Tuesday, November 7, 2017

How I Made a Microbudget Feature Film, Part 5: Post-Production

The purpose of this series is to share my experience of making my microbudget feature film, Wait, while being as transparent as possible. This series is specific to my experience only. Please do not take these posts as universal How-Tos. Also know, this series is intended to shed light on the process of making a film, not on the quality of the film itself. 

You made it. You wrote the thing, you planned the thing, and you shot the thing. Now you have to creep back into the madness of your mind and put the thing together. Now you have to make your film come to life.

Alone Again
Editing is my favorite part of the filmmaking process. But it’s also the most maddening. It’s when you get to explore subtle manipulation and craft the film you set out to make. But editing adds to the emotional confusion of making a film. I wrote and edited Wait on the same computer, entirely by myself. During pre-production and production, I had to bring other people on – producers, actors, boom operators, etc. We formed a family for a few weeks. We laughed together, cried together – we created together. When filming was done, it was weird to be alone again. It was weird to watch all of the actors and crew members quickly move on to other gigs. I would see them around town, and they’d be talking about their next thing. But I was still on our thing. 
Murielle Zuker in Wait
Accept this, get used to it. I said in my first part in this series that you have to really love the story you’re telling, because it will stay with you longer than it stays with anyone else. People move on, and you need to be prepared for that. You won’t stay friends with everyone who worked on your movie. But if you’re lucky, you will create meaningful working relationships while shooting, and that will allow you to work together in the future.

Edit Yourself or Hire Someone
I have edited everything I’ve ever shot. To hand it off to someone would deprive me of something I love. Being my own editor informs the way I shoot. On set, when I know we have it, I know. I don’t need to do an extra take to be safe; I simply know that I will be using that take in editing.

That is one of the significant benefits of editing yourself: it makes for a more streamlined shoot. Other pros include saving money by not having to pay someone else, being solely responsible for the assembly of your film (for better or worse), and learning how to shape a movie. I crave learning about anything film related, and editing allows you to tap into a seemingly limitless bag of tricks. That excites me, but I understand that it isn’t for everyone.

Editing takes time. It is extremely tedious. If your patience naturally runs thin, you might consider hiring someone else to cut your film. One of the major benefits of hiring an editor is that they can be cutting your film while you’re shooting it. For example, when Martin Scorsese is shooting a movie, he sends every day’s footage to his editor, the great Thelma Schoonmaker, and she assembles that footage into a cohesive scene. That way, when Scorsese finishes filming, it only takes a few days for Schoonmaker to deliver a rough cut of the movie. Rough cuts are, simply put, an assembly of all the footage based on the script. Schoonmaker chooses her favorite takes (incorporating notes Scorsese has given her), and she puts everything together. Rough cuts have no music, completed sound, or color correction, but they provide a blueprint to work with.
The great Thelma Schoonmaker. She cuts Martin Scorsese's movies while the director is still filming.
Having someone cut your film while you’re shooting would save you months of editing. That’s huge. But I prefer to be hands-on with editing throughout the entire editing process. And look, Thelma Schoonmaker is one of the most revered film editors of all time (she has three Best Editing Oscars, for Raging Bull, The Aviator, and The Departed), so obviously Scorsese and Schoonmaker are a very high-bar example here. But, at this point, it is simply my process to edit everything myself. 

And then there’s Steven Soderbergh, who is a filmmaking beast. His workflow is as follows: Soderbergh shoots everything himself, he even holds the camera. When a filming day is complete, he goes home and edits that day’s scene himself, and then uploads it to a server that people involved with the production have access to. When filming is complete, he essentially has a rough cut done. That is an insane and envious work ethic that very few people have. I prefer to wait until the entire shoot is done before I begin editing, but if you can manage Soderbergh’s method, then Godspeed.

Take Your Time
Again, editing takes time. The key is allowing yourself time to edit. This is a microbudget film; there won’t be producers breathing down your neck for a rough cut of the movie. Take your time, work at your pace. When I wrapped filming Wait, I knew I needed a day job as soon as possible to live. The majority of my days immediately following production were spent applying and interviewing for jobs. We wrapped filming in mid-January 2014 and I had a well-paying job by the end of February. With money coming in, I could relax a little and fully dive into editing Wait.

