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A Beginners Guide to Online Editing

Oct 9, 2007
For those filmmakers who are now making first broadcast programme, this article briefly describes what happens in the online edit. Throughout this article, I will only refer to work done on a programme's picture. Audio issues are usually addressed as part of an audio dub.

Assuming the offline editor has done a great job, the programme must still be packaged according to the broadcaster's requirements and meet its technical standards. The online is best described as the final checking, tidying or polishing of a programme before a programme is mastered to its final format.

The amount of work involved can vary immensely. It may be no more than putting bars and tone and a clock at the front of a programme and then mastering to a tape for broadcast. Or it may involve recapturing an entire programme at High Definition and then building sophisticated effects or titles that could not have been made on Final Cut Pro or an Avid Xpress Pro system.

Broadcasters supply programme-makers with "technical requirements" documents. The online editor must understand these and make sure that the programme complies with them.

The following is a list of tasks commonly carried out in the online.

Put bars and tone and a countdown clock on the front of the tape. The broadcaster will have specified the type of bars, the level and frequency of tone and their durations: In Britain, the programme itself will typically start on a timecode of 10:00:00:00. If the programme has part breaks, bumpers will have to be created. Each subsequent part will typically start on a round timecode minute including the bumper. There will be black video in between the parts and a countdown clock for each separate part.

Titles and subtitles
The editor should check that text elements conform to the broadcaster's house style and that all graphic elements are within title safe. In the UK, national television usually requires programmes to be 14:9 title safe. This is a more stringent title safe requirement than is indicated by the typical title safe grid in Avid and Final Cut Pro.

Conforming aspect ratios
In many programmes, especially archive-based documentaries, footage will have come from a variety of sources. The online editor must check all footage and should pan and scan any shots with aspect ratios different to the delivery specification.

Legalisation of picture and sound
Broadcast master tapes require that the programme's video and audio levels do not drop below a certain minimum, or rise above a certain maximum. The picture can be run through a legaliser and the audio through a compressor in order to achieve this result. However, it is essential that the audio is first mixed to these levels to achieve the best clarity. It is preferable that shots are individually graded to avoid clipping or crushing of white and black details by the legaliser.

Touching up
The online editor must often correct for mistakes in shooting. For instance some shots may contain objects that shouldn't be there. The editor may be able to remove them by scaling the image up slightly, or by "cloning" out a part of the image. Shots that are not level can be rotated, shaky shots can be stabilised. Slightly blurred shots may be sharpened.

Field problems, speed effects, freeze frames
Field-based footage can sometimes display artefacts if field order has been reversed or if the offline editor has made speed changes to the footage. When this is the case the footage generally looks jittery rather than smooth. The online editor must be able to correct these problems, by applying a field shift effect, by deinterlacing, or by changing the method by which speed changes are calculated.

Building effects
The online editor must be able to check and rebuild any visual effects that were made in a rough or provisional way. For instance, chromakey effects from the offline may be rebuilt using a superior keying plug-in. Masks may have to be drawn to cut transparent areas out of an image. The online machine may have sophisticated visual effects plug-ins that can be applied for added visual impact.

Colour grading
Often the grade is done separately to the rest of the online by a dedicated colourist on specialised grading equipment. However, online systems such as Avid Symphony and DS Nitris, amongst others, have good grading capabilities and the online editor will often do the grade. Final Cut's three way color corrector and Xpress Pro's Color Correction mode are all capable of performing basic grading perfectly adequately. It is however important to have a good quality, correctly aligned monitor to judge the picture. Both FCP and Avid now have internal video scopes that can help the editor make colour decisions quickly.

Credits are often the last thing that is finalised. Broadcasters have very precise specifications as to how they want credits to look and how long they should run.

Master to tape
The programme must be played out to the final delivery format; in the UK this is usually a digibeta tape. Specialised online systems are able to play out with precise deck control and if a mistake is spotted whilst recording to tape, then the shot can be seamlessly inserted without having to play out the whole programme again. Basic DV systems can only play out to miniDV or DVCam, tape formats not usually accepted for broadcast.

Record Report
One of the most important documents that must be placed with the master tape is the record report. This document contains the technical information about the programme, along with the timecodes at which the programme and all its parts begin and end. Information to be included will be: Timecodes, aspect ratio, programme and part lengths, tape format, frame rate. Any non-solvable, or unusual features of the programme should be noted here. For instance, if some of the footage was shot with a faulty camera and cannot be corrected, it may still be allowed in the programme for its content. The notes will alert the broadcaster that the online editor saw the problem and that it was not an error introduced in the post production process.

When considering where and how to do the online, it may or may not be necessary to move the project off the offline editing work station. Low budget DV work is often finished on Avid Xpress Pro or Final Cut Pro, particularly if there are no particular problems with the footage and no special effects requirements. The online will probably be quicker on more specialised equipment but will more than likely be more expensive. However, it is important to employ an experienced online editor who knows and understands all the standards that are required.

For more demanding finishing, bespoke systems such as Avid DS Nitris or Autodesk Smoke might be considered. They are able to handle many layers of effects in real time and offer high quality compositing tools. Particularly for HD work or for graphics heavy programmes, a great deal of time can be saved in these systems and an experienced operator will bring added quality to the production.
About the Author
John McMullin is a London-based editor with hundreds of broadcast and cinema credits including "The Boy Whose Skin Fell Off" and "Taking Liberties". He brings both artistic flair and technical expertise to his work on Avid, Final Cut Pro and DS Nitris systems. For more: Wired
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