Post Production is NOT an afterthought

Why is it that Producers treat Post Production as an afterthought?   As in, “I need to spend all my money on Production so it looks great, but the editing we can do on the cheap.”   The editor is the LAST person to touch your film.   As in the person who will make or break your film by their skills to properly cut the film together making the right decisions on scenes to keep / remove, timing and a whole host of other decisions.   So you hire the absolute cheapest person to do the one of the most important jobs?

A Professional Editor also knows how to properly manage time, as in being able to handle a project on time, by deadline and also managing the Producer’s expectations.   A Professional Editor also knows when a project’s scope is beyond their abilities.

The Perfect Storm of how NOT to plan your Post Production played recently in some unsolicited correspondence I received from a Producer I’ve never met, but they asked for my advice to help resolve their Post Production issues.   I’ve edited some of the original email, but my blunt responses are reprinted here in their entirety.

Producer: I have a film shot on RED that I’m planning to submit to Sundance.  I hired a college student to cut the film and gave them 2 months to cut it.  The film will be about an hour.

Me: You hired a university student to cut a film for submission to Sundance.   That’s only the most difficult film festival to get an acceptance in the U.S. because EVERYBODY submits to that one.  The way you get accepted is to already have an in with the festival, have a blockbuster coming out, or submit an absolutely superb story that stands out above the rest.   So you entrusted a college student to prepare your film for the most difficult film festival to get into.   Unless you’re trying to qualify for a student level film, that was a huge mistake right off the bat.   Your film would have to be both creative and technically sound.   No matter how creative your film is, a university student has no idea how to make a film technically sound to stand out in a crowded film festival submission.

And you did the film in RED which requires a stout editing system and proper professional monitoring to properly edit.

Producer: I gave the editor two requirements: make my film at least 60 minutes and have it to me no later than my deadline in two months.   I gave him all the RED footage that we currently had (approximately 3/4 of the movie) so that he could get a jump on editing while we completed the film.

Me: Two months is a ridiculously tight turnaround unless you had everything ready to go and laid out for editing.   Especially if you were expecting a fully finished film for submission that would include a rough audio mix, rough color enhancement, etc…   If you were expecting a fully finished film with full audio mix and full color enhancement, that was not near enough time.   Your timeframe was impossible meet unless you had a full post production facility behind you that was skilled in completing quick turnaround projects.  No way one person was going to complete all of this in two months have it fully film festival ready.

A university student wouldn’t really know this since when they submit projects to be graded, it doesn’t always have to be fully completed.  If it’s creative but not technically sound, well that’s ok because they’re learning and the professor will give them good grades.  In the real world, technical quality is paramount to the creative.   I’ve seen some amazingly skilled college editors but the one thing they all lack is the ability to properly prepare projects from a technical standpoint.  Audio levels, video levels and proper color correction are things I always have to teach new hires.

Producer: Delays happen as they do on film sets and half of the last 1/4 of the film footage didn’t get to the editor until 3 weeks before the deadline. “No problem”, he told me, “I’ve been editing the footage as I go. You’ll definitely get your film by your deadline”.   Deadline came and he calls me up and says he can’t make the deadline because the film is rendering and the ETA is 12 hours. (As an editor, isn’t this something you budget for as far as time management goes?).

Me:  I’m not surprised in the least.  A university student is not used to meeting deadlines yet.   They can miss a deadline or two in college and it’s no big deal.  Of course I can’t understand exactly what they were rendering.  Was it the color correction?  Was it the RED Proxy Files?  Didn’t they convert all the footage to ProRes for the edit?

Yes, rendering time is one of those things you have to budget for in time management, it’s always a trade off on adding more to a project vs. render time to complete on time.      Not to mention the DVD compression / authoring / burning time.

Producer: While I’m watching it, I realized that it’s not 60 minutes and there are crucial errors in it (i.e. missing scenes, and in one scene you hear the AD say “Action”). I can’t submit this!

Me:  So you have not watched any rough cuts of the film at all?  When the film is completed this is the first time you’re seeing it?   Generally an editor submits rough cuts either on a daily, weekly or other regular schedule that is laid out with the Producer before the edit starts.

Scenes are cut out all the time for timing.  I have no idea how long your raw material was vs. the imposed running time of 60 minutes.   Did you give the editor guidelines on which scenes could be cut for timing and which scenes have to remain in the film?    If you left it completely up to the editor, then you cannot be upset with what was removed.   Getting a film to an exact running time is impossible without guidelines from the Producer as to what must stay and what can be cut.

