Who does what

The Executive Producer, Producer, Director, Director of Photography and Screenwriter of a typical Steven Spielberg movie.

berkeley314567 writes:

I’m hoping you can help me with some basic movie industry knowledge. In discussions of movies, how they’re made, individual roles, etc., I’m constantly asked who really does what. For example, does it really matter that the executive producer of “Big Success” also produced “New Film?” Is it really a stamp of quality? I’ve tried to figure it out, but not being part of the business it’s still a little murky. So here’s my basic understanding:free stats

Executive Producer – Provides the money, has final say on several matters.
Producer – Deals with day to day operational matters.
Screenwriter(s) – Provides the foundational material.
Director of Photography/Cinematographer – Creates the look of the film, including angles of shots, lighting, coloring
Director – Oversees individual takes, tries to get actors to deliver a performance that meets his ‘vision,’ decides when to move on to next scene.
Key Grip – Makes sure nothing moves that isn’t supposed to.
Best Boy Grip – No friggin’ clue.

So, assuming that I’m (mostly) right about the above job roles, what happens when someone like Spielberg or Cameron steps up to the helm? Do they just get more of the credit? Do they take on multiple roles? How accurate is it to say that Spielberg’s success is due in large part to good script selection, like Tom Hanks?

The EXECUTIVE PRODUCER is often, simply put, the rights holder — they’re the ones who saw the potential of a property first and nabbed it before anyone else did. It can matter who the EXECUTIVE PRODUCER is because, if they were indeed the Executive Producer of Big Success, it would indicate that they have a track record of having good taste, and of sensing a hit in a piece of material. The Executive Producer may have influence over the production, or he may just want to have his name onscreen and collect his fee — it depends on the person. He may choose to throw his weight around and micromanage every detail of production from poster design to catering, or he may choose to visit the set now and then and chat with THE STAR. Often, the EXECUTIVE PRODUCER is The Guy Who Has The Money or is at least close to The Guy Who Has The Money, which means that he automatically gets a lot of stuff he wants without even having to ask. The Guy Who Has The Money (that is, THE FINANCIER or THE SUIT) gets to call whatever shots he wants.

PRODUCER is a much more ill-defined term. A PRODUCER is, in many ways, just a person with a telephone who knows a lot of talented people. Again, taste and an eye for talent count for a lot. A PRODUCER says “I love this idea, let’s get Writer A to write it,” and then goes to THE SCREENWRITER and tells him how wonderful he is and tries to get him really excited about the project so he’ll do a bunch of work for free in the hopes of attracting to the project THE STAR or THE DIRECTOR. A lot of times, the PRODUCER has a specific vision for a movie in his or her head, a vision he or she feels is certain to fit into the marketplace in a new and lucrative way, and then works with the SCREENWRITER to bring that vision to life. The SCREENWRITER then does a whole lot of work, usually for free, to develop the PRODUCER‘s vision of the movie, all so that the project will be attractive enough to entice a DIRECTOR or STAR. Once a DIRECTOR or STAR is attached to the project, the process starts all over again — the DIRECTOR will invariably have a completely different idea for the movie, at which point the SCREENWRITER will be summarily fired and the DIRECTOR will hire another SCREENWRITER, this one a friend of his who he’s worked with before. At this point, the PRODUCER often backs off and goes on to other projects; or, he or she may stick around and oversee the DIRECTOR‘s new take. Rarely does the PRODUCER ever fight for any creative ideas the SCREENWRITER has — the SCREENWRITER‘s contributions are usually the last thing on anyone’s mind.

Now, there is another use of the word PRODUCER, to indicate the person who actually oversees the making of the movie — finding, wooing and assembling the creative team that will work well together, selecting locations, figuring out the best and most efficient way to shoot, balancing the budget, allocating resources, coordinating schedules, overseeing clearances and legal matters, and so forth. Sometimes the other kind of PRODUCER does this kind of work and sometimes he or she does not — again, it depends on the producer and his or her level of success — if they’ve had a lot of success, they’ll most likely find someone else to actually get the movie made.

