How to Make a Movie: The Filmmaking Process From Idea to Release

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It’s no secret that making a movie can be difficult. Even after establishing himself as an Oscar-winning legend, Martin Scorsese labored over “The Irishman” for more than a decade. George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” entered preproduction in 2000 with Mel Gibson in the lead, and Tom Hardy, who eventually played Max when the film actually hit theaters 15 years later, was only 23 at the time. Francis Ford Coppola first came up with the idea of “Megalopolis” in 1977; the film will debut in 2024 (after struggling mightily to even find distribution). 

But fear not, movie-making is tough but far from impossible. Let’s take a bird’s-eye view of the process.

Making a movie

1. Come up with an idea

All great movies start with a great concept, and yours will be no different. Before you begin, you’ll want to hone your idea. In the phases of filmmaking, this is referred to as “development.”

Here are a few considerations to keep in mind:

  • Who are your main characters? What are their backstories?
  • What is the story arc?
  • What is your hook? What makes this story different from other stories like it?
  • Why should this be a movie? In other words, what are the cinematic qualities of your story?

It’s helpful to write out a logline: a one-sentence summation of your film. A great logline will not only answer all of these questions, but it also gives you—and potential investors—a grasp on what makes this concept unique. Here’s a few examples: 

  • “Titanic”: A 17-year-old aristocrat falls in love with a kind but poor artist aboard the luxurious, ill-fated R.M.S. Titanic.
  • “Mean Girls”: A teenager moves from Africa to the suburbs of Illinois, where she gets a quick primer on the cruel, tacit laws of popularity that divide her fellow students into tightly knit cliques.
  • “Back to the Future”: A young man is transported to the past, where he must reunite his parents before he and his future cease to exist.
  • “The Silence of the Lambs”: To catch a killer who skins his victims, a young FBI cadet must seek help from an incarcerated and manipulative cannibal.
  • “Finding Nemo”: When his son is swept out to sea, an anxious clownfish embarks on a perilous journey across a treacherous ocean to bring him back.

2. Write the script

Once you have a strong grasp of your story, it’s time to put pen to paper. Many writers go in with an outline—a scene-by-scene plan—but others prefer to let the narrative take shape as they go.

Either way, writing your script will likely take a while (and multiple rewrites), but that’s okay. This is the springboard all other steps will rely on. As Alfred Hitchcock once said: “To make a great film you need three things: The script, the script, and the script.”

Of course, don’t panic if the script goes through changes throughout the process. That’s another normal reality of the industry, even on projects that garner icon status. 

Here’s “Jaws” screenwriter Carl Gottlieb—who also has a small role in the film as the reporter Meadows—on the state of the script as Steven Spielberg’s production rolled along: “It was not at all locked in. We had enough to start shooting the first 10 days,” Gottlieb said. “I was writing frantically ahead of schedule. Steven and I were sharing a house on location and we just lived the movie. If I wasn’t on call as an actor that day I was holed up in the cabin writing the rest of the movie.”

3. Gather your resources

Remember when we mentioned the long gestation periods for films such as “The Irishman” and “Mad Max: Fury Road”? This is the stage where things can take a while, but it’s a necessary step to bring an idea to the screen.

Movies require money and resources. The key to finding people willing to spend money on your idea is compiling assets that make their investment feel safer. A finished script is great, preferably one with a killer hook and logline; if it also has a few accolades, such as a competition win or a film festival award, even better. 

It also helps to attach certain key personnel, such as a producer, whose job in this stage is explicitly to find money, as well as actors or below-the-line talent with proven credits to their name. 

Just like every step of filmmaking, finding resources requires creativity. Look for funding in unexpected places. Robert Rodriguez famously funded his first feature, “El Mariachi,” partially by signing up as a test subject for medical research. Maybe don’t make that your first option, but you never know where you’ll find your benefactor.

4. Think visually

Before you get on set, it’s important to have a coherent visual strategy. Analyze other movies you want to emulate aesthetically. What is the camera doing? How are scenes lit? How are sets decorated?

These tools can help you plan: 

  • Shot list: A document that lays out the details of each shot—location, lighting, angles, movement, etc.—so you can work quickly and efficiently on set.
  • Storyboard: Essentially, this is a shot list with drawings. The end result should look something like a comic book, where each image is a shot you want in your film.
  • Previsualization: Also referred to as “previs,” this is where you create crude animation that further illustrates how each shot should look, move, and even cut together. This is a favorite tool of Wes Anderson.

It’s important to note that this level of intricate planning isn’t a necessity. Many filmmakers opt to organically choose coverage on set. But if you’re a beginner, more preparation is typically better. Movie-making 101: You’re going to be pulled in a lot of different directions on set, so it’s good to have one less thing to think about.

5. Fill out your cast and crew

Once funding is secured, it’s time to bring everyone on board. Depending on the size of your production, the team can be just a few people or hundreds of crew members. No matter what, you’ll probably need:

On a big film, each of these positions are the heads of much larger departments.

Of course, you’ll also need your actors. You may already have your stars attached, but your script probably contains smaller roles. You’ll need to fill those positions and can do so with the help of a casting director, if it’s in the budget. (You can also cast your movie on Backstage!) 

6. Secure locations

Locations are vital when making a movie. While you’re scouting, think about a few different things: First, does this look right for the images in your head? Second, will there be any technical difficulties, such as nearby sound distractions or inconsistent lighting? Third, are you allowed to shoot here?

If you’re filming in a public space, you’ll likely need a permit. If you’re working in a private area, you’ll need permission from the owner, which you’ll want to have written down.

7. Shoot

Finally! It’s time to let the camera roll. This can be the most stressful part of the whole operation, since there are so many moving pieces and typically not enough time or money (okay, there’s never enough time or money).

To mitigate this pressure, plan thoroughly and be as organized as possible. Your producer and assistant director will help, but make sure you know exactly what you need and how you’re going to get it done when you go into your shoot. Remember, above all else, to prioritize a safe and respectful environment for cast and crew.

8. Postproduction

Postproduction can make or break a project, so don’t skimp on it. You’ve made it this far—make sure you’ve allotted enough time and money to see your vision through.

To ensure your editing process is efficient, take good notes on set and organize your footage on your hard drive before you start cutting.

Keep in mind that postproduction is more than just editing. There are other major things that will need to happen during this step:

  • Sound design/mixing: Get all of your sound effects and dialogue in place and at the right levels.
  • Visual effects: Add in any visuals needed that weren’t captured on set (compositing, CGI, etc.).
  • Coloring: Adjust the look of your shots.
  • Music: Create a score, if necessary, or find music you can license.

With postproduction complete, pat yourself on the back. Now, send your film to festivals, post it online, and show it to friends and family. In other words, build your audience so that you can make the next one.

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