5 Ways the Camera Department Can Help Avoid “Fix It In Post” Headaches

It's true there are some things that are primed for post-production and are better done in front of a computer rather than in front of a camera. But there's a difference between planning a shot to be enhanced in post and relegating a shot to be fixed in post. As camera assistants, we may have a small role to play, but if we play it effectively, we can help avoid some major "fix it in post" headaches.

Have you looked around on a film set lately?

You might notice that production and post-production are beginning to merge.

Walter Murch, the “Yoda of editing,” often talks about how he doesn’t think editors belong on set. He thinks they need to come to the footage fresh with untainted eyes — knowing in your mind, for instance, that a shot took a whole day to film might bias you into using it.

From a philosophical standpoint, I agree with Murch. From a practical standpoint, especially with low budget filmmaking, I don’t see it happening.

Editors do come on set. And part of that is to smooth the shift from production to post-production.

It’s more common than ever for post-production supervisors to be present near video village. Sometimes they’re there for visual effects (VFX), sometimes for editorial purposes.

Even without a dedicated supervisor to bridge between the set and the edit bay, independent filmmakers are increasingly carrying the load of both production and post — it’s not unusual for a director to also edit their film in the indie world.

My point is production crew should be prepared to take post-production into account. That’s always been true, but as more of a film is created, manipulated, handled, and processed after it has left the set, the emphasis on bridging the gap between phases of the production should be even greater.

As 1st Assistant Camera (1st AC) in the camera department, I try to make this a priority by taking detailed camera reports, speaking with an editor before hand, and setting up a clear workflow that transitions nicely into post production.

Why? Because it’s my responsibility to ensure all footage ends up in the edit without mistakes.

So today I’d like to share five simple ways you can help mitigate a lot of “fix it in post” problems that can sink a production on a tight budget.

1. Camera Reports

Dirty Film Production Camera Reports and Logs On Set

Creative Commons License photo credit: jai MANSSON

With the advent of digital cinematography and DSLRs, I fear the camera report is starting to play less and less of a role within the camera department (at least on smaller sets). That’s a big mistake.

Camera reports provide vital data that helps bridge what’s happening on set to what is going to happen in the edit bay. If done correctly, a camera report will provide the editor the same amount of detail they would get if they stood next to the camera themselves for every single shot.

That may seem superfluous at first, but it provides several advantages: First, it gives post-production artists reference points when adding in any sort of visual effect, such as lens focal length used to recreate depth-of-field properties. Second, it allows a production to re-shoot a scene and match shots more easily. Third, it can help colorists who are dealing with mixed color temperatures.

I could go on…

It’s true that camera reports aren’t necessary on every single shoot. In many cases, they will go unused on an editor’s desk or never get completed as a busy AC doesn’t have time for them.

But in many other cases, a proper camera report can help “fill in the holes” for the visual FX and editorial teams long after a shoot is over.

Here are a few camera report templates you can start using:

2. Minimize Human Error in Data Management

media-management-3

Without footage, post-production can’t do their job. Period. There is nothing to edit if data is corrupted, a film magazine is flashed, or a hard drive gets destroyed.

So it’s crucial that you take great care of your production’s footage. The key element to this is proper data management: a fancy term for essentially making sure every single bit and byte of data makes it into the post-house’s computers.

Proper data management is, at its core, a simple job. Transfer the footage, back it up, and deliver it safely. Where it gets complicated is when systems screw up, hard drives fail, and you’re left troubleshooting and rescuing a day’s worth of video footage. Or when a PA loses track of which memory cards are formatted and which aren’t. Or a producer buys the wrong type of hard drive.

Did you see how most of those problems are human related?

Yeah computers fail, hardware messes up, and viruses will eat data. But the majority of problems that arise in data management are because of human error. So here’s three tactics that will help you minimize 99% of common problems that arise.

