, you’ll find this person. Guess what? They have a name – the Sales Agent. Unfortunately, good sales agents are rare, and are as hard to please as distributors themselves.
A proper release strategy identifies how many theaters (and what class of theaters) a film can be released in, what kinds of posters or point-of-sale advertising you will need, etc. It will outline how you will get paid, under what terms.
Selling to a television network or streaming platform is tough and they will ask for perpetual screening rights, which you must try to avoid if you can (almost impossible unless you have really big actors or you are a big shot yourself).
Some films that have bombed at the box office come to television or OTT platforms quickly, to take advantage of the film’s marketing. The last in the line is DVD and Blu-ray, but these are dying mediums. Then there are other forms of distribution like airlines, hotels, cable, etc.
Explore every avenue, even if it sounds silly. Meet everyone. You have no choice but to take everyone seriously until it is clear they can’t help you.
Don’t underestimate the hard work and preparation that goes into the successful production and release on a feature film, no matter what its size.
7. Royalty and Maintenance
Here’s some bad news: Most films don’t find distribution.
A major reason for this is that they have not been conceived to fit a particular target market. Those that have been conceived well are mostly not made well.
Those that fit a market and are made well might miss out just because there is no space to distribute them in the manner in which it will recoup its investment. Harsh reality, this.
That’s why the majority of films don’t even get released. And a large percentage of those that get released bomb and never recover the investment.
You might think you’re entitled to create movies for arts sake, but you’ll only make so many before the doors are permanently shut in your face. Money doesn’t grow on trees, and as long as it takes a lot of money to make movies, you will be wise to treat it as a business.
If you’re one of those filmmakers who have planned and executed your project efficiently and correctly, you will see some money and recognition. It is your responsibility as a filmmaker to collect money from those who owe you, and pay to whom you owe; simply because this is the best way to conduct a business and establish a good reputation.
This money will come in bits and pieces, in royalties, check by check, slowly and steadily, often over a period of years. If you’ve made a hit film, then the revenue never ends. You will have to keep your records up to date, and as a successful filmmaker you will realize a good project needs (what I call) “Maintenance”.
A filmmaker is committed to his/her movie as long as he/she holds the rights to it. The financial, legal and moral obligations might never end if you’ve made a marketable movie.
Talk about responsibility!
Here you are, thinking you’ll just write a script and go shoot a movie – but it doesn’t work quite so simply as that, I’m afraid. Maybe the realities are not so apparent right now from your vantage point at the start, but they’ll strike home with brute force by the end.
What about Film festivals?
You might be wondering why I haven’t written about film festivals.
Why not? Simply because it is not part of a business strategy. You cannot determine beforehand which festivals you will be selected for or win. There are too many factors involved. Furthermore, even if you win at some of these prestigious festivals, there’s no guarantee your film will find distribution or earn a profit.
Then why bother? A lot of people bother because that’s all the attention their film will ever get. No harm in this, and if nothing else, a good showing at an important festival is always an opportunity to network with industry-folk.
But be prepared at the onset to budget for some of the expenses:
- Entrance fees
- Cost of creating and mailing DCPs
- Shipping and insurance
- Traveling and living costs of attending the festival and networking
- Costs of marketing material like posters, business cards, etc.
Try to budget for one festival, and then multiply this amount into the number of festivals you need to send your movie to. You will soon discover the costs involved. A site like FilmFreeway lets you send your film to as many festivals as you want – at a price that adds up quickly.
Is it worth it? Only you can judge. So judge well.
I hope this primer has been helpful to you in beginning to understand the realities of filmmaking.
Other than having to make a great film, the filmmaker must do everything in his/her power to stack the odds in their favor. The responsibilities are great. The chances of failure are high, but for most this is the only way to break into the industry.
Look on the bright side. When you succeed it is exhilarating like nothing else. If it’s your calling, just go do it!