Part 1: From Pre-Production to Test Screening
From Short Films to Low Budget Features to Big Budget Features, the process is the same. The difference just comes down to more time and more people. The bigger the budget, the longer you can afford to really fine tune each part of the process. The more people you can hire to work on the film. Instead of using sound effects libraries, you can hire Foley Artists to foley your entire film. Instead of using digital instruments (as amazing as they may sound nowadays), you can hire live instruments — maybe even an entire orchestra! But again, the process is the same. You still need to cut the film, color the film, sound design the film, score the film, possibly add some VFX to the film, and finally deliver the film. Be it in 10 weeks or 10 months.
Let’s take a look at the Indie Post Production process that I’ve seen over and over again on films ranging from $150K to $2M.
The Indie Post Production Schedule
In a nutshell the schedule breaks down as follows:
- Editor’s Assembly: 1-2 weeks after Principal Photography
- 1st Director’s Cut: 3-4 weeks
- First Preview Screening (optional): 1 Day
- 2nd Director’s Cut: 2-3 weeks
- Second Preview Screening: 1 Day
- Reshoots/Additional Photography: 2-3 weeks
- Reshoots/Additional Photography Cut: 1 week
- Fine Cut: 1 week
- Turnover to Color/Sound/Music: 1-3 Days
- Color: 2-3 weeks
- VFX: 1-??* weeks
- Music Score: 6-8 weeks
- Music Rights: 6-8 weeks
- Sound Edit: 3-5 weeks
- Sound Mix: 1-2 weeks
- Main & End Titles: 1-??* weeks
- Delivery: 2-3 days
*VFX and Main/End Titles will be completely dependent on how complex they are
Pre-Production & Principal Photography
To set up the most efficient process, Post Production has to start in Pre-Production. Before you even shoot a single frame, the first thing you need to do is get your Editor, DP and DIT in a room together to discuss the media workflow. Make sure everyone understands what format you’re shooting on, and what the workflow will be when it comes to getting the footage from the camera to the editor. This means figuring out what cameras you’re shooting on, what format you’ll shoot in, what software you’ll be cutting on, and what files you’ll be using. If you’re the Producer or Director, you don’t necessarily need to know the answers to these, as long as your camera and editorial department know! Figuring this out before you shoot can possibly save you a lot of headaches, time and money.
Then the actual editorial process should start on Day 2 of Principal Photography. The footage from Day 1 should be delivered on a shuttle drive to the Assistant Editor, so that he/she can start synching & transcoding the footage. The AE will prep the footage and the project so that the editor can start the assembly. Sometimes, when you can’t afford to have an AE, the editor will act as both the editor and AE. If this is the case, just factor into your post schedule that the editor can only go so fast. Every day shuttle drives go back and forth between Set and the Editorial Facilities. Each day the AE preps the footage from the day before, and in the meanwhile, the editor starts chipping away at the assembly.
This process gives you some big benefits:
- The editor can tell you while you’re still in production if he/she encounters any issues or if you’re missing any shots. If you’re still shooting at the location, you might be able to get the shot your editor needs!
- If, as the filmmaker, you’re not sure if something is working, you’re editor can send you bits of the sequences, which will be much more informative than looking at dailies.
- By following this process, you’ll have an assembly just a week or 2 after you complete principal photography!
The Editorial Phase
The Assembly/Editor’s Cut: principal photography + 1-2 weeks
If you’re editorial department has been working while you shoot, then you should have your first assembly about 1-2 weeks after you complete principal photography. The assembly has to stick to the script, and the editor should be the only one working on the assembly (hence “Editor’s Cut). In other words, the director or producer should not be involved with the assembly. The benefits are that:
- The director (and producer) gets a much needed time off from the film, and comes back with (somewhat) fresh eyes after a week or two.
- The editor will cut the assembly with a different perspective, and without any influence from the set. This more “objective” cut, tends to form a much better base for the director to come in and work off of.
1st Director’s Cut: 3-4 weeks
After the Editor’s Cut, the director gets to come in. You’ll give 3-4 weeks for this process, and now the script goes out the window and the film starts to take a new shape. It’s probably best that the producers stay away from the process of the director’s cut, so that when it’s ready to view, they can watch it with fresh eyes. Producer notes will be much more valuable after the director has had the chance to implement all of his/her notes. When the first director’s cut is complete, set a date to watch it altogether, and everyone should make notes. Put it up on a secure link, and watch it again over the weekend. Thoughtful notes here are very important to get into the next phase.
Preview Screening (optional)
If you have the option of hosting a small preview screening, this might be beneficial here. It might also not be. It really depends on the state of the cut, and how many ideas the editor and director still have. If everyone on the team has a very good idea of what still needs to be done, then don’t waste your resources on a preview screening. Only set up a small preview screening if you’re not quite sure what’s working and what’s not. Believe me, after the first 30 minutes of a preview screening, you’ll know exactly what needs fixing!
2nd Director’s Cut: 2-3 weeks
After taking in everyone’s notes, whether it’s from the creative team, or you’ve hosted a small test screening, it’s time for the director and editor to get back to it! You’ll address all notes as best as possible and complete the best possible version of the film. After the 2nd Director’s Cut, you’ve probably exhausted all ideas, so now is the prime time for a Test Screening.
If you can only do one test screening, then THIS is the time to do it — after you’ve done everything you can think of. You should decide before you host a test screening whether or not you have any money left to do reshoots. Don’t decide what you want to reshoot yet, just decide if you can afford it. If so, great! The test screening will tell you what to reshoot. You will print out a questionnaire and ask everyone to fill those out at the end of the screening. Additionally, try to hold back 9-12 people to hold a focus group. The central question around this focus group should be “If you could change one thing, what would that be?” In other words, you’re trying to find out “what’s not working?”
If possible, the person moderating the test screening should be a third party that isn’t involved with the film. That will give you more truthful (and therefor more valuable) answers. The filmmakers should sit in the back, and are NOT ALLOWED to speak OR answer questions. Otherwise, it will naturally lead to the filmmakers defending their choices, your audience will stop giving you valuable criticism, and you will have wasted a test screening.
Another thing to consider: don’t think so much about what they seem to have a problem with. Instead try to decipher why they have a problem with it. Often times, the problem is not necessarily what they point out, but something deeper underneath. Based on the answers of your questionnaire and your focus group, the filmmakers should get together to decide what reshoots or additional photography would best address the biggest issues your audience is having.