Have you heard the term “principal photography” or “principal shooting” bandied about without knowing exactly what it means? Breaking into the behind the scenes world of filmmaking requires learning an entire set of specialized terminology. In this post, we’ll answer the questions: what is principal photography? How long does it take to shoot a movie? We’ll also be taking a look at the different production steps in filmmaking, covering the differences between the 3 stages of filmmaking and the 5 stages of film production, and what to do if your own principal shooting goes over schedule.

Film production definition

Principal photography explained

So, what does principal photography mean? Making a movie can be broken down into a number of production steps in filmmaking. The exact number of stages of film production can sometimes vary depending on who you ask.

Don’t be thrown if one person says, "There are 3 stages of filmmaking," while another person says, "There are 5 stages of film production." You might even encounter someone else who describes the production steps in filmmaking as a seven stage process.

None of these models are wrong; just different ways to divide the different film production process steps. Dividing the steps differently does not change how long it takes to shoot a movie.


What is principal photography?

Principal photography in film is when the majority of shooting takes place. These are the scenes that typically involve the lead actors. This is in contrast to second-unit photography or certain VFX shots needing to be completed. Principal photography does not include re-shoots or screen tests done in Pre-Production. In the 3 stages of filmmaking, principal photography falls into the middle between Pre- and Post-Production. 

What are the goals of principal photography?

  • Gather as much of the raw material (footage) necessary to construct the film
  • Stay within the pre-determined budget and schedule

B-roll is not always considered a part of principal photography but it can be shot concurrently with principal photography. The following B-roll from the set of Django Unchained was all captured during the principal photography portion of the film’s creation.

Principal photography for Django Unchained

For a further breakdown of the phases of filmmaking, take a look at the video below in which the Five-Minute Film School explains the 3 stages of filmmaking which is arguably the most common model used, though the 5 stages of film production model is frequently cited as well.

Phases of filmmaking by Five-Minute Film School

 If you encounter any other terms throughout this read that are unfamiliar to you, our Ultimate Glossary of Filmmaking Terms is a handy resource to define the unknown.

What Happens in Production

Who's on set for principal photography

All phases of filmmaking have specific artisans and technicians involved. There is some overlap across the 3 stages of filmmaking but, for the most part, each stage has a core crew. So, what happens in production and which positions make up the crew?

We won't get into detail on the responsibilities of each role but, as you can see, the crew during principal photography can be massive. Here are the various departments and most of the key film crew positions.

  • Art Dept.Production Designer, Art Director, Set Decorator, Art PA, Prop Master, Weapons Wrangler
  • Camera & LightingCinematographer, 1st AC, 2nd AC, Camera Operator, Key Grip, Grips, Gaffer, Best Boy, Electrician
  • DirectorialDirector, 1st AD, 2nd AD, 2nd 2nd AD, Script Supervisor
  • Editorial — Digital Imaging Technician, On-set Editor, Video Assist
  • Food — Caterer, Craft Services
  • Costume, Hair & Make-up — Make-up Artist, SPFX Make-up Designer, Prosthetics Designer, Hair Stylist, Costume Designer
  • LocationsLocation Scout, Location Manager, Transportation Coordinator, Drivers
  • ProductionProducers, Line Producer, Unit Production Manager, Production Assistants
  • Sound — Boom Operator, Sound Mixer
  • Special Effects — Special Effects Coordinator, VFX Supervisor
  • Stunts — Choreographer, Stunt Coordinator, Stunt Performer

Not all of these positions are necessary for every project (and some require even more crew members). You can have a much smaller crew but that doesn't eliminate the tasks — just the number of people able to help with those tasks. 

What happens in production depends on the size of your crew

With so many crew positions, principal photography can be a daunting and complicated undertaking. However, as long as you know how to find and hire the best crew, you'll be surrounded by professionals who know their job inside and out.

Film Production Process Steps

Day-to-day of principal photography

Every film is different in terms of schedule and scope. The day-to-day of principal shooting on Avengers: Endgame would be vastly different compared to something like Boyhood. At the same time, all principal photography can be boiled down to the essential process.

