How to Make a Movie: The Step By Step Process
Making a movie is a daunting prospect and once you get going it can be an incredibly challenging one. As a budding filmmaker, there are steps you can take to ensure the filmmaking process is as seamless as possible.
As long as you follow the different stages involved and have the right equipment, it’s likely you’ll be able to create something captivating that will have audiences clapping while the credits roll, regardless of the size of your budget.
Read this guide on how to make a movie and learn the steps and what is required to put together a Hollywood standard movie!
After all, some of Hollywood’s most renowned movies cost very little, including the likes of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s The Blair Witch Project (1999) which cost just $35,000, and Shane Carruth’s Primer (2004) which, somehow, was made for just $7,000.
Not to mention, Jared Hess’ comedy hit Napoleon Dynamite (2004) which had a budget of $400,000 and earned an incredible $46.1 million at the Box Office.
By following the below steps to make a movie, taking as much time as you need to ensure the best results possible, we’re confident you’re putting yourself on the road to making your first feature film and for overwhelming screen success!
First comes the pre-production stage:
Find your story
Amongst other things, the key to an excellent movie is a killer storyline, which is why you need to spend time out in the world studying your surroundings, the people that pass you on the street and other films in your preferred genre until you strike gold.
By gold, we mean storyline that is captivating, unique and possible for your budget.
It’s unlikely your story will be an extraterrestrial adventure, for example.
Typically, dramas and horrors are the best choice of genre as they offer more flexibility regarding budget and, often, have a higher chance of becoming a success.
For instance, cult horror Halloween (1978) cost just $325,000 to make but grossed a staggering $70 million. If your story earns you just a fraction of that, you’d never have to worry about work again.
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Get your story down on paper
That means writing a script.
When you have your story, initially, spend some time outlining the story on a couple of pages, so you know exactly where the story begins and how it ends. You must have a good idea of how your story begins and how it ends before you start writing because, largely, the writing process is about filling in the gaps to create the necessary character and story arcs and, therefore, audience interest.
Both your characters and story, including all the action, twists and turns taking place throughout your movie, must be convincing and captivating or your story won’t work. To help develop your characters, create character profiles that outline character backgrounds and traits, including how they perform under pressure, where they grew up, traumas in their life, and so on. Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card and Creating Unforgettable Characters by Linda Seger are both useful resources for character building, helping you to write unique characters for your movie.
Once you are happy with your outline, you can move onto ‘the cards’. The cards are multicolored index cards, also known as revision cards, which you can use to plot out your story scene-by-scene from beginning to end. There are digital tools you can use to plan your story, including Final Draft, which we highly recommend for serious writers.
If you’re on a budget, working on real cards that you can hold in your hand offers great flexibility, allowing you to write effectively, rewrite, read, reread, and reorder your scenes depending on where they fit best.
Once you have written out your story on the cards and are happy with the timeline, you can begin writing your script. There are numerous tools you can use to write a script; however, Final Draft software is one of the most popular, used by thousands of professional screenwriters. Although, there are free screenwriting software alternatives including:
Typically, every page you write counts as one minute of screen time, which is why the average feature-length spec script has between 110 and 120 pages. It’s important you open with a scene that will grab the audience’s attention and, in the first ten minutes, set the story up. A screenplay has three acts. The first and last acts should be between 20 and 30-minutes long, leaving around an hour for the second act which is where the bulk of your story will take place. Don’t make your movie too long as you may lose audience interest. Also, the longer the movie, the more it will cost to make.
When writing your screenplay, it’s important that you follow standard screenplay form to ensure that, when it comes to sharing your story, your crew, including your actors, can understand what you expect of them and how the story will unfold. There are thousands of resources out there for aspiring filmmakers, however, to find out more about screenplay form, get a copy of Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field and, perhaps most importantly, the latest edition of The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier. For tips on creating a great story, read Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee and Save the Cat by Blake Snyder.
Before you begin writing your screenplay, we recommend that you spend some time reading other movie scripts, too. Pulp Fiction (1994), Apocalypse Now (1979) and The Thing (1982) are all particularly good examples of excellent scripts that follow screenplay form with ultimate precision. Although, try and read plenty of scripts in your genre, too, and make sure you know your chosen genre inside-out.
If you want to be a filmmaker but not so much a screenwriter you could hire a writer for this stage or buy a script to shoot.
Test and tweak your story
In most cases, honesty is the best policy, and that goes for your screenplay, too. Once you have completed your script and are, mostly, happy with what you’ve written, you need to choose two people that you trust to provide you with honest feedback to read your story and, if necessary, pull it apart.
