Bricklayers and Sculptors

One of the livelier hangouts on the internet for editors to kick around their thoughts is the Creative COW’s Apple Final Cut Pro X Debates forum. Part forum, part bar room brawl, it started as a place to discuss the relative merits (or not) of Apple’s FCP X. As such, the COW’s bosses allow a bit more latitude than in other forums. However, often threads derail into really thoughtful discussions about editing concepts.

Recently one of its frequent contributors, Simon Ubsdell, posted a thread called Bricklayers and Sculptors. In his words, “There are two different types of editors: Those who lay one shot after another like a bricklayer builds a wall. And those who discover the shape of their film by sculpting the raw material like a sculptor works with clay. These processes are not the same. There is no continuum that links these two approaches. They are diametrically opposed.”

Simon Ubsdell is the creative director, partner, and editor/mixer for London-based trailer shop Tokyo Productions. Ubsdell is also an experienced plug-in developer, having developed and/or co-developed the TKY, Tokyo, and Hawaiki effects plug-ins. But beyond that, Simon is one of the folks with whom I often have e-mail discussions regarding the state of editing today. We were both early adopters of FCP X who have since shifted almost completely to Adobe Premiere Pro. In keeping with the theme of his forum post, I asked him to share his ideas about how to organize an edit.

With Simon’s permission, the following are his thoughts on how best to organize editing projects in a way that keeps you immersed in the material and results in editing with greater assurance that you’ve make the best possible edit decisions.

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Simon Ubsdell – Bricklayers and Sculptors in practical terms

To avoid getting too general about this, let me describe a job I did this week. The producer came to us with a documentary that’s still shooting and only roughly “edited” into a very loose assembly – it’s the stories of five different women that will eventually be interweaved, but that hasn’t happened yet. As I say, extremely rough and unformed.

I grabbed all the source material and put it on a timeline. That showed me at a glance that there was about four hours of it in total. I put in markers to show where each woman’s material started and ended, which allowed me to see how much material I had for each of them. If I ever needed to go back to “everything”, it would make searching easier. (Not an essential step by any means.)

I duplicated that sequence five times to make sequences of all the material for each woman. Then I made duplicates of those duplicates and began removing everything I didn’t want. (At this point I am only looking for dialogue and “key sound”, not pictures which I will pick up in a separate set of passes.)

Working subtractively

From this point on I am working almost exclusively subtractively. A lot of people approach string-outs by adding clips from the browser – but here all my clips are already on the timeline and I am taking away anything I don’t want. This is for me the key part of the process because each edit is not a rough approximation, but a very precise “topping and tailing” of what I want to use. If you’re “editing in the Browser” (or in Bins), you’re simply not going to be making the kind of frame accurate edits that I am making every single time with this method.

The point to grasp here is that instead of “making bricks” for use later on, I am already editing in the strictest sense – making cuts that will stand up later on. I don’t have to select and then trim – I am doing both operations at the same time. I have my editing hat on, not an organizing hat. I am focused on a timeline that is going to form the basis of the final edit. I am already thinking editorially (in the sense of creative timeline-based editing) and not wasting any time merely thinking organizationally.

I should mention here that this is an iterative process – not just one pass through the material, but several. At certain points I will keep duplicates as I start to work on shorter versions. I won’t generally keep that many duplicates – usually just an intermediate “long version”, which has lost all the material I definitely don’t want. And by “definitely don’t want” I’m not talking about heads and tails that everybody throws away where the camera is being turned on or off or the crew are in shot – I am already making deep, fine-grained editorial and editing decisions that will be of immense value later on. I’m going straight to the edit point that I know I’ll want for my finished show. It’s not a provisional edit point – it’s a genuine editorial choice. From this point of view, the process of rejecting slates and tails is entirely irrelevant and pointless – a whole process that I sidestep entirely. I am cutting from one bit that I want to keep directly to the next bit I want to keep and I am doing so with fine-tuned precision. And because I am working subtractively I am actually incorporating several edit decisions in one – in other words, with one delete step I am both removing the tail from the outgoing clip and setting the start of the next clip.

Feeling the pacing and flow

Another key element here is that I can see how one clip flows into another – even if I am not going to be using those two clips side-by-side. I can already get a feel for the pacing. I can also start to see what might go where, so as part of this phase, I am moving things around as options start suggesting themselves. Because I am working in the timeline with actual edited material, those options present themselves very naturally – I’m getting offered creative choices for free. I can’t stress too strongly how relevant this part is. If I were simply sorting through material in a Browser/Bin, this process would not be happening or at least not happening in anything like the same way. The ability to reorder clips as the thought occurs to me and for this to be an actual editorial decision on a timeline is an incredibly useful thing and again a great timesaver. I don’t have to think about editorial decisions twice.

And another major benefit that is simply not available to Browser/Bin-based methods, is that I am constructing editorial chunks as I go. I’m taking this section from Clip A and putting it side-by-side with this other section from Clip A, which may come from earlier in the actual source, and perhaps adding a section from Clip B to the end and something from Clip C to the front. I am forming editorial units as I work through the material. And these are units that I can later use wholesale.

Another interesting spin-off is that I can very quickly spot “duplicate material”, by which I mean instances where the same information or sentiment is conveyed in more or less the same terms at different places in the source material. Because I am reviewing all of this on the timeline and because I am doing so iteratively, I can very quickly form an opinion as to which of the “duplicates” I want to use in my final edit.

Working towards the delivery target

Let’s step back and look at a further benefit of this method. Whatever your final film is, it will have the length that it needs to be – unless you’re Andy Warhol. You’re delivering a documentary for broadcast or theatrical distribution, or a short form promo or a trailer or TV spot. In each case you have a rough idea of what final length you need to arrive at. In my case, I knew that the piece needed to be around three minutes long. And that, of course, throws up a very obvious piece of arithmetic that it helps me to know. I had five stories to fit into those three minutes, which meant that the absolute maximum of dialogue that I would need would be just over 30 seconds from each story!  The best way of getting to those 30 seconds is obviously subtractively.

