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What Is Postproduction?
Postproduction is the editing of audio and visual materials to create a film. An editor assembles footage shot by shot, adds music (either original or licensed), and incorporates other visual and sound effects. These elements are woven together to create a multisensory experience we call a movie
What Happens First: Preproduction and Production
Preproduction refers to the preliminary phase of research, casting, and location scouting. It happens before production begins. Production is the actual shoot. Postproduction happens after principal shooting is complete. But some elements of filming, like pick-up shots or voiceover, may be included in the postproduction phase.
The Postproduction Process
Postproduction is a well-orchestrated, collaborative process that can take anywhere from several months to a year, or more, depending on the scope and budget of a project.
- Edit: The edit suite is the command center during postproduction. First, the footage is transferred to an editing system, like Avid or Final Cut Pro. The editor begins cutting the movie, guided by the vision of the director. Though most editors work in digital formats and no longer physically cut and splice film, the word ‘cut’ is still used in postproduction.
- Sound edit: Sound, some might argue, is just as important as the picture in creating an experience for the audience. Sound editors are responsible for assembling the audio tracks of a film, removing unwanted noise, and creating sound effects. Foley artists (sound artists) create or enhance on-camera sounds, like footsteps echoing off tile floors.
- Music: Most theatrical films have an original score, highlighting the mood or action of a scene. “Take the audience on a journey,” says world-renowned composer Hans Zimmer, whose credits include Rain Man, Pearl Harbor, 12 Years a Slave, and Blade Runner 2049. If a director wants to license songs for the soundtrack, a music supervisor secures the recording and publishing rights.
- Visual Effects: Artists and engineers make up the special effects team. They design the computer-generated visuals for a film.
- Sound Mix: When all audio tracks are finished, sound mixers step in to adjust audio levels. This is an integral step, as the strength of sound can easily overwhelm a scene if the music is too loud while characters are speaking, or distract from the narrative if the sound is too low and the audience can’t hear what is happening.
- Color Correction: When the picture is locked (meaning, no further edits or changes), a colorist goes through every shot to digitally adjust and refine the hues and light to create continuity and strike a mood.
- Graphics: Title, credits, and graphics (such as a date stamp) are created and added.
- Trailer: A new editing team takes over to cut the trailer, which is a two-and-a-half-minute preview meant to entice audiences to watch the movie when it hits the big, or small, screen.
The Top Editing Systems Used in Postproduction
Postproduction used to be a manual process, where physical film strips were cut and spliced together. Today, most movies and shows are cut on non-linear digital editing systems. These software programs gained traction in the early 1990s, and revolutionized postproduction by making editing faster and easier. Media is uploaded to the computer, saved as digital files, and organized into bins, the postproduction term for folders. Editors retrieve a clip by clicking on the file, similar to working with other documents. A film has a track (denoted by a row) for every element, like video, music, or sound effects, allowing editors to adjust the placement and levels of each one individually.
There are several editing systems used in postproduction, and it often comes down to which one an editor prefers. The most popular editing softwares used in postproduction include:
- Avid Media Composer
- Final Cut Pro
- Adobe Premiere
Two Great Film Scenes Created in Postproduction
Postproduction is a choreography of images and sound that propels the story, engages an audience, and drives the genre. Every element that we hear and see work together to build suspense in a horror film, set up the slapstick tension in a comedy, or create heart-stopping sequences in an action film.
Here are two scenes that demonstrate the impact of postproduction in the filmmaking process.
- Free Solo: The Boulder Problem
- Even before you watch Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s and Jimmy Chin’s Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo, you know that Alex Honnold survives his incredible 3,000-foot climb of El Capitan unattached to ropes. The ascent is dramatic, but the editing heightens the tension. When Honnold reaches The Boulder Problem, a section he’s had trouble on even with ropes, the editing brings us into the moment through the careful selection of shots from multiple angles. We’re on the ground as one of the cameramen nervously turns away, unable to watch. Then, we’re up close with Honnold on the rock face, his breathing prominent in the sound mix as he deliberates his next move and peeks at the ground 1,700 feet below. Then, a bird’s-eye view of Honnold high on the rock and the ground far below him. Every shot is held for maximum suspense, keeping us on the edge of our seats even though we know how it ends.
- Psycho: The Shower Scene
- It’s been almost six decades since Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was released, but the infamous shower scene still stands the test of time. The music fades as Marion Crane (played by Janet Leigh) steps into the shower and turns on the water. Hitchcock’s longtime composer, Bernard Herrmann, insisted on writing music for the entire sequence but Hitchcock wanted none. What they settled on resulted in one of the most famous moments in the history of film: violins shrieking in sync with the swinging of the knife. Without ever showing the actual crime, Hitchcock uses editing, and our imagination, to turn an ordinary shower into a spine-tingling bloodbath.