Songbird: Lessons from Post
It's May! And with Songbird's Irish premiere at the end of the month (at Fastnet Film Festival in Schull), the film's festival run is very much underway. This stage of a film's 'life' always brings mixed feelings for me, although I am looking forward to seeing how audiences react to Songbird - particularly after all the positive reviews from our Indiegogo & Livetree backers.
But I didn't want to move into this next phase without officially closing off the last one: post-production. I learn something new from every stage of the films I work on, and I always want to pass on that knowledge if I can. When Night Owls was in post, I shared some of the lessons I'd learnt - specifically, how much a sound mix can effect an actor's performance - so I thought it'd be wrong if I didn't do the same for Songbird.
So, without further ado, here are my key takeaways from the post-production of my most ambitious film to date:
1) Don't expect the world from your first cut (it's essentially glorified rushes!)
I was so excited to start the Songbird edit. I obviously knew the material very well, and I knew that everyone had done a great job (there's always some takes to discard, for whatever reason, but on the whole I had lots of footage to work with - nearly 4 hours worth, in fact!). So I naively thought that I'd put the scenes together, as they were in the script, and there we'd have it - there would be my film, in its early form.
But once I'd assembled the first cut, something felt wrong. Things didn't quite gel. It wasn't my film, and I couldn't figure out what the problem was; I obviously believed in the script and, like I said, the cast and crew did great work. I figured it must be something I was doing, and I doubted my skills. Worse, I didn't want to show the edit to people for fear of disappointment and/or ridicule.
Of course, this was the stage where I needed to let people in, and I soon came to my senses. The truth is that, even when certain things work in the script and during the filming days, it's only when you put something onto a timeline that you realise its true value. This is the stage where you should reach out to your crew - people who have an vested interest in the film, are excited to see it, and won't judge its raw appearance too harshly.
All it took was a second (third and fourth) set of eyes, and then I could see which shots were unbalancing a scene, or when I needed to look for a different take of a line. The second cut of Songbird was much easier, and I see that as the 'crew's cut' of the film - the version we all wanted to see. A slightly tweaked version of that edit is what made it onto the DVD as the 'extended cut'.
|[Editing Songbird in Adobe Premiere. This was taken shortly after picture lock, Spring 2017.]|
2) There's no such thing as perfect - and you can't please everybody!
Although it's good to get feedback on the edit, this can be a bit of a double-edged sword. After the crew had their say, I sent the film out to external people (all from the film industry) for their feedback, so that I could hear some unbiased, objective new ideas. Word of warning: this stage will make you question everything, because everyone has their own opinion, and so one set of feedback would contradict another, and that would contradict another set, and so on and so forth. You also run the risk of receiving feedback from people who don't know or like the genre of your film, which can result in extra harsh criticism (on the plus side, this can make your skin much thicker!).
We had a couple of months of contradictory feedback coming in and out of the office, then we decided to draw a line under things, and lock the edit in place. Some of the feedback was really useful, and opened us up to new ideas (the result is the festival cut which you'll see in cinemas). The best piece of advice, at this stage, is to look for areas of criticism which do match up - eg, more than one person responds badly to a scene (even if you personally love it), then that is the time to go back into the edit. Apart from that, pick and choose what you do and don't agree with - but be prepared to justify 'why' you disagree with some feedback. It needs to be for the good of the film, not down to your personal preference.
3) Post-production should be full time job - for the director!
When you're directing a film shoot, it's your responsibility to rally your crew, push them to do their best work, and make them excited about the story you're telling. It's easy to achieve this in this environment, with the excitement of being on set, and with the full team around you. Even in pre-production, you constantly endorse your film, trying to raise funds or to attach crew to the project, so it's easy to be a cheerleader.
Yet, when that film moves into post, often there is a temptation to hand the film over to the editors and sound guys with an "ok - off you go!" attitude. It's a mistake I've made myself numerous times in the past.
Here's something that needs repeating, time and time again: no one is as involved in your film as you are! And if you leave someone alone to work on your film, you really can't expect them to feel 100% inspired without your input - and a cold, boring email of notes just won't do the trick. Ok, every worker is different, and you don't want to breathe down someone's neck when they are concentrating. There's a fine line between inspiring someone and bugging them - but leaving people to their own devices may cause delays!
