Ask Mr. Hollywood: All You need to Know About Post-Production and Finishing Your Film

There are three stages to filmmaking— Pre-Production, Production and Post-Production. Pre-production is easy. You’re in it now. Although the truth, more likely, is you’re probably in “BS” Pre-Production. You know, you’ve got numerous projects in various stages of development but don’t have a penny to write a check. “Real” Pre-Production is when you’re spending money on script development, casting, scouting and securing crew. Bottom line—Pre-production is not difficult.

The second stage, Production, is right after you get some financing (i.e. when Dad sold his cherry ’49 Duesenberg and gave you $100,000 just to shut you up.) Now you quickly get everyone together and spend nine to eighteen days of 14-18 hours each, shooting from dawn to dusk. Pre-production is easy. Production is a ball buster.

During Production everything happens at once. The actors, lights, camera, props, schedule, film stock, egos, temper tantrums, and all the rest. Production, although typically presented as being fun and joyous, will probably be the worst 2 or 3 weeks of your life. But you persevere. Somehow you get that Martini Shot. Your film is in the can. You bring out the flat beer and celebrate. Everyone hugs everyone (except you, the skinflint producer) and goes home. You pass out and wake up approximately two days later.

When you do wake up, you find 50,000 feet of film or 20 hours of tape by the foot of your bed. You’re all alone. What do you do now? The answer, of course, is simple. You begin Post-Production.

Post-Production, somehow, is the part of this process that intimidates people most. Remember, it is not difficult. Production is massively difficult. Post-Production is not, as long as you take it step by step. Your first phone call will probably be to your cinematographer who, although he/she hates you, will be able to introduce you to several good editors. All you need to know about Post-production and finishing your film is the thirteen steps listed below. Just take them one at a time, in the order they appear. There will be no eighteen hour days. Your function will be to hire people and oversee them by dropping in for a half hour here and there. Post-production, I repeat, is not difficult.

The 13 steps:

1. PICK AN EDITING FORMAT: There are two ways of doing post-production. One is the old way, the film way. Shoot film and edit or splice film on film editing equipment. Two is the new way, the electronic way. Shoot film, but don’t get a print at the lab, just develop the negative, then transfer the developed negative to a tape medium or digitize it to a non-linear format and edit electronically. This is not an article about the pros and cons of film vs. nonlinear editing, so just pick a format. The steps are pretty much the same in either format.

2. HIRE A PICTURE EDITOR: After you have selected a format for post, your cinematographer will probably be able to introduce you to two to three editors who have demo reels. Select one, and allow him/her to pick an assistant and tell them you’ll give them 8-10 weeks to give you six cuts. When you’re done you’ll have gotten your 50,000 feet or 20 hours down to 8,100 feet or 90 minutes of tight storytelling.

3. HIRE A SOUND EDITOR: Now, about two months later, the picture film is tight but you need to enhance the look with sound. Thus, hire a sound editor and an assistant for five to six weeks to (A) Cut Dialogue Tracks, (B) Re-create Sound Effects and (C) Get Cue sheets ready for simplifying Step #7, the mix.

4. DO ADR: This stands for Automatic Dialogue Replacement. What it actually is is a large, hollow room with a projector that projects your work-print from Step #2 and has the actors come back and lip sync and loop dialogue that wasn’t sharp and clear.

5. DO FOLEY: Go to a room that looks like (or very well could be) the ADR room and this time,
without actors, have sound people (called Foley Artists or, sometimes, “walkers”) put the noise of footsteps and certain other sound effects into the film.

6. SECURE MUSIC: First, for your musical score, here’s what not to do. Don’t use any popular old song that you haven’t purchased the rights to. Don’t even think about public domain or classical music, either, because it’ll either get expensive or it’ll stink. Don’t use any pre-cleared CD-Rom music because it won’t be good enough quality. What you should do is simply this: hire a musician with his/her own studio to compose brand
new original songs and tunes that you have the rights to.

7. DO RE-RECORDING/MIX: Now that you have 20-40 tracks of sound (Dialogue, ADR, Foley, Music) you must layer them on top of each other to artificially recreate a feeling of sound with depth. This is called The Re-recording session or The Mix.

8. GET AN M&E: Somewhere in the not-too-distant future you will be selling the rights to your film to foreign nations. The distributor/buyer in that nation wants a sound track without English dialogue in it. Thus,
the M&E stands for only Music & Effects.

9. GET YOUR TITLES: Your editing is now done. What is left is to get the final pieces needed for the answer print and give them to the lab to finish. The first pieces to get are your six to eight Opening Title Cards
and then the Rear Title Crawl. For this you go to an optical house in your area.

10. GET AN OPTICAL TRACK: From the Mix you have a very dark magnetic sound track that, if you
put it on the picture film, it would literally blot out the picture. Thus, you convert the magnetic sound to a very thin strip of sound called an Optical Track that the lab can place on the film in between the sprocket holes and the picture frames.

11. CUT THE NEGATIVE: Now, at the lab where the original developed negative has been sitting
untouched for about two to three months you take the edit list (the 200-300 splice points) that you got from the picture film editor (Step #2) and give it to a Negative Cutter at the lab. This person, sometimes called a “conformer,” cuts the negative to conform to the 200-300 splices in your workprint.

12. COLOR THE PRINT: Now, with your cut negative, you can have the lab give you an excellent color print. This is sometimes called “timing.” The only artist at the lab is the “timer” or color corrector and he/she will colorize your film frame-by-frame with a computer that will have it looking prettier than the original work-print you’ve been working with.

