After several iterations of increasingly detailed tweaking of the edited form of the footage, there must come a point (else the film would never be finished) where you say, “OK – this is it”. From this point forth, the visual and audio clips are set in stone on the timeline, never again to be tampered with.
This is what is known in filmmaking terminology as the ‘final cut’ or ‘picture lock’ stage, and it is cause for major celebration (woohoo!).
However! It is not the end of the process. Not by a long shot. Here’s a run-down of what happens next – specifically in the case of Karun, for which we’ve achieved picture lock and are now right in the middle of these important finishing stages.
How An Edited Film Is Finished & Polished
The work that happens here will be invisible to the eventual viewer if it’s done well. That’s probably the reason many laypeople assume putting a film together is a linear process, in which you start with your raw material and work frame by frame or shot by shot from the start to the end, at which point your film is finished.
It’s an easy mistake to make, especially if you’ve only ever seen professionally-made films which are effortless to watch. But nothing could be further than the truth.
As mentioned in previous updates, the post-production stage of a film is iterative. If you’re in charge of the basic editing process of putting clips together, you will by the end have watched versions of the same film several dozen times (if not several hundred), each time focusing on one specific scene, story theme, transition, music track, or one of many other innumerable elements that make up a film.
What happens after the edit is more of the same. The difference is that we’re now at the stage of polishing and packaging the finished cut, turning it from a raw and unrefined story into an experience that people will effortlessly be able to consume.
Sound Editing & Audio Mixing
The first major job is sound editing. While assembling the footage, the editor will usually do a rough job of this. But the art of sound editing is a profession all of its own, and once the final cut is in the bag, one of the first things that happens is that the audible part of the timeline is lifted out in its entirety, together with any atmospheric noise recordings and sound effects, and sent to a professional sound editor.
The sound editor will then spend several days sitting in a specially-designed room equipped with one of the most accurate sound systems known to mankind. He or she will go through the film with a fine tooth comb, smoothing out the transitions between one clip and another, ensuring that dialogue is neither too loud or too quiet, adding or replacing sound effects where necessary, and attempting to remove as much unwanted noise (often wind noise) as possible – which it should be pointed out is no substitute for doing one’s best to record clean audio at the time of shooting.
A related job is that of audio mixing. Most documentary films incorporate music of some description on top of the natural sound recorded on location. Once this natural sound has been polished, the music needs to be incorporated into the soundtrack, and mixing is largely about getting the right balance of dialogue, atmospheric noise, sound effects and music at any given point in the film. Sometimes this involves sitting behind a formidable-looking mixing desk, doing one’s best to look really impressive. Increasingly, however, the equivalent work is done using computer software.
Karun has, at the time of writing, been through two iterations of sound editing and audio mixing, and it’s almost there, with just a couple more tweaks needed.
It’s worth reiterating (sorry, too much iteration now) that the purpose of this work – for which we have budgeted several hundred pounds – is purely to ensure that you don’t notice anything while you’re experiencing the finished film.
This might sound counterintuitive. But consider the alternative, which is that we pay no attention whatsoever to the audio tracks of the film. In this form, your experience would be interrupted every few seconds by thoughts like, “that’s too loud”, “I can’t hear what he’s saying”, “it’s so noisy” – or, quite simply, “something’s not right”. That’s not what we want.
Colour Correction & Grading
Which leads us very nicely into colour correction, a.k.a. ‘grading’, which is where we’ll be going with Karun next week.
Another art form all of its own, and commanding correspondingly high respect and demand in the industry, grading is first and foremost the art of making the visuals look consistent for the duration of the film. The end result should be a viewing experience which is not interrupted by constant thoughts of “that shot looks wrong”.
When you’re shooting footage, particularly in a reality-based documentary scenario, even the best cameraman’s efforts to nail the various technical aspects of the picture (exposure, white balance, gain, etc.) will rarely be perfect 100% of the time. It’s not just about the cameraman, either – changing environmental conditions, the time of day, presence of artificial light, and often simply the lack of available light altogether, all conspire to create a tapestry of raw footage which does not sit well together in its raw, unmanipulated form.
The first job of a grader is to fix these inconsistencies, working with a bunch of highly specialised tools to smooth out the overall viewing experience to the point where it’s no longer noticeable. Like background noise, there’s no substitute for shooting the best possible picture at the time – overexposed or out-of-focus images are impossible to fix even by the most sophisticated software and operator.
The second job of a grader is optional because it depends on the stylistic vision of the director. This is where a picture (or more commonly an entire scene) is tinted, filtered and otherwise manipulated to give it a specific ‘look’. A few years ago, this would have required an elaborate explanation, but today I can simply compare the process to applying an Instagram filter to your smartphone photo, only with a much higher level of control.
Entire movies have depended on the technique. Think of the green hue present throughout The Matrix, which only lifts once we’re in ‘the real world’. Or perhaps you never consciously noticed that hue (a sign that it was done very well) – yet it did the job of making you feel that something fundamental about that place and time wasn’t quite right. The subconscious effect of stylistic colour grading probably happens a lot more often than you think.
Karun is a naturalistic film, and so only very light stylistic grading is likely to be used, perhaps for emphasising temperature or time of day at various points in the story. If it’s done well, you won’t notice.
Rio Santa Cruz, on the other hand, is emerging as more of a personal and emotionally-charged piece, so it’s likely that it’ll benefit more from this kind of grading. The editing of this film is not yet complete, however, so we’ll see what happens when the time comes…
If you have any questions about this stage of the adventure filmmaking process, no matter how small, feel free to ask away in the comments.