FILM FINISHING SERVICES
most of what you'd need to know about working with me
In a sentence: film finishing is the sum of all the adjustments that take place after the rough cut (when the film’s overall structure and most of its scenes are generally set) is complete.
This finishing process has a huge impact on audience impact and the perception of overall “professionalism."
A film can perhaps do without color correction, but the filmmaker runs the risk jarring audiences out of poorly corrected scenes. Sound editing can be ignored, but at even greater risk of the above. Skip sound design and the film will feel somehow empty. Neglect a finishing edit pass and your film will probably feel too loose or too tight, and audiences could feel bored or confused – maybe both.
All of these aspects of film finishing contribute to the overall impact. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t do them.
Here are the main steps for finishing a film (select each to expand/contract).
The last 5-10% of editing always makes an enormous difference in terms of audience impact and pacing. And sometimes a new and better path can be easily seen, and nearly as quickly corrected, by an experienced editor with fresh eyes.
Because of my experience – both as teacher and filmmaker – I believe that I’m ideally positioned to make a tangible contribution to most documentaries (and plenty of narratives) at this crucial point in production.
If the film was edited using offline files, this is where the film is conformed online; in other words, easy-to-edit, low-res proxy files are replaced with the high-resolution original source media. For a narrative film or live action documentary, this means locating and relinking to the original camera-shot footage. For an archival film, this can mean performing hi-resolution digital scans of clips used in the edit.
This footage is then ready to be “fixed” in various ways. First, visual effects are added. This can be as simple as removing an objectionable or distracting element, or replacing a blown out sky. It can mean creating an artificial explosion (which I can do) or adding a photorealistic 3D T-Rex (which I can’t).
In a documentary, 2D and 3D effects are usually applied to graphical elements. Think of the pans over a still image or newspaper headline...these don’t have to look bad or plain. But there are also greenscreen elements in narrative and documentary, and plenty of other opportunities to utilize 2D and light-3D visual effects and processing.
Moving on, the footage is then color corrected. This process isn’t necessarily about making the footage look its best – it’s more about making footage look consistent within scenes, creating a sense of continuity from shot to shot.
After this, a color grade is applied on a scene-by-scene basis, or to the entire film. The color grade is a “look,” which usually entails adjusting the overall color cast for vibrancy, atmosphere or to indicate a particular time of day or place. But this phase also includes digital diffusion, image stabilization, selective desaturation, noise reduction, the addition of film grain, distress effects (making new footage look old), etc. By this point, the visuals will look fantastic.
Simultaneously, the sound work can begin. This begins with sound editing, in which all the little obvious cuts throughout the film are smoothed over, and distracting or discontinuous noises are reduced or replaced.
Once the dialogue, interviews, live action, etc. are smooth, sound design begins building up the soundtrack, adding sounds for most onscreen actions, ambience for realism or mood, and sometimes outright expressive effects to convey a mindset or to impact the audience on an almost subconscious level (think of the sounds that build suspense in a horror film – sound is usually doing more work than the visuals).
These effects can be sonically pushed and pulled and combined for maximum impact, almost like image editing in Photoshop. All this design work takes time, so the amount that can be done is limited by budget and deadline.
Finally, all these sounds (voice, effects, ambience, music) are mixed together for clarity and impact during the appropriately named sound mixing phase.
I am willing to do individual pieces of projects as needed (just sound editing or color, for instance), but my preferred projects are those where I get to work collaboratively on a host of post-production duties, to help achieve a cohesive overall aesthetic.
I like working closely with other filmmakers, and feel I have much to contribute. That’s the real advantage of working with me, as I see it: you don’t have to go out and cobble together a post-production team, or spend a fortune at multiple post-houses.
I can take care of everything from rough cut to delivery, and even a little beyond, in close collaboration with the filmmaker(s). That’s essentially what I do on my own films, so you’d get the same entire post-production package that I'm accustomed to.
Below are some additional questions you may have, and their corresponding answers. If you have any additional questions, please get in touch via the Contact Page.
The main benefit of working with me is getting done what you need done professionally, at a reasonable cost. So in addition to what is outlined above, I can also offer additional assistance in the following areas (click each item to expand/contract).
Being an independent documentary filmmaker over 15 years, you pick up a lot of information. Some of it might even be considered useful.
For instance, something I’ve observed over the years is that the pacing of a film usually feels a bit faster on a big theater screen than it does on your computer screen. Something about the scale or fuller immersion likely causes this, although I’m not sure. I have no research to back this up – it’s strictly anecdotal. But I know it’s a thing for me, and likely others as well.
