Editing Film Using Digital Methods

The process of editing film digitally is constantly evolving, but the basic concept remains the same—you start and end on film, with only the creative part of the editing process changing. Following is a simplified workflow outlining the basic process. (See Cinema Tools Workflows for a more detailed explanation of this process.)

Figure. Diagram of a workflow for editing film using digital methods.

Although this workflow appears more complicated than the traditional editing method, many of these steps can be automated. For most filmmakers, the benefits of being able to edit digitally easily offset any added procedures.

Several parts of this process are the same as for the traditional method—as mentioned earlier, it is only the middle part of the film editing process that is affected by editing digitally.

  1. Stage 1: Shooting the Film and Recording the Sound

    Audio is always recorded separately from the film, on a separate sound recorder. This is known as shooting dual system sound. While shooting the film, you need to include a way to synchronize the sound to the picture. The most common method is to use a clapper board (also called a slate or sticks) at the beginning of each take. There are a number of other methods you can use, but the general idea is to have a single cue that is both audible and visible (you can see what caused the noise).

  2. Stage 2: Developing the Film

    The developed film is known as the original camera negative. This negative will eventually be used to create the final movie and must be handled with extreme care to avoid scratching or contaminating it. The negative is used to create a video transfer (and typically a workprint, as with the traditional method) and then put aside until the negative is conformed.

  3. Stage 3: Transferring the Film to Video

    The first step in converting the film to a format suitable for use by Final Cut Pro is to transfer it to video, usually using a telecine. Telecines are devices that scan each film frame onto a charge-coupled device (CCD) to convert the film frames to video frames. Although the video that the telecine outputs is typically not used for anything besides determining edit points, it’s a good idea to make the transfer quality as high as possible. If you decide against making workprints, this may be your only chance to determine if there are undesirable elements (such as microphone booms and shadows) in each take before committing to them. The video output should have the film’s key number, the video timecode, and the production audio timecode burned in to each frame.

    The actual videotape format used for the transfer is not all that important, as long as it uses reliable timecode and you will later be able to capture the video and audio digitally on the computer prior to editing. An exception is if you intend to use the video transfer to also create an edited video version of the project, perhaps for a video trailer. This requires two tapes to be made at the transfer—one that is high quality and without window burn, and another that has window burn.

    It is strongly recommended that the audio be synced to the video and recorded onto the tape along with the video during the telecine process. There are also methods you can use to sync the audio after the telecine process is complete—the important thing is to be able to simultaneously capture both the video and its synchronized audio with Final Cut Pro.

  4. Stage 4: Creating a Cinema Tools Database

    The key to using Cinema Tools is its database. The database is similar to the traditional code book used by filmmakers. It contains information about all elements involved in a project, including film key numbers, video and audio timecode, and the actual clip files used by Final Cut Pro. Depending on your situation, the database may contain a record for each take used in the edit or may contain single records for each film roll. The film-to-video transfer process provides a log file that Cinema Tools can import as the basis of its database. It is this database that Cinema Tools uses to match your Final Cut Pro edits back to the film’s key numbers while generating the cut list.

    There is no requirement that the database be created before the video and audio are captured, or even before they are edited. The only real requirement is that it must be created before a cut list can be exported. The advantage of creating the database before capturing the video and audio is that you can then use it to create batch capture lists, allowing Final Cut Pro to capture the clips. The database can also be updated and modified as you edit.

  5. Stage 5: Capturing the Video and Audio

    The video created during the telecine process must be captured as a digital file that can be edited with Final Cut Pro. The way you do this depends on the tape format used for the telecine transfer and the capabilities of your computer. You need to use a third-party capture card to capture files from a Betacam SP or Digital Betacam tape machine. If you are using a DVCAM source, you can import directly via FireWire. To take advantage of the batch capture capability of Final Cut Pro, you should use a frame-accurate, device-controllable source.

    As opposed to the captured video, which is never actually used in the final movie, the edited audio can be used. You may decide to capture the audio at a high quality and export the edited audio as an Open Media Framework (OMF) file that can be imported at a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) for finishing. Another approach is to capture the audio at a low quality and, when finished editing, export an audio EDL that can be used by an audio post-production facility, where the production audio can be captured and processed at a very high quality.

  6. Stage 6: Processing the Video and Audio Clips

    Depending on how you are using Cinema Tools, the captured clips can be linked to the Cinema Tools database. They can also be processed, using the Cinema Tools Reverse Telecine and Conform features, to ensure compatibility with the Final Cut Pro editing timebase. For example, the Cinema Tools Reverse Telecine feature allows you to remove the extra frames added when transferring film to NTSC video using the 3:2 pull-down process.

  7. Stage 7: Editing the Video and Audio

    You can now edit the project using Final Cut Pro. For the most part, you edit your film project the same as any video project. If you captured the audio separately from the video, you can synchronize the video and audio in Final Cut Pro.

    Any effects you use, such as dissolves, wipes, speed changes, or titles, are not used directly by the film. These must be created on film at a facility specializing in film opticals.

    It can be helpful for the negative cutter if you output a videotape of the final project edit. Although the cut list provides all the information required to match the film to the video edit, it helps to visually see the cuts.

  8. Stage 8: Exporting the Film Lists

    After you’ve finished editing, you export a film list that can contain a variety of film-related lists, including the cut list, which the negative cutter uses to match the original camera negative to the edited video. Additional lists can also be generated, such as a duplicate list, which indicates when any source material is used more than once.

  9. Stage 9: Creating a Test Cut on a Workprint

    Before the original camera negative is conformed, it is strongly suggested that you conform a workprint to the cut list to make sure the cut list is accurate (some negative cutters insist on having a conformed workprint to work from). There are a number of things that can cause inaccuracies in a cut list:

    • Damaged or misread key numbers entered during the telecine transfer process

    • Incorrect timecode values

    • Timecode errors introduced during the capture process

    • With NTSC video, 3:2 pull-down problems

    In addition to verifying the cut list, other issues, such as the pacing of a scene, are often hard to get a feel for until you see the film projected on a large screen. This also gives you a chance to ensure that the selected shots do not have unexpected problems.

    If your production process involves workprint screenings and modifications, you can also export a change list that describes what needs to be done to a workprint to make it match a new version of the sequence edited in Final Cut Pro.

  10. Stage 10: Conforming the Negative

    The negative cutter uses the cut list, the edited workprint, and the edited video (if available) as a guide to make edits to the original camera negative. Because there is only one negative, it is crucial that no mistakes are made at this point. As opposed to the cutting and splicing methods used when working with the workprint, the cutting and splicing methods used for conforming the negative destroy frames on each end of the edit. This makes extending an edit virtually impossible and is one of the reasons you must be absolutely sure of your edit points before beginning the conform process.

  11. Stage 11: Finishing the Audio

    You usually rough-cut the audio while editing the video (stage 7); the audio is typically finished while the film is being conformed. As mentioned in stage 5, you can use an exported OMF version of the Final Cut Pro edited audio or export an audio EDL and recapture the production audio (using the original sound rolls) at a DAW. Finishing the audio is where you perform the final sound mix, including cleaning up dialogue issues and adding sound effects, backgrounds, and music.

  12. Stage 12: Creating the Answer and Release Prints

    After the original camera negative has been conformed and the audio finalized, you can have an answer print created. This print is used for the final color timing, where the color balance and exposure for each shot are adjusted to ensure the shots all work well together. You may need to create several answer prints before you are happy with the results. Once you are satisfied with the answer print, the final release print is made.