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“Fix it in Post” – When to Rely on Post-Production

Equipment_Edit Suite_2 (278x185)How reliant should you be on post-production? When is it better to spend the time getting an effect in-camera that could be achieved easily in the editing room? Eamonn Gray, for Film Ireland, talked to directors Virginia Gilbert, Colm McCarthy, Lenny Abrahamson and Brian O’Malley about ‘post addiction’ and how to avoid the habit.

Colm McCarthy: The thing about working in film and television is that as a creative form it’s much more expensive than any other. It’s a very different sort of medium, and sensible directors are pragmatic about financial resources and there are lots and lots of techniques and technologies that are available to you now that are cost-effective solutions to problems. So there’s two different ways to relate to post-production: one is to plan to do things creatively that you might not be able to do otherwise and to have cost-effective creative solutions that you plan for in advance. The other is that when there are problems you have another option for getting out. You can change what the scene is; you can change how you achieve whatever the gag is. Good directors are probably the ones that know what they’re doing afterwards. So I don’t think an animator needs to die in order for you to fix it in post because the truth is that if you come to them with something that’s completely unreasonable it means you haven’t picked the right solution.

Lenny Abrahamson's 'Adam & Paul'

Lenny Abrahamson’s ‘Adam & Paul’

Lenny Abrahamson: I think at the start – when I was making lots of commercials – I was very impressed by the technical possibilities of digital post. It was exciting, the freedom this gave in image-making. In a sense, I think the excitement I felt then was to do with the newness of a lot of these techniques. Those were the days when a new effect – ramping, or photo arrays or a fresh grade or whatever – were enough to make an ad or a promo stand out. Now, I think people are not so impressed by fancy CG. They’re used to it. It’s not enough in itself to make something interesting.

Brian O’Malley: From my own perspective I don’t rely on post-production to the extent where I need it to save my commercial. I do use it to embellish certain things and to do things we couldn’t afford to do otherwise, but I certainly wouldn’t use it to turn a bad commercial into a good one. But in terms of knowing in advance, the approach I take is to sit down with whoever the post-production artist is and work out in advance what they need. My shoot is based on what they need and what I think the commercial needs too. There are lots of different types of director. I’m very much not a post-dependant director, I like to get it in camera, so I generally don’t set out with an idea in mind of how I’m going to ‘effect’ the piece overall in post-production. I tend to set out expecting to get it in camera, knowing that there are certain things on the day that you can sort out in post-production. I would rarely set out planning to make drastic changes.

Virginia Gilbert's 'A Long Way from Home'

Virginia Gilbert’s ‘A Long Way from Home’

Virginia Gilbert: I think most directors would feel, certainly when you’re dealing with your average film, that if you don’t have the performances and everything you need for storytelling in camera, it’s very difficult to do it in the edit. That’s the first major rule. The importance of post-production for me would be the editing process. For me, it feels like going back to the writing process and it’s the place where you end up really making the film. So even with the proviso ‘if you haven’t shot it you haven’t got it’ in mind, the post process is still hugely important.

Lenny Abrahamson: I always shoot with a strong idea of how the material will go together (I couldn’t choose shots without that idea) but once I’m done shooting I try to look at the rushes with the editor as if I have never seen them before. So post for me is not a mechanical completion of some fixed plan.

Colm McCarthy: Films are made in post-production. You can only make them with the technology that’s available to you and the material that you’ve shot. Shooting formats have changed too, but post-production is really the area that’s changed massively, so I’d absolutely always want to be involved in that. Films are not made on set, they’re made in edit-suites, that’s where the film actually gets put together, that’s where the filmmaking happens. Post-production is filmmaking – that would be a fundamental philosophy of mine. Having a good handle on what you can and cannot do allows you more creative control and flexibility as a director.

Virginia Gilbert: Hands-down, perhaps even more than the DOP, the editor is your most important creative collaborator, in drama as well as documentary. Different directors have different ways of working. I’m a very hands-on director, I like to be in the edit ninety-nine per cent of the time, although if my editor tells me to shove off for a while so they can try something, that’s fine. It’s an incredibly creative and demanding task and you want the person at the end of the shoot to have that fresh pair of eyes and to bring not only the technological awareness but a narrative awareness, a sense of the film’s history, a sense of story and character and emphasis. An editor can make or break a movie and can certainly save you in a lot of ways, if they’re thoughtful and intelligent and good at what they do. They’re a vital collaborator.

'Ripper Street', directed by Colm McCarthy

‘Ripper Street’, directed by Colm McCarthy

Colm McCarthy: I think it’s essential to know what can and can’t be done at any one time or to have an idea of what’s possible and also to have people within post-production that you can talk to about things. Post-production facilities will always tell you that the best thing to do is to talk to them as early as possible before you do anything.

Virginia Gilbert: Graders always roll their eyes at directors because you’re so used to seeing the rough footage. It can be quite a shock in the first day or two of a grade to see actually how it’s supposed to look. Again it’s always wonderful to watch what the technology can do and how it can enhance things. The digital grading is now so subtle and quick and you can rectify mistakes so easily. But the one thing one must always bear in mind with all the technology is that while there seems to be infinite possibilities, it always comes down to your material; ultimately, the possibilities are going to be finite. You can’t fix a bad performance in post, you can’t fix a ropy script in post, and you can’t put something in that wasn’t there to begin with. So it’s entirely about enhancement.


The full article first appeared in Issue 127 of Film Ireland Magazine.