Is That a File or a Codec?

As we continue to wade in the shallows of what a file based workflow means for television and film, we can slosh past some important but sometimes overlooked quagmires. This usually applies  to the computer based techno-babble that sometimes asserts itself to the point where you find yourself saying what is that geek saying, only to realize the geek is yourself.

Old style Film to Tape Workflow

It used to be easy. There was tape. O.k. so that made me sound old.  We would telecine from film to tape and then everything from then on was some form of tape to tape process. We new what the master was going to be at the end. Yup you guessed it – tape. This probably meant HDcam SR or D5 in the most recent incarnations. But it used to be D2 or Digibeta in the Standard Def days. How simple and quaint it used to be.  And while you might still deliver to a Network on tape (A little terrifying if you think about it), we live in the world of files now. And here we are back to the minefield I mentioned earlier.

We have abandoned film and tape (mostly) but that doesn’t mean we understand what has replaced them. We have moved from the tangible to the intangible. Film and tape to ones and zeros.  I mean when someone like me talks about a file based workflow, what exactly am I saying. What is a file exactly?

 What is a File?

At some level you know what a file is. A .doc file is how I am writing this on my laptop. But when you get into the video file world it is a little more arcane than that, with more layers.

Think of a file as a box that holds important information. Files are sometimes called wrappers or containers. You might recognize a few of them like .mov or .mxf. You move the container and its contents around from place to place with the contents intact.  Taking the wrapper analogy further think of it like it is a piece of candy, the wrapper (file) says Godiva on it, the codec is what is on the inside of that wrapper. It could be chocolate or caramel or some combination (thanks Scott for that insight).

The information itself inside this container is generally broken down into three elements or streams. They are audio, video and metadata.

 What then is a codec?

Codec came from (en)coder/decoder or sometimes it is known as Compressor/Decompressor. It is what enables a program to utilize the video or audio in a file. In other words it is the process that allows you to encode media for storage or transportation or decode it for use in editing or manipulation.

You have no doubt heard of ProRes or DNX36. These are picture codecs. DNX36 is usually in an .mxf wrapper or file for Avid. But it can also be .mov file, often for vfx.

Another familiar codec is ProRes which is used for .mov files and  are what Final Cut Pro uses for editing as well as one of the codecs that the Alexa camera can shoot.

The important distinction is that in the quick paced world of television of feature post production, it is not enough to say I have a Quicktime file (.mov) or Avid file. Those statements isolated don’t convey much information. We need to understand what we are shooting, editing and finishing on. Sometimes, although rarely, they are all the same.  Most often we must transcode between formats. But that is a subject for another day.

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Post Production Schedule

When you get a new show, many Post Producers and Post Supervisors think that the first thing to do is review the budget. But it really all starts with the schedule. The Post Production budget is informed by the Post Production Schedule. Sure the numbers are important, and budgeting will end up being a multi part series, but if you want to accurately budget a show you need to ask some basic scheduling questions. When does production start shooting? When must you deliver?

The Essentials of a Post Production Schedule

Start at the beginning. When does shooting start? This is fairly obvious but the reason for the question isn’t semantic. Between the time you start and the first shoot day, is the time you have to figure out what needs to be done before shooting.

Studios are asking for shorter and shorter prep time for Post Producers and Post Supervisors. Often as little as two weeks to set up a whole series. Of course, you can’t set up a series in two weeks, so you may have to work on flex time. That is when the studio tells you that you don’t have to show up every day and that you can spread the two weeks they are paying you over several weeks of prep. The Executive Producers on the other hand usually expect you to be working full time for the prep. But Prep is another article.

The Prep is how long you have to figure out workflow that you will need to set up. Don’t underestimate the time that this takes, particularly if you haven’t done a file based show yet. Everything is new, give yourself time.

Production Schedule

Depending on your project, production will be easier to schedule, unless there are a lot of visual effects. How many days are you shooting seven? ten? If it it is a complicated show their may be overlap days, that you will need to accomodate.

Next you need to calculate how long you will need before your first anything is due. Often something is due and you don’t won’t have a cut. Budget it. Studios are notorious for having lots of marketing and promo needs while you are in production. You need to understand and schedule them (budgeting comes later, even though I know you want to get there now).

Post Production Schedule

O.k. we get to the gravy. Schedule Editor’s Cut at least two days, Three or four if you can spare it, from last day of dailies. Really. Do your Editor and yourself a favor. The better the Editor’s Cut the happier everyone will be down the road. In episodic, when pinched squeeze the Director’s Cut, unless they are an Executive Producer. By Director’s Guild rules they are required to get 4 days. This is not a contradiction, just something for tactics. Which is another article. Producer’s Cut (this is an episodic television schedule still). Should be four days, at least. The really good ones, that understand editing will want more time six to seven days at least.

The Studio Notes will take days to give notes if you let them. Only allow 1 Day and push to keep it that way. Network Notes will based on the Studio Cut (which contains their notes) another day.  And 1 day to Lock Picture. Spotting sessions are one day, but can actually take place on Lock Picture day now, if necessary.

Visual Effects are difficult to schedule in the abstract. You need to know how many and how complicated. If you are on a tight delivery schedule, visual effects may need to begin before picture lock. Sometimes way before.

Most Sound Companies want 5 days from turnover to mix and will get finicky. Make sure you understand when you will get hit with a short turn around fee and schedule just the safe side of that. Mixing will be two-four days depending on the show. Laybacks can occur, the night of the last mix day, unless it is a complicated sound show. Delivery dubs will take a day.

