Understand Post-production Before You Make Your $18,000 Movie!
Post-production is a mystery even for many industry veterans, so when first-time filmmakers face post, they are often daunted and many give up. (I have witnessed this more than once). So, before you take that script of yours and spend your retirement and max out your credit cards (don’t really do this!) in hopes of being the next big thing, you should know what lies ahead so you can plan for it.
Let’s start with the numbers. Those ultra-low budgets that make headlines and launch filmmaking careers do not include post-production. Period. None of them. Even found footage, low-fi films cost money to finish. I can give you examples. Kevin Smith’s Clerks is famous for a budget of $27,575. The post-production budget? $230,000. Want to be a rebel without a crew? Well, El Mariachi cost $7,225 to shoot. The post-production budget was $200,000. Research the numbers — Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity — all of them had post-production budgets on top of the “headline” budget.
Steps of post-production:
- Feedback (It’s not an official category, but no one’s above it)
- Music Score
- Post-production Sound
- Color Correction/Mastering
But fear not! If you can be clever in your production budgeting, you can do the same in post. Yes, post is a cost and it will be bigger than you want it to be. However, if you know what it entails and you are committed to good work and being good to work with, putting your post team together won’t be much different than putting your production team together.
Okay, it may appear obvious that editorial is the period in which you edit your film, but a lot of people don’t understand the process. When filmmakers are preparing for production, they often forget that at the end of the day, something must be done with the footage. So let me break it down for you. (I will stick to a digital workflow because that is how most films are shot these days. There are extra steps when you are dealing with actual film.)
First things first – the footage is taken off the camera cards and backed up. This should be done with professional software that can do a check sum. It is never a good idea to “drag and drop.” It’s too risky and way too much is at stake. The same is done with sound. The two elements – known as dailies — go to a lab or a person to sync all the clips. On films with a real budget, a color pass is done so nobody has to look at the bland footage that comes off the camera during the editing process.
Once the footage is synced, it is handed off to an Assistant Editor who loads the footage into editing software like Avid or Premiere. An Assistant Editor’s main job is to organize the footage and put it in scene bins, find wild sound, and make sure that all the footage is accounted for. This requires a good amount of paperwork. An Assistant Editor must keep track of the camera reports, the sound reports and puts the script notes in order.
Once everything is organized, the Editor can start editing scenes together. An Editor’s job is to watch the footage, choose the best takes and piece the film together shot by shot. Editing is a painstaking process that takes many weeks, often months, of drafts and opinions in which the film really takes shape. On most productions, after putting the film together, the filmmakers realize that they need another scene or two to make the story work so they schedule a shoot of “pickups.”
Feedback is not an official step in post-production, but feedback makes a film better. It allows a filmmaker to solve unseen problems before real money is spent and it’s too late to turn back.
VFX artists are always chomping at the bit to get started. And rightfully so, they are generally overworked and never have enough time to get the job done. But where does VFX fit in the post-production process? Well, it is very complicated, but here’s the gist. If they are not generating footage for the Editor to work with, they are likely affecting footage that is shot. An Editor will usually create temp effects until the picture is locked because VFX artists work frame by frame, and it is a major hassle to do extra frames you don’t need or have frames added to the work they have done (or start over if you swap out a shot). Once the picture is locked and the Editor has accounted for any dissolves, etc, an Assistant will prepare delivery of the elements to the VFX department.
As I mentioned above, feedback is not an official step in post-production, but feedback makes a film better. It allows a filmmaker to solve unseen problems before real money is spent and it’s too late to turn back. From studio pictures to independents, smart Directors are getting feedback. The best time to do this is the first time you think you’re ready to lock picture because chances are, you’re not.
Many people think that scoring is post-production sound. Nope. The score is the music part of post sound. Composers usually want to see cuts during the edit and will want to sit down with the Director to discuss ideas. Sometimes a Composer will hand over pieces to edit with, but that depends on the budget. Once again, when the picture is locked, the Composer can really get down to business and score to the picture.
Okay. This is where so many people get lost in post. Post-production sound is probably the most invisible of all the cinematic arts. Even some Academy members aren’t sure what they are voting for when faced with the “Best Sound Editing” and “Best Sound Mixing” categories.
It will help to understand the components of post sound, which are dialog editing, sound design (or sound editing), ADR (Automated Dialog Replacement) and sound mixing.
Dialog editing is an incredibly tedious process that involves taking the edited picture and organizing and sweetening all the sound elements. A Dialog Editor will isolate each phrase to see what is working and what isn’t. He or she will swap out bad takes for better ones, clean up messy takes, and take out sounds that compete with dialog, like clothes rustling or crew footsteps. And this is just the basics. The Dialog Editor is another crew member that looks out for the Actor – from lip smacking to slurred syllables, the Dialog Editor is making everything sharp and audible.
Don’t forget to back up you project at every step of the process. Mirror everything on three drives and store them in more than one location. Trust me. Anything can happen.
Sound design, also known as sound editing involves all the other sounds. A Sound Editor will collect all the sounds that were recorded during the shoot and foley, (additional recordings to replace everyday sounds like washing dishes or footsteps) and organize them and seamlessly place them in the cut. One thing to note is that everything should be recorded on set. Another misconception about sound design is that all sounds are added in post from a sound effects library or with foley. The reality is that you should record everything you can on set, from engines starting to footsteps on tile floors for your Sound Editors to work with. A Sound Designer will also create sounds that are otherworldly – it can be mixed in with the score to emphasize a moment or it can be sounds like dinosaurs, aliens, or spaceships.
ADR (Automated Dialog Replacement)
ADR can be used to fix flubbed lines, or in some cases, rewrite the script so it makes more sense or even change the performance of a line. It is something done after locking picture and it involves bringing Actors into a studio and recording their dialog against picture.
The Sound Mixer, also known as the Re-recording Mixer in the United States, or the Dubbing Mixer in Europe, takes all the sounds – the dialog, the effects, and the music — and balances them out. He or she makes sure that dialog is heard and understood and balances the music from scene to scene as well as the delicate balance of voices and sound effects in the quiet scenes. He or she distributes the various sounds to different speakers to make the visuals on screen pop and feel more real. Once the Mixer is finished, he hands the sound files off to the Colorist, who marries the sound to the picture (layback).
It’s all in the name, right? Well, sort of. Colorists do a number of important things. On a practical level, the first thing a Colorist will do is conform the edit from Avid or Premiere to a more robust, “mother ship” of a machine like Resolve, with high-resolution footage – most likely 4K. Once this process is done, the Colorist will make sure that all shots are consistent — color correction — and that the intent of the Director and the Cinematographer of how the film should look is implemented – color grading. In a nutshell, the Colorist creates the final visual polish. The Colorist will also create your masters, such as a DCP or other digital formats that go to the distributor.
The post journey is a long one. It’s longer than production and it takes planning for it to run smoothly. There are a lot of moving parts and schedules have to be synchronized. So think ahead and plan for post just as you plan for production. One last thing: Don’t forget to back up you project at every step of the process. Mirror everything on three drives and store them in more than one location. Trust me. Anything can happen. You invested too much blood, sweat, and tears, not to mention money, to lose it all in one freak accident.
Interested in the whole process from development to cutting room? Look back at our advice regarding pre-production here.
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