Linda Borgeson (Senior Vice President of Feature Post Production at the Walt Disney Studios) has worked on over 200 films in her 25+ years in the film business.
Linda spoke with Artzray to help demystify the world of post production, highlighting why it is important for young filmmakers to understand and embrace this integral part of filmmaking. Post-production sits at the intersection of creativity and technology, which makes this work central to the creative process of filmmaking.
“What I love about post, is that I do think it is a creative process…the importance of sound, the importance of music, editing, visual effects…the movie doesn’t become the movie until post production. I see the creative power of technology daily.”
Although post production is generally thought of as what happens upon completion of principal photography, planning for this important piece of the process often begins very soon after a project is green-lit, as it creatively affects the finished product in monumental ways. Lining up the perfect editor, composer, sound designer and visual effects supervisor are often key to a film’s overall look and feel. Likewise, figuring out what technology will best help tell the story (which will have implications regarding technical work-flow or exhibition capabilities), from new cameras, to aspect ratios, to 3D and VR capabilities, to new sound tools, etc., used in thrilling combination to transport audiences and create never-before-seen experiences.
Film is a Highly Collaborative Medium
It takes an army to make a movie, and it’s our job to help the director realize his or her vision. It’s an interesting art form in that there are so many people who contribute to the vision. And that’s part of what’s wonderful about film. There are so many creative places where you can be where you may contribute. You may not get an Oscar for it, but you know that you’ve contributed to an Oscar-winning or –worthy vision.
I think post-production is given kind of short shrift, because there are more obvious things–like costume design, set design, all that other stuff where it seems pretty obvious what it is and how it contributes to the overall look and feel of a movie–but then there’s also this sneaky creative stuff that goes on (in post production) that just elevates it to the place where it needs to be in order to be that extraordinary movie you envision. And if the editors and mixers and designers and composers all do their jobs well, you hardly even notice that it’s there.
Sound Editing and Design Give Shape to the Director’s Vision
So you’ve got your sound mixers and your sound designers, and then each of those people have a whole crew of creative people working with them. There are people who know how to cut dialogue really well, and people who know how to make ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement: where an actor’s voice is recorded after the fact and dropped into a cut of the film, often to replace substandard audio recorded during production) work, or how to salvage substandard production recording work and can clean things up. There are people who create the sounds that you hear, and then those who mix it all together.
Sometimes we’ll want to bring a few of the sound designers in early to start some of the design work on a movie, especially on one that is heavy with CG characters. If they’re not an already established character you’ve gotta figure out their sound.
Like in “Alice”(upcoming 2016 release “Alice in Wonderland: Through the Looking Glass”) there’s a thing called the “Chronosphere”—so what does a Chronosphere sound like? The sound designers have to work with the director and figure out what that Chronosphere will sound like. There’s no real world equivalent, so they’ve got to design it from scratch. It’s just so incredibly creative to me. Like, on “Jurassic” (the “Jurassic Park” movies) the roar of the dinosaur is a combination of a number of things—some digital sounds and some real world things. I remember from “Twister” a few years ago, the sound of the tornado was actually, I forget, the roar of a lion or something combined with layers of other things to create the amazing sound that is particular to that CG character.
On “Alice” there’s a character called Time. So obviously there are a lot of clocks. I was talking to our sound team, and they said, “Oh yeah, we are taking over Stage G, and recording a bunch of clocks.” They may not use it all, but they’ll have all of these different choices to provide for the director. We’ve got one of the best sound designers in the world—Ren Klyce—working on “Alice,”and we are so lucky to have him! He’s amazing! These guys are amazingly talented and are very much under the radar. I can’t express enough how much they enhance the whole creative experience of the movie, and how the audience is perceiving it.
