Honestly, if you want to learn how to edit, reread my very first 30 Minute Film School: How to Make a Narrative Film. The same general principles apply to shooting as to editing a narrative movie: you look to tell a story using images by choosing the shots that best describe the drama, action, and detail of a scene, edited together via continuity cuts and chosen either for best seamless hard cuts or for best performance (for instance, read Walter Murch’s “In the Blink of an Eye”). Editing, like frame composition, is a skill that you develop an “eye” for overtime, though it has come to contain a mythical and grandiose reputation that is overstated. What this guide will introduce you to conceptually is less the struggles with beats (a scene’s rhythm and dramatic notes), juxtaposition, and implied meaning, and more of a lesser stated and washed over aspect of much of what constitutes post-production: workflow, or in layman’s terms, file organization.
Workflow means a lot of things, and those meanings are pregnant with history. It also has a huge history that is pregnant with meaning. Because these guides are for the lowest budget/no budget filmmaker who is just trying to figure out where to start with filmmaking, much less really knows what the what is in the professional world, this guide of course covers the most accessible world of video and digital post-production, as opposed to describing to you how to make dailies and use a Steenbeck (celluloid film world stuff). However, the history of workflow is the history of the narrative film form, and the fact is that we owe much to the headaches of people trying to figure out how not to get miles of celluloid tangled in a dirty pile in the corner to help us understand the importance of understanding sequence settings in Final Cut Pro.
The first thing to keep in mind is a profoundly obvious statement that will be your first mistake: you can only edit what has been shot. If the shot doesn’t exist, you cannot edit it. If you think that truism is useless, you would not believe the number of times I as a professional editor have had to look a director in the eye and say, “You never shot that. It is not here. That clip does not exist.”
If you have literally never made a movie before, probably one of the best things you could ever do for yourself is pick up a camera… any camera… and try to make a short, couple minute long narrative film “in camera.” In camera means the hard media you are recording to, be it a tape or whatever, will also be the final playback product, with no intermediary or editing. Though digital cinema is trending towards cards now, this is where electromagnetic tape is the better training wheels. With tape you can rewind the footage in camera and record over mistakes, doing your “edits” by rerecording shots over and over until you get it the way you want. CAREFUL THOUGH! You might accidentally record over previous shots, or leave gaps between shots. In fact, it’s virtually guaranteed you’ll make a mess of the whole thing, but that’s the point. Making a couple movies in camera teaches you the fundamental principles of what goes on behind workflow and editing, and it teaches you something the digital cinema age has found lacking in 99.9999% of other aspiring filmmakers: discipline. Discipline discipline discipline, it’s nice that video is accessible to anyone but few have the real patience and constructive mindset to push their work into something that communicates with an audience.
There are two approaches to making a movie in camera, both of which will teach you a lot. One is to never rewind the tape and try to make the movie as continuitous as possible without referring back. This is valuable because when you are done, you can immediately play back the entire movie and see absolutely every shot you missed capturing in chronological order. It’ll teach you to hold on to shots longer and plan out blocking long, long in advance. The second is to record a few shots, and then play back to see what you need to get next. This forces you to adapt your idea or story in real time as you are making it, and every single choice you make affects the next choice in a line of choices that results in the movie you end up with. The first style teaches you, ultimately, how to be a visionary director. The second teaches you how to be a visionary editor. Visionary, in this paragraph, means one with the ability to envision the needs of a production in advance, a much more technical definition than the loose area of originality so valued by people who want more to stand out than successfully work.
All films are continual processes of problem solving, and those solutions that are made are called workflow. Once you’ve made a couple-three five minute scenes in camera, you have forced your mind into thinking through workflow.
The First Editor is the Scriptwriter
A basic, stripped down way of thinking about how script is translated to screen is that every sentence in a script is a single shot in the final product. A long, run on sentence is a long take, a series of short and exciting declarative sentences are quick cuts, and dialog is periods of reaction and reverse shots. Whereas that is not officially the rules on how to write a script, the way a script is written sort of informs the director (or if the director wrote it, his crew) on the way the movie is supposed to look (in a reading script, without ever mentioning camera angles or set directions!) by setting the amount of detail involved in each scene. If a script sez, “The ice cubes clack against the glass as the bottle finishes pouring, beads of water like the beads of sweat on her neck as she lifts the glass to drink,” that movie has a lot of close-ups and inserts of the alcoholic beverage being poured and drank, the lighting is set so that the water drops are backlit for emphasis, the general sensuality of the statement implies a sort of soft focus or small depths of field, closeness of details and characters. If the script sez, “After the drink is poured she takes a sip, smiles, and says…” then we’re seeing a nondescript medium shot where whatever we’re “looking at” as regards the character is probably more in anticipation of the whatever she’s about to say, since in the sentence we’re basically waiting for the drink to be over so that the dialog can start.
