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What Is Principal Photography

BY ELAINE ROBERTS | JUNE 21, 2023

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Although there are many stages to making a film, the part where the movie itself is captured on set is known as principal photography. Here, we’ll break down what principal photography is, who is on set, and exactly how the creatives and crew can work together for a smooth shoot.


What is principal photography?


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Film production has several stages: pre production, principal photography, and postproduction. Principal photography is the stage where the cast and crew actually shoots the footage. During principal photography you’re on set, whether that’s an outdoor location or inside of a studio. The directors, actors, and production crew are on call to get the footage in the can.


“The first day of principal photography is your first day of shooting with the principal cast, director, DP, UPM, ADs, script supervisor, grips, and camera crew,” says Neil D’Monte, director (“Front Men”) and storyboard artist (“Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard”). “This day sets the tone for the remainder of the film.”


Depending on the film, principal photography can last around five to eight weeks for a mid-range movie. Pre Production is where all the budgeting, hiring, scheduling, and planning takes place. By the time you reach principal photography, you should be ready to film your movie.


Who is on set for principal photography?


“Extraction 2” Credit: Jasin Boland/Netflix A film set is a huge ecosystem that requires many professionals to capture the best footage and sound possible. “It’s important to work as seamlessly as possible with the other departments,” says Paul J. Salamoff, award-winning writer-director (“Encounter”) and author of “On the Set: The Hidden Rules of Movie Making Etiquette.”

“Recognize that each department has their own rules of ‘set etiquette,’ like saying ‘flashing’ when you take a picture, or never putting a drink down on a camera case, or staying out of the actors’ eyelines when they’re performing,” he says. “Acknowledging—and abiding by—these rules makes the departments feel respected and, hopefully, leads to the entire crew working as one coherent unit.”

The size of your film crew will always depend on budget. A studio-backed blockbuster will fill every position possible, but a micro-budget indie might see several jobs being completed by the same person. Your director might double as the cinematographer, for example, or your lighting and sound might come from a team of one. In general, these are the positions you will find on set during principal photography:

  • Producers

  • Director

  • First assistant director

    • Second assistant director

    • Script supervisor

  • Principal cast

  • Background actors

  • Director of photography

    • Camera operator

    • First assistant camera

    • Second assistant camera

    • Digital imaging technician

  • Gaffer

    • Best boy electric

    • Electrical lighting technician

    • Generator operator

  • Key grip

    • Best boy grip

    • Grips

  • Production sound mixer

    • Boom operator

    • Cable runners

  • Production designer

    • Art director

    • Set decorators

    • Set dressers

    • Construction coordinator

    • Prop master

  • Key makeup artist

    • Makeup artists

    • Special effects makeup artists

  • Key hairstylist

    • Hairstylists

  • Costume designer

    • Wardrobe supervisor

    • Set costumer

    • Costume coordinator

  • Stunt coordinator

    • Stunt performers

  • VFX coordinator

  • Craft services and catering

  • Transportation department


What is the day-to-day of principal photography like?

“The Whale” Credit: Niko Tavernise The filming logistics of a movie differ greatly depending on its scope and genre. The day-to-day of principal photography on a movie such as “Avengers: Infinity War” would be different from production on “The Whale.” However, there is an essential process of getting through the day. “As a producer, your everyday routine in production revolves around ensuring that everyone follows the game plan,” says Ty Leisher, producer (“11th Hour Cleaning”) and co-founder of Exit 44 Entertainment. “There are numerous elements to juggle during a production, such as coordinating location changes, managing meal breaks, handling overtime, and overseeing talent through makeup, hair, rehearsals, and wrap-ups.”

Here are the core elements of principal photography:

Call sheets: The first assistant director creates and sends out call sheets each day before filming. This document includes call times, the scenes being filmed, locations, addresses, local hospitals, weather conditions, safety notices, and other important information for the day.

