The following is part of a special series we’re doing in the run-up to the 2019 48-Hour Film School in Shanghai (August 31-September 1) and Beijing (September 7-8). Check the bottom of this page for details on how you can sign up to be a part of the action.
EastIndie: When does post-production start on a project? Does it really just begin when shooting ends?
Brendan Davis: Great question! On a properly run project, the post-production process – or the planning of it, anyway – starts in the earliest days of pre-production. Once you know what you’re making – a short film for festivals, a web series, an indie feature you hope to sell to an SVOD platform like Netflix or Amazon or maybe for theatrical release – you need to begin prepping for how you will deliver a master that meets the technical needs of your intended primary distribution channel, while best serving the artistic needs of the story, genre and form as well.
EI: So, how do you approach planning ahead for post?
BD: In terms of planning, it’s especially critical on lower budget projects to not embrace the “fix it in post” attitude. You can do miracles these days with pixels, but the old truism of “garbage in equals garbage out” still applies. Capturing the best picture and sound on set of the very best performances of the actors that you can facilitate should be your constant daily mantra. Do that to the best of your abilities, and your post process will go so much smoother as a result. And when you’re done you’ll have the best film possible.
Capturing the best picture and sound on set of the very best performances of the actors that you can facilitate should be your constant daily mantra.
EI: What is the most common issue that comes up in post? And, how can it be avoided?
BD: Plan, plan and plan ahead of time – and then stick to the plan as much as possible, unless it becomes absolutely untenable, or a much better creative alternative presents itself. The most amateurish method of production – uncommon in Hollywood, but which I’ve seen in developing markets – is to either not have a real plan, or to make a plan, but then hide it from the other key stakeholders needed to execute it properly. Then when (surprise!) things don’t work – either because sufficient genius was lacking, or too many need-to-know people were in the dark to prep properly, or because someone with far too much control and not enough experience or sense changed their mind at the last moment and “must” be accommodated – everyone starts running around with their hair on fire like it’s always Day 1 of production trying to avoid disaster.
EI: What is one way in which to improve efficiency and cut down costs during post?
BD: One way is to have your editor cutting as you shoot, then watching the dailies – the previous day’s rough footage – every night after work, either privately, or as a group of whatever size suits your feedback process. Be sure to watch rough assembly edits of the scenes cut together by the editor using the takes the director marked “best” as they shot to see what’s working well, and what isn’t. Then, fix what you can as you’re shooting, while adjusting your shooting, directing and/or production approach as needed. If you’re the director, work with a DP, producer, and editor you can trust to give you honest feedback, and then ask for it – then learn when to take it and when not to.
Work with a DP, producer, and editor you can trust to give you honest feedback, and then ask for it – then learn when to take it and when not to.
EI: What does the expression “finding the story in the cut” mean?
BD: It refers to fixing things that aren’t working. Hopefully this means fixing little things, or enhancing a subplot or emotional through-line. But it can also imply – in the worst-case scenario – that you either didn’t know what you wanted or what you were doing when you shot, and now you have to somehow try and save it after the fact. The former – fixing little things – is okay. The latter – being unprepared – is bad. And avoidable.
EI: What are some examples of how you might go about fixing things?
BD: Look objectively at what you shot, evaluating what you have in terms of performances, and then try different combinations of things to create a better – or at least “different” – result than what was originally intended. For example, maybe some key beat wasn’t as clear as you’d planned it. If you’re lucky, you might find a moment in one actor’s close-up that is “really” a reaction to something else, but that – thanks to the Kuleshov effect – magically works when inserted elsewhere to “sell” the emotion you felt was previously lacking. Or maybe two of your actors brought so much to their performances that you see a whole new layer of their relationship and you then go on a quest into your existing footage to find ways to draw that out without shooting new material. Remember: The best films get to find things in the cut, while the worst ones have to.
Remember: The best films get to find things in the cut, while the worst ones have to.
EI: So, after it’s all said and done, how do you know when your film is ready for delivery?
BD: There’s an old saying that films are never truly finished, only abandoned (or kidnapped). This implies that they were pried from the hands of the filmmakers in the middle of a potentially never-ending process of re-evaluating and second guessing themselves, when there was just no time left to do any more additional tweaks and before they had to be delivered. The best strategy to avoid this is to plan and schedule your production process all the way through post to the desired — or mandated – delivery date in such a way as to maximize your time along the way. There will always be challenges, always be curveballs, and there will always be things you wish you had done or could have done differently. But, at some point, you must hand the film over, release it into the world, and let it do what it’s going to do and be what it’s going to be.
EI: Lastly, what is one piece of advice you could offer to a new filmmaker before embarking on this whole process?
BD: The best advice I can give to any filmmaker – or fellow human, frankly – is to trust in your instincts, but heed the advice of those you respect and seek their counsel as needed, and become both a leader and a team player. You will need to lead and follow at various times throughout the process, and doing so with focus and humility is the real key to success.
The Shanghai 48-Hour Film School will take place on Saturday, August 31 & Sunday, September 1 at Shanghai Filmspace, 3/F 102 South Xiangyang Road, Xuhui District, Shanghai / 上海市徐汇区襄阳南路102号3层. For details and registration, click here.
The Beijing 48-Hour Film School will take place on Saturday, September 7 & Sunday, September 8 (venue TBC). For details and registration, click here.