Day To Day

Denzil and Shawn on setBoom operator Shawn Allen and PA Denzil Thomas on set in the Bronx.

Reading over the last few posts, I realized I’ve been focusing almost exclusively on how-to’s and haven’t included too many updates on the film itself. So here’s a brief post on the progress of the film itself.

If preproduction is training, and production is a sprint, then postproduction is best described as a marathon. You’re exerting a constant, slow effort, but you can’t overexert yourself. Rushing through post is nearly always a mistake.

Right now we’re about a little more than a month away from finishing. The Visual Effects Artist, Vickie Lazos, is doing a great job with a mix of shots – some very challenging boom removal shots, composites that were shot without greenscreen, and a few nifty touches that hopefully people won’t even realize are effects.

Verne Mattson, our colorist/conformist, is nearly done; he just has to grade the effects and titles. Quentin Chiappetta and his team at Media Noise are nearly done with the sound design – our mix date is mid-to-late August. For my part, I’m revising the titles and working on a last, stubborn insert shot.

I spend a good deal of time trying to think about the next steps – what festivals to apply to, who to potentially approach for distribution, what the poster should look like, etc. I confess that the social media explosion of the past few years baffles me. I know that I need to take greater advantage of it; however, I’m not sure if there’s a payoff at the end. Do Facebook fans turn into ticket buyers, DVD renters – or just bit torrent streamers? Does it prove to a distributor that you have an audience, or does it just mean you’re really good at marketing your film?

I’ve “liked” a bunch of films and do follow their posts, but it’s a very passive experience. When these films are finally done, will I go out and see them? I don’t know. I’d like to think so.

So I throw out this question: does social media campaigning have a good ROI (return on investment), or is it just one more thing you “have to have,” like a press kit or website?

When Sh*t Happens

Going Wrong

Despite your best-laid plans, at some point during the prep, shoot or post, a monster fuck-up (or a few small ones) are going to come along and take a dump on said plans. Apart from the obvious (try to stay calm, get your plan B ready) what do you do?

Shoot Something

For some reason (that’s still not clear), we lost our NYPD TCD (Traffic Control Division, who are also responsible for police presence on set) on a particular day we needed them. In New York City, you are not allowed to shoot scenes with “film cops” without real ones being around. Otherwise, some other real cops might wonder what the hell is going on.
Since we had a full day of shooting scheduled with Morton and Jess, our ‘Psychcops,’ I was in real trouble. My DP (Ben Wolf), sound mixer (Anthony Viera), and I sat down for a few minutes and figured out what angles/parts of the scenes we had scheduled that we could shoot without Morton and Jess. Meanwhile my crack PAs called Curt and Mollie (who played Morton and Jess) and told them they weren’t needed that day. According to SAG regulations, I had to pay them for the day, which sucked, but it was better than trying to pull a fast one on the police. If we had been caught in violation of our permit they could revoke it and then we’d be really screwed.
As it turned out, we were able to shoot about 80 percent of what we had scheduled, and we added a scene that we’d originally scheduled for the next day. So despite not having a plan B, we were able to salvage the day. The lesson here is to keep shooting despite the obstacles. Come up with something – anything. You can’t afford to be down for more than a couple of hours on a low budget shoot.

Replace

Sooner or later, someone will become an obstacle in your path. It could be a crew member with an attitude, a cast member with a schedule conflict that can’t be worked around, an agent who’s putting the hammer to your balls on ‘behalf’ of his client, an investor who insists on a LOT of special treatment before signing that check, a location owner or vendor that keeps changing the deal on you. These people may be your friends. They may be acting from completely benign motives – anxiety, loyalty to their client/organization, a misunderstanding, or because they’ve been burned by producers in the past. In any case, you have to make a decision: is this aggravation worth it? It may not be. Start looking for a replacement.

The horrible thing about being the boss is that you may have to replace someone for the good of the project. You will have to put your loyalties to the person to one side.

Chances are, the replacement person will be better than you’d hope for. The knot in your stomach will go away surprisingly fast.

Consult

Chances are, your crew has been through whatever fire you’re going through. In fact, they’ve probably encountered it a lot more often than you – a DP can work on many features in a year, whereas you can probably only direct or produce one every two to three. It’s not weakness to ask for advice – it’s common sense. It also invites people into the creative process, which is a good thing.

On Found In Time, we were shooting in a narrow corridor, and I couldn’t figure out how to make the script blocking match the location. I knew going in that it was a tough location but didn’t have much choice – I’d run out of time to investigate alternatives and the price was right. On the day, I was still figuring out how to position my leading man between the two leading ladies, even though it clearly wouldn’t work with the geography of the place. Ben came up with a solution instantly – just change the door that one of the characters was coming out of – and then everything snapped into place. Instead of me staring into space for an hour trying to figure it all out we were shooting in about fifteen minutes.