This project taught me that being with someone who's working in post encourages them to crack on. It sounds obvious now, but it wasn't straight away. Having the director there, to answer questions instantly, or to motivate people by giving them snacks and drinks, makes all the difference in the world. And why wouldn't you want to spend more time with your crew? They're a great set of people with specialist skills, and you can learn so much from them.
Besides, if I hadn't been present in post-production, I would've missed out on some amazing experiences. Visiting Abbey Road (for music mastering) and recording extra foley with sound designer Rob Brown were two of the most enjoyable days I spent working on Songbird!
|[Some of the fun ways the team captured audio for the Songbird sound mix]|
And my final learning point...
4) Just because the director can edit, doesn't mean they should!
I edited Songbird for two reasons: Firstly, I didn't need motivation to work on my own film, and I knew that I'd put the time in. Secondly - and this was the deciding factor - it meant there was one less person to chase up (and pay)!
I've worked with some brilliant external editors on most of my films, but I had previously edited Ashes (back in 2013, with Neil Oseman & Chris Newman on hand to help give it some spice), so I was happy to 'do it myself' this time. I'm also an editor by trade (it's my bread and butter job!) so I knew I had all the software and skills I needed to physically to the work.
And yet... I had the dedication and the tools, but I wasn't prepared for the emotional strain. Taking on the extra responsibility obviously meant twice as much work, but it also meant that I was doubly in the firing line if any harsh criticism came in - i.e. 'that scene wasn't directed well, and the editor couldn't save it either' (ok, no one said those exact words, but you get my point - you need to be doubly ready for any review that comes in, during post-production and also during the festival run!).
I had no way of shutting off. Songbird was on my mind, day in, day out, for the best part of two years - if not longer. If I wasn't liaising with the rest of the crew and the backers, I couldn't have a day off because the hard drive containing the film was in my house, plugged into my home computer, and I couldn't walk away from it. Sometimes I'd even take the drive into work with me, to use the larger edit suites, and I'd crack on late into the night when office hours were over. It was all-consuming.
Any directors reading this may think I'm exaggerating. They're probably thinking they are the best person to edit their film, and no doubt, I'm sure you could do a good job. I'm not saying I didn't. But also remember this; having an external editor means not just a second opinion, but also someone to moan with, someone to celebrate with. The day I finished Songbird, late one night in Autumn 2017, there was no one there to turn around and say "well done - that's all over". I just sat there in the dark for a few moments, taking in the 'end of an era' feeling, before I messaged producer Laura C. Cann and writer Tommy Draper to tell them the good news, from afar.
(If you're considering editing your own film, you may also want to read director Neil Oseman's blog post on the subject, from when he handed over the edit of our film Stop/Eject to the talented Miguel Ferros).
|[The Songbird trailer on the big screen at the Time, and Again premiere, August 2017. |
I saw this as a sort of 'field test' for the footage. Photo by Kelly Webster.]
Speaking to a brilliant filmmaker last year (I've unfortunately forgotten his name!), he gave me some of the best advice I've ever heard. He said that he's always happy when he makes mistakes, because he knows he'll never make the same mistake again - he feels like he's gotten it 'out of the way'. I don't think I'm quite as good at learning from mistakes (heck, I'm still not good at remembering end-boards!) but I will remember what I'm learnt from post-production on Songbird. It was certainly a challenge for everyone involved, and more evidence of how long a commitment short films can be, but the result is a beautiful little fantasy film we can all be proud of. I hope the festival viewers will love it as much as we do.
If you're lucky enough to live on the coast in South-western Ireland, you can catch Songbird at multiple venues between the 23rd and 26th May. The full festival programme is available on the Fastnet Film Festival website, where you can find more information.
p.s. Although I'll remember to work with an external editor on the next film, I'm still guilty of doing too much. On low-budget films, people do tend to double-up on roles, and many people had to juggle responsibilities on the recent Poison Ivy shoot. I went to a new extreme, even for me, and I made Ivy's costume as well as directing the film! But more on that another day. For now, if you want to support our beloved Batman fan film, the Indiegogo funding page is still live for a little bit longer!