As for the “Action” I don’t think the editor did a sound pass on the film.   I would not submit anything to a festival like Sundance without a professional sound designer doing a clean pass on the film first.   Basically all he does is smooth all the levels and clean up any extraneous audio.  That allows us to submit to film festivals and then he goes in and does the full sound mix which on a one hour film I would expect anywhere from 2 to 10 days depending on whether he’s supplying any original music and if we’re going 5.1 or stereo mix.   Barring that, our editors would spend two days on a 60 minute film just smoothing out all the levels so nothing is jarring or extraneous.

Producer: So, I have to import the film into my own FCP program, crudely cut out the “Action”, and submit the half-assed film to Sundance with a production note as to why the other errors were not corrected. And then I had to find another editor to fix the mistakes he made, thereby costing me even more money. Up until this point, I had been paying him on a delayed schedule since I was independently financing the project. Every two weeks, I’d pay him for one week’s work.

Me:  Again, you’re planning to submit to Sundance and you hired a college student to do the work.   And it sounds like you did not review the film at all during the editing process.  And you had a ridiculously tight turnaround time to complete the film.   Perfect storm.

Indie film producers never budget enough money or time for Post Production.   So they hire the cheapest person they can find and they have all sorts of issues in the edit that they can’t seem to explain.  This cycle runs like a broken record here in Atlanta yet the Producers don’t learn.   Post Production generally costs at least 1/3 more than Production.  More if you’re shooting on the cheap.    My independent film (20 minutes) cost $3500 to shoot and if I had to pay for the Post Production that would have been over $20,000.  But since it was my own film, I didn’t have to pay for the Post or the facility.   We spent 6 weeks cutting and preparing that 20 minute scripted film.    The first three weeks finessing, the second three weeks in sound mix and color enhancement.

On the plus side you were actually paying the editor so that’s a good thing. Indie Producers are notorious for not paying at all.  I would have demanded, and all editors I work with would have demanded 50% of the budget up front and you would not have received the final cut until the balance of payment was received.

Producer:  He didn’t meet either of the requirements I set for him AND gave me a “finished” project that I couldn’t use. I’ve already paid him for 6 out of the 8 weeks, in the good faith that he’d finish the project per my requirements and continued to send payment after he failed to do so. I know it sucks for him because he really worked all day and night the last week, but this is a business and his actions caused me to lose money. And honestly, better prioritizing on his part would have prevented this entire situation (he spent days color-correcting while raw footage was waiting idly by to be cut into coherent scenes). As an editor, what would you expect from your client if this had happened to you. What do you think would be the fair thing for me to do?

Me:  This is a business for you.  It’s a learning experience for him.   He’s a college student, he’s not a professional editor.   You made the decision to hire him I’m guessing because he was ridiculously cheap.  Therefore you owe him the payment.

Our one hour documentary took 6 days to color correct with a 30 year Colorist doing the work with professionally calibrated equipment in a professional color suite.   So that fact that he took days is not surprising in the least.   I would expect a non-colorist to take at least 2 weeks to color correct a one hour film.   Did you tell him not to color correct any of the scenes until the film was completed?  In fact, why were you color correcting the film at all when you had such a tight turnaround?    That’s another mistake and something that you as a Producer needed to clarify with the editor.

As a professional editor you would not have had anything to submit to Sundance without giving me the final payment so the fact that you even had something to submit is remarkable.   As a professional editor, I would have prioritized the edit to complete the story first and finish second.  But in college you’re all about impressing people with your knowledge of software and effects, so playing with graphics, color enhancement and the like are what it’s all about in college.  So I’m not surprised he wanted to play with looks on the film instead of finishing it first.

All in all, you chose the wrong person when you decided to hire someone in college to do a highly professional job.   As the Producer it is your responsibility to hire the right people to complete each task of the project.   It sounds to me like you did not budget near enough money for Post Production or you would have hired a good professional editor or Post facility.   This happens all the time here and what usually happens is a facility like mine has to come behind and clean up the mess.

Sorry to be so blunt, but you made a very poor choice to choose such an unqualified person to cut a project for such high profile expectations.

I honestly have no idea if this Producer really was expecting sympathy from me or what, but when you make a poor business decision and then try to lay the blame on an unqualified person, that just really gets to me.  There are thousands of incredibly talented artists in colleges and universities across the country, I’ve met a lot of them myself.  They do insanely creative work and soon will take over our entire industry.

But it’s not fair to lay down unrealistic expectations on someone who is still learning the craft and then expect them to turn out a film worthy of one of the most famous film festivals in the world.   So if the film gets rejected, whose going to be to blame?  The Producer / Writer for the story or the Editor because they got in over their head?   The Producer made an incredibly bad choice on whom to have cut the film.   Ultimately success or rejection will ride on all the choices the Producer and Director made during the course of the production.