There are lots of these “things” that you pick up over the years, and I leverage all of it while working on a project.
I used to teach production in the Digital Filmmaking department at Stephens College, where I again became a jack-of-all trades. I taught 13 unique courses in my five years, from Narrative Directing to Documentary History – and plenty of post-Production classes.
One of the skills you acquire in that position is how to quickly evaluate and articulate what’s gone right and what’s gone wrong. I loved my students, but if there was a way for something to go wrong cinematically, they (as a group) would invariably find it – and often incorporate it into their work. As such, I became pretty refined at giving honest and helpful feedback.
I know how easy it is to become blind to one’s own work (it usually happens to me about 2/3 to 3/4 of the way into the project), and so I often ask for feedback from fellow filmmakers. And in return, I routinely give notes on their cuts at various stages. It’s absolutely crucial for independent filmmakers, and it’s something I can definitely offer as a film finisher.
You need an h.264 that’s going to make your Vimeo screener look as good as possible? Simple.
You need audio stems for your composer? No problem.
You need a DCP for a theatrical premiere? Cool.
You need an HDCAM for a festival? No one uses HDCAM anymore (mercifully). But whatever – I know a lab with good rates.
You need a textless .mxf file with discrete music and effects tracks, all conformed to the precise audio loudness spec of a Belgian television station. I’ve done it. I had to do some research, but I got it done. In my home office. And it passed a rigorous tech check on the first try.
There’s rarely anything you can’t do with the right software these days, and much of it is built into the standard packages. The tech manuals and specifications can sometimes be daunting, but with a little belief and some background knowledge almost anyone can make it happen. Including me. And I’m happy to incorporate all this into what I can offer.
At one point or another, nearly every independent film is self-distributed – even if that means submitting to your first festivals.
I’ve self-distributed nearly all my films for a substantial period of time, whether festival premieres, non-theatrical one-offs or weeklong theatrical bookings. I’ve even negotiated with overseas broadcasters – how well I negotiated, I’m not sure.
But it all adds up to a reasonably successful track record at distributing my work, and I’m pleased to share what I know.
Despite what you may have heard, there is still money to be made by independent filmmakers selling plain, old-fashioned DVDs. This is especially true if you have a documentary that might be of educational interest.
I’ve had tremendous good fortune in this market, in part because of strategy and a repurposing of some simple tools (preceded by subject selection and followed by hard work), and my experiences and techniques are there for those I work with.
But before you can start selling DVDs, you must actually have a disc. It’s not terribly difficult to make a DVD that plays, just like it’s not terribly hard to throw together an edit. The real challenge here is making a DVD that looks good. This includes the menu design and the crucial disc packaging. That’s where I can really help.
I have produced the DVDs and artwork for every single one of my films (except the commercial disc of The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, which my distributor insisted on farming out to an expensive studio). It’s yet another piece of my one-stop shop approach.
Many years ago I refined my knowledge of Photoshop while working as a photo retoucher in an image processing lab. It wasn’t terribly rewarding work, but it expanded my potential with that essential tool, and for several years after I freelanced as a graphic designer.
I’ve carried that knowledge into my films in the form of visual effects and the generation of promotional materials – things like postcards and key art – and would have a lot of fun helping to develop these kind of materials for any film I’m working on.
As an example, here’s my poster design for The Experimental City. Pretty cool, right? It looks lovely at full-poster size, but I’m biased, so judge for yourself.
This one’s tricky. I’m an editor at heart and simply love to edit – as much as a horse loves to run or a pegasus loves to fly. It’s why I got into documentary filmmaking to begin with.
But realistically, if it’s a feature-length documentary, I probably won’t be able to edit your full film. Feature docs are long-term commitments. And most are essentially created in post-production, which means that the horizon for completion is open-ended and typically very far off.
That said, I’ll never say never. If you have what I consider an amazing potential doc that needs my help, I’m open to the possibility. In fact, if you have an amazing film in any format, I’d probably love to edit it, and finish it too. But those are rare.
And just because I likely can't edit most people's films from beginning to end, that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in getting most people’s films over the final hump. I can therefore help most filmmakers as a finish editor or editing/story consultant.
The thing is, although editing strategies differ between the various forms, from the standpoint of film finishing there’s very little difference. Narratives will likely have more sound design, and will be in surround sound; docs more sound editing and fixing – but on the whole, the tools and techniques are the same, no matter the format.
