Sunday, 20 May 2012

My Career So Far

These past couple of months have been pretty chaotic for me. I have been very busy with The Zombie King which we locked picture on last week, The Turing Enigma has made its way into the world via Amazon and Distrify, I started a new feature called Tamla Rose and edited a good portion of the rushes during its first 3 week shoot and I recently put the finishing touches to the first feature I edited, First Time Loser, which has at last come out of the other side of its audio post and grade. All in all I'm feeling pretty reflective about my career so far and also thinking about what the future will hold. So far I have edited 3 feature films (First Time Loser, The Turing Enigma and The Zombie King) and going into my 4th I think I have learnt alot from all of them. I try to keep away from discussion of technology on this blog as much as possible, not because I don't find it interesting, but because there are so many other blogs which talk about the software and hardware side of editing. That mostly means I'm talking about editing techniques or the philosophies behind editing but today I'd like to share my experiences in the general post-production flow of the films I have worked on so far, what I have learnt from them and how I applied that knowledge when taking on the job of Editor for my next feature, Tamla Rose.
Let me first point out that all of the films I have worked on so far have had low budgets (and should probably be classed as no budget films). Whilst there was money spent on them all (in amounts that would make a lot of indie filmmakers drool), they are all at a level where most of the cash will dissapear into things like food, accomodation, camera and light rental and the general administrative process of getting a feature film made. What this basically means is that on all the films the majority of the cast and crew's payment was either partially or competely deferred. Working for free or a fraction of what you should be getting paid is a difficult game when you still have to pay rent/bills, but its really the only way you are going to get a foot on the ladder in a business as competitive as this one. Its a raw deal, but whining about it gets you nowhere. So if your interested, I'll describe my first 3 films in detail after the jump...

First Time Loser

After editing several shorts and music videos whilst still doing my practical post-production diploma I turned my attention to grading to get some expereince with more advanced workflows and basically get better footage on my reel before I returned to editing. First Time Loser was my first time back in the editors chair after that short break. I got the job through the producer, Hannah Quinn, who had also produced a short I had edited about a year previously. It was a music based feature, so my experience with music videos gave me a good edge in getting the job. I had little to no involvement in pre or production and just let them get on with it. They shot the majority of the film over a few weeks on a Panasonic HVX200 with a lens adapter and Nikon lenses. I received the drive full of footage in about August 2010 and was pretty much left to my own devices to work through the film. One of the most difficult things about this film was that they had not used a slate at the beginning of every shot. The sound was being fed straight from the sound recordist to the camera so the slate was not necessary for syncing, but I still find it very useful to have every shot labelled with a unique slate number, take number and the scene which it is from, to help me organise the footage in Avid (or your NLE of choice). I was my own assistant editor, so labelling all the clips and organising them was my responsibility and this took quite a while. Because I was working on the film in my spare time, between a full time job and my course and because I only had access to Avid at college, it was towards the end of the year that I completed a first cut of the film. I then started meeting with the director. Fairly soon, we decided that we would need to shoot more. He came up with some additional scenes which would help the flow of the story and we wanted extra establishing shots of the various locations in order to help the audience jump from one scene to the next, especially as the film cuts back and forth between Ireland and Liverpool. The shooting went on throughout the first few months of 2011. In the meantime, I was also working with the director refining scenes and rearranging them quite a bit. This was my first experience of this process. When editing shorts, you have all the camera angles to work with and must decide on the best order of presenting them to the audience, but there are usually not many scenes so they stay in the order scripted. With FTL there were around 150 indivudual scenes with lots of jumping around in time and space. Assembling the scenes into the whole movie, is very much like assembling the individual shots into a scene, you can reorder them to best present the story to the audience. It's one of the most difficult tasks of editing a feature and one which initially made me very nervous. As I have done this more and more it has become more natural to me and something I really enjoy. In April of 2011 I was offered the job of editing another feature, The Turing Enigma. FTL was almost complete bar the insertion of some final establishing shots and some archive footage to help sell the 1960s setting, but The Turing Enigma was too interesting to turn down and the director of FTL was fairly understanding about me taking a short break to get through the initial stages of the film. However, as production on The Turing Enigma finished, the director of FTL came under pressure from investors to get the film finished and decided to pull in another editor to make the finishing touches. I handed over the drives and expected the film to be finished within a few weeks. Six months later I recieved word that the film had still not been finished and the director asked if I would come on back on to get it done. The Turing Enigma had been signed off and delivered a couple of months earlier so I agreed to take it back on so that it would see the light of day. After 6 or 7 sessions with the director we finished the film and a I passed the film on to a colourist, compositor and sound editor to do there part on the film, towards the end of 2011. The grade and compositing was finsihed fairly quickly and the final sound mix of the film was delivered last week. After one day adding titles and marrying the sound with the graded picture, the film is complete and ready to hopefully be sold at Cannes next month. All in all this film spent 20 months in post production, some of which was down to me learning how to edit a feature, some of which was not. But at least the film finally made it through post, which is often a massive hurdle for low/no budget films.

