Post-Production Planning During Pre-Production

Post-production is usually not on the minds of filmmakers during pre-production, but it should be. I can think of two obvious reasons for this:

  1. 1) Money. Anyone who has made a film knows it isn't cheap. Not having a good plan for post-production can cost you dearly, or stop you completely. A good rule of thumb to remember on shows with a budget under $500,000 is: the smaller the budget, the larger the percentage of that budget will be required for post production.

    2) Quality. The best story, beautifully shot and brilliantly acted can be sabotaged by a poor film post, and ruined for the audience. This can happen on both the creative and technical sides of the post-production process.

Traditionally, film schools have focused on the creative and technical side of production, without much emphasis placed on post beyond the editorial process. In some cases, this is due to time constraints, in some it's a money issue, and in others, it is just a lack of knowledge. Whatever the case, the student usually ends up with an edited workprint or video, but little or no understanding of what is required to truly finish on film. For many filmmakers, this can spell future problems on projects that require the complete post process in order to present at festivals or sell their film. I do work with some film schools that demand a complete post from their students, and applaud them for their efforts.

The subject of post-production is also included in some books on filmmaking, but I have yet to find one that speaks to the possible problems that can be self-induced by the crew during production, or caused by ignorance of post-production intricacies.

Post-production is something akin to building a house. You, the producer/director/filmmaker, are acting as the general contractor. Just as the contractor hires the various trades to build the house (plumber, carpenter, electrician, etc.), you will hire the various individuals and companies you need to finish your film. Like the contractor, the more you understand the process, the easier it is to deal with potential problems, and the better the finished project. Also like the contractor, you should contact the people you will work with early, to both introduce yourself and educate yourself as to what they will require of you.

That being said, let's pretend we are in pre-production, and look first at some of the personnel used in production, and how they can affect post-production costs by what they do or don't do. Then we'll break up post into the individual areas, and look at what each area needs from you, as well as possible problems that could arise.

In a perfect world, every production would have complete crews, ideal conditions, and delicious buffets. I know that this is usually not the case. Both you and your crew often have to wear many hats during the film project--but I will refer to each task as an individual and separate function here.

Production Tasks:

Director of Photography

DP's have a lot on their plates. They are responsible to take the creative vision of the director and apply that to the literal vision of the film. They must understand the workings of the camera, the filters, the set-ups, and lighting, and manipulate all of it in order to create a distinct visual point of view.

They must be able to communicate effectively with the laboratory timer, first about the dailies, and later about the answer print. The DP should know that a slightly overexposed negative is preferable to a slightly underexposed negative. In the jargon of the laboratory, the more 'meat' the negative has (1/2 to 1 stop over exposed), the more the laboratory timer has to work with.

From a post-production point of view, the DP's job comes down to balance. Balanced lighting gives balanced color & density, which gives a balanced negative.

Camera Operator

The operator looks through the view finder when the camera is rolling and keeps the shot framed, making sure nothing unwanted comes into frame and everything wanted stays in frame. Even if you can afford a color video tap, the operator knows better than anyone what the camera is seeing.

He or she should make sure that all slates are well-lighted, in focus, and in frame-including the clapper. Syncing without being able to see a clapper closing, or with unreadable slate information, can be a difficult process. Trying to find takes in the negative without readable slates can cause unnecessary delays.

Assistant Cameraman

I realize that your camera loader or focus puller may also be your assistant cameraman (or vice-versa). In this area, there are two other sometimes overlooked issues. One is correctly writing camera reports. Be certain that:

  1. 1) Camera reports are identified with correct information (roll #, camera #, title, company, date, circled takes, print all, process for video xfer, etc.).

    2) Any special needs are identified in writing (ie. pushes, or pulls in developing).

    3) You identify unusual shots, weird filters, day for night shots, etc.

    4) When you are shooting in both color and black-and-white that you are careful not to mix them up. Identify them correctly. Negative processed in the wrong bath will make you an unhappy camper.

