Too Much of a Good Thing – Post-Production in Indie Film

Posted by on Aug 5, 2015 in Blog | No Comments

An article I wrote for the October 2014 issue of Filmmaker Magazine. Featuring interviews with David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints), Shrihari Sathe (It Felt Like Love), Paul Frank (The To Do List), Andrew Hauser (Wheelhouse Pictures), and Vincent Welch (Joe).

Read it at Filmmaker Magazine or below.

Too Much of a Good Thing by Shaun Seneviratne

Digital cinema has afforded independent filmmakers many benefits, one of which is the ability to achieve something previously only the province of big-budget films: very high shooting ratios. However, the resulting mass of footage can overrun the typical understaffed, underfunded, low-budget edit room. “You’re shooting more footage, and usually with two cameras,” says Paul Frank, editor of the recent Maggie Carey comedy The To Do List. While he notes that there are many pros to this way of shooting — it benefits performance, it allows for more improvisation and, ultimately, more options in the edit room — he also notes that edit rooms and staffs need to be prepared for the incoming material, which can dwarf the typical 12:1 ratios of old-school independent films. (In the case of The To Do List, there were 100 hours to sift through.) And unwieldy hard drives full of footage aren’t the only problem faced today by low-budget filmmakers choosing digital cameras. Another common trouble: a failure to plan for the specific camera format used. Here then, from a group of editors, assistant editors and producers, are five tips for low-budget filmmakers on planning wisely for postproduction.

1. Shoot with Post in Mind

“If you’re going to shoot a lot of footage, you have to realize it’s going to affect post,” says Frank, who also edited Tze Chun’s latest, Cold Comes the Night. He says the on-set process of just letting the camera roll creates a snowball effect: the more you shoot, the more footage there is to transcode, move to drives, sync, watch in dailies screenings and edit. This would be fine on a larger-budget film with multiple assistants and a comfortable schedule. But too many independent films are understaffed and facing looming festival deadlines. Often there’s not enough time to give the material its creative due. Accordingly, Frank urges restraint on the set. “People were much more disciplined shooting their footage on film,” he observes.

David Lowery has cut his teeth as an editor over the last 13 years, most recently on digitally shot projects such as Upstream Color and Sun Don’t Shine. When it came to his own second feature as a director, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Lowery chose 35mm as his format and brought with him the unique discipline of a seasoned editor.

At the screenwriting stage, Lowery thinks about how his scenes are going to cut together, and he continues this mindset into production. “Because we had such a ridiculously tight shooting schedule, we were constantly having to cut shots or trim down the amount of material we were getting or even, in some cases, cut scenes,” he says. “It helped to think about how things might cut together to really decide if a scene or a shot was necessary or if we were covering it in the most efficient way or not.” Lowery’s intuition about what to shoot on set was usually correct. “I’ve got a close-up, a wide shot and a medium shot on the shot list. Let’s get rid of the close-up because we’ll never use it. Most of the time I get to the edit room and that would be the case. And sometimes, all you really need is that close-up.” If there was a way to cover a scene in a single shot, Lowery would take that route. “As an editor, I strive to distill things rather than think of it as an arrangement or building a house of cards.”

2. Be Aware of Your Camera Format’s Post Demands

Whether it’s 35mm or a DSLR, choice of camera has a huge impact on postproduction. But many filmmakers pick a camera just because it’s available to them, or because the d.p. wants it, without considering with their producers its effect on post. “The biggest problem is a lack of acknowledgement that workflow decisions made early on in production will have a huge effect way down the line,” says Andrew Hauser, post supervisor on Cold Comes the Night and Electrick Children. Although a camera’s specs can be great (4K resolution, 4:4:4 color space, RAW capabilities, etc.), they might not matter if you can’t take advantage of them. For an independent film, there usually isn’t enough time or money to play with all the options. “If you have the best tools in the business but you don’t have the time to tweak it, it’s not worth spending all that extra money,” Hauser says. For example, shooting RAW with a RED or Blackmagic camera will present serious repercussions later. “File size is an issue if you shoot RAW,” he continues. “When you work out how big the files would be, it can become incompatible with the [budget of] the movie you’re trying to shoot. Though these may be the right decisions from a production standpoint, when you look back on it, you may not have saved money.” A space-friendly option to shooting RAW would be to shoot ProRes via an external recorder (or choose the ProRes 4444 codec on the ALEXA).

Hauser came on as post supervisor for one project late in the game, when the film had already gone on to finishing. The filmmakers had shot on the ARRI ALEXA and edited offline in ProRes 422. However, they did not go back to the high-quality 444 files (which retain much more information for the color grade) when they conformed, doing their grade instead with the lesser-quality 422 files. “By making the decision to grade the 422 files, they shouldn’t have even shot on the ALEXA in the first place,” Hauser says. “The whole point of the ALEXA is to shoot in the 444 to get more color space and have the Log C. Unfortunately, reconforming with the 444 files would have cost thousands of dollars, which the production didn’t have.”

Log C is a flat picture profile available on the ALEXA. (Other companies have their own versions, such as Sony S-Log and Canon C-Log.) Shooting with a log picture profile retains the highest level of dynamic range and color information so a final look can be “dialed in” in post. But the initial image, however, can look creamy and bland, prompting ordinary viewers to wonder why it’s so washed out.

To get a closer approximation to what the finished film will look like, a LUT (look-up table) is usually applied to the log footage by the DIT (digital imaging technician). This procedure “informs your decisions in the offline edit,” Frank says. With the editor and director poring over the footage for days, sometimes months, a pleasing image that is more accurate to the final look of the film is beneficial. “Sometimes you’re expected to edit with the flat footage because there isn’t a DIT to transcode with the look,” Frank says. “And then the filmmakers see the footage and ask you to use a plugin to give it that look. But you can’t edit offline quickly with a plugin.”

It’s worth budgeting for a good DIT with a fast system who can transcode the material with the LUT applied during production, Hauser recommends. “The DIT could be syncing, naming clips, transcoding with the look all on set, and the assistant could be more focused on helping the editor. The more a DIT can do, the better.”

Whether you have a DIT or an assistant editor doing this work, a fast system for transcoding is crucial due to the significant amount of processing power required. On Eliza Hittman’s It Felt Like Love, postproduction and production were going on simultaneously; this meant lots of transcoding at night to begin editing the next day. Shrihari Sathe, one of the producers on the film, recommends building a Hackintosh to take care of these tasks and making sure that each transcoding machine gets six to eight hours of rest in a 24-hour period. “I know other filmmakers who have transcoded 36 hours in a stretch, or even longer, and their motherboards are fried.”

3. Standardize the Editing Process

Before the assistant editor and editor begin an assembly, they typically receive hard drives from production. Ideally, everything in the folders is properly named (and the names of transcoded proxy files are the same as the originals), each take is properly slated with the correct scene and take number, and script and continuity notes are provided. But some first-time filmmakers and editors may see this model as being too traditional, or very “Hollywood,” and not the way to organize footage for a project that may be a little more experimental in form.

But even heady, elliptical films, which one might expect to have unconventional editing processes, adhere to fairly traditional practices and mentality. Upstream Color, which David Lowery edited, is one such example. “Upstream Color was written in a very traditional way,” he says. “And even though I never referred to the script while editing, everything was already broken down into scene numbers, which followed the script. As far as the edit goes, it was very straightforward. Even though it appears very dense and complex when you watch it, it was actually the easiest film I’ve ever edited.”

Once the edit begins, the editor and assistant editor will create breakdowns of each scene in an effort to make the material less daunting and to see it in individual bits. Also, referred to as a stringout or a line-by-line, the assistant editor takes every line from every take and every setup and groups them together. “It’s great when the director is in the room and they don’t like the performance and want to see the other line readings,” Frank says. “I’m able to show the director every single performance of that line.”

“Postproduction can be as creative and free flowing as you want it to be, but there still has to be structure, organization, planning and a schedule,” says Vincent Welch, assistant editor of Compliance and Joe. “Marrying all of those together will yield far better results than simply winging it and hoping for the best.”

4. Trim the Fat

After several weeks of postproduction, a first cut is reached. But there’s almost always a problem: it’s too long. About two hours too long.  Maybe it’s because of too many good, improvised options, or scenes that play longer on the screen than they did on the page. While experienced directors — and those with contractually mandated running times — are familiar with the process of sculpting their cuts with their editors, many first-time filmmakers are flummoxed by the challenge.

At this stage, editors recommend, the first thing filmmakers need to do is separate themselves from their original scripts. Scenes that conveyed vital information on the page might now be unnecessary due to that same information being imparted by just an actor’s reaction. Indeed, even the most rigorously conceived films need to be re-imagined in the editing stage. Frank recommends temporarily cutting every possible extraneous scene and then watching the movie. “If you don’t miss a scene, you probably don’t need it, but if you really miss it, now you know for sure that you need it.” In pulling back, you learn how far things can go.

The postproduction test-screening process is a necessary one for all filmmakers, particularly those facing challenging running times. “If the director feels really precious about something and you screen it and you get the same feedback that it’s not working, eventually the director will come around,” Frank says. The first cut of The To Do List was three hours long. Frank says he and the filmmakers screened the movie at least four weeks in a row. “We’d screen it one night, make a bunch of changes, and then screen it again. We put the movie in front of people a lot to see what jokes were working and what wasn’t working.”

Some directors are averse to holding test screenings, which Welch believes does a disservice to their films. Regarding some filmmakers he has worked with, he says, “They felt that their art was so precious they were resistant to any criticisms of the film that were not glowingly positive. It was obvious that after three screenings without any questionnaires, surveys or Q&As that these filmmakers were only interested in creating a film for themselves. There’s a fine line to walk between taking criticism and notes during post, while still maintaining your vision and goal of your story. But this does not mean you should listen to only yourself.”

5. Budget for the True Cost of Postproduction

There is a widely-accepted belief that 20% of a film’s budget should be reserved for postproduction, but, warn editors and postsupervisors, that’s not entirely accurate. Producers unskilled in postproduction budgeting may wind up crippling their films by adhering to this arbitrary bromide.

“If you’re in the $150k+ range, you can probably get away with 20%,” Hauser says. “But the lower the budget comes down, the higher that percentage will be. If you manage to make a movie for $30,000, I don’t think you’re only going to spend $6,000 on post.” Post houses can only cut their costs by so much since they are also covering overhead of their facilities, he says. Even if you edit for free with a laptop and an editor’s donated time and then rough out a sound mix, there are some things that can’t be done as easily on the cheap. For example, even — and especially — the most micro of microbudget films will be improved by at least two days of additional sound mixing in a decent studio and roughly three days in a color correction suite.

And then there are the additional costs of reopening a project — an unplanned-for scenario that happens to many festival-premiering pictures. “Each year, everyone shoots in the summer and aims to get their movie into Sundance,” Hauser says. “And if they get in, the finishing is hell because the time period becomes a lot shorter. You end up with a situation where you are moving so quickly, and things start to fall by the wayside.” While it’s not recommended to premiere an unfinished film at a festival, it’s also advised to hold onto some post monies in case reactions to that festival premiere suggest additional work.


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