Maybe you just saw the most recent installment of The Avengers. Or perhaps you’re wondering why you have to wait 2 years in between each Star Wars film. It’s not uncommon to find yourself wondering – how long does it take to film a movie? It’s a tricky question, and if you’re not in the industry the answer really isn’t obvious.
We will throw you a brief answer so you can get back to your Netflix quickly. But, in order to truly know how extensive the filmmaking process is, you must understand all of the components that go into making a movie. We will be taking an in-depth look at all of the processes involved and why exactly they take so much time.
So How Long Does It Take To Film A Movie?
Here’s your quick answer: If you are referring to the average “Feature film” (100-120 minutes in length), typically you are looking at 45-60 days of shooting. However, this number represents the time required to make a simple film without complicated shots or significant SFX or VFX. It also neglects to include time spent in pre-production and post-production. We will get into how long those take a bit later.
When scheduling how long it is going to take to make a movie, the screenplay is broken down into pages. In film school and the industry, it is taught and upheld that generally, one page of your script will equate to one minute of screen time in your finished product. On television shows and low budget films I have worked on, it’s normal to shoot 6 to 8 pages per day. On the other hand, on a film like Jurassic World, it is not uncommon to spend an entire day on 1/8th of a page. There were a lot of explosions those days.
Quick Fun Fact: As scripts are broken down into pages, pages are also broken down into eighths. This is due to the fact that script pages are typically 8 inches long. Yeah. It’s kind of silly. But Industry folk take it very seriously.
The process of production is typically the fastest stage of a film’s development by a large margin. Being “in production” is basically hemorrhaging money as an entire production staff (typically 100-200 people) must be kept on payroll. Actors, locations and other facilities are also add significantly to this cost. Because of these reasons and many others, a typical day on a film set lasts between 12-16 hours. This ensures that the production can be completed in as short of a time frame as possible and the film may move on to post production.
So what about pre-production and Post production? How long do those take? Well… That’s kind of complicated too. I guess we can give you another short answer: On average, pre-production will take 8 to 12 weeks for a feature film, and post production can take between 10-20 weeks.
Those can vary a LOT however. Let’s break them down. Keep in mind on major blockbusters there is a lot of overlap between these phases, but this is a general outline for the production process.
How Long Does Pre-Production Take?
Like production, but to an even greater extent, there is a wide range of possible pre-production time periods.
Pre-production basically refers to all of the preparations made after a project is greenlit before shooting begins. Here is a brief breakdown of everything that happens in the pre-production process:
- The script is developed, finalized, and financing.
- The production company is established.
- Budget and schedule is outlined.
- Department heads are scouted and hired. Department heads will then begin their creative planning and organization.
- Rentals, Permits, and Locations are secured.
- Department heads hire their crew, actors are auditioned and cast.
- Rehearsals are made and production begins.
Yeah. A lot. It should be obvious that all this stuff needs to get done, but the average moviegoer definitely does not take all of this into consideration.
As we have discussed earlier, this process takes 8-12 weeks on average, and shown how it can be longer, it can also take much, much longer….
What is Development Hell?
Pre-production can also take years, or even decades. Many films – Typically passion projects or revivals of big IPs enter a limbo often referred to as development hell. These projects are basically trapped in pre-production for years at a time for several circumstances including the following:
- Rewrites, Recasting and changes in crew usually stemming from executives after the rights to a screenplay has been acquired.
- Issues with agreements to the rights and/or contract disputes.
- Strikes with writers, crew members, or cast.
- Issues with funding. Either not being able to get money in the first place, running out of money, getting funding pulled, or being shuffled between studios.
- Death of Cast members or key members of the creative team.
Development hell isn’t exclusive to pre-production, and affects many movies in all stages of production. It is much more common in films involving big directors, studios, and franchises.
Now that we’ve covered how long pre-production takes, let’s see what happens after the movie is done being filmed.
Post production is an entirely different ordeal itself. The term post-production refers to all of the processes occurring after shooting is finished. This is more extensive than one might expect. It involves not just editing, but color grading, the writing and recording of the sound track, foley, ADR, and implementation of VFX.
For the uninformed:
- Foley – The reproduction of everyday sound effects to enhance audio quality such as footsteps, squeaky doors, etc. Good foley work goes completely unnoticed by the audience, as it sounds natural in the film.
- ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement) – Most people in the industry don’t even know what the acronym stands for. They just know that it refers to the process of re-recording dialogue to dub over the footage. This is done to fix audio issues or sometimes even change the dialogue of the scene.
- VFX (Visual Effects) – The process of creating imagery outside of the live action shot, typically through CGI (Computer Generated Imagery). Commonly confused with SFX or Special effects, which refers to live action effects done on set.
Of these, VFX has the potential to be the most time consuming processes. When you think of visual effects, you probably think of fire breathing dragons, or gigantic space empires. However, the scope of visual effects is actually much wider. Visual effects can include things you never even notice, like atmospheric snow or wind, or painting things out of frame.
With all that taken into consideration, it makes sense that a simple comedy with no fancy visuals can be pumped out in 10 weeks. Whereas films like Avengers: Age of Ultron can have over 3000 visual effects shots and take much, much longer than that.
It is important to note that this work is often delegated across a dozen or more VFX studios with hundreds of employees each. It’s not just one guy in a room. But this process is still very painstaking, as every frame needs individual attention. Plus all of the VFX must be approved by creative heads and executives.
Don’t Forget Re-shoots
The large time investment required by the above factors does not even take into consideration the potential need for re-shoots. Typically considered a part of the post-production process, some films require re-shoots of messed up footage or, in other cases, entire segments of the film.
In some cases, the post production process can reveal that certain scenes have critical mistakes that went unnoticed on set. In other cases, the movie is completed and screened before focus groups, where it tests very poorly. The latter can sometimes result in rewrites and re-shoots that can cost millions of dollars and extend the post-production window considerably.
A recent example is the Warner Bros. film, Justice League, which has spent approximately 25 million dollars on re-shoots that dragged on for over two months. The cited reason for this was to improve the “connective tissue” between scenes, or in other words, improve the flow. These re-shoots cause more problems in post production, as Henry Calvill’s superman will need to have his mustache digitally removed. Henry grew one for his role in a Mission Impossible film that was in the middle of production when he was called back for Re-shoots. The steps being taken in this case may sound a bit extreme until you consider that a poorly reviewed Justice League has the potential to cost the studio hundreds of millions of dollars.
So How Long Is The Period Between Production And Release?
Many studios announce when their films finish shooting. And we know that the general time frame for post production is 10-20 weeks. So why is it there a much longer window of time between production’s wrap and theatrical release?
Trailers and marketing campaigns must be put together to collect an audience for the film. As mentioned before, the film must be screened with focus groups that can possibly warrant re-edits or re-shoots.
And of course producers need to leave a large frame of time open for errors. As we have covered, there are a nearly infinite amount of things that can go wrong in the filmmaking process. Theatrical releases are scheduled very far ahead of time and are very expensive to push back. Dates are often selected from a combination of viewership data and competing releases, so moving them is almost never an option. Because of this, there needs to be a large amount of time to correct mistakes that could harm the release without extending release dates. Sometimes release dates are artificially delayed simply because the market is too saturated at the time of the films completion.
BONUS: How Long Does It Take To Film a Documentary?
Hopefully you’ve been aware that everything up until this point refers to narrative feature films. That’s because with narratives it’s easy to give a concrete answer based on how long established film processes take. Documentaries are even more variable. While some documentaries may cover a single event and finish shooting in just a few weeks, others may choose to document a person’s entire life.
Many of the principals of pre-production and post-production still exist, but are much more malleable, as the story of a documentary is heavily dependent on what happens during production. Many documentary filmmakers have a solid idea of what their story is that completely changes when something radical happens during shooting. Others may have a solid idea of what their story is that completely changes during the edit. These factors can make the length of time required to produce a documentary unpredictable.
Documentaries are also by and large a predominantly indie genre, so filmmakers may also have to struggle to obtain funding for post production and distribution.
So, as you can see, asking how long it takes to film a documentary is like asking how long it takes to paint a picture. It’s kind of a silly question.
Movies are crafted on the back of literally thousands of moving parts. They take months or even years to plan and polish, and often times the “filming” of the movie is actually the fastest and easiest part. Because of how many things that can go wrong, a movie can take anywhere between a few months and a decade to get made. Hopefully this article has helped to deepen your appreciation for the movies you already love so much, and taught you something about the filmmaking process.