Final Cut Pro Editing Starts Before the Shooting Stops – Tips to First Time Filmmakers

By Andrew Montlack

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:

  1. 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, the assistant editor will be forced to spend extra time locating another sync reference.
  2. 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.
  3. If you plan to ingest/capture media yourself and then turn it over to an editor, talk to the editor first. I have had clients bring in media on drives that would not open in Final Cut Pro because they were formatted for Windows rather than Mac and were digitized using Avid and not Final Cut. Good communication with the editor prior to logging and capturing media helps to ensure that the media, hardware, and software are fully compatible. If you are keeping a written log of the takes as they are shot, seriously consider including starting and ending timecode numbers for each take. When taken down accurately, this information enables an assistant editor to organize the footage on the computer much more rapidly than if he has to visually scan each clip.
  4. If you are shooting on a digital tape format, pre-stripe all of the tapes. When you record onto a blank DV tape, there is always the potential for timecode interruptions, which can interrupt what would otherwise be an automatic digitizing process by the computer. Recording black on a tape before you shoot helps to maintain continuous timecode and enables the computer to capture clips overnight, without interruptions, saving, potentially, entire weeks of post production preparation.

Just Because it Worked in Barry Lyndon Doesn’t Mean it Will Work in Your Office Comedy

Many of us independent filmmakers find it necessary to do everything on our own-write, shoot, and cut. When that creative vision grabs hold of us, we want to protect it, and we need a certain degree of control to do that. That said, have you ever noticed that Darth Vader, as obsessed as he is with getting what he wants, never tells his Star Destroyer captain “Take a left here.” If you have hired a professional to edit your project, it is for one of two reasons:

1) because you want what is best for your project, and you value the experience and talent a professional can bring to it, or

2) because you do not have the time to cut it yourself. If the first reason factors in, at all, then you owe it to yourself to always hear your editor out. If he takes your ten minute scene of a guy silently cooking pasta in one take and cuts it down to twenty seconds of jump cuts, ask yourself if your original idea really worked as intended. When you and your editor get into a heated debate about that insert of the dead leaf that was your whole inspiration for the movie, go ahead and assert yourself, but please have more to offer than, “Because it feels right.”

That may be true, but that justification by itself it does not invite creative problem solving; all it does is silence someone whom you have hired for his insight. However, if you can learn to articulate what you felt or wanted when you designed the scene, you will then be inviting your editor to contribute his best efforts in helping you to achieve it. On the other hand, if you are only hiring an editor for reason number two, then by all means telephone the nearest medical school and explain that you’re interested in a pair of hands, not the full package.

Stay Out of Solitary Confinement

Finally, a few words about the relationship between the current project, the next project, and people. Filmmaking is at once romantic, dramatic, and immediate, but it is also desperate. If I had to choose between entrusting my car to a gambling addict or a filmmaker, I would pick the gambler; at least he is going to try to make a buck with it, whereas the rest of us are obsessed with getting our visions out there, business model be damned. Amidst the struggle to get our movies in the can, we are forced to focus on the necessity of the moment: if we need a couple running naked down Fifth Avenue, we grab the shot and run; if we cannot afford to have a stunt double get kicked by the horse, we put on some hockey pads and head to the country; and if we need to raise another grand, well, hopefully it will not come to sperm or egg donorship.

But when a filmmaker deliberately bounces checks, or interviews a prospective editor only to mine him for free information and tips, that person is in effect cheating himself of respect and support and help in the industry. He is also, unconsciously, telling his peers, “I do not plan to pursue my passion-after this one project, I’m locking the door behind me for good.” One of the most valuable lessons that I have learned as a filmmaker is that dealing with people is as much a factor in success as is understanding the craft. We simply cannot do it without other talented, passionate people.

Technology is now in a state of seemingly permanent flux, with new media formats emerging yearly. Aspiring filmmakers have good reason to believe that their creative opportunities are only going to grow with time. When a filmmaker treats her peers professionally and with respect, she also communicates that she, and they, are going to be a part of that future. And communities of forward-looking artists-from the unprecedented chiaroscuro of the Italian painters of the baroque period, through the anti-Salon impressionists of the 19th century, up through the film school bad boys of the 60′s and 70′s-are a hot commodity in every age.

Copyright 2009 by Andrew Montlack. All rights reserved.

Andrew Montlack is a New York-based award-winning independent filmmaker, freelance editor and character actor. Samples of his work may be viewed at Inquiries into his availability for directorial and editorial projects may be made via the contact link. Andrew’s feature, The Devil’s Filmmaker: BOHICA is available from Amazon, Netflix and Alpha Home Video.

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