Making the grade

Friday. Must be time for another blog entry!

As interested as I am in film-making, there is always so much more to learn (especially in an area which is rapidly evolving technically). This feels like an epic struggle for me at times: I’m fairly new to the film-making scene, I’m no spring chicken, I have a family to support, no formal training and a technical day-job. I’m often asked “where do I find the time?”. Honestly at times, I have no idea! Occasionally it could be rather easy to feel down about all the obstacles placed in the way. Yet I find that I only need to look at other film-makers for inspiration to keep me going! That inspiration has recently been in the form of Terry Gilliam. First there was his 10 lessons for directors today article (great stuff), followed by the bold decision he has taken to release his latest film on Distrify (rather than the traditional large production channels). It’s great to see people like him still taking some chances, shaking it up a bit. I really hope it works out, it might just be what we all need right now – go Terry!

So bouncing with some new-found energy, last week I met with Sherilee to showcase my edit for Etiquette. We have been frantically trying to get this finished in time for a Bafta screening, although time now seems rather short! I took her original rough cut, completely re-cut two scenes, set some pace and added a few creative flourishes of my own. Perhaps this is an interesting journey to see how exactly how the final edit evolved, if I have space I may well put these early cuts on the perks DVD.

Some of the editorial choices were tests and purely experimental on my part. Sherilee laughed, which considering we have both seen the same scene being played out so many different ways time and time again I’m taking as a success. The real test will be the feedback from someone who hasn’t seen it yet, we only get one shot at this per person, which is why I’ve been holding back for the time being. Shouldn’t be too much longer now though!

In need of grading

Scene from Etiquette requiring grading

Whilst editing I was also experimenting with the look/grading, without attempting anything fancy. For the record I personally remember colour-balancing and grading to be rather dull, up there with the chore of sound synchronising (another necessary evil). Both can be tedious manual processes which get in the way of the real editing.

My troubles started right at the start with the first couple of external shots. We shot in October so there were some lovely autumnal colours in the first two shots with fantastic clear blue skies. Unfortunately the shot I really needed to use was filmed on different day with different weather conditions. This made it tricky to make it appear part of the same scene. In the end I took a rather long-winded “Photoshop” approach to this to add a very subtle sky-blue gradient and blend it in to the original footage. I know there were almost certainly more graceful solutions available (please let me know), but it worked for what I needed at the time.

House scene grading

House scene grading

The problems didn’t stop there. I spent more time trying to make the shots look part of the same scene so they flowed.

Making the shots look part of the same scene

Grading shots to look part of the same scene

And so it went on. I seemed to spend more time fixing footage than editing it (which came together remarkably quickly in comparison). As mentioned earlier, time is limited. I had a mad dash trying to complete the edit in time for our meeting. What I presented to Sherilee was in retrospect inadequate. I totally get editing in terms of timings/shots which work or don’t. But colour correction, well – let’s just say it’s an area I should work on (I don’t think I’m all alone on this in the editing world). Thankfully this is an area which Sherilee (who has several years of experience with) does regularly as a day job.

I’ve passed this aspect over to her now. Meanwhile, I am practicing this “dark art” behind the scenes. To help there is a wonderful selection of tools available within Premiere Pro. If I’m honest there seems to be too much choice and it can be easy to get rather bogged down with the features on offer. When doing my original grading I have been flying pretty blind based on my monitor settings (not good at all). The blacks were too high, everything had a somewhat desaturated look (even if it did look okay on the monitor). I’ve been forcing myself to learn and love vectorscopes and waveforms. Already I have to say that the results are looking significantly better – and this is before I get into gamma curves properly. Must continue to persevere!

Vectorscope + RGB Parade

Vectorscope + RGB Parade

One of the bigger headaches we’ve had this week has been sharing edits. Sherilee edits with Final Cut Pro 7 (FCP) on a Mac and I edit with Adobe Premiere Pro CS5.5 on a PC. I’ve use both packages, admittedly FCP was quite a while ago now. But I have to say I am not regretting the migration to Premiere Pro one bit. Aside from the already mentioned excellent colour correction tools (which I believe are one of the main gripes with Final Cut Pro X folks), it’s stable, renders footage quicker, can import/export FCP7 projects (within reason) and handles pretty much all media formats I’ve thrown at it (eg. DSLR and 5K RED out of the box). This is something which really surprised me about FCP. Getting techy/nerdy for just a sentence – it couldn’t even import my mp4 file which was encoded in H.264/AAC codecs – both of which Apple support. Mp4 is used for video files on iPods, the AAC codec is the one which iTunes uses. H.264 is the codec which DSLRs use). Now sorted but came as quite a shock it was so unwilling to play ball! I’ve spoken to several editors who are up in arms about the latest Final Cut Pro X. Therefore I wasn’t entirely surprised to see this – Avid Studio trying to capitalise the iPad editing market over iMovie. A few moments later I noticed Chris Jones also picking this up on Twitter pondering if Apple have lost the “editing” plot? He also did a blog entry on FCP X or Avid. Personally I firmly believe that Apple have temporarily dropped the ball, they may well rise like a phoenix from the flames, but they have faltered at a somewhat pivotal time. The only thing I would say is that I felt Chris dismissed Adobe far too easily (perhaps based on earlier experiences). I’m going to argue that they totally get what indie film-makers are after when it comes to making shorts or features right now. I’d urge any film-makers/editors sitting on the fence to give serious consideration to Adobe CS5.5 Production Premium (which comes bundled with a formidable array of programs including Premiere/After Effects/Photoshop Extended/Audition/Flash Professional/Illustrator and Encore).

Whilst talking of Chris Jones, he is running another Film-making Masterclass. If you are a budding film-maker, I can not stress enough how inspiring, useful and great value this is. Just do it! It will be the only one this year! I would go again purely for networking purposes alone were it not for the fact I already have other commitments that weekend. On a somewhat embarassing side note, I see I did make the grade for a short promotional video at the top of that page.

Oh dear, but at least I managed to get a Terminator comment in! 🙂

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