Often, as you’re objective, holes that you did not see in your story appear during the reviewing stage which is why it’s so important. After all, often, the first draft of your screenplay is simply about getting your ideas down on paper – you will need to rewrite your script at least a couple of times to get it up to scratch and ready for production. Your movie relies on a fantastic script so take your time.
When you receive and talk through the feedback you’ve received, pull out the key changes you feel are necessary – it’s your story, after all – and tweak your script accordingly. If you struggle to write dialogue – don’t worry, you wouldn’t be the only one – a great tip is to get a couple of friends together to act out the lines you’re unsure about so you can see how they sound out loud. If possible, record the dialogue so you can play it back when you’re writing and rewrite the lines.
If you’re not confident that the people in your life would provide you with honest feedback, you can take your script to a professional script consultant who will read it and provide honest feedback, however, if you can, you want to avoid spending your precious movie budget on script consultation.
Create your storyboard
If you’re not much of a drawer, storyboarding can be very daunting; however, it’s a necessary step in the filmmaking process.
Now you have a story you’re happy with; you need to work on how you will approach your story visually, which means creating small sketches for every shot in your movie so you know where the actors should be, as well as how you should position the cameras and lighting.
From a technical perspective, it’s the storyboards you create that will make or break your film.
Drawing is the best way to storyboard; however, you can also build storyboards using photographs with mock actors, as well as by using storyboarding software that will, often, create quality digital illustrations.
You can simply use Adobe Photoshop for storyboarding or some other affordable software options you can use to create great storyboards efficiently include StudioBinder, Moviestorm, Storyboard Quick, and Boardo. Some of the storyboarding options require basic drawing skills while others use photos and videos entirely.
If you’re not going to be directing the movie, you may want to hold off on the storyboarding process until you have confirmed your crew, including your director and cinematographer so that you can storyboard together. Storyboarding as a team will help your team to understand their roles in the creation process better and, more importantly, will make your movie feel like a collaboration rather than solely your project.
If you don’t fancy doing the leg work to make a storyboard you can at least create a shot list.
Find your team
An excellent movie, usually, has an excellent team behind it, so it’s essential you find a capable and passionate team to collaborate with on your movie.
Consider what your role will be in the filmmaking process and then, at the very least, make sure you have director, producer, cinematographer, lighting and sound professionals, and someone to manage post-production including editing. You will also need a stylist or, better still, costume seamstress, as well as someone to handle hair and makeup.
Just in case you’re unsure, the responsibilities of your different crew members include:
- Director – It is the director that has the most artistic pull during production. Your director will have the final say on anything that will affect the look and feel of your movie, including directing your actors and other members of your crew to determine the visual outcome, including the angles and lighting used.
- Producer – In movie production, the producer handles most of the logistics associated with making a film, including, if you didn’t already have your story, finding the story. Producers also, importantly, manage the budget and oversee post-production, including commissioning music and approving most details.
- Cinematographer – Is it your cinematographer, or camera operator, that will be in charge of capturing your movie on camera and making it look pretty in the process. The cinematographer may have some say over the lighting, too and, while shooting, is in charge of ensuring your movie has the desired visual outcome. Typically, it is the cinematographer that, after the actors, will work the closest with the director.
- Lighting – Quite simply, your lighting professional will be in charge of setting up, positioning, and adjusting the lighting in every scene to suit the needs of the director and cinematographer and for the best visuals.
- Sound – It is your sound professionals’ job to record all the sounds that will feature throughout your movie, including those around you and dialogue. Your sound expert will also be responsible for any sounds that are added in post-production, including pre-recorded sound and commissioned or bought music.
- Hair and Makeup – Having a hair and makeup department doesn’t mean all your actors are going to slathered in foundation or bronzer. Instead, it is the hair and makeup department’s responsibility to ensure the necessary steps are taken to get your actors looking as much like their characters as possible. Your makeup artist may also matt the skin of your actors to stop it appearing shiny on camera.
- Costume Designer – If your actors’ ‘costumes’ are simply everyday wear and don’t change throughout the movie, you may not need a costume department. However, if your characters change clothes frequently during your movie, or if you have elaborate costumes such as vintage or period clothing, you will need a costume department to manage the clothing. A costume department will not only source the costumes but also alter them to fit your actors properly and, occasionally, design and make costumes from scratch. It is also the costume department that is responsible for steaming dresses and shirts, for instance, to ensure, if desired, everything looks nice and crisp on camera for a truly professional outcome.