I know I need to get my timeline of each story down to something approaching this length. Because I’m not simply topping and tailing clips in the Browser, but actually sculpting them on the timeline (and forming them into editorial units, as described above), I can keep a very close eye on how this is coming along for each story strand. I have a continuous read-out of how well I am getting on with reducing the material down to the target length. By contrast, if I approach my final edit with 30 minutes of loosely selected source material to juggle, I’m going to spend a lot more time on editorial decisions that I could have successfully made earlier.

So the final stage of the process in this case was simply to combine and rearrange the pre-edited timelines into a final timeline – a process that is now incredibly fast and a lot of fun. I’ve narrowed the range of choices right down to the necessary minimum. A great deal of the editing has literally already been done, because I’ve been editing from the very first moment that I laid all the material on the original timeline containing all the source material for the project.

As you can see, the process has been essentially entirely subtractive throughout – a gradual whittling down of the four hours to something closer to three minutes. This is not to say there won’t be additive parts to the overall edit. Of course, I added music, SFX, and graphics, but from the perspective of the process as a whole, this is addition at the most trivial level.

Learning to tell the story in pictures

There is another layer of addition that I have left out and that’s what happens with the pictures. So far I’ve only mentioned what is happening with what is sometimes called the “radio edit”. In my case, I will perform the exact same (sometimes iterative) process of subtracting the shots I want to keep from the entirety of the source material – again, this is obviously happening on a timeline or timelines. The real delight of this method is to review all the “pictures” without reference to the sound, because in doing so you can get a real insight into how the story can be told pictorially. I will often review the pictures having very, very roughly laid up some of the music tracks that I have planned on using. It’s amazing how this lets you gauge both whether your music suits the material and conversely whether the pictures are the right ones for the way you are planning to tell the story.

This brings to me a key point I would make about how I personally work with this method and that’s that I plunge in and experiment even at the early stages of the project. For me, the key thing is to start to get a feel for how it’s all going to come together. This loose experimentation is a great way of approaching that. At some point in the experimentation something clicks and you can see the whole shape or at the very least get a feeling for what it’s all going to look like. The sooner that click happens, the better you can work, because now you are not simply randomly sorting material, you are working towards a picture you have in your head. For me, that’s the biggest benefit of working in the timeline from the very beginning. You’re getting immersed in the shape of the material rather than just its content and the immersion is what sparks the ideas. I’m not invoking some magical thinking here – I’m just talking about a method that’s proven itself time and time again to be the best and fastest way to unlock the doors of the edit.

Another benefit is that although one would expect this method to make it harder to collaborate, in fact the reverse is the case if each editor is conversant with the technique. You’re handing over vastly more useful creative edit information with this process than you could by any other means. What you’re effectively doing is “showing your workings” and not just handing over some versions. It means that the editor taking over from you can easily backtrack through your work and find new stuff and see the ideas that you didn’t end up including in the version(s) that you handed over. It’s an incredibly fast way for the new editor to get up to speed with the project without having to start from scratch by acquainting him or herself with where the useful material can be found.

Even on a more conventional level, I personally would far rather receive string-outs of selects than all the most carefully organized Browser/Bin info you care to throw at me. Obviously if I’m cutting a feature, I want to be able to find 323T14 instantly, but beyond that most basic level, I have no interest in digging through bins or keyword collections or whatever else you might be using, as that’s just going to slow me down.

Freeing yourself of the Browser/Bins

Another observation about this method is how it relates to the NLE interface. When I’m working with my string-outs, which is essentially 90% of the time, I am not ever looking at the Browser/Bins. Accordingly, in Premiere Pro or Final Cut Pro X, I can fully close down the Project/Browser windows/panes and avail myself of the extra screen real estate that gives me, which is not inconsiderable. The consequence of that is to make the timeline experience even more immersive and that’s exactly what I want. I want to be immersed in the details of what I’m doing in the timeline and I have no interest in any other distractions. Conversely, having to keep going back to Bins/Browser means shifting the focus of attention away from my work and breaking the all-important “flow” factor. I just don’t want any distractions from the fundamentally crucial process of moving from one clip to another in a timeline context. As soon as I am dragged away from that, there’s is a discontinuity in what I am doing.

The edit comes to shape organically

I find that there comes a point, if you work this way, when the subsequence you are working on organically starts to take on the shape of the finished edit and it’s something that happens without you having to consciously make it happen. It’s the method doing the work for you. This means that I never find myself starting a fresh sequence and adding to it from the subsequences and I think that has huge advantages. It reinforces my point that you are editing from the very first moment when you lay all your source material onto one timeline. That process leads without pause or interruption to the final edit through the gradual iterative subtraction.

I talked about how the iterative sifting process lets you see “duplicates”, that’s to say instances where the same idea is repeated in an alternative form – and that it helps you make the choice between the different options. Another aspect of this is that it helps you to identify what is strong and what is not so strong. If I were cutting corporates or skate videos this might be different, but for what I do, I need to be able to isolate the key “moments” in my material and find ways to promote those and make them work as powerfully as possible.

In a completely literal sense, when you’re cutting promos and trailers, you want to create an emotional, visceral connection to the material in the audience. You want to make them laugh or cry, you want to make them hold their breath in anticipation, or gasp in astonishment. You need to know how to craft the moments that will elicit the response you are looking for. I find that this method really helps me identify where those moments are going to come from and how to structure everything around them so as to build them as strongly as possible. The iterative sifting method means you can be very sure of what to go for and in what context it’s going to work the best. In other words, I keep coming back to the realization that this method is doing a lot of the creative work for you in a way that simply won’t happen with the alternatives. Even setting aside the manifest efficiency, it would be worth it for this alone.

There’s a huge amount more that I could say about this process, but I’ll leave it there for now. I’m not saying this method works equally well for all types of projects. It’s perhaps less suited to scripted drama, for instance, but even there it can work effectively with certain modifications. Like every method, every editor wants to tweak it to their own taste and inclinations. The one thing I have found to its advantage above all others is that it almost entirely circumvents the problem of “what shot do I lay down next?” Time and again I’ve seen Browser/Bin-focused editors get stuck in exactly this way and it can be a very real block.

