What is Filmmaking? [Part Two]

In this part, I will cover prep, production and post.

2. Pre-production, or Prep

The stages involved under prep are not always in this order, and not all of them are necessary depending on the type of film that you are making; but here they are:

  • Storyboarding
  • Location Hunting, Images/Data/Research
  • Information and Database management
  • Communication and workflow
  • Office and Accounting
  • Permissions
  • Casting
  • Rehearsals
  • Final Preparations

This can include anything from cards on which individual shots are handwritten to complex 3D previz (Previsualisation) sequences that are animated with sound and music. The level of detail one opts for is primarily dependent on two factors: the confidence of the director, and the complexity of the production. Some directors want every shot storyboarded precisely, while others don’t decide on their shots until they reach the set. Only experience can teach what works for you.

Research and locations
This is the phase that includes finding practical solutions to the requirements of the screenplay. A good writer and director would have already screened the script for shots or scenes that are not practical to shoot, or that which are too expensive to shoot under the stipulations of the budget. In this phase, one actually goes hunting for the sets, props, costumes, images, ideas, information, etc that will bring the screenplay to life. This is one of the toughest phases of prep, in which there are always far too many or far too few options to challenge the director in coming up with solutions on how to gain maximum leverage of the choices he/she has. It is also the most exciting part of prep, and your days will be packed with meetings.

Information and Database management
All the data that comes in from various departments have to be sorted, assimilated, screened and studied; and this responsibility usually falls upon the assistant directors, who, if wisely chosen, will care enough about the project to flag any issues, creative or otherwise, immediately, before they happen. Think: Librarian.

Communication and workflow
Filmmaking is a collaborative effort, and man-management is probably one of the cornerstones of this endeavor. If you’re not good with people, this isn’t the business for you. As a producer, you will have to network with all sorts of individuals, and as a director, you will need to work with actors and crew. Since usually a filmmaker is both, there is no escaping this. Organization and logistics are tough fields to master, and a young filmmaker usually does not have enough experience or skills in this area. Unfortunately, people skills cannot be taught immediately to someone who is also out to make a film. It takes years of practice to change yourself, and will alter the course of your life. As a starting place, I can recommend Dale Carnegie’s exceptional book: How to win friends and influence people.

Office and Accounting
Paperwork from production sources, legal documents, bills and accounting books, release forms, contracts, permissions, copyrights, marketing materials, photographs, videos, etc have to be organized and labelled for future use. To this purpose, most production companies have secretaries, accountants and office staff to take care of these ‘back office’ jobs. On larger productions, this staff is linked to the production department, which studies spending, analyzes call sheets, etc, on a daily basis, so that the crew is always one step ahead of any potential issues that might crop up in due course. On low-budget productions, the filmmaker will either need to be a supreme organizer, or find a secretary or friend who will fulfill this role diligently and professionally. The documents and paperwork that are generated over the course of production are all critical to having the film distributed and protected legally. If you disregard the importance of this aspect of production, your project will mostly likely end up a train wreck.

Auditions and Casting
During all the mayhem that prep entails, the filmmaker is confronted with the terrifying task of deciding on the actors that will essay the roles which until now have only existed on paper. Sometimes, a filmmaker will already know which actors are going to be cast in which roles, and might even have written the characters to tailor to real individuals. But what if your actor backs out, or has an accident, or worse, dies? These things happen more commonly than you think, and a filmmaker who shirks this responsibility is showing disrespect to the art of filmmaking, for it is okay to have a badly shot film, but it is almost unacceptable to have a movie with bad or miscast actors across the board. Some filmmakers interview hundreds or thousands of actors to find that perfect fit. There is no formula, and the best advice I can give is to follow your intuition. When you have found the right actor, your heart will tell you loudly and clearly. There will be no doubt.

A lot of movies don’t have rehearsals. Sometimes it’s because the actors are so ‘big’ that they don’t think rehearsals will do them any good. Sometimes the director feels it’s not a good idea to lose spontaneity in the actors. Whatever side you’re on, know why you’re on it, and pay the price either way.

Final Preparations
Final preparation for me is the aspect when everything is in place and the first day of production is only a few days ahead. Is there anything left to do? Of course there is, the most important of them being: You have to recharge your own batteries. Now that you have pressed the ignition button and geared up, it’s time to focus on the road ahead, and ‘forget’ all the technicalities of driving. Don’t be so exhausted that there is no room for feelings. Make sure your immediate crew – the line producer, the first and second ADs, the DP, etc also have a good break before filming begins. Most decisions you have made as a filmmaker cannot be undone at this point, so focus on how best to utilize what you have in hand to get the job done. From now on, your physical ability is secondary, and what will be tested is your mental strength.

