If you are someone setting out making a film, whether you are a corporate client who has never produced a film before or a veteran filmmaker, there are lots of questions running around your head. You’re asking “How will I fund my film?”, “What camera am I going to use?”, “What’s my angle?” “Who are my key characters?”. But equally important to think about, right from the outset, is post-production. This will save you time and money in the long run.
It is always a good idea to talk with an editor before you begin your shoot, and you will be surprised how forthcoming editors will be when it comes to advising you about formats, workflows and even cameras. Getting you on the right track benefits them, because you may end up hiring them and, if they do edit the piece, they will have helped you to avoid time-consuming pitfalls by getting things right from the start, enabling them to work at their peak.
However, you may find yourself overwhelmed with the torrent of editor-jargon. So, the following guide can be used to quietly decode the post-production noise in your own time.
How do I work with an editor?
How much does it cost?
Why does it take so long?
What editing program should my editor use?
Can I edit my own film?
We’re at the end of the process, can I make some changes?
Where do I get music from?
BEFORE YOU SHOOT
How to get editable files from different cameras
First of all you will want to make sure you have the same resolution and frame rate. Typically you will be working in HD 1080p (1920×1080 pixels) and shooting at 25 frames per second. This is standard in New Zealand. Avoid mixing frame rates as this can cause difficulties in post and a reduction in image quality.
Many cameras also offer picture profile options. There are preset options you can download from the internet for many cameras, but a general rule of thumb is to reduce, as much as you can: Sharpening, Contrast and Saturation; these are all just effects added by the camera to your image and they are irreversible. You can add any of these effects to your footage during the edit or grade with much more control. You want a “flat” look to your images with no extreme “crushed” blacks or “blown-out” white areas. If your camera has a histogram information overlay, use it, this will help you to keep your image from losing information in the blacks and whites.
If you are hiring an experienced professional camera person they should have all of this under control but it is a good idea to discuss this with your camera person or, better yet, put them in touch with your editor.
If you are working with an Avid editor or want to have a professional grade at a post house then you will want to shoot in a format that writes timecode. Most professional camera operators will use a camera that writes timecode. However many productions are now being shot on Digital SLR still cameras, because these are affordable and produce a beautiful filmic image, many of these cameras do not write timecode (Canon 7D, 60D, 5D Mark II) the recent Canon 5D Mark III does write timecode as do the Canon C Series cameras (C100 / C300 / C500).
Other editors may not be as fussy about these technical issues because they have a simpler workflow. Editors working on Final Cut Pro or Premiere Pro may not worry about timecode as the architecture of these programs is more flexible, however they have other limitations. There are also workarounds for color-grading if you don’t have timecode, so anything is possible. But if you have a professional post house doing your grade you are not going to want to have them facilitating workarounds on your dollar (at the rates they charge, ouch!)
Dual Recording (separate sound and video)
These days many film makers are dual recording video and sound. There are many good reasons to do this, one it allows you to record in 24bit on a high quality recorder rather than a whirring camera and allows you to keep your camera free of cumbersome equipment. This has been made possible for all filmmakers by a program called Pluraleyes, which assists editors in syncing separately recorded audio and multiple cameras. But this is not a magic wand. It still requires a bit of trial and error, and adds a layer of preparation that can hold off the edit by a day or more depending on the size of the edit. If you want a fast turnaround project, within a few of days, it is best to record sound into the camera.
Slating is often over looked and is a luxury for some productions. But if you can do it, please do. This is where a clapper board with information about each shot is held in front of the camera/s and clapped. With dual sound, this is an added layer of safety, even software benefits from a clear clap when syncing, and the info on the slate can be helpful. But this is not vital for general documentary, it is more for short fast-turnaround projects, that are often scripted, it can help with logging and speeds up the editing process but of course is not suitable for fly-on-the-wall filmmaking.
