The Craft of Motion Picture Making | The Canadian Encyclopedia


The Craft of Motion Picture Making

Perhaps more than any other art form, filmmaking is a collaborative art. Although in our celebrity-obsessed culture the actors or "stars" get the lion's share of attention, by the time any film reaches the screen, hundreds of craftspeople have had a hand in getting it there.

The Craft of Motion Picture Making

Perhaps more than any other art form, filmmaking is a collaborative art. Although in our celebrity-obsessed culture the actors or "stars" get the lion's share of attention, by the time any film reaches the screen, hundreds of craftspeople have had a hand in getting it there. These include but are not limited to the following:


Like an army, a film crew has an order of rank, and on the set the director is the general. Whether or not the director is the final "author" of the film is a matter for academics and critics to decide. Because film is such a collaborative art and all the departments must act in coordination with one another with a great deal of precision and preparation - on major Hollywood productions it is not unusual for preparation to take a year or more - the director's job is to seamlessly mesh the sometimes conflicting needs of the actors, crew and producers. It is the most demanding job on set. Depending on the size of the production, the director will have a first, second and third assistant. Occasionally a second-unit director will be employed to handle the large action sequences, such as explosions that do not require the stars to be present.


The screenwriter writes or participates in the writing of the script. It all begins with the screenplay, the written text that a film production is based upon. Many screenplays are the result of a collaborative effort by 2 or more writers, often with the director or producer participating. A good script is not judged by the way it reads but by its effectiveness as a blueprint for the screen.

The old Hollywood studio system developed a practice of hiring professional writers for various aspects of the film, whether for dramatic dialogue, comedy bits or "doctoring" other people's scripts. Canada, without a studio system or a professional cadre of screenwriters, has generally developed directors who write their own scripts, such as Atom EGOYAN, David CRONENBERG, Denys ARCAND and Guy MADDIN. Among the few directors who write for others are Paul HAGGIS, who wrote the Oscar-winning Million Dollar Baby for Clint Eastwood and had a hand in 2 Bond films, and Graham Yost, who wrote the hit film Speed.


The director of photography (DOP) is in charge of lighting the set and the overall look of the film. The DOP's involvement begins some time before the production starts. He is usually consulted in the early stages of pre-production about a variety of technical details, including the choice of location, cameras, lenses and film stock. Working closely with the director, he or she (although there are comparatively few female DOPs) determines the camera angles, the lighting setup and movement of the camera for every shot in the film. Notable Canadian DOPs include Oswald Borradaile (1898-1999; Oscar nominee for The Four Feathers), Roy Tash (1898-1988; founder of the Canadian Society of Cinematographers), Reginald Morris (1918-2004), Richard Leiterman (1935-2005), Michel BRAULT, Jean-Claude Labrecque, Mark Irwin, Vic Sarin, Pierre Mignot, Guy Dufaux, Alain Dostie, André Turpin, Pierre Gill and Paul Sarossy.

On set, the DOP is second only to the director and on most films has a crew that includes a camera operator, assistant cameraperson, focus puller and gaffer. The camera operator (also known as the second cameraman) physically operates the camera. Taking directions from the DOP and director, the operator is not concerned with the lighting of the shot or composition but with the accomplishment of smooth camera movements or jittery handheld shots, depending on the director's requirements. On lower-budget films, a DOP will serve as the operator as well. The assistant cameraperson(s) is the member of the camera crew who is responsible for loading and unloading the film (or these days, the computer disk), changing lenses, keeping the camera in working order and filling out the daily reports. The focus puller, usually the first assistant, is the person responsible for keeping the lens in focus during the shot, whether it is a zoom, track or pan. The gaffer is the chief electrician, responsible for the electrical crew and working with the DOP - placing the lamps, running the cords, operating the generators, and so on.