Punt

On Found In Time, we had a monster 15-hour day on our soundstage (as a result of poor scheduling on my part) on day 11, so everyone was pretty tired by the end of day 12. The shoot was dragging and I wasn’t getting what I wanted from anyone, including myself. My brain was the consistency of cottage cheese. I realized that if I pushed us up to the 12th hour, that we were still not going to wrap out of the scenes we needed to shoot, and the work was going to suffer. By pushing the scenes to the next day – our last day of shooting – I was taking a chance. We already had about 8 pages to shoot, and a hard out on the location and some of our cast members. Adding another 2 pages seemed insane.

But on the other hand, we WERE coming back to the location the next day. After looking at the existing 8 pages we had to shoot, we realized that we could tuck the owed scenes into the end of the day without screwing anything else up. This proved to be the correct decision – people got some sleep, we were able to start a little earlier, and we got better work done.

Consolidate, or Break Apart

Sometimes consolidating your setups is a good idea – unless it results in a complicated pretzel-twist setup or creates other problems that you’ll never get out of.

On Windows, a film I lined produced, one ten minute scene was supposed to be shot in one take. On paper it looked easy enough – two characters in a room, talking, then arguing, then fighting. But the location turned out to be full of mirrors, and the blocking got very complicated. So there was no way that the DP WASN’T going to see himself in one of the mirrors at some point.

After trying to shoot it all in one take, Ben and Shoja Azari (the director) talked it over and decided to shoot ‘sort-of’ coverage. This meant shooting moving masters from different angles, trying to avoid the mirrors as much as possible, and emphasizing different elements from take to take. By shooting the scene this way, the editor had enough material to cut with, without sacrificing the ‘feeling’ of the single take. Some people who’ve watched the film aren’t aware that it’s actually several shots stitched together.

On the other hand, on Caleb’s Door (my first film), I had the opposite problem. I was three hours behind and we were shooting a four-page dialog scene between the two lead characters, Liz and Caleb. Liz and Caleb were sitting side by side at a bar, looking at each other. This would normally call for four-to-six setups. A master shot looking down the bar at Liz, a reverse looking at Caleb, then CUs of both of them, then cutaways, then a double (if possible) from behind the bar. There was no way to accomplish this and make the rest of the day.

Then something wonderful happened. Ben put the camera on the bar for the master on Liz, which would normally just get the back of Caleb’s head. But Carl, the actor playing Caleb, ended up playing the scene looking AWAY from Liz and at the bar. In other words, he was in profile for nearly the entire scene – so we were able to get both actors’ faces in one master shot. Plus, since he was closer to the camera, it worked as his CU except for three lines, when he finally does turn to Liz. So we shot the three lines as a separate CU, then shot a CU of Liz. This gave us enough material to cut with, and saved us three setups. I wish could take credit for it, but the main point is that it got us out of a major jam. and it worked really well.

Failure Is Just Another Opportunity To Learn

It may be that nothing works, that the shoot falls apart anyway, and you don’t get everything you need. It sucks, and it’s the worst feeling in the world. But it’s not the end. There isn’t a single great painter, sculptor, writer, business owner, scientist, parent, cook – a single great anything – that doesn’t have a failure in their past. A script that didn’t come together, a restaurant that never opened or failed, an experiment that blew up, a novel that bombed. Sometimes what separates the wheat from the chaff in the film business is what you do after you fail. Do you pack it up and do something else, or do you learn what you can, file it away, then get up (after a good night or two of drinking) and get back in the saddle? I’ve had my share of failures, and it’s taken me years in some cases to see them in anything but a negative light, but now I recognize them for what they are: learning experiences.

Working With Your Editor, Part 2

Snowball Because pictures of cats are always good to post

In the last entry (wow, that month went by too fast) I talked a bit about the alchemy of editing and the director/editor relationship, and got as far as the rough cut. This time around I’d like to talk a bit about how to get from the rough to the final cut.

The Dead Spots

As I mentioned before, I have a hard time going back to the big picture after a screening. I get caught up in the atomic structure of the film, especially the dead spots. I’m always afraid of boring the audience, or myself. My first instinct was to cut cut cut. Dan never lost his sense of the big picture. He warned me about cutting too much too soon, because we ran the risk of losing the moments that were buried in the middle of the dead spots.

He was correct. The first thing he did after the rough cut was to simply go through the film and trim out small bits from many of the shots. This meant cutting a few frames from the head and tail of a series of shots in a scene, to keep the tension from flagging. Sometimes it meant getting out of a scene a little sooner (again, just a few frames). Sometimes it meant starting a scene a little later, so that the actors were already warmed up or in the frame. These small changes can make big improvements, without requiring you to rethink the work as a whole.

Just by making these kinds of cuts, Dan trimmed about six minutes out of the film. The result was much, much tighter. During this time I made suggestions but mostly stayed out of Dan’s way (at least, that’s what I recall). I started working on putting rough F/X composites and titles together, and thinking about music.

When To Bring the Music In

On Caleb’s Door, I started working with a temp score only towards the very end of the picture edit. Dan suggested bringing music much earlier into the process. This made a lot more sense, particularly given the somewhat extreme state of the character’s realities, and the pacing of the chase/action scenes in the film. Also, as Dan said, a shot that seems overly long without music can sometimes seem fine with it.