The last time I had edited something was in the summer of 2012 when I cut together my short film, Earrings. While editing that short, I had a demanding day job as a magazine editor. I worked more than 40 hours every week, and by the time I got home, I was exhausted. Yet I forced myself to edit Earrings quickly. I would get home around 6:30 p.m., eat something, and be editing by 7:30 p.m. I’d edit until 2 a.m., sleep for four hours, then get up for work. On weekends, I would edit the moment I got home on Friday, through midnight Sunday, catching an hour or two of sleep when I could.
A still from Earrings. I started editing it in May 2012, and released the film on July 28, much to the detriment of my health.
I did this for two and a half months, and paid for it dearly. I deprived myself of so much sleep that it took me several months to normalize my circadian rhythm. I was so damn eager to share Earrings with the world that I seriously damaged my body. I do, however, stand by the editing of that film. Had I taken an extra four months to edit Earrings, it would look the same as it does now. But I certainly wish I would’ve given myself more room to breathe while piecing together that film. 

All told, I spent about nine months editing Wait. I started basic edits in January 2014, had a rough cut ready by October, and began submitting it to festivals at the end of November. I allowed myself the space to breathe. Wait is a complicated assembly, the film spans seven years and is told out of chronological order. I was hell-bent on having the puzzle make sense; I never allowed for narrative leniency or plot holes. Nine months is a long time to edit a microbudget feature, but I stand by the assembly of the film, and I’m glad I didn’t damage my health in the process.

Like writing and directing, everyone has their style of editing, and it’s important to find a workflow process that works for you. For Wait, mine went as follows: While I was applying for jobs, I spent all free time watching raw footage from the movie. I took notes about which takes I liked, which moments I preferred, and I relied heavily on those notes a month later when I started to assemble the movie. Assembly is putting all of the footage in the order you prefer, typically as it’s written in the script. You edit one scene at a time, then place those scenes together. 

Some scenes are easy to edit; others haunt you. The final five minutes of Wait, for example, took me one day to put together. That’s it. When I was done, I watched it and knew I had what I wanted. The most difficult sequence to edit in Wait was a sports bar scene involving four speaking parts, eight camera set ups, and a long tracking shot that eventually introduces of another character. This thing took me months to get right. I had so many different versions of that goddamn scene that I ended up throwing them all out and starting from scratch, four months after I had started working on it. That helped. If you get stuck on a scene, move on and let it breathe. When you’re ready, come back and rewatch all of the raw footage. Begin again.

Sound Mixing
By July 2014, I had an assembly of Wait that I was happy with. Sound mixing came next. On a recommendation, I found a sound mixer named John Thomas who would work within my budget. John and I agreed on a flat fee of $1,000 for his work on the film, which is very cheap by industry standards. John is talented and in-demand, and $1,000 to mix a feature film was not a lot of money to him. Because of this, he agreed to spend five days total working on the film, and he could only work on it at night when he had finished mixing higher-paying gigs. Unfortunately, those five days were not in a row, and it took about three weeks for John to complete his work. 
John Thomas sound mixing the sports bar scene in Wait
I sat with John for every second of the mixing process, which he told me was cool, but unusual. I wanted to learn everything I could about sound. So I sat in the back of the studio, watching closely and taking notes, and only chiming in when John asked me a question. John had limitless insight into how sound informs character. My favorite mix in the film is when Micah Parker’s character, Christian, stumbles drunkenly down a hotel hallway. John layered in 27 different audio tracks to enhance Christian’s drunken state. Twenty-eight was too many, and 26 wasn’t enough. It was amazing to watch John put it all together.

