Back in April 2011, I wrote a piece for DN detailing the journey that I undertook with my debut feature (as writer/director), Life Just Is, as we went From Paper Cut to Fine Cut. What follows is an attempt to sketch out what happened next…
In the run up to the last piece, my editor Murat Kebir and I had been working on a new version of the film, focusing on each ‘day’ within the film (the film takes place over seven days), rather than dealing with the film as a whole. Once we’d finished this process, we reassembled the film and watched it through, along with our producer Tom Stuart, for the first time in its new version. Murat loved it and Tom was very happy. At that stage I felt too close to the material to be objective, but I had some concerns about a couple of sequences. While editing this version, Murat had restructured the film very slightly, deleting a scene and moving another one from earlier in the film into its place. For me this change meant that the story arc of two of the characters no longer made sense, but for Murat they were now much clearer, so I agreed to sit with the change for a while longer (though we did eventually change it back – it’s probably not a coincidence that the words ‘director’ and ‘dictator’ share so many letters…).
Now that we were back to working on the film as a whole, we were able to see that the approach Murat had taken to the material was working well. I spent some time going through the new version in depth, making detailed notes on a scene-by-scene basis. It was generally fairly minor stuff, though I felt we had two especially problematic areas that still needed to be fixed. With hindsight, one of these problems was down to me still being too stuck to the abstract ideas I had concocted while doing the paper edit for the film (see my Life Just Is: Taking the Plunge article for more info on the paper edit). When Murat was finally able to pull me out of those ideas, we began to find something within the material itself which worked. The other problematic area was a classic case of something working well on the page, but not on the screen; it was only by taking a step back from the script and ‘rewriting’ the sequence in the edit that we were able to solve it.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. While still going through the film and making notes, I had a meeting with our sound recordist and audio-postproduction designer/mixer, Jason Creasey. I wanted to make sure that our editing choices weren’t going to cause any unnecessary problems during the sound mix. Luckily, there was nothing too worrying. However, had Jason told me that, for instance, a certain shot would have required ADR, I would have seriously considered using an alternative take.
It was also around this time that I met up with our music supervisor, James McWilliam, to discuss the music in the film. I’d decided fairly early on that I didn’t want a score in the film and that all the music would be diegetic – so we needed to find bands who were willing to let us feature their tracks. I’d worked hard even during the initial cuts of the film to choose appropriate temp tracks (some of which worked so well that they made it into the film), but there was still a lot of work to be done and Jim needed time to get it right (and get the rights). From this point on, Jim would send me tracks to listen to and if I liked them I would try them in the film. There were one or two scenes which were especially tricky to find songs for, but generally it was a relatively smooth process. Securing the rights proved a little more difficult. There was one song that fitted perfectly. When we approached the rights holders they said yes. But when we sent them the contractual agreement they went silent on us. Much to our frustration, we were eventually forced to choose another song. Luckily, Jim was able to find something which worked equally well.
Meanwhile, Murat and I were continuing to work through our notes on the latest version. We arranged to do a test screening, and that gave us a clear deadline of when the next edit needed to be finished by. As well as working on the picture cut, I started working on the track-laying, going through every piece of off-screen dialogue in the film and making sure that we were using the best possible take (from a performance point of view – I decided I’d let Jason worry about the technical side of things later on…). It wasn’t an easy task, partly because the version of Final Cut Pro I was using would literally crash and throw me out of the program every five minutes, but also because the new takes would have to fit within a predetermined length of time; sometimes great takes simply wouldn’t work because their timing didn’t fit with the visuals – though there was one actor in particular who managed to be almost identical with his timing in every take, even if the emotional punch was wildly different.
In the run up to the test screening, we decided to show the film to a few members of the crew. It was almost like a test screening for the test screening, and it gave us some feedback which enabled us to tweak the film further before the test screening proper occurred (if I remember correctly, our 1st A.D. Alice Caronna saw the film at this screening, and suggested an idea which lead to the ‘rewriting’ of the aforementioned problem area). The actual test screening was a small, private event. We hired a room at the London Film Academy, and invited along a select group of contacts. At the end of the screening, we handed out questionnaires.
The response was, to be honest, mixed – but overall it certainly leaned towards positive, and it gave us a good indication of the areas that we needed to work on further. It raised one or two questions, such as whether the pace of the film was right, which led to a lot of soul searching about what the film was and, more to the point, what we wanted it to be. Off the back of this feedback, Murat and I started experimenting with different pacing and approaches to some of the scenes. More often than not, though, these experiments were a total failure – but both Murat and I appreciated the opportunity to explore the material in this way. It made us firmer in our convictions, and it meant that, when the time came for us to lock the edit, we really did feel like we had tried everything that we wanted to try (obviously we could have continued for longer – forever! – if we hadn’t decided enough was enough, but it meant that we were able to step away from the edit without having a niggling feeling that we ‘really should have just tried this…’).