Fortunately, we both found common musical ground. Dan’s a big fan of Egyptian music, and I’d been thinking about a scoring around a particular instrument – the oud. The oud is a stringed instrument that produces a very bluesy sound, and in some musical forms plays a role similar to that of a guitar in rock music. So we started dropping in temp tracks from an Egyptian composer he’s worked with, and I looked at a bunch of different sources, including artists like Stellamarra, Rabih Abou-Khalil, and others. The initial idea was to use a Middle Eastern theme to underscore the idea that that this film was taking place in an altered version of New York.

I should tell you now, DO NOT GET TOO ATTACHED TO YOUR TEMP SCORE. Chances are that unless your composer has specifically written it for you, that you’re not going to be able to afford it. I’ve seen it happen more times than I care to recount. The record labels and publishers are only too happy to give you a great deal on a festival license, because they know that you’ll be back once a deal is on the table. At that point they’re counting on you being in a terrible bargaining position – you’ll cave into the time pressure to deliver the film to a distributor (before you see any money) so you’ll ransom your cats or your unborn grandkids to pay for the score, rather than lose both money AND time to on a sound remix.

How Often To Meet

On Found In Time Dan and I generally met a couple of times a week. My ‘homework’ in between meetings was to put together rough F/X composites and titles, and pick out temp tracks. Having things to do in between meetings helped keep me from getting too obsessed. During the actual sessions we’d drop in my temp material, look at cuts that Dan had made, and run the film through (usually from start to finish). We focused a lot on the first half-hour, since that was the most problematic part of the film.

We generally worked for three or four hours during the week, and then a longer session on the weekend. Working this way, we averaged about one cut of the film per week. With each cut we got closer to the target running time – about ninety minutes. We stopped and talked a lot during the process. Not just about the film, but about life, love and film. Far from distracting us, these chats strengthened our working relationship, and helped me get over my anxiety and deal with the film in smaller chunks.

The Feedback Screening

After about nine weeks, we had a feedback screening. It’s an important part of the process, but the feedback should not be taken too literally. There are two important factors: inviting the right people, and taking the right attitude.

You want to invite people who will give you honest, direct feedback, and are willing to get specific. A mix of film and non-film people is good. A small group is better than a bigger one.

The right attitude to take is to be open to everything, to withhold your defensiveness and feedback until after everyone’s gone. The best response to criticism is ‘can you elaborate on that’ or ‘that’s really interesting. What else?’ No matter how ridiculous the suggestion or feedback, look at the person and try to take it seriously. You may know out of the gate that what they’re asking for is impossible – you can’t afford reshoots, you don’t have the material, it would create too many problems in the third act. But what they’re responding to is a real problem that may have a solution that IS within your reach. Plus, these people are spending their precious time with you, so do them the courtesy of being polite and encouraging.

What you’re looking for are patterns. If one or two people have problems with something, then they may be more perceptive than everyone else, or they may have differing tastes than you. But if everyone has issues with the same scenes or characters, then you have an actual problem that needs to be addressed. Often good sound design and music can get people more involved in the story – watching a fine cut without corrected sound is a lot like looking at a really great sketch for a painting. Adjusting the pacing can solve a lot of problems.

What became apparent to me was that the first act was too slow. It took too long to get into the story, and Chris’s problems were over-commented on. So this is where Dan and I concentrated our efforts over the next two weeks.

In the next blog entry, I’ll talk about the transition from picture to sound editing, and how best to think about your score.

2010: The Year In Movies

I realize that it’s nearly February 2011, and we should be looking forward. In fact, I’m working on another entry about the editing process. But in the meantime, I figured this would be my last chance to talk about movies I saw in 2010. Rather than do a "best of" article I figured I’d just talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly, and maybe even dig out some general themes.

(NOTE that I said MOVIES I SAW, not necessarily movies that CAME OUT in 2010. This gives me quite a bit of latitude. Hey, it’s my blog.)

SHREDDING BODIES

It seems like 2009 was the year of the armored body. From Avatar to Surrogates to Terminator: Salvation to District 9, our heroes found themselves inside of various tougher, more agile bodies. By contrast, regular bodies began to look weaker, more fragile, like big bags of blood just waiting to be microwaved, ripped and riddled full of bullets. The year just past continues that trend: Repo Men Jude Law and Forest Whittaker hack, slash, and cut their way through flesh to repo the artificial organs that their clients have defaulted on payments for. In Daybreakers vampires are variously burnt, decapitated, exploded, and torn apart as they turn human. Centurion takes the sword-and-sandals genre to new heights of gore. Kick Ass features some very disturbing violence. And so on.

What is going on? I don’t know, but I’ll take a stab at it. Images of ourselves in media have always oscillated between all-powerful (see the cave paintings in Lescaux) to fragile (much of DaVinci’s work). The current emphasis on the fragility of the body may reflect our own aging (at least in the U.S.), our anxiety over the fate of the species, and the feeling of helplessness many of us have in the face of political, economic and social disasters.

