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Smooth Post-Production at All Costs

Smooth Post-Production at All Costs

Articles - Directing

Bill Adams works in the Avid DS Nitris finishing room at FotoKem.

MORE OFTEN THAN NOT, YOUNG DIRECTORS SPEND YEARS thinking about their movies, the ones that they hope will put them on the map and make them household names. Unfortunately, considerably less time—if any—is given to the grueling hours they’ll spend in pricey editing suites, with equally pricey equipment, putting the damn thing together.

All told, moviemakers spend between 10 and 20 percent of their budgets in post-production—and that’s if they’ve managed to do everything else right! For many, those costs spiral upward because of poor pre-planning, leading to time and money wasted in the post-production process. This can, of course, easily mean the demise of a low-budget film in this business where only the wily survive (and get distributed). So here are 10 tips every independent moviemaker should know before jumping into the fray. The film you save may be your own.

1 Think it All the Way Through.

Sure it’s obvious. But the most common complaint post-production supervisors still have about moviemakers is that they just don’t plan ahead. They know better. They just don’t do it. So be smart and get to know your post house before you start shooting. Know what your film should look like.

“You really need to be aware of what you’re trying to accomplish. That will guide you in the best ways to go about it,” advises Post Logic senior colorist Lou Levinson. For example, he notes, “If you’re looking for a desaturated look, there may very well be times when you don’t want to use the digital pipeline. Going a traditional route may cost you less and get it done faster.”

Research helped guide low-budget director Richard Brandes (Penny Dreadful): His cinematographer was pushing for Final Cut Pro, but Brandes thought it prudent to first double-check the software’s efficacy with post sound mixing.

2 Cut a Deal.

As in the production process, a post house may make deals with a moviemaker who is willing to experiment—either with a new facility or a staffer who wants to move up the ladder. For The Squid and the Whale, director Noah Baumbach used Goldcrest in New York, which had just installed a mixing studio.

“We saved a lot more money by giving them a shot to prove themselves with their new facility than we would have if we’d gone to an established place,” says Baumbach. “This was a way for us to have a first-class sound mix, but save money doing it.”

Keep in mind that “everything’s negotiable,” says Brandes. “Independent filmmakers sometimes think costs are etched in stone. You can negotiate much more than you’d think you could.” If you’re lucky, you may even find a post house that loves your project enough to give you a discount just to work with you. Writer-director George Gallo (Local Color) says, “FotoKem bent over backwards. They’re doing stuff nearly for cost. You do something from the heart, people want to be a part of it.”

"In post, there are all these new things offered up to you. But you need to find out if they even apply to you, because in a lot of cases, they don’t.”

3 Too Good to Be True Probably Is.

There’s getting a deal, and then there’s getting a bad deal. “Be aware of people telling you they can save you a lot of money,” advises Levinson. “We’re working on a digital intermediate telecorrection job now where they were given a ridiculously low price. But they couldn’t get what they wanted and now they have to come back to reality. It’s not even uncommon,” he says. Companies low-bid in order to get work in this competitive environment. Sometimes, says Levinson, their bids are just “unrealistic.”

4 Consider Outsourcing.

Although it’s financially and logistically impractical to export your entire film to post, technological advances mean some companies outside the U.S. are able to severely cut costs on specialized elements of the post process. Scott Coulter’s Worldwide FX is based in Bulgaria, and has nearly a dozen projects (largely in visual effects, motion effects, motion graphics and titles) in the works. Edited projects have tape masters or edit decision lists sent to his company, where Coulter estimates he can save half of stateside costs in those areas.

Editor Robert Ferretti (All the Invisible Children, Halloween: Resurrection) who has worked with Worldwide, says turnaround time is lightning-quick (product is sent back to the U.S. for viewing via the Internet). “My experience in LA is that CGI places give you a ton of attitude,” says Ferretti. “They don’t like making changes. In Bulgaria, they’ll change it 10 times a day and not complain. It’s been so cheap and fast, and their quality is as good as ILM.”

