They say a film is written three times. Once as a script, again during production and finally in the edit. It’s important to understand the workflows behind editing so that you can focus on being an incredible storyteller and help put your creative stamp on the final product.
First, we organize…
The first step of any successful post-production workflow is organization. It begins with thinking about your workspace. How will you collaborate with the director, do you want to sit side by side at the computer, or will you need a client monitor for them to view? Do you prefer that directors can see your screens? Thinking about how you plan to layout your workspace can make the months of post-production and the long work days more satisfying.
Second, decide on who you plan to hire to be your assistant editor(s). Assistant editors are the cornerstone of a great editing workflow. They organize, manage, and generally take care of all of the things an editor needs to be able to solely focus on storytelling. A typical assistant editor can do anything from basic computer help, to tackling rough sound effects, foley, music cutting, timeline organization, syncing and labeling, creating hyper-specific stringouts of certain scenes, but most importantly they can be a steady hand to help the editor through the complex process of getting a film edited on time. After the editor goes home, the assistants are still there checking on the renders, doing a quality check on anything being sent out, and updating logbooks, task chains, and any other tools you have set up in your workflow to keep tabs on where you are in the schedule.
Don’t underestimate the importance of a terrific assistant editor.
Making sure you have a clear and organized action plan in advance of receiving footage is a great way to start a job off on the right foot.
Finally, get your software set up. No matter what NLE you plan to use, whether it’s Premiere, Avid, Resolve, or FCPX, make sure you have all of your tools on the correct version. Once you start creating project files and ingesting footage, it may be too complex to update.
Second, receiving footage…
As the days of production carry on, you’ll begin to receive footage in the edit bay. Typically footage is synced and organized by an assistant editor, but depending on the size of your team and budget, this may be something you are doing.
Regardless of who does the sync work, when footage arrives this is your first opportunity to watch everything and take notes. Every editor has their own way of taking notes, from using markers on the timeline to flashcards on a wall to good old-fashioned pen and paper.
Using markers on the timeline to indicate significant moments in the footage
Now that you have the footage in hand, you can begin making a visual map of the film. Many editors like to create a visual board of images indicating what a scene is and where it goes in the grand scheme of the film.
Third, begin your edit…
Now comes the time to actually edit the movie. As you receive footage on a daily basis from the production, it’s important to be cutting that footage just as rapidly as it arrives. This is known as “keeping up to camera.” Oftentimes on larger film productions a director and the producers will take time during their day to watch what was cut from yesterday's production footage so that they know what direction the film is heading in.
These edits are done quickly so they are limited in terms of any visual effects, motion graphics or major sound design elements.
This initial editing stage can look different for every editor as each project is unique and requires a thoughtful approach to what is being filmed. For instance, if you are working on a huge VFX-heavy project, you may only receive bits and pieces of footage that cover necessary plate shots across various scenes, compared to a scene that is done completely practically and contains several pages of scripted dialogue.
Making sure you are using bins and keeping footage organized is crucial during this stage.
Using bins to keep scene clips organized
You may lean on your assistant editor to help you create stringouts of each scene. Sometimes you may even wish to create a line breakdown, a sort of timeline that uses edits or markers to easily find all of the performances of a single line of dialogue.
An example of a line breakdown, something you might create for each scene that easily breaks down the dialogue into smaller, more manageable groups for editing
Generally feature-length films are edited in smaller chunks, known as reels. This is to prevent your editing software from having to do too much heavy lifting in a single timeline. These individual reels are later combined into one single final film.
Next, you iterate…
By the time the film has completed principal photography, you are likely to have an assembly edit of the film to screen for the director. This might be the first time anyone has sat down and watched the film from top to bottom uninterrupted, and it will likely be the worst version of the film imaginable.
Don’t worry though! Because it is time to iterate and improve. Working hand in hand with the director, the editor spends weeks working on every nuance of the film, adjusting scenes, manipulating performances, rearranging story beats, and creating the tone. This is where the film truly comes to life.
Every film has a different scope, some films are short and some are long, some directors may be very detail-oriented while others make quick work of revisions. Generally, you can expect this process to last about 3 months, but because of the disparity in project size from one film to another, this is just a rough estimate. For instance, James Cameron spent 10 years working on Avatar 2 utilizing footage captured across that entire timeframe to make the final product.
It’s time to finish your film…
There are several major steps along the finishing process that all have unique intricacies.
- Music composition
- Sound design
- Visual effects
- Color grading
Each of these components directly relates to the edit, while simultaneously being completed by external teams.
As the editor, you are part of the team that helps coordinate and oversee all of these different departments. Now that the film is coming to life and nearing a picture lock, it’s time to loop in these valuable team members.
Your music composer will likely request a cut of each reel with a timecode. They’ll often prefer to have a version of the movie that includes the existing temporary music cues you may have used in the edit along with a version that does not, known as a dry export.
A simple trick you can do for cutting down the necessary exported files is to simply pan all of your dialogue and sound effects to the left side of your stereo output, and pan all of the music to the right side of your stereo output. This way the composer can isolate each track on their own and disable it as needed.
During the editing process, you’ll be doing what are known as sound turnovers. This is the process of exporting your reels in a format that can be readable by your sound design team.
Your sound designer will provide specific turnover specs, however, a good rule of thumb for any non-linear editing software is to:
- Remove any nested, grouped or multicam audio and replace it with the original audio files. Your editing software should have an easy way of doing this, however in Premiere if you are looking for a helpful tool in this process we recommend checking out Grave Robber.
- Make sure to enable any disabled clips. During the editing process, you may have disabled certain audio clips, however, you will want to make sure your sound designers have every audio file so they can work their magic.
- Provide reference video. Most sound designers will prefer a ProRes or DNX export that includes burn-in timecode (BITC). A helpful note for your reels is that each reel should have a timecode where the number in the hour column matches the number of the reel. For instance, reel four would begin at 04:00:00:00.
- Include a countdown and 2-pop so that your sound files have an easy way to identify if they are in sync.
Your visual effects workflow will vary greatly from project to project. Whether you are working on a smaller film where the visual effects are being done by you, the editor, or a major production where a team of thousands of artists are painstakingly rotoscoping every shot, the important thing is to stay organized.
Visual effects shots can number in the thousands. Using a numbered tracking system for every shot and building a database of shots with notes and a status column will help you keep tabs on what you have, don’t have, and need to follow up on.
Finally, after your film is edited and all of the visual effects are in place, the film will undergo a detailed color grading session with a professional colorist.
Color grading is the art of creating the look of a film. Matching skin tones from shot to shot, scene to scene. Crafting the very essence of the way the light interacts with the highlights, midtones and shadows. Setting color consistency across the board. All of these components are critical to creating a seamless viewing experience for the audience.
Along the way, this is where you may be doing special techniques like adding film grain emulation, or denoising the footage. Tools like Neat Video can integrate directly into your editing software to help with denoising footage.
The final export
Now that your film is done and edited it’s time to finally export it. For personal screenings a standard h264 file is going to work just fine, however, for theatrical runs, you will likely be creating a DCP.
This is a special format known as a Digital Cinema Package, and although there are third-party tools that help you create this on your own, you will want to leave the creation of a DCP to a professional. It’s important to budget this into your costs as most theaters will require this in order to screen the film.
Don’t forget to enjoy the process
Don’t forget to take a breath during this process. It is lengthy, complicated, and challenging. Make sure to find a team that you like, that can support you through the process, and most of all make the long working days fun.