Especially in cases where you have multiple cameras and audio it is important to log and organize your clips. The more you can organize your clips into folders the better. I recommend breaking shoots up into days, then within those, locations then within those cameras. You may want to add a number to your locations to keep them in chronological order. In each location folder you will want to put a log document that details basically what is on the clips, this can be a simple text file (or a spreadsheet if you’re keen).
Depending on the complexity of your shoot, you may even want to rename your clips using a pre-determined code eg. 0322004 (Day 3, Location 2, Camera 2, Clip No 4). It is always best to contact your editor about this system, to confirm it works with their system, they may come and do this for you.
You will want to have at least one other copy of your footage files on a drive, this can be a cheap USB drive, and should be kept in a separate location. Remember that as you add “pick up” footage to the project you will need to duplicate that footage on to the backup drive also.
As a Director / Producer depending on the size of the project you will often be expected to provide a drive to work from, it is important to consult your editor about what drive is necessary for the job. A drive that you edit from needs to be fast, reliable and have the appropriate connectivity for the system being used. You can expect this drive to be considerably more expensive than an ordinary consumer drive. The drive may also need to be larger than the drives you currently have the files stored on. This is because the footage may need to be transcoded to a less compressed format resulting in larger file sizes
Many edit systems require your editor to transcode your video files to an “edit friendly” format. Typically cameras shoot to a highly compressed format, a format that is easy and fast to write to but difficult to read, because the camera’s priority is image quality and write speed. If you use these files in an edit program, it puts a lot of strain on the program and your computer. Therefore these file are either not allowed by the editing software or they create very bad performance. The solution is to take the same video and transcode to a format that is larger but is much easier to read. Popular formats for this process are Prores .mov files (for Mac-based Final Cut Pro and Premiere) and DNxHD .mxf files (for Avid). However don’t assume that your camera files are edit friendly if they .mov or .mxf. Premiere Pro enables you to use the original files generally, but requires a computer with a lot of grunt. Premiere also allows you to transcode.
Transcoding to a high quality Prores or DNxHD format can quadruple your data. So your documentary may only have 750gbs worth of video but you may require a drive with 4-6Tbs worth of free space to run the project. There should always be 25% of your drive free/empty (past this point you risk data corruption or drive malfunction).
Offline / Online Workflow
One way to reduce the amount of data required is to use an Offline / Online or proxy workflow. This takes your original clips, transcodes them to an easier to read format, and compromises the quality of the image in order to keep the file size down. You use these files to make your edit and then relink to your original media once you have finished editing. This is a complicated process, and will take your editor extra time at the start and at the end of the project. With the price of drive space getting cheaper it might be a better idea to simply go with the larger drive and edit your film “online”.
The way you work with your editor depends how you both like to work. Generally a director and I play it by ear, I would say, with a director I’m familiar with, I generally work alone 75% of the time. At the start and the end of a project is where there is often the greatest collaboration. On a 10 week edit I might work weeks 2-7 alone with one day long meeting per week during that time, in the first week I will work together with the director most days and in the last couple of weeks the same. A similar pattern happens in short projects, but it changes every project, some directors have sat with me every day and called cuts and then left me to do utilitarian things like exports and uploads in my own time. Other clients have left me to complete scripted projects alone, with perhaps one feedback round. It depends also on what you’re trying to produce. If you’re wanting something thoughtful and creative – for your editor to create something more than you imagined then you have to give open ended direction and be willing to play in an iterative space visiting and revisiting the experiments with an open mind. If you need a cut finished in 3 days and you have a rough script then set a series of deadlines and feedback sessions, keep tabs on your editor to make sure they’re not getting lost in meaningless details, and be sensitive to when the editor needs some headspace to get their flow on… (often with scripted work if left uninterrupted for a couple of hours you can get a heap of work done).
How much does it cost?
An editor can cost anything from $250/day – $1000+/day.
And in many cases you get what you pay for. At the high end what your paying for is someone who has the expertise, experience and the equipment to deal with high-end material, things shot on the Red for example or 4K workflows, usually for a short term project with a defined deadline that will be met! But they are not super-human, and I would say if you are new to film making or are making long form documentary and are shooting in 1080p with some loose ideas around the edit and want a relaxed creative meeting of minds you may begin haemoraging money for no good reason.