Once the edit was locked, we near-enough simultaneously got the film ready for the sound mix and the grade. The transfer to Jason’s system was totally smooth – Murat simply exported an OMF file from FCP, and gave it to Jason along with a Quicktime copy of the film. Getting the film into the grading suit, however, proved slightly trickier.
At the behest of our grader and co-producer, Pat Wintersgill, Murat exported the film as an uncompressed tiff sequence. When Pat loaded it onto his system, though, he immediately noticed that we were experiencing a problem with our black levels, which were being crushed. We attempted to get around it by conforming the original H.264 rushes, but this wasn’t possible due to some timecode issues. In the end Murat and Pat put their heads together and came up with a solution involving a slight offset of the black levels upon export from FCP. Once this was sorted, the grading ended up being a relatively smooth process, slightly hampered only by having to fit around Pat’s full-time work schedule, and the fact that our cinematographer, Yosuke Kato, was now living back in Japan.
After an initial conversation where Pat and I went through the film together scene-by-scene, Pat then worked on his own to complete the first pass of the grade. This version of the film was subsequently compressed and emailed over to Yosuke for feedback. I then met with Pat to discuss Yosuke’s comments, along with my own thoughts. After a couple more passes were done in this way, we played the film on a big screen in one of the grading suites at Technicolor, where Pat was then working. It was well worth doing, as we did pick up on several things which we hadn’t noticed when grading on the (admittedly sizable) HD screens in the smaller suites. We therefore did a few further grading sessions, during which I no doubt drove Pat crazy with my endless scrutiny and obsessional tweaking.
Meanwhile, Jason was starting to make headway with the first pass of the sound mix, though the process had become a little more drawn out than we had hoped, due to Jason’s other commitments. Much like with the grade, the first pass was done alone (by Jason), based on a long conversation he’d had with me in which we went through the film scene-by-scene. In a way, a lot of the work done during this first pass was technical. For instance, in scenes that had been covered with both a boom and radio mics, Jason went through and chose the better recording for any given moment. He spent a long time working on this first pass and editing the dialogue. He sent it to me bit by bit, and I would send him initial feedback (which he often acted on instantly), while also compiling a much longer list to discuss with him once he was finished. I went through Jason’s work with a lot of care and detail, always listening to it on at least three different systems. By the time he was finished, I had a very long list of notes! As long as my list was, though, Jason and I were able to plough through it relatively quickly (at this stage, I began working much more closely with Jason, attending the sound sessions and discussing the film with him as he worked, much like I had done with Murat during the edit). Pretty much every point on my list was creative: Jason’s technical work was already superb (though that’s not to say his creative work wasn’t superb too!). In the edit Murat and I had based most of our decisions around one simple question: how can we best render the inner lives of the characters on screen? I wanted to carry this approach over to the sound design, and it was this that Jason and I really fine-tuned during the second pass.
As with the edit and the grade, we decided to play the film out in a theatre environment before locking the sound mix. I was able to secure a screening room at UAL through my work at Student Film Festival London, and Tom, Jason, Murat, Jim and I watched through the film on the big screen, focusing intensely on the sound design. From there, Jason and I went on to do some final tweaks before signing off the sound mix.
I have to say, by this time I had seen the film so many times – into triple figures? – that I was starting to struggle to keep up my concentration when going through the film. It becomes hard to separate yourself from the material and have any kind of objective viewpoint on the film. But somehow I muddled through.
During the grading and sound mix, Murat was still hard at work on the film, even though his role as editor had long since been completed. Legend that he is, Murat had offered to help us with our VFX work. (VFX work? In a character piece? Most of it is invisible; things like painting out the reflection of a certain idiotic director in the living room window.) Murat is something of a VFX whizz, and did a fantastic job for us. I should, however, also give a shout out to Ross Birkbeck and Pat, who did great work on some additional VFX for us.
With the sound, edit and VFXs complete, all that remained was for Pat to reassemble the film – thankfully a rather painless process. Meanwhile, Tom and I set about organising our cast and crew screening at BAFTA – which ended up being surprisingly painful! Sending the invites and managing the RSVP lists turned into something of a mammoth task, but the night itself went off without a hitch, and the response to the film was phenomenal (you can read what some critics thought here).
So, with the film complete we are now, finally, at the stage of submitting the film to festivals and approaching distributors. Hopefully this won’t be the last you’ll hear of us. (Fingers crossed).