Production Process


The main filmmaking stages—development, preproduction, principal photography, and postproduction—are similar for most types of filmmaking. There are three notable exceptions to this dominant model: documentary, animation, and experimental cinema.

The method of making documentary films necessarily differs from fictional features because the events recorded can rarely be planned in advance. This is especially true for cinéma vérité and direct-cinema films, such as Primary (1960), which followed presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, and Don't Look Back (1967), D. A. Pennebaker's account of Bob Dylan's British tour. Each of these films was shot on location using lightweight 16mm cameras, long takes, and available light to follow events as they happened.

While the purpose of these forms of observational documentary is to record events as they occur, other types of documentary present accounts of events that have already happened. These allow some level of scripting prior to production. Examples of this approach include The Thin Blue Line (1988), Errol Morris's compelling exposé of a miscarriage of justice, and Touching the Void (2003), which tells the remarkable tale of a climbing expedition that went catastrophically wrong. Both these films mixed interviews with reconstructions of events, their production processes thus emulating fictional films more than observational documentary. No matter what their styles and subjects, though, documentary films always have greater potential to deviate from their original intent than do their fictional counterparts. For example, Capturing the Friedmans (2003) began life as a documentary about clowns, but when it emerged that the father and brother of one of the subjects were both convicted pedophiles, director Andrew Jarecki saw an opportunity to make a far more interesting film.

The production processes of animated features have many elements in common with live-action films. They do, for instance, engage in a rigorous process of script development, and their soundtracks are created in much the same way as those for live-action films. It is in the principal photography stage that their processes differ substantially, since animated images are created in entirely different ways.

Even within the field of animation itself, a range of very different production processes are used. The traditional and most widely employed technique is cel animation, of which Bambi (1942) and The Lion King (1994) are examples. In this technique, images are painted onto sheets of celluloid that overlie painted backgrounds. "Cels" are placed on an animation table and filmed from above. A slightly different technique is the animation of cutout silhouettes, most famously employed by Lotte Reiniger in films such as The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926). Some forms of animation film three-dimensional models instead of pictures. One technique is puppet animation, which was used in The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984). Another is "claymation," of which Chicken Run (2000) is an example. Digital animation is becoming an increasingly popular technique. It has been used to make blockbusters such as Toy Story (1995) and Shrek (2001), and is already displacing the primacy of cel animation.

Some films deliberately set out to challenge the dominant modes of film practice by employing production processes that result in radically different aesthetics from those of mainstream films. These films are rarely shown in mainstream cinemas, playing instead at venues such as art houses, museums, universities, film schools, and filmmakers' forums. Their production, distribution, and exhibition systems all position the films as oppositional to the types of cinema hitherto described.

Experimental film techniques vary widely and employ every possible method. Some experimental filmmakers do not even use a camera, a basic tool of most film productions. Some films are based on images painted directly onto the film strip, a technique normally used to create abstract animations, of which Len Lye's Color Cry (1952) and Norman McLaren's Short and Suite (1959) are two examples. A variation on this technique was used by Stan Brakhage to create Mothlight (1963), which involved sandwiching flowers, leaves, and dead moths between two strips of film. Other films have been created from found footage—film that was previously shot for another purpose. One type of filmmaking to use this technique is the collage film, which edits together excerpts of found footage in such a way as to give rise to new interpretations of the images. The most influential practitioner of this kind of filmmaking is Bruce Conner, whose films include A Movie (1958) and Report (1967). Found footage was also used by some of the structuralist/materialist filmmakers, whose work aimed to draw attention to the material of the film itself as well as to the processes involved in making and viewing it. The descriptively titled Film in Which There Appear Sprocket Holes, Edge Lettering, and Dirt Particles, etc. (1965), by George Landow (a.k.a. Owen Land) is an example of this genre.

Although these types of short films are intended for specialist audiences, highly experimental works occasionally cross over into commercial viewing environments. One example is Time Code (2000), which was shot in real time on digital video using four hand-held cameras filming simultaneous action in different locations. The shooting process had to be timetabled very precisely to allow the actors and cameras from each of the four segments to meet up with one another at specific dramatic moments. Instead of creating a conventional script, writer and director Mike Figgis outlined the actions and locations on musical score sheets. This ensured that the timing of each sequence was synchronized with the other three. When the film was exhibited, the cinema screen was split into four sections, each showing the footage from one of the cameras.

SEE ALSO Casting ; Cinematography ; Credits ; Crew ; Direction ; Editing ; Guilds and Unions ; Music ; Producer ; Production Design ; Screenwriting ; Sound ; Studio System ; Technology

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Deborah Allison

Joseph Lampel

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