13. STRIKE AN ANSWER PRINT: This is it. This is the final step before your beautiful film is born. The lab now has (A) the cut negative, (B) the correct coloring code, (C) the optical sound track, (D) the list of
fades and dissolves and (E) the Opening and Closing Titles. The lab puts this all together and gives you a “composite print” or a “first attempt” at your answer print. You look at it once, recommend changes to the timer, and your “second attempt” is usually your finished, gorgeous film ready for festivals.

Once again, the shoot (production) is outrageously difficult and overwhelming but the edit (post-production)
is a very calm and do-able process. So relax and just do it one step at a time. Happy filmmaking. MM

Questions for Mr. Hollywood,

Hi. I’m a British refugee living in Vancouver, Canada, dreaming of writing movies for the big screen. I’m graduating from the University of BC next year in Psychology, but my passion is to write film. You’ve heard this before, but I’m having trouble writing. The two main problems are that I can’t think of what to write (which does pass with time, along with strong tea), and that once I do finally have an idea, I think I’m actually afraid to write it! Does this make any sense? Getting the thing actually written is bad enough, but I’m also confused about what happens next. I’m the type of person who needs a long-term vision. What the steps are that I should take once it’s ready? I hear ‘you the man.’

John S. (A bewildered Brit lost in the Northwest) (kusarigama@hotmail.com)

Dear John the Bewildered,

What’s with you Brits? Aren’t you from the home of Shakespeare? My daddy told me that scared is a positive feeling. But if you don’t take action when you’re scared then it becomes fear, and that is negative.

Jumping out of an airplane with a parachute is scary. It should be. The key is knowing the chute opens. Just jump. You have thoughts about film. Just type. Type the title, type the theme, type a three to four page double-spaced treatment, rent a couple of 90-120 minute movies and count the 40-60 scenes, then with pencil and eraser create your own 40-60 scenes (one line each). Now write one scene each day. (15 minutes/day) Write scene 1, then tomorrow scene 2, the next day scene 3, etc. In 2 months you’ll have a first draft. Let’s worry what to do with the first draft once you have it. Remember, one step at a time.

Dear Mr. Hollywood,

I have a question similar to the one written by the fellow in the last issue of MovieMaker who called himself “old codger.” I’ve been working in the restaurant business for about 17 years as a chef and now want to switch careers. I’m 39 years old and about to get a B.S. in communications from Middle Tennessee State University (summer, 2000) and afterward would like to get into a grad program (MFA) for film. I’d like to know if there is anything that you could tell me to improve my chances.

Daryl L. Lujan (daryllujan@yahoo.com)

Dear Daryl,

With all my heart, Daryl, I implore you to stop thinking about some masters degree in filmmaking. No one in Hollywood is recruiting; no one gives a damn what school you went to or even if you went to school. All we care about is how much money you have for pay-or-play packages. If you’re broke, all we care about is if you have a great script or have shot a marketable (Blair Witch) low-budget film.

The money you are thinking of spending at college should be spent ($4,000) for a Mini DV camera (Sony DVX1000 or Canon XL-1) and $16,000 for the digital feature’s budget.

Hello Mr Hollywood,

I am writing from Australia, am a proud reader of MovieMaker magazine, and think your advice is excellent! I’d like some advice from you. Let me briefly tell you my story. For a living, I do computer support for a large hardware retailer. I have a comfortable job and reasonable income. I believe to make it in filmmaking, I should diversify, try and learn a few fields. These are my present goals…

1. Editing—I have learned non-linear editing and successfully completed two weddings videos.

2. Short Film—I have begun but not yet completed one, Rodriguez style.

3. Computer Animation—yet to learn.

4. Feature—currently writing.

I am considering spending $2,000 on computer software to learn CGI. I believe that by developing a skill in either editing or CGI, I can make a transition into the industry and still concentrate on making my own feature. What do you recommend? And if you do recommend learning CGI, what software do you think is best? Gary in Perth, Western Australia. 

gcentrone@bunnings.com.au

Dear Gary,

G’day Mate! Perth. Cool. Last place on earth to go and still be civilized. I might be teaching there next year. Anyway, since you are in a nation that doles out government money for education, filmmaking and screenwriting, I want you to contact the AFC (Australian Film Center) and the FFC (Australian Film Corporation, who have offices in Sydney and Melbourne, and ask for (A) educational funding programs and (B) script development programs. This is free money. Take advantage of it. Hollywood has none of it.

With $2,000, I’d do both. I would learn nonlinear editing and get a job in the CGI industry. Buy nonlinear software for your home computer such as Adobe Premiere 5.1 ($895, PC @ adobe.com), or Final Cut Pro ($999, Mac @ apple.com), or Avid ($2,495, @ avidcinema.com), or Speed Razor 4.5 SE ($895 @ in-sync.com) or Ulead’s Media Studio ($595 @ ulead.com), or Digital Origin’s MOTODV ($399). Now, with the remaining money take a course or two and get a job in the CGI industry. The best way: check out the visual effects industry magazine, VFXPro. Contact them at www.VFXPro.com. Now get away from the barbie and get on the Web. G’day Mate. MM

Featured image by Drew Patrick.

© Copyright 1999 Dov S-S
Simens. For info on Hollywood Film Institute’s Crash Courses,
Audio School, or The Biz, a resource for filmmakers in Santa
Monica, CA, write: HFI, P.O. Box 481252, LA, CA, 90048, or
call
323-933-3456.

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