No matter its size, budgeting a production can be a daunting task. For management purposes, the process usually involves dividing the hundreds of crew members involved into two main budget categories: above the line and below the line. If you’re involved with the creative development of a film or TV show, your role and production costs are considered above the line. If you’re a day-to-day crew member on set, you qualify as below the line.
Organizing the production budget for any crew—from the director, producers, and cast to the gaffers, grips, and production assistants—requires a clear distinction.
Behind the scenes of “Dune” Courtesy Chiabella James
Contrary to the notion that “above the line” refers to someone’s high status on a project, the label is actually a reference to a production’s budget and the top sheet, which includes the crew list; a line separates the two groups.
What Does "Above the Line" Mean in Film?
Above-the-line (ATL) positions refer to those responsible for the creative development, production, and direction of a film or TV show. Before sets can be built or cameras can begin rolling, these folks are responsible for guiding a project from idea to script to screen. They’re the ones who make the big choices regarding the overall tone and aesthetic.
ATL crew members are typically paid a fixed rate that’s agreed upon before production starts. Their rates never alter, even if there are schedule changes or other fluctuations. ATL roles usually require intensive work.
While there’s often a distinct importance placed on ATL talent, it’s the ongoing collaboration with below-the-line workers that gets a production made.
What Does "Below the Line" Mean in Film?
Below the line (BTL) refers to any production costs not included in the above-the-line portion of the budget. It also refers to technical crew roles: workers who do not provide input, guidance, creative development, or leadership on the project. BTL workers are not essential to a project, and they can be replaced at any time during a production. This also includes actors who are considered non-key cast members, as opposed to those who receive top billing. Unlike ATL crew members, BTL workers are not compensated on a fixed rate. Instead, they are usually paid by the hour.
Behind the scenes of “The Irishman” Courtesy Niko Tavernise
There are fewer above-the-line jobs available than those that fall in the below-the-line category. They include:
- Director: A director manages the creative aspects of the production. They visualize the script while guiding the actors and technical crew in order to capture their vision for the screen. They also control the film’s dramatic and artistic aspects.
- Executive producer: Executive producers are the ones pulling the strings. Among their responsibilities are securing funds for production, hiring staff, and outlining the longterm schedule.
- Screenwriter: A screenwriter can write scripts for a variety of mediums (feature films, TV shows, commercials, video games, etc.). They’re the ones who create the story, characters, and dialogue.
- Casting director: A casting director finds the actors to bring the characters featured in a script to life.
- Principal cast: Simply put, principal cast members are the actors who have lines of dialogue in a TV or movie. The top-billed principal cast in a production often features recognizable talent.
Behind the scenes of “Stranger Things” Courtesy Tina Rowden/Netflix
Crew members considered below the line make up the largest number of positions that are required for a production to operate smoothly. These are the technical roles that are responsible for keeping operations on schedule; ensuring that equipment is fully functional; and making sure that the lights, set, props, and all other production aspects are ready for action and will fulfill the creative team’s vision. These positions include:
- Assistant director: An assistant director manages all aspects of running the set. They act as intermediaries between the director, talent, and crew. They create and oversee the shooting schedule and shot lists; they also coordinate with the head of each department.
- Line producer: The line producer monitors all operations and planning details for a film. From preproduction through the finished product, they hire crew members, oversee the budget, maintain the schedule, and track deadlines. A line producer may also hold the title of production manager or production supervisor, depending on the scope of the project.
- Cinematographer: Also known as the director of photography, the cinematographer heads up the camera and the lighting crew. It’s their responsibility to create the look, framing, color, and lighting for every shot.
- Art director: An art director creates and manages the overall visual style of a movie or TV production.
- Costume designer: A costume designer is responsible for creating the wardrobe for a production. They’re the ones who make the clothing match the director’s overall vision while staying true to the story’s time period and style.
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- Camera crew
- Camera operator: A camera operator is responsible for capturing every bit of action required in each scene.
- Key grip: A key grip is the head of the grip department.
- Best boy grip: A best boy grip is the assistant to the key grip. (This title remains the same regardless of the best boy’s gender.)
- Grip: A grip’s job is to set up, rig, and strike the lighting equipment on set. Their responsibilities include keeping the equipment organized and doing maintenance as necessary.
- Lighting crew
- Gaffer: A gaffer, or chief lighting technician, oversees all the lighting equipment. The role works directly with the cinematographer to provide the lights and electrical equipment needed on set.
- Best boy electric: The best boy electric is second-in-command to the gaffer. They are responsible for managing lighting inventory and unloading electrical equipment.
- Production designer: A production designer is responsible for making sure the set matches the characters and the overall tone of the project.
- Production manager: A production manager is in charge of the below-the-line crew. Their day-to-day responsibilities include budgeting, transportation, and scheduling, among other duties.
- Production coordinator: Production coordinators are responsible for keeping track of any schedule alterations and communicating updates with the cast and crew. They’re the ones who manage transportation for those involved with the production.
- Production assistant: There are three types of production assistants: a set PA, an office PA, and a postproduction PA. They act as the support staff for the production team they’re assigned to.
- Editor: An editor is responsible for arranging the production’s raw footage, along with effects and music, to create a narrative that matches the vision of the director and producer.
Above-the-line roles provide the creative foundation for any project—whether it’s big- or small-budget—while below-the-line jobs keep the production wheels turning. Both categories rely on each other to ensure a production stays on track from development to the premiere.
For more on how to get work on a film crew, visit Backstage’s crew hub!