3 Must-Do Data Management Tactics

  • Several backups: Keep at least two hard drive backups. Three is ideal. When the shoot is over, store them in separate locations in case a house burns down or some other act of God takes place (safety deposit boxes are a good place to keep an extra, also).
  • No data loss: During production, establish a clear workflow for handing off memory cards filled with footage that have yet to be downloaded and memory cards that are OK to reformat. I recommend sending back memory cards to the camera with green tape on them as a sign that “This is OK to format.”
  • Correct folder labeling: Label folders on the hard drives correctly so they match up with any notes the script supervisor might have and what is listed on the slate. Nobody should be confused when looking for a certain clip on the hard drive.

For more on these tips and other basic data management tips, watch this video below:

Finally, be wary of the increasing amount of data that is associated with shooting on higher end digital cinema cameras. This is a hidden cost both in production — where larger capacity hard drives, more powerful computers, and trained manpower are needed — and post-production — where large render files and more powerful computers are needed.

Consider what you have in your budget and manpower and decide from there what to shoot. If your video’s final destination is YouTube and you’re on a tight budget, consider shooting in something other than 5K resolution. It will save you time and money in production and post-production.

Even if you can afford to shoot high data rates in production, consider whether it will cause headaches in post-production. Do you have a computer powerful enough to handle the footage? Or does your editor have the capabilities?

Most professionals can, should, and will, but that doesn’t mean this doesn’t have to be a consideration if you’re working with a cheap client or delivering to a one-man-band post-production house operating out of a garage.

Basically, know what kind of data you’ll be moving ahead of time and learn skills (or hire hands) to minimize human error of moving that data through the pipeline.

3. Prioritize Accurate Slating

Accurate Slating

Imagine how difficult it would be to edit a film with no indication of which scene went where and which take was which except by watching it. That’s what editing a movie without slating is like.

And, yes, it’s possible on day-long shoots or limited short films, but once you start adding substantial shot coverage into the equation, the organizational mess created by not slating becomes an unrelenting behemoth. While it could be done, you would have to watch scenes over and over again to constantly remind yourself of what was what and what went where.

With proper slating, editors can watch a take once, make notes about it referencing the take number, and always have this sheet to turn to when they are looking for a specific shot.

Slating also provides other information that may be unique to certain shots like:

  • Variable frame-rate data
  • Special filters on the lens
  • Whether the take is a pick-up or reshoot
  • What camera is being used for the shot
  • The focal length of the lens (good for VFX)

It’s important to remember that by filming the slate, the information on it is forever attached to the footage it was shot with.

I’ll never forget during Ghosts Don’t Exist, I was having a drink with the editor at the crew house. We got to talking shop and he said, “Literally every first frame is a slate. Good job. It’s beautiful.”

(I think I even saw a few tears in his eyes.)

So why did he get teary-eyed at my impeccable slating skills?

Because it made his job easier, faster, and more efficient to log and transfer clips with correct labeling — an understated advantage for a film that was being made with such a low budget.

4. Shoot Log Gamma for Optimal Color Correction

What is Log gamma? It’s an option on most modern digital cinema cameras that allows you to shoot as flat an image (color and luminescence wise) as possible.

Check out these charts below that illustrate the difference between a few cameras’ default color options and their log options:

Canon's Log Gamma compared to it's "Normal 1" preset

Canon’s Log Gamma compared to it’s “Normal 1″ preset

Sony's S-Log Gamma Chart

Sony’s S-Log Gamma compared to a traditional Rec-709 image

In those charts above, the further to the right the line pulls (and the longer it takes to reach the top), the more information is being recorded. This extra information gives you incredible latitude in post-production to manipulate the colors, shadows, and highlights.

Sometimes shooting log gamma is also referred to as “shooting flat” or “shooting RAW” (though gamma outputs and RAW aren’t exactly the same thing).

Shooting a flat image gives you more details in both highlights and dark areas. While a flat image may not look pleasing while on set, it provides more freedom for color grading in post-production. It allows you to show what’s outside the window as well as what’s inside the room.

