Are we there yet?

The filmmaker’s guide to budgeting post

 

I’m often asked, “How much does it cost to produce a film?” That’s like asking, “How much does it cost to make a car?” You can’t answer that without a lot of specifics. Instead, I’m going to address the issue of posting a film in terms of time, since time is money. It has been said that posting a film is like having a baby – about 9 months. Others advise that a film is never finished – merely abandoned. There’s truth in both statements, but I’d like to break it down in detail. When I managed post facilities, one of my tasks was to budget the post for TV series and feature films for our clients. This has helped me develop some useful guidelines.

 

The estimates I’ve worked up are based on posting half-hour, single-camera film-style, dramatic television series. This formula will also apply to most small budget films without extensive visual effects. In other words, a film like Garden State and not like The Dark Knight. In half-hour shows, you’re producing about 20-22 minutes of content and delivering a show a week. Each episode is shot in a week, the cut is locked in the second and audio editing/mixing and the finishing happens in the third. Typically, two or three editors alternate episodes, but the rest of the post crew, like the audio editors, are turning around a new show each and every week. Based on this experience, here are some guidelines for posting the basic 100-minute, small-budget, feature film.

 

Telecine

 

Most films are still shot on FILM, so there’s a telecine (film-to-tape transfer) process involved. Most shoots generate about an hour of raw footage a day, which is processed overnight and transferred the next day. This is either a “one-light” (one setting for the whole reel based on a reference film) or “best light” (colorist provides some overall, but minimal, subjective adjustment to the scenes) transfer. If the budget permits, the colorist will also sync double-system sound, so that the dailies reels have sync sound and picture. Depending on these various factors, dailies transfers take between 1.5 and 4 times the running length of the footage. If you are shooting in the same town as the lab and transfer facilities, you’ll see dailies on videotape or DVD in time for lunch the day after the shoot. If it’s not in the same town, then figure at least 48 hours later.

 

This process is reduced or eliminated when you shoot with an F900 or VariCam, but not if you shoot with the RED One. The workflow of dealing with camera raw digital images is a lot like shooting film. Prepping dailies and getting footage ready for the editor follows similar steps, such as a “best light” correction and rendering to an editable format. This rendering varies with the software and the processing horsepower, but figure 6-to-1 or higher. Assuming an hour of content a day, do-it-yourselfers will need to budget a separate, dedicated workstation simply to turn around RED files for the editor.

 

Editing

 

The editing process involves three phases – the editor’s first cut, the director’s cut and the locked cut. On many films, the editor is cutting during the actual production, working a few days behind any given point in the script. This lets the editor flag story and continuity issues early, when it’s easy to shoot additional coverage. The disadvantage to this approach is that the editor and any assistants are on the payroll for the entire 30-60 day shooting schedule and must be moved and housed as part of any crew location move.

 

The alternative is for the editor to come on board when all the production is completed and start with a fresh, objective point-of-view. In either case, the editor’s goal is to construct a film based on the scripted story and the coverage that was shot. You have to be faithful to the script and the director’s initial instincts. Good editors will do the best job they can at this point to create a tight, polished first cut. Using my half-hour TV show yardstick, the first cut of a 2-hour-long film can often be delivered in about 5 weeks. If you have a 5-hour-long first cut, it also means more footage to wade through. Getting to a first cut is going to take that much longer. If the editor has been cutting during the production, then he or she may be ready to show a first cut as early as a few weeks after the end of filming.

 

Next comes the director’s cut. Most directors will give an editor the space needed to get to a first cut and then sit in daily to get to the director’s cut. DGA rules dictate the right to take up to 10 weeks for the director’s cut. Some directors will take this and others won’t. It all depends on how much “help” a film needs during editing to make it better. If the producers are generally happy with the director’s cut, then the editing is more or less finished, except for some final polishing.

 

If the producers hate the director’s cut, or it’s much longer than the producers want to market, or focus group screenings point out some problems, then more editing takes place to get to the locked cut. It’s impossible to predict how long that will take and tends to vary with the size of the “committee” that’s involved. Editing a feature can take anywhere between 8 weeks and 12 months, but for most small indies, budgeting 12-16 weeks (for a locked cut) is a pretty safe estimate.

 

Audio

 

In the age of project studios, audio post on a film is vastly underestimated. A great picture will be dragged down by a mediocre track, but a great track will often help overcome visual problems, such as substandard image quality. Audio post consists of ADR (automatic dialogue replacement or “looping”), dialogue editing, “group loops”, sound effects editing, Foley sound effects recording, the music score and the final mix. Audio post normally starts with a “spotting session” after the cut is locked. Here, the producers, director and editor meet with the audio department and review the film from top to bottom, for the sole purpose of identifying specific sound requirements. Notes are generated that become the template for the next several weeks of work for the sound designers and audio editors.

 

ADR is used to re-record poor quality location dialogue lines. If the location wasn’t a challenging environment and the mixer was doing a good job, ADR will be minimal. Often ADR is done on location, but if not, it’s generally booked and recorded in a studio during post. It can be done before or after the cut is locked. A good rule of thumb is to budget about 10 days for all the actors in the film. The key to successful ADR is obviously lip-sync, but also matching the mics and sound quality of the actor’s lines when they were originally delivered on location.

 

“Group loops” – also called crowd “walla” – are recordings of a murmuring crowd. This can be kids in a school lunch room, soldiers in battle, background office voices or any other scene requiring the ambience of human background voices. It’s generally recorded in a studio and can usually be knocked out in a day. Sometimes these sounds are made up of nonsense words, but other times, there are specifics, like a PA announcement: “paging Dr. Smith, paging Dr. Smith…”

 

Dialogue editing is required to take the audio from the creative cut and get it ready for a mix. The dialogue editor will make sure all audio edits are smooth. Depending on the quality of the audio coming from the picture editor and the budget, the dialogue editor may go back to the original sound recordings and reload and sync those to maintain the best quality. Dialogue editors will also add ambiences and room tone recorded on location to help hide any mismatches between takes.