So that’s writing—direction. How does direction to editing work in the same mode? Well, quite frankly, if the director never got pick up shots of the drink being poured, couldn’t get the light right on the water droplets in that close-up, keeps the camera further away and focuses on the character instead of those details on the script, you don’t edit the first example because it’s impossible to. However, if you know that the moment of the drink itself is to inspire some amount of sensuality, and is not just a backdrop for a significant line to be delivered, you have to keep that in mind as you select which shots you do to put them together. The first editor, the screenwriter, has made some choices for you as to how he or she wants the scene to “look.” The director has rewritten it in the director’s own image, based on his or her own visionary skills and the demands of the production both. Then the editor rewrites it again based on the content available and how best to express each individual scene communicated through the workflow of the production.
That’s why all these things like script breakdowns, storyboards, diagrams, and shot lists exist. They communicate directly to the crew exactly which shots need to be captured, and they are referred to by director and crew constantly so that they all are on board with the same set-ups. An editor, however, has the misfortune of typically not being there on set to keep up with how the production was shot (not so much the case anymore as movies are now being edited in near-real-time with laptops on set…). The editor works with the director and refers to those same guides like storyboards et al to compose the final product based on what was actually shot. The editor also has a close friend that he or she sometimes never meets known as the script supervisor. The script supervisor is the person on set directly responsible for ensuring the director gets all of the shots, and also recording how the shots were all captured and in some cases, putting her judgment forth as to which one is the best take. I say “her” because for some reason, the script supervisor is often female. In fact, sometimes she’s called the script girl. You laugh but it’s rather uncanny. There was only one feature I have ever been on where the script supervisor was male, and that was an apprentice working under an already professional script girl.
So as you see, the way a movie is written, the way it is shot, significantly impacts the way it is edited. Most of the documentation about editing out there gets that far without saying what is really more of the case: that editing can, in addition to its popular connotation with intellectual devices and an artistic eye, also be seen as merely organizing the material of the production in a sensible way. Some editing really is just organizing assets. It depends on the workflow of the production.
Grumble grumble mrr mrr art and theory and visual eye, you say?
A case study: the studios wanted directors to have less control over the outcome of a production, because the studios wanted final cut (sounds familiar, right?). So filmmakers like John Ford made sure to only roll camera on the exact shot that they wanted in the final cut, so that the editors really had no choice—they only had one possible decision. So many of Fords films ARE “the director’s cut” even though he never entered the editing suite, because the editors working on those films could put the shots together in no other way. Note that that requires a VERY visionary director. He has to know exactly what the movie will look like while he’s shooting it—and these are the days of film, when you cannot just playback the tape.
(Eventually studios got savvy and started ordering directors to reshoot sequences, and if the director refused fired the director and found another).
But the whole workflow argument I’m making is sort of not meant to go in that direction. What I mean is that an editor to do his craft needs to understand workflow in order to make the artistic and intellectual decisions necessary to turn a lot of chaos into order. In the past, workflow was defined by film and involved long processes of syncing, printing, cutting, printing, taping, splicing, printing, etc. These days in the digital world it involves logging and capturing, file referencing, metadata, color correction, VFX, etc. Because this is a more technical than aesthetic guide, it is focusing on workflow.
A Note on Programs
For the greater majority of the writing I am doing, I am working through my head the interface of Final Cut Pro. I am trying to keep things general enough, however, for application in other programs as well. Many editing suites work in ways similar to Final Cut Pro, though it is always important to take some time to learn your individual program.
Luckily, I do not have to instruct you on any of that. For that, there’s a wonderful site known as Lynda.com .
On Avid: I have used it and like it and am happily neutral in the Avid versus Final Cut Pro debate. What is great about Avid is that the message I am trying to send about workflow gets pounded into the editor’s head the moment he or she starts operating the program, because Avid will not even open up the workspace until you set your workflow. And once you set it, it’s set. It’s great for those who know exactly what they want, it’s hard for beginners who don’t really know what they are doing. Thus, Avid vs. Final Cut Pro: control versus accessibility. Both are good. An Avid user never has to reconnect an asset, but a Final Cut Pro user can start happily clicking away at video clips without spending hours figuring out the interface.
The first mistake beginners make is not that big of a deal at first, but becomes an absolute nightmare later. A beginner, in fact, can make a movie all the way through completion, print out some discs and show it to other people, be happy for years and then later go back to the project for some reason or another and discover how much he totally fucked himself.
EVERY PROJECT GETS ITS OWN UNIQUE FOLDER. Not only that, every project SHOULD get its own unique external hard drive, but since we’re speaking lo-no-budget indie filmmakers here, that may be impractical. Nevertheless, a good investment for any filmmaker is an external harddrive.
The first step to resolving a production’s workflow in post is to open up a unique folder just for that production alone. That folder in and of itself is not useful until it’s complete. What makes it complete depends entirely on what assets the production contains. In other words, to start editing, you have to know what type of content you are going to edit in advance. It is up to the director or the producer to tell you this information, or if you are the director or producer, for you to keep track of all of the assets you have created, with the understanding that even more assets will be created in post.
