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A movie isn’t a movie until it’s gone through post-production.

Until then, it’s just a bunch of files–or in the olden days, actual film!–often referred to simply as raw footage.

This is exactly why post-production is fundamental to the filmmaking process, and in many ways, the most magical part of it. It’s where the visuals are put into sequential order, audio is included, and all the other cinematic bells and whistles are added before it goes out into the world as a distributed film.

So let’s dive into exactly what post-production is and why this part of making movies is critical to the ultimate success of any film.

Post-production: A Definition

Before we explore the steps of post-production, it’s important to know what it is!

What do we mean by post-production?

Anna Keizer

Post-production is the phase of the filmmaking process where the footage shot during principal photography is assembled into a cohesive narrative and other aspects of the film are put into place and polished, including the dialogue, score, sound effects, and visual effects.

How important is post-production?

Anna Keizer

There’s a common saying that goes “a film is made three times–once during the scriptwriting process, once during the shooting process, and then once again during the editing process.”

Which is all to say that every part of the filmmaking process is critical to the success of a movie, and post-production is no exception.

Prior to a film entering the post-production process, it really and truly is not a film yet–at least, not one that would make any sense to viewers or be perceived as a cohesive story. It takes considerable time, energy, and talent from those who work in post such as Editors, Composers, Colorists, and Sound Designers to shape what they receive into what we recognize as a movie.

What are examples of post-production?

Anna Keizer

Post-production is a phase of the filmmaking process, but the phrase “post-production” actually refers to multiple filmmaking components, each with specific goals in mind.

  • Editing. The editing process involves stringing together the individual shots filmed during principal photography. It’s primarily through editing that a coherent story with an understandable narrative is created.
  • Music composition. Most films include some type of instrumental musical score that helps to emphasize the emotional tone of any given scene. Some of the most successful and notable Composers include John Williams, Alan Silvestri, and Hans Zimmer.
  • Visual effects. Computer-generated imagery, or CGI, has become a key component of filmmaking over the last thirty years or more. Whether a film is set in reality or another world, visual effects can be incredibly effective in helping to tell stories that cannot be created through traditional filmmaking means alone.
  • Color grading. The look of a film in terms of brightness, color saturation, and other visual elements can be highly important in helping to set the mood for an individual scene or to create the entire world of a film. Color grading is a process of altering the look of the footage according to these different elements.
  • Sound design. For nearly the last 100 years, sound has played a key role in helping to tell cinematic stories. From dialogue to sound effects to the aforementioned score, the entirety of a movie’s sound is critical to its success. For this reason, sound design has long been an important part of the post-production process.

Where Post-production Falls in the Stages of Filmmaking

The post-production phase is an essential part of the filmmaking process, though one that comes towards the end of it.

Depending on the circumstances surrounding the making of the film, such as getting funding for it and having the right cast and crew attached, the post-production phase might kick off years into the life of a movie.

The following breaks down the chronological order of the filmmaking process and a brief explanation of each phase:

What are the types of post-production?

Anna Keizer

Post-production can refer to any aspect of filmmaking that becomes necessary after the shooting of a film, television show, or other form of entertainment.

Editing is a major component of the post-production process, but it is hardly the only one. To create a film or television show that’s ready for distribution, elements such as the project’s score, special effects, color grading, sound design, and other details must be addressed and perfected.

1. Development

It all starts with a script. Before that iconic phrase “lights, camera, action!” is ever uttered, what becomes a film is first created as words on a page.

Development–like virtually every other phase of the filmmaking process–can go on from months to years to even decades. A script will get written, rewritten, and often passed around from studio to studio and production company to production company before getting the “green light” to move into the next phase… pre-production.

2. Pre-production

Pre-production often starts when the funding for a film finally comes together and spending can begin on all the many components required for a film, including crew, cast, locations, equipment, and so on.

When pre-production is done right, every last detail that can be planned in advance is thought out, from schedule to shot list and more. Pre-production can also include cast rehearsals to ensure that the dialogue and chemistry between Actors is finessed before the actual shooting begins.

3. Principal photography

Production, or principal photography, is almost always the phase of the filmmaking process that most people think of when making movies is mentioned.

For a few days to weeks to months, the cast and crew will come together to shoot the footage that is eventually assembled into what we call a film. Despite the often glamorous way in which shooting a movie is depicted on television–and ironically–in films, the days can be long and exhausting for all involved.

4. Post-production

Post-production can begin after principal photography is completely wrapped, but often the two phases overlap. Depending on the timeline that the studio or production company behind the film has set up from principal photography to distribution, editing of the film (which is part of post-production) might start even as the cast and crew are still shooting other scenes.

Editing is generally considered the most significant aspect of the post-production process, and while it certainly is a must for any movie, editing comprises just one component of post as a whole.

What is production and post-production?

Anna Keizer

Production and post-production are two of the five stages of filmmaking. Production generally begins before post-production, but there can be considerable overlap between the two stages.

For instance, footage shot during production may be immediately sent to the Editor for initial assembly well before principal photography wraps, or a Composer might be hired early on during the filmmaking process even though the score might be thought of as a post-production element.

However, post-production must be completely finished before the final stage of the filmmaking process: distribution of the film to audiences.

5. Distribution

Once a movie is made, you have to find a way for people to see it, right? Enter the distribution phase. As its name implies, distribution is the part of the filmmaking process where the finished product is sent out to finally be seen by viewers.

That being said, the landscape of distribution has undergone significant change over the last few years. Whereas most films were given a theatrical release in the past, that’s simply not the case for all movies anymore. With streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime on the rise, more and more films are now finding distribution through them, with audiences never having to leave the comfort of their homes.

What Is the Process of Post-production?

Now let’s get in depth.

Which are the five steps of post-production?

Anna Keizer

Just like preproduction and production, there is often a step-by-step process to post-production, though some aspects of it may happen concurrently.

Generally, the five steps of post-production are:

  1. Editing the shot footage.
  2. Laying in the special effects footage.
  3. Laying in the score and editing the sound.
  4. Mixing the sound (dialogue, score, Foley, ADR, etc.).
  5. Grading or correcting the color of the footage.

1. Editing

With little exception, the post-production process tends to begin with the editing of the film.

Generally, the Editor of a movie will start by stringing out the different shots of the film in the order they occur in the script. Once this process is completed, the Editor will then begin to refine, refine, and refine some more.

Editing involves multiple steps that each impact what the ultimate outcome of the film will be. The Editor chooses what shots will be used, in what order they will be strung out, and how long they will be. Makes a lot of sense why so many people say that a film is “made” in the editing room, eh?

Depending on the project, the Editor might have a great deal of autonomy and is indeed making all of those important choices on their own, or they work side by side with the Director of the film who typically is involved in the editing process as well.

2. Music composition

Just like the editing process, the start of the musical composition to a film might begin before principal photography wraps. Often the Composer will want to see a rough cut of the film to get a sense of what type of music will best accompany it, but some Composers might begin their work after just reading a script.

As with the editing process, the Composer will often work closely with the Director to ensure that the music they create encapsulates the Director’s vision for the film.

3. Visual effects

When we talk about filmmaking professionals like Editors and Composers, it’s important to note that they often will have other post-production professionals working alongside and supporting them during the course of a project. When it comes to visual effects, those numbers can grow exponentially.

Consider a film like The Avengers. When looking at the closing credits of that film, you will see dozens, if not hundreds, of names of individuals who all in some way worked on the visual effects for the film.

Now superhero movies may rely more on visual effects than your average film, but the point stands that this element of filmmaking in general and specifically in the post-production process has become a fundamental part of it.

Though visual effects are considered part of the post-production process, it’s very possible depending on the needs of the movie that they too will start to be generated before the film has completed principal photography.

This is because it will have already been decided during pre-production what shots can be done on location or on a sound stage and what shots need to be created through computer-generated imagery. More often than not, it’s a combination of the two.

Visual effects are also highly time-intensive to make, which is why some productions might get a jump start on them while still filming a movie.

4. Color grading

On the other hand, color grading a film almost never begins until post-production reaches a stage called “picture lock,” which means that the editing process is complete.

From there, the Colorist will work off the Director’s notes regarding what they want to see in particular shots or scenes.

Sometimes that means an enhancement of what has already been shot, such as greater color saturation. Sometimes it means actual color correction if the images filmed do not evoke what the Director was hoping for.

5. Sound design

Sound design encompasses all the many aspects of audio mentioned earlier, such as dialogue, sound effects, and the musical score.

In essence, it’s the harmonization of all these different elements to ensure that the presence of each in every single shot and scene is heard at the appropriate sound level with the highest possible sound quality.

Like any visual effects used for a film, the sound design for it requires the talent and hard work of multiple individuals who each contribute to the movie’s overall sound design.

Some people (like Foley Artists will help to create sound effects. Others will clean up the dialogue or rerecord it as ADR, which stands for additional dialogue replacement, if the original recording was not of high enough quality. Then there are the professionals who set the levels of all the audio tracks according to what needs to be heard in any given moment in a scene. In short, many people typically contribute to this process.

And as with the color grading of a film, the sound design will begin only after the editing process is finished.

What Are Some Examples of the Post-production Process in Film?

To more deeply explore and understand what is involved in the post-production process, there’s no better place to go than to the experts themselves.

Nine-time Oscar nominee and three-time winner Walter Murch explains what it means to be a Film Editor especially with the technological innovations of the last several decades, as well as how to approach the craft of it:

Many filmmakers–Directors in particular–have a fondness for working with the same Composers. For instance, Steven Spielberg has collaborated with John Williams on nearly thirty films so far.

Not far behind them are Director Tim Burton and his go-to Composer Danny Elfman who have collaborated on sixteen different movies. Below Elfman gives some insight into how those collaborations happen:

Gary Rydstrom is a Sound Engineer who over the course of his hugely impressive career has earned nineteen Academy Award nominations and seven wins from those nominations for his work in post-production sound and sound effects editing.

Here he talks about what excites him about the post-production sound process and how someone interested in it can get their foot in the door. Much like Walter Murch’s interview, he notes that technological advancements have made it easier than ever to learn about this aspect of post-production:

In Closing

Post-production is a highly creative yet technical aspect of the multifaceted process of making movies. Rather than a homogenous practice, it involves several distinct steps that each help to inform the final outcome of a film.

Much as a Sculptor creates a work of art from an undefined piece of marble or clay, each and every single individual on a post-production team helps to take the raw and sometimes ambiguous footage shot in principal photography to create a beautiful story that can impact audiences and leave a lasting impression on them for generations to come.

Want to know more about the filmmaking process? Our blogs on pre-production and on set film production explain these vital stages in bringing a movie to life.
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