Higher Production Value Through Cheating in Post

One of the biggest challenges of microbudget or “crew of one” filmmaking is elevating the level of “production value” so that whatever you’re shooting doesn’t look like a microbudget project. Or, more accurately, doesn’t feel like a microbuget project. “Production value” is a very general term that describes the perceived quality of a piece. When you’re shooting it more or less by yourself, there’s only so much you can do: you can’t move a camera, hold a mic boom, and angle a reflector all at the same time. (Not effectively anyway. Trust me, I’ve tried … The results aren’t pretty!) But, when it comes to editing, there’s a LOT you can do to improve the quality and the production value of a video.

As exhibit A, I present this car commercial I shot recently for a local dealership. The script was written by the good folks at Cognetix, who brought me in to shoot the spot.

Pretty straightforward, right? Like most dealership commercials, this one features a guy talking to the camera about great deals. I put a wireless mic on the spokesman and shot it by myself, on the AF100. But here’s what I did “in post” to make this one stand out from the pack (the owner of the dealership loved it, and said it was the best local commercial he’d seen in years).

Fake Zooms

If you look at the commercial, you’ll notice that the first shot zooms in a bit. I did this to add visual interest, and to subtly bring the viewer “into” the commercial. Since the AF100 (especially when fitted with Canon FD prime lenses, the way I use it) can’t really do a smooth zoom, I had to cheat to accomplish this effect. Although I shot the footage at 1080p, I edited it on a 720p timeline. This means that, to fit the 1280×720 image window, the 1920×1080 video had to be shrunk to 67%. By animating the level of zoom, I was able to start at 67% and zoom in to 85% over the course of the 4-second shot. Because the image was never zoomed past 100%, the quality never suffered, and since it’s 720p, it’s still broadcast in HD.

I also used this same technique – without animating the zoom – to crop in and reframe a couple of shots that I decided needed to be adjusted. When in doubt, cheat like crazy!

Color Grading

Color grading is a craft unto itself, and I am only a journeyman at it. However, I can do enough in Colorista II to improve the quality of my projects drastically. Here are a few shots that really benefited from a little tweaking in post.

Because of the bright sun, the image was very contrasty. I used Colorista II to bring up the midtones in the image, deepen the blue in the sky, and brighten both the spokesman and the signage on the building in the background.

For most of the morning, the weather was quite overcast. This helped me avoid the contrast issue in the shot above, but it also gave a dreary, gray look to everything. Contrary to popular opinion, overcast days are NOT good lighting: yes, the clouds turn the entire sky into a single, soft source, but that soft source is still coming from directly overhead. Hello, blown-out nose and forehead, accompanied by shadowed eye sockets. Less than lovely.

In this case, since I was shooting a human being right next to a silver car, I had to underexpose slightly to keep the car from being so bright that it lost detail. So, in post, I had to go back and warm up the scene in general (by boosting the orange values in the midtones), and then brighten up the part of the screen the spokesman inhabited.

Finally, as I was setting up the camera for the last couple of shots, the sun came out. This was good, because now I had a blue sky, but bad because by this time, the sun was pretty high in the sky.

For this shot, the writer/producer from Cognetix was nice enough to hold a reflector for me, but I still had to do some work in post to bring up the detail in the spokesman’s face, and to deepen the blue in the sky.

Sound Design

Sound design is one of the most overlooked components of video production. Once I had the visuals to this piece the way I wanted them (including the simple graphics, which are self-explanatory), I turned my attention to the soundscape.

Whenever possible, I prefer to use a shotgun microphone on a boompole to capture dialogue. In this case, I didn’t have anyone to hold the boom, so I used a wireless microphone instead. This gave me decent audio, but anytime you put a microphone under clothing, you’re going to get a certain amount of rustle and muffling going on. This is what the dialogue sounded like, by itself. McElveen spot – voice only

First, I added some royalty-free stock music. This is the voice track, paired with “Greasy Wheels,” which is part of the music library that comes with Final Cut Studio. McElveen spot – voice music

Next, I added some construction sound effects to support the construction sale concept of the commercial. McElveen spot – voice music fx1

Finally, I added some whooshes and hits to punctuate the on-screen graphics. McElveen spot – audio complete

The trick with adding a lot of audio tracks is keeping everything balanced, so that it all sounds good together. Unfortunately, everybody’s TV, speakers and ears are different, so it’s impossible to make this a foolproof process. However, if you listen to your audio both through headphones and the built-in computer speaker, and balance the elements so that they sound decent in both of those extremes, you’re probably safe.

Conclusion

As you can see, there’s quite a bit going on under the hood of this deceptively simple video. With careful post-production – and maybe a little cheating – the perceived production value of any project can be improved significantly.

  3 comments for “Higher Production Value Through Cheating in Post

  1. October 11, 2011 at 3:16 pm

    Good stuff Alex. I suppose “cheating” is one word for this but I would say its great technique that has come with your experienced.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Eric
    October 23, 2011 at 11:46 pm

    great article, would love to see some of your ideas about color grading.

  3. Breck
    May 3, 2012 at 5:46 pm

    Hey Alex, good commercial! The owner of that dealership had no choice but to love it! I’ll also have to agree with Randy, what you did in post was creative not cheating which proves you have a good skill set for what you want to do. Keep up the good work.

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