Good sound editing and design also contribute to and support the realization of the director’s vision. It’s very important. Like the mix. If they put something in the wrong place, like you have something coming out of the left back speaker that doesn’t sound like it should be coming from there, it can take you out of the movie altogether. If you’re at a movie, you need to be totally immersed in that experience and engaged. If anything is taking you out…but that’s why they’re unsung heroes, because if the editors and the sound people do their jobs, you don’t really notice it because it’s so beautifully done and combined into the integrated whole that it should be. I don’t think they often get the full credit they deserve.
Music makes it magical.
Music is critical. On a movie like Kenneth Branagh’s “Cinderella” there was an amazing score, and the music was incredibly important–in addition to the costumes, sets, performances, etc.–in adding to the pageantry of it all.
All of the Muppets movies have a lot of music–wall-to-wall music–source music, musical numbers, and score. So a great music editor is key in a movie like that because you’re not always just sticking a song in, you have to take pieces of that song–it’s not the whole song played through. Which pieces of that song will work the best in that area? What does the director really want to get across in that scene, and how will that particular musical choice enhance it?
I’ve been in many screenings of rough-cuts where the temp music is awful, and you’re just like, “this is not working for me.” And then you re-temp it with better music—everything else is the same but you put new music in–and it’s like a different movie. And then it’s like, “Oh, yes. Now I understand.” Music is not telling you what to feel, but it is definitely enhancing what you’re feeling about a particular scene or the director’s overall vision.
The Truth About Editing
I can’t say enough about editing. A talented editor can take the existing material of a movie that isn’t working and can make it work. It’s extraordinary. You need to have good raw material–if you haven’t got good imagery and good performances you won’t have a great film generally, or you won’t have as good a movie. But everything in post production is shaping that raw material into what you hope is a brilliant movie (and often I’ve been lucky enough to work on those brilliant movies) or at least an entertaining movie. And to see all of that come together—it’s amazing.
Editing is almost like this mysterious process. It’s in a dark room. You’re not there seeing what’s happening. But you can see what a difference is made from day to day given the raw material they had to work with…I have the greatest respect for the ability of certain editors to just see what will make it work.
We start lining up editors as soon we see a script. Depending on the kind of movie, and the director on that movie, we will be looking for a specific skill set and personality that will best fit the project. The director and the editor especially need to be a good fit because they end up spending a lot of time together!
“I encourage people to be editors because we need more great editors. It’s such a creative and critical piece of the puzzle.”
Once we’ve got a cut, that editor is responsible for working with the sound designers and the director in the mix to remember, “no, we put in that ADR line, remember?” It sounds mundane, but it’s having somebody that’s so familiar with the movie and is watching out for what the director has agreed to and / or wants, and is their extra set of eyes, because by that point the director is being pulled in so many directions, with marketing campaigns and so much other stuff. So somebody’s really got to look out for it, and keep all of the details in line. The editor is ultimately responsible as the one that keeps all of those moving parts together, and bringing it together on that mix stage—which is the last thing you do. You could’ve been in post for a year or more—but the editor must keep it all in his or her head and make sure that all of the pieces come together.
Visual Effects and Other Technologies Play a Creative Role
Take a movie like “Oz” (“Oz the Great and Powerful”). Oz needs to look better than you’ve ever seen. It’s Oz, it’s a familiar place, but not a real place. It better be beautiful, it better be jaw-dropping. There were CG characters. And we knew it was going to be 3D so we wanted to have 3D moments as well, so this was a very heavy VFX movie—all the tentpoles seem to be these days.
3D is a whole other creative aspect, it’s a creative tool and having the right stereographer who can really get the depth that you want is critical. We complete a depth map where the director will decide the level of depth. Like in a few scenes where the depth can be rather shallow, but in another he or she may want it to have greater depth, or have elements jump out from the screen –all of that.