Over two decades, I have worked on just about every conceivable format of videomaking. I began my career making local TV commercials – literally hundreds of them! (check the production log at KMIZ-TV if you don’t believe me).
For the curious, and a little break from all this text, here’s a spot that I made in my early ‘20’s – circa-2001, I believe – that somehow aired on television, in glorious standard-definition. It won a local Addy award...my solo Addy.
I love working on narrative films. The opportunities for interesting sound design and visual effects are seemingly endless, and there’s nothing like editing an action scene, or the simple but profound pleasure of a perfectly-executed match-on-action.
I also deeply enjoy working on Trailers – the challenge of condensing a narrative (or even a non-narrative!) down to a few minutes is a lot of fun. A few of my trailers are located on the About Page.
Absolutely. Narrative, Doc, Experimental....all of them.
Unless you're an established Youtube star, you’re probably better off investing the time into learning as much as you can yourself.
Maybe, but probably not. Just not my thing, so close friends only.
I won’t work on any project that I feel is socially or politically objectionable, but I’m a fairly reasonable person, so I’d imagine most projects qualify.
While it’s true that I did most of the archival work in my prior films (including the digital scans of 16mm films), I don’t see myself as an archival researcher, per se.
On a longer-term job, however, in which I’m hired as the jack-of-all-trades, I’m happy to help in any way that I can, and that includes working archivally as I am able. I have a couple thousand 16mm films in my personal collection (many of which are in the public domain; i.e., free to use as one likes at no cost) and access to thousands more based on arrangements with archives. And I know plenty of tricks for tracking down archival materials, and have worked closely with some truly excellent archival researchers, who I could recommend for intensive archival docs.
And if your needs include 16mm film footage, I can build very high-quality 4K film scans into your project. Again, I do it for my own films, so why not yours?
This is one I can’t do. I played the saxophone once-upon-a-time, but for all the creative ways to utilize music in the cinema, there is simply no situation in which that would benefit your film.
As much as I love the music in my films, and as attentive as I am to its impact, I can’t compose and produce music.
I am adept at editing music, cutting it for length or tailoring it to a scene, all while keeping it seamless. I can absolutely do that for you.
But if you want a full-fledged cinematic score from a top-notch composer I cannot recommend anyone more highly than the composer for my films, Benjamin Balcom.
Alternatively, if you’re looking for something a little more minimalist, my bet is that you can find a nearby musician or band who would love to help develop the right sound for your film. My best advice here is to edit to temp music, and find a musician who can match that sound.
Of course, like anything, it depends on the nature and scope of the project. But since I’m based in the Midwest, have almost no overhead, and have made a career out of working efficiently and inexpensively, I am able to keep my costs well under a post-production house, especially one in a great but expensive city in the coastal United States.
I know this is vague, so let me give you a very broad ballpark sense.
Depending on your needs, any project will almost assuredly cost more than $2000. It’s just difficult to get started on a project with a post-production budget that is less than that for any particular aspect.
So if the budget for your feature-length film is in the hundreds of dollars for, say, sound design and mixing, you should probably look for someone just beginning, perhaps a student who is looking to expand their demo reel. Or better, learn to do it yourself – seriously, the time spent will pay off in the long run and you’ll become a better, more thoughtful, filmmaker in the process.
Unless you need the film edited from start to finish, which will likely take many months (or even years) to complete right, costs probably won’t go over $20,000 for moderate finish editing, full sound design, color correction/grading, medium-complexity graphics/visual effects, and standard delivery (DCP, broadcast, online, Blu-Ray, and DVD).
If you fill out the form on the contact page, I can start to give you a more specific sense of the costs involved.
I’ll begin by saying that there is something deep down inside me that simply can’t stand to do ugly work. So no matter how “insignificant” the project, mundane the topic, or meager the budget, if I’m working on it I always try to make it look and sound beautiful. As a craftsperson, to do otherwise is repellant and runs counter to my nature.
But a deep desire for quality doesn’t necessarily mean a craftsperson can deliver.
So I’d say that the best way to see what I can do is to watch my work. And the easiest way to do that is to probably start with my films’ trailers. They’ll give you a sense of the kinds of projects I’ve done in the recent past (“creative historical documentary” might be a label) and should provide a rough gauge of quality.
My two most recent trailers (for The Pruitt-Igoe Myth and The Experimental City) are embedded into the bottom of the About Page.*
Additionally, you can find a selection of high-profile press on the same About Page to see what others have said about my films.
