Film Composer’s Guide to Understanding Key Roles on the Movie Set

An expert offers aspiring film composers a guide on how each player collaborates to make a movie successful and offers insights into the key roles and dynamics of the film industry.

by Patrick Kirst of Berklee Online

The following information on film composers, directors, producers, etc. is excerpted from the Berklee Online course Film Scoring 101, authored by Patrick Kirst, which is enrolling now. 

Film composers are often in their own world when working to create a powerful soundtrack that elevates and supports a film. However, understanding the art and hard work behind the making of a film is a crucial step in gradually transitioning from being a sole musician in your studio to becoming a team player and an important key member of the filmmaking team.

In this article, I’ll shed some light on some of the key people in the filmmaking world and highlight their roles. Furthermore, I’ll show you where in the filmmaking process we composers come in, discuss how much time we get, and touch on the many logistical things related to film scoring. 


There are a variety of producers in the film and television business today. The main producers oversee the entire process from concept to production to distribution. They work in conjunction with the studio or a production company, which is the financial entity partner and will end up becoming a partner in all areas. Producers generally hire the director, the cast, and the crew; set the budget; and give creative input along with the studio. They are ultimately responsible for everything that goes on in the making of the picture. “Producer” (with no additional words before it) is the highest level of a producorial credit for a film. 

Let’s take a closer look at some of the other roles that producers (with additional words before their titles) play.

Executive Producer

When it comes to the executive producers, in film it is common for the financing entity to take this credit or someone who has had some value in the journey from the idea to the present incarnation of the project.

In television and streaming, the executive producer is the equivalent to the producer. This is the highest level of credit for this medium. Usually an executive producer of a series has participated in developing the series and had a key role before it is presented to a network or studio. This person will also have a key role going forward. There are often many other types of producers involved.

Line Producer

The title of executive producer has also been given to the line producer on many motion pictures. A line producer is the person in charge of the production plan and oversees all aspects of the film from budgeting to scheduling to hiring of all crew. They act as a general manager or COO (chief operating officer) at a large company. They handle all the nitty gritty of everyday interactions with the staff.

Associate Producer

An associate producer is a credit that is usually given to someone who has had something to do with the evolution of the material or idea, but is not necessarily going to be on hand during the shooting process. Also, sometimes the writer or key crew member will receive this credit.


The director is responsible for the creative vision of the film. Some directors also write and are known as auteur directors, where they truly control much of the story from concept to execution in all areas. For example, when you see a Fellini film, you know it. When you see a Hitchcock film, you know it. They make all creative decisions in collaboration with the producers and all hired crew members. 

Directors are ultimately responsible not only for everything you see onscreen but all the performances as well. So when an actor wins an Academy Award, it is the director they will usually thank first.

A director’s role is vast, encompassing many diverse facets in many departments, but for writer-director Vince Marcello, (who you hear a lot more from in the full version of my Film Scoring 101 coursethe story, emotion, and the overall vision for the movie always comes first. A University of California (USC) graduate, Marcello started as a theater actor, eventually moving into directing stage productions, films, and television. I had the pleasure of working with him on the Kissing Booth trilogy for Netflix.


The writer creates the screenplay, also called the script. They can be hired to write an existing idea or they can write something that is an idea known only to them. This is the difference between writing for hire and what is referred to as writing “on spec” (or “on speculation”), which means you are writing it and taking a chance it will sell at some point. Writers are not paid during this writing time. If a writer is hired, then they will receive payment. Payment depends on whether or not the writer is a member of the Writers Guild of America.


In television all the writers and the showrunners gather in a writer’s room. This is the secret, holy place where the story is developed over the course of the show. This is commonly referred to as “breaking a story.” In television and streaming series, those writers who have the ultimate responsibility are the showrunners. This writer generally is part of the creation of the series idea and story and will oversee everything to make sure the content and tone stays consistent. As mentioned above, these writers receive the credit of executive producer.

Casting Director and Actors

Very early on in the process, as soon as the film gets a “green light,” which means it has been approved by the financing entity to move forward, the casting process begins, usually (if it hasn’t been done already) selecting the stars of the film first. Most pictures will require a star or known actor to substantiate the monetary investment.

casting director is responsible for bringing in the right talent for the role and doing a lot of preselection so that the director’s time is more efficient. They can sometimes see hundreds of people for a role (via casting calls), but present only 20 or even 10 to the director.

Then all the supporting and day-to-day roles are cast. Actors will be selected by the casting director to come in and read some scenes from the script to the director and producer. Together, everyone discusses and then decides who gets the part. Sometimes, actors will be brought in together in what is called a “chemistry read” to ensure that the actors will be believable together.