Open up a new file, preferably on an external harddrive. Name the file after the production, include the date in its file name, if it has metadata attached, include as much information as possible (if you do not know what metadata is, it is data about data—information encoded in the file itself for the purpose of describing what the file contains). Then set subfolders based on the type of asset being used. One subfolder for the project itself—and within it subsubfolders for cache files and so on, described below. One subfolder for the raw footage assets (called a capture scratch folder if you are uploading the assets via the log and capture interface in Final Cut Pro). One subfolder containing the music and soundtrack elements you are going to use, one for the graphics you are going to use, one for the titles you are going to create, one for VFX, one for the exports you are going to send, one for the iDVD or DVD Studio Pro file, one for the DVD cover assets and files made in Photoshop….
All sound overwhelming and complicated? Well guess what, motherfucker? You’re an EDITOR now, so edit your route folders sensibly.
A basic rule of thumb:
—All project contained in one folder
—Subfolders for each program you will be using to put together the film. You may think that is just Final Cut Pro, but even if you are using Final Cut Pro it will not be all that long before you are using Soundtrack Pro, Motion, Color….
—Subfolders in the subfolders for the assets required for referencing in each program, the output of each program, and whatever cache and autosave files each program has.
—An export subfolder for hardcopies of the production as it develops over time.
—A final subfolder containing the Final Product, whatever that is.
SO. Let’s say I shot some footage on my Hi8 camera and am making editing it together in iMovie (i.e., I am describing the first movie I made “officially”, or the first movie that I ended up showing publicly). What I should have done is opened up a unique folder called “Kabuki_Western_date”, and within that folder created three subfolders entitled “iMovie” “iDVD” and “Exports” respectively. When I opened up iMovie I should have saved the new file entitled “Kabuki_Western_v1” and gone through iMovie’s preferences to make sure that any cache files or autosaves or whatever it may have were referenced in a subfolder within the “iMovie” subfolder called “cache_files” (Warning: I do not know how iMovie works anymore and I think it has automatic caching that you cannot change in fear of losing everything instead of saving it somewhere random. I am just describing what I should have done back when I had no idea what I was doing. Today, the interface may have changed and you should always try your best to know how each program operates individually). I then imported all of my footage through iMovie, which again should either be in the file itself or be input into a subfolder in the “iMovie” folder as opposed to somewhere random on my computer’s harddrive, edited away, and when I was done exported a .mov to the “Exports” folder, which I then referenced with my iDVD project entitled “Kabuki_Western_DVD001” saved in the iDVD folder, which printed my DVD-R I lovingly wrote “Kabuki Western by DiB” in instantly smearing black gel pen on before mailing to festivals where it was obviously promptly rejected.
The only part of that paragraph that actually happened is the DVD-R to rejection bit. The rest of it, what I actually did was open an iMovie, saved it to “Documents” on my computer (professional editors are already wincing) called “kabukiwestern”, imported the footage from my camera, clicked happily away, exported the .mov to Documents (except at that point I didn’t call it a .mov, I called it a “Quicktime File”, which is meaningless), opened up an iDVD project that I never saved, printed to DVD-R and so on and so forth. Cut to several years later, I suddenly find a use for Kabuki Western again, I after much searching and anxiety finally find my original “kabukiwestern” iMovie file, open it up, all of the information is corrupted and why oh why? Well, because who the fuck knows where the information was actually saved on my computer, whether it got moved, or anything? Plus, over time MULTIPLE versions of “Kabuki Western”, featuring two different voice overs (and my favorite current version is the one with no voice over at all), soundtracks, and so on, have happened over time, all named variants of “kabukiwestern” instead of “Kabuki_Western_vXX_date”, meaning when I open Kabuki Western files nowadays, I’m not entirely sure which version I’m opening, less if I’m likely or not to get a file that works. I fucked myself, because I didn’t understand workflow.
Contrast to my current job. In my production office, we use Final Cut Pro, After Effects, Cinema4D, Maya, 3DSMax, Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, ProTools, Z-Brush, RealFlow, etc. and so on, and plugins, reference images, textures, raw files, metadata sets, and so on that tie in with those programs. Even though we have a 32 terabyte server to save all of this random shit on, we can’t just put it anywhere and expect the files to be clean and accessible—much less find them—unless they are organized and isolated.
So a typical project in my office has a folder named and dated. Within that folder is usually a folder marked FCP, a folder marked AE, a folder marked C4D, and a folder marked MOV—at the very least. As new programs are brought into the production, they are saved immediately to folders made just for them. All files opened in those programs immediately have their preferences set to reference and cache everything within the project’s unique folder. Sometimes this takes up to a day to put together without ever even seeing the first raw footage or whatever we are going to work with. We’re a small production unit not making anything resembling feature length films or whatever, so imagine how long it could take to set up the workflow of a feature (wherein, for instance, separate scenes get their own folders). But if we don’t do all of that less exciting and intellectually uninteresting work, our projects take three times as long to put together and we end up losing a lot of important stuff.
The above workflow WILL NOT WORK FOR EVERYBODY. Every production has its unique workflow, and every production office, and every individual editor.
Refer back to the introduction. Workflow is set by the demands of the production. From a movie set you will be receiving footage from multiple tapes or cards or harddrives, external sound, b-roll footage, production photography, digital storyboards, plate shots, and in return you are expected to generate and put together scenes, title sequences, visual effects, color correction… Your first movies should be edited in camera, so that some day you’ll be able to know how to create movies oddly enough with an almost minimum of actual camera-produced footage. Weird, huh? ‘Tis the modern cinematic landscape.
Workflow within the Program
I am going to contrast two programs, Final Cut Pro and After Effects. I’m going to be more general than specific. The following information will not teach you the interface of either program.
As mentioned above, Final Cut Pro is designed to be accessible, so that users can start happily clicking away as soon as possible. However, then they usually end up fucking themselves. They finish their entire project only to find that it exports in a warped and constricted aspect ratio. They close the project down for one day to find that all of their footage has been lost when they open it the next. Because Final Cut Pro was the dominant editing program used at my school, and my school’s editing suites were school computers, and school computers are used by the form of idiots we know and love as “students”, and all of those “students” saved all of their projects on those computers instead of an external harddrive (or, used an external harddrive but did not set their preferences to send the reference material onto the harddrive as opposed to the computer), I’d say about 97.8% of a cage worker’s job was consoling teary-eyed frustration hours before a final project was due, as opposed to actually handing out equipment. Many cage workers, despite no better previous experience than the students, RAPIDLY learned magical ways of tracking down lost assets in a matter of seconds like a ninja. Other students didn’t know how the fuck they did it. 90% of it is just looking in the preferences of Final Cut Pro to see where the capture scratch files were routed last.
Before you even open a program, you must set your workflow. Immediately after you first open a program, you must set your workflow.
In Final Cut Pro that means setting your capture scratch to its own unique folder WITHIN the self-contained production folder previously set, setting your sequence settings to the demands of the footage actually being used (this is where the editor must know what aspect ratio, frame rate, and codex the footage was recorded to, i.e. NTSC 1280X720 h.264; correct sequence settings can be achieved by dragging the first clip to the timeline and, when the box opens that sez “Set sequence settings to match clip?” clicking yes, but the intelligent editor knows only to do that with a clip that contains the same settings as what the final product is supposed to be set at, otherwise the editor will spend as much time rendering as editing), set your bins to organize your assets within Final Cut Pro, set your sequences to organize your separate scenes for the movie being produced (and a “full sequence” to reference the other sequences for the completed time line), then set the log and capture settings, then either logged all the clips and did a batch capture, or logged and captured each separate clip, or just capture now the whole footage and log it afterward, as per your decisions based on the workflow needs of the production.
So, if I had edited Kabuki Western on FCP, I would have needed to create an FCP file called “Kabuki_Western_vXX_date”, set the capture scratch to my “capture scratch” subfolder within the “FCP” subfolder within the “Kabuki_Western_date” folder the project was in, set the sequence settings to the NTSC 4:3 29.97 Kabuki Western was shot on, set my capture settings to same, opened a bin in Final Cut Pro for each tape I had used, opened up a sequence in Final Cut Pro for each scene (/location) in the movie, and then started logging and capturing my clips.
Tomorrow I have to put some footage I captured today on our server. Because the server is an XSan that operates fast enough to allow timely edit-in-place editing, and because we shoot on cards instead of on tape, AND because footage shot for one project typically gets reused in other projects, it is not as much a good idea to just save footage in self-contained subfolders, but rather save them on an archive externally to Final Cut Pro, and then just have FCP reference those folders AS bins. So after I save all of the raw footage to the server, then I am going to open up Final Cut Pro, bring in the reference footage, drag it down to the timeline to set the sequence settings, and start manipulating it as needed for any edit that may be required because the workflow is already mostly set and standardized (after about a year of working here). When exporting, there are standard codex settings we have all agreed upon in our office so that all productions are universal. Every project is self contained and references itself, and every project can reference other projects if needed.
Switch to After Effects, however, and you have the same concerns but no longer the same workflow. After Effects, for instance, focuses on using layers as opposed to clips. You can, strictly speaking, edit in After Effects, but it’s more there as a compositing program to build upon the raw imagery that you already have. SO, since it’s only outputting specific shots or shot sequences, it has to send those outputs to reference folders for use by Final Cut Pro editors to edit! Those outputs must be set to the same sequence settings that the Final Cut Pro editors are using (or else the clip gets fucked or requires constant rendering). That’s the external workflow. The internal workflow, After Effects has so many layers that they should all be organized and named, the workspace and the viewer set to accommodate the demands of the work being done, the textures or inputs that After Effects references saved in their own unique folder, etc.