On the low end you have recent graduates and experimental editors. You may get lucky and find someone who gets really passionate about your project, but in most cases you will run into complications of some sort resulting in extended deadlines, or a job that needs to be fixed by someone else. If you are going to go with students or recent graduates then it is important to have a supervisor with experience who can point them in the right direction.
The middle range are often experienced young editors who are flexible and adaptable, but confident enough to assure you that your project will get finished without incident. They are probably less capable of handling high-end material and may not be working on a souped up system, but will be less fussy about where they work and more open to hold a dialogue about your intentions for the project and how best to meet them. While these editors may charge $600-700 / day for a one week corporate job, they may work on a long term documentary project for half that.
Why does it take so long?
An edit for any feature length documentary will take at least 6 weeks, that is for editing only. Depending on how the film was recorded there may be up to 2 weeks of prep. At the end of the edit, you may want to do a sound mix which will take about 3 weeks and a grade and titles that can be done within those 3 weeks so and then a week of layback (where the graded video and sound mix are married back together with titles, to make various masters), you’re looking at an absolute minimum of 12 weeks. But 6 weeks for editing is a very short time, and can be anything up to 6 months, even a year is possible depending on the scope of the project and the volatility of the director’s vision. I edited Red White Black and Blue in 8 weeks and that was crazy fast, long days, and having directed the film as well I was very familiar with the subjects right from the start. So don’t’ expect a fast turnaround on a feature documentary, cutting 12 characters and 80hours of footage down to 7 characters and 80minutes is a big job – there are over 8000 video and audio cuts in Red White Black and Blue, and every one of them was agonized over, each one creates a ripple throughout the film, and some create a domino effect that require entire scenes to switch or be lost, or be brought back in. It’s not a clean job, if you’re lucky the sausage looks tasty at the end of it.
If you are making a short 2minute internet promo and you are well organized, you have a set script, with a capable crew and a single location you can make a 2minute internet promo in 2 days. But depending on the production value you are looking for, and the amount of stakeholder input / sign offs you require even a 2minute video can take months.
Most often an editor will make an estimated timeline based on one assumption – ‘That you will do everything you need to do… instantly’. While this is of course unreasonable, the assumption is that if you want your project done in the time frame that you won’t hold it up at all. Of course this will not be the case because there are no doubt numerous things you may need to do that you won’t be able to do instantly. So it is important to talk with your editor about the restraints you will have, approvals you will need to get, and how long they will take to get back to you, think about “Will I need to show this to my boss?” “Will they need to show their boss”, “Will we need to show it to our lawyers”, “Our stakeholders”, “Do we want to give creative feedback” ” how many rounds of feedback do we want?”. Of course, if you have not done this before, you may not be familiar with the process on your end either, so talk to the editor about potential holdups, if they are an experienced editor they will have a good idea of what troubleshooting you may have in store on your end.
Often freelance editors like myself are juggling numerous projects and thrive on contained periods of focus on one project. So timelines are important. Book the editor for a period ahead of time and make sure they have all they need to complete the project and you will not be disappointed. Missing deadlines on your end by a few days can cause a domino effect for the editor, and may mean your project gets bumped back weeks.
Another assumption is that the scope of the project will not increase. When negotiating with your editor it is a good idea to warn them of potential extensions of the project into new areas. They may be able to help you to make more cost-effective plans, or at least make you aware of additional time and money that will cost if increases in scope eventuate.
What editing program should my editor use?
Generally you’ll go with whatever your editor prefers as this is going to be the fastest for them and you. If I were to generalize about editors and edit systems I would say you might find Avid editors more experienced and therefore more expensive, and more old-school and therefore less likely to take on periferal editing tasks like titles, sound-mixing, effects and grading. Where as Final Cut Pro and Premiere editors may be more open to doing everything, which might be great, but might also mean that you become destracted from nailing down the cut. Other Edit programs that are being used today are Edius, Sony Vegas and Lightworks (I have no experience with these programs so cannot comment on how good they are).