THE SCREENWRITER‘s job is to take everyone’s ideas about what the movie should be and — somehow — form them into an elegant, compelling cinematic narrative. And when I say everyone, I mean everyone. I once had to sit down for two solid days with the product placement representative, while she went through my script page by page and asked whether this or that element of the narrative couldn’t be changed in order to better suit her needs as a product placement representative. Could the characters drink screwdrivers instead of bourbon? Because then we could get placements from both Absolut and Tropicana. Could the character drive to work instead of walking? Because then we could get a placement from Toyota. Could the character have a better job? Because then we could get placements from a high-tone clothing manufacturer. And so forth.

THE DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY lights the set. He will also generally have an opinion about where to place the camera and what sort of lens to use, and he will work all that out with the director, but his primary job is to light the set.

THE DIRECTOR carries the vision of the whole movie in his head, and makes decisions accordingly. And not just decisions about individual takes, or an actor’s performance — a director makes decisions about props, costumes, lighting, makeup, dialogue, set design, absolutely everything. Now, he or she generally has a lot of help, don’t get me wrong, a powerful director will have an army of well-trained professionals attuned to his or her sensibilities, who come to him or her all day and say “This suit or that suit?” “Blond wig or black wig?” “High-key or low-key?” and so forth. That is, THE DIRECTOR‘s department heads do all the research, and then bring choices for him or her to approve. He or she designs the shots, works with the DP to figure out the look of this or that scene, and makes sure the actors are all performing in the same movie.

GRIPS move things around — most importantly, the camera. They don’t operate it, that’s the camera operator’s job. They don’t load it, that’s the clapper-loader’s job. They just move it. GAFFERS are in charge of achieving lighting effects. So: the DP tells the GAFFER how he wants the scene to look, and the GAFFER figures out how to achieve that effect. Once the set is lit, the camera operator and the GRIP move the camera in the way the DIRECTOR and the DP have designed the shot.

The BEST BOY GRIP is the first assistant to the GRIP.

When someone like Spielberg or Cameron works on a movie, they may function as both a producer and director, or as a director and a screenwriter, or, as the Coen Bros do, as director, writer and editor, or, as Steven Soderberg does, as director, writer and DP (and occasionally star). Directors like this are hugely talented and understand every aspect of their craft to an unusually high degree, but that only means that they are able to surround themselves with people who understand who they are and how they think and are able to give them what they want before they ask for it. Spielberg has worked with some of the same people his entire career — John Williams and Michael Kahn first and foremost. Being a hugely successful director means that you can hire brilliant people who do their jobs well and make you look better — the relationship between Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese comes immediately to mind. These people often function as parts of the director, so that the director can do his job and not worry about doing everyone else’s.

I don’t think it’s accurate to say that Spielberg’s success is due in large part to script selection. Which is not to say that Spielberg is not good at choosing scripts. Rather, it would be more accurate to say that Spielberg’s success is due to him choosing scripts that he connects with on a deep level, scripts which, once he chooses them, he then re-works to more closely fit his sensibilities. Many of Spielberg’s movies woould work no matter who was directing their scripts, but what makes Spielberg Spielberg is his incredible understanding of cinematic language, things that lie outside the domain of the screenplay, things involving choreography, camera placement, performance, editing, lighting, movement and composition — to name just a few.


31 Responses to “Who does what”
  1. swan_tower says:

    That is excellently helpful. Thanks!

  2. travisezell says:

    As someone who’s done a fair amount of gaffing and grip work on low/no budget non-union jobs and commercials, I can’t help but say the grip’s description sounds slightly short-changed there. I’ve always heard explanations more along the lines of “gaffers light the set to the DP’s expectations, grips run cable and set flags for the gaffers.” Then again, having never worked union (and never really wanting to: the work I’ve done was freelance because I know how and can get a paycheck, not because it’s my passion or career choice), maybe it’s different on union jobs.

    Seems like I’ve been reading about how the screenwriter gets shafted by producers all day today. Bad day to worry about my script, maybe.

  3. greyaenigma says:

    I was a line producer once.


  4. jdigital says:

    This topic comes up about a minute into this video:

  5. This isn’t directly related to the post, but did you ever get that cut-text kind of thing working on your blogspot account?

  6. autodidactic says:

    Man, to be a product placement representative! How much does that gig pay, I wonder?

    I’m sure they at least try to compensate for stealing your soul.