It’s no coincidence that three of the movies I just cited are very political. In Repo Men, the dominant force is The Union, who are like an insurance company, hospital, bank, and drug co. rolled into one. Can’t afford an organ transplant? No problem, just sign up for a payment plan – with 20 percent interest. Can’t make the payments? Don’t worry. One of our repo men will take it back. You might die in the process, but that’s life, right? In Daybreakers (a really, really good film, by the way), vampires are the dominant species – except that in their greed, they’ve pretty much wiped out their food supply, and so are now tottering on the brink of starvation. Starve a vampire and he turns into a cannibal bat. Over-dependence on scarce resources coupled with short-term greed… sound familiar? Centurion (perhaps the oddest of the three) is set against the backdrop of a long, drawn-out war between the Picts and Romans in Britain, with backstabbing and extremism on both sides.

RESIST ADULTHOOD AT ALL COSTS

Many of the men I saw onscreen had opted out of growing up. Greenberg, Cyrus, Enter the Void, Due Date, Kick-Ass, Blue Valentine, Splice, Iron Man 2 feature men acting like petulant children or refusing to grow up. Even Inception and Shutter Island, it could be argued, are centered around adult men who are still, on some level, playing games rather than facing up to painful loss. I’m not sure what this means either. It’s possible that Gen X men are finally growing up, or that we see that growing up doesn’t mean the same thing it used to. It could be that maturity, as defined by our parents and grandparents, is a rather defeatist and ultimately fruitless way to look at life. Growing up often means giving up.

OVER-COOKED AND UNDERRATED

So here’s a quick look at the most overrated and underrated films of the year (IMHO). This doesn’t mean that the films were good or bad; in some cases, the overrated films were excellent. It’s simply that they don’t live up to their hype or aren’t nearly as clever as they’d like to think they are.

OVERRATED

The King’s Speech: I liked this film a LOT. I thought it was a humane, engaging portrait about someone who I normally could care less about (the royal family has problems? boo hoo). The performances were wonderful, the chemistry between Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter and Geoffrey Rush was great, and the struggle it represents is one we can all relate to. But in humanizing the King, it fails to politicize him. Apart from the obvious class differences between Rush and Firth (played for laughs, mostly), an opportunity to investigate the deeper complexities is left on the table.

Enter The Void: this is a case of brilliant technique married to a juvenile sensibility. Gaspard Noe is the kid in class who can draw amazing, life-like penises. The craft of the film is amazing – the overhead travelling shots, the mix of sophisticated effects and handheld camerawork, the removal of the subject from the screen altogether in the last third of the film. But it’s empty of ideas, save for a rather junior and over-literal understanding of karma and reincarnation that, in turns, masks a very traditional, conservative mindset. It revels in its juvenile qualities – ooh, look, full-on sex! Drug use! Gore! A microscope-level view of a penis! It’s also misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic, and, worst of all, boring. But the camerawork, editing, soundwork, and effects deserve some real study and appreciation – the mechanism of how the story is told is something that opens new doors.

Inception: This is a wonderful heist film, that just happens to take place in someone’s head. It has a solid cast, some wonderful (and very organic) effects, it doesn’t waste a second of time, and it builds the tension in a way that should be studied by filmmakers everywhere. But, it’s not as complex as everyone’s making it out to be. It’s overly structured, with thin characterizations, and the dream world is in some ways exceptionally dull. Its conception of gender is rather old-fashioned (the dark heart of the main character is a woman). I really enjoyed this film and feel it deserves more attention at the Oscars than it will get, but in some ways it’s a big-budget b-movie.

Shutter Island: I found this film gripping, and the performances, setting, and use of dream imagery really, really well done. But again, where is the ambiguity? Where is the breakdown of structure? In Goodfellas, Mean Streets, Kundun and even Bring Out the Dead, Scorcese made me care about distant, unsavory or otherwise normally unreachable characters. In Shutter Island, I failed to connect with DiCaprio’s character, even after spending much of the film in his head.

Black Swan: As with Enter The Void, you have great technique married to a juvenile sensibility. If you want a meditation on the intersection between dance, identity, and madness, see the remastered The Red Shoes, which Swan cribs liberally from. If you want to see the disintegration of identity in the face of sexuality, see Fight Club. If you want to go beyond duality altogether, see Paprika. It was a fun film to watch, and had some great touches, a fantastic sound design, and featured a really good use of effects.

UNDERRATED

Daybreakers: A vampire film that manages to cram about three movies’-worth of ideas into a crisp, lean 90-minute ride. Good performances, some sly political commentary, and complex characterizations (no one in the film is completely good or bad). What’s not to like?

Cyrus: I’m NOT a mumblecore fan. I applaud their DIY attitude, their willingness to experiment and just ‘shoot their damn movie,’ but I could never relate to the results of their efforts. But perhaps because of the cast, or the story, I rather liked Cyrus. It also has something to say about gender roles, and about men of all ages who are still negotiating the process of growing up.

Splice: A gene-splicing film that’s really about the horrors of parenting, a monster movie where the monsters aren’t the obvious ones, and a creepy movie where the creepiness is psychological rather than physical. An examination of gender roles, parental responsibility, and the commodification of the flesh are all on the table here, but not in any kind of boring, polemical way. It falls short in many ways (some of the characters are a little too stock) and it could have been longer, but it’s definitely worth looking at.