– Simon Ubsdell

For an expanded version of this concept, check out Simon’s in-depth article at Creative COW. Click here to link.

For more creative editing tips, click on this link for Film Editor Techniques.

©2017 Oliver Peters

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Tips for Production Success – Part 2

df2015_prodtips_2_smPicking up from my last post (part 1), here are 10 more tips to help you plan for a successful production.

Create a plan and work it. Being a successful filmmaker – that is, making a living at it – is more than just producing a single film. Such projects almost never go beyond the festival circuit, even if you do think it is the “great American film”. An indie producer may work on a project for about four years, from the time they start planning and raising the funds – through production and post – until real distribution starts. Therefore, the better approach is to start small and work your way up. Start with a manageable project or film with a modest budget and then get it done on time and in budget. If that’s a success, then start the next one – a bit bigger and more ambitious. If it works, rinse and repeat. If you can make that work, then you can call yourself a filmmaker.

Budget. I have a whole post on this subject, but in a nutshell, an indie film that doesn’t involve union talent or big special effects will likely cost close to one million dollars, all in. You can certainly get by on less. I’ve cut films that were produced for under $150,000 and one even under $50,000, but that means calling in a lot of favors and having many folks working for free or on deferment. You can pull that off one time, but it’s not a way to build a business, because you can’t go back to those same resources and ask to do it a second time. Learn how to raise the money to do it right and proceed from there.

Contingencies at the end. Intelligent budgeting means leaving a bit for the end. A number of films that I’ve cut had to do reshoots or spend extra days to shoot more inserts, establishing shots, etc. Plan for this to happen and make sure you’ve protected these items in the budget. You’ll need them.

Own vs. rent. Some producers see their film projects as a way to buy gear. That may or may not make sense. If you need a camera and can otherwise make money with it, then buy it. Or if you can buy it, use it, and then resell it to come out ahead – by all means follow that path. But if gear ownership is not your thing and if you have no other production plans for the gear after that one project, then it will most likely be a better deal to work out rentals. After all, you’re still going to need a lot of extras to round out the package.

Shooting ratios. In the early 90s I worked on the post of five half-hour and hourlong episodic TV series that were shot on 35mm film. Back then shooting ratios were pretty tight. A half-hour episode is about 20-22 minutes of content, excluding commercials, bumpers, open, and credits. An hourlong episode is about 44-46 minutes of program content. Depending on the production, these were shot in three to five days and exposed between 36,000 and 50,000 feet of negative. Therefore, a typical day meant 50-60 minutes of transferred “dailies” to edit from – or no more than five hours of source footage, depending on the series. This would put them close to the ideal mark (on average) of approximately a 10:1 shooting ratio.

Today, digital cameras make life easier and with the propensity to shoot two or more cameras on a regular basis, this means the same projects today might have conservatively generated more than 10 hours of source footage for each episode. This impacts post tremendously – especially if deadline is a factor. As a new producer, you should strive to control these ratios and stay within the goal of a 10:1 ratio (or lower).

Block and rehearse. The more a scene is buttoned down, the fewer takes you’ll need, which leads to a tighter shooting ratio. This means rehearse a scene and make sure the camera work is properly blocked. Don’t wing it! Once everything is ready, shoot it. Odds are you’ll get it in two to three takes instead of the five or more that might otherwise be required.

Control the actors. Unless there’s a valid reason to let your actors improvise, make sure the acting is consistent. That is, lines are read in the same order each take, props are handled at the same point, and actors consistently hit their marks each take. If you stray from that discipline, the editorial time becomes longer. If allowed to engage in too much freewheeling improvisation, actors may inadvertently paint you into a corner. To avoid that outcome, control it from the start.

Visual effects planning. Most films don’t require special effects, but there are often “invisible” fixes that can be created through visual effects. For example, combining elements of two takes or adding items to a set. A recent romantic drama I post-supervised used 76 effects shots of one type or another. If this is something that helps the project, make sure to plan for it from the outset. Adobe After Effects is the ubiquitous tool that makes such effects affordable. The results are great and there are plenty of talented designers who can assist you within almost any budget range.

Multiple cameras vs. single camera vs. 4K. Some producers like the idea of shooting interviews (especially two-shots) in 4K (for a 1080 finish) and then slice out the frame they want. I contend that often 4K presents focus issues, due to the larger sensors used in these cameras. In addition, the optics of slicing a region out of a 4K image are different than using another camera or zooming in to reframe the shot. As a result, the look that you get isn’t “quite right”. Naturally, it also adds one more component that the editor has to deal with – reframing each and every shot.

Conversely, when shooting a locked-off interview with one person on-camera, using two cameras makes the edit ideal. One camera might be placed face-on towards the speaker and the other from a side angle. This makes cutting between the camera angles visually more exciting and makes editing without visible jump cuts easier.

In dramatic productions, many new directors want to emulate the “big boys” and also shoot with two or more cameras for every scene. Unfortunately this isn’t always productive, because the lighting is compromised, one camera is often in an awkward position with poor framing, or even worse, often the main camera blocks the secondary camera. At best, you might get 25% usability out of this second camera. A better plan is to shoot in a traditional single-camera style. Move the camera around for different angles. Tweak the lighting to optimize the look and run the scene again for that view.

The script is too long. An indie film script is generally around 100 pages with 95-120 scenes. The film gets shot in 20-30 days and takes about 10-15 weeks to edit. If your script is inordinately long and takes many more days to shoot, then it will also take many more days to edit. The result will usually be a cut that is too long. The acceptable “standard” for most films is 90-100 minutes. If you clock in at three hours, then obviously a lot of slashing has to occur. You can lose 10-15% (maybe) through trimming the fat, but a reduction of 25-40% (or more) means you are cutting meat and bone. Scenes have to be lost, the story has to be re-arranged, or even more drastic solutions. A careful reading of the script and conceiving that as a finished concept can head off issues before production ever starts. Losing a scene before you shoot it can save time and money on a large scale. So analyze your script carefully.

