With the most chaotic part, the shoot, of our John Constantine: Hellblazer fan film out of the way it’s time to begin with the more controlled but incredibly time consuming post-production duties.
Each and every part of the post-production process, as with pre-production, is a skill and art in and of itself, only here they require much more computer know-how. Your options are two-fold, you can become savvy in the ways of whichever programmes are required for the various tasks or you can seek out people who are already skilled in such and hope that they will willingly give their time, which will be many dozens of hours.
I’m a bit of a technophobe so am much more reliant on my production partner, Jordan Morris, leading the way in post-production. I never do too well with the intricacies of complicated programmes but after instruction can cope with the basics fine enough. This usually equates to me editing my own productions but Jordan taking care of the grading, sound and FX work.
This time however we’ve had to find a different path, firstly because our CGFX requirements are much more complex than usual, for which we’d already acquired the über-skillful Steve Askey, but at the time of putting together this film, Jordan, besides his full time day job, is also working towards a masters degree, which as you might imagine is quite a bit of work. Owing to this I’ve had to get heavily involved in the grading process myself so that the film could be colour corrected and handed off to Steve for FX work within a reasonable amount of time. So there’s been quite a learning curve involved.
There are many programmes that can now be used for editing and various other post works and the differences are entirely preference based. We happen to use Adobe’s post-production set-up, primarily Premier Pro for editing and After Effects for many other tasks including colour correction, image stabilising and minor FX work.
Editing should be considered an integral part of the storytelling process, which, as with sound, if done well should barely register with the viewer, but if done poorly brings down the whole production. Some people have a natural eye for it and some don’t but I would always advise a director to edit his own film or at the very least be present during the editing process, if for no other reason than the film really feels like it’s being birthed throughout this process. You can actually see all your hard work coming together and you can build and play with what you already have, which is the fun part, but this has to be coupled with solving problems that you’d never considered, navigating mistakes or limitations you faced on the shoot and confronting the realisation that some things work better on the written page than they do when played out.
As mentioned, the editing process is a very controlled time, with only you and possibly one other person involved, but it can also be very stressful especially when trying over and over to make something work or having to make the decision to drop a sequence that you love. With all this in mind you have to consciously decide on a balance of how precious you’re going to be with you’re vision. It’s very easy to fall in to the trap of wanting to keep everything because you think it’s all great, which usually results in an overly long short that isn’t too appealing to the viewer; it’s equally as easy to loose your vision and kowtow to every suggestion or hack your film to pieces, losing all subtlety and character, resulting in a flashy but empty short more resembling a music video.
If you’re a no-budget filmmaker you’re shooting on digital, there’s no two ways about it, which means there’s only a few ways of getting your raw footage edit ready. Until very recently we used to shoot on digital tape, which meant we would hook the camera up to a TV, watch all the footage and make notes of all the time codes for the sections of footage we’d think we could use, then hook the camera into the computer and input all the time codes into the editing programme manually so the programme could import the selected footage which it would do in near real time.
We now shoot straight onto memory cards, which means you can just hook your camera into your computer and import all the singular takes in as separate files. It’s still good to go through all the footage, so I take this opportunity to rename all the files according to scene/shot and take numbers so that I can organise them into orders and files so that I’m not constantly searching around for the next piece of footage.
The ease of the editing process is entirely dependent on how well you had visualised your film before the shoot and the quality of footage you got on the day. Some films, documentaries for instance, have so much random footage that the narrative is pretty much created in the edit, as was the case with Waking Dream’s faux documentary, Henchman. In these situations more time will be spent perusing the footage and constructing the edit than on any other part of the creative process.
Then there are films where the story is set but the visuals aren’t, so each scene is played out in multiple ways/angles, this will also mean quite a lot of work digging through the footage and creating the visual style as you go. Hellblazer was quite the opposite, and the easiest way to come at editing.
Because I pretty much had the film made in my head and on storyboard, Jordan knew exactly how to frame each shot and so when I sat down with the footage I had no choice in what images I’d be choosing from, what I’d envisaged was what I had to work with, although I do know editing enough to know that nothing goes entirely to plan, so I also had plenty of insert shots to play with. So, once the footage had been logged into Premier, I carefully watched all three hundred plus clips, re-naming and filing as I went, and made notes as to which takes especially stood out. After this it was simply a case of choosing the best takes and sticking them next to each other…
Alright, it wasn’t quite as simple as that, but it WAS probably one of the simplest and most enjoyable editing jobs I’ve ever undertaken. Naturally some of the shots didn’t work next to each other continuity wise, and a healthy amount of cutaways had to be inserted for other bits to work, and in one or two cases entire short segments had to be dropped for one reason or another, but it was all glaringly obvious stuff that was dropped for pacing rather than as some sort of compromise due to poor footage. All in all the edit was just about locked after less than two working days, which any filmmaker will tell you is pretty good going for a ten to fifteen minute film.
