The stages of film production.

Whether you’re making a short film or a big-budget Hollywood feature, the filmmaking process involves three main stages. Get an overview of each one with tips from production pros.

Different aspects of the film production process

Images by Kaity Williams

What are the stages of film production?

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was Roman Holiday. Film production can take as much time, personnel, and money as you’re willing to devote to it, but the project is less daunting if you break it down into its component parts: pre-production, production, and post-production.

 

Plan everything in pre-production.

Every film starts with an idea. Maybe it’s a story you need to tell or a character — real or fictional — you want to follow around for a while. Maybe it’s an image that’s stuck in your head, like a close-up shot of a burning sled. As soon as you start working on that idea, fleshing it out, doing research, and turning it into a script, you can congratulate yourself on having a film “in the development stage.”

       

Become a film producer.

Big production offices on studio lots and one-person production companies based out of living rooms share the same goal: Make a movie. 

A production manager working on the set of a film

The first job is to estimate how much money it will cost. You can hire a production manager to put together the budget or you can do your own research. Break down the script into shooting days, conservatively estimating the number of pages you can shoot per day. From that estimate you can calculate the costs of equipment rental, sets, costumes, salaries for cast and crew, costs of stunts or special effects, and any other expenses. You can start this process while you or your screenwriters continue to write and revise the screenplay.

       

The producer’s second job is to raise the money. People fund films however they can. You can seek out wealthy investors, ask for loans from family and friends, start a crowdfunding campaign online, or apply for a business loan. You can also try raising money by exchanging brand sponsorship for product placement.

       

Once you have enough money to get started, the next task is to get everything lined up for the shoot. “Pre-production is just getting prepared,” says director Kaity Williams. “Without it, our productions would just be longer and more disorganized.”

A camera operator filming a cast member acting

Image by Kaity Williams

Hire the cast and crew members.

The size of the crew depends on the budget and scope of the film. For indie projects with small budgets, people can play multiple roles, but every project needs a film director, director of photography, casting director, costume designer, set designer, lighting designer, and sound designers. If the film requires visual effects, bring motion graphics specialists in early to advise you on how best to shoot those scenes.

       

As you select your team and audition actors, try to hire people who seem like they’ll be easy to work with. You’re likely to end up spending some very long days with them. “A good attitude is so important because you can get really cranky 10 hours in at 3am. It’s important to have people who know how to tell jokes, too,” says cinematographer Whit Ingram.

       

Pre-production is also the time to make sure the production team has all the necessary paperwork. “Get all your release forms signed, whether it’s NDAs or location release forms. And if you have stunts, there’s a lot of paperwork to go through,” says Ingram.

       

Secure locations.

Unless you can shoot your whole film on a soundstage, you’ll need a location scout and location manager to find the right locations, obtain the necessary permissions, permits, parking locations for cast and crew, and food service. (A craft services table that is well stocked with snacks is essential for keeping up morale during long shooting days.)

A camera operator capturing footage outdoors

Image by Kaity Williams

Plan every detail of the shoot.

Once you have a final script, you can create storyboards to help you envision exactly how you’ll shoot that script. “Pre-production is finding the look of the film. What lenses do we want to use? What kind of lighting? How do we want to show a mood change?” says Williams.

        

Plot every shot of the film. Create a shot list so you can figure out how much time, equipment, and personnel you’ll need. “You’re really going to want to plan every step of the film so there are no surprises when you get to production,” says Ingram. “You can imagine it in your head as many times as you want, but if you don’t write it down, you can easily forget.”

       

Develop a detailed shooting script that breaks down the shooting schedule for every member of the cast and crew. Estimate how long each scene will take to film, who will need to be on set for it, at what time, and with what equipment, props, and costumes.

 

“If every single part of production is completely figured out in pre-production, that’s going to define the success of your production. If you don’t have a lot of those details figured out, things can fall apart pretty quickly,” Williams says.

       

Sharpen your editing skills.

If you plan to edit your film yourself but you don’t have a lot of experience, practice editing footage and putting scenes together before you begin shooting. “That will help you determine what shots you need and how you can compile everything,” Ingram says.

Make the film.

Once you’ve planned everything from your first establishing shot to the last frame before credits roll, and you’ve lined up your locations, cast, crew, sets, hair, makeup, costumes, and props, it’s time to start the production process. Go into production well rested because you’re going to be working long days. “A typical day is 12 hours,” Ingram says, “so just be prepared.”

       

While the expense of each shooting day may induce anxiety, it’s also when you get to have the most fun. As soon as actors are on set, they can rehearse their lines together and block their scenes with the director to determine how to move in relation to each other and the camera.

       

During this principal photography phase, be sure to get all the basic shots you need to tell the story before you move on to special shots that will look cool but take time to set up. And it’s important for the director and actors to be open to surprises, because there will always be surprises. “It’s the happy accidents that happen during production that are some of the most fun elements,” Williams says.

       

After you capture the main footage, it’s time to shoot B-roll, all of the supplemental footage that enhances the film but isn’t essential to advancing the plot. These include establishing shots or shots that cut away from the main action and make the editor’s job easier when it’s time to splice together multiple takes of a scene. Some productions employ second unit crews whose whole job is to capture B-roll shots. 

 

Put it all together in post-production.

Editors will tell you that the real magic happens during the post-production phase. This is where all those hours of hard-won footage can become a story that makes people think, laugh, or cry. If you’re new to post-production work, try to find a mentor to give you some guidance. “You can do it by yourself, but it’s easier to work with someone who has done it before,” Ingram says.     

Editing the video of a farmer working in a field

Cut and re-cut.

Once you’ve compiled all of your footage, it’s time to edit it. Choose from the best takes and make your cuts. Refer to your notes in the shooting script to remind yourself what worked and what didn’t. Take both good and bad surprises into account, letting go of the film you imagined and working with the actual footage you have.

       

Once you have a rough cut, share it with others to get their feedback, and keep editing and reediting the film. Eventually you’ll end up with a cut that you’re happy with, and you can begin the process of making the film look and sound its best. 

Adjusting the color in video footage to vary the tone and mood

Make it pretty.

Bring in your motion designers to add special video effects. Work with sound editors and Foley artists to perfect the dialogue, sound effects, and music. Call in the cinematographer or a colorist to do color correction. This will give the film a consistent look across all scenes, and then you can work together to color grade scenes to vary the tone and mood to match the action.

 

With Adobe Premiere Pro editing software, you can put all the finishing touches on your film in a single app. Edit, correct color, add and mix audio, and create motion graphics for titles and special effects.   

       

Sell it.

Once you’ve got the sound design, color, and motion graphics all together, your film is ready to go. You can launch a marketing campaign to promote it, or enter it in film festivals, where critical acclaim might help you find a distributor. With some luck, your film will end up in theaters or on streaming platforms.   

 

Get to work on your next project.

With filmmaking, as with any other creative pursuit, everything you do, every mistake you make, helps you improve. Try not to be discouraged by your mistakes, and just keep at it. “No one really knows everything,” Ingram says. “You just have to jump in and do it and learn from each experience. Try to surround yourself with people who are good to work with, who are reliable, and who hustle. You don’t need any talent for that. You just have to be willing to work, learn, and have a good attitude.” 

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