Known when you have to deliver, it may have no resemblance to the air date. When I started Lost we could deliver day of air if necessary, by the time we completed the series delivery was three business days before air date because of international needs. HBO needs even longer lead times. A month is common.

Schedule first, budget next. The most important thing to watch is whether you are on a short turnaround for anything. That will effect the budget. An Article on Post Production will be come soon.



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Post Production Terms – ADR

Many newbie’s to the film industry ask, what is ADR? The answer is simple. ADR is an abbreviation for Automated Dialog Replacement. ADR, or looping, as it is sometimes known, usually comes toward the end of the Post Production process. There are several reasons that a film or television project might need to do ADR. They include a need to change a line, the original dialog recording was poor or had noise on the line used, a different performance is needed than shot in production. There are of course other reasons to shoot ADR outside the normal scope of traditional film and television post production, they include different versions of the original show, such as foreign language versions, plane and hotel versions or online versions such as iTunes.

 Process of ADR

This is going to be the ideal version of the ADR process for an episode of series television. Unfortunately, it is increasingly not like the idealized version.

After locking picture there is a sound spotting session (to be discussed in another Post), one of things that you will discuss is potential ADR. There are several reasons you will spot ADR for an episode.

1)    Poor Production recording. This can occur for various reasons many of which are not the production sound mixer’s fault. The Production Sound Mixer has one of the toughest jobs on a crew; they need your support not animosity.

  1. There are ambient sounds you don’t want in the show. On Lost it would often happen because we were shooting in a Jungle that happened to be next to the H1 in Oahu. Clearly on a deserted island you couldn’t have rush hour traffic sounds, so sometimes we would have too loop the lines to create the right sonic environment.
  2. Sounds that render lines unintelligible. This can be a crew person in the background dropping a loud metal object (happens all the time) or an actor making too much noise with a prop on the set.
  3. Airplanes- Really the same as A, but such a pervasive problem in most productions it deserves its own category.
  4. Music recorded- Any time pre-recorded music overlaps with lines the dialog will need to be looped.

2)    Low Recording level- this is often not the fault of the production sound mixer.  A popular acting style is whisper, where it is extremely difficult to pick up enough level to record the lines properly.

3)    Line Change- Often during the editorial process it will become clear that a line needs to change. Sometimes it is because it is not working creatively. It may also be that a section of the show was edited out and a line needs to change to help the story make sense.

The Spotted lines are prepared by the Sound Department and who will issue spotting notes.  These notes tell the Post Production department on a show which actors to schedule, how long you will need each actor and how large the loop group needs to be.

The individual actors and loop group are scheduled separately. The reason actors are brought in individually is for efficiency. Scheduling major actors or series regulars can be a difficult enough process on its own. Getting the actors to work as a group can be nearly impossible to coordinate, although when it can be done the results can be superior.


The Post Producer (Director in Feature films) will signify which the selected and alternate takes for each line. The ADR editor cuts the selected takes and prepares them for the re-recording mix stage.


ADR Problems

The actors will usually balk at doing some of the lines and there will be discussions about alternate versions of lines or dropping them entirely. Sometimes a conversation with the Executive Producer (or Director in Feature Films) will need to take place to determine whether or not a line will be performed.

Actors can often not recreate the performance they had in production. It is very difficult for many actors to perform with the other actors they had in the scene. They can be hostile. In unskilled hands the ADR performances can be very different and can really affect the final result of the mixed show.

But ADR problems will be its own separate post. Yes it can be that difficult. It is one of my least favorite parts of the Post Production Process.

The goal of ADR is not to be noticed. It should match the vocal quality and performance of the lines around it. If the Post Production is done with excellence most audiences won’t realize that ADR occurred.

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What is Post Production?

Even within the film and television business this question is not easily answered by the bulk of craftsman who make up the core of a show’s workers. Post Production (Post)  is often a murky place that is misunderstood and under-appreciated.

Post Production Defined

Technically Post Production is everything after Production, hence “Post” in the name. But with the advent of new technologies, workflows and pervasive nature of vfx Post Production now begins in Pre-Production.

The areas that usually fall in the Post Galaxy include Editing, Sound, Color, Music, Visual Effects and Delivery.

These are purposefully broad categories that will be explored in greater detail in the coming weeks, but that I will be summarize now. Think of this as a Post Production Outline.


The Areas of Post

Editing- Whether you are working on a Reality Show or the latest Blockbuster one of the consistencies is that the footage that Production shoots must be Editing together. Usually this is done in “off line” manner and the master elements are conformed at a Post Production Picture facility. Like many articles of faith in the Post Production some of this is changing.



This area encompasses Sound Editorial and Sound Mixing. This involves everything from ADR to sound desgin, temp mixing to Music and Effects mix.



Everything from source music to composed music is included and gets more complicated if you are doing any live recording of music.



or DI (Digital Intermediate) as it is often known in the feature film world- Once a show has been conformed (onlined in old school parlance). A Colorist needs to review the show and shot by shot create or effect the look that has been previously established.



We have all become familiar with VFX work in the big Hollywood films, but a surprising amount now coasts under the radar on an average tv show because they are not obviouslyvfx shots.



I am lumping a lot of different responsibilities into this category. Post is usually responsible for delivering everything to the studio and/or Network involved in a project. This includes Dailies, Cuts, Final Masters, Archival Masters etc. If it needs to delivered whether a temp or final Post Production will ultimately be responsible for it.


This is meant to give a quick overview of what Post Production is. Please come back as I will dive into detail on each of these processes and the nitty gritty detail of how to get Post Production done.

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