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How many people does it take to make a movie?

One of the two questions my mum keeps asking about filmmaking is “Why are there so many people in the credits of a film?” (The other is “Why did they remake the Italian Job?”).

It’s a valid question (well, both are, but I’m only going to answer the former today) – if you stick around at the end of a movie you’ll be treated to ten minutes of scrolling names. 

This got me thinking about the departments in which all these people work.  So I decided to take a look.  Unfortunately, we can’t measure man-hours contributed by each person but we can look at the number of people credited on each film.

So I took the 100 highest grossing films of each of the past 20 years (giving me 2,000 films to study) and looked at the number of people credited on IMDb. In summary…

  • Iron Man 3 credits 3,576 crew members.
  • The average number of crew credits in the top 1,000 films between 1995 and 2014 was 572.
  • Over half of the top films had under 500 people in their crew.
  • On average the top films of the past two decades have each had 3.5 writers, 7 producers, 55 people in the art department, 32 in sound, 55 in camera / electrical and 156 in visual effects.
  • The Butler had 41 producers - 5 producers, 19 executive producers, 6 co-executive producers, 4 co-producers and 7 associate producers.
  • A third of the workers on Love Actually were in the art department.
  • Crew credits suggest that Peter Jackson favours special effects over visual effects more than the industry average.
  • Now You See Me has six times the average number of people in the camera department.
  • 23% of the people who worked on Pokemon: The First Movie were in the music department.
     

The largest crews

The biggest crews are rather staggering, with 3,576 people receiving a credit on Iron Man 3.

Overall, the average number of crew credits was 572, with the top 25% of films accounting for half of all credits. Out of my list of 2,000 films…

  • Only 3 films had over 3,000 credits
  • 24 films credited between 2,000 - 2,999 people
  • 195 films credited between 1,000 - 1,999 people
  • 637 films credited between 500 - 999 people
  • 1,140 films credited under 500 people
     

Visual Effects

Iron Man 3 just pips Avatar to the award for ‘Most People Credited in the Visual Effects Department’. Interestingly, The Golden Compass is the only film in the top 20 of this visual effect chart which was not released in 3D.

For 56 of my 2,000 films, the Visual Effects Department made up over 50% of all crew members. If you meet someone in a pub who says they worked on Harry Potter there is a 62% chance they worked in visual effects. Similar numbers are true for Gravity, Pacific Rim, Avatar and Total Recall. In fact, the VFX department of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II made up a larger percentage of the total crew than Avatar (62.0% versus 61.8%). This is surprising as Harry Potter appears to be an almost exclusively live action film whereas Avatar is largely CGI animation.
 

Art Department

Looking at numbers alone, the first Narnia film had the largest art department of any of the best performing films in the past 20 years.

A third of the people credited on The Village were in the art department (201 people out of total crew of 613). This is not very surprising as it's set in a… well, a village, which needed to be designed and constructed.

Bizarrely, the film with the second highest percentage of crew members working in the art department was Love Actually (31%). Given Richard Curtis’ reputation for romanticising the real world (Exhibit A: the racial diversity of the cast of Notting Hill versus that of the real residents of Notting Hill), the data suggests that Richard Curtis films need to build their own London in order to fulfil his ideal.
 

Producers

Lee Daniel’s The Butler has 41 producers credited to it. I don’t quite know how the “team” of 5 producers, 19 executive producers, 6 co-executive producers, 4 co-producers and 7 associate producers worked together. Since 1998, the Academy have only allowed 3 producers to be credited on a ‘Best Picture’ Oscar which must be a relief for the engraver faced with etching the 560 characters needed to spell all of these vital producers.

I’m not sure what the collective noun for a group of producers is. A crook? A scourge? A pride? An ostentation? Answers on a postcard please.
 

Writing Credits

The WGA strictly regulates the way in which writers can be credited on live action films, meaning that on average, each film had 3.5 writers. Animated films are not covered by the WGA agreement with the studios and thereby reveal what writing credits for all films might look like if they were unregulated. The average number of writing credits for animated films in my sample was 7.4, compared with 3.1 for just live action films. 


 

Special Effects

Special effects include on-set physical, mechanical and in-camera effects and should not be confused with digital/visual effects (which is exactly what the BBC did again yesterday!). Films by Peter Jackson take up four out of the top five places, revealing his love of real-world, on set trickery. 