Other than that, if you would like to see some of my work and its reception for yourself, probably the easiest way is either to Google me or just get in touch via the Contact Page. I’m pretty responsive to email and am generally (so I believe) considered friendly and approachable, so if you’re curious get in touch.
*The trailer for Jandek on Corwood was created at the very beginning of my filmmaking career, and so I don't feel it's as representative as my current work in terms of production quality. That said, it was surprisingly successful.
Since completing my most recent film, The Experimental City, I’ve felt the need for a break from full-time documentary filmmaking to reassess the trajectory of my career and my approach to filmmaking.
I still intend to make documentaries – one of the few non-negotiables in my life – but I just need a little time off from producing my own films to creatively recharge.
At the same time, in discussions I’ve had with other documentarians, I detected a need for a professional-grade one-stop film finishing service for independent filmmakers. When I shared my process and overall budgets – which were surprisingly low because I did everything DIY – they'd often suggest that I start my own business. My specialized skillset could generate a livable income while allowing me to take time off from my own projects, and still be a part of the filmmaking community.
Finally, I enjoy teaching and helping others, and view a finishing business as a way to assist other filmmakers in the ways and means of post-production, serving as a kind of mentor to help expand their sense of the possibilities of sound, visual effects, etc. That contributive aspect is important to me personally, and I feel working with others collaboratively will also help inspire me as an individual filmmaker.
I get this question a lot – I mean a lot. So I decided to include it here, in part because it’s a fun (for the profoundly nerdy) brief overview of half a career spent with various non-linear editors.
I currently edit on Adobe Premiere (don't worry – even if your project was edited on different software, there are plenty of tools to move it for finishing). It’s a little buggy – still, on like version 20!! Unacceptable Adobe! – but if you know how to finesse it, it’s very usable and has some neat features. And the entire Adobe Suite – which includes the indispensable Photoshop and After Effects, and the very useful Audition – is still the best value around, despite the obnoxious subscription format.
Had you asked me this question five years ago I would have said Final Cut Pro 7, but with hesitation and a little worry. I loved FCP 7, but it was dying. Apple had made the infamous switch to Final Cut X and the aging FCP 7 could no longer handle the newer file formats and resolutions. But I reiterate: I loved FCP 7, and I know plenty of doc filmmakers who still use it.
Years ago I would have said Avid Xpress DV (I edited my first two feature docs, and did plenty of commercial work, on that). I really liked the actual process of editing on Avid – cutting was a real pleasure – but its Byzantine media management scheme made round-tripping to After Effects a pain.
And, while at the TV station, I also edited on the now-forgotten In-Sync Speed Razor – which had its faults but really was as super-fast as its name implies – and the Panasonic Postbox – in retrospect a truly oddball system and already a dinosaur by the time I used it.
I never edited tape-to-tape video professionally; that was going out just as I came in.
Perhaps surprisingly, I do edit 16mm film the old-fashioned way every now and then, although I only need to make basic assemblies. But I never thought I’d say that I’d be working with film when I was starting out.
Despite all these apparent changes, all that’s really changed between these various editing systems are higher resolutions and a few more advanced features. All experienced editors know, however, that it doesn’t really matter what software tool you use. The conceptual tools are far more valuable, and a deep understanding of story, pacing, theme and audience engagement are everything.
Keeping with my DIY approach, I designed the Pegasus logo. I love tinkering and designing in Photoshop – it’s exceptionally relaxing – and so I typically design all the promotional art and marketing materials for my films.
But to your question, “what’s up with that freaky logo”:
That, my friend, is a vectorscope, one of the key tools for color correction. The vectorscope visualizes the precise saturation and hue of every color in an image. It’s used to make sure the image is broadcast safe and makes consistently adjusting key colors like skintones a bit easier. Here’s a picture of one in action.
So, as you can see I’ve stylized the readout of a vectorscope somewhat, by adding the rough shape of the Pegasus constellation. I’ve always been fascinated by maps of various kinds, exploded diagrams, and flowcharts. And the dots and lines of the constellation visualization reminded me of a workflow chart – step-by-step working toward the bright-green finish. Like my films, it’s a cluster of associations linked by a concept and visual theme.
That’s it for now – thanks for reading. Questions or comments? Check out the Contact page.
p.s. – for making it all the way to the bottom, here's the sequel to the Carpet Nightmare ad from above.