Once you’ve set “720/25p” enough times in program A, you typically are aware you need to set it in program B. The problem is that the footage you’ve shot ranges from 720/29.97i to 1080/50p, the output that 3DSMax accepts from FCP only allows photo-JPEG rendering whereas Final Cut Server works happiest with Apple ProRes 422 (HQ), and if you want to put it online then you’ll probably require h.264. All of those selections are found in multiple ways in program A and program B, but they also can be mixed up because you might think that you’re setting the inputs when you’re actually setting the workspace, setting the workspace when you’re actually setting the viewer, setting the viewer when you’re actually setting the output, and so on. Because Final Cut Pro is a nondestructive video clip editor program, it looks at these settings in different ways than After Effects, which is a layer-based program. The demands of what each program do, guess what? Affects your workflow.
Here’s a helpful hint. On Mac computers, 99.9% of programs use Cmd-S to save. On Windows, CTRL-S. So it doesn’t matter which program you are using, you need to save often. And by often, what with the habit of post-production programs to shit themselves, I mean you should develop the habit of hitting Cmd-S or Ctrl-S as a muscle memory reaction to the thought, “Hrm that was cool” or “Huh, what do I do next?” So at least that’s pretty damned standard.
So anyway, when you wanted to become an editor you were thinking you’d be spending all of your time finding the exact frame on which to make a brilliant visual graphic match, didn’tcha? You should see what it’s actually like in a production office, where people go into fits of giggles over polygon counts in 3D models and take bets over how long it’ll take Vue to crash.
Which brings me to some probably helpful information
Types of Post-Production Programs
There are all sorts of programs out there, from freeware to “industry standard” packages, and one could literally spend more than on a hybrid car filling one’s computer up with programs without ever getting anything done.
The low to no budget filmmaker does not get programs based on what is the next best thing, because by the time it takes you to become semi-professional in the program, it either comes out with a new edition or another program replaces it. Just as I recommend in the Prosumer Camera 30MFS to use whatever is available, in post-production programming it is best to try to get access to programs only on the basis of what you need to get done. That’s hard when you are just starting out because you don’t know what all is possible, and thus what you should use to achieve best the effect that you want (and, upon learning the possibilities comes recognition of more possibilities, which inspires further projects which create more needs which refers one to another program which opens up more possibilities).
For the most part, the beginning filmmaker will be using regularly non-destructive, non-linear video editing programs like Final Cut Pro. These are meant almost exclusively to arrange video clips head-to-tail in a series to make an edited movie—they set clips to a timeline. It is the predominant understanding of what is called “video editing” and the programs most people quickly familiarize themselves with when they want to become “editors.”
The video editor, however, after a while wants to make adjustments to the image. They may want to crop out a certain section, key out some green or blue screen effect, overlap images in some other way than brief dissolves or lowering a shot’s opacity… most of the initial stuff is all available in Final Cut Pro and to a limited degree in freeware programs. iMovie usually has presets that achieve something like what you want, but that you have little control over. It is a fact, unfortunately, that the more control you want over the image, the deeper into programming you need to go (up to and including some points at which you even have to code).
Compositing programs are programs that manipulate the images within the clips themselves for visual effects, like Motion and After Effects. This can range from simple color correction to full-blown computer-generated visual effects. Compositing programs are 2D or “2 ½D”, which means that they affect the image by layering inputs over it. By dividing the layers, separate parts of the image can be manipulated.
For example, title’s are technically basic, stripped-down compositing. A title is a layer of text that is placed over the layer of the video image. Green screen is compositing too—the green or blue sections are keyed out, creating areas of the image that are effectively transparent, and thus can see through to a lower layer that holds different content. Lightsabers in Star Wars are compositing. Mattes are compositing.
Here is an example of professional compositing:
The ½ in “1/2 D” comes from the fact that some compositing programs do a false 3D: they tilt or bend the layer of image to enforce the illusion of depth. They are not, strictly speaking, considered 3D because 3D programs actually build images and cameras in 3D space.
To learn more about compositing (and especially, some tutorials on how to do it), visit videocopilot.net . (For transparency purposes, note that I have no connection to that website and am promoting it specifically as a customer, not an owner, of it).
A 3D program like Maya or Cinema4D can build objects for use in compositing and can be used in animation. Most of the “CGI” that people complain about is 3D modeling that is not composited carefully into the frame, to help illustrate the difference. 3D builds Spiderman and his villains:
3D programs are probably the most diverse, because some programs are developed for specific 3D purposes. RealFlow develops water and liquid effects, Massive creates crowds, Vue creates landscapes. In other words, the gigantic wide shot battle scenes in Lord of the Rings were generated in Massive and Vue, as compared to the hundreds of extras visible in Braveheart.
To see compositing and 3D working together with explanation, see Freddie Wong:
Freddie Wong, incidentally, is one of my low budget YouTube distributed heroes. His movies may not be Academically Intellectual Genius ®™, but he’s still amazing.
Audio programs like ProTools and Soundbooth are where you… mix audio. Interestingly enough, whereas I find their interfaces look like video editing software, audio actually works more similarly to compositing, as multiple layers of sound (done correctly) add dynamic dimension to the audio track. Many audio programs feature methods of importing video for syncing purposes, or at least import timecodes and markers. Note that popular freeware audio software Audacity, last time I checked, does not, despite the fact that Audacity is pretty well known for zero budget usage.