If you are planning on doing heavy color work in post-production, shooting a flat or log gamma is a must. Use available free picture profiles like Technicolor Cinestyle or AbelCine’s free scene files.

While you may have to get used to lighting without an instantly great looking image, you’ll end up with something far superior in terms of contrast, saturation, and more film like — the holy grail.

Basically, log gamma’s capture more data and give you more to play with. I wouldn’t recommend anybody shoot anything else, unless you need an instantly great image — even then I’d recommend playing around with the default settings.

5. Work Closely with VFX While Filming

HDRI Ball on Film and Movie Shoot for Visual Effects

Being friendly with the Visual Effects Supervisor is something I’ve already written about briefly:

As a camera assistant, you don’t have to worry about how the shots are rendered, but you do have to do everything you can to help the visual effects artists get it right. And that starts by providing them with a little bit of information.

And that’s true. It’s amazing how a little bit of information can go a long way towards helping VFX artists once they sit down at their computers.

Even small things like tracking markers, references plates, or reference motion can cut hours off the amount of time spent working on a shot in post. Usually, to make sure these tiny details don’t get glossed over, there will be somebody on set supervising what needs to be done for visual effects.

This person could be:

  • A Visual Effects Supervisor
  • A Post-Production Supervisor
  • A Producer
  • An Editor
  • The Director
  • Or (sometimes, dreadfully) all of the above

Some crew may be miffed when someone like that is on set, but I enjoy it. It means I can defer to them questions that I can’t always answer about VFX. It means I have someone providing guidance to me on what will help most in post-production instead of me guessing what would be useful.

Really, you’re both working for the same goal, just in different teams.

While there are a bunch of things you can do as a team to smooth the transition from production to post, I want to expand on three practices that are most common and most useful: clear communication, adding tracking markers, and shooting plates.

A.) Clear Communication

More than any other piece of advice, working well with a VFX Supervisor will help avoid fix-it-in-post catastrophes. So to maximize that relationship and minimize headaches, focus on clear communication.

Communication, at all levels, is crucial in the high-pressure, tight-deadline world of the film set. It’s especially important when doing effects heavy work that everyone talk with each other.

Crew are in a position to make Visual FX artists’ lives easier down the road, but without the knowledge or foresight, need to be explicitly told what to do to make things easier. For instance, what should be in frame and what should be added in later? Is it better for an actor to hold a glass of water or to mime it and have it added digitally?

These are questions that should be communicated clearly.

B.) Adding Tracking Markers

What are tracking markers? They are little indicators that you place within a scene that give visual effects artists a reference point for the computer.

This enables them to automate processes like rotoscoping, masking, etc. more easily. You should work with the VFX Supervisor to find the appropriate number of markers to place in a scene. Sometimes only a handful will be needed, while other times you’ll have to place many more.

Basically, finding the right mix gives more freedom to VFX artists to do what they need to without unnecessary additional work in removing them.

C.) Shooting Plates

Before you shout “pull,” shooting plates isn’t what you think. Rather than skeet shooting, a “plate” is a shot of the background of a scene without principal actors or subjects in the frame.

Imagine that what you’re filming is going to be later used as a virtual backdrop.

The purpose of a plate is to enable VFX artists to layer the background behind moving pieces of the scene. It makes many effects much easier such as multiplying subjects, cropping elements out of a scene, and adding elements to the background without laying them over the subject.

Don’t Fix It In Post — Just Fix It Right Now

If you ever hear somebody on set legitimately say, “We’ll fix it in post,” you’re going to also hear a collective groan from crew. It’s common knowledge that fixing “it” in post is a time-consuming process and, in some ways, an admission that you can’t get it right in production.

It’s true there are some things that are primed for post-production and are better done in front of a computer rather than in front of a camera. But there’s a difference between planning a shot to be enhanced in post and relegating a shot to be fixed in post.

