A film’s post production process can get complicated. Let’s break it down so you have a clearer understanding of the steps involved.
To begin watch this video to explore the different stages of post production for cinema – from the editing all the way to delivery, audio and archival:
Good post production should be an extension of your pre-production and production. Things just flow naturally from one step to the next.
If you’re new to post production, you can quickly read this:
In this article we’ll deal with each aspect of post production one by one.
Post-production is the collection, organization and coherent unification of all the elements of a film.
The end result is called a Master. From this master, you create Deliverables.
Don’t worry if you don’t understand some of these terms. All will be explained shortly. Keep reading!
The 7 media elements of post production
Post production can be broken down into two major halves, both equally important:
They might be tackled separately (movies) or together (videos), but they are never tackled at the same time. They need their own time, attention and expertise.
Both of these can be broken down into two further simple classifications:
- What you have
- What you don’t have
What you have is what you’ve accumulated through production. What you don’t have is what you need to find or create in the post production phase.
Right. You have visuals that you’ve shot, and visuals that need to be found, shot or made. You have audio that you have recorded on location, and audio that needs to be created. That’s a total of four ‘categories’ of media. The fifth media element is music.
With these five you have a complete film. But it’s not enough. Nowadays you also need captions/subtitles, and you need stills and videos from your shoot for marketing.
Here’s the complete list:
- Visuals you have already shot
- Visuals that have to be created
- Audio that has been recorded on location
- Audio that has to be created
- Production Stills and Videos
The four stages of post production
Pre-production doesn’t have a linear or step-by-step structure. But post production is (thankfully) quite linear (unless you want to make it hard on yourself).
I like to break post production down into four major stages:
- The Assembly Stage
- The Mixing Stage
- The Mastering Stage
- Creating the Deliverables
Here’s a full overview for reference (click to enlarge):
The Assembly Stage
Let’s tackle visuals and audio separately:
Hopefully you’ve shot everything you need during the production (principle photography) stage. You might also have had a second (or more) unit shooting additional footage.
Side note: If you have had a production stills photographer on set, he or she would have shot production stills that you will need. Even if you’re shooting boring videos for the internet, you can ask someone to photograph yourself doing it for your website, business or blog.
If you have screwed up big-time on any shot, you might need to re-shoot those. Re-shoots are usually known prior to post-production, which is why it belongs in the first column.
In post production you might realize you need a few more shots to tell your story. Since the budget usually doesn’t allow for a full crew, you might be able to get away with a few important close-ups, reaction shots and takeaway shots. These are called pick-ups.
What you haven’t shot will need to be created. This includes CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) of all kinds – 2D or 3D. You might also need to license stock footage from libraries, individuals or governmental organizations.
Finally, you’ll need to key footage whose backgrounds need to be replaced.
Any other preparatory work for the next stage will be done now. This includes creating masks, mattes, rotoscoping, tracking, motion compensation, transcoding, syncing, ingesting, entering metadata, logging and everything else you might need.
What you’re doing is ensuring you have all the pieces of the puzzle before you start putting it together.
You do the same for audio.
If your project has sync sound, you might have recorded dialogue on set. If your production sound mixer is a professional, he or she would have recorded location pick-ups – these are audio samples (sound effects) of objects, events, ‘space’, noise, and anything else of value that the location provided.
ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement) and/or ‘Dubbing’, is the process of recording dialogue in a studio. Some movies do wall-to-wall ADR, while others only need to cover up for poorly recorded audio. Voice overs are also recorded this way.
Side note: Dubbing is usually referred to as ADR but in a different language. E.g., if your film is in English, and the actor is replacing dialogue in studio, it’s called ADR. But if another actor records the dialogue in Spanish, that’s dubbing. However, in India (Bollywood), ADR is called dubbing.
Foley is the process of creating sound effects that haven’t been recorded as pick-ups. These could include anything you need to tell the story or create an effect. People who specialize in this are called Foley artists. They usually need bigger audio studios because of the physical nature of creating audio (I’ve seen tiny foley rooms).
Finally, there are sounds that cannot be created through any physical recording, and have to be created electronically. It could be for any number of reasons, both artistic and functional. These are created using a synthesizer and or software.
Music has a special place in any production. You either purchase a license for music (or get one ‘royalty-free’), or create your own. The person who does this is the Music Composer.
Music involves its own recording – instruments, vocals, effects, and so on. These might be done together (orchestra) or separately.
All said and done, if you’ve carried out the Assembly Stage correctly, you’ll have all the raw material you need to produce your movie.
Sometimes, due to various reasons, you cannot proceed so systematically. After all, most filmmakers being human beings cannot focus on too many things at the same time.
To help with all the moving pieces we have the Post Production Supervisor. This person controls the post production schedule and budget, and makes sure everything goes where they belong.
The Mixing Stage
Just as with any other stage, we divide this into visuals and audio.