Not Surprisingly, Your Program Affects Your Workflow
My recommendation to learn and use only which programs serve the specific effect you are trying to achieve works both ways. As a writer or director, one must think forward to how to shoot a shot to achieve a particular effect in post-production. There is not, honestly, “fixing it in post” the way the clichéd director always claims—doing so only causes more problems and more headache. Post-production is not a crutch for inept production. Post-production works best if the production shoots FOR post.
That means if you are going to do a VFX shot, you should probably budget in a green screen. The regular production pays thousands of dollars for a green screen studio space, the entrepreneur independent director builds a green screen studio space himself, the savvy low-budget director paints a wall green, and the revolutionary no-budget filmmaker shoots against a clear blue sky for free. However, all these people anticipate the use of the shot in advance. You do not… as I have, rather unfortunately, actually had the facepalm inducing pleasure of hearing… “greenscreen out” a random guy accidentally walking across the shot. (For what it’s worth, it’s possible using rotoscoping, which is much easier to do now with the autoroto function in After Effects CS5. However, the point is the same: post-production is not there to fix your mistakes, it’s there to put together your work).
Because of that, when you write and when you shoot, you must do so with post-production in mind. That is one of the biggest mistakes newbie filmmakers make, and is the reason why so many projects die in postproduction (another is cost. Most beginners have no idea what postproduction costs until it’s too late. Like any other part of production, the less you are willing to spend on post-production, the more work and time and energy you have to put in yourself). Post-production is why slates exist, but the newbie independent filmmaker thinks he or she is clever and will do without in order to increase speed, decrease amount of film or tape used, and keep the set rolling. Then said filmmaker ends up in the editing suite with a nightmare that costs exponentially more than what was saved by neglecting to slate each take.
In a way, once you understand post-production and workflow, you really understand what directing is for. The common association of a director as artist in command somehow often neglects the actual job description of what a director is supposed to do: “call the shots”, which is to say, ensure that every shot required for the film is captured so that they can be organized, in other words “edited”, in a logical way. Whatever one’s philosophy on filmmaking however, the filmmaker of any budget or means who intends to edit together anything meaningful (and by sensible I am not strictly meaning narrative or traditional, experimental and montage editing require workflow too) composes one’s shots to deliver what one means to edit together.
This is what is meant precisely by the student filmmaker who goes out to make his or her first movie and goes through the whole process of shooting it only to find out that “it doesn’t cut together.” It is easy to see the beautiful compositions in isolation while you are shooting it, but a visionary director knows to make sure that if that shot is captured that the next shot on the shot list makes sense.
A Very General Theory of How to Edit Together a Scene
So I’ve brought you through the workflow of the production, the workflow of setting up the post-production, the workflow within the program, and now you have all of your bins and sequences set up in FCP or something and are still kind of wishing I covered how to start putting them together beyond the vague “clicking happily away.” Well, the following assumes the footage you shot for a narrative scene was shot correctly.
If it was shot correctly, you shot what are called “masters”. Masters cover the action from a medium or medium wide frame so that all the important moments, important dialog, and important motions have a base reference point. You can see all the action and important information, and begin to work off there. A master shot is not necessarily a single continuous take, and if it is it needn’t be a perfect performance (in fact, if it were a single continuous take with a perfect performance, except for the excitement and detail of cuts there’d be no reason to edit at all).
Once you have your masters laid out with all redundant actions and dialog removed, you begin to structure the scene. Again, refer to How to Shoot a Narrative Film, as it’s pretty much the same concept: a wide shot establishes the scene, so work on finding a suitable establishing shot. A close-up provides detail, so if a character points at something important or the scene gets really dramatic, look for close ups of the action. As you edit, you will find that certain movements, certain looks, certain performances will stand out and seem more meaningful—but as you lay those segments down, it affects the continuity of the scene, the beats, the motion… so each decision you make affects each subsequent decision, and as you work your way through the scene you discover your own process for that specific scene.
This process may or may not change scene to scene, and will probably change production to production. But the overall point is that once you lay out the scene, you then begin a series of details that decides for the viewer exactly how the scene is received by the viewer.
So what happens if you, or the director, never shot “masters”? Well, you have to decide a workflow based on what IS shot, but generally speaking it’s likely that the scene doesn’t have full coverage and something was lost. Just my experience talking, I’m sure it’s more than possible for another John Ford to arrive on scene and be able to shoot exactly what is necessary and no more.