 

One big task is to split out all of the audio. This means that the voice for each character in a scene is isolated and moved to an individual track. This facilitates mixing, because the re-recording mixer might choose to equalize one voice differently than the others. The dialogue editor might start with 2 tracks of dialogue and end up delivering 8 to 24 tracks of dialogue for the final mix. In general, dialogue editing takes about 4-5 weeks for a 100 minute feature.

 

Sound effects editing or sound design is what makes a film like Stars Wars, Apocalypse Now or Wall-E. The obvious part is enhancing any practical sounds from the actual location recording that weren’t sufficiently dramatic. Some are obvious, like car explosions, but others are more subtle – like the lapping of water on the side of a canoe. Sound editors use real location recordings, stock sound effects libraries and even unusual items to fill out a soundtrack. In the case of sci-fi and horrors films, unusually-generated sounds are the norm. For example, the drone in the labs, the zaps of a superhero and so on. Like dialogue editing, sound effects editing / sound design takes about 4-5 weeks as well.

 

Foley sound effects recording is often a two-person process, requiring a recording engineer / audio editor and a Foley “walker” or “artist”. Foley is the art of having humans create live sound effects in sync with the picture. Foley can overlap with the other sound design being done on the film, so it has to be made clear during the spotting session where the division of labor occurs. The obvious Foley examples are footsteps in a scene, or punches to a body in a fight, but others may include the rustle of clothing, a kiss or a drink being sipped. If your film is going international, then the Foley crew has to create extra sound effects that already exist from the location recording. This would be the case if those sounds were recorded under dialogue lines and would be lost when foreign language dialogue is added to replace the domestic dialogue tracks. A good Foley team (artist and editor) can cover all the Foley needed for a film in about 3 weeks.

 

The musical score can be the most memorable part of a film. This task falls to the composer, who will create an original score – or in some cases a music editor, when the score is made up of commercial recordings. The composer might be involved from the beginning or may step in once the cut is locked. Under the best of circumstances, a composer will deliver a complete score that is locked to picture and simply has to be placed and mixed. The worst case is when audio is delivered in various pieces and song elements and a sound editor has to edit and place these into the scenes. Assuming that the composer you pick uses his own project studio and doesn’t have to book a symphony orchestra, then you can expect about the same 4-5 week schedule as the other audio segments.

 

The mix is where it all comes together. In most films, each of the audio steps I’ve outlined are performed by different people. The benefit from this parallel processing is that, hopefully, 6 weeks after you’ve locked the cut, your film is ready to mix. Presumably during that time, the director and producers have heard, adjusted and approved the various sound elements (dialogue, effects, score), so that nothing will be a surprise when these are heard in the mix. The mix stage (also called the dubbing stage or re-recording stage) is there to blend and balance, not to make editorial changes. Of course, that DOES happen, so make sure that the mix stage you use allows for quick tweaks.

 

Modern mixing is often done inside a workstation, like Pro Tools. The best of all worlds, however, is to have a Pro Tools-equipped mixing stage with the outputs of one or more workstations feeding a larger automated mixing console, such as a Digidesign ICON. Each portion of the soundtrack – dialogue, sound effects, music – can take up 24 or more tracks. It’s very easy to see how a film mixing console might need to accommodate over 100 individual tracks of sound elements. Most mixes are manned by 2 or 3 re-recording mixers, with the person responsible for the dialogue tracks taking the role of the lead mixer. A 3-mixer crew used to be the norm; however, mixes can be done by only one person, as well. Most modern rooms typically use 2 mixers. Television mixers can generally do a half-hour show in a day or two, so figure a couple of days per reel (20 minutes) for an indie feature. By this measure, you should estimate at least two weeks for the final mix. If there are other versions, like surround versus stereo, or “sanitized” dialogue versus R-rated, then budget at least three weeks of time.

 

Finishing

 

When we left our picture, the cut had been locked, but that doesn’t mean it’s ready to deliver. During the time all the audio work is going on, you will also be finishing the picture portion of the film. Hopefully, this will all be done in time for the mix, which would allow you to mix to the real, final image. There are many steps in traditional film finishing (negative cutting, opticals, etc.) that I won’t cover here. Odds are these will take a bit longer than the time budgeted for sound. If you are doing a video finish or a DI, then the process is faster.

 

If you shot film, then high-quality transfers have to be made, either to videotape (HDCAM-SR, HD-D5) or as scanned files (2K, 4K DPX). This will take at least a week from selected footage. This footage will be ingested or loaded into a DI system and matched (conformed) to a reference of your locked cut. Again this process also takes about a week to load, check and adjust each shot. If you shot with an HD camera, like an F900, then the week of transfer/scanning can be skipped, but if you shot with a RED One, simply replace the film workflow with the camera raw workflow associated with RED.

 

Within the finishing system – which could be an NLE, like Avid, FCP, Smoke, Quantel – or a DI system, like Scratch, Nucoda, daVinci, etc. – you will handle color grading and versioning. Budget about a week of color grading and another week of rendering and exports. A simple film shot with an F900 could be banged out in a total of one week if you’re doing all the grading inside FCP or Avid, but don’t cut yourself short at the budgeting stage.

 

Hopefully, I’ve illuminated some of the pieces to the puzzle. Remember that the budget doesn’t end when the shooting wraps. You must have time and money left over to complete the project. Money is negotiable and you can often cut great deals that help you deliver a lot of quality on the screen. You can work the price, but don’t cut yourself short on time. Time equals quality more so than money!

 

©2008 Oliver Peters