3. Production

I won’t go into details on production, as most people know what it is, at least theoretically. There is no substitute for experience, and no amount of reading or film school will prepare yourself for the real world, where mistakes are not easily forgiven, and there is always a price to pay for one, especially if you’re the filmmaker.

Yet, as a beginner, you will make mistakes, just hope they are not fatal ones. You are like a conductor orchestrating a giant group of musicians. You cannot take a break, you cannot look dull or disinterested, you cannot look incompetent or unwise, you cannot become angry or sad, you cannot lack in confidence or appear unsure, you cannot take anything for granted, you cannot sit still and relax. Money is ticking along with the clock. Everybody is waiting for your cue. Stand and deliver.

4. Post Production

The stages involved under post production are:

  • Editing
  • Sound recording, foley and editing
  • Sound mixing
  • Visual effects, motion graphics and titles
  • Color grading
  • Finishing and authoring
  • Censor Certificate
  • Data integrity and storage

Everyone ‘knows’ what editing is, but few know how to edit well. Few have spent hours upon hours looking at takes and retakes and endless reels of film or clips of video. It is tedious to the uninspired, and difficult for the technologically handicapped. In this day and age, there are too many file formats, codecs, frame rates, bit rates, and deliverable requirements that the successful editor must know exactly how to go about this job. A filmmaker’s role is to get this data in the best possible way to the editor, who oftentimes, is the same individual. There is scant hope, then, for the filmmaker who cannot invest in learning new technologies. You can destroy all the hard work you have put in, if you don’t understand the technology. Don’t underestimate this.

Sound Recording, Foley and Editing
The greatest mistake most first time filmmakers (and even experienced ones) make, is to neglect the importance of sound. You need to record the best quality dialog with room ambiance, get realistic foley and effects, and then edit them neatly and crisply in a way that is appropriate to the sound design of the movie. Wait, did I say: Sound design? Did you painstakingly storyboard the entire feature, work endless hours with your DP and Production designer to perfect the look of your masterpiece, while your sound designer waited like a patient aunt until after you have finished shooting? By then, it’s already too late.

Sound Mixing
Mono, Stereo or Surround? Using Dolby, THX or DTS? You need to pay royalty. Did you know that? Have you recorded sound for surround, or didn’t you care? If not, now’s the time you will clutch your head in shame and wonder how stupid you have been. Trust me, I’ve been there, as have most others. If your film sounds awful, nobody will like it. But if your film looks awful, but sounds great, it will be watchable. Ever thought about that? Think now, and act, before it’s too late. Find a reliable, artistic and hard working sound designer. Next to finding great actors, this is the most important thing you could ever do on a production. Take my word for it.

Visual Effects, Motion Graphics and Titles
Do you have visual effects or motion graphics in your film? Then you need to plan early, as early as the screenplay, in fact. As a filmmaker, you need to know before you write whether or not you can deliver a convincing effect under the budget that you have. If you can’t, don’t write it. I will cover the visual effects workflow in detail in a future post.

Color Grading
If you have planned and shot well, you really don’t need to color grade your footage extensively. There might be a few shots here and there that you could correct, but grading from scratch is a sure sign that the photography is wrong. Whose fault is that, I wonder? Grading takes time, and money. Without properly calibrated equipment and a colorist who knows his craft in and out, this is a hit and miss operation where you will miss.

Finishing and Authoring
Putting audio and video together, along with all effects and titles, is finishing. You have a master copy now, which in film is an answer print, and in digital is an image sequence (DPX commonly) for film out. For video, there are endless possibilities, and each format has its own specifications, purposes and methodology. You need to know beforehand who’s going to see your movie, so that you can plan on making the movie in the right format. There’s no point spending extra money and time on 2K or 4K, or 24 frames a second, if you’re never going to screen it in theaters. The Impossible Murder was shot at 25fps because I knew right from the start that this was going to DVD, in PAL land.

Censor Certificate
It took eight visits to the CBFC office before I got my certificate, but without it you can’t exhibit your movie in any manner. As soon as you finish your movie, burn a DVD according to CBFC specifications and start the submitting process. It’ll take roughly a month for you to get the certificate. You cannot find distribution without it. For other countries, check your local laws.

Data Integrity and Storage
The backbone of the post production workflow is data management, storage and integrity. You have to plan on how your data is going to flow from editing station to vfx to graphics and back, and on how sound is going to be cut with picture, etc. It’s not easy. If you’re thinking: “I’ll just copy it on to a USB drive and shoot it off to my editor”, you’re badly mistaken. This again harks back to my earlier warning on how the filmmaker must know technology in and out to leverage the best out of it, in terms of money, time and quality.

To better understand what I’ve been saying, read Making The Impossible Murder series on this blog. In the next and final part of this post, I will explain the most frustrating or exhilarating part of the filmmaking process: Marketing and Release; and why it doesn’t stop there. Keep Reading.