Click here for Part 1.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Tips for Production Success – Part 1

df1915_prodtips_1_smThroughout this blog, I’ve written numerous tips about how to produce projects, notably indie features, with a successful outcome in mind. I’ve tried to educate on issues of budget and schedule. In these next two entries, I’d like to tackle 21 tips that will make your productions go more smoothly, finish on time, and not become a disaster during the post production phase. Although I’ve framed the discussion around indie features, the same tips apply to commercials, music videos, corporate presentations, and videos for the web.

Avoid white. Modern digital cameras handle white elements within a shot much better than in the past, but hitting a white shirt with a lot of light complicates your life when it comes to grading and directing the eye of the viewer. This is largely an issue of art direction and wardrobe. The best way to handle this is simply to replace whites with off-whites, bone or beige colors. The sitcom Barney Miller, which earned DP George Spiro Dibie recognition for getting artful looks out of his video cameras, is said to have had the white shirts washed in coffee to darken them a bit. The whiteness was brought back once the cameras were set up. The objective in all of this is to get the overall brightness into a range that is more controllable during color correction and to avoid clipping.

Expose to the right. When you look at a signal on a histogram, the brightest part is on the righthand side of the scale. By pushing your camera’s exposure towards a brighter, slightly over-exposed image (“to the right”), you’ll end up with a better looking image after grading (color correction). That’s because when you have to brighten an image by bringing up highlights or midtones, you are accentuating the sensor noise from the camera. If the image is already brighter and the correction is to lower the levels, then you end up with a cleaner final image. Since most modern digital cameras use some sort of log or hyper gamma encoding to record a flatter signal, which preserves latitude, opening up the exposure usually won’t run the risk of clipping the highlights. In the end, a look that stretches the shadow and mids to expose more detail to the eye gives you a more pleasing and informative image than one that places emphasis on the highlight portion.

Blue vs. green-screen. Productions almost ubiquitously use green paint, but that’s wrong. Each paint color has a different luminance value. Green is brighter and should be reserved for a composite where the talent should appear to be outside. Blue works best when the composited image is inside. Paint matters. The correct paint to use is still the proper version of Ultimatte blue or green paint, but many people try to cut corners on cost. I’ve even had producers go so far as to rig up a silk with a blue lighting wash and expect me to key it! When you light the subject, move them as far away from the wall as possible to avoid contamination of the color onto their hair and wardrobe. This also means, don’t have your talent stand on a green or blue floor, when you aren’t intending to see the floor or see them from their feet to their head.

Rim lighting. Images stand out best when your talent has some rim lighting to separate them from the background. Even in a dark environment, seek to create a lighting scheme that achieves this rimming effect around their head and shoulders.

Tonal art direction. The various “blockbuster” looks are popular – particularly the “orange and teal” look. This style pushes skin tones warm for a slight orange appearance, while many darker background elements pick up green/blue/teal/cyan casts. Although this can be accentuated in grading, it starts with proper art direction in the set design and costuming. Whatever tonal characteristic you want to achieve, start by looking at the art direction and controlling this from step one.

Rec. 709 vs. Log. Digital cameras have nearly all adopted some method of recording an image with a flat gamma profile that is intended to preserve latitude until final grading. This doesn’t mean you have to use this mode. If you have control over your exposure and lighting, there’s nothing wrong with recording Rec. 709 and nailing the final look in-camera. I highly recommend this for “talking head” interviews, especially ones shot on green or blue-screen.

Microphone direction/placement. Every budding recording engineer working in music and film production learns that proper mic placement is critical to good sound. Pay attention to where mics are positioned, relative to where the person is when they speak. For example, if you have two people in an interview situation wearing lavaliere mics on their lapels, the proper placement would be on each’s inner lapel – the side closer to the other person. That’s because each person will turn towards the other to address them as they speak and thus talk over that shoulder. Having the mic on this side means they are speaking into the mic. If it were on their outer lapel, they would be speaking away from the mic and thus the audio would tend to sound hollow. For the same reasons, when you use a boom or fish pole overhead mic, the operator needs to point the mic in the direction of the person talking. They will need to shift the mic’s direction as the conversation moves from one person to the next to follow the sound.

Multiple microphones/iso mics. When recording dialogue for a group of actors, it’s best to record their audio with individual microphones (lavs or overhead booms) and to record each mic on an isolated track. Cameras typically feature on-board recording of two to four audio channels, so if you have more mics than that, use an external multi-channel recorder. When external recording is used, be sure to still record a composite track to your camera for reference.

Microphone types. There are plenty of styles and types of microphones, but the important factors are size, tonal quality, range, and the axis of pick-up. Make sure you select the appropriate mic for the task. For example, if you are recording an actor with a deep bass voice using a lavaliere, you’d be best to use a type that gives you a full spectrum recording, rather than one that favors only the low end.

Sound sync. There are plenty of ways to sync sound to picture in double-system sound situations. Synchronizing by matched timecode is the most ideal, but even there, issues can arise. Assure that the camera’s and sound recorder’s timecode generators don’t drift during the day – or use a single, common, external timecode generator for both. It’s generally best to also include a clapboard and, when possible, also record reference audio to the camera. If you plan to sync by audio waveforms (PluralEyes, FCP X, Premiere Pro CC), then make sure the reference signal on the camera is of sufficient quality to make synchronization possible.

Record wild lines on set. When location audio is difficult to understand, ADR (automatic dialogue replacement, aka “looping”) is required. This happens because the location recording was not of high quality due to outside factors, like special effects, background noise, etc. Not all actors are good at ADR and it’s not uncommon to watch a scene with ADR dialogue and have it jump out at you as the viewer. Since ADR requires extra recording time with the actor, this drives up cost on small films. One workaround in some of these situations is for the production team to recapture the lines separately – immediately after the scene was shot – if the schedule permits. These lines would be recorded wild and may or may not be in sync. The intent is to get the right sonic environment and emotion while you are still there on site. Since these situations are often fast-paced action scenes, sync might not have to be perfect. If close enough, the sound editors can edit the lines into place with an acceptable level of sync so that viewers won’t notice any issues. When it works, it saves ADR time down the road and sounds more realistic.