Once the director chooses the actors, they usually have to be approved by the financing entity.

Key Stages in Filmmaking

The world of film, and filmmaking, is a universe unto itself. If you stay through the end of a film and watch the rolling credits, you know that it takes a village to make a movie. Next we’ll take a look at the key stages in the filmmaking process and the key people (besides the ones we already discussed), and departments, charged with creating the magic we call film.

The film production process can be divided into five essential stages: 

  • Development/casting of leads/financing
  • Preproduction 
  • Production
  • Postproduction 
  • Distribution

Development/Casting of Leads/Financing

  • The idea: An idea for a film can come from anywhere, an article, a book, a true life story, something wild that your imagination created—truly anything. The idea will then spark the next step.
  • Development: This process (and the next one) is the longest process in the filmmaking journey. You will need a writer to write the idea, you will eventually need a producer to support and help with taking this idea and turning it into a screenplay. This screenplay version of the idea will undergo several rewrites, which will likely continue all the way until the start of production begins. This is the time where you will work to get the screenplay in the very best shape it can be. It is an ongoing process and never truly ends until filming, but it needs to be in good shape so as to attract actors, directors, and ultimately financiers. Open collaboration is key here.
  • Financing: Once your screenplay is in decent shape and it has been vetted (which we also call “noted”) many times, it is ready to send to potential financing entities. This can be in the form of a studio, an independent company, or an individual. There are many ways to procure financing. At this time, or before, a director is usually brought in if they have not already been hired.


Once your financing is secure, you will likely begin casting (this may take place before you are able to secure the financing). During preproduction the script is finalized, broken into scenes, storyboards are being created, and deals are made for the principal cast and crew while locations are scouted. The director and key crew members, such as the production designer, director of photography, and costume designer lay down the creative and production groundwork—once again, collaboration is key here to set the tone for the rest of the crew to follow once on board. As you get closer to the start of photography, the pace picks up and it becomes a non-stop day-to-day of meetings and planning for production. It is a big preparation process to get everything ready for the actual shoot. Preproduction can take many months.

Production starts when the film is actually being shot. This is the most expensive part of the entire process. This is where the high stakes are, as each day can cost from $50,000 on a small picture to hundreds of thousands of dollars on a larger scale.

There are many different departments, each with a specific task, and they all work together like a well-oiled machine. Knowing your place and being supportive of other responsibilities is key here for a productive environment. Let’s take a closer look at these key departments.


Postproduction is centered around the fine editing of the picture. If not already done during the actual shoot, the editors make an assembly out of the dailies and start creating a rough cut. The principal film editor then works closely with the director to finesse the cut until approved by director, producer, and studio. (Very rarely does the director have final say, a.k.a. final cut. The picture cut is a collaborative process under the director’s overall artistic vision.) The final edited version, also known as locked picture, is then handed over to three key departments simultaneously:

  • sound department
  • VFX department
  • music department

The post supervisor is the key person to oversee the entire postproduction, to ensure that the final film delivery schedule is met and within the budget. They are the person relaying information between the studio, producers, director, editor, supervising sound editor, and all facilities involved (such as film labs, CGI companies, sound studios, etc.) as well as the production accountant.

Let’s take a look at the three key departments that work on the locked picture.

Sound Department

The sound department, as the name suggests, is responsible for the overall sound, including the dialogue (DLG), all sound effects (SFX)foley, and music (including score and songs).

Specifically, sound editors are responsible for all the sounds in a film. The main sound elements are:

  • sound effects (SFX), such as gunshots, video game sounds, etc., but also more artistic sounds like creating the dinosaur growls in Jurassic Park for example
  • foley (re-created everyday sounds like footsteps, squeaky doors, car engines, etc.)
  • backgrounds, such as applause, ocean waves, sounds in a rainforest, underwater sounds, etc.

Dialogue Editor

The dialogue editor is a type of sound editor that is responsible for cleaning up all the dialogue from the production sound (the sound that was recorded on set while filming) and ensuring perfect (lip) sync to the picture. They will likely be involved with automated dialogue replacement (ADR). ADR sessions are needed when the background noise during the shoot interferes too much with the dialogue.

For example, imagine an intimate closeup scene between two actors and just in the most important moment of the dialogue an airplane flies over their heads, ruining their best take. Or imagine a scene filmed at the beach. There might be shouting and screaming in the background while the sound of the ocean waves are so loud you can barely hear what the actors are saying.