Can I edit my own film?
Of course you can. There is a school of thought that says one should never edit their own films, but I have personally learned how to edit things I’ve directed and I have seen directors who are first time editors do a marvelous job of weaving an interesting story together. There is a level of detachment you need to foster, don’t get too tied to details the viewer won’t recognize, like a shot out a car window that is in the wrong location, or an event that didn’t’ really happen in the order you portrayed it.
However, while it is possible, it is very time consuming. First of all editing is a skill, and a skilled operator doing what they do best is fast, much faster than you can hope to get in a few months editing your own film. It also usually involves two people someone with a story to tell and someone telling the story, and that can be a very dynamic relationship, two brains can be thinking both big-picture and small detail at the same time which is vital. If you are editing alone it is more important to get outside perspectives, or else you will get lost.
If you choose to edit your own films I would recommend going for Premiere Pro as an editing platform. I would still recommend getting a Premiere Pro editor to advise you on how to set up your project. You may want to pay an editor their day rate to teach you some of the basics, it could save you a lot of time. Premiere Pro at the moment is a great editor, but is also very user friendly. For a long form project your most stable bet would be Avid, however there are a number of pitfalls with Avid that could lead an inexperienced editor to complete disaster and it is much harder to learn, so I wouldn’t recommend it. Final Cut Pro 7 and Final Cut Pro X are also potential avenues to go down, and if you feel you have more support from people around you on those programs you might want to go for them. The most inexpensive edit program for a short edit would be a month subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud, which gets you Premiere Pro. FCPX is also very affordable. Avid you’re looking at a few thousand, and at that level you’re probably best to hire an editor.
We’re at the end of the process, can I make some changes?
As mentioned the amount of feedback rounds should be agreed between you and your editor at the outset of your project. As the edit moves forward and especially when doing titles, fine cutting, sound tweaking and effects, making edit changes gets more difficult but is still achievable. However once you are at the sound mix and grade stage it becomes very difficult to turn back. Changes at this stage of the process can mean a complete restart of the sound mix and grade, which is costly. So before this stage you want to be absolutely happy with your edit, knowing that it will look and sound better in the end.
Depending on the scope of your project you can have your editor source stock music for you at a small fee, chances are they will have a lead or two on a stock music website where they can find cheap generic music, these will cost anything from $40 – $100 per track. However this will take you and your editor time trawling through a lot of terrible music to find something that suits you. If you are looking for custom music, or music along a theme, there are musicians and sound studios that can outfit your film with music from their collections and some custom pieces for about $1000 to $10,000. Trying to get rights to hollywood soundtracks or pop music is almost impossible, unless you have a personal connection with the musician or producer. Sometimes, if you are passionate enough about your subject and you plead with your favorite musician or composer, and they like your film you may be able to use sections of their tracks in your film.. but it will still cost ya.
This is an essential part of the filmmaking process these days. Mpeg Streamclip is a great free program that allows you to simply create upload-sized video files. I will write more on this later.
You will want at the very least a master file from your editor. This will be a high quality video file on a drive. This can be used to make DVDs from or to compress an upload from. For entry in festivals and screening on television you will need to take your master to a dub shop like Next Technology to produce a DCP, HDCam or BluRay depending on what is requested by the festival / station. This will be an additional cost, and it is very important that you check your master file before you hand it on to a dub shop, there are technical issues that can arise when mastering and often your editor will not have been given time to check the entire master before they hand it to you. Of course it is the editor’s responsibility to fix any issues, but it is the producer’s responsibility to check and find any issues, unless they specifically provide time for the editor to do so.
Good luck with your project. If you have persevered through this guide, then no doubt you have the tenacity to finish your film. As I said at the start, this is a growing document, and any feedback you have is most welcome. I want this to be as helpful as possible to filmmakers of all types.