A movie is made twice, so the saying goes. This first time is during pre-production when the director transforms the script into an audiovisual narrative. The second time is in post production. All the raw material created during production is brought together and shaped into a finished film. Things will undoubtedly change the second time around. A scene that works on paper doesn’t gel on screen. You might need to change the order of events to build tension or create clarity.
After the mayhem of shooting, post production is a different challenge. You spend your time in a series of darkened rooms. You wrestle with the story in the edit suite. Get creative and solve problems in the visual effects studio. Enjoy the quiet alchemy of colour in the grading suite. And get energised by the noise and excitement of the sound studio. On a small production, all these spaces might be your spare room!
Post production can be very technical. Even when you’re up to your elbows in techie stuff, never forget you’re telling a story. What we see and hear always says something about the characters, it influences how the audience feels and creates an expectation for how the story will unfold.
What is Post Production?
The material created during production is brought together in post to make a finished film. There’s the pictures, the dialogue, CGI, titles, graphics, sound effects and music. Pictures are complete once colour grading is done. The whole movie is complete once the final sound mix is done.
Do you want to edit? If so, you work with the director to cut together pictures and dialogue. Shot by shot and scene by scene, you build the story. You need to tell a coherent story, build tension and create a pace that suits the drama. But above all, you must entertain.
If dialogue and pictures were recorded on separate devices, they need syncing together before the edit can begin. Timecode synced media makes this quick and easy. If a clapperboard was used, then it’s more labour intensive.
Some scenes need music to influence the pace. Use a temp track while waiting for the composer to complete the score. The temp track is either cues from another film or library music. Find something that matches the theme and genre of the movie.
Additional Sound Recording
Most of the dialogue and sound effects are recorded during production. But additional audio always needs recording in post. When you shoot on location, unwanted noise can appear on the dialogue track. Some or all of the dialogue can be re-recorded during a process known as ADR. Foley artists record incidental sounds, adding realism to the finished film. They watch the finished edit while performing actions such as foot steps, clothes rustling and doors closing.
One of my first jobs in TV was assisting the Foley artist for a fishing show. I scrunched 16mm film to create the sound of walking through the undergrowth. I flapped umbrellas to imitate the sound of birds taking off. Many Foley sounds are available as audio libraries, but where’s the fun in that?
Visual Effects and Motion Graphics
Visual effects are useful for all filmmakers, not just those producing sci-fi or action. These are the reasons why you’d use visual effects in your movie:
- It would be too expensive to create the scene any other way. For example, an exotic location on the other side of the world.
- It would be impossible to create the scene in-camera.
- Shooting the scene normally would be too dangerous, risking the lives of cast and crew.
- When you want an unpredictable atmospheric effect such as fog, a thunderstorm or a blizzard.
Compositing is a cornerstone of visual effects. It’s the art and science of combining live action, CG elements and other visual assets into a seamless, photorealistic shot. If you fancy yourself as a visual effects artist, you need skills in motion tracking, green screen keying and matching colour between different assets. You use image sharpness, depth of field, atmospheric effects and lighting to add realism to the shot. You send completed shots to the editor so they can insert them into the edit.
Related to visual effects is motion graphics. It’s less well-known and something of an invisible art. If you work as a motion graphics artist, you will create titles and other graphics element that appear in the movie. A big area of motion graphics is interface design. No superhero suit or spaceship is complete without a cool holographic display!
Colour grading is the manipulation of brightness, contrast and colour. The look of a film is developed by the director and cinematographer. If you want to be a colourist, your job is to enhance and refine the look.
Looks created on location can be preserved and transferred to you as a colour decision list. If you’re working the same software as used on-set (DaVinci Resolve for example) then all you need is the project file.
As a colourist, you work with the best quality images. Either clips straight from the camera or converted to a codec that won’t lose image data. As well as grading the whole image, you use masks to isolate specific areas for fine adjustments. You can also track moving objects, making them easier to grade.
Editing and Mixing Sound
On a large project, many people are involved in audio post production. On an independent film, it might only be you. You might also be the picture editor!
Your first job in post production sound is editing the dialogue. You will need to combine speech recorded on-set and from ADR sessions. Edit out or filter unwanted noise and enhance the dialogue to make it crisp and clear. Add Foley and sound effects from recordings or sound libraries. Then finally mix the music with the dialogue and sound effects. The music might be from a composer or a library. Use tonal and spatial separation to preserve clean dialogue and not loose it amongst the other sounds.
The audience responds emotionally to sound, so it’s an effective way to set the tone for a scene. We all know how creepy music creates unease and a feeling of tension. Sound is also dynamic. You can use sudden changes in volume to emphasise action. With a stereo or surround mix you can change the spatial location of a sound to match movement on the screen.
Who’s Involved in Post Production?
As you can imagine, many of the people involved in production don’t have a role in post. The director and production team will be there, shepherding the movie to completion through sheer force of will. The cinematographer should still be involved, working with the colourist to refine the look they developed with the director. Having an assistant who manages the media files can be a godsend. If they can make backups, create proxy files and generally know where different files are stored, they’ll be the hero who defeats meltdowns and saves a load of time.
On a small scale production, the crew might want to see their production work right through to completion. If the sound recordist has audio editing and mixing skills, they could perform those roles in post production. If the on-set DIT has grading skills, they could be the colourist in post.
The Post Workflow
You need to develop the post workflow during pre-production. Bring together the production and post production crew to discuss the process. The editor, sound designer, colourist and visual effects artist must tell the camera and sound crew what they need. This is the time to talk about naming conventions for video and audio files. Does the colourist need colour chart shots for each scene? Does the VFX artist need clips of a lens distortion chart? By making a workflow plan, you know who needs certain files and who’s responsible for doing it.
Information and metadata is also needed. This might be embedded in the media files. Or it could be in camera reports, sound reports, script supervisor notes or info from the VFX supervisor.
If you’re finding the workflow complicated, it’s worth drawing out a flow diagram to help clarify the process. Have a practice run, if possible. This will help you spot potential problems and find ways to be more efficient.
Filmmakers, Know Your Limits!
I love working with creative software and I enjoy learning new apps. But it’s impractical to do everything on a project. It’s okay to do both the editing and the grading, or the editing and the sound mix. But you’ll burn out or create delays if you try to do everything.
Find people who’s skills compliment your own. So if you’re less experienced in grading, for example, find someone who’s skilled in that area. Post production can be isolating if you’re working on your own, so it’s always good to involve others. You can bounce ideas around and create better work as a result.