Image stabilising and colour correction.
This is where I ventured into uncharted territory (for me at least), into the complex world of After Effects. Image stabilising and colour correction can loosely be bracketed in to the visual FX category, and as such it would be redundant of me to try and explain in technical detail how to go about doing these tasks; if you’re not aware of how After Effects works you would have no idea what I was babbling on about; but I can at least lead you to an excellent website called Video Copilot, where you will find many tutorials on how to create your own advanced visual effects within After Effects. Now, if you are at my low level of understanding of After Effects many of these tutorials will be over your head, but each contains instruction for the very basic uses of the programme, which is great to get you on your feet and supply a little inspiration.
Image stabilising (or indeed, destabilising) is a task that isn’t required for most indie productions, or if it is, only usually necessary for a few shots, but there were a few reasons that we had to spend the time adjusting the stabilisation values on practically all of our shots. As mentioned in a previous instalment we had three mounts for the camera, a black bird steadycam style device for moving shots, a shoulder mount for close-ups and a tripod for shots that would need heavy FX work. We wanted the film to have that constantly moving quality derived from handheld camerawork, and a very smooth version of it at that, but each device, as well as the camera itself, had its own issues.
Because the camera has no inbuilt stabiliser all the movements of the shoulder mount were incredibly jerky and perceptible. We were unused to the Black Bird so some of the shots had more roll than we intended and the tripod shots had no movement at all. In times gone by this would have meant our vision of a consistent and smooth movement for the camerawork would have been dashed, but After Effects has a facility not only for smoothing out jerky movement within the camerawork but also one for adding in more movement.
After I’d got my head around how to use these facilities (which, by the way includes, many a long period of waiting around while the program, sometimes unsuccessfully, motion tracks the shots) thirty plus hours were spent tinkering with each of the ninety some shots until a consistent look of motion had been achieved. This was arduous work, and I don’t imagine it will ever be noticed, but the end result is a film that is many times more pleasing to the eye. The task of adding movement into the tripodded shots will come later after Steve has weaved his FX magic.
What I do intend to get noticed is the colour correction as right from the outset I’d wanted this to be the most stylistic film Waking Dream Studios had ever put together. More films go through the colour correction phase than image stabilisation, although it isn’t strictly necessary if you’re going for a really rough look or you spent a lot of time working on the on-set lighting and such to get all the ‘look’ in-camera, but for most indie films colour correction is a fairly simple way to add a more professional edge to your film.
There are plug-ins such as those available on Magic Bullet that can be dropped over your footage to give it a specific style instantaneously, some of which are very good, but it’s a good idea to go through your footage with some basic colour correction first just to make it more consistent before the plug-in filter is dropped on.
We’d planned on using one or two of these filters but I wanted to spend the time doing some quite hefty colour correction first to really bash that raw footage into shape. At its most basic level After Effects’ colour correction facilities can be used to tweak or drastically punch/reduce the footage’s highlights, blacks, midtones, colour hues, balances and saturation. I wanted the film to look shadowy with deep, crushed blacks but I also hate when skin looks too red on films so I also made it my mission to pale back all the skin tones and heavily de-saturate further to more sell the make-up effects.
When a look has been decided on it is then just a case of slowly going through all the shots and messing with the levels until each has the look you desire, but you have to constantly check back to see that there’s a consistency between all the shots, otherwise the effect can be jarring. A fresh pair of eyes and a few passes is usually needed before you proclaim the colour correction finished, and usually that would be that, but in this case we then dropped our selected Magic Bullet filter over the film to see what needed re-tweaking for the film to have maximum coolness in the visuals department.
Luckily Jordan had freed up some time by this point so could go in with his superior knowledge of After Effects and do some more complicated adjustments than I was capable of doing, and really take this thing to the next level.
How much difference could all this tinkering actually make? Well judge for yourself, the following images represent what the film looked like in raw footage form and what it’ll look like in its finished form.
Quite a lot of difference, as it turns out. We’re very pleased with this end result but it’s no time to get smug yet, there are still CGFX to add and a sound mix to sort out, so join me next time for more on that.