The Turing Eingma

This being my second feature I went into it with a much better picture of what I had ahead of me. I was brought onto the project after a reccomendation from a good friend of mine Enos Desjardins who I had worked with before and was handling sound recording and audio post on this film. The producer/director had the foresight to bring me on board about a month before production started. Whilst we didnt do an extensive ammount of work together before the shoot, this allowed me to do a couple of things which made my job easier and quicker and ultimately improved the film. Firstly I got chance to get some footage from the DOP to test my post workflow. This is an absolute must if your taking on a tapeless project with a camera you have never worked with before. In this instance, the camera was the Red One loaded with the newest firmware at the time which had just enabled the camera to shoot 4.5k resolution. I won't go into my workflow here as I have talked about it in other posts, but getting to test it out was invaluable. Secondly, I got the chance to sit down with the director and plan how each scene would cut into the next. This sounds like a simple thing, but editing FTL had taught me that the joins between the scenes were one of the most difficult things to get right. Just a few hours making sure we knew what the first and last shot of every scene would be so that we could visualise how they would cut together, made a huge difference to the overall flow of the film. We then moved into production. One of the key differences on this film was that I was able to be on set every day of production (which was a very short 11 days). I bought a 17" MacbookPro just before production started and also hired an assistant editor who also had a MacbookPro. Between the two of us we managed to keep up with production, backing up, transcoding, syncing and editing the footage as it was shot. We were generally about a day behind production, having rough cuts a day after they were shot. With such a short shooting schudule this was very useful. On more than one occasion, I spotted additional shots that would help a scene work better and we were able to pick those up because we still had access to the locations and actors. The other benefit was that a day after production finished, I had completed a rough cut of the entire film (something which even I find hard to believe). It would have been tempting to take a break because we were so far ahead, but instead I worked a couple of sessions a week with the director and after a couple of months we had a locked edit of the film. Because the film was only 72 minutes long we did very little restructuring and the final edit was actually fairly similar to my original rough cut. The film then went to audio post for a couple of months and I graded it myself. We had a premiere of the film for cast/crew and families/friends at the Cornerhouse in Manchester and the film is now available to rent or buy on VOD and on DVD through Amazon and Distrify.  

