When it comes to watching a movie, film buffs and casual fans alike might wonder what it takes to put one together. Besides the actual filming itself, some are likely more aware of pre-production and the planning involved rather than its more obscure sibling: post-production.
To those unfamiliar with the video production process, post-production may only be known as a fancy synonym for the term editing. This misconception couldn’t be further from the truth: not only is editing more elaborate than it sounds, but pre-production also involves a considerable number of stages beyond that. In this article, we’ll break down the ever-elusive post-production process that goes towards creating the films you know and love.
To begin with, post-production is the final stage of production. This comprises a collaborative process where the piece is handed from one stage to the next, from editing, to sound, to visual effects. At each stage, the film is continuously polished to perfection before it’s distributed for screening. Given how elaborate this process is, it’s understandable that it can take tediously long, from weeks to even years to complete. Even the well known Avatar movie took more than a decade to produce, given the visual effects the movie demanded!
For a brief overview, these are the numerous stages under post-production:
As mundane as this may sound, preparing reliable storage is the most important step to post-production. This should be carried out the moment filming wraps up, and isn’t any old ‘drag and drop’ job either. Missing files could delay or even jeopardise the whole film entirely. It’s best to have professional software installed for storage, especially given the sheer volume of space films require for storage. Though hard drives work, it’s ideal to have a RAID (redundant array of independent disks) which backs up your footage in the event you happen to lose any of your files. At this stage, files are also labelled to ensure smoother editing later on without having to sieve through countless unnamed files.
Editing commences once all the materials have been properly secured and prepped. This occurs in two phases: picture editing and sound editing.
Picture editing involves putting all the pieces together. The editor first assembles a rough cut of the film using raw footage, before going into great depth into deciding which frame goes where and their duration. This may take several revisions given that picture editing sets the stage for the pacing and rhythm of the entire film.
Though Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere Pro may be more familiar editing software to some, our own resident editor Jovin Chiang recommends DaVinci Resolve (DVR). DVR is fantastic for efficiency, streamlining the editing workflow through the ability to compare different frames within the same clip and smooth user interface among other features.
Once the editor is happy with their edit, this final revision (known as the answer print) locks the picture and is sent over to the next level of post-production: sound editing.
Sound editing further cleans up the footage firstly through removing any unwanted background noise, followed by cutting dialogue, assembling audio tracks, and adding sound effects where needed. Where some audio can’t be saved however, actors may have to come back to the studio to re-record their original dialogue, known as automated dialogue replacement.
Ambient sound might also be added through foley art. Named after sound-effects artist Jack Foley, this technique refers to the addition of audio to film to enhance the auditory experience for viewers. Ambient sounds like footsteps or slamming doors could be recreated: the best foley art should go unnoticed by the audience. Take a look at this video by Great Big Story to have a look at how foley artists find creative ways to recreate certain sounds.
Music selection could make or break a film. They are a key determinant in setting the mood and eliciting specific emotive reactions from the audience, depending on song choice and placement. Think about how Smash Mouth’s All Star (Somebody once told me…) will forever be associated with Shrek (2001), or Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On will likely remind you of Titanic (1997). The perfect song captures a film at its core, and audiences will never fail to appreciate that.
Another option for music would be creating an original soundtrack, which often saves the time and money that would otherwise go into jumping through hoops to secure licensing and publishing rights. This is beneficial in its own right too, with Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) film score launched into iconic status since its release.
Once the music is finalised, sound mixers adjust the volume levels between the footages’ audio, added ambient sound effects, and music to ensure everything is as it should be. Dialogue should be crystal clear, (intentional) ambient noise should be heard but not in the foreground and music shouldn’t be too distracting from the image.
Visual effects, or VFX, can only begin to be incorporated once the picture is fully locked, since VFX artists have to work frame by frame: if anything is changed, they’d have to start all over. VFX is added to include elements that would otherwise be impossible to film in real life. Though this is more commonly known for bringing mythical creatures and beings to life, they could actually be used for more seamless (and unnoticeable!) digital backgrounds as well. Netflix’s Vincenzo, for instance, uses green and blue screens to create Italian landscapes in a time of COVID-19, where production wasn’t able to fly to Italy for filming.
At this point, the end is in sight. The film is sent to a colourist, who first colour corrects it. This entails fixing any glaring issues with the picture, including standardising variations in colour across different times, locations, and even cameras. Colour correcting could also mean mending an overexposed or underexposed shot, mending the white balance, the contrast, skin tones, and more. All of this is done so as to create a blank canvas of sorts—a neutral baseline for the colourist to get their real work done: the colour grading.
Where colour correcting might be more technical in nature, this part of the process is more artistic in which it sets out to achieve a particular emotion or aesthetic throughout the video. The look may involve changes in saturation, or colouring towards specific colour profiles. Other changes in this stage include colour separation, vignetting, or even adding film grain for a more retro look if intended. Colour further enhances the mood set by music added in earlier.
The film is more or less done! Here, the editors are responsible for the finishing touches of creating the title cards, credits, and any other graphics needed.
The opening title card often gives editors more room to play around with in terms of creativity and freedom. These titles are the first thing the viewer will see in the film, so it’s crucial for it to set the tone appropriately to prepare the viewer and their expectations for what’s coming next.
Conversely, professionalism and accuracy are more important when it comes to end credits. There is an unspoken, but strict hierarchy to the order of these closing credits as explained by Film Riot here. Some editors do play around with end credits though, with closing graphics or bloopers playing while the credits roll. Even Marvel movies are famous for the extra scenes they reliably add after the end credits, almost as a reward to viewers for sitting through it!
With that, the film is complete! All that’s left is preparation for distribution, which unfortunately, is more work than it sounds. First, a Music and Effects track needs to be provided for distribution, without dialogue, to make dubbing in different languages possible. Of course, this means that the dialogue script (with time stamps!) must be provided as well. Not only is this crucial for dubbing, but also makes subtitling much easier for the person tasked with them. A Digital Cinema Package will then finally be sent out to theaters, which is a hard drive containing the final copy of the film encoded.
First impressions are everything. What viewers will first see is not the film itself, but the posters and trailers found in the media—which are what will lead them to decide if it’s worth watching to begin with. As such, like the title cards, it’s crucial that these advertising materials reflect the essence of the film well to entice viewers. Take a look at this editing video by Editing Is Everything. Though IT (2017) is clearly classified as a horror film, the magic of editing can change it into almost any other genre. Whether the trailer will set up accurate impressions or surprise you, it really depends on how the editing team chooses to capture the film!
Now that you know a little more about movie post-production, perhaps take a closer look at your favourite movies and you might notice the editing or colour choices that makes your film so special. Grab your popcorn and enjoy the show!
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