Broken Embraces: At first glance, these film seems like a bit of a mess; part memoir, part mystery, part director-drag statement (the main character is a blind director). But on another level, it’s about much more – the blind spots we all have in our hearts, the things we hide from each other, the small things we only notice later. The theme of watching, hiding, touch, and how what we don’t see shapes our identity as much as what we do, make this a more interesting film on second viewing.

Kick-Ass: I’m not really sure why I like this film. Perhaps because it never does exactly what I expect it to do. I often found myself laughing and recoiling at the same time. It rather confronts us with superhero fantasy in a way that’s refreshing, exciting, and somewhat revolting. And it features some winning performances and well-shot and well-edited action scenes.

It’s a Wonderful Life: I saw this at its annual screening at the IFC Film Center, just a few days after seeing Enter the Void. Capra touches on many of the same themes – the imagined life, karma, the web of interconnection between people – but does so in a much more sophisticated and involving way. It doesn’t flinch away from showing the cost of heroism, nor does it short-shrift the miracles that are possible in everyday life (something it shares with both Ikiru and The Bicycle Thief). It’s a more adult, and less-square, work than it’s generally thought of.

Old Films

In Understanding Comics, Scott Mcloud talks a lot about the process of making art. Often the ‘new kid on the block’ is just putting a new spin or glossy coat over deeper, older territories and structures that were explored by the previous ‘masters.’ I have to agree. Many of this past years’ films were clearly built upon (and in good cases, expand) the territory mapped out by Hitchcock, Ozu, Kurosawa, Hawks, Capra, Carpenter, Sturges, Tarkovsky… the list goes on and on. If the old studio system had flaws (and it certainly did), it also had its virtues, and it established within a very short span of time most of the major genres, syntactic elements, and styles that we still work with today. So in 2011, go see some old films! Many can be streamed on Netflix, so now you have no excuse. :)

The Art of (S)logging

I promise, there will be a blog entry – soon – on production. But I wanted to delve into more detail on something that’s very important, and I think underreported: preparing your film for the editor.

In the previous entry I focused on the big post picture. Today I’m going to stick to the first three steps I outlined: transcoding, synching, and logging the footage. The goal is to get acquainted with the film you’ve shot (as opposed to the one in your head), save your editor unnecessary headaches (and you unnecessary time and money) hunting for footage, and get your brain thinking about sound, visual effects, titles, music, and other post elements.

Workflow: When To Do This

On a big enough film, your script supervisor would make the continuity book, the 2nd AC and the mixer would write reports, and your assistant editor would transcode, log, and synch, all while you’re shooting. The advantages are fairly obvious: you’ll find out about coverage or technical problems while you’re shooting, and you’ll get to a rough cut that much sooner. However, on micro-budget films, this is a comparative luxury.

On Found In Time, we had no script supervisor, the sound mixer was doing about three other jobs – though he did take very good notes – and we didn’t have an editor in place during the shoot. I’m assuming that many of you are in a similar situation.

Transcoding

The Canon 5D records to an H.264 Quicktime-playable file. H.264 is a highly compressed format that somehow retains a lot of detail despite throwing out an enormous amount of picture information. Part of how it does this is by storing frame data in a long-GOP format. GOP = Group Of Pictures. Essentially, what the codec does is analyze a group of frames (in most cases, 6 or 15). It stores the first frame, then stores the DIFFERENCES ONLY between the first frame and all subsequent frames within the group.

There’s a LOT more involved than this, but here’s the main point: editing H.264 footage can be difficult. Your cuts are probably NOT going to be on the first frame in a group, which means the computer will have to analyze and rebuild frames every time you cut picture. The result can tax your system, leading to dropped playback frames and a lot of rendering time. It’s also more difficult to do a final conform, render effects, etc. In other words, H.264 is a great origination and online distribution format, but you don’t want to edit with it.

Transcoding the footage from the original H.264 files to an I-frame format (which compresses and stores each frame individually) is thus an easy decision. But there are several software programs to do the trick:

MPEG Streamclip is preferred by many, and with good reason: it’s fast, user-friendly, free, and can batch-process clips very easily. But the quality of the resulting clips is not quite as good as we were hoping for. It also strips out the original timecode from the file, substituting its own.

Rarevision’s 5DtoRGB on the other hand, is supposed to do the best overall job in terms of image quality, but lacks a batch feature (at this time; it’s still under development). It also takes the longest to transcode.

We considered Compressor, but have had problems with batch transcodes in Compressor and haven’t been super happy with the results. After going on Creative Cow and talking to a few folks, we decided on Canon’s own Final Cut Pro plug-in, the EOS Plugin-E1. It produces decent results, processes batches of clips at a time without any hiccups, didn’t take too long, and retained the original clip timecode.

