Final Cut Pro Editing Starts Before The Shooting Stops - Tips To First Time Filmmakers
In the past decade, digital video, Final Cut Pro, and YouTube have made film making accessible to anyone with a video camera and a Mac. In the 90’s, the budget for a shoestring feature could run tens of thousands of dollars; today that same feature could be shot so cheaply it would make El Mariachi’s reputed $7,000 budget seem opulent.
The bad news is that a lot more people with nothing to say are going to say it publicly (if you doubt me, just go to YouTube and search “zit”). However, the good news is that many artists who are serious about ideas and cinema, and the craft of film making, have an unprecedented opportunity-the chance to put our vision out there and let the public determine its value.
During eight years of freelancing as a Final Cut Pro editor and technical consultant, I have watched the same scenario play out again and again: a client, passionate about a project, has his (or her) first meeting with an editor after the project has already been shot; he is convinced that his twelve hours of footage can be organized in a day, edited in a week, and, at that time, he will receive a finished program that perfectly mirrors what he has pictured in his mind’s eye.
He will then mail it off to Sundance, just days ahead of the submission deadline. Six weeks later, when his picture is finally getting locked for sound, that client is invariably reeling from the tough lesson reality has just taught him, and I think to myself, “Why didn’t you come talk to us before you shot? We could have knocked two weeks off the edit and you would have gone into production better prepared.”
What follows is the talk we never had. It is what I would like to tell every first-time filmmaker before the first day of photography.
Talk First, Shoot Later
Low budget film shoots are frenzied experiences, in which all hands are on deck and everyone is hyper focused. There are familiar refrains: “Hurry, before we lose the light!” or “Hurry, before we lose our lead!” or “Hurry, before that cop asks to see our location permit!” In the drama of the moment, there is incredible pressure to drop what seem like time-wasting formalities: shooting legible camera slates, recording good room tone, penning the sample rate into the sound report. But these details add up, and omitting them can add days and weeks onto the post production schedule…if you are using professional editors. Even if, on the other hand, you plan cut the picture yourself, maintaining organized records and media is still extremely important.
Consider this scenario: in order to save money and time, you have verbally slated your shots, forgoing visual slates. You bring the footage into Final Cut the fast way-one whole tape or card at a time, without labeling any individual scene and take numbers. But it’s alright, because you only shot five hours of footage and anyway you have a pretty good recollection of the takes you want to use and where they are located. After two months, you have a cut put together.
Then, you show it to your best friend’s sister, who happens to work for Fox Searchlight. She takes a look and thinks that Fox would be interested in acquiring your film, if you could make it run faster, funnier, and a half hour shorter. And, could you have a new version ready to screen in two weeks’ time? You boot up your Mac and start to look for alternate ways to structure the film. Eighteen hours later, as you stare at your timeline through bloodshot eyes, you realize that you have hundreds of changes to make and you don’t have six weeks to search through all of your footage for new shots and takes.
You post on Craigslist, and an editor emails you saying that she can work with your schedule and budget. Then you take the drive to her office and open up the project…only to have her ask, “What am I looking at?” Even a highly trained professional is limited in how quickly she can work when facing a reedit with hundreds of clips cryptically titled 0003T2, 0004T2, etc. In order to avoid the likelihood of this scenario happening, here are a few suggestions-think of them as good shooting practices for shorter, cheaper, smoother post production periods:
Visually slate every take with legible, consistent labels. The reason for doing this is it makes logging and editing go faster. If the assistant editor can quickly find and read each slate, then he or she will be able to blaze through the footage. Think of it this way: if good slates shave a minute off logging for every shot, and you have 200 shots, you will have saved nearly a day. This is even more important when recording sound separately or on a backup device-such as a DAT or a Fostex-be sure that your sync markers are clean and in the frame. Otherwise, final cut pro x effects will be forced to spend extra time locating another sync reference.
Insist on accurate records of camera and sound settings, and write them down in the camera and sound reports. Panasonic’s HVX200 camcorder has 12 different shooting modes; 2 of them are 24 FPS (frames per second) modes, but only one, 720pn24, can be edited natively in a 24 FPS timeline when you ingest from a p2 card; the other mode, 720p24, ingests at 60 FPS. Good communication with your director of photography is key. When you-or the editor-get accurate camera and sound information at the start of logging, it further ensures a smooth, short prep time for the edit and helps to avert a scenario of, say, blowing a day trying to figure out why you cannot pull the excess frames out of your supposed 24 FPS footage. “Isn’t it the editor’s responsibility to know this stuff cold?” you may ask. Certainly a professional editor should be familiar with the current formats; he should also do his homework when working with new and emerging ones, but if an editor gets bad information and is told it is accurate-the ensuing confusion needlessly wastes precious time and money.