So much is written about screenwriting and shooting films, but it seems there’s very little on what it is to finish a film, which is often a long and emotionally challenging process. As I prepare to begin the final sound mix on OF DUST AND BONES next week, I thought I’d share a few thoughts on post-production, particularly to help those who might be approaching it for the first time.
The most important thing to know is that this is where your film is really made. It might seem that the shoot is where you make it, but that’s an illusion. The shoot is the equivalent of hunting and gathering for ingredients before going home to cook a big meal. When you start your edit, you’re really starting to cook, and if you’ve done your job well up to that point, cooking will be easy. The meal will come together beautifully without much effort. But if you haven’t, if the script wasn’t quite right or one of the actors just didn’t work or whatever, you’re going to have to be a little more inventive in the kitchen. You might still cook a first-rate meal, but it’s going to require a little more ingenuity.
In any case, be prepared to take your time. Don’t be in a rush. Stay steady on the course. I think most films (unless they run into big problems) can be edited in around 3 months. Make sure before you lock picture that you do some test screenings – these don’t require audiences of hundreds, but invite people who you think are the audience for your film to watch it with you, and get their honest feedback. Just like at script stage, don’t be precious with anything. If it doesn’t serve the story, be prepared to lose it. This can be hard, I don’t deny it, but you have to stay focused on serving the story you set out to tell. Nothing else matters.
Something I think no one really tells you before you make a film is that the process of post-production is long and it’s hard, particularly for indie filmmakers who don’t have huge resources. Everything that happens before the shoot is full of anticipation, excitement and hope. Everything is possible. The shoot itself might be tough, but because there is a whole team of people working on it, it also has a buoyant energy. But when it gets to post, you’re often pretty much on you own. You spend three months or more working on the edit with your editor, then you work on score with your composer, then you do your sound mix and color grading, before doing the final lay off. Scheduling and coordinating these final steps can be tricky if you don’t have a post supervisor – but never think you can skip them. You can’t. Without a proper sound mix and color grading your film will only seem amateur.
I’ve talked to a lot of filmmakers about this, and I don’t think it’s unusual to feel somewhat depressed in these final stages. It’s the beginning of the letting go – after what is at least a year of focused work and dreaming and planning (and probably longer). It’s the time you have to accept the film you’ve made, and perhaps it isn’t what you dreamed of, it isn’t everything you wanted it to be, which is hard.
You might also not know where it’s going to premier or how it’s going to find its way into the world, and this can also be taxing. If you’re submitting to festivals, it’s a little like applying for colleges…you want your future to be secure and clear, but it’s not, and that can be stressful. It can feel like there’s so much at stake, and as you get closer to finishing your film and sharing it with the world, that can be scary.
You might also be broke. Most indie filmmakers are not paid much at all, and if post-production gets drawn out (heck even if it goes like clockwork), money can be an issue. Sometimes you have to take another job while completing a film, which rather feels like cheating on your spouse, besides being a drain on our energy for finishing your film. But obviously it’s essential that you have enough money for rent and food, so if you do need to take a break from post and earn a few dollars, do it.
There are no easy answers to these issues. All I can say is that you must look after yourself during this process and try to keep everything in perspective. The worst thing that happens is the film isn’t well received and it doesn’t make money, not a nice thought but not the end of the world either. To keep yourself from going crazy, make sure you schedule time away from your film as you finish it – for me, I find walks in nature amazing for restoring balance as well as hugs and giggles with my son, and mediation and yoga. Find what works for you and stick with it.
On the happy side – there is nothing more wonderful than seeing your film take shape and look like a real movie. After months of editing, you get used to seeing (and hearing) your film in this half-baked form. The first time you hear it on a sound stage for the final sound mix, it’s like seeing it for the first time. It’s an entirely different experience. Good sound and music changes EVERYTHING. The same can be said for the color grading – suddenly, finally, after years of work your film is born.
The truth is making a film is a long, hard path. There’s no easy part – and post is certainly no exception. Just remember though, it will come to and end, your film will get finished – and then you get to move on to the next one.
A new hope, a new dream.