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Live Action Production

Shows that depict real people and places

Much of the film and television that we watch is made using a technique called live action production, which is the process that involves capturing performers on film.  In live action, performers can work on location (in private, commercial or public spaces) or on sound stages.


  • Using locations means filming within an existing space (a neighbourhood, a city park, a mountaintop), which can be “dressed” to change its appearance.
  • Using a sound stage means using a special type of structure built to accommodate and support the technical requirements of filmmaking in a controlled environment. Many comedies are filmed on a sound stage in front of a studio audience. Sound stages are also used for feature films when they are creating large “set pieces” – often sequence of big scenes which require lots of planning and logistics.
  • Using visual effects means that a live action production employs visual effects as part of their post production process. This can range from simple modifications to removing elements in a scene (such as removing cell phone towers visible in a scene on a period film), adding creatures such as dinosaurs or dragons, to explosions or extending scenes to create the illusion of a real location.

Did you know?

  • The generic term for the workplace during production is “on set”, regardless of whether this is on a location or on a soundstage. 
  • Films are not shot in the order they appear on the screen. The logistics of cast and location availability means that each scene is shot out of sequence and then reassembled in the picture editing process, which is part of the post production phase. This means that many crew members must pay careful attention to a performer’s appearance, props and costumes so that shots are seamless, despite being filmed days or even weeks apart.

Main Units vs. Departments

Large live action productions are comprised of skilled labour, organized by department. Creative Pathways has detailed descriptions of the below-the-line departments and the job roles within them. Sometimes members of those departments will be organized by units to accomplish a set of tasks. These teams of department members are called units.

Main Unit

The Main unit is directed by the film’s director and involves the film’s main performers.  Dialogue scenes are almost always shot by the main unit.

Second Unit

The Second unit is a smaller crew tasked with capturing shots and elements which do not feature the main performers.  These could include cutaways, close-ups of hands, establishing shots, etc.  They will be directed by the 2nd Unit Director, although they are ultimately following the guidance of the film’s main director.

Special Effects Unit

Also known as “practical effects”, special effects unit shoots stunts, action and special effects elements such as wind and rain.

Aerial Unit

Aerial unit is charged with shooting from the air, which normally consists of establishing shots and very wide shots of driving sequences.

Visual Effects

Visual effects unit films things they may need during post production, such as plates and elements.

Other Units

Other units can be used when dealing with specialist equipment such as underwater filming.

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