One of the most disheartening moments in an editor’s day is when he or she sits down to screen footage for an important scene, only to find it is unusable.

Poorly acted or poorly shot; insufficient coverage or insufficient light; damaged film or missing sound—all of these things can render the scene unusable. Unless you believe in magic, and I do.

I am an optimist who grew up listening to Broadway musicals, so when I am faced with these kinds of challenges, I always hear the Fairy Godmother from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella singing in my ear. You know: It’s possible! For a plain yellow pumpkin to become a golden carriage. It’s possible! For a plain country bumpkin and a prince to join in marriage…”

Exactly what kind of post magic is possible? With the right budget, practically anything. Of course, there are some things even the most brilliant editorial minds can’t do—even on a big-budget film (maybe especially on a big-budget film), no amount of post-production can fix a bad story. Or poor acting choices. But even on low-budget indies, we editors can fix more than one would imagine possible, both creatively and technically. Let me give you an idea of our powers (and their limits).

Can’t Fix: Bad Sound

Poorly recorded sound is a big indicator of poor production value. A big-budget film may have the luxury to re-build all the sound with ADR and sound effects, but indies seldom have that luxury. In documentary, especially, interviews where the sound drops out or is distorted may be truly impossible to use. Invest in a sound recordist. If you can’t afford one, and must do it yourself, always check your batteries before rolling, bring extra batteries, and monitor the sound with real headphones (not earbuds!). Relying on the camera mic is almost always a bad option, but keep it on in case it gives the only usable sound for the scene. I’ve seen documentary editors resort to using subtitles when necessary, but they are a work-around, not a first choice.

Can Fix: Minor Exposure Problems

Digital technology has done wonders to make the impossible possible. A decade ago I had to dismiss a scene that was too underexposed to use, which was a shame because it was part of a Christmas homecoming. Advances in color correction have now made similar situations usable. Obviously, it is harder to fix scenes that are over-exposed, but even in those cases we can often use creative solutions to salvage “must-have” moments.

Can’t Fix: Mid-Scene Exposure Changes

My biggest technical peeve is when DPs change exposure during a scene. While this can be corrected through key-framing in the on-line, it is painstakingly time-consuming (translate: expensive) and in most cases could have been avoided with taking a little extra time before rolling. This problem happens most often in vérité docs where the crew is operating quickly without having an opportunity to plan. I’ve been on a few vérité shoots, and I know shooting is hard, but I also know that a scene that is one or two stops over- or under- exposed can easily be fixed with color-correction. Too often, I find that the exact moment I need to use in the edit is in the middle of the DP’s adjustments. It could take half a day to figure out how to cut around that moment, or an hour of on-line expense to fix something that could have been solved with just five minutes of checking out the room before shooting. When that’s not possible, DPs should quickly commit to the best color temperature and exposure, and stay there. If it is a little too dark or too light, we can fix that. We can even fix footage that is slightly out of focus with a “sharpen” tool… but that doesn’t mean you should leave your glasses at home!

Can Fix: Shaky Camera Movement

I once edited a short doc about a woman undergoing cancer treatment. In it, there was an important scene where she was panicked about the possibility of a re-occurrence. Most of the film was shot by her filmmaker friends, but for this scene, she had actually hired a professional cameraman. I don’t know if he’d had three Red Bulls before the shoot or what, but the footage was jittery and unsettled with no coverage and no reverse angles. The content was too powerful not to use, though, so I was forced to work through it. Taking a deep breath, I began. The solution was to use the frenetic nature of the footage to illustrate the main character’s panicked mental state. She was jumpy, so was the footage. Now it’s one of my favorite scenes in the film.

 Can’t Fix: Footage That Isn’t There

On a narrative film I once worked on, the studio executives screened the rough cut, and came back with the note:

“Can you make the lead actress smile more?”

My answer: “Sorry, no. You told her not to listen to the director—so this is what you get.”

Or, another time:

“Can you add in more scenes with [teen heart-throb in a cameo role]?”

Answer: “Sorry, no. They don’t exist—did you read the script?”

Try to foresee your footage needs before you arrive at the editing bay.

Can Fix: Assorted Random Accidents

There are always miracles, out-of-the-box and affordable ways to salvage footage when, in the past, we would have left entire scenes on the cutting room floor. A filmmaker I know had CCD image sensor chips on a camera fail on a documentary shoot during an essential part of the film’s story that could not be repeated. A thin pink vertical line was imbedded into the left side of the frame, five pixels wide. This line was not detected in the viewfinder during the shoot, so it was not discovered until ingested into Avid. In the old days of film, whenever a camera put a hairline scratch on the negative, we would pay big bucks to an effects house to rotoscope it out. You can still pay big bucks to an effects house to fix a problem like this, and my friend was quoted $20,000. This was low-budget doc, though, and he couldn’t afford it. Before giving up, his editor did some research and learned how to fix the problem himself in After Effects. He used the wire-removal feature (for removing the fish line used to move things through a frame or suspend objects in air). He applied that feature carefully, tweaking a bit for each shot. It cost nothing—just a little extra time in the edit room.

Another miracle I witnessed firsthand: A field producer once came back from a shoot with an interview that was corrupted and unusable—or so we thought. It was important content and we knew this celebrity would never sit for another interview, so with some sleuthing and experimenting, we fixed it. It seemed as if the corruption was caused in the data transfer of the original media card to the drives. The producer was doing it himself. We think he first transferred the data to a primary media drive, then tried to copy the media to a backup drive while simultaneously loading a second card onto the primary drive. In short, the drives must have been flipping back and forth from writing to reading rapidly. Asking the processor and transfer chain to do too many things at once caused random sporadic corruptions along the length of the file.

Our rock-star assistant editor performed the magic (warning—this gets technical): “Since any computer-based method of opening the file meant looking for the overall duration of the clip and trying to load the whole thing into memory, we couldn’t open the card in Avid or Canon’s utilities. However, because the camera doesn’t look at the overall file, and only tries to play back the part of the file in front of it, I was able to transfer the original media back to a dummy card, fake out the camera and at least get it to play back portions with some jitter and freeze. The ‘camera’ would play through what it could read and freeze on the corrupted parts. Using a capture card via HD-SDI, I hit record in Avid, hit play on the ‘camera,’ and ingested into Avid the old fashioned way.”

Interview saved!

These stories bring me right back to Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, who ends the song like so:

“For the world is full of zanies
and fools who don’t believe in sensible rules
and won’t believe what sensible people say
And because these daft and dewey-eyed dopes keep building up impossible hopes
Impossible things are happening every day.”

Editor Nancy Novack’s films have received numerous Emmy and Peabody awards, the Dupont Award and the George Polk Award for Journalism. Her credits include narrative features Boys and Drop Back Ten, and documentaries Southern Rites, The Farm: 10 Down and When the Levees Broke, for which she won an Emmy.

This article appeared in MovieMaker‘s Complete Guide to Making Movies 2016. Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock.