Lesson 7 Lecture & Discussion
Off the Set

We’ve spent the last six lessons looking at the art and technology of filmmaking. We’ve seen how movies fit into the artistic spectrum, how the image in the frame is composed, and how the chemical and mechanical technology—invented more than a hundred years ago—has molded the art. We’ve seen how the two basic forces of montage and mise-en-scène drive the art, like yin and yang, and how the soundtrack imperceptibly holds a film together—and sometimes dominates it. We’ve also been introduced to the basic ideas of the language of film, and seen how semiology can be a useful way of interpreting real life as if it were film.

Now, it’s time to take a look at the industrial environment in which all of this happens, before we move on in the final lesson to contemplate the future of the art.

Putting It All Together, Bit by Bit

Film is our ultimate art. It’s hard to imagine that it will be superseded anytime soon. After all, it’s the most complex art by far, involving the most people, the most technologies, the most senses, and—yes—the most money! Most of our discussion about film so far has been focused on what happens on the set. But the set is only the intense center of the artistic film making process. Much of the work of film (and, sometimes, a lot of the art) happens just before and after shooting, in pre-production and post-production. Before any film pre-production can begin, however, two things have to be in place: a concept and at least the promise of financing.

Hollywood has often looked to the comic book art form for inspiration. Blockbuster hits, such as Spider-Man, X-Men, and Hulk, rely heavily on post-production special effects for their ultimate success.

The Hollywood machine (and it’s not much different in other countries, in television, or in the world of independent film) has been finely tuned to funnel concepts and potential product from every other area of our culture into film. The hunger for product is limitless. Studios and agents keep a close watch on the literary world; any book that is a bestseller is an immediate candidate for the movies. So are successful songs and music groups. For the last 30 years, since the advent of the docudrama, newspapers and other avenues of journalism have also proved to be fertile sources. For the first 60 years, theatre was an important source of material; that’s no longer true. It took Chicago (2002) almost 30 years to make it from stage to film. Nowadays, most of the traffic goes the other way (The Lion King is a prime example of this).

It’s as if the film industry (and television, which is mainly produced by divisions of the same companies) serves as our cultural filter. A million newspaper and magazine stories may appear each year, and more than 70,000 books are published annually, but few make it to the screen, big or small. Perhaps 5,000 television shows and series are produced each year, and far fewer than 500 American feature films. And, of course, a large percentage of this filmed product is based on original scripts, not adaptations. So Hollywood—for better or worse—distills our culture from much broader and more various print sources by many magnitudes.

If a producer finds a story she likes, she’ll buy an option on the project from the author. This option gives her the right—for a limited time—to hire a screenwriter to adapt the story for film. Most options, as you might expect, are stillborn. But a few projects survive to script stage. Independent producers don’t finance their films themselves; they go to studios to make the deal.

In the Golden Age of Hollywood, the studios were vertically integrated organizations, controlling production, distribution, and exhibition, with all the necessary talent in all three of those areas on salaried staff. This is no longer the case. Now, the studios act as financiers and distributors, and the only full-time employees they have concentrate on those areas. Exhibition is entirely separate, and production is done on an ad hoc basis by freelance cast and crew.

Once the concept is in place and financing has been obtained, pre-production begins. Assembling a cast and crew used to be a matter of seeing who on staff was free to start next week and picking the best available talent. These days it is an arduous process, requiring sometimes lengthy negotiations with stars—and even lesser cast members―and crew. This negotiation process is one of the functions of the producer (although she is often assisted by several associates). (An executive producer credit, by the way, usually means that person has been involved in the financing, but not necessarily the production.) When you think of the hundreds of people who have to be hired for just a few months, it is a wonder that any film gets made.

Locations have to be scouted, sequences have to be outlined in storyboard form (see the illustration on p. 131 of our text), and equipment has to be rented. If there’s time, perhaps the actors will be brought together for a day or two to rehearse. And, of course, a writer will have to rewrite the script a few times to take into account the wisdom of studio execs (most of whom have never made a film themselves).

Finally, the entire cast and crew come together on the set to actually shoot the movie. They shoot for a month or two.

Then, the shoot is over and the equally daunting work of post-production begins. We’ve already introduced the concepts of film editing and sound mixing. While the concepts are simple, the work is grueling. While both editing and mixing have been made more efficient in the last 20 years with the shift to electronic and digital tools, both are still very intensive and time-consuming processes. The editor, of course, is in charge of cutting the film, although he often works under the close supervision of the director. The other members of the post-production crew include assistant editors, mixers and sound editors, Foley artists, ADR specialists, and effects artists and supervisors (for visual effects).

Post-production has been made more complicated by the modern practice of testing a film. If you are an independent artist making a film on a shoestring budget, you can do what you like. The final product is your vision. But if you are a corporation that has just invested $50 million, you can’t really just blindly trust the artist’s vision, so you test the film in front of live audiences, watching their reactions carefully and polling them in detail as they leave the theater. With those test results in hand, it‘s back to the editing suite for a few more tweaks, fingers crossed the whole time. The second season of HBO's Project Greenlight showed the pains of this process—the show's subject film, The Battle of Shaker Heights, became an entirely different film based on post-test-screening alterations.

But it’s still a huge gamble: only 1 film in 10 will be profitable.