Click here for Part 2.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Filmmaking Pointers

df_fmpointersIf you want to be a good indie filmmaker, you have to understand some of the basic principles of telling interesting visual stories and driving the audience’s emotions. These six   ideas transcend individual components of filmmaking, like cinematography or editing. Rather, they are concepts that every budding director should understand and weave into the entire structure of how a film is approached.

1. Get into the story quickly. Films are not books and don’t always need a lengthy backstory to establish characters and plot. Films are a journey and it’s best to get the characters on that road as soon as possible. Most scripts are structured as three-act plays, so with a typical 90-100 minute running time, you should be through act one at roughly one third of the way into the film. If not, you’ll lose the interest of the audience. If you are 20 minutes into the film and you are still establishing the history of the characters without having advanced the story, then look for places to start cutting.

Sometimes this isn’t easy to tell and an extended start may indeed work well, because it does advance the story. One example is There Will Be Blood. The first reel is a tour de force of editing, in which editor Dylan Tichenor builds a largely dialogue-free montage that quickly takes the audience through the first part of Daniel Plainview’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) history in order to bring the audience up to the film’s present day. It’s absolutely instrumental to the rest of the film.

2. Parallel story lines. A parallel story structure is a great device to show the audience what’s happening to different characters at different locations, but at more or less the same time. With most scripts, parallel actions are designed to eventually converge as related or often unrelated characters ultimately end up in the same place for a shared plot. An interesting take on this is Cloud Atlas, in which an ensemble cast plays different characters spread across six different eras and locations – past, present and future.

The editing style pulled off by Alexander Berner is quite a bit different than traditional parallel story editing. A set of characters might start a scene in one era. Halfway through the scene – through some type of abrupt cut, such as walking through a door – the characters, location and eras shift to somewhere else. However, the story and the editing are such that you clearly understand how the story continues for the first half of that scene, as well as how it led into the second half. This is all without explicitly shooting those parts of each scene. Scene A/era A informs your understanding of scene B/era B and vice versa.

3. Understand camera movement. When a camera zooms, moves or is used in a shaky, handheld manner, this elicits certain emotions from the audience. As a director or DP, you need to understand when each style is appropriate and when it can be overdone. Zooming into a close-up while an actor delivers a line should be done intentionally. It tells the audience, “Listen up. This is important.” If you shoot handheld footage, like most of the Bourne series, it drives a level of documentary-style, frenetic action that should be in keeping with the concept.

The TV series NYPD Blue is credited with introducing TV audiences to the “shaky-cam” style of camera work. Many pros thought it was overdone, with movement often being introduced in an unmotivated fashion. Yet, the original Law & Order series also made extensive use of handheld photography. As this was more in keeping with a subtle documentary style, few complained about its use on that show.

4. Color palettes and art direction. Many new filmmakers often feel that you can get any look you want through color grading. The reality is that it all starts with art direction. Grading should enhance what’s there, not manufacture something that isn’t. To get that “orange & teal” look, you need to have a set and wardrobe that has some greens and blues in it. To get a warm, earthy look, you need a set and wardrobe with browns and reds.

This even extends to black & white films. To get the right contrast and tonal values in black & white, you often have to use set/wardrobe color choices that are not ideal in a color world. That’s because different colors carry differing luminance and midrange values, which becomes very obvious, once you eliminate the color information from the picture. Make sure you take that into account if you plan to produce a black & white film.

5. Score versus sound design. Music should enhance and underscore a film, but it does not have to be wall-to-wall. Some films, like American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street, are driven by a score of popular tunes. Others are composed with an original score. However, often the “score” consists of sound design elements and simple musical drones designed to heighten tension and otherwise manipulate emotion. The absence of score in a scene can achieve the same effect. Sound effects elements with stark simplicity may have more impact  on the audience than music. Learn when to use one or the other or both. Often less is more.

6. Don’t tell too much story. Not every film requires extensive exposition. As I said at the top, a film is not a book. Visual cues are as important as the spoken word and will often tell the audience a lot more in shorthand, than pages and pages of script. The audience is interested in the journey your film’s characters are on and frequently need very little backstory to get an understanding of the characters. Don’t shy away from shooting enough of that sort of detail, but also don’t be afraid to cut it out, when it becomes superfluous.

©2014 Oliver Peters

Film editing stages – Sound

df_filmsoundeditLike picture editing, the completion of sound for a film also goes through a series of component parts. These normally start after “picture lock” and are performed by a team of sound editors and mixers. On small, indie films, a single sound designer/editor/mixer might cover all of these roles. On larger films, specific tasks are covered by different individuals. Depending on whether it’s one individual or a team, sound post can take anywhere from four weeks to several months to complete.

Location mixing – During original production, the recording of live sound is handled by the location mixer. This is considered mixing, because originally, multiple mics were mixed “on-the-fly” to a single mono or stereo recording device. In modern films with digital location recordings, the mixer tends to record what is really only a mixed reference track for the editors, while simultaneously recording separate tracks of each isolated microphone to be used in the actual post production mix.

ADR – automatic dialogue replacement or “looping”. ADR is the recording of replacement dialogue in sync with the picture. The actors do this while watching their performance on screen. Sometimes this is done during production and sometimes during post. ADR will be used when location audio has technical flaws. Sometimes ADR is also used to record additional dialogue – for instance, when an actor has his or her back turned. ADR can also be used to record “sanitized” dialogue to remove profanity.

Walla or “group loop” – Additional audio is recorded for groups of people. This is usually for background sounds, like guests in a restaurant. The term “walla” comes from the fact that actors were (and often still are) instructed to say “walla, walla, walla” instead of real dialogue. The point is to create a sound effect of a crowd murmuring, without any recognizable dialogue line being heard. You don’t want anything distinctive to stand out above the murmur, other than the lead actors’ dialogue lines.