Craft services and catering: It is essential to have food and water available for the cast and crew throughout the day. Craft services set up in the early morning, so crew and talent have access before their call time.

Getting the set ready: Production crews arrive earlier than most since they have to set up all equipment.

  • Camera operators set up filming equipment and run wires to connect to “video village,” where the director and producers watch the footage.

  • The lighting department works with the director of photography to set up the lighting necessary for the scene.

  • The sound crew prepares their microphones, tunes their equipment, and prepares the recording devices to synchronize with the cameras.

  • Set designers dress up the set by adding anything needed to create the look and feel of the scene.

  • The prop master brings in any props needed for the day.

Getting the cast ready: Wardrobe, hair, and makeup have their call time coordinated with enough time in the morning to get the actors ready. When the cast arrives, they report to the assistant director, visit their dressing rooms, and head to hair and makeup to get camera-ready.

Safety meetings: Before yelling “action,” a safety meeting is vital to identify any areas where crew must be cautious on set. Sets contain equipment with many cords and heavy equipment, therefore, it is crucial everyone on set is aware of how to do their jobs without incident.

Running tests: Once the set is ready, the crew runs test shots using stand-ins, who substitute for the cast. These tests ensure lighting, microphones, and cameras all look and sound how the director wants them to and allow for any revisions needed before filming starts.

Rehearsals: On some productions, the cast will conduct rehearsals for their scenes. No matter what, it is essential to rehearse when stunts are involved.

Filming begins: For every take, the second assistant camera (or “clapper”/“loader”) prepares a clapperboard, which provides information on the reel number, the scene number, and take number. The first assistant director is in charge of “calling the roll,” which means calling for quiet on the set, announcing “picture’s up,” and directing “roll sound, roll camera.” After the sound recordist and camera operator confirm they are good to go, the second AC claps the clapperboard and the take can begin. Between each take, the script supervisor keeps an eye out for continuity and makes notes for the editor and director to use during postproduction.

Breaking for lunch: It is required to provide a meal every six hours of filming. Lunch, or the “first meal,” depends on call times and may be scheduled six hours after the first scene films. Company moves: Some days require filming in different locations. This is called a “company move” and requires the production crew to take down the set. The transportation department brings the crew and actors to the new location, and the crew must set up the equipment once again.

End of a shoot day: After the last scene of the day, sometimes called a “martini shot” or “window shot,” the director and actors are free to go home and prepare for the next day. If the same set will be used the next day, the production crew can do a “walk away” and also go home. If it’s a different set, the crew will need to take down the equipment. Set production assistants get all necessary paperwork to the production office. The data wrangler sends the day’s footage (or “dailies”) to the editor, who can begin cutting the film.


Tips for a successful principal photography


Grusho Anna/Shutterstock Although pick-up shots, re-shoots, and automated dialogue replacement (ADR) are occasionally necessary, principal photography is where you’ll capture the bulk of your film. It’s imperative that things go smoothly (or as smoothly as possible) during this stage. Here are some tips to a successful shoot.

Always use call sheets. This ensures that everyone has the time and information needed for the day.

Shots lists are essential. Have the director and DP create a shot list for all scenes. This will help the crew estimate the time needed to film each scene. Also, knowing all the details behind each shot beforehand leaves room for improvisation on the day. Related

Test your equipment. The last thing you want after getting the perfect take is to find out a mic has interference or a camera lens isn’t correct. Avoid having to fix technical issues in postproduction in order to save your budget.

Hire an experienced assistant director. It is the first AD’s job to keep everyone on set moving efficiently and on schedule. Having a great assistant director will vastly improve your chances of wrapping on time and under budget.

Carve out time for rehearsals. Giving your actors time to rehearse the material allows them to work out any kinks and find deeper nuances before the camera rolls. You’ll get deeper performances without going overboard with a high number of takes.

Always have a backup plan for equipment. Equipment failure is one of the most common hiccups of principal photography. Try and have a local distributor or store on call, just in case.

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