 

Stunts

The number of stunt performers involved with the most recent Batman film is rather impressive, due in part to the huge street battles. 


 

Costume and Wardrobe

I was surprised to see that Thor topped the chart of films with the largest costume departments. It beat period films such as Troy (60 people), films with elaborate costumes such as Moulin Rouge (77 people), films with huge crowd scenes such as The Dark Knight Rises (89 people) and sci-fi films such as Star Wars Episode II (99 people). 


 

2nd Unit Directors and Assistant Directors

Films with a large amount of action often have a few directors (2nd unit, aerial, stunts, vehicles) and numerous assistant directors to manage the scale of shooting (action, crowds, etc) in their numerous locations. 

The Bourne Ultimatum has got many highly-specific AD credits, including ‘second second assistant director: second unit’. 18 of the 60 people in the ADs department on The Bourne Ultimatum have the note ‘(uncredited)’ attached to their IMDb credit. I don’t know if this is a result of slack crediting by the producers of The Bourne Ultimatum, IMDb being too liberal in crediting people who claim to have worked on the film or something else entirely.
 

Sound Department

Action films dominate the list of top 20 films with the largest sound departments. All those explosions, loud noises and punches mean plenty of post-production sound work. 


 

Transportation

Some Hollywood films can shoot in many countries with large teams of cast and crew, all of which require big transportation departments. 


 

Camera and Electrical

I’m not sure what this set of data show us, if anything. Now You See Me has 50% more people in the camera department than fifth placed Thor and six times the average. If anyone has any thoughts on why this might be then please contact me and I’ll update this article. 


 

Other Fun Facts

Whilst most of the data in this article looks at the raw numbers of people working within each department, I did also take a look at department percentages within each production. These results are less significant than looking at raw numbers, because a film with a small number of people is likely to lead to strange percentages, such as…

  • 11% of the people on Paranormal Activity were producers and 13% were within the sound department. 40% of all the people credited to that film were in the ‘Thanks’ section.
  • A higher percentage of the crew on Naked Gun 33 1/3 were in the stunts department than on 2 Fast 2 Furious or Taken 2 (24.4%, 23.7% and 21.7% respectively).
  • 23% of the people who worked on 'Pokemon: The First Movie' were in the music department.
     

Methodology

I used the Opus database to build a list of the 50 highest grossing films for each year between 1994 and 2013, giving me a dataset of 1,000 films. I then researched the number of people who were credited on IMDb for the various departments. Putting all this data into Excel gave me 660,000 data points to play with and analyse.
 

Caveats

This research should be read as fun and mildly revealing, but far from scientifically sound. There are a number of factors which could skew the results and I do not have the resources to count these.

  • Time served - My numbers take no account of the length of time each person worked on the production. This means that a rigger who worked on set for one day, or a VFX artist working on one shot will receive the same weighting as the cinematographer or director.
  • Seniority - My research is inadvertently Marxist, offering each person equal status to another. Anyone who has been on a film set will know that they are run more along the lines of Stalin than Marx. Consequently, we cannot infer that the bigger departments are more important. We can simply say that they had more people credited to them.
  • Self-Reporting Bias - The credits for films on IMDb are submitted by production companies, studios, the public and some chap in a pub called Bernard; i.e. anyone can suggest a credit. IMDb requests evidence from the submitter and larger films can verify their credits as complete but this cannot completely eliminate the nature of self-reporting data being naturally skewed towards those who are the most proactive / self-publicising.
  • A Study of Successful Movies - This data is based on the 50 films which grossed the highest amount at the domestic box office each year. This means that there are some flops which would not appear in my analysis. For example, John Carter was 60th in the 2012 box office charts so was not included. However, its crew was large, meaning that it would have been the 3rd largest transportation department (93 credits), 3rd largest visual effects team (1,687 credits), 4th largest camera department (222 credits) and the 11th largest make-up department (98 credits). This is the exception rather than the rule and the only way to mitigate this would have been to increase my sample size beyond 1,000.

If one were to have unlimited resources then there are a few things that could be done to add rigour to the results. Firstly, the list of crew members should be taken from the end title roller of each film, not IMDb. This would eliminate almost all of the bias introduced by the self-reporting nature of IMDb. Secondly, we would factor in time worked, presumably via access to the accounting records of each film’s production company, in order to prevent equal weighting of someone who worked on the production for a day and someone who worked on it for a year.

 



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