    • Todd says:

      They do not. Rather, every dollar must be pried from them, with them kicking and screaming about the towering injustice of it all, every step of the way. Once you get the money, yes, you’re well compensated, but they don’t give you the money until they’re sure you can do the job, and they’re not sure you can do the job until you have, essentially, written the entire movie for them, for free.

  7. stormwyvern says:

    This is quite helpful. It’s strange how even people who do have something of an interest in film can get confused about which job goes with which responsibility.

    Just to make sure I understand: In regards to the camera, are grips responsible for getting the camera to the place it needs to be at the start of the shot and then the camera operators take over? Or, if the camera is actually moving during the shot, does the grip move the camera while the camera operator concentrates on getting the shot itself right?

    • Todd says:

      Both, actually.

      Sometimes the DP operates the camera by himself, but sometimes he’s off watching the video feed with the director while his camera operator operates the camera.

      Oh, and the camera operator doesn’t adjust the focus — that’s the focus-puller’s job. On a low-budget movie the focus puller is also the clapper-loader (since the jobs don’t actually happen at the same time).

  8. bassfingers says:

    I worked as an assistant to the still photographer on Michael Bay’s The Island for a couple of days. My first day on set, we were shooting Michael Clarke Duncan with an old Graphlex 4×5 press camera for some billboard material. I had my hands full loading the polaroid sheet film into the film holder one sheet at a time, so Michael Bay ended up on the floor holding the tripod for the stills guy. I was surprised at how hands-on he was, even for such a minor element.

  9. It’s weird to me that DP’s don’t get as much credit or acknowledgment as they should. When I like the look of a film and see that a given DP shot another film I liked the look of, I can see how much of their own mark they can put on any given film. It would seem to me that if I knew a film had been shot by the same guy who shot another movie that had a great look it would make me more inclined to see that movie than less. For example, knowing that the guy who shot Where the Wild Things Are is the same guy who shot Lost in Translation makes me more inclined to see that film, not less.

    • Todd says:

      A DP can be a stylistic genius with a look of his own, or he can be a skilled professional who gives the director what he wants. Gordon Willis, when he worked with Woody Allen, was given his head a lot of the time, and the result is a brace of brilliantly photographed movies with a look and feel to them all their own. Bill Pope, on the other hand, excels at just about anything — bright comedy, brooding thriller, dense science-fiction, he gives everything its own look distinctive to the movie.

    • mimitabu says:

      i saw christopher doyle‘s movie because of his work with wong kar-wai. actually, doyle seems to be given an unusual amount of credit and press in relation to wong kar-wai films. i think if you’d heard of wong kar-wai before in the mood for love, chances are you’d heard of christopher doyle as well. i love how those films look (fallen angels is actually my favorite movie, in part because of the beauty of pretty much every shot).

      • Todd says:

        Some DP’s make wonderful directors. Others don’t. John Alcott, for instance, shot some of Kubrick’s greatest movies, but the one movie he directed himself was an utter disaster.

  10. mr_noy says:

    Good job. That’s about as succinct as I’ve ever seen it put.

    Don’t forget Production Designer and Art Director, two titles that often get used interchangeably, especially on low budget films where people tend to serve in multiple capacities.

    I have, in my limited experience, encountered more than a few directors who aren’t, you know, visual. Sure, they know how to frame a shot well, how to move the camera and how to cut a scene together but ask them what the room should look like or what kind of items would be on a character desk and they seem unsure. I know this isn’t true of the best directors but I’ve worked with a few who don’t really think about the look of the film beyond camera moves and lighting. Or theater directors who sweat the language of the play and the blocking but can’t decide a week before opening night what the set should look like and what the actors should wear. Of course not every film (or play) is intended to be a spectacle but even if you have the best DP in the world without something interesting to photograph the film suffers. I am biased, of course, but that’s my two cents worth.

    • Todd says:

      Oh, there are all kinds of jobs I didn’t get around to mentioning, but I wanted to keep my response limited to Mr. 314567’s question or else we’d be here all week. Costume design, makeup design, First Assistant Director, Associate Producer, there are an army of people who make the thing go.

      Some directors are visually oriented, others are performance oriented, others are script oriented. Some are great on scenework and weak on story, others are strong on theme but weak on plot, and on and on. It’s rare that there’s a director who pulls it all together consistently, and even Mr. Spielberg I think would admit that he has his blind spots.

