What is production value? You have heard the term thrown around by filmmakers or in behind-the-scenes videos without knowing exactly what they mean. We will start off with a production value definition, then get into why you want to keep it high, how to improve the production value of independent projects, and we’ll take a look at a few examples of production value in blockbuster films.
Watch: Recreating Se7en's Climax for $400
Subscribe for more filmmaking videos like this.
Production value meaning
First, let’s define production value
In truth, production value can be a bit more nebulous or abstract than many filmmaking terms. But it is also one of the most important terms to know if you plan on becoming a filmmaker yourself. If you happen across any other unfamiliar terms, our ultimate guide to filmmaking terminology is a great resource for looking them up.
PRODUCTION VALUE DEFINITION
What is production value?
Production value refers to the overall quality of a movie as determined by its technical merits. This value is based on criteria like set design, special effects, and costumes rather than the more creative and subjective criteria such as directing, acting, and writing.
Production value is often directly linked to budget, as a higher budget tends to confer higher production value. There are exceptions to the rule, but a big budget enables higher production value that a low-budget film may struggle to match.
Production Value Meaning
- Overall quality
- Technical criteria
- Can be low or high
Production value film
High vs. low production value
A film or video can have low production value, high production value, or land somewhere in the middle. A high production value project looks like a professionally-made piece of work with money behind it. Think of the average, quality studio feature film or prestige television show, and you are picturing high production value.
For example, consider this scene from Blade Runner 2049. The combination of lighting and set design (especially the fallen statues) give the scene a very high production value.
By contrast, a film with low production value typically has far less money behind it. Thus, it appears to be of lower quality, regardless of any inherent creative merit on a script, direction, or performance level. Think of a poorly made, no-budget indie film, and you are picturing low production value.
Look no further than Birdemic.
For a direct comparison of high production value vs. low production value, take a look at our Inception VFX breakdown. Inception is a big budget film with incredibly high production value.
As an experiment, we attempted to recreate the scene for only $350.
Regardless of the budget, every project desires a high production value look. Higher production values look more professional and are, overall, more appealing to audiences. The following video covers a few production value mistakes commonly made in production.
All of the issues mentioned are things that can be fixed for free. This just goes to show that production value can be increased without a big budget.
A film or video with low production value may look unprofessional, lazy, overly cheap, or just generally bad. Stellar characters, performances, and directorial vision can make up for a lot of technical shortcomings, but there is only so far that audiences are willing to overlook production value shortcomings.
What is production value in film?
Production value on a low budget
Oftentimes, higher production value comes with a higher budget. But there are ways to increase your production value on a low or no-budget shoot without inflating the production costs. In the video below, Film Riot explains how stock footage can be used to boost a project’s production value.
You may have heard the phrase “instant production value” used by indie filmmakers, but what does it mean? You can see an example of it in the following clip from Super 8. Sometimes all you need to increase your production's value is to be in the right place at the right time. Don't spend money hiring a train, just shoot on the tracks and wait for one to arrive!
When working with a small budget, or possibly even no budget whatsoever, utilizing tactics to maximize your apparent production value is key. “Instant production value” is one of these tactics.
Instant production value essentially refers to anything that can be shot for free and that will automatically up the production value of a project, usually by making the project appear more expensive. Finding instant production value can be key in making a low budget film feel “bigger” than it is.
Robert Rodriguez’s first feature film, El Mariachi, is a masterclass in utilizing instant production value. The film was made for just $7,000, but by utilizing many creative techniques and tactics, Rodriguez was able to make the production value appear much, much higher. Here's Rodriguez explaining how simple editing, a homemade zip line, and a bus can elevate an action scene.
Production value film
High production value isn’t everything
The vast majority of major studio releases all have high production value, but we've seen that this is not a guarantee of overall quality. If the writing, direction, and performances are weak, they can drag down the entire cinematic experience. A film like R.I.P.D. starring Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges is a perfect example of a film with production values as high as could be, still winding up as a failure.
Even with a 130-million-dollar budget, the weak writing and direction turned out a critical flop and a total box office bomb, losing more than 50 million dollars. Quality is something that should be strived for in all areas.
What are dailies and what do they do?
Now that you know what production value is and why it is important, it could be a good idea to continue familiarizing yourself with filmmaking terminology. There is a lot of jargon in the film industry, and the more of it you know before stepping foot on set, the better. If you don’t know what dailies are, then you’re in luck, the definition is coming up next.