Production techniques

To go from script to film, what’s involved? Some obvious questions need to be answered. Locations and set, actors and casting, shooting style and format. You may think that most of these questions would be answered by reading the script. How has the writer described location, set, actors and style of the filming to be used? Some of this information might be vague in the script and need further working out thought, but often when the script has been delivered it is time to start the interpretation of the project.

How do the producer and the director envisage the final film? Sparse set or cluttered set, colourful or monotone, characters young or old, handheld shots with lots of movement or static shots, steady and smooth? Even with these few combinations of possibilities you can imagine how different the film might end up if just one or two of them are changed.

Script

Deciding on the style in which the film is to be shot requires thinking through several aspects of the script. In Threshold there are two characters who have recently been in a close relationship and this dynamic needs to be portrayed visually. Some elements of tension are also required relating to the theme of contagion. Will she contract the disease if she goes near him, is the virus capable of transmission through the air – or would she need to make physical contact? What do we know about any of this, and what should we tell the audience? Withholding information is sometimes a useful narrative device that encourages the audience to become engaged with the dilemmas facing the characters – equally it is sometimes useful if the audience knows more than the protagonist in a story.

Setting

The choice of set and props is also important. A small confined set using a hallway covered in ‘Police Aware’ tape is inexpensive to stage but conveys the seriousness of the quarantine situation. A closed apartment door used to separate the two characters gives a feeling of being isolated and most of the dialogue takes place through the closed door. The use of the door is also a key factor in building the relationship. When will the door be open, when will it be shut and what meaning would that add to the scene? When the door is closed the characters’ body language and facial expression can only be seen by the audience, each character being denied that information about the person on the other side of the door and only being able to work out any meaning through the delivery and emotion of the lines.

The scene is therefore cleverly and inexpensively set. Now the emphasis on building the tension falls upon the characters and the style of shooting. Body language and facial expression are vital if actors are to deliver any dynamic in the relationship. Close Ups (CUs) and intercutting could be considered as a style that might work to deliver this tension in their relationship.

Craamped

Shooting in a confined area, photo by Kathryn A Wilson

Lighting

Lighting is another crucial element – bringing together camerawork and production design. Cameras work with light – and the cinematographer in the British film industry is expected to organise the lighting and associated activities. Here is part of the checklist for the role as set out by the British Society of Cinematographers:

  • Design lighting to show set/location to best advantage relative to story, style and dramatic content
  • Light each actor to reinforce and reveal character
  • Make sure mood and tone of light help to tell story
  • Design light for minimum reset time between set-ups
  • Utilise standby painter for control of highlights, shadows, ageing, dusting-down of sets and props
  • Set any lighting cues (dimmers, spot lights, colour changes and any pre-programming).

Sound

Another important aspect of production to consider and research is sound recording. Chris Woolf lays out 7 points to recording good location sound on the DVUser website and there’s plenty of video tutorials to be found on the internet too, search around for tutorials that match your type of production too, for example YouTube.

Most fiction films are shot on location where extraneous sounds are not in the control of the production team. Imagine a period drama located at a peaceful country house: idyllic, until a herd of sheep start bleating in a neighbour’s field, the 10.30 flight to Paris roars overhead followed by a passing train a mile away, not to mention the constant low rumbling of the motorway and the motorbike scrambling competition somewhere in the vicinity. The process of removing all this unwanted noise has become standard practice in fiction film production. Normally up to 80-90% of a film’s dialogue is replaced in post production, a process referred to as ADR, Automated Dialogue Replacement. Once the filming is over the actors are taken into a sound studio where their dialogue is recorded in a controlled and quiet room to match the edited pictures. On a feature film this is obviously a time-consuming and costly business.

When it comes to a low budget film or student production such as Threshold, finding the right location for sound is really important. (See sound recordist Ian Pinder’s account in ‘Reflections’.) The use of suitable recording techniques is also important; high quality microphones, recording ‘Buzz’ tracks or atmosphere will also help in the editing process to control the final sound mix. In many ways sound in fiction work is more important than pictures. Remember it’s usually the sound (especially dialogue) that tells the story.

 

You might think that once the film has been shot on location it’s time to edit the best takes together and hey presto the film’s finished! Sometimes this happens, but mostly it doesn’t.

The term Post Production is an umbrella term that incorporates a number of processes including, digitising, editing, sound design, colour grading, sound mixing and producing a master of the final film ready for distribution.