Now you know the responsibilities of your crew, you need to find them. Typically, for low or no-budget movies, it’s hard to find a team as, at the end of the day, everyone needs to earn a living.
However, there are both professionals and novices out there who are willing to work for a minimal fee or waive their fee entirely.
Better still, if you know other budding filmmakers you studied with, for instance, you can see if they want to get involved.
Alternatively, you can search for a crew using online resources such as Shooting People, Mandy, Craigslist, Production Hub, and Production Beast or speak to your local college or university – most have a film, television, or media department.
Try to find crew members that own professional filmmaking equipment so you don’t have to rent everything from film equipment rental services as rental fees can soon add up.
Better still, if a lighting professional, for instance, has his or her own equipment, it’s likely they’ll be more familiar with the lighting process as they would have practiced and, possibly, worked on more projects than someone without equipment – the same goes for cinematographers and sound experts.
During the crew selection process, make sure you’re completely honest about your expectations while working together, as well as their expectations such as credits, to avoid any problems during or post-production.
Cast your actors
Great actors make great movies. After all, what’s Pulp Fiction without John Travolta and Uma Thurman?
Finding passionate, committed, and experienced actors when you don’t have a budget is an incredibly difficult undertaking; however, there are a few tricks you can try to attract both aspiring and seasoned actors to your movie.
- Firstly, make sure you have a great script as, often, even the most experienced actors will take a hit on their fees if they’re excited about the story and movie you’re creating.
- Then, hold a casting event somewhere accessible, ideally in your nearest city, and advertise the event online. If you’re not offering any form of remuneration for the role you’re advertising, make sure your casting event is catered and, for fun, host a competition to win a couple of box sets, for instance, to get people through the door on the day.
- You should also contact local acting and film schools, as well as non-specialist schools for suggestions – you might just have the next big thing in your mitts, but they won’t show up if they don’t know about your casting event.
While a casting event may or may not work for you, there are other ways to find actors for your movie. For instance, look to friends and family and see if you have any unrecognized, fee-free talent immediately around you, especially when casting extras. You should also look to online resources such as social media and casting websites that charge a fraction of the cost of agencies. Spotlight, Casting Call Pro, StarNow, and Talent Circle, are all excellent platforms to find your cast through.
Remember, your actors should be passionate about the story you’re creating and, importantly, convincing as the character they’re playing. After all, nothing ruins a movie more than someone that, quite simply, can’t act or a character that is unconvincing in their portrayal, thereby leaving the audience unconvinced by your story. Take the time to find the best actors for the job.
For a low-budget movie, try and keep your number of actors, including extras, to a minimum. Even if you’re not paying your actors, you will need to provide catering, which may be costly, as well as spending precious time directing them and, importantly, looking after them when they’re off-set.
Caring for your cast is a huge logistical feat so, for your first feature at least, keep your cast and crew as tightly knit as possible, making the entire filmmaking process that little bit easier and hassle-free.
Scout your locations
Now you have your crew and cast; you can start looking forward to shooting your movie. Ideally, using your screenplay and storyboard, you need to spend time scouting every location that you hope to feature in your movie, including backup locations should your first choice not work out for one reason or other.
During the location scouting process, you need to think about both indoor and outdoor locations, including the possibility of building sets and shooting indoors. Although, for a feature film bounded by a tight budget, if existing at all, it’s advisable to find locations you don’t need to do much to, aside from the odd prop or two.
As soon as you start building sets from scratch, costs will spiral so only build a set if it’s going to be repeatedly used in your movie and, therefore, worth the investment.
When scouting your locations, try and have your cinematographer and lighting professional with you as they will be able to offer valuable advice as to how you can use the location as well as the different factors affecting its use, including natural lighting, noise, and other obstructions or distractions that you may not notice.
The secret to a seamless filmmaking process is preparation, which is why it’s essential that you are completely familiar with your locations and have at least a couple of backup locations at the ready.
During the location scouting process, take plenty of photographs and, if possible, test videos to refer to when briefing your team, which we will cover later on.
Make sure that, when location scouting, you spend at least a few hours in the location and familiarise yourself with any changes in lighting. Always visit your locations at the same time you plan to shoot there to get the best perspective of the location. When filming, you will need to adapt to changing light conditions so the more you know about the possible challenges of the location, the better.
If you’re struggling to find high-quality indoor movie locations, including offices, apartment, warehouses, shops, and so on, look to location marketplaces such as LocationsHub and SHOOTFACTORY, as well as venue booking sites such as Hire Space and even accommodation sites such as Airbnb.
