There we were, my Producer Alex Reinhard and I, straight off the plane from California to LGA. Pulling up in front of us was the M60 bus that would take us to the fabled NY subway. Three M60’s later, we were finally able to board amidst the pushing and shoving of the more bus savvy New Yorkers we were up against. Oh, NYC, such excitement!
The first time I ever came to this city was a few years ago, when I filmed interviews in New Paltz for my first feature documentary. On that trip, I had just turned 24 and was driving a Rent-a-Wreck down a NY highway when…BAM! The hood flew straight up into the windshield. By comparison, this trip was off to a much better start. Now I was in New York with the same nearly finished documentary in time for Week 1 of the 2012 IFP Independent Documentary Lab.
After a week of workshops with 9 other amazing projects, I came out with this list of what you should avoid during Post-Production. I know, because I did them all! Don’t do what I did, do what I say.
1. Don’t edit the film yourself, you crazy clod.
Documentary is the medium that involves the most frightening ratio of material shot to material used, so if you are mad enough to do it by yourself, it can take years, and you can lose your way. For example, I waded through 40 interviews with 1960s/1970s rock climbers conducted over 30 days while living out of a 1976 VW van with my other 3 crew from LA to New York (that would be the 2nd time I made it to this city). I thought I was crazy, until of course I met our friends & labmates For Thousands of Miles – for their intriguing genre-bending doc, they spent 3 months on a van filming one man on a bicycle!
The bottom line is that, after awhile, it becomes incredibly hard to see the forest for the trees. If you feel you HAVE to edit it yourself, or if you can’t afford to do otherwise, I’d suggest what we’re doing: edit yourself, and then hand it over to a professional with fresh eyes to get you the last of the way.
2. If you must edit it yourself, don’t skip vital information in lieu of Memento-styled twists and turns.
“You’ve spent 800 hours with your subject matter. Your audience only has 90 minutes. They’ll never know the nuanced story you know,” said Cindy Lee (Editor Hot Coffee) during the editing session with the striking Bronx-set Lab doc Lucky. Cindy was speaking generally, but I took it specifically for our film. Holy heck, I thought, that’s the bottom line – take out the extraneous attempts to encompass the meaning of life, and look at only your 90-minute slot. A little simplification can go a long way.
3. Don’t forget what you learned in High School English.
Speaking of coherency, remember when you had to write an essay about “Julius Cesar” and your teacher insisted you write a thesis sentence at the end of your first paragraph? Well that can be incredibly useful in a film, too. If you start off clearly articulating a thesis, you can save yourself the painful revisions and cuts where you completely throw out segments of your story after realizing, in an editing session with Penelope Falk (Editor Joan Rivers: Piece of Work) on Day 2 of the Doc Lab, that one part of your film really has nothing to do with anything else. This isn’t to say that you can’t make a great doc that does not follow conventional structure, but if you start off with a clear thesis, you will never unintentionally go astray.
4. Don’t fall off the face of the planet while you edit.
Because believe me its going to take you longer than you think, and you can’t afford to lose all the work you’ve done connecting with your audience through social media channels. (And stop rolling your eyes when people say ‘social media’). So send out your newsletters. Remind your Kickstarter backers that you haven’t taken their donations and run off the to Cayman Islands. Update your blog. You don’t need to post about your editing process because, frankly, no one cares. In fact, it may be better not to post about your film at all! As Gary Hustwit of Helvetica said when he came to speak to the Labs, “the idea of your film is often much better than the film itself.” It’s better to find interesting stuff loosely related to your subject matter, like the national progress of East Timor if you’re spy-thriller-love-story Lab doc Alias Ruby Blade or quirky pre-Beat poetry if you’re Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton. That way your supporters will be engaged, your friends will stop asking you if you’re still working on “that film” and your mother will know you’re alive.
5. Don’t wait until the very end to get all your formal releases and/or a Lawyer.
Sounds obvious, but sometimes you can’t afford to license material until you know for sure you will be using it (like at Picture Lock, or beyond if you’re waiting to get into a Festival to get Fest rights). Frustratingly, the licensor may change his/her mind, or may up the rates you thought you were going to get. One suggestion in the Labs was to get a written agreement about the rate and/or conditions of your license beforehand as an assurance if you can’t license from the beginning. And as entertainment law specialist Roz Lichter pointed out in the Labs legal session, don’t forget about crew memos too! (Crew memos? You mean I have to have a signed agreement with my cousin that by holding the boom mic he does not own any of my movie? Yes.)
Of course, don’t even start to edit without releases for your interview subjects. People change their minds and sometimes catastrophe strikes. In my film, one of our subjects died in a tragic climbing accident a month after our interview; it was difficult enough to figure out what this meant for the film without having to worry about rights. Be straightforward about your legal matters, and save yourself complications later.
6. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
One of the Lab leaders, Susan Motamed (Producer, Enron: Smartest Guys in the Room) said something like this, “Don’t spend money on something you can’t afford just because someone else said you had to.” Especially when you’re making your first professional feature, it’s hard to tell what you really need to be competitive. The truth is that each film needs different things. Consider the post costs of eccentric Lab doc Our Nixon which is entirely archival (entirely!) featuring the first EVER transfers of 8mm reels confiscated from White House aides during Watergate. Compare the needs of their telecine to the needs of the gripping Lab doc These Birds Walk which has no archives but was exquisitely shot on multiple trips to Pakistan. Both may spend the same amount in Post, but on completely different things.
On day 2, we took a field trip to Final Frame Post, which was kind of like taking a group of Tiny Tims window-shopping for Christmas Dinner. The talented people at Final Frame showed us samples of current docs they were working on (drool) but also pointed out that some projects could succeed having a freelancer do color correction in a living room and exporting uncompressed. No two projects require the same treatments, and if you don’t need something you can’t afford to get, don’t go broke for it.
7. Don’t obsess about how the people in the film will like the movie.
Ethics of representing your subjects is a salient topic in documentary. Lab doc Where God Likes to Be had to first win over the elders on the Montana Blackfeet Reservation for their story. Focusing on something completely different than previous docs about Reservation life, 3 young Blackfeet kids deciding their future, won over the Elders and comprised the core of their film.
There are other instances however when personal relationships work against the needs of the film. In particular, you will eventually have to let go of something (or someone) for the good of the story. Just remember that at the end of the day, the people who participated in your film will be prouder to have had a small role in a great film rather than a big roll in a film that wasn’t as compelling. And, if you can’t bear to cut someone’s interesting tidbit, as Lab leader Maureen Ryan (Producer, Man on Wire) mentioned – though not a tritely as I am saying in this context — there’s always DVD bonus features!
8. Don’t forget to look around.
Between your editing cave, obsessive devotion to your film, and “film, film, film” tweets, you may start to feel isolated from the other creative people in the world. Of everything we were exposed to in the first week of the doc labs, one of the best aspects was sharing experiences with the 9 other promising films at the Lab. As IFP Senior Programmer Milton Tabbot mentioned on the first day, this year’s IFP Lab featured one of the most diverse collections of docs, and maybe this was why there was much interest and fraternity between our teams. On the networking night with the general membership of IFP, the doc teams could be found excitedly swapping stories over beers one room over from the networking fray. From braving Border Town outlaws in Purgatorio or poetically preserving the ritualized traditions of the remote Haida in Survival Prayer, each of us had taken a long, bold journey with our films. You could put together the most comprehensive “What-Not-To-Do” list from us, and somehow we had still made the films we’d set out to make. So don’t forget to look up from your laptop once in a while to see what other people like you are doing, because it can be greatly rewarding. And when you find them, consider buying the first round.