And with the quickness it was over.

Our screening day approaches. This Saturday.

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Put down that book and get dressed, we have a premiere to go to!

This means that last week we had to finish the movie. We had to color correct, add the credits, place music under the credits, create a DCP (which is how the movie projector reads the film and puts it on the screen) and send the hard drive off to Washington D.C.

And of course, there were complications. Point 360, where we were doing color correction and the DCP, would proof the audio files from Stand Sound, our audio facility, and lines of dialogue would be missing, or there would be original temp music playing simultaneously with the permanent music, or other oddities would occur. I had to zip back into Hollywood and do some audio correcting, then back to Burbank for more proofing. Again, I was fortunate to live so close to Point 360. The producer calls, and I’m there in five minutes.

Finally, everything was straightened out, a DCP was made, and we went back into our edit room one final time.

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Our edit room. Since this facility lives and breathes movies and TV, the decor is refreshingly rock and roll. Lots of rock art on the walls, and every edit suite is a different iconic album.

It was a small group: me, Beau, Senda the D.P., and Justin Kelley, our intrepid Unit Production Manager, who hasn’t seen one frame of this movie but it’s always good to get fresh eyes in the room.  And for 90 minutes we sat and watched the complete movie for the first time.

There are still some mistakes; we noticed a misspelled name, there is the wrong music during the closing credit roll, and a few other tiny gaffes that no one will likely notice, but I noticed. For the premiere, what we just watched is what will be screened (there is no time to make changes now).

We walked out of the room, blinking in the midday Valley sun. Well, I realized I forgot my sunglasses so I walked back in and alone, looked around the edit room.

This was it.

Even though there might be further tweaking, this is basically the last time in the room on Closure. It really hit me; I put in nearly five years of work, with the bulk of it happening in the last twelve months. Three weeks of shooting, and then nearly ten months of editing. And once I walk out of the room, this chapter is over.

I soaked it in and briefly considered stealing all the snacks on the table, grabbing the bottled waters, the comfy rolling chair, holding on to ANYTHING to keep it going. (I have hoarded food before; Catia and I are still using the large bottle of hot sauce that was on the craft service table back in April). But it’s time. Time to walk out of the room. Time for the next phase.

So tomorrow Catia and I get on a plane (with our three-year-old “assistant”) and cross the country to attend our festival premiere. Hopefully we can make changes in the coming weeks, but for now it’s time to soak in the festival experience and have a good time. It’s time to show our baby off to the world.

 

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Heading Towards A Finish Line

It’s Tuesday. Our movie screens in 11 days. There is so much to do.

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Photo courtesy Katie Rosin

It has been a lot of fun receiving congratulation texts, calls and emails. And I’m getting excited for friends, family, and even some cast and crew to see our movie on the big screen. But we still have one slight hurdle to jump:

We have to finish the movie.

I know what you’re thinking. “Why would you submit your film to a film festival if it’s not finished?”

It’s a common practice. Film festivals are used to looking at unfinished cuts and can anticipate what the final product will look like, just as long as your running time is very close to final, and your music is in the same ballpark. Since September we have submitted our unfinished version, which was missing audio mix, score, color correction, VFX, and contained many temporary tracks in place of score and permanent placed tracks.

In the past few months we have finished our audio edit, approved almost all of our VFX, put together all our music, and are halfway through with color correction. But the clock is ticking. And there is no better deadline then actually having to screen the music in front of a live, ticket-buying, audience of 250 people.

This afternoon I will return to our lush Burbank post-production facility (they have snacks within reach of my greasy fat fingers! Fresh berries! And someone to get us hot or cold beverages whenever we want!) where we are in the final days of color correction.

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Another day, another edit bay.

Color correction involves going shot by shot, cleaning up the images. For example, if the streetlight in the background is too distracting, we can turn down the intensity. Or, if an actor has a zit poking out through the makeup, we can zap it. Or it can be big picture stuff like deciding how blue we want the sky, or the ocean.

It’s time consuming, but at the hands of our colorist Jake Weathers we are moving along. It helps to have our Director of Photography Senda Bonnet sitting in. She knows far more than I do about coloring (and filmmaking in general). My mantra for this process has always been “surround yourself by people who know more than you.” And that mantra has been working out for me.