Dialogue editing – When the film editor (i.e. the picture editor) hands over the locked cut to the sound editors, it generally will include all properly edited dialogue for the scenes. However, this is not prepared for mixing. The dialogue editor will take this cut and break out all individual mic tracks. They will make sure all director’s cues are removed and they will often add room tone and ambience to smooth out the recording. In addition, specific actor mics will be grouped to common tracks so that it is easier to mix and apply specific processing, as needed, for any given character.

Sound effects editing/sound design – Sound effects for a film come from a variety of sources, including live recordings, sound effects libraries and sound synthesizers. Putting this all together is the role of the sound effects editor(s). Because many have elevated the art, by creating very specific senses of place, the term “sound designer” has come into vogue. For example, the villain’s lair might always feature certain sounds that are identifiable with that character – e.g. dripping water, rats squeaking, a distant clock chiming, etc. These become thematic, just like a character’s musical theme. The sound effects editors are the ones that record, find and place such sound effects.

Foley – Foley is the art of live sound effects recording. This is often done by a two-person team consisting of a recordist and a Foley walker, who is the artist physically performing these sounds. It literally IS a performance, because the walker does this in sync to the picture. Examples of Foley include footsteps, clothes rustling, punches in a fight scene and so on. It is usually faster and more appropriate-sounding to record live sound effects than to use library cues from a CD.

In addition to standard sound effects, additional Foley is recorded for international mixes. When an actor deliveries a dialogue line over a sound recorded as part of a scene – a door closing or a cup being set on a table – that sound will naturally be removed when English dialogue is replaced by foreign dialogue in international versions of the film. Therefore, additional sound effects are recorded to fill in these gaps. Having a proper international mix (often called “fully filled”) is usually a deliverable requirement by any distributor.

Music – In an ideal film scenario, a composer creates all the music for a film. He or she is working in parallel with the sound and dialogue editors. Music is usually divided between source cues (e.g. the background songs playing from a jukebox at a bar) and musical score.

Recorded songs may also be used as score elements during montages. Sometimes different musicians, other than the composer, will create songs for source cues or for use in the score. Alternatively, the producers may license affordable recordings from unsigned artists. Rarely is recognizable popular music used, unless the production has a huge budget. It is important that the producers, composer and sound editors communicate with each other, to define whether items like songs are to be treated as a musical element or as a background sound effect.

The best situation is when an experienced film composer delivers all completed music that is timed and synced to picture. The composer may deliver the score in submixed, musical stems (rhythm instruments separated from lead instruments, for instance) for greater control in the mix. However, sometimes it isn’t possible for the composer to provide a finished, ready-to-mix score. In that case, a music editor may get involved, in order to edit and position music to picture as if it were the score.

Laugh tracks – This is usually a part of sitcom TV production and not feature films. When laugh tracks are added, the laughs are usually placed by sound effects editors who specialize in adding laughs. The appropriate laugh tracks are kept separate so they can be added or removed in the final mix and/or as part of any deliverables.

Re-recording mix – Since location recording is called location mixing, the final, post production mix is called a re-recording mix. This is the point at which divergent sound elements – dialogue, ADR, sound effects, Foley and music – all meet and are mixed in sync to the final picture. On a large film, these various elements can easily take up 150 or more tracks and require two or three mixers to man the console. With the introduction of automated systems and the ability to completely mix “in the box”, using a DAW like Pro Tools, smaller films may be mixed by one or two mixers. Typically the lead mixer handles the dialogue tracks and the second and third mixers control sound effects and music. Mixing most feature films takes one to two weeks, plus the time to output various deliverable versions (stereo, surround, international, etc.).

The deliverable requirements for most TV shows and features are to create a so-called composite mix (in several variations), along with separate stems for dialogue, sound effects and music. A stem is a submix of just a group of component items, such as a stereo stem for only dialogue.The combination of the stems should equal the mix. By having stems available, the distributors can easily create foreign versions and trailers.

©2013 Oliver Peters

Film editing stages – Picture

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While budding filmmakers have a good idea of what happens during the production phase of shooting a film, most have little idea about what happens in post. Both picture and sound go through lengthy and separate editorial processes. These often become a rude awakening for new directors when it pertains to the time and budget requirements. These are the basic steps every modern film goes through in getting to the finish line.

First cut – This stage goes by many names – first cut, first assembly, editor’s cut, etc. In general, this is the first version of the fully-assembled film, including all the scenes edited according to the script. Depending on the editor and the post schedule, this cut may be very rough – or it might be a reasonably polished edit. If the editing happens concurrent to the studio and location filming, then often there will be a “first assembly” and a subsequent “editor’s cut”. The former is a quick turnaround version, so that everyone can make sure the coverage is adequate. The latter is a more refined version.

Some productions employ an on-set editor who is the person generating this “first assembly”. That editor is then often replaced by the main film editor, who starts after all production is completed. In that situation, the “editor’s cut” might be completely different in style, pace and technique from the first version. No matter how you get there, the intent of this step is to properly represent the intention of the script without concern for length or solving any content or script challenges.

Director’s cut – Once the editor has completed the first cut of the film, then the director steps in. He or she works with the editor to complete the cut of the film. Directors often deviate from the written scene. Sometimes this is sufficiently communicated to the editor to show up that way in the first cut. Sometimes it isn’t, because it lives in the director’s mind as the production proceeds. During the “director’s cut” phase, the director and editor work closely to adjust the cut to reflect the director’s vision.

Many directors and editors repeatedly work together on films and form a partnership of sorts. In these situation, the editor has a good idea of what the director wants and often the director only needs to give notes and review the cut periodically. Other directors like to be very “hands on” and will work closely with the editor, reviewing every take and making adjustments as needed.

Depending on the film and whether or not the director is DGA (Directors Guild), this stage will take a minimum of 20 days (DGA low budget) or 10 weeks (DGA standard) or longer. The goal is for the director and editor to come up with the best film possible, without interference from outside parties, including the producers. At this point, the film may go through severe changes, including shortening, losing and/or re-arranging scenes and even the addition of new content, like insert shots and new voice-over recordings.

