The Abby Singer, breakdowns, production values, Martini Shots and Teddy’s A**hole aren’t the first things that spring to mind when you think of film. Every profession and every industry has its own curious jargon used by its integrants on a daily basis. Film is no exception here.

While most of the aforementioned terms (more about their meaning later) may be entertaining for clients, image films, product films and webvideos, they are not essential in film know-how. There is one term however whose correct understanding and usage is essential for every production involving communication through film and video: Production Value.

Terminology is a strange thing in filmmaking. It’s one of the reasons why Videothink insists on differentiating between film and video (more on that here: Why films are the better videos). Production value is another one of these terms where there’s no one, clear definition. Not to define terms in film and  video is one of the seven deadly sins. Like much of the cinematographic lingo, the expression production value and the meaning behind it has its origins in Hollywood. As the North American film industry still influences the global film landscape, it is a term that has been adopted in its English original by many other languages. Even though it seems like a straightforward term, made up of two perfectly understandable words, what it actually stands for is at times unclear. On the website of one film industry worker, for example, production value is described as when the personnel costs of a production are four times higher than the cost of equipment. That doesn’t really hit it on the mark either.1. The Chinese have made the English expression their own with 生产价值 (pronounced: Shēngchǎn jiàzhí). I doubt if this helps to clear things up either. It does however prove that the term is essential to the moving image industry and that the Chinese by appropriating this term are making strides to compete with the U.S. on the global market.

But rather than dwell on the word itself a more plausible approach would be to examine what production value entails and how it works. “Production” is the creation of a film or the production of a video. “Value” stands for the difference between production costs and the value of the finished product (from the producer’s/ vendor’s point of view) or the difference between the budget invested and the effectiveness (from the point of view of the buyer/consumer) of the final product. However production value isn’t only about bridging production and value. If properly understood and implemented, it optimises costs and heightens effect. Sounds too good to be true, right?

Production value as an indicator of quality

If a film is described as having a high production value it generally refers to the quality of the work: The better the quality, the higher the production value. This fairly linear view uses production value to define how high the bar has been set and if it has been met, be it in components or the work as a whole. Definition #1: Production Value describes the quality of the film or video, in comparison to other projects. According to this definition: high budget = high production value. It’s not surprising that because of this, agencies and producers keep reminding their clients at budget meetings that when it comes to competing in the market production value can’t be neglected. Especially in TV spot production value is almost as important as the type of trainers the director is wearing or what type of music he listens to. If the value isn’t right or misplaced, the campaign – at least from the point of view of the creative team – is almost destined to fall on deaf ears.

This definition is consistent throughout the European market. As a critical thinker you could question this one-dimensional definition of production value and wonder if it’s not only a case of not seeing the forest for all the trees, but the trees disappearing altogether.

When viewing films our optic nerves and the grey matter connected to them process information in the best possible way. In terms of efficiency our thinking organ goes by the same rules as our legal system. What’s equal has to be treated equally, what’s unequal, unequally. If quality is recognised and registered our brain punishes this simple definition of production value by what we’re seeing losing effectiveness. What happens if quality remains consistently high? The brain goes: Well, ok, this is good – and good it is. If “good” is what you’re looking for.

Production value as principle of allocation

If you approach production value with a clear target in mind, you can avoid your creation falling into the trap of depreciation or conformity. A conscious allocation of resources underlines this definition of production value. What counts here is not how your film compares to other films (in the moment the viewer watches the film, all other films are as far from their mind as perhaps an American candidate for the role of Mother Teresa would be), instead how cleverly you allocate the budget available to you.

This principle can be compared to a principle that has been implemented in classical music from the Middle Ages to this day. A classical music instrument by itself has a limited sound level, unlike an electric guitar with an amplifier for example. Definition #2: Production Value is prioritisation and clever allocation of the production resources within a project. If a passage in a piece of classical music has to resound extra loud, composers and conductors use the simple trick of making sure the orchestra quietens down just before said passage, thereby creating a stark contrast and greater impact.

The same can be applied to moving image productions. The right guidelines have to be considered: Content, dramatic structure, message and audience guidance. These four factors along with director’s vision in mutual dialogue with the producer, come together to determine the allocation of resources.

For example, in fictionalised sequences, information and emotions can be conveyed by the evolution of two characters throughout various scenes. The same development can however be transmitted in a dialogue in one single scene. The difference in cost between both variations is remarkable. But be careful! Starving a film of its budget has nothing to do with production value. Optimised resources should not be cut back but instead implemented and allocated in the right place to heighten the effectiveness for both the film and the viewer. If an image film should portray the customer’s industrial production line, the director and producer for example could consider summarising the process and visualising it by means of an animated graphic. Instead of tediously edging from one step to the next with a small crew in tow and ending up with a huge amount of redundant images when perhaps the same idea can be portrayed with lesser shots in fewer locations. Hollywood has a name for this, it’s a so-called Money Shot.

In communication with the client when it comes to impact-driven implementation of production value there are two philosophies for producers and production companies. You can either go by the example of the Hilton Hotels, where all the backstage going-ons are hidden out of sight from the guests. What’s important is that everything runs smoothly and to the satisfaction of the guest. Or you could go about it like the Palace Hotel in St. Moritz (where Alfred Hitchcock was one of the many regulars). Where all doors are open to anyone interested and what goes on behind the scenes is laid out in the open and is just as important as the areas frequented by guests. But regardless of which option you prefer for your moving image production: it definitely isn’t a good idea to decide on allocation of resources once production is already underway. This will turn out to be about as pleasant as a short film where the beginning and end credits are twice as long as the film itself. Here for once, the journey isn’t the destination.

Side Note: Story Value

This idea of differences making a difference – in order to steer clear of conformity – applies to other filmic disciplines and areas too. With regard to storytelling we can instead talk about story value. Because behind every great fiction film there’s a writer or director who has understood that there are no exceptional lives, but rather lives made up of exceptional moments. Without contrasts or differences, no stories can be told.

Conclusion

The polish master director Krzysztof Kieślowski (*1941 in Warsaw; †1996) understood like no other that production value and limited budgetary means aren’t contradictions. Kieślowski in an interview even went as far as to claim that without limits no films can be made. 2

Production Value isn’t a magic potion or miracle cure. Films have to have an effect. And that’s not entirely down to – but definitely thanks to – a cleverly set production value. Without audience guidance – where nowadays we also have to take into consideration how a webvideo can have a longer than 3 second lifespan on social media – even the best Money Shot is good-for-nothing.

Production value is only indirectly responsible for how many production resources eventually make their way onto the screen and can thereby be experienced by the viewer.

In short: The way we handle production value sets the professionals apart from the wannabes. It’s a clear indicator of experience, know-how and talent. If the film industry and video marketing sector had an equation that could guarantee production competency – an equivalent to Standard & Poor’s or Moody’s in bond credit rating – production value would surely be a key factor in the formula.


Jargon explained:

  • Abby Singer – Penultimate shot of the day. Named after an American Assistant Director who was famous for announcing: “This shot and one more.”
  • Breakdowns – Is an intermediary step when filming any scripted content, where the script is broken down and examined either by production or creative.
  • Martini-Shots – Last shot of the day. Named after an alcoholic beverage, because for the crew the next shot will be in a glass.
  • Teddy’s A**hole – Cushioning that is mounted onto the camera’s eyepiece. Mostly made out of leather.

1 Out of respect to the author, link only available on request.
2 Projections 4 1/2, by John Boorman (Author), Walter Donohue (Contributor), 1995

© filmpuls, translated by Nina Kaelin