Post-production Workflow

Post-production occurs after the actual footage is shot on location. Documentary filmmakers, and science filmmakers will have a slightly different process in post-production than large Hollywood productions. Yet, most of the difference is simply because the scale is slightly smaller. The following workflow, is more or less what every documentary filmmaker does when working up a piece in post-production. We’ll highlight each of these steps in more detail in the following sections, but this serves as a quick overview.

Transfer Media from Cameras to External Hard Drives

While media transfer is often done while on location during a shoot, it is a good place to start our definition of post-production. When the storage devices are filled (almost all cameras now use digital storage) they must be off-loaded to an external device. Now that it is rare to use physical tapes, it is extremely important to have redundancy on a shoot. Hard drives tend to fail every so often. Back up the footage right away to a raid device or two separate external hard drives.

Log and Name the Footage

Now it’s time to transcode the raw video data and name the footage. This is a great opportunity to review all the footage you have and start to name it appropriately. Most editors drop footage into their library alphabetically, so any naming convention should keep this in mind. We like to name footage something like, … etc.  This naming convention puts the name of the shoot at the start, followed by a chronology (001 – XXX). The short description goes later.  Most operating systems now have no problem with long names, and this allows for quick searches later. For example, I might want a kayaking shot, so I’d search for “Kayaking” and it would pull up all our shots with this descriptor. We encourage everyone to stay away from shorthand naming, because it confuses others that look at your footage. For example, if instead of the above naming system for our Green River Kayaking unloading, it was transfered as, it wouldn’t be searchable nor would anyone know what that meant later on.

Edit a Rough Build

One of the most useful, quick edits, you can make is to take your raw footage and piece it together in a timeline before leaving the physical location of your shoot. Take the pieces of the interviews you remembered that were amazing, or the hosted sections that turned out best, and drop them into a rough build. If you’re handing off footage to an editor later, this will only help the process. We’ve found that many editors don’t pick our favorite shots. Nine times out of ten it’s just because they missed it, when searching the footage. This just gives you more control. Plus, if you’re editing it yourself, you’ll save the time going back and watching all the footage again at a later date. Our brains have somewhat short memories for remembering what shot was the best even a few weeks after the shoot!

The post production software you choose is up to you, but may include nonlinear editing programs from Adobe and Apple, or one of the great alternative video editing and post production programs like VEGAS.

Add Music tracks

Adding music as early as possible helps unify the look and feel of the piece as it is edited. Many editors will argue that you should edit a piece without music first, and only add the music in at the very end. This advice usually comes from editors who have backgrounds in narrative filmmaking. In this case, they would be right. However, in science and natural history programming, unlike fiction filmmaking, most scenes are built by the mood – a combination of the music and the visuals. By choosing a rough music track early on, you can edit the piece to work with the musical selection. It only helps the end product.

Add Temporary Narration

Now that the piece is starting to take shape, you can start thinking about how a narrator might come in to help explain sections of your film. Even if you’re not planning on using a narrator, this is a good stage for you to add temporary audio that you intend to get in interviewies etc. This added sound track will help you and any first time viewers visualize the flow of the piece better without everything is finally recorded. Narrators aren’t cheap, and they won’t want to do pieces over and over again. You’ll save the final narration for the fine cut.


Before you’re finished with the rough cut you may also want to request some animations from animators. If you’re working with picky clients you can drop in very rough versions of pencil sketches into a rough-cut, before spending the money on work from an animator. Many animators will help you conceptualize your idea with these simple sketches as well.

Create a Rough Cut

Now that all the components are more or less in place, export a rough cut. Different production companies may have different definitions for what a “rough cut” really is. In essence, you want something cohesive to show others. If it’s too rough around the edges, the viewer will have a hard time reading through the construction and won’t be able to make valuable comments. We’ve also found that if you’re working with clients, the rougher it is, the more they feel the need to add their own creative input. We feel that the more polished you can make a rough, the better. First, most clients and viewers aren’t trained to see through large holes in a film and it makes the quality of your work seem like much less than it is. A low quality rough cut will force you to produce many rough cut versions before you present a fine cut.

Color Correction

After going through multiple rough cuts and fine-tuning everything in the film so that people are happy with it, you’re ready to go about the final touches on the film. The first is color correction. If you’re producing a film for high-end broadcast you may have to send the film out to be color corrected. If you’re on a low budget, you can do it yourself with program’s like Apple’s Color.

Audio Mastering

Audio can be sweetened and mastered at the final stage. Master audio guru’s can take and equalize the audio so that it pops and sounds amazing. At this stage it really is important to get someone who hasn’t seen the film, listen and help with the audio correction. Too often we simply can’t hear mistakes after listening to the film hundreds of times.

Fine Cut

The fine cut should be the last stage before the final draft is submitted. It should be completely polished and almost ready to go. This is where you can review it with friends and peers so they can help you find any glitches in the product. If you’re working with clients, have them sign off on any corrections that you intend to make so that you can move to the final cut.

Make any changes and send in the Final

A common phrase in the industry is that you’re never really finished with a film, you just decide to put it aside. Now that your film has gone through multiple revisions, there is a stage where you just have to finish it and whip you hands clean. Let this be the final copy and move on to the next project!  It’s a great feeling, enjoy it.

Written by Rob Nelson

Rob is an ecologist from the University of Hawaii. He is the co-creator and director of Untamed Science. His goal is to create videos and content that are entertaining, accurate, and educational. When he's not making science content, he races whitewater kayaks and works on Stone Age Man.

You can follow Rob Nelson

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

To prevent spam * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.