Automated Dialogue Replacement (ADR)

In these cases the actors come to a studio and re-record the audio for their scenes, trying to be in perfect lip sync with the picture. It is a tedious task for the actors. ADR has helped automate this very process, where the actors hear a few audio beeps before they need to say their lines and match their performance on the screen. Sometimes a loop of the line to be replaced is played back many times, and the actor has to say the line along with their performance onscreen multiple times until they match.

Re-recording Mixer

The re-recording mixer is responsible for the final mix and delivery to production. Under the supervision of the director, they will find the appropriate balance between all sound effects, dialogue, foley, background effects, and music.

VFX Department

As mentioned earlier, the VFX department is usually involved during the shoot. Green screen and other types of special effect shots have to be strategically planned in preproduction.

VFX Supervisor

The VFX supervisor is the key person overseeing all visual effects in a movie. They are responsible for the final look of all the effects. This person, who was on set, will now take over the “post” part of the process, which is taking all the elements that were filmed and now working with the computer artists to finish the shots. It is usual to choose one or more vendors to do this, as sometimes there are too many shots for one vendor to accomplish in a short time. 

Now after all of these intricate steps comes the music! Let’s take a look: 

Music Department

The key music crew members typically include:

  • music supervisor who is usually hired by the producer and responsible for song selection and licensing
  • one or several music editors, usually hired by director/producer or (suggested by) the composer
  • composer

The composer usually hires:

  • assistant(s)
  • (additional) synth programmer(s)
  • musicians (also hired by a contractor)
  • orchestrator(s)
  • copyist(s)
  • score recording engineer
  • score mixer


The Composer’s Assistant

An assistant to a composer helps make the composer’s life and work easier through a combination of technical, musical, and day-to-day support. Composers’ assistants usually tackle tasks like:

  • keeping track of the music left to be written or revised
  • preparing and making schedules for recording sessions
  • cleaning up DAW sessions
  • occasionally finishing cues the composer started
  • “synthestrating” cues, meaning producing a fully fleshed mockup of a cue
  • conforming cues to new picture
  • studio maintenance


The Composer’s Team

Let’s look at the composer’s team in detail.

  • Additional synth programmers are hired to design new sounds under composer’s supervision or requests.
  • Orchestrators are taking the composer’s sketches and turning them into full scores. (For more on how to orchestrate a score, read this Take Note article about Berklee Online students working with an orchestra in Budapest to bring their compositions to life.)
  • Copyists will take the orchestrations and extract the individual parts for the musicians.
  • Usually a contractor hires the musicians and ensures that everyone is present and punctual for the recording session. Sometimes, the composer hires the musicians directly, if, for example, only a few musicians are needed and to be recorded at the composer’s studio. And this can also depend on the overall budget of the movie and the budget available to the composer.
  • The score recording engineer is responsible for recording the musicians at the studio. Sometimes they will also be the score mixer, who will then mix down the score under the composer’s creative input and deliver back to the composer or directly to the music editor who will then deliver the entire session to the dubbing (or dub) stage.

The final dub is one of the last steps in the filmmaking process. Here, all the sound effects, music (which include score and songs), and dialogue are mixed together and meticulously balanced. This process can take several weeks, depending on the size of the production. Usually there is an entire staff present at the dub stage as well as director, producer, music editor, and music supervisor. The composer is usually not present at the dub.


Music and Effects (M&E) Track

The last step at the dubbing studio is centered around prepping the mix for international distribution. A so-called M&E track (music and effects) will need to be created. This track contains everything but the dialogue, like background ambience (big football stadiums or other crowd laughter, passing trains, car horns), but also the close-up foley at a dinner table where we hear forks and knives, wine glasses clinking, etc. This will make it easier for other countries to add their own dubbing in different languages.

The film is now ready for distribution.


The entity that will distribute the picture is most often the financier. Sometimes, however, you can receive funding for a picture and will still need to negotiate and arrange for distribution from another entity. This can be television, streaming, or theatrical.

The avenues for exposure are many, ranging from film festivals to organized small screenings to garner distribution.

This stage can take anywhere from a few months to a year, depending on many elements.

So now that you know the general gist of how a movie production works, you’ll start to understand that film composers often come in at the very last minute in the grand scheme of the filmmaking process. On average, film composers spend two to three months on a film that is potentially in production for two to three years! Understanding that you are in support of a movie and a director’s vision like any other department will help you transition more easily from being a sole musician in your studio to being part of a larger team.

Share on:

1 Comment


Email address is not displayed with comments

Note: Use HTML tags like <b> <i> and <ul> to style your text. URLs automatically linked.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.