The next decision: what to transcode TO. The obvious choice for editing in Final Cut was Apple ProRes, but ProRes comes in several flavors, ranging from Proxy (small file size/lower quality) to HQ (huge file size, better quality). After thinking about it, trolling the forums, and consulting with some experts, we decided on ProRes LT, which is somewhere between the two ends of the spectrum. The data rate is approximately 100Mpbs, roughly the same as DVCProHD, and nearly 3x the 5D files’ 40Mbps. This means in practical terms that we were getting something very, very good – that we could put together into rough cut shape if we needed more investors or to assembly a festival screener out of – but we wouldn’t kill our hard drive.

The long term plan, once the film has been picture-locked, is to note the selects (the clips that make it into the locked picture), and re-transcode the camera originals to QuickTime HQ using the 5DtoRGB utility.

Setting Up Final Cut For Transcoding

At this point, we set up a new Final Cut project with a sequence default of 1920×1080 23.976p, with 48KHz 16-bit stereo sound. During the shoot the DP created folders by day, running to lettered bins if he had to copy more than one card per day (so we have Day1, Day1b, Day2, etc. folders on the hard drive). We started out by creating camera reel bins to mirror the originals. Within each bin, I created three sub-bins: Scraps (for NG or goofing-off material), Video (for source video clips), and Audio (for source audio clips).

We also created a database in FileMaker (which is cross-platform, by the way), to capture information on each clip. Initially, we just dumped a directory listing of all the clips into a text file then imported that into FileMaker, so we’d have a list of the 840 video clips and 735 sound files (we had a good number of MOS takes).

During the transcoding process itself, we renamed each clip to "sceneshot-take" format, then also filled in the scene, shot/take, reel (camera reel), angle, and loggingNotes fields. We went in shoot (as opposed to scene order), and limited the batches to one-or-two scenes worth of material depending on the number of individual clips. The entire process took about four days, and was highly automated. A good tutorial on it is on Canon’s own site. TWO THINGS TO NOTE:: when you name the clip (scene-shot-take), the utility actually renames the transcoded Quicktime file. So if you ever want to go back to your camera masters for retranscoding, make sure to keep a list of the original filename and the new one.

Also, the utility REQUIRES that all the clips be inside of a folder called DCIM off the root of the hard drive. That’s because the plug-in is expecting to be reading from an SD card (which uses DCIM as the main folder to put all saved video and still files in). Note that you CAN nest folders inside of the DCIM folder.

Once each batch was done, I moved the transcoded clips into matching day folders on the edit drive. This way instead of having over 800 clips in one folder to sift through, I would only have to look through a few dozen at a time.

Synchronizing

This was probably the most boring part. Anthony, our sound mixer, had wisely named nearly every sound file in the scene-shot-take format. So figuring out which sound take went with which video file was relatively trivial.

This is where Pluraleyes, from Singular Software, saved my butt. It’s a standalone program which works with Final Cut sequences and synchs video-to-video (in the case of multi-camera shoots) and video-to-audio footage. It creates a new sequence for each synched clip. So instead of going clip-by-clip, I was able to drag a dozen or so clips at a time to a sequence in my Final Cut file, line them up very roughly to their matching audio sequences, and click "Sync" in Pluraleyes. A few minutes later I had a dozen sequences with synched sound. Since we used a slate and had the original camera audio as a reference, Pluraleyes rarely had difficulty finding the right sync point. (BTW: the software is free to try for 30 days).

NOW, there was one surprise. For whatever reason, the audio in the original camera file was exactly one or two frames AHEAD from the video – you could tell because the slate was ahead. However, there was no drift. So I had to manually check the sync on each new sequence and adjust by one/two frames – but again, because we had the slates, this was a no-brainer. Other people on Creative Cow have complained of the same problem. There doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut solution, nor does it seem to be universal.

After moving the sound one/two frames, I muted the original camera audio, clipped the trailing and leading audio so the sequence would start on the first frame of video, and changed the sequence timecode to match the video timecode (so instead of starting at 01:00:00:00 the TC would start at 18:31:15:00, for example).

Last (but not least), we took the synched clips, along with the source video and audio files, and the scrap clips, and put them into scene bins. The scene bins ultimately replaced the day bins we had established, and had the same structure (Audio, Video, and Scrap sub-bins). Synched sequences went into a new sub-bin called Sync.

This process was also fairly mechanical, and took about two weeks (working part time).

Logging

Now I was ready to log the footage. This consisted of two parts: makes notes about each clip in my database, and lining the script. Lining the script is a BIG topic, and I’m no script supervisor, but the gist of it is that you want to visually indicate where each individual camera setup begins and ends within each scene, what lines and blocking have changed from script to shoot, what scenes have been omitted or added, and what gaps in coverage you might have. As you can imagine, this is a fairly time-consuming process.

In my database I had the following information already:
* individual clip name
* the scene, shot and take number
* the timing (media start, end, and duration)
* The angle (Master, CU John, OTS Jane on Jack, ECU pill bottle, etc.)
* Logging Note
* The original (camera source) filename
* The sound take file name

Most of this information I was able to get by exporting a file list from Final Cut, importing it into the database, then going through it quickly to make sure I didn’t miss anything.