Color Correction
After sound, I moved quickly to color correction. I found my colorist, Anthony Harris, via this blog. An indie producer named Lukas Kendall reached out to me and asked if I’d like to interview him about his new found footage film, Lucky Bastard. (If you’re a film blogger, Lukas may have contacted you about this very topic.) While I interviewed Lukas, I told him about Wait, and mentioned I was looking for a colorist who would work within my budget. He recommended Anthony, and I contacted Anthony right away. When Anthony and I spoke on the phone, I was completely unaware of his skillset. We introduced ourselves, and he said he was interested in working on the film. I told him my budget, and he said he would email me a fee. When we hung up, I Googled Anthony and was fucking dumbfounded. His IMDb is insane. He’s worked on Spider-Man, X-Men, Life of Pi, Friday Night Lights, Moneyball, and countless more. I knew I couldn’t afford this guy.
Anthony Harris color correcting Wait
Anthony emailed me his fee, and it was way outside my price range. My response was simple: I thanked him for speaking to me and sincerely apologized for wasting his time. His fee was very reasonable for his talent, but I simply could not afford him. He emailed back asking what I could afford. I told him $2,500. He agreed, but set up a system similar to John’s: Anthony would work on the film for three nights after he had finished his duties on higher-paying gigs. Given Anthony’s talents, I knew I was getting away with a hell of a deal. I accepted, and two days later, I was sitting behind Anthony in the edit bay, watching his every move. Again, Anthony commented that it was unusual for a director to be present during color correction, but he loved my enthusiasm for the process. I watched him carefully, took notes, and only spoke when spoken to. Anthony enjoyed the film, and when our three days were up, he offered to put in one more day of work, free of charge. He cared about the movie, and that meant the world to me.

My biggest learning curve while editing Wait was figuring out the different types of footage people needed. It took me months to learn the difference between .mp4, .flv, .avi, .mov, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, H.264. Months to learn about sample rates, stems, EDL, OMF, AAF, Audition, ProTools. At first, I was too embarrassed to ask John and Anthony about this stuff, but I quickly realized I had to swallow my pride and deliver footage to their precise specifications.

If you don’t know what any of this stuff is, and don’t have the patience to learn, then hire an editor who gets it. I edited Wait in Adobe Premiere, and I spent hundreds of hours watching videos and tutorials about the various ways to output your film. And the thing is, I’m still learning. When the technology changes, you have to enhance your learning. I love learning about this stuff, but if you don’t, consider hiring someone who does.

In hindsight, I actually could’ve had John and Anthony working on the film at the same time, which is how bigger movies operate. I would’ve saved about six weeks of time, even if I hadn’t been able to be present for everything.

Showing Cuts
Similarly to letting people read your finished script, it is beneficial to show people your completed film, but it’s important to keep that number low. Also, if you are overly susceptible to opinions, seriously consider not showing your film to many people. Some people are not going to like your film. You may be related to some of them; you may be friends with some of them. This is okay. Just because you made something doesn’t mean all of your friends have to like it. We all have our personal taste, which is partly based on our own experiences. 

Since completing Wait, I have edited some short films for other directors. Some of these filmmakers are so vulnerable to the opinions of others that it is infuriating. My advice is to stick to your vision and don’t let any note break you. If you show your film to six people, and they all have the same issue with it, then, yes, examine that issue closely. But if one person says they hated the film, then fuck it. Accept it and move on. There is no one film in the history of cinema that everyone universally loves. Understand that, and maintain your creative vision. 
Catherine Warner in Wait. We had to reshoot this scene twice.
When I made my first short, Full Circle, in 2008, many people I showed the film to did not like it. This damaged me. I put the film away and pretended it didn’t exist for five years. In 2013, I recut the movie slightly and fell back in love with it. Some of the notes I received in 2008 were right; others were wrong. I didn’t have thick enough skin to see that. Pick a small, core group of people to show your finished film to, and listen to what they have to say. But please, do not let their opinions deflate your passion for your film.

Also, while you’re editing your movie, various cast and crew members will hound you for footage. Politely tell them they will receive their requested footage when the film is complete. Do not let yourself be distracted by people’s demands. They can be patient.

Reshoots/Additional Scenes
Nearly 45 percent of Wait is either footage that was reshot, or additional footage that was added after principal photography. This is where things get dark. While editing Wait, I found myself routinely unsatisfied with a few key sequences in the film, including the long dinner conversation that opens the movie. I also felt that the movie moved too slow. I grew to loathe portions of the film. This is difficult for me to admit, but I hope it’s helpful for filmmakers who eventually find themselves in a similar situation.