  11. yesdrizella says:

    Considering that I am currently taking a film course without being a film major (it’s relevant to my major, plus who would turn down the chance to watch and discuss Hitchcock all semester?), I found this to be an excellent primer. The letters “DP” were thrown around at the last lecture, and I was sure they didn’t have a pornographic origin but was too embarrassed to ask. Thank you for taking the time to write it all out!

    • Todd says:

      The DP used to be known as the Cinematographer. The term was changed when it was discovered that there was a term with a stronger pornographic connotation.

      Similarly, non-union editors will now be known as Montage Intersection Liason Freelancers, or MILFs.

  12. noskilz says:

    Why is it that a successful producer (of the overseeing persuasion) is more likely to find someone else to get the movie made? I’d assume less personal hassle, but couldn’t that level of involvement be what helped secure that success?

    • Todd says:

      The “overseeing” type of producer knows people and has ideas. Physical production involves a different skillset, and a good deal more drudgery — it’s more like having a job.

  13. pirateman says:

    I have to ask this question: Have you wanted to be something else other than a screenwriter? Would you ever want to produce or direct (or, gasp, act?)?

    You don’t have to answer if you don’t want. I was just curious. It just seems like, as a screenwriter, it must be really annoying to turn in a great script only to have it ruined or changed in ways that are out of your hands.

    • Todd says:

      Like everyone else in Hollywood, my goal is to direct. I’ve directed a couple of independent projects, and they rank among the greatest times I’ve ever had in my life — seeing the whole thing in motion and knowing that a team of skilled professionals is working at the top of their game in order to make your vision perfect is one of the supreme highs available to humankind.

      I’ve come close to getting a chance to direct a genuine studio feature, but the leap from screenwriter to director in Hollywood is sometimes a difficult one, one that requires a good deal more box-office success than I’ve managed so far.

      My policy on acting is that I enjoy it, and will gladly do it whenever anyone asks me to. But an actor’s life is filled with ten times more running around town and being rejected than mine, to get anywhere is to fully commit to that level of activity, and I’ve found it takes too much time from my writing commitments.

  14. thunder24 says:

    Very informative, thanks!

  15. You forgot to mention the cashew wrangler- that job is just nuts!

  16. First off, thanks so much for taking the time to outline this stuff. It appears that the one thing I’ve been right about is that all these people are involved in movies.

    It’s interesting how often you hear about conflicts with the director about how the film turns out, due to demands from the studios, the executive producer, or Edward Norton. No one seems to be very interested in hearing about how the screenwriter gets batted around. Adaptations I can understand, but if it’s an original screenplay, wouldn’t there be some additional pull on the writer’s part to have his/her vision brought to the screen?

    • Todd says:

      The short answer is “no.” If a producer, director or star wants to change something in the script, the writer doesn’t have much recourse. In rare circumstances, a “name” writer can have it in his contract that the script cannot be changed, but that happens once every 30 years or so.

      I once had a play of mine optioned by a producer, and they hired me to write the adaptation, because I was cheap, and I did a damn fine job, if I must say, and everyone said so. Later I found out that the producer had a friend of his rewrite the script, for free. The draft was terrible and everyone knew it, but there is no stopping a producer who feels the need to make a project his own.

      Old joke: two producers are wandering lost in the desert. They haven’t had anything to drink in days. They come across an old watering hole, and it’s all dried up except for one tiny handful of water. The first producer scoops the water up out of the mud and the second producer says “Wait, let me piss in it first.”

  17. sheherazahde says:

    I’ve been watching the commentary for Dr Who. And a few things came up that are relevant to how different jobs affect the final product.

    The Production Designer talked about how he knew a particular director liked to do a lot of close-ups so he designed the background so it would look good in close-ups. As a result the director shot the whole episode in close-ups and all the rest of the set dressing was wasted. So the next time the Production Designer had to design a set for that director he made sets that only looked good in wide shots. The director avoided close-ups for that episode.

    They also talked about two episodes of one story that shot in one three room set by two directors. In the first episode the lighting designer liked bright even light. But the second episode (in the same set) was lit with more shadows and spot lighting for a much more spooky feel.