If using Airbnb, always make sure you discuss your plans with the property owner as many hosts will not want their home on camera or will want to charge higher fees for such a project.
Remember, if shooting in a public place or on public land, even if there’s no one around, you will need the correct permissions from the local authority or council.
The same goes for if you’re shooting in a restaurant or building – it’s essential you get written permission from the business or property owner which, if necessary, includes obtaining permission to show a restaurant’s sign, for instance.
You must have permission from the respective brand when showing branded goods and places in your movie as, by featuring, they become associated. When shooting in a public place, providing you have attained the correct permissions, you do not need permission to film members of the public.
Brief your team
So you have your story, your team, your actors, and you know, near enough, the locations you’ll be using to shoot the movie. Plus, your actors are already learning their lines and preparing for their next big role.
Next, you need to bring all your resources together for a lengthy briefing session or two so every member of your team knows his or her responsibilities.
If you’re shooting over a longer period, briefing meetings will become second nature. However, if you’ve only got a few weeks or even days to make your movie, it’s likely you’ll only present one or two larger briefs and then fill in the gaps with a rundown at the beginning of each day. Whichever it is, make sure everyone is kept updated.
It is in the briefing meetings that your team can raise any concerns they have about the movie, so pay close attention and make sure there are no doubts in the room before moving forward. You will also want to take team feedback and questions onboard as a means to check that how you’re planning to shoot is the best way to shoot. Make sure your plan is both time and cost-effective to prevent delays.
Most importantly, you will organize and plan your production schedule in your first briefing meeting. If you’re working with a team that is not getting paid, you have to be very flexible and able to work around your team members’ other commitments, although, your team should be willing to be flexible in the interest of the movie. In your first team briefing, commit to a workable production schedule. To get your entire crew on the same page, use team calendars such as Teamup or Float.
Once you have finalized your production schedule, make sure you run it past the necessary authorities or venue hire companies to check you are all in sync. If for one reason or other, you can’t shoot on the day you have scheduled, find a day that you can and then, once it’s been approved by your team, work it into the schedule. Venue hire, typically, requires a non-refundable deposit so make sure your schedule is planned properly to avoid cancellation and your deposit from being lost.
Shooting Your Movie
Prepare to shoot
Now you know what you’re shooting and when you need to spend some time preparing everything you need to make your movie.
Each department, or team member, should put together a list of what exactly it is they need for the production that you can then crosscheck as a team in a briefing meeting. For instance, your cinematographer should have an equipment list, as should your sound, lighting and post-production professionals. I
deally, most of your team will already own the equipment they need; however, you may need to purchase extras such as steadicams, hard drives, spare batteries, and extension leads, as well as to hire bulky, expensive equipment such as camera dollies.
It is during the preparation stage that your costume designer and hair and makeup department should provide mood boards for approval so they can then source or, in some cases, make everything they need for your movie.
Similarly, you may want to have your lighting and cinematography team provide mood board, so everyone understands the ‘feel’ of your movie which will, ultimately, make the production process that little bit easier as it means everyone will be on the same page from day one.
When preparing to shoot your movie, always visit your prospective locations more than once, with your full technical team, so you can survey the area and determine where challenges may arise. It is while you’re surveying the locations that you can begin thinking about angles, where you will position lights, and so on. Surveying your locations is helpful for finalizing your team’s equipment needs, too.
Shoot your movie
Once you’re certain you know how every aspect of the filmmaking process will be managed and have prepared for those tricky ‘worst-case scenarios’, such as adverse weather, you’re ready to begin shooting your movie.
Make sure you are using good quality cameras (don’t film it on an iPhone!) and equipment for this stage and use well-known techniques such as the Rule of Thirds.
Providing you have planned correctly, this should be an enjoyable, albeit a slightly stressful, undertaking. Of course, you can’t plan for everything, so if your schedule is running behind or the unexpected occurs, you can’t do any more than making sure your team is aware of changes in the production schedule.
Throughout production, you and your team need to be prepared to work long hours as, typically, your entire team will need to be at your location from early in the morning to set up and willing to work through until night, if not longer, to get the scene right.
To keep everyone happy, motivated, and energized, make sure you organize catering for your team and allow everyone a lunch break, as well as regular tea and coffee breaks throughout the day.
At the end of every day, make sure you keep spirits high by thanking your team and telling them how well they’re doing. After all, people like to be acknowledged for their efforts, especially if they’re not getting paid. Also, make sure all your work from the day, including footage and sound recordings, is backed up using at least a couple of different hard drives so not to misplace any of your hard work.
