Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer

Cinematic Excellence at 24 Frames a Second

Three Reasons Why "Fixing It In Post" Will Ruin Your Career

How often have you been on set and heard the words, "We'll fix it in post"? Here I share why those words make me cringe internally. As you will surmise while reading this article, I am a huge proponent of creating compelling imagery in camera- not in post. Even if I am shooting with a RAW camera, I can create stronger visuals if I get the image to around 80-90% of where I want it, rather than relying on post color correction. Relying on post to "fix it,"  or waiting until post to create your imagery, is the quickest way to shorten your career. Here are three reasons why you should avoid this common pitfall.

1. Lack Of Vision Results In Mediocre Imagery
As I have worked on a number of productions over the years, the weakest images that I have created have been for directors, and for productions, that want to play it safe. They want to leave all possibilities open until the last minute to make up their mind. Instead of walking away from these type of projects, or encouraging the development of a specific viewpoint, I played along.

Looking back on these projects I see a lot of mediocre imagery that may have gotten me a paycheck, but never ended up on my reel- they did nothing to advance my career. By playing it "safe," what you, the director, and the production are essentially saying is that you don't know the story you are telling. After all, we are not in this business to just create images; we are in it to tell visual stories. And the visuals we create for that story should support and reinforce that content.

If you don't know your story, then what results is a lack of vision, which translates into a lack of confidence. For example, instead of making the bold choice to shoot your lead actor in silhouette, visually showing he is hiding something as he delivers a crucial line of dialogue, the shot is brightly lit as if it were a comedy. The shot no longer holds the power and intrigue that it did before. By wanting to say anything, the shot now says nothing.

A bold lighting choice by Gordon Willis, ASC- The actor's eyes are obscured in shadow. Creating the look in post is not possible without Gordon's intentional lighting choices. At best it would result in an artificial look and feel.*

In contrast, the images that are my strongest- the ones that are on my reel- are images that are born out of clear direction and vision. The production, the director, and myself all have a clear understanding of the story, and what needs to be done to tell that story effectively. We don't play it "safe," but instead do as much as we can to get the image in camera. For example, if we are shooting a cool, dark, mysterious scene, then it is lit, set dressed, and framed that way. We then use post to finesse the image in the direction we were already going. The resulting image tells a much stronger story than if the scene was lit flatly with warm colors, haphazard compositions, and little to no set dressing- all the while hoping to create the look in post.

With the affordability of cameras, computers, and the ease of online distribution via channels like YouTube and Vimeo, we are all overwhelmed with content to watch- the majority of which is mediocre. If you don't want to get lost in the din of it all, then your work is going to have to stand out. It can't be mediocre. Know your story, know your goals, and make strong choices that support them. Couple those choices with a strong story and compelling content, and your productions will stand out from everybody else.

Roger Deakins, ASC makes even a small white room visually interesting. Notice the composition, lighting, & set design. Color grading is used to enhance this image further by adding a teal tint. If the wardrobe would have been red and yellow, and the foreground characters evenly lit, this shot would not be as strong. And it would have been a nightmare in post to recreate.*

2. What Is Said On Set Doesn't Get Remembered
Unless you are absolutely sure that you will be involved in the color grade and post process of the project, then the chances of something being "fixed" in post are next to none. No one is trying to be malicious; it is just the nature of tight schedules and the chaos of life on set. With 1,000 plates up in the air during a shoot, having someone in production remember that the light being used has a minor green in it that needs to be graded out, or that the back wall needs to taken down, in take 3 of shot 04, will not happen.

The only way to avoid this is to either be involved in post, or to make sure that what you are capturing in the camera suits the needs of the production and your tastes. The reality of this line of work is that you are only as good as your last project. And no one will want to hear you explain that the inconsistent images you created were supposed to be corrected in post before the final piece was delivered.

If you "fix it in camera" you can be sure that your images will be how you intended them when the final piece gets delivered. And you will be making the post process quicker and easier, as they do not have to do a lot of clean up or fixing of your images. Making your work even more appealing.

Conrad Hall, ASC guides your eye by using selective focus, composition, set design, & lighting. The back of  Michael Sullivan Jr. has been flagged off creating a shadow, forcing your eye to the gun, which points to Harlen Maguire. The eye then goes to the red spots (the only "color") in the shot, and Michael Sullivan's dyeing gaze points back to Michael Sullivan Jr.* 

3. You Can't Fix Ugly
We can do amazing things during the post production process and in the color grade. But no matter how good the tools are now, or how good they get in the future, you can't fix ugly. If the image lacks vision, direction, and skilled use of lighting, movement and composition, no amount of clever post work will save you.

The frame will always be what was recorded, for better or worse. You can slap Magic Bullet looks on there, or you can even use After Effects to rotoscope out an offending object, but all of that work will not take an ugly image and make it look amazing. At best, fixing it in post will only make your image passable.

Even if you could fix everything in post and make your images look as great as Gordon Willis, Conrad Hall, or Roger Deakins, do you really want to be known as that cinematographer who can only create great images through "fixing" everything in post? If you consistently create more work for the production every time you step on set, the phone calls will eventually stop.

So instead of relying on the crutch of "fixing it in post," focus on having a clear understanding of the story and supporting it via the in camera "effects" of lighting, filtration, composition, and camera movement. Make sure that you are happy with the images you are creating- even if they do not get touched in post. By starting with strong imagery in camera, you will be well on your way to advancing your career and standing out from the competition.

Here is the mantra I subscribe to: "Fix It In Camera & Finesse It In Post."

What do you think? Have you found other compelling reasons to not rely on "fixing it in post"?

Until Next Time - Get Out There And Shoot!
Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer

*Images are the copyright of their respective studios. They have been pulled from Evan E. Richards' Blog. (Which is a fantastic resource for studying every shot from some of the best films ever made.)

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