There are little tricks you can use, however, and this is where “b-roll” comes in. Say you just simply do not have a good angle of an actor’s face during a scene of dialog, or at least the one shot that contains that dialog is hideously out of continuity with the rest of the scene. Cut away. Include a shot of, say, the other actor listening to that dialog, or the actor’s hand, or something happening outside the window, or whatever. Remembering that each edit causes a “beat”, it will affect the pacing of the scene, so you’ll have to edit accordingly. However, sometimes that beat is godsend even where cutting away isn’t necessary. Let’s say a camera is held on a long take that does not satisfactory keep the eye attending to the scene, even though everything is continuitous. A cutaway can elide parts of the action in order to resolve it faster. (Those in love of slow, contemplative cinema start to protest, at which point I ask you watch the beginning of Manos: the Hands of Fate for an example of extreme protraction of an action that does not serve the movie). This type of elliptical editing is so common in cinema we don’t even think about it anymore, unless either reading an essay about it or watching a student movie where it’s not fully understood and you sit watching as a character spends thirty seconds fumbling with a shoelace while tying a shoe—supposedly “realistic” but nothing like “neo-realism”.
And in Its Own Way, Post-Production is Graphic Design
Your purpose is to make the movie look good. That’s not a defense of glossy movies over gritty realism or whatever, because gritty realism looks good. In addition to following eye lines, matching action, showing all of the information, and setting the pace, some basic color theory affects the outcome. Cut from a mostly blue shot to a mostly orange shot if you want that shot to unsettle and distract the viewer—otherwise, don’t do it, even if otherwise the shot makes sense. Add vignettes on the frame if it feels the eye has a tendency to wander over it, but otherwise it’s the best shot for that segment of the scene—but if you add vignettes, make them subtle subtle SUBTLE. (Most people do not know how many vignettes they see in a regular production. They are, in fact, practically completely invisible until you look for them. They are a darkened or blurred ring around the edges of the frame that direct the eye towards the center. Many lenses create an automatic vignette effect, which is why vignettes are known to create a “photographic feel”).
A popular plug-in for Final Cut Pro and After Effects is Magic Bullet Looks, which automatically adds color correction and digital filters to shots. It is unfortunately popular enough that now it’s quite overused, but nevertheless it is a very effective tool. Again, I say this as a user, not a salesman, of Looks.
And, well, though it’s not the job of an editor to do this, a low to no budget independent filmmaker would do well to learn a bit of graphic design to create DVD prints and case slipcovers to make their final hard media copies look more pleasant. As someone who has both sent gel pen inked DVD-Rs to festivals and received them for festivals I’ve worked, and I can tell you that if they get accepted at all, it is because all the prettily packaged stuff has already been exhausted and the festival is quite small and open-minded about such things. Yet again it’s more popular to complain about marketing and packaging than it is to think about how to use it to one’s advantage, but a good eye for graphic design will help your work feel more complete—even psychologically, for yourself, it is nice to have a pretty DVD on your case next to all those Criterions you own, than a pile of loose DVD-Rs slowly getting scratched, abused, and forgotten.
As if It’s Ever Over
I have not even scratched the surface of what to think about and what is possible for post-production and editing. Frankly, it’s a crazy world out there, and most people specialize as oppose to generalize. For your purposes, the idea is more to plan forward and learn how to make movies, than it is to say, become a professional editor.
The last tidbit of information I have for you is a bit of a warning. You can get lost in post-production forever, simply because of all of the options you create for yourself. Sometimes it’s less important to find “the best shot” and compare against all of the other options, than to find the shot that “works” and move on. I can, and have, tooled around with the same twenty second sequence for sixteen hours before falling asleep on my keyboard and waking up to realize my first cut was best. And I have rushed a cut only for a coworker to point out that I missed half the scene. So, you have to focus on workflow as regards yourself and your mental health as well.
Open call out for subjects, what do you want me to talk about next?
(Keeping in mind that I don’t know everything, and am still a beginner too).
Excellent post, as usual DiB!
Extremely useful post, thanks DiB! Hmm, can’t think of any suggestions for what you could talk about next
I do have a recommendation to give though, if people can’t afford C4D/3DSMax etc they should look into blender, which is a free open source 3d program, you can use it for VFX, animation and all that, and it’s of professional caliber, It’s been used for some tv shows and indie films. Here’s an example of a no-budget film that used blender:
It’ll take a pretty long time to learn though
I have indeed seen many great things come from Blender.
Great to know it has your seal of approval
Could you perhaps do something on the legal side of filmmaking like copyrights etc? Stuff like using music, how to get/whether it matters to get permission to shoot somewhere, mentioning brand names and companies (for example featuring playstations in your film)
Or how to properly direct actors.
I’ll ask a friend of mine who has studied copyright law if there is something we may work out together.
Your best bet as a low/no budget filmmaker, honestly, is to not use music except that which is recorded specifically for your production. There is actually three good reasons for that: 1) you never have to worry about legal permissions, 2) most beginning filmmakers who use non-original music do so poorly, it is better to focus on learning one’s own voice without using the crutch of another, and 3) there are many musicians out there really wanting a project like helping with a film score, even for free.
I do have a fair bit to say about location shooting. Your best bet is to try to find the owner and simply ask permission. If it’s a public property, honestly just start shooting, and if the police come by or something, I’ve always gotten away with an innocent, “Oh I had no idea officer, how could I get permission officer, I’m sorry officer, wow I didn’t know it’d be a problem officer.”