As camera assistants, we may have a small role to play, but if we play it effectively, we can help avoid some major “fix it in post” headaches. We can’t necessarily avoid the creative headaches — it’s the director’s call whether the robot alien will be 23 feet tall or 27 feet and, oops, there’s not enough headroom for that extra 4 feet!

But we can do a lot to avoid the technical headaches like lost footage, over-saturated raw footage, and slating mishaps by providing accurate camera reports, solid slating, common sense practices, and clear communication with any post-production supervisors.

You may get to walk off the set at the end of the last day and move on to the next shoot, but somebody has to live with the material for the next few weeks, months, or years.

Instead of saddling them with the tall order to “fix it in post,” just help fix it right now. That’s what you’re paid to do and what every production needs more of.

Plus, doing so will help producers fall madly in love with you!

What are some other ways you can think of to avoid “fix it in post”? Please leave a comment and let me know!

  • http://www.facebook.com/kameel83 André Philips

    Let own crew be quiet during shooting.
    Block streets with heavy traffic (well, just block streets…)

    Be aware of:: fairs, events, festivals, neighbours….

    Do a rehearsal first, do 540447744564564704566 rehearsals if it’s not yet good enough and THEN shoot.

    If it’s not good for sound, do it again….even if you had to do it 54056404560476 times again

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Let me guess, Andre, you dabble a bit in sound mixing? :P

  • Francisdelux

    The shoot starts on Monday and I’m still getting a ton of inspiration and useful tips from your blog. You could argue that I should be miles ahead of this by now… but all sorts of little reminders are helpful for focusing the mind – and I’m not proud. Kepp up the good work and I’ll keep reading!

  • David L Minard

    When location scouting, do not just LOOK at the location and the scenery it offers, but for God’s sake LISTEN to the location, too. Literally spend just 10 minutes in “silence” and listen to the sound of the area. If at all possible, listen during the same time and on the same day of the week that you plan to shoot there because often there are repeating weekly noise occurrences (such as garbage trucks/street sweepers/landscapers/etc).

    So many times I’ve been on locations located so close to an airport that we have to “hold for plane” every few minutes! What a waste of time!

    Are you shooting at a bar or restaurant? Make sure you’re allowed to (and ask how to) turn off refrigerators and other hum and buzz makers.

    Shooting at an apartment complex on the weekend? Guess when landscapers, with lawnmowers, weed whackers, and leaf blowers, come out to work… Check with the apartment management office to see when landscapers come through. Neighbors, and shooting close to the community pool can also cause issues.

    Lastly, shooting at any location located on a main roadway is an awful idea. Unless it is desired, traffic noise is extremely distracting to your picture. Imagine your beautiful scene filled with so much emotion… and a motorcycle passing by in the distance.

    Just remember, bad picture won’t necessarily ruin your sound, but bad sound will certainly ruin your picture.

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Great points, David. I remember a professor back in college telling a story about how he had invited his sound mixer to a location scout once and the guy almost cried because he was so happy to be involved and not arrive on location to find it was going to result in poor sound.

  • Jack

    Woah!!!! Step back. It’s absolutely not about more tracking markers being good, quite the opposite. Less is more! When you have tracking markers, only have what is necessary because someone has to paint them out. I’ve worked on many a project, both big budget and small that used a ridiculous amount of trackers and often unnecessarily so (sometimes elements offer enough detail in themselves to track without throwing tape on it or bright dots), and it can take studios weeks to remove them all. A very time consuming, thankless task. This gets very expensive, very fast. Try to coordinate with a VFX sup to minimise overuse which can be just as bad, if not worse, than underuse. Also, it helps to have a compositor either be a part of the process or actually be the VFX sup. Too many sups are ignorant and clueless to compositing that I literally think they think tracking removal is a one click, simple process!

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Good points. I’ve changed the article to reflect that you should work with a VFX sup to find the appropriate number of tracking markers rather than more = better. Thanks for the comment!