But we are under the gun.

The plan is to finish color correction tomorrow, sync up the audio mix, work in the VFX, then add the credit roll and music to go under it. We on the production team have been scrutinizing our credits, double-checking all names. Getting information wrong in the credits would be embarrassing (and expensive to fix) so the time is now.

Once everything is imported we need to watch it in its entirety and make sure there are no glaring errors or admissions. Then we need to create DCP (Digital Cinema Package) which is a collection of files on a hard drive. These files, combined, make up the movie. The hard drive needs to be shipped to Washington D.C. this Friday so they have plenty of time to test screen it.

Going to be a busy week. Let’s hope we make it.

And Here We Go!

This film has been in the works for years. Don’t believe me? Well, check out this blog’s first entry… from February 2nd, 2013.

That’s right (or… write?)! I have been working on this movie, in one way or another, for five years now. So much has happened since then: the birth of my son, a number of film scripts written for hire, even two moves which includes-

STOP. There is no time to reminisce.

Because our film is about to have its World Premiere!

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Here we go!

That’s right, on February 17th all of our work comes to the next stage of development, which is BRINGING IT TO THE PEOPLE in the D.C. Independent Film Festival. And while I’d love to reminisce about everything that has happened in the past years, all the struggles and rejections and triumphs and little victories that make up this journey, I don’t have time.

Because we still have to finish this movie.

Wait, what?

Audio Post. And color correction! And VFX! And the final credit roll. And we are less than four weeks from premiere. I mean, tickets are already on sale. So what do we do?

Four weeks is long enough to get it all done (after all, we did shoot most of this movie over two weeks.

First, the final audio mix. This past Friday Beau, Katie and I watched the entire film with the sound team and attacked the few trouble spots. Now we are immersed in the world of color, and there’s so much to do still, but-

-but take a minute. Scroll back to the top of the post. Look at those laurels! Actually, don’t scroll back, I’ll put them here again so you don’t strain your scrolling finger:

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It’s important, after five years of hard work, from writing to developing to fund raising to everything else, we now have the wonderful opportunity to look at time differently…

…a milestone time:

Saturday, February 17th
7:45pm
Burke Theater
Naval Heritage Center
Washington D.C.

And here we go!

…Bring the Jazz

I had a vision. An audio vision, if you will.

As we were gearing up to shoot the movie I thought about the music that would become basically an additional character to the film. Since this movie is a detective story, and we would be paying homage to some film noir traits, I wanted to have a jazz score.

But how to do that on a limited budget? In his excellent book about ultra low budget filmmaking Rebel Without a Crew, Robert Rodriguez says the answer is simple: write your own music.

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Robert Rodriguez: a one man band.

One problem. My six years of piano and five years of saxophone in my formative years did not translate into actually being able to WRITE music. Unless I want the score to be REALLY minimalist (and out of tune), I had to think elsewhere.

Enter Zak Shelby-Szyszko. He lives and breathes jazz. He works or has worked for jazz-dominated record labels such as Resonance Records and is a consultant for the Angel City Jazz Festival. I came to him with a crazy idea: does he know any up-and-coming jazz artists who would be willing to place their original compositions in our movie for… ahem… VERY cheap? And the emphasis on original compositions. We can get an artist to donate their music for free, but if they are recording a John Coltrane song, we’d still have to negotiate with and pay the Coltrane estate. Zak watched our rough cut, said he could certainly help, and so we hired him.

Very soon I spent hours listening to dozens of recommended musicians. All VERY talented. And fairly quickly we were able to pick songs that reflected the tone of scenes. Some songs were clearly just temporary tracks, like we’re not really going to use this Miles Davis song for the climactic fight scene. But the tone was right. After a few months we had filled our rough cut with dozens of songs, about half from artists who might be willing to license their music for very cheap.

As for the rest, enter Jamie Christopherson, a talented and seasoned composer who had worked with our producer Beau before. He, Zak and I watched a cut together and discussed the music arc, including various tracks and themes for different characters. It was very easy to figure out what would be scored and what would be placed music.