Organize with Call Sheets

Typically the night before the day's shoot, call sheets are distributed to the cast and crew. The anatomy of a call sheet is purely logistical — including details on the location and call times for each member of the cast and crew. For a deeper dive into the essentials, we have an ultimate guide to call sheets.

Complete the Shot List

Once the cast and crew have arrived on set, the ultimate goal is to complete the day's shot list during the designated time. Creating a shot list is typically decided upon the Director, Cinematographer, and 1st AD to be efficient and productive. Depending on how the actual shooting schedule pans out, adjustments are made almost daily.

For a more specific glimpse at a typical day on set, here's a vlog from the folks at Rooster Teeth shooting Lazer Team 2.

Principal Photography on Lazer Team 2

What is the focus during the shooting stage?

Planning principal photography

Now that we have our film production definition, it’s time to talk about the Pre-Production process. This is arguably the most important of all film production process steps. Good planning is crucial to a successful film shoot. Pre-production is the time to get all of that planning done.

The more that can be done during pre-production, the more smoothly what happens in production will go, and the same should hold true into the Post-Production process as well. The two biggest factors to consider before entering principal photography are budget and schedule.

Budgeting for a feature film is an incredibly complex topic, and principal photography is typically the most expensive phase of filmmaking. Having an estimate as to the total cost of principal photography before it begins is crucial. On a film set, time is money. And speaking of time…

Scheduling a feature-film shoot is another complicated matter. Making mistakes while scheduling a film can be costly and even lead to an outright production disaster. For some tips on putting together a shooting schedule, take a look at our hierarchy of scheduling considerations.

And when you’re ready to start scheduling your own production, be sure to use our shooting schedule software to plan out your shoot, then use our production calendar software to stay on track and ensure your shoot is timely and productive.

StudioBinder Production Calendar Software  •  Subscribe on YouTube

Finishing a shoot ahead of schedule can be cause for celebration but going beyond the schedule can lead to numerous problems. So what happens if you run out of time during principal photography?

After Principal Photography

Phases of filmmaking — reshoots

Principal photography is always the focus during the shooting stage, but sometimes it’s impossible to get all of the shots you had planned. If you don’t manage to capture all of the footage you need during principal photography, don’t panic.

It is, of course, better to get all the shots you need during principal photography, but reshoots are a fairly common occurrence, even on large, professional productions.

The term “reshoots” covers all filming done after principal photography has wrapped. Reshoots occur if additional shots are required that were not captured during principal photography, or if there was an issue with the footage that was captured. Sometimes an entire rough cut of a film is assembled before the decision is made to go back for reshoots.

Reshoots are best to be avoided whenever possible. The primary reason for this is monetary; reshoots can be extremely expensive. Other important reasons to avoid reshoots include things such as:

  • Actor(s) may no longer be available or may have scheduling conflicts
  • Wigs or other alterations may be necessary if an actor(s) has already changed their appearance for another project
  • Locations may no longer be available
  • Sets may have already been torn down, requiring them to be rebuilt
  • And more

Not all reshoots hurt the final film but they certainly do on occasion. To see 10 examples of films hurt by reshoots, check out the video below.

WhatCulure counts down 10 distracting reshoots

There do exist options other than reshoots to salvage a film that ran out of time during principal photography but these options are far from ideal and involve a great deal of both compromise and sacrifice.

  • Scenes can be scrapped altogether if the film’s storyline can be cobbled together without them
  • ADR can be used to fill in missing information
  • The narrative can be “re-written” so to speak in the editing room

Getting as much prep-work done during the pre-production phase as possible will give you the best odds of a smooth shoot when it comes time for principal photography.

Do the planning and legwork in advance to save yourself time on set. Once you have gotten all of the footage you need to tell your story, now it’s time for Post-Production.


Phases of Filmmaking: Post-Production

After principal photography has wrapped, a film moves into the post-production phase. Now that you can answer the question, "What does principal photography mean?" it’s a good time to gain a better understanding of the final stage in the 3 stages of filmmaking. In next article, you’ll learn what Post-Production is, who is involved, and pick up some helpful tips to ensure your project makes it to the finish line.

Up Next: Post-Production explained →
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  • Sam Kench is an internationally-awarded screenwriter, independent filmmaker, and film critic. Lover of foreign films; hater of American remakes.

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