When Robert Rodriguez said, “I want to do ‘Spy Kids 3’ in 3D,” those were the early days before anybody had digital projection, so we had to make it on film; and no one had really been doing 3D since the ‘50s, in black and white; and he wanted it to be a color film, so we had to figure it out. A director should not be afraid to say, “this is what I want, and I need you guys to go and figure it out.” People who do this (work in post), they love a creative challenge. “Wanna try something new?” “Ok, so let’s figure it out.” That’s one of the cool parts of it all.
Linda’s favorite thing about her job: figuring it out.
Because every movie is different and unique, even if some of the steps are in common, you get to figure out how to make that movie. How are we going to do it all and make the release date? I love having to put together a team that you like to work with, and that brings creatively what you need to bring to the table.
And then getting to work with these extraordinarily talented people–I mean, I am lucky. I have worked with some of the best filmmakers of the twentieth and twenty-first century, and some of the best below the line talent. We do most of our movies at the best sound facilities that have amazing talent. It’s just an honor to work with them. How can I not love my job?
Advice for those starting out
“I don’t know this, but I’ll try it. Sure, you need someone to do that—I’ll try it. I’ll do it.”
Be the one that holds your hand up and volunteers for stuff. That’s all I ever did. I said, “I don’t know this, but I’ll try it. Sure, you need someone to do that—I’ll try it. I’ll do it.” And keep learning. Never be afraid to learn. I have no problem saying on a call or in a meeting with really smart people, “This may be a dumb question, but (fill in the blank with what is confusing me).” The only way to defeat ignorance is to educate yourself and not be afraid to say, “I don’t understand, can you explain further?”
Don’t be afraid to work for free. I started out having an unpaid internship on a movie. I was a PA and I learned so much from just being there, and made connections through which I got more work. There’s nothing better than experience and seeing it first hand. There are so many moving parts, so to me, the more you know about the process the more you’re going to be able to dial in your own vision, and what you’re going to do with or within that process–or where you can push the envelope. Because you know. You’ve seen it soup to nuts.
As far as I’m concerned, knowledge is a good thing. Any knowledge is a good thing. So if you’re an editor and you know a little bit about what the sound guys are doing or the DP or whatever—all of that is important, cuz it feeds into your understanding of the overall process. I never get tired of learning—that’s why I’ve been able to do it as long as I have, because otherwise it gets boring. Why would you not want to be learning? Besides, this business does change. It’s changing a lot, so you have to keep up with what’s out there.
Embrace the New
Every six months there’s something new—new cameras, new release platforms. So keep up with the new. Who knows how that will fit into your creative future. Maybe all of a sudden there’s a light-bulb that goes off and you say, “Wow–that’s just the thing to help me tell that really cool story that I’ve been wanting to tell but wasn’t really able to before. I can totally use that new tool to tell that story in a much more effective way–much closer to how I’ve always thought about it in my head.” And maybe you’ll be the person to come up with that next big thing.
If you’re keeping up with all the technology, you’re going to realize your vision in different ways, and maybe in extraordinary ways, especially if you understand the new tools. And some of that is just working with people. You may not know everything but know how to ask the right questions to say like, “Hey, is there a way to do this in a different way, because right now I’m not sure the tools that we have are going to give me what I want.” That’s all I do – that’s part of the fun!
Linda Borgeson has over 25 years experience in the film business, in both the studio and independent arenas. She has overseen post production on projects with budgets ranging from $2M – $200M+, on locations throughout the world, including the UK, Hungary, Romania, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Venezuela and Brazil for CineTel, ITC Entertainment, Miramax, and Disney. Among the films she’s worked on are The Aviator, No Country for Old Men, Frida, Frankenweenie, Sin City, Kill Bill Vols. 1 and 2, Chicago, Million Dollar Arm, Finding Neverland, The Brothers Grimm, Oz the Great and Powerful, Gnomeo and Juliet, Gone Baby Gone, Scary Movie, and the Spykids series. She holds a BA in Film with a minor in English from Montana State University, and a Masters in Criticism and Theory in the Media with a minor in English from the University of Texas at Austin.