The production process

With any film production there are a number of stages to go through in order to get the film to an audience. These stages vary in complexity from project to project but in every production there is a similar process. The stages making up this process are usually described by the following headings:

  • development or negotiating a brief
  • pre-production
  • production
  • post-production
  • distribution
  • exhibition.

Using the example of our short film project Threshold let’s go through the production process.

Development of the Brief

Threshold started as an exercise in adaptation for MA and BA students. The brief given to the writing students was to find a newspaper article and adapt its story to a fiction script. In this production the writer, Andrew Parkhill developed the idea with Screenwriting tutor Dan Weldon and other members of the production team.

Corridor

The main location for Threshold, photo by Kathryn A Wilson

Pre-Production

By this stage the team had been formed and included Producer, Director, Production Designer, Director of Photography (DOP), Sound and Editor (in this production the roles of sound and editor were taken on by the same person). The Producer was responsible for the overall organisation of the production including working with the Director and Production Designer to come up with locations and actors which would represent and tell the story in the script.

The Director would take on overall ‘creative’ responsibility of the production, the style of shooting and editing, and working with the actors to deliver the story in the script including conveying the emotion and dynamic of the characters. The DOP in conjunction with the Director would be responsible for the look of the film, the style of the filming, again achieving what would have been suggested by the writer in the script.

Production

Deciding on the equipment to use requires thinking through who is the target audience for the film and how it will be distributed and exhibited. This is a question of format. Will the production be seen in cinemas, television, film festivals or online?

  • Cinema: high quality, possibly large scale distribution, international. Shoot on 35mm film or HD or RED.
  • Television: you need to follow Broadcaster’s current technical requirements which could range from full HD to DVCam.
  • Small Indie (independent) Production for festivals and web screenings could be HDV, DVCam, MiniDV

From the outset Threshold was going to be a learning exercise to encourage a group of students across years and courses at the Northern Film School. A decision was taken to shoot on DVCam using a Sony PD150 set to aspect ratio 16:9 to replicate a cinema experience when viewed. This kit is light-weight and compact and meant that the group could use tracking equipment, there was plenty of room in the Film School’s van.

Light kit

Portable lighting kit, photo by Kathryn A Wilson

Pre-production time was very short for the DOP and the Director, a couple of days to sort everything out. The Director and DOP were tied up on other projects when the location was being chosen. Normally the filming crew would be involved in choosing locations to advise about lighting, lenses, sound requirements and making sure they’d have exactly the right equipment to make the film work. The hallway was very small so they decided to go for a minimal lighting set up, using 2 x 400 watt spot lights and a Kino Flo bank. These are fluorescent tube lights colour balanced for daylight or tungsten set in banks of 2 or 4 to give an overall soft glow. The idea behind the low level lighting was give a feeling of being slightly cut off, power supply’s running low, there are problems!

The interior room where the male character is located was lit to try and show a sweaty, sickening and clammy atmosphere. This was enhanced in the edit by increasing the saturation in those shots.

Post-production

The Northern Film School uses Avid Media Composer and Final Cut Pro (FCP), considered to be the two main professional editing platforms at the moment. Editor Ian Pinder and Director, Matt Maude both had FCP systems as well, so they decided to use that platform. Using an external hard drive for the media meant that they could move the edit between the cutting room at the Film School, Matt’s studio and Ian’s flat this way they could be really flexible and make best use of the time available.

Distribution and Exhibition

Because this was effectively a training exercise, the distribution of the film was presumed to be internal to the school, but there was an exhibition constraint in that the group were expected to produce a film that would look good on the ‘big screen’ –i.e. the school’s internal screening theatre. But let’s consider a range of possibilities.

From the outset knowing where the film will eventually be seen is vital as shooting and production techniques need to be tailored to meet the final exhibition requirements. What may work on a window on a computer screen may not work on a cinema screen and vice versa. Some critics and some audiences are critical of films in cinemas that ‘look like they were made for television’. You can’t tell audiences how to watch your film, but you can try to produce the best film for a given format – or formats. Increasingly, the final edit will be ‘printed’ to different formats for all types of distribution. This may involve compressing video using different codecs – some of which will be available as default settings in the DVD production software.

Increasingly the internet is making possible methods of distribution, that in the past filmmakers could only dream of. Web based communities of filmmakers such as Shooting People and Vimeo have the latest advice on distribution and exhibition for independent producers and film clip websites like You Tube can create the possibility for new filmmakers to reach a huge audience.

If a production has been funded from the outset it’s likely that the distribution and exhibition rights are tied into a contract with the funders. Film backers will be looking to recoup their investment and hopefully make a profit. Funding for small to medium projects may have come from a grant or screen agency fund and depending on the contract the film may be tied into their distribution schemes. Some productions may have no external funding but made on spec with the producer hoping to eventually recoup their personal investment by broadcast or DVD sales. There are many cases of producers being so committed to their project that they use personal savings or even mortgage their house in order to fund their film.

So it’s easy to see why selling or distribution has become a very large part of the film production business. Throughout the year, around the world, ‘content’ markets take place where buyers met sellers, deals are done and new distribution methods discussed all in order to get films to an audience. One of the leading content or film markets is MIPWORLD.

In the current context, student films like Threshold are likely to have three possible means of distribution via online (Video On Demand – VOD), film festivals or DVD. Depending on the originating format it may be possible to print to film for a festival screening, but this is expensive and festivals often now accept films on DigiBeta or other HD video formats or even DVD. Online distribution will require compression but DVDs should be burned at the highest quality settings (i.e. no compression). Television broadcast will also require a master delivered at the best quality.

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