I had to swallow every ounce of pride I had to admit that some footage from Wait was not well done. I felt sorry for myself for a month, quit the movie twice, and finally picked myself up and reached out to the actors. Everyone understood and agreed to reshoot certain scenes. Even though many of us had lost touch, they genuinely cared about the overall film. I’m indebted to them for coming back and giving me another chance.

The most significant scene that was reshot was that opening dinner conversation. The initial scene was sloppily composed and sounded horrible. We booked the restaurant location for free, but we were too rushed while filming. I also went to great lengths (and failed) to make the scene look like it took place at night, even though we shot during the day. Shockingly, this initial scene was in the version of Wait that premiered at film festivals. I still can’t believe festivals accepted us. When the festival run was done, I humbly asked the actors to give the scene another go, and they agreed. I set the scene at one of the character’s apartments, purposefully limited the number of camera setups, and we eventually had an opening that is vastly improved from the one we had before.
A selection of scenes from Wait that were either reshot or added after principal photography had wrapped.
The other major scene that we reshot was Catherine Warner’s character, Claire, walking on the sidewalk. The first time we shot it, I set it in the wrong location. It just didn’t feel right. The second time we shot, I failed to clean the lens, and a visible amount of dust ruined the composition. The third time was the charm. We shot one take, and that take is in the movie.

My first cut of Wait was 85 minutes, which felt too long. I cut 22 minutes out quickly, which made it too short. In my first written draft of Wait, I included a standalone sequence of a man getting ready and driving to work. This character seemingly had nothing to do with the plot of the film, until he did. I knew the scene was going to be complicated and expensive to shoot, so I cut it from the script. But with my movie running 63 minutes, I knew I had to put that sequence back in. There was one man who could play this role, and that was Andrew Bongiorno, who auditioned for another character in Wait. In late May 2014, I emailed Andrew, reintroduced myself, told him about the scene, and told him I would not shoot it unless he agreed to do it. I knew he was my one and only guy. He enthusiastically agreed to shoot it, and a week later, we filmed that entire sequence in one day. That sequence stands as one of my favorite things I have ever put on film.

Reshooting scenes can be seen as a financial and emotional loss. Remember in Part 3, when I encouraged you to save half of your budget for post? This is why. Sound mixers and colorists are costly enough, but every film I have ever been involved with has had to reshoot or add new scenes after principal photography. If you don’t set money aside for this (as I didn’t), then you’re going to get screwed. I lost a shitload of money reshooting that opening dinner sequence, because all the money I spent on the initial scene went to waste, as that footage was thrown out. So what. It took me months to adopted that attitude, but genuinely – so what. If you have the resources, make the film you want to make. Do not settle, do not move on. Shoot new footage, shoot new scenes. Be kind to your actors. Explain your vision. Do not deliver your final film until you are ready for it to be delivered. Many people told me I was crazy for reshooting the opening scene to Wait. I listened to them for a while, and then I didn’t. And the film is better off for it.

Main Takeaways from Part 5: Post-Production
—Decide if you want to edit the film yourself, or hire someone else. There are pros and cons to both. Measure them and make a reasonable decision.
—Take your time while you edit. Your film will be better if you are clear-headed and give yourself room to breathe. 
—Like writing and directing, adopt an editing workflow that suits you.
—Look hard for quality sound mixers and colorists. They are out there, and they are willing to work at a reduced rate. Be honest with them, be appreciative of their work.
—Do not show your final cut to too many people. Make a valued list of stick to it.
—Swallow your pride and reshoot what needs to be reshot. Want to add a new scene? Then do so. Maintain your vision.

Primary Costs for Part 5: Post-Production
—Sound editing: $1,000 for five days
—Colorist: $2,500 for three days
—Reshoots/Additional scenes: Hard to calculate exactly, but roughly $6,500. I paid all of my actors and my crew. I also fed them and paid for transportation. 

