When Tuesday Means Friday and Tomorrow Means Maybe Next Week or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying (So Much) and Love Post-Production
A post by Courtney Hope
I once believed – and still do to some extent – that there is nothing in this world worse than post-production.
In pre-production, there is planning, designing, discussing, arguing, revising…. Lots of tough choices must be made, but all choices that seem full of promise, since the script is still young and revisable. With nothing set in stone, the opportunities are limitless.
And while production has its downsides, there is enough adrenaline from actually shooting your film to get you through the rough patches. Sometimes those little problems even find a way of becoming part of the creative process.
But then comes post-production, like a giant splash of cold water to the face. This is reality, your reality, your film’s reality. This is what you’re stuck with for what seems like an eternity, until the deadlines come rushing at you and it feels all too short.
Am I being dramatic? Perhaps. But let me explain.
When there is a script, in that first precious stack of pages there is a story. It’s something unreal, something waiting for you to breathe life into it.
Then there are crew members – the producer, DP, production designer – who help bring the story into focus. They make it seem real. They talk about the film like it’s actually going to happen.
Then there are actors and rehearsals and long talks over tea about character development. And they make your film feel real. They show you that essence you had an inkling of when you first wrote the outline or jotted down the first scene on a napkin somewhere.
And then there’s the shoot with the crew, equipment, wardrobe, props, makeup… Watching the monitor, staring intently at the screen where your actors and crew bring the story together, the film finally looks real. You can see the pieces falling into place.
But after the shoot is wrapped, it is real. The creative “control” becomes a bit limited. Instead of creating the puzzle, you’re handed a box of puzzle pieces to assemble. But some of those puzzle pieces don’t seem to fit, and some of them seem a little out of focus, or are too rough to connect with the piece that must go next to it. There’s something wrong in so many little places that you could just scream with frustration.
And that stupid puzzle, lying in pieces on the table – or more accurately, on the computer screen in front of you, is post-production. It’s taking all the footage and sound and performances and focus marks and everything else that you did or didn’t notice on set, taking this raw and unforgiving beast and making it into something watchable.
So now, how does one deal with this nightmarish puzzle? The trick is to put the puzzle together completely and seamlessly, to make the footage into a masterful film – something your mom and dad can be proud of (even if it’s a reminder of how you didn’t go after that law degree).
Now, turning this footage into a film will require some cheating, some “tweaking,” some sacrifices and some epiphanies. The finished puzzle won’t look like the picture on the box necessarily, but with any luck, it will be even better than the original plan. You’ll have taken some pieces of something and made it whole and new. How do you cheat on a puzzle? Well, unlike the puzzle pieces that arrive in a box ready to fit together, the footage can be cut, copied, pasted, and reorganized. You can create an entirely new picture from the one that came printed on the box by changing the order of what happens in the script or by moving a line of dialogue.
Post-production is a time to re-think the story with many creative limitations, instead of endless possibilities. You’re using what tools you have, rather than starting from scratch like you did with the script, by making new creative decisions you hadn’t considered before. It’s trusting the editor to snap the pieces into place, taking whatever means he needs to make them fit in a way that captures the story and characters. It’s trusting the sound designer to build an ambience and to enhance or create those little things you might be missing from set – like that pause of silence for dramatic emphasis.
For one example, the footage we shot for my Reach Film Fellowship film, Wild Birds, had some unintentional focus issues that at first seemed hugely problematic. My editor and I were able to make some of the out-of-focus shots work nicely in unexpected ways, however. Apparently sometimes a consistent problem can become part of the film’s aesthetic, depending on how it is used. I’m also considering adding a line of ADR to help bring out some backstory that the audience at my rough cut screening said seemed to be missing.
There’s another trick: find people to watch your cuts! And don’t just ask your biggest fan. Find people who know nothing about the film so you can get a clear sense of what the audience actually gets from it. It’s important to know what doesn’t work in the earlier cuts so you can find creative ways to fix them before you fall in love with a certain shot or scene or pacing. And don’t despair! You’d be amazed by how even the smallest change can make a world of difference.
And maybe this is the real problem I have with post-production. It’s the adjustment period. It’s letting go of the film I once thought I was going to have and being open to something else, just as, if not more, wonderful than the original plan.
“To be a filmmaker, you must first be crazy,” Esther Robinson told me (and the other three 2010 Reach Film Fellows) at a workshop she led for us in October. She was providing guidance on how to have a healthy financial life, despite the unpredictability of our lives as artists, but her comment can also be applied to the filmmakers’ creative process. Filmmakers often have to act in ways that are unexpected (not only when envisioning and creating their career paths but also when working on an individual film). We step away from the “original plan” to form a new path with every endeavor. And if you’re unpredictable as an artist, then why wouldn’t your artwork be allowed a mind of its own too? Filmmaking is a growing process, a learning experience after all.
So, I take back what I said earlier about post-production. I suppose that it is almost just as magical and exciting as pre-production, in that it is a whole new opportunity to explore the wonderful world of your film. It just takes a lot of time and thought and waiting and playing with footage and looking at things, and showing people things and admitting what does and doesn’t work in a constructive way… But if you keep at it (and what option do you have at this point?), you’ll have something really amazing at the end of it – a film. And not only a film but a learning experience, more patience, and new creative tools for your next one.
While patience is not one of my strengths, it’s something I’ll have to practice. As my grandmother has told me many a time, “Good things come to those who wait.” So I’ll keep my fingers crossed and hope that she knows what she’s talking about.
Courtney Hope (mentored by Jeremy Kipp Walker) is a 2010 Reach Film Fellow. She recently graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts with a degree in Film & Television. While a student at NYU, she wrote and directed several short films. Hope’s thesis film Sex & German Grammar, which was awarded the prize for Best Cinematography at NYU’s Fusion Film Festival, also screened at the Southside Film Festival and the Palm Springs Shortfest. Hope has also shown films at the London Super Short Film Festival and the Reed Media Festival, and took home a prize at the 2007 Southside Image Over Words competition. Hope recently completed her first independent short, Another First.