Most films are now edited using computer-based systems, AVID and Final Cut Pro being two examples of professional software used worldwide. The first process is to prepare the ‘rushes’. Some shoots will use 35mm or 16mm film which needs to be processed and transferred into files which are then imported into the editing system. Other productions will shoot on cameras which generate digital files when shooting, e.g. Slumdog Millionaire used the RED camera. Other systems still use tape, HD, Digibeta, HDDV, DVCam etc. again although these are digital tape formats they will need to be imported or digitised into the editing system.

Editing is often referred to as the second or last draft of the script. It’s where the problems of the script and the shoot now have to be resolved, editing can make or break a film.

Assembly edit

First an ‘assembly’ of the best takes can be put together in script order. This will start to show which sections of the film are working for story, which for performance and perhaps also show how the overall style of the film will look. The director and editor make notes on these and other aspects of the rushes while viewing an ‘assembly’ so that they can start to understand how to make the best film from the shot material. Sometimes a performance may let a scene down, sometimes the best performance for different lines of dialogue are found in different takes, and occasionally whole lines of dialogue may be missing because of a script edit decision taken during filming or simply because of a mistake. So in preparing the ‘rushes’ and the ‘assembly’ you become aware of the problems that will need solutions.

Rough cut

The next stage is the ‘rough cut’. Having noted and thought about a number of the film’s problems you now start to produce magical solutions, so that no one will ever know that there was a problem! Take out that annoying dog barking on the sound, cut around that distracting strange eye movement from the main character, there’s a shadow of a microphone while a vital piece of action takes place, etc. In the end the director and the editor only have what’s been filmed and so have to find an infinite number of creative solutions to an infinite number of problems.

Walter Murch, film editor of many award winning films including The Godfather, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Tetro, writes in his book In The Blink of An Eye about a series of rules that he worked out to make the best film through editing. At the top of list is: 1) Emotion. “Emotion . . . is the thing that you should preserve at all costs. If you find you have to sacrifice certain of those six things to make a cut, sacrifice your way up, item by item, from the bottom.”

The other rules in Murch’s list of six are:

2) Story

3) Rhythm

4) Eye-trace

5) Two-dimensional plane of screen

6) Three-dimensional space of action

Editing is a creative process so there are many ways to approach it. Each new project you take on will bring with it a new set of issues that need creative editing solutions and to help there are many books about the theory and practice of editing. Continual research into techniques for individual projects will not only benefit the films you work on but also deepen your knowledge of the craft. One highly respected work that explains in detail a large range of editing techniques from Eisenstein to the New Wave is The Technique of Film Editing by Karel Reisz and Gavin Millar. A lot of the principles laid out by Reisz and Millar have stood the test of time and continue to be used through out the world of editing today.

Of course most books on editing avoid the sometimes difficult area of relationships in the cutting room. There’s plenty of anecdotal information from editors and directors about the working relationship during an edit but for every editor and every director there’s a different personal and creative chemistry.

Some directors will have a master plan for the whole production and post production process. They know exactly how the finished film will be, leaving the editor little room for contributing to the process. Some directors just want to leave the editor to get on with it and work their magic! But most directors are somewhere in the middle of these extremes. They know they have hours of rushes that need shaping into a watchable film and so the majority of successful director-editor relationships are ones of co-operation and collaboration. Editors and directors who work in this way throw creative solutions into the pot and out comes a feast for the eyes and ears and sometimes the occasional award too!

Sound

A rather arty image of sound and lighting, photo by Andrew Parkhill

Editing sound

As the process of creative editing gets underway careful consideration should be taken to constructing the sound track or sound design. In the credits of a big budget feature you’ll find an enormous list of people who helped make the film’s sound track. From recordist to foley artist, dialogue editor to fx editor, sound designer to dubbing mixer, a whole army dedicated to carefully constructing, manipulating and mixing together thousands of pieces of sound that make the film soundtrack.

On smaller productions like Threshold sound will normally be left to the editor to sort out and although there’s a small or no budget situation there’s still plenty that can be done and the main assets needed are time and imagination. By utilizing sounds recorded on location (like atmosphere tracks or wild tracks) and sound fx libraries (such as Audionetwork) you will be able to create an excellent sound track.

Having found a way through the editing you will eventually end up with a fine cut, this is the one to be approved by the Producers, Executive Producers, also often referred to as the ‘money’ people. They will be looking to see if the script they read and agreed to finance, months or years ago, has actually been made. This can be a terrifying time for the director and editor, it’s not unheard of for directors and editors to be taken off the project (sacked) at this stage! But your fine cut has passed the ‘money men’ test so now it’s ready for distribution and exhibition.

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