To this laundry list of information I added:
* the first frame of action (usually after the DP calls "frame" or set but before you’ve called "action")
* A description of the shot
* Some kind of evaluation of the shot
* A list of visual problems in the shot (boom dips in at 23:04:10)
* Sound problems

On Found in Time, we shot 840 individual clips. Of these, about 75 or so were complete mistakes, goofing around shots, slates for MOS series, and otherwise unusable bits. These didn’t take long to log.

I later figured out that I was able to log between 10 and 20 clips per hour, depending on how complex each clip was. I managed to log everything in just over two weeks.

Why Do This To Yourself

You can get interns to transcode and synch, and maybe even do some of the logging, so why do this yourself? In my case, it was a way of getting familiar with the film that we shot (as opposed to the one in my head). This way, I don’t have to waste time having this discussion with the editor: "don’t we have a shot of…" No, we don’t.

It also got me thinking about how to solve certain coverage problems, what effects shots I will need, and what kind of sound design/music choices would work. The big thing is that the editor didn’t have to do this work – he was able to just look at the footage and start cutting. That is a huge time and money saver on any shoot.

Okay, so this post has probably been about as fascinating as watching paint dry. I promise, more fun posts to come!

Casting, Props, Fun!

This has been a hectic month+. We’ve been casting, building props, and locking down our locations – getting ready for the BIG DAY: September 10th! So this blog entry will be brief.

Firstly, we have our cast:
MacLeod Andrews | Chris
Mina Vesper Gokal | Ayana
Derek Morgan | RJ
Kelly Sullivan | Jina
Eric Martin Brown | Anthony
Mollie O’Mara | Jess
Curt Bouril | Morton
Stephen Bradbury | Ananasi
Glenn Thomas Cruz | Mark
Stuart Rudin | Isaac
Mary Monahan | Nadine
Avery Pearson | Matthew
Allison F. Phillips | Joan
Justin Myrick | Nicholas
Jaden Michael | Billy
Tony Wolf | Randall
Adam Feingold | Carl

We couldn’t ask for a more talented group of people to be working with.

PROPS AND WARDROBE:
Just a quick selection of props and design elements:
Ayana Spinner This is the spinner that Ayana (one of the main characters) uses to weave her special braids.

NYPsychD Logo This is a logo we made for the Psychcops, the special unit of the police force that keeps track of vendors.

That’s it for now. Hopefully we will be able to get one more blog entry out there before we start shooting.

A Good Preproduction Checklist

I realize I haven’t been blogging very much lately. The truth is that the actual work of putting the film together swallowed me up for a bit, which left precious little time left over for reflecting and writing on what I was doing.

June was a very busy month. A few of the things on the to-do list:

  • Two Location Scouts
  • Filing the Tax Incentive applications with the City and State of NY
  • Filing the Screen Actors’ Guild paperwork
  • Doing a new breakdown and schedule for the film
  • Calling locations and soundstages
  • Bidding on insurance
  • Prop shopping
  • Hiring the casting director and preparing for casting
  • Further script analysis
  • Setting up company credit cards, and the Quickbooks/filing system for the film

I’ve also been trying to study other low-budget fantasy films such as the recent Ink, The Science of Sleep, Cold Souls and Gabbeh (if you haven’t seen these, I recommend them all highly). Gabbeh, in particular, fascinates me. Without any kind of special effects, it manages to utterly convince you of the authenticity of the magical world it creates.

Anyway, one of the overriding lessons of June is the importance of being organized. There are many preproduction checklists out there. But most assume a very idealized schedule and that you’ll have a team of people working for you. Here I’m trying to condense it into a list that’s manageable and more realistic for the folks who are producing films literally on their own or with one or two other people. As such it’s organized more or less in priority order (of course, film preproduction is nonlinear and fluid).

CORPORATE STUFF:
Anything that involves should be taken care of as soon as you have a date set. This includes creating your production company, putting the legal paperwork together for your investors and partners, setting up your bank account and credit cards, getting a resale certificate, etc. This is time-consuming stuff and involves government entities, which move on a slow timetable. So don’t put it off.

SCRIPT ANALYSIS:
You can never do too much of this. As a crew member, I used to hate it when the director seemed like the least prepared person on set. There’s a difference between being “fresh” (not getting sick of the material before walking on set) and being unprepared. Properly analyzing your script will never make you sick of the material, only lead you to a deeper understanding of the story you’re trying to tell. It will also give you the materials you’ll need to help you communicate with the cast and crew.

In my mind, script analysis includes the following:

  • Preparing a character breakdown for the casting director
  • Taking general notes
  • Looking at the script from the characters’/actors’ POV (see Judith Weston’s books on this)
  • Storyboarding
  • Shotlisting
  • Preparing a “vision statement” that uses other films, stills, artworks, music… anything that someone can grab and watch/listen to/read to get a sense of what you want to accomplish
  • Figuring out what sides you want to use for auditions
  • Rewriting the script based on the above

This should be happening throughout the preproduction process. It becomes harder to do as preproduction goes on, since it demands stretches of uninterrupted time. So start this as soon as you have a draft that you think could be shot. I also recommend “saving” everyone (including yourself) huge headaches by refraining from publishing new drafts until you’ve “ganged up” a few significant changes. Publishing new pages every couple of days is not going to endear you to anyone. On a really low budget film, you are GUARANTEED to get out of sync (with actors, crew, director and producer all showing up on set with different drafts).