Claude JUTRA (Mon oncle Antoine) said of editing: "The assembly is one of the most important phases of filmmaking. This is where all the work of writer and director happens." If the DOP is second to the director on set, then it is the editor who takes over responsibility for shaping the film from the hours of footage shot. On modern digital productions this process begins almost from the first day of shooting although, more traditionally with film, the editing began once the stock had been processed and edge coded (numbers and letters printed on the edge of the film stock during processing allow frame-by-frame identification). Editing used to be a hands-on activity, but has been replaced by digital editing on computers. Unlike in the male-dominated camera department, some of the most skilful editors are women. Werner Nold (the Swiss-born editor of more than 70 NATIONAL FILM BOARD [NFB] films received the ORDER OF CANADA in 1984), Arla Saare (Allan KING's Finnish-born editor), Susan Shipton (Atom Egoyan's editor with 2 GENIE AWARDS), Ron Sanders (David Cronenberg's editor with 4 Genies) and Michel Arcand (3 Genies) are some of the top Canadian film editors.


An essential member of the creative team, the composer creates the original musical composition as an accompaniment to a motion picture. Notable Canadian film composers include Howard SHORE, who has worked extensively with David Cronenberg and wrote the Oscar-winning score for Lord of the Rings: Return of the King; Maurice BLACKBURN (1914-88) and Eldon RATHBURN (1916-2008), studio composers for hundreds of NFB films; Louis APPLEBAUM (1918-2000), a composer with the NFB and Canadian Broadcasting Corporation who received an Oscar nomination for his work on G.I. Joe; Quebec's prolific film composer Robert M. Lepage; and Atom Egoyan's regular composer Mychael Danna.

Production Design/Art Director

The art director, also called a production designer, is ultimately responsible for every aspect of the film décor and set construction. The art director's duties range from designing and preparing all studio and outdoor settings to acquiring all properties required by the script. The art director establishes the visual quality of the film, and the calibre of his or her work often determines its mood, atmosphere and authenticity. It is one of the most complex jobs in filmmaking. Canada's top production designer is Carol Spier, who has worked on most of Cronenberg's films (winning 3 Genie Awards) and big-budget international productions such as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Costume Designer

The costume designer conceives and draws designs for costumes worn by performers in films. Canada's best-known costume designer is Denise Cronenberg, the sister of director David Cronenberg. She has designed the costumes for all his films since The Fly and worked on such big-budget Hollywood fare as The Incredible Hulk. Monique Prudhomme received an Oscar nomination for her work on Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, a Canada/UK co-production.


A makeup artist prepares actors to appear before the camera, makes them more or less attractive, younger or older, with scars, cuts or bruises, and otherwise suitable for the roles they are playing. The makeup artist works closely with the special effects department to create creatures like monsters or zombies, although a lot of work is now done digitally. Adrien Morot was nominated for an Oscar for his work in Barney's Version; Michèle Burke won for her work in Quest for Fire; Stephan Dupuis won for Cronenberg's The Fly; and Valli O'Reilly won for Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events.


The sound crew on set is responsible for the overall recording of the sound during the shoot. Most important is the sound mixer, who oversees the crew much like the DOP oversees the camera crew. The crew generally consists of a boom operator (who holds the mike above the actors), another person to maintain all the cabling, and other assistants, depending on the size of the production. The sound editor prepares the dialogue track in post-production, oversees the sound effects and works closely with the picture editor.


Stunt people are hired to act as the "double" for actors in scenes requiring special physical skills or involvement with action that might endanger the actor. These people are usually selected for a particular shot because of their physical ability to perform the stunt and their superficial resemblance to the actor for whom they are substituting. Russell Saunders (1919-2001) of Winnipeg was known as the king of Hollywood stuntmen. He did Alan Ladd's bar-fight scene in Shane, jumped off an 18-metre bridge in Hitchcock's Saboteur and leaped from a rooftop for Gene Kelly in The Three Musketeers, a stunt that ended with him catching a waving flag, which ripped, then swinging on its shreds into an open window. The latter stunt was considered to be the greatest in Hollywood at the time.