During the production process, online file storage which you can share with your team will be incredibly useful so get yourself a Dropbox, Google Drive, or MediaFire subscription for storage.
Re-shoot wherever necessary
Often, during the filmmaking process, there will be times when scenes don’t work out how you’d hoped or, in some cases, you haven’t been able to shoot the scene at all.
It is important that you don’t get worked up about what hasn’t happened, or what has gone wrong, during the main bulk of production. Instead, wait until you have finished shooting the majority of your movie and then, with your team, work out which scenes you still need to shoot or reshoot and organize your schedule accordingly.
Savor those last days of shooting as they mean the production side of your movie is almost over and, believe me; you’re going to miss the long days spent on set when you’re in the editing room.
Perhaps the real art of filmmaking, post-production is everything that happens once you’ve gathered all your footage and, mostly, are finished on set.
It is during the post-production stage that your movie will be edited and stitched together to create a full, captivating story.
Post-production isn’t just about what you see, either; it’s the time when you’ll sync your sound and add any commissioned or otherwise purchased music to your film, bringing everything well and truly alive and to completion.
If you’re looking for music for a movie, explore platforms such as Premium Beat and Audio Network. You may also want to have music made specifically for your movie, in which case you will need to approach a film music production company or composer. Alternatively, speak to your local music school to see if there are students that may be interested in collaborating and creating music for your film. Just like when casting, you may want to advertise on social media and job boards, too.
Throughout the post-production process, the director and, most importantly, the producer will oversee the work to ensure everything is in-keeping and ‘works’ to the movie’s underlying principles.
Free movie post-production tools and editing software include:
- Blender for 3D modeling and animation
- Adobe Premiere Pro – video editing software
- Lightworks for non-linear editing
- GIMP for photo editing
- DaVinci Resolve Lite for color correction
- Audacity for sound editing
- MPEG Streamclip for video conversion
- Maya – VFX software
If you’re happy to invest in tools for post-production, Final Cut Pro, Logic Pro, and Motion are all essentials for professional filmmakers.
If you’re looking for film editing resources, pick up copies of:
- Film Craft: Editing by Justin Chang
- Avid Uncut: Workflows, Tips and Techniques from Hollywood Pros by Steve Hullfish
- Dream Repairman: Adventures in Film Editing by Jim Clark
All three resources will help you to understand the film editing process better.
If you have the budget and want to get a truly professional final product you could consider hiring an editor or assistant editor to help you create the 1st assembly cut.
Test your movie
Once your movie is complete, which means you, or your team, has pieced it together with all the trimmings, including music and dialogue, and edited your movie, including making the necessary adjustments to light and contrast, you’re ready for the big reveal.
Gather your team and find a big screen or projector, and watch the movie magic unfold with a notepad in hand. It is when you’re testing your film that you need to keep an eye out for any kinks in the process, including out of time sound or sharp and distracting cuts where there shouldn’t be any.
Once you have viewed the movie a few times, you should have a list of tweaks that can be made to ensure the movie is as good as it can be. Often, during the testing stage, you may find that a scene feels out of place, in which case you will need to re-edit the film, cutting or replacing scenes where necessary.
If you’re looking to release your movie to the public (why wouldn’t you?), it may also be a good idea to screen your film to a test audience whom can provide honest feedback. For instance, if your test audience doesn’t like a particular piece of music in your film or isn’t happy with a scene, you can make the appropriate adjustments.
Although, always make sure you keep your integrity and never compromise your film by cutting scenes you and the rest of your team feel are integral to the plot.
Complete final edits
Final edits for movies are what they say on the tin. You should have some good feedback, whether it’s your own or that of a test audience, so your post-production team needs to get back in the editing room to complete the final edits.
During this last stage, you can also add last-minute visuals such as both opening and closing credits. You should order your team credits with any companies involved first, followed by the ‘stars’, or main characters, and then the names of the other contributors to the movie.
You have made a movie!
Congratulations! You’ve made a movie and, providing you’ve followed all of the above; we’re pretty sure it’s not bad, either. Bring your team, friends, and family together for a screening to celebrate. It’s been a long process but, finally, you have a movie of which you and your team can be incredibly proud.
If you’re looking to have your movie distributed, speak to a movie distribution company in your genre to see if anyone’s willing to represent your movie. If you have no luck, contact independent cinemas as they will, typically, be open to screening an independent film. You can also export your movie to DVD.
No matter how daunting the filmmaking process may seem, take your time, plan, prepare and prepare some more, and you’ll find it an incredibly joyous, invigorating process. Good luck movie maker!