PRODUCTION ANALYSIS:
This broad category includes breaking down the script, scheduling it, and budgeting it. This should start as soon as you have a workable draft and will (for better or worse) be an ongoing process. You should try to generate a budget, a location breakdown, and a cast list as soon as possible. I’ve written about this before, so I won’t go into too many details here.

LOCATIONS:
Try to nail your locations, or at least start exploring possibilities, as soon as possible. I’ve written extensively on location scouting considerations, so I won’t go into it here. I want to add two things: be prepared to bribe people to turn off their radios, park somewhere else, etc. And have a backup plan. You don’t want to lose a day of shooting if a location gets scotched.

Use the best aspects of a location – even if it means bending the story a little bit. I once worked on a film where we had to find a country house for a corporate law firm partner. We found a beautiful, “rich-looking” house with two giant floor-to-ceiling, two story windows. But the scene was set at night, and we were shooting during the day. The DP and director wouldn’t budge, so we gelled the windows (which took forever), and shot away from them – blocking everything in front of an interesting but rather “non-opulent” wall. The issue of wealth (important to the characters and the film as a whole) was lost.

CASTING:
You should start thinking about this as soon as the script is done. Do you know a “name” actor (and I mean know in the sense of actually having met, talked, worked with, and NOT in the sense of having lots of posters of him/her in your room or that you’ve stalked them or followed them on “E”)? Do you know good “non-name” actors? Do you know a casting director?

The casting process is in many ways the hinge that the rest of the film swings on. If you cast well then many of your headaches will disappear on set (to be replaced by others, of course). Cast badly and you’ll be wasting a lot of money and time. Note that casting well doesn’t necessarily mean casting a name, or even someone with a lot of experience. But:

  • Do they bring the role to life?
  • Do they think of things you haven’t thought of?
  • Are they committed to the sometimes arduous nature of the process (they refuse to coast on indication and cliche)
  • Do they have chemistry with each other?
  • Will they show up on time?
  • Do they understand the hours and time commitment, or will you have to compete with their day jobs or significant others?

These last two sound funny, but they’re not. I’ve worked (as a production manager) with musicians cast as actors. They tend to be very good, but many don’t understand the concept of a seven-AM call time.

I’ve also worked with actors who told me on the day that they had to get to their catering jobs two hours before we were scheduled to wrap. My sympathy is limited – I’ve passed up day job money, sleep, sex, a few friendships, and a vacation or two to stay in this business. If you can’t walk the walk, don’t talk the talk.

On the other hand, if you’re working with an actor who’s got another ACTING commitment, then you have to respect that commitment and work around it. If you can’t, don’t cast that person, or wait until their commitment is over before you shoot.

Also, if your dates aren’t solid (they won’t slip by more than a few days), you can’t expect any actor, no matter their level of experience, to wait around for you.

CREWING UP:
Crewing up is both difficult and easy at the same time. It isn’t hard to find people who want to crew on films. The problem is finding people who are willing (see above) to stick with it during some tough times, and/or are also willing to take a pay cut to work on an indie film. Also, since everyone is a freelancer, you can’t ask someone in May what they’re schedule is going to be like in December. Unless the paycheck you’re offering is awesome AND your dates are solid, you’re going to have to settle for a “if nothing else comes up” commitment.

So start looking at reels and interviewing people, by all means, but don’t count on hiring people for sure until a couple of months before the shoot starts.

PROPS, SET DRESSING, COSTUMES:
I like to create shopping lists of the props, set dressing, costumes, wigs, etc. that I’ll need to obtain for the shoot. In creating this list, I focus on the following:

  • What’s already at the location that I can use for free/cheap?
  • What do I own?
  • What can I borrow for free?
  • What can I rent for cheap?
  • What can I “buy and return?”
  • What do I have to fabricate or purchase?

This leads to a lot of dumpster-diving, making phone calls to friends, closet-raiding, and other activities. The good news is that you don’t have to do all this work at once. The bad news is that, like everything else on this list, you should start it as early as possible.

One thing I would caution against is assuming that actors can bring their own wardrobe. Depending on their financial situation, day jobs, and/or taste, you may not be able to find a three-piece suit or formal evening gown in their closets that you can use. And if you do, keep in mind that it’s your responsibility to make sure they show up with it on the day, that it’s cleaned regularly, and that a second rented/purchased, if possible. Actors sweat a LOT – the lights are hot, the AC has to be off for sound, and the work itself is nerve-wracking and physical – so make sure they can get into a clean version of their clothes the next day.

Similarly, locations are seldom perfect and may change between the scout and the shoot. You may have to live with the location as is (not always the worst thing in the world), or spend some time before the shoot crew arrives rearranging things. The key on a low budget is to be flexible.

There’s more to come, but I’ve got to get back to work here. Casting begins in a couple of weeks. I’ll let you know how that goes!