The other issue is that of using "short ends". Every production has them, and every production should use them. Used correctly, short ends are great for pick-up shots, cut-aways, transitions, and anything you forgot to shoot during primary production. Short ends can save the filmmaker a ton of money. Used incorrectly, however, short ends can cost the filmmaker that same ton of money and then some.

The key to all this is being certain that all short ends are head-out for shooting. The reason is, there are latent key numbers (keykode & bar code) on one side of the negative. In other words, they were created when the negative was made, but only become visible when the negative is processed (developed). They are located on one side of the negative only, and count in ascending order from the head of the roll.

All negative manufactured by both Kodak and Fuji is shipped heads out, and therefore in the right position. Short ends are sometimes wound out of the magazines (in the dark). That would mean they are then 'tails out', and if shot that way would have the key numbers on the wrong side of the negative. The numbers would also run in descending order from the "head" of the roll.

If you are workprinting for editing, this problem can be overcome be asking the laboratory to print "key lites" of both sides of the negative. The lab normally only prints the "key lites" on the "head-out" side of the negative.By printing both "key lites", you have overcome any 'tails-out' negative.

This is not the case if you are transferring to video for a digital non-linear edit. The bar-code reader on the telecine machine only reads the bar-code from one side of the negative. If your numbers (bar-code) are on the other side, you can be shucks-outa-luck, having a video transfer with no relationship to the key numbers for the negative cutter.

If you do get caught in this web, there are two possible solutions: the first is to have these rolls transferred with a footage count rather than the normal keykode. This would create a relationship back to the negative once the edit is complete. The other (I'm told this works, but have no practical experience), is to transfer the film base (cell) up. Then, while editing, flop the shots used from this roll to put them in the right position. Trust me--it's a whole lot better to shoot the rolls correctly in the first place.

Focus Puller

It's all in the name. Soft-focus shots can be a killer. If you are editing with workprint, you can project your dailies, but you are learning about a problem after the fact. At least you can re-shoot during production. Without workprint (in the digital world of non-linear editing), it is extremely easy to miss a "soft shot" until the negative is cut and you are looking at the answer print. This is not a good time to find out.


The dexterity and competency of your camera loader dictates whether or not you have captured an image on film at the end of the day. Any type of fogging can render a scene unusable, and edge fog is the easiest to create and the most insidious in nature. The image may be usable, but with the key numbers and/or the bar code fogged and unreadable, problems can occur during telecine transfer (if digital editing), and again when cutting the negative. The laboratory will usually alert the filmmaker to the problem, but that can't save what is already fogged. Note: A bad magazine or camera can also be the culprit. It is always wise to run some test footage through the equipment you will use.

Also, if the slate information is written inaccurately or it cannot be read, it can make syncing dailies, and finding a certain take in your negative, difficult. If the clapper is not kept closed after making the clap, if the bottom half of the clapper is in motion during the clap, or it the slate is moved out of focus, out of the light, or out of the frame when it is clapped syncing can be complicated. Sometimes the clapper can clap the slate too early, requiring "second sticks". In that case he or she should know to signify it with a hand signal. If it is a tail slate the clapper should know to hold the slate upside-down.

Sound Recorder

As important as a good image is to a film, the sound is even more so. The reason for this has to do with the difference between visual perception when compared to aural perception. For whatever reason, our internal sensibilities give more latitude to visual problems than to audio ones.

Properly recorded production sound can make daily syncing easier, editing faster, reduce or eliminate the need for ADR (Automatic Dialogue Replacement), supply the always-important ambient background sound, furnish necessary effects, and produce the necessary dialogue.

The sound recorder is relied upon to correctly identify the take verbally, record it in its entirety (including the clap of the slate closing), let the director know of any potential problems, and be able to correctly fill out the sound reports. Poorly recorded sound can compromise an otherwise excellent take. Unidentified or incorrectly identified slate information can cause problems when syncing dailies.

An Overview of Editing

There are three distinct paths that editing can take--the physical (workprint editing), the virtual (digital non-linear) editing, or some combination of the two. If you are doing it yourself, the decision is often based on what you're most comfortable with, and what your budget is.