Aha. Playstations. I know what you’re thinking about!
Call it a “game station” and stack the boxes/logos that feature the Playstation titles, icons, and assorted representations upside down. No really. I’ll double check on this but that’s what my Hollywood professional coworker was telling my boss when my boss was asking about possible use of Kellogg’s logo. Apparently, it’s quite common practice and just is not noticed that often because the logos are almost always in the background.
I’ll look out for my intellectual rights lawyer friend and see if I cannot get some follow-up information. Probably not enough for an individual post but there you go.
Edit: Oh, and as for “how to properly direct actors”, the jury’s out and the judge is more than intoxicated. Mostly you have to develop communication skills, a vague concept which means your best bet is to anticipate the types of questions they’ll ask and have the most direct, straightforward answers. Thus, you must know the characters you are directing for as well as the actors can, and let them interpret from there. Whereas the whole “What’s my motivation?” is a cliche, it’s still useful: be able to know what the characters are supposed to be struggling with and thinking through at any given time.
Music and copyright would be a great subject, I’m perplexed about that myself. Or if you don’t want to talk about it in detail, a link or two would be great!
Edit — DiB — we need to get a gathering of those composers on Mubi. Outside of that, where do you find these composers who would be interesting in writing music for your work?
Thanks DiB, I’ll keep all that in mind
Odilonvert – they usually post on boards offering their services, Like here for example, as you can see there are many that are willing to do it for free
Okay, I e-mailed my friend. He may not answer if he’s busy, but I’ll keep an eye out for information on it.
Cool – thanks, Roboko! :)
“where do you find these composers who would be interesting (sic) in writing music for your work?”
Throw a rock in a bar…
But in all seriousness, do any of you out there NOT know somebody who is trying to be a professional musician in some way or another? It would be very surprising to me if you don’t know somebody who has that goal, or at least loves to do artsy music projects on their free time.
If not, well…. CraigsList.
I know people who are professional musicans but are not interested in composing.
So the two do not necessarily go together…
Edit — that was a funny slip! I must have been thinking of interesting composers… ha!
It’s all in how you frame it.
“Would you like to compose music for my movie?”
“Would you like to collaborate on this video I am making?”
I for one am in no way trying to be a professional musician. I have neither the skill nor the inclination to do so.
Great work on this post, PolarisDiB.
I would take the second option, re: collaboration. That implies more of a give and take, rather than someone fitting something to your completed something.
my friend has responded to my e-mail and says that he’ll give some basic advice. The thing is, the advice he is going to give cannot be construed as legal help and that should be acknowledged in advance—also, I owe him one mightily for this, so there’s that.
What he did tell me, and what a brief personal check of no real depth showed me as well, is that Intellectual Property law is a monster. So there’s probably no easy answer. We’ll work out what this means for your short, but there’s no way I’m touching it for a 30MFS. My advice to beginning filmmakers is to avoid using other people’s materials entirely, until you can afford legal representation as part of the budget.
At least as far as I have found…
With music, don’t bother. The courts recently ruled that remixing photographic materials (i.e. movies) fell under “fair use” in America but I won’t venture to guess for Commonwealth countries. Music however is another story, using someone else’s music in your movie without permission is still illegal (even if you remix it). Some musicians like Mobi for example have given the rights to their music to film and other schools for use in movies, however.
Take a look at the Internet Archive for a long list of music that is in the (American) public domain: http://www.archive.org
They have a number of movies, too. Kurosawa was about to fall into the public domain in Japan a few years back but they recently changed the law.
Thanks for these links! It’s weird that you can quote from books and acknowledge an author, or reprint passages with acknowledgement to the author, but music — forget about it. I don’t understand that.
For music use creative commons, archive, or mobygratis.
Polaris, do you know anything about blocking actors?
Hmmm, blocking and staging diagrams. Hrm hrm hrm….
“The courts recently ruled that remixing photographic materials (i.e. movies) fell under “fair use” in America”
Please cite or source this for clarification, as I am sure there are subclauses etc. making it more… interesting. I highly doubt, for instance, that one could get a print of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, re-edit it as one chooses, and present it as their own movie.
“I highly doubt, for instance, that one could get a print of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, re-edit it as one chooses, and present it as their own movie.”
No, you can’t. You’re allowed to use clips (for example) in documentary film or for news reporting or for parody. Try this link. If you were to use the OST from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 in your movies, you would be doing so illegally (unless it was a documentary or for parody). It also makes a difference whether or not the “new” work is commercialized.
Section 107 of the Copright Act – 17 U.S.C. § 107 states:
“Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include— (1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes; (2) the nature of the copyrighted work; (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and (4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work. The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.”
Again, this is only in the US. The law is very different in Commonwealth countries.
Here is a link to an article on the recent Salinger/Colting case.
Cheers Polaris, you didn’t have to go to all that effort. Yeah it does seem infinitely complicated