Affordable post-production

Dear Doc Doctor:

In the post-production phase, technology becomes so complicated—there are so many options. Any suggestion on what’s the best format with which to master my film while still being affordable?

Remember when there was only one way of doing things? When you would happily leave the working print at the laboratory’s door and come back a few days later to pick up the finished film master? OK, OK, maybe it wasn’t exactly like that, but having to choose between 16mm, 35mm, and Panavision pales in comparison to the amount of formats available today. I’m reluctant to name them all for fear of having an outdated list by the time you read the second paragraph.

However, the principles of how to manage the post-production phase haven’t changed. Planning ahead can save you from mayhem. In-house Post-Production Supervisor and Coordinator Tracey Soast from PostWorks in New York suggests: “Before you start shooting with the latest camera available in the market, make sure the deck for such tape has been invented already and that some post-house owns such a deck.”

Once you check with a post-production supervisor as to whether your shooting format has some life in the afterworld of post, a few other questions need to be answered: What’s the master format? And what will be the workflow? Meaning, how are all the stages of post going to be organized—from conforming the master, to color correction and mixing? Soast continues: “You need a versatile format that has passed the test of time, especially if working with a tight budget. You have to trust that such a format will be around, if not for a decade, at least the next five years. Then you want that format to be able to play at festivals and to be easily transferable to other formats used in other markets and venues, including the foreign ones. As per today, that format is HD and if money is scarce, at least go for DigiBeta.”

Of course there are exceptions, variations, and very special cases that defy all of the above, but money shouldn’t be a deterrent. We are talking about the master of your film here. It never ceases to amaze me how many filmmakers won’t think twice of paying double the standard fee for a recent award-winning DP or editor, but will cringe at the cost of a tape! Nickel-and-dime-ing in post jeopardizes all the work you have done up to that point.

Also, bear in mind that post-production is the last stop and that there are no more opportunities to “fix it later.” So if you plan for post-production early on and budget for it accordingly, hopefully the only surprise will be that there were no surprises.

Dear Doc Doctor:
I’m dealing with lots of technical problems, and I don’t consider myself a techie person. Should I hire a post-production supervisor to help with the non-artistic stuff?

An editor friend of mine recently screamed to me over her cell: “I’m in post-production hell!” Another friend, a DP, said to me the other day, “Oh gosh, I’m in shooting hell!” Mind you, both are very “techie” people. Such remarks lead me to believe that Dante’s Inferno was actually a prediction of the fate technology will bring upon filmmaking: one circle of fiery hell after the other! But the flames can be doused with a post-production guardian angel and by repeating the mantra: “I can be techie if I just apply myself.”

You might think that what makes you creative is not knowing how to operate your VCR. However, I doubt Michelangelo ever said, “Chisel? What’s that?” Knowing the tools of your trade can only help your creative process. Furthermore, taking pride in not caring about technical “non-artistic” issues might put you at a disadvantage with all those very technical people who are going to help you finish your film, including your post-production supervisor. That doesn’t mean that you should present yourself as technically knowledgeable if you are completely ignorant on the subject. But trying to at least show interest in the basics can help more than you may realize.

Once you are able to communicate (even if it’s just the basics) with the post-world, you can make a decision as to whether you can brave handling things on your own with the in-house post-production supervisor, you want to recruit your editor for a few extra weeks to help you out, or you would prefer to hire a pro in the field. As usual, all choices have their advantages and costs.

In-house supervisors are happy to explain it all to you and help you to make decisions, but they are also handling several other projects at the same time. Your editor, if technically inclined, can be a great resource, probably more familiar than you with the process. Your own supervisor, if experienced enough, is ideal. Hopefully, you’ve budgeted for one—if not, go for that extra round of fundraising, especially if you have a complex project. There are so many people and machines involved in post that the margin for error is unavoidable. Having your own post-production supervisor can minimize that margin-making hell.

Fernanda Rossi is a filmmaker and story consultant, and the author of Trailer Mechanics: A Guide to Making Your Documentary Fundraising Trailer.

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