Emotions to Expect for Part 5: Post-Production
Overwhelming joy that you finished shooting your film.
Loneliness that you’re alone again, editing by yourself.
Anger/confusion that you aren’t editing your movie sufficiently.
Delight when you edit a scene exactly how you envisioned it in your head.
Shame when you realize you have to reshoot and add scenes.
Appreciation when you finally get those new scenes right.

How I Made a Microbudget Feature Film




  1. I remember Scorsese when he did Dinner for Five with Jon Favereau where he talked about his approach to editing with Thelma and what they would do as Thelma would rarely be on set and write notes of what could be edited. It is an unusual approach but definitely seems to work though I think Soderbergh's approach based on what I saw in the special features for Che is more practical since he could do a rough edit on his laptop.

    I believe you about how maddening it could be in the editing room and wonder "maybe I should trim that" or "oh shit, I think it's better if I bring that cut scene back". I've heard so many stories about what goes on in the editing room.

    I recently heard Mark Kermode's review of Blade Runner 2047 where he did talk about the pacing of the film which he said is very different from a lot of films in Hollywood as he talked about cuts. He said back in film school, students would clap their hands at every cut that happens. It all plays into a certain rhythm. Did you do something similar in your approach to pacing and editing?

    1. Kermode's clap technique is brilliant. I've heard him talk about that before too. Wait has a pace that is more in-line with a European film than an American film. Which is to say, I tried to hold shots as long as possible where appropriate, and let things play out as much as I could. I meant to mention this in my actual post, but I watched McQueen's Shame every week while I edited Wait. That film has some of my favorite pacing of any movie. Some shots last for minutes, other sequences are cut very rapidly. And the bookend montages are as good as montages get. I learned so much from that damn movie.

      Try the clap technique with a foreign flick vs. a superhero movie. Your hands will be bruised within five minutes of a Marvel movie!

    2. Shit, compare that to a Michael Bay film. You won't have hands by 10 minutes.

  2. I've never thought much about the Colorists' job on a film. Now I'm really intrigued by that process. Post production in general is so fascinating to me. To see all those other people come together to add on to what the director and actors have already done.

    1. A colorists job on a small movie like Wait shouldn't be noticeable. That's the main lesson I learned. God, what Anthony did was just so fascinating. It was so subtle, but so evocative. Thank you so much for reading all these long posts! The rest won't be as long as this one, I promise!

  3. It's weird that I'm starting your posts with the latest one but this is the stage I am at now and I GET IT! I am editing my short film myself because a) can't afford a professional and b) the few friends I know who can edit, I don't really trust. I have only edited a few class projects before so this is so difficult and tedious. I'm trying to do colour correction myself too so lessee how that turns out.

    God, I wish I was Soderbergh...

    1. Sorry this turned out so whiny :P I've been watching colour correcting tutorials all day and am hence a bit cranky.

    2. Ohhh my friend, please know that I understand EXACTLY what you're going through. Anyone's advice can only go so far, because at the end of the day, you have to bury your head in your computer and just do the fuckin' thing. Email me if you have coloring questions. Since Wait, I have colored my music videos and shorts myself, so I have some insight, depending on what software you're using.

      But please keep pushing ahead! You have such a good eye and the world needs more movies by you!

  4. Again, blown away by how much of the post-production process I had underestimated, but the time and effort you, your mixer, and colour-corrector put into the detail really shows in the finished product. Did you mix and colour-correct Earrings yourself? I thought the sound and colour palette of that film was damn near faultless as well.

    By the way, really glad you decided to keep that sequence with Andrew in the film, it's one of my favourite scenes also.

    1. Wow, thanks so much for saying that about Earrings. I did mix and color that film, and I was nervous as hell about it because I'd never done that before. I'm so happy you liked those aspects of the movie.

      The color and mix of Wait was more complex because the film covered a much larger narrative space. Each main character had a color scheme, which I tried to reflect in the poster. Christian is haunted by green (exit signs, Jello), Claire is white (jumpy flashbacks on the beach), Dylan is red (final love scene), and Natalie is blue (room in the background during the argument). So it was great to have John and Anthony on hand to help cement that.

      And I'm thrilled you liked Andrew's segment. I can't believe there was a time when I wasn't going to shoot it!