Feb. 11, 2007 -- The edit suite is the filmmaker's last line of
defense - your last chance to "fix it in post." Editors
frequently have to hide, change, improve, repair, or avoid mistakes
and oversights made during a shoot. It's a very educational experience,
but you can't help wishing you could get those insights to the folks
on the set while they were still working, not after the fact. In
that spirit, I'd like to present some of the common problems editors
run across, and what might help you avoid them. Let's begin with
camera work, the fundamental ingredient in motion pictures. While
there are no hard and fast rules for how a project should be shot,
there are some basics that will generally help you get a result
USE A TRIPOD
general camera work is done using a tripod, dolly, crane, or other
kind of camera support system like a steadicam. Hand held camera
is used only occasionally, usually for specific effect. The instability
of the picture can add energy, confusion, and uncertainty to a scene,
such as a chase or fight. It can indicate a shot is somebody's point
of view, or just add an emotional edge that feels a little off balance.
Using a tripod for general shots will give your footage a more professional
look. It's particularly important for telephoto close ups, which
will otherwise tend to be very unstable. It also helps to maintain
a level horizon in wide shots, which can otherwise be disorienting.
A more stable shot allows the audience to concentrate more on the
action. Tripod use also helps you think about camera moves and shot
composition. The tendency with hand held shooting is to hunt around
to follow action. Sometimes this is a desirable effect, but it can
also lead to poorly thought out shot composition. Of course, there
are situations where a tripod is impractical, or where you want
that instability in the scene. It's a decision you should make based
on how you want your footage to look and feel.
AVOID AUTOMATIC SETTINGS
cameras now include automatic settings for functions such as focus,
iris, and white balance. These are sometimes useful, particularly
if you're shooting in an unpredictable environment. Typically, however,
they are designed for "general" shooting situations, not
creative ones like independent film. For example, auto white balance
controls tend to assume you are shooting in a color neutral environment
under common lighting conditions. They'll balance against any dominant
color in your scene, which can make the picture look washed out.
Plus, you almost never want your white balance to change during
a scene. If an actor turns on a light during the action, for example,
you don't want the overall color of the scene to shift. Even if
you have a bad white balance setting during shooting, it is easier
to try to correct in post if the entire scene has the same problem,
rather than if it changes constantly.
Similar problems occur with the auto iris setting. Auto iris might
be useful if you were moving camera between two differently lit
locations during a shot, but in general you don't want to see an
iris change in your scene. This is particularly true if a brightly
lit object (like an actor) enters or exits a scene. You generally
don't want your overall light level to change when elements in the
Auto focus problems are more obvious. Auto focus systems "hunt"
for focus. If the camera loses focus, it will tend to throw it way
out and then hunt back. This is even assuming it chooses to focus
on the object you want, which it might not if you have composed
your picture in a creative way. A convenient solution is often to
use the automatic system to get an initial setting, and then switch
to manual keeping that setting. Focus and iris controls sometimes
have a "push auto" feature that will take a reading at
the moment you push that button and keep it. White balance systems
usually have a set button, which you press while framing up an object
in the scene that you want to appear white. Of course, you can always
go manual and use your creative judgment. Taking a setting beforehand
and sticking with it almost always looks better, or is easier to
"fix in post," than using an automatic setting that changes
unpredictably during your scene.
There's a temptation to shoot every scene in a similar fashion.
Frequently in the edit suite I'm given raw footage that is predominantly
wide or medium shots using a mid-range focal length. Too much similarity
within a scene, and from scene to scene, is awkward to cut together
and becomes boring and predictable for the audience. Unless you
are going for a particular effect, look for ways to add shot variety
to a scene, and between scenes. This might mean choosing when to
use close ups and when to stay with medium or wide shots. It can
also mean changing the height of the camera, choosing whether to
use camera moves or lock-down shots, and varying focal lengths.
For example, a 2-shot using a wide-angle lens (or zoom setting)
with the camera close to the actors looks very different from a
2-shot using a telephoto lens with the camera far away. The choices
you make give your production a different look and feel, so not
all options may appeal to you. However, variety always adds interest
and gives you options in the edit. Steven Soderbergh's recent film,
Bubble, is an interesting example of minimalist camera
work that still maintains good shot variety.
If you are shooting a complex project, doing a storyboard may help
you think about the types of shots to use in a scene, and how to
give different scenes and different locations their own look and
feel. Using a monitor may also help, rather than looking through
the camera viewfinder. When using the viewfinder, your eye may selectively
pick out certain areas of the picture, which is misleading. A monitor
tends to force you to see the entire image, which is how the audience
will view it.
USE PRE-ROLL AND POST-ROLL
Finally, a small technical point: It really helps to shoot a few
seconds of pad on the front and back of each of your shots. This
makes sure the edit system will get a clean start and end when it
is capturing. It can be particularly important with professional
tape formats where the edit system needs time to establish sync.
While not so critical on DV formats, it can still help you work
around technical issues and is worth the couple of seconds of tape,
just to be sure. This is particularly important at the head of a
tape, where the first seconds of playback may be unreliable. Pre-roll
and post-roll also help with transitions in the edit process - particularly
For example, if you want to take a slow dissolve from one scene
the next, you'll need several seconds of footage at the end of the
outgoing shot, after the last dialog is complete, and probably several
seconds of footage at the beginning of the incoming shot, before
any dialog. If you stopped tape the moment the actor finished a
line, you won't be able to make this transition. You'd have to use
a shorter dissolve, maybe a dip-to-black, or a hard cut. It generally
pays to keep rolling a few seconds even after dialog has finished
the director calls cut - for both safety and flexibility.
NOTE: Craig Tollis is an
Atlanta-based editor and Filmmaker with ten years of experience.
Please send any questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Craig will gladly respond.