5 You Needn’t Use Every Technical Innovation…

Just because your post house has invested in a new superstanisfran doesn’t mean you need it for your film.
“Audiences care about a story. You should be trying to technically deliver that story,” says Visionbox president Chris Miller. “A lot of the stuff we think about and obsess on, audiences don’t even know exists.” Again, research the equipment. Says Baumbach, “In post, there are all these new things offered up to you. You need to find out if they’re something that even applies to you, because in a lot of cases, they don’t.” “Right now, there are so many different machines out there that people think, ‘Oh, I’ve got to have that souped-up system,’” adds Miles Ferguson, partner at The Film Spot. “They don’t realize they could do the same thing with a smaller, cheaper system.” Ferguson cites hi-definition as one of those technological advances that doesn’t always end up saving money, once the HD deck, down converting and HD tape purchases are factored into final costs.

6 …But Understand What You Do Need.

Before you reject the superstanisfran, though, be sure your project can actually live without it. Generally, post supervisors agree that if a low-budget film is a “traditional” indie, then there’s no need, for example, to pay extra for higher resolution. “If a project has a lot of titles or supersaturated colors or animation, then go for 4K,” says Ferguson. “If it’s just two guys in their apartment, stick with 2K. It all depends on how image works with the story. People were going out and shooting DV for the longest time, but DV only works for certain types of movies. If you have a glossy movie like a romantic comedy, it’s got to look supersaturated—and then you need 4K.”

7 Know When to Take Your Film Out.

There’s a reasonable amount of debate on this subject, but generally, until a project finds a distributor there may be no reason to start cutting negative. The “poor man’s DI” may be sufficient, where all film is transferred to an HDCam tape, which helps avoid negative cutting. Each time there’s a preview, a bit of color correction can be added and a tape popped out for screening. A proper DI can be done after the film sells; if it doesn’t sell for a lot of money, then a traditional cut can go forward.

“Before spending all of that money to get a film negative, by creating a high-definition videotape element, filmmakers are able to exhibit for festivals and sell in high-definition and it looks just like film,” says FotoKem’s senior VP of digital and data development, Rand Gladden. “It’s going to represent what goes out to film, without spending that extra $70,000 to get a film negative and prints. Once it’s sold, you spend the balance of that money.”

8 Know When to Take Your Film Out: The Sequel.

That said, budgets have a tendency to run out before the film can be delivered to the studio—and waiting for that studio money to roll in before having a finished project can send moviemakers scrambling, says Ferguson. Consider your deliverables: “If you sell a movie to, say, Focus Features and Focus says, ‘I need a full set of video masters for us to make our DVD.’ [Directors] don’t realize that it can cost upwards of $50,000,” he says. “So they either have to get the distributor to cover it, or the distributor takes it out of their money.”

9 Don’t Plan To “Fix It In Post.”

If anything will give a post supervisor hives, it’s this phrase. “That old adage ends up costing a ton of money,” says Ferguson. “It makes sense to get it done right on set, especially on a limited budget.” The truth is, says Levinson, “There are limits to what you can technologically do in post-production. Doing it right in front of the camera the first time may seem expensive, but may turn out to be the least expensive way to go.” One way to ensure it gets done right the first time out—particularly with special effects—is to take the post-production supervisor onto the set. “A lot of times people shoot it the wrong way, then don’t look at it for months or weeks. Then it gets to visual effects and the visual effects people are like, ‘I can’t do anything with this,’ and they have to shoot it again.” Still, Evan Edelist, executive VP and general manager for iO Film, says a good cinematographer will know when a post fix will help. “In some instances, they know that they can—in the post process—follow-up and do certain things that they may be able to save time and money on.”

10 Find Your Own Way.

Words of wisdom come from all directions. Edelist believes an assistant director shouldn’t be dismissed too early in the post process (“not before you’ve had an opportunity to understand the offline version and that person’s notes; be sure they’re accessible and willing to come back and work with people for a day or two to make sure everything is correct.”) Levinson recognizes that DI is something anyone can pretty much do at home, but questions the wisdom of actually doing it (“Do you want to be rendering for three months?”).

Baumbach suggests that working on weekends is an excellent idea. (“If you have the energy, go in and start cutting while you’re shooting.”) Miller advises you to seek help to avoid burnout (“It doesn’t take much money to get help in key places during your process that can save you heartache and blood.”)

Perhaps most important—and the hardest rule to follow—is knowing when to say “The End.” Says Gallo, “When you’re making lateral moves and not going forward, that’s when you have to stop. You can get so involved in this process that you can’t see it getting better, just getting different. You have to rely on your initial instincts to tell the story. It’s the story, and whatever you can do to support that, that’s where you spend your money. A lot of time can get wasted tricking stuff up. Avoid that at all costs.” MM

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