Producer’s cut – After the director has a shot at the film, now it’s time to make adjustments according to studio notes, producer comments and feedback from official and unofficial test screenings. If the director hasn’t yet brought the film into line – both story-wise and length-wise – now is the time to do that. Typically most indie films are targeted at the 90-100 minute range. If your first cut or director’s cut is 120 minutes or longer, then it’s going to have to be cut down by a significant amount.

Typically you can shorten a film by 10% through trimming and shortening scenes. A reduction of 25% or more means that shots and whole scenes have to go. This can be a painful experience for the director, who has suffered through the agony, time and expense of getting these scenes and shots recorded. The editor, on the other hand, has no such emotional investment and can be more objective. Whichever way the process moves forward, the point is to get the cut to its final form.

Depending on the production, this version of the film might also include temporary sound effects, music and visual effects that have been added by the editor and/or assistants. Often this is needed to fully appreciate the film when showing it in test screenings.

Locked picture – The goal of these various editing steps is to explore all creative options in order to end up with a film that will not go through any further editing changes. This means, no revisions that change time or selected shots. The reason for a “locked picture” is so that the sound editing team and the visual effects designers can proceed with their work without the fear that changes will undo some of their efforts. Although large budget films have the luxury of making editorial changes after this point, it is unrealistic for smaller indie films. “Locking the cut” is absolutely essential if you want to get the best effort out of the post team, as well as stay within your budget.

Visual effects – If your film requires any visual effects shots, these are best tackled after picture lock. The editors will hand off the required source elements to the visual effects company or designers so they can do their thing. Editors are typically not involved in visual effects creation, other than to communicate the intent of any temp effects that have created and to make sure the completed VFX shots integrate properly back into the picture.

Sound editorial This will be covered in depth in the next blog post. It has its own set of steps and usually takes several weeks to several months to complete.

Conform and grade – Prior to this step, all editing has been performed with “proxy” media. During the “finishing” stage of the film, the original camera media is “conformed” to the locked cut that was handed over from the film editor. This conform step is typically run by an online editor who works in tandem with the colorist. Sometimes this is performed by the colorist and not a separate individual. On very low budget films, the film editor, online editor and colorist might all be the same person. During conforming, the objective is to frame-accurately re-create the edit, including all reframing, speed ramps and to integrate all final visual effects shots. From this point the film goes to color correction for final grading. Here the colorist matches all shots to establish visual consistency, as well as to add any subjective looks requested by the director or director of photography. The last process is to marry the sound mix back to the picture and then generate the various deliverable masters.

©2013 Oliver Peters

Anatomy of editing a two camera scene

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With the increase in shooting ratios and shortened production schedules, many directors turn to shooting their project with two cameras for the entire time. Since REDs and Canon HDSLRs are bountiful and reasonably priced to buy or rent, even a low budget indie film can take advantage of this. Let me say from the beginning that I’m not a big fan of shooting with two cameras. Too many directors view it as a way to get through their shooting schedule more quickly; but, in fact, they often shoot more footage than needed. Often the B-camera coverage is only 25% useful, because it was not properly blocked or lit for. However, there are situations where shooting with two cameras works out quite well. The technique is at its most useful when shooting a dramatic dialogue scene with two or three principal actors. (Click the images below for expanded views.)

Synchronization

df_2cam_4_smThe most critical aspect is maintaining proper sync with audio and between the two cameras. In an ideal world, this is achieved with matching timecode among the cameras and the external sound recorder. Reality often throws a curve ball, which means that more often than not, timecodes drift throughout the day or the cameras weren’t properly jam-synced or some other issue. The bottom line is that by the time it gets to the editor, you often cannot rely on timecode for all elements to be in sync. That’s why “old school” techniques like a slate with a clapstick are ESSENTIAL. This means roll all three devices and slate both cameras. If you have to move to stand in front of the B-camera for a separate B-camera slate and clap, then you MUST do it.

When this gets to post, the editor or assistant first needs to sync audio and video for both the A-camera and B-camera for every take. If your external sound recorder saved broadcast WAV files, then usually you’ll have one track with the main mix and additional tracks for each isolated microphone used on set. Ideally, the location mixer will have also fed reference audio to both cameras. This means you now have three ways to sync – timecode, slate/clapstick and/or common audio. If the timecode does match, most NLEs have a syncing function to create merged clips with the combined camera file and external audio recording. FCP X can also sync by matching audio waveforms (if reference audio is present on the camera files). For external syncing, there’s Sync-N-Link and Sync-N-Link X (matching timecode) and PluralEyes (matching audio).

These are all great shortcuts, but there are times when none of the automatic solutions work. That’s when the assistant or editor has to manually mark the visual clap on the camera files and audio spike of the clap on the sound file and sync the two elements based on these references. FCP X adds an additional feature, which is the ability to open a master clip in its own timeline (“open in timeline” command). You can then edit directly “inside” the master clip. This is useful with external audio, because you have now embedded the external audio tracks inside the master clip for that camera file and they travel together from then on. This has an advantage over FCP X’s usual synchronized clip method, in that it retains the camera source’s timecode. Synchronized clips reset the timecode of that clip to 00:00:00:00.

Directing strategy

df_2cam_2_smIn standard film productions, a scene will be shot multiple times – first a “master” and then various alternate angles; sometimes alternative line readings; as well as pick-ups for part of a scene or cutaways and inserts showing items around the set. The “master” of the scene gets a scene number designation, such as Scene 101, Take 1, Take 2, etc. Whenever the camera is reframed or repositioned – or alternative dialogue is introduced – those recordings get a letter suffix, such as 101A, 101B and so on. With two cameras, there’s also the A and B camera designation, which is usually part of the actual camera file name or embedded metadata.