What is film editing?
The process of selecting, trimming and ordering visuals to tell a story is called film editing.
Your aim is to tell your story in the best way possible with what you’ve shot.
Ideally, you’ll have all the pieces of your project in one location, under the disposal of the Editor. The more material you have ready, the better your editor can work. An inspired and experienced editor can sometimes create brilliant juxtapositions of footage you never knew existed.
But these magical juxtapositions cannot be created with material that you don’t have.
Shots involving VFX and CGI will be mixed together, a process known as Compositing. The editor shouldn’t have to care which shots involve VFX and which don’t. Each shot is equally important in a finished film.
Some projects will include titles, descriptions and other simplified graphics and effects. These are called Motion Graphics, and are typically done after the edit is locked.
Once the project is edited and locked, it is moved to the color grading suite (or on the same computer), under the watchful eyes of the Colorist.
The colorist tries to match shots and give them life, new meaning, etc. This process is called color grading. More about it here:
Sound recorded on location and created in post production needs to be assembled, edited and cleaned. This process is called Sound Editing. It is important enough to have an Oscar category of its own.
A good sound editor is like a good video editor, knowing when to put what, and how. It’s only those who have never done it who complain about its importance.
Once the audio is edited and prepared, it is ready to be mixed. This falls under the ambit of the Sound Mixer or Designer. This process is as critical as the final edit, for it either enhances what you want to convey or destroys it. Watching a good sound mixer in action is a fascinating experience. Those who don’t understand it find it boring. The cure to it is to become an audiophile!
Along with sound editing and mixing, the music needs to be mixed too. There are two versions of the music mix, one for the soundtrack and one for the movie. The mixed and unmixed music tracks are made available to the sound mixer so he or she can have total control.
To learn more about audio post production in film, read this detailed article:
The Mastering Stage
Once your visuals are locked and graded, with every shot perfectly in place, it’s time to create your master.
A Master is the best possible representation of your work. If all your footage is lost twenty years from now, and your project files don’t work anymore, your master will still be the most valuable aspect of your production. It is the culmination of your effort. If it’s a feature length movie, you might have spent a couple of years on it. It was all for this.
I like to master in the TIFF format, as a 16-bit image sequence. The other industry standards are DPX, Film, H.264/H.265, VP9, Prores and DNxHD, etc. You try to master to a format that you think will still be around many years from now.
Similar to imagery, audio, too, needs to be mixed down and mastered for the best representation possible. Usually, this is an uncompressed 24-bit WAV file, with as many channels as required. Unlike visuals, audio can have many masters, because it needs them.
E.g., you can re-size an image to a different size, etc., but you can’t ‘re-size’ or interpolate a surround mix to stereo, or the other way around.
The number of audio channels can vary, and this creates the need to master into three major formats:
- Stereo (two channels)
- 5.1 Surround
- 7.1 Surround
There are other formats, like Dolby Atmos, NHK, and so on. It’s not easy staying on top of all this, and we’ll deal with it in the next stage.
Once you have your master(s) you can create ‘clones’ or copies of them for various uses. These copies, actually pseudo-masters themselves, are called Deliverables. They are traditionally organized by industry type, somewhat loosely as follows:
- Marketing and Publicity
- Bonus Features
- Captions and Subtitles
Each industry has its own specification for resolution, frame rate, audio, color, etc. There are also sub-specifications. E.g., television can be broadcast NTSC, PAL, HDTV, HDR and so on. Theatrical can be DCI or other, etc.
Each deliverable might include re-sizing, interlacing or de-interlacing, changing the frame rates, color grading for a different color space, and so on. Audio, too, will change.
It is critically important to know all your deliverables prior to production.
Some industries, like broadcast television and OTT, have strict requirements. Others, like YouTube, do not.
At this stage you’ll also create your trailers, bonus features and behind-the-scenes videos for publicity and bonus material. These will need separate audio edits and mixes, especially with music.
Music also has its own deliverable, called the Soundtrack, that can streamed or downloaded as MP3 files.
Don’t underestimate the costs of preparing and creating deliverables. Some of them aren’t cheap at all. Many productions ignore this expense hoping the ‘distributor or some savior’ will pay for it when the time comes. I don’t know if that’s true, unless your movie is picked up by a major studio.
It’s better to know for sure at least what you’re up against.
On the other hand, you shouldn’t spend money on deliverables until you’re guaranteed distribution in that industry. E.g., if your movie has no chance of a theatrical release, it is stupid to create a DCP, and so on. The same logic applies to any other industry.
By now you have a clear idea of the various stages of post production, and what it entails. Hopefully, this will keep you in good stead in your professional career, so you won’t be facing any surprises.
If you do this right, the post production stage might end up being the most joyous part of your filmmaking journey. There’s nothing better than knowing you’ve made a good movie – and you only know that after your post production is done.