Fast forward a few months. The score is finished and beautiful. Jamie recorded in his home studio, bringing in a jazz guitarist and horn section to round out some tracks. As for the placed music, we are still in negotiations with some of the artists but I am optimistic that we have our music.

We might not have a finished movie yet, but for now, the soundtrack exists on my computer. And if all goes well, it can grow up into a soundtrack album someday.

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Can’t publicly share the songs yet, but if you want to come over for a drink some evening I’d be happy to play the soundtrack for you.

Next up: color correction, visual effects, and a VERY BIG EXCITING ANNOUNCEMENT!

Bring the Noise…

Now our film is a film.

Well, it’s not finished yet. And it was shot on video, not on film, so it was never technically “a film.”

But you get the point.

What I meant is that Closure is now officially picture locked. The movie is what it is. The story is there and is not changing any more. Or is it?

We move on from our lush edit suite in Santa Monica to a post production facility in Hollywood to focus on audio. This excites me for two reasons: first, the drive to Hollywood from Burbank is MUCH easier than the 60-90 minute commute each way to Santa Monica. I mean, all I have to do now is take Olive to Barham and then sneak through the Cahuenga Pass into (EDITOR’S NOTE: no one outside of Los Angeles cares which route you take to get places. Move on).

Second, the nature of the work excites me. The movie is locked, for better or better. Now it’s time to expand the aural universe. This means adding foley, which is the reproduction of everyday sound effects. I get to ask and find answers to a lot of fun questions like these:

  • How angry can we make the seagulls in the first beach scene? (Answer: very angry by the end)
  • What sounds can we add to get across that Jack’s apartment smells and no one has been there in a week? (Answer: flies!)
  • How loud is the music coming from the car stereo? (Answer: louder than I first thought.)
  • How much of Marco’s panting (played by producer Beau’s heroic dog Buddy) should we hear? (Answer: exactly what we recorded during production, no more, no less.)
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The view from the director’s seat of the amazing comedy duo of Iskandar (Marcelo Tubert) and his dog Marco (Buddy Bubstein). (Photo: Alex Goldberg)

And of equal fun, we get to fix some of our problems. That air mattress noise during the bedroom scene? Gone. The leaf blowers from our first day of shooting? Erased. And the dialogue we can’t hear well?

Well, fixing dialogue takes an extra step. We brought in a few of the actors for ADR, a.k.a. automated dialogue replacement, a.k.a. dragging actors back in to look at themselves on the screen and try to match what they are saying. Sort of like this:

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How the magic happens. (Photo: Alex Goldberg)

Much of our dialogue was well recorded from the shoot, but we still had to bring in five actors. Each one spent roughly 15 – 30 minutes filling in dialogue holes, and helping us fill in logic holes.

Wait, what?

As I said at the top of this entry, “the movie is what it is. The story is there and is not changing any more.” Except it is. Remember those story issues we had? Now’s our chance to change dialogue to help the story.

Here’s a dirty little secret about the movies and TV: whenever you hear someone talking but don’t see their mouth move, only the back of their head, chances are you are hearing something they did not say in the moment. If you can’t see their lips move, we can make them say almost anything. Go ahead, put on your favorite show now and watch two minutes. Right? See it now? No, I didn’t just ruin your viewing experience, I enhanced it! You’re welcome.

And that’s what we did. A few moments where characters are in a scene but not on camera or facing away from us, we made up new dialogue. Cleared up some sticky plot points. Streamlined the story. AND YOU’LL NEVER KNOW WE DID IT.

Except I just told you we did it.

So now our audio track is clean, shiny, and sounding great. All that’s missing is the music.


Coming up next: the highs and lows of getting music into your film for no money.

 

Hearing Feedback

“I create art for art’s sake.”
“My opinion of my art is all that matters.”
“When I stop caring about what other people think is when I create my greatest work.”

Bullshit. Bullshit. And mostly bullshit.

I’m not speaking for everyone, only most of us. Yes, there are those out there who exist in a void where they can live and breathe their creative life, without a worry about money, commerce, and anyone else’s opinion of their creative works.

And if you want to meet these people, visiting hours are between 3pm – 6pm on