In blocking a simple dialogue scene with two actors, the director would set up the master with a wide shot for the entire scene on the A-camera and maybe a medium on the lead actor within that scene on the B-camera. The B-cam may be positioned next to A-cam or on the opposite side (without crossing the line). That’s Scene 101 and typically, two or three takes will be recorded.

Next, the director will set up two opposing OTS (over the shoulder) angles of the two speaking actors for 101A. After that, opposing CU (close-up) angles for 101B. Often there’s a third set-up (101C) for additional items. For example, if the scene takes place in a bar, there may be extra coverage that sets up the environment, such as patrons at the bar in the background of the scene. In this example with four setups (101-101C) – assuming the director rolled for three takes on each set-up – coverage with two cameras automatically gives you 24 clips to choose from in editing this scene.

Editing strategy

When you mention two camera coverage, many will think of multi-cam editing routines. I never use that for this purpose, because for me, an A-cam or B-cam angle of the same take is still like a uniquely separate take. However, I do find that editing the first swipe at the scene works best when you work with A-cam and B-cam grouped together. Although a director might pick a certain take as his best or “circle” take, I make the assumption that all takes have some value for individual lines. I might start with the circle take of the scene’s master, but I usually end up editing in bits and pieces of other takes, as well. The following method works best when the actors stick largely to the script, with minimal ad libs and improvisation.

df_2cam_3_smStep one is to edit the A-cam circle take of the scene master to the timeline, complete with slate. Next, edit the matching B-cam clip on top, using the slate’s clap to match the two angles. (Timecode also works, of course, if A-cam and B-cam have matching timecode.) The exact way I do this varies with the NLE that I am using. In FCP X, the B-cam clip is a connected clip, while in FCP 7, Media Composer and Premiere Pro, the B-cam is on V2 and the accompanying audio is on the tracks below those from the A-cam clip. The point is to have both angles stacked and in sync. df_2cam_5_smLastly, I’ll resize the B-cam clip so I see it as a PIP (picture-in-picture effect) over the A-cam image. Now, I can play through this scene and see what each camera angle of the master offers.

df_2cam_6_smStep two is to do the first editing pass on the scene. I use the blade tool (or add edit) to cut across all tracks/layers/clips at each edit point. Obviously, I’ll add a cut at the start of the action so I can remove the slate and run-up to the actual start of the scene. As I play though, I am making edit selections, as if I were switching cameras. The audio is edited as well – often in the middle of a line or even word. This is fine. Once these edits are done, I will delete the front and back of these takes. Then I will select all of the upper B-cam shots (plus audio) that I don’t want to use and delete these. Finally, remove the transform effects to restore the remaining B-cam clips to full screen.

df_2cam_7_smAt this stage I will usually move the B-cam clips down to the main track. In FCP X, I use the “overwrite to primary storyline” command to edit the B-cam clips (with audio) onto the storyline, thus replacing the A-cam clip segments that were there. This will cause the embedded external audio from the overwritten A-cam clip segments to be pushed down as connected clips. Highlight and delete this. In a track-based NLE, I may leave the B-cam clips on V2 or overwrite to V1. I’ll also highlight and delete/lift the unwarranted, duplicate A-cam audio. In all cases, what you want to end up with is a scene edit that checkerboards the A-cam and B-cam clips – audio and video.

df_2cam_8_smStep three is to find other coverage. So far in this example, I’ve only used the circle take for the master of the scene. As I play the scene, I will want to replace certain line readings with better takes from the other coverage (ex. 101A, B, C, etc.), including OTS and CU shots. One reason is to use the best acting performance. Another is to balance the emotion of the scene and create the best arc. Typically in a dramatic scene, the emotion rises as you get later into the scene. To emphasize this visually, I want to use tighter shots as I get further into the scene – focusing mainly on eyes and facial expressions.

I work through the scene, seeking to replace some of the master A-cam or B-cam clip segments. I will mark the timeline section to delete/extract, find a better version of that line in another angle/take and insert/splice it into that position. FCP X has a replace function which is designed for this, but I find it to be slow and inconsistent. A fast keystroke combo of marking clips and timeline and then pressing delete, followed by insert is significantly faster. Regardless of the specific keystrokes used, the point is to build/control the emotion of the scene in ways that improve the drama and combine the best performances of each actor.

df_2cam_9_smStep four is to tighten the scene. At this point, you are primarily working in the trim mode of your NLE. With FCP X, expand the audio/video so you can independently trim both elements for J and L-cuts. As you begin, you’ll have some sloppy edits. Words may be slightly clipped or the cadence of speech doesn’t sound right. You now have to fix this by trimming clips and adjusting audio and video edit points. FCP X is especially productive here, because the waveform display makes it easy to see where the same words from adjacent clips align.

You want the scene to flow – dramatically and technically. How natural-sounding is the delivered dialogue as a result of your edit choices? You should also be mindful of continuity, such as actors’ eye lines, body positions and actions. Often actors will add dramatic pauses, long stares and verbal stumbles to the performance. This may be for valid dramatic emphasis; but, it can also be over-acting and even the equivalent memory trick of saying “um” – as the actor tries to remember the next line. Your job as an editor (in support of the director) is to decide which it is and edit the scene so that it comes across in the best way possible. You can cut out this “air” by trimming the edits and/or by using tricks. For example, slip part of a line out of sync and play it under an OTS or reaction shot to tighten a pause.

Step five is to embellish the scene. This is where you add non-sync reactions, inserts and cutaways. The goal is to enhance the scene by giving it a sense of place, cover mismatched continuity and to improve drama. Your elements are the extra coverage around the set (like our patrons at the bar) or an actor’s nod, smile, head turn or grimace in response to the dialogue delivered by their acting counterpart. The goal is to maintain the viewer’s emotional involvement and help tell the story through visuals other than simply seeing a person talk. You want the viewer to follow both sides of the conversation through dialogue and visual cues.

While I have written this post with film and television drama in mind, the same techniques apply, whether it’s a comedy, documentary or simple corporate interview. It’s a strategy for getting the most efficiency out of your edit.

Click here for more film editing tips.

©2013 Oliver Peters