The Zombie King

Not long after finishing up on The Turing Enigma I was approached by two producers from a brand new company, Northern Girl Productions. They had written a low budget zombie comedy and managed to secure two known American actors, Edward Furlong and Corey Feldman, to play key roles in the film. They were eager to secure an editor quickly so they could nail down their funding from Templeheart Films and I had been recommended by a couple of people. A strong script and the actors that were attached made it an easy decision. After funding was in place the shoot was arranged for december and I went about trying to get in touch with the director who was attached at the time. Unfortunatley it was very difficult to get in the same room as him and I found this pretty frustrating. With only a couple of weeks before the shoot, the director was replaced with Aidan Belizaire, a local director that I had met a couple of times and was actually pretty keen to work with. Obviously his plate was pretty full, with very little pre-production time for his first feature film, but we met up and discussed the style of the film and editing and this put me at ease. The shoot came shortly afterwards, which was 3 weeks long and happened in Somerset. Because of my teaching schedule I was only availabe to be there for the first week, but being there allowed me to set up a workflow for the DIT/Assistant Editor, Iain Thomson and to rough cut some of the most important scenes being shot towards the beggining of the shoot. When the shoot was over, I recieved the drive and set to work. Whilst the footage had been synced from the first week whilst I was there, there was still 2 weeks worth of footage to sync so that was my first task. Towards the end of this process I met with the producers and the rest of the post team to discuss deadlines for the edit which would give enough time for audio post, music and grade. I then got on with doing my first cut of the film. I had already done scenes here and there but this film featured a lot of fairly complex scenes with many flashbacks and a much bigger cast than I was used to. It was also my first comedy feature, but thankly I had some experience with comedy from a short I shot and edited whilst studying. Thrown into the middle of all this I was also asked to edit a trailer for the film that they could use in their quest for a sales agent. Because of the importance of the trailer, it took a few weeks work to get something that everyone was happy with, and this of course stopped me from getting on with the task at hand, editing the actual film. A big sales agent came on board as a result of the trailer, so it was worth it, but then the soft deadlines that we had talked about in that early meeting became rock solid deadlines very quickly so that they could start the process of selling the film to distribution. Myself and the director had to put a lot of hours in to refine my early cut (which I managed to finish just after the trailer) in time for the deadline. The film is now in audio post, the visual effects are near completion and it will then be off for the grade, ready for release in autumn.

So, as you can see, each film I have done has been a learning curve, and this is one of the things I actually love about features. Every one is different. Going into each film I have been a little more prepared for the road ahead. You will always meet obstacles that you have never encountered before, but experience lets you overcome them quicker and more calmly. When I signed on to edit my 4th feature I was determined that it would be the smoothest road yet so I applied much of what I had learned from the very beggining. One of the first tasks you have is to agree a fee for your services. I think everyone knows how hard this is. It's something a lot of students ask me about and probably the only thing I am uncomfortable advising them on. There are just so many factors that go into deciding how much to charge for a job that it becomes an impossible equation. So I'm not going to give figures here, but what I will tell you is that I took a different approach to negotiating a fee for this film and I was happy with how it worked out. Initially I was offered a flat fee for "Editing" the film. The problem with agreeing to something like this is that there is no definition given for what that means. Am I Editor, Assistant Editor, Colourist, Compositor, Post Production supervisor etc all rolled into one, or just the Editor? Am I cutting just the film or will you need trailers too? What are the deadlines, will they move? The list goes on. So what I decided to do was to draw up a menu with 3 different rates on it. It stipulated exactly what I would provide for the money and when it would be delivered with each increase in rate offering more services and a faster turn around. I based the services offered on what I had observed from previous films in terms of what a low budget feature needs to get it completed. The turnarounds I based around how much work I would have to do on the side if I was getting the 3 different rate. This, I thought, would make it as clear as possible later down the line what I was being paid to do. A suprising bonus was that even though the lowest rate on the menu was more than the flat fee I had been offered, production actually agreed to the highest rate on the menu after seeing how it would benefit them. The other major thing I did was do extensive script analysis. I have the benefit of having a brain that can soak up quite alot of text and store it for a long time. This means that reading a script through a few times allows me to remember most of it and looking at a bit of footage I can  remember which part of the story it comes from. Unfortunately this allows me to be a little lazy because I can get away without disecting the script too much, instead relying on finding the core of scene as I edit it because I can remember its context. However, disecting each scene in terms of its core narrative point, the motives of each character going into it and the point of view that you want the audience to take is essential to good editing and I wanted to do more of this time round before I got down to cutting. I also created an empotional map of the film so I could quickly see how each scene performed structurally. All in all I'm exited about how this film, and the 5th which I am in talks about now, will turn out. As I move into bigger productions I will get more money, but it is important I traslate this into better results and see it is a chance to hire assistants, buy better equipment and ultimatley spend more time on the film, rather than a chance to buy nicer things. For my age, I really shouldnt expect to be doing better than I am right now in a such a competitive career choice, but that isn't going to stop me.

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