I ran a cost comparison between the two formats (workprint & digital), and found very little cost difference. That was using an Avid or Lightworks system for the digital side of the comparison. With the new desktop software systems now available (like FilmLogic and Slingshot), I would have to say that the cost question favors the digital side. Yet even with your budget favoring the digital path, there are a number of issues that you need to be aware of. This is covered comprehensively in Andy Compares Digital and Workprint Editing.

If we look at how editing happens from the cash money angle, going from top to bottom, it would look like this:

  1. 1) BIG BUDGETS IN EXCESS OF $10 MILLION (funny, I used to say $5 million). In production they print select takes and transfer tracks. The dailies are synched up, and transferred to video. The video is digitized into either an Avid or Lightworks digital non-linear editing system. The film dailies are also screened by the major players (director, DP, editor, the producers) to insure that everything is satisfactory. After the rough cut is completed on the digital system, a cut list is produced, and the assistant editor conforms the physical workprint to the digitally output edit decision list. Sometimes simple effects are created (fades and dissolves), and dropped in the edited workprint. After the rough cut is reviewed in a screening room, a fine cut is done on the digital non-linear system, and then on the edited workprint is conformed once again. When everyone is satisfied, the workprint is used as the guide for the sound edit, effects edit, music edit, and the negative cut.

  2. 2) AVERAGE BUDGETS OF WELL-FUNDED INDEPENDENT FILMS--USUALLY $2 TO $10 MILLION. They usually follow the same editorial path as their big-budget cousins.

  3. 3) SMALL BUDGETS (NOT-SO WELL-FUNDED INDEPENDENTS)--GENERALLY $1 TO 2 MILLION. They have a decent budget, but have to be a little more selective with what they're spending their money on. What they normally do is pull select takes from the negative after the digital non-linear editing is completed (on the Avid or Lightworks). Those select takes are printed, and conformed to the digital edit. This allows the filmmaking team to see the project on the screen prior to either cutting the negative or mixing the sound. Any fine cuts are then done on the edited workprint, and it is used as the guide for the sound mix and the negative cut.

  4. 4) MOW'S (MOVIES OF THE WEEK) have strict guidelines that generally hold the budget to $1 million. Depending on the producer, they will often follow the same path as the small-budget films.

  5. 5) TRUE INDIES (MINI-BUDGETS) are working with little budget, and often don't have all of the finishing funds. Sometimes it may take these productions as long as 2 years to grind through all of the different areas of post. Generally the editing takes the form of whatever is available for little or no cost. Either it is completely workprinted and edited on a flatbed, or transferred to video and edited digitally on a non-linear system. The workprint method still allows you to see the project on the big screen, the digital edit does not. This can become a problem.

  6. 6) NO-BUDGET (NO FORMAL FINANCING PLAN). These productions usually plan on a digital edit and output to video to create interest in the film and generate finishing funds through a new wave of investment.

I feel that the preferable way of editing is a combination of digital (for speed and ease) and workprint editing (for accuracy and reliability). You may not have the budget that enables you to do it, but by understanding the possible pitfalls, you can minimize headaches during post-production.

Areas of Post-Production:

Post-Production Supervisor Laboratory Video Transfer Facility
Editor Assistant Editor Negative Cutter
Titles Opticals Special Effects
ADR/Foley Sound Editor/Mixer Optical Sound Track


Post-Production Supervisor

Not every production can afford a post-production supervisor. This is one of the reasons that we at Andy Pratt Negative Cutting act as informal advisors for our clients. If you can afford one, a post supervisor is normally hired during pre-production, and has the responsibility of locating the various individuals or companies needed during post. During production, the post supervisor coordinates with the production crew, the laboratory, and the editorial staff. During post-production, he or she oversees the entire post process and delivers it all on a specific timeline, within the budget. The post supervisor should have a basic understanding of each of the different processes required during post-production (including the time each stage takes), and the ability to work with the different companies. The greatest error a post-production supervisor can make is assuming. Due to the number of different areas of post, and the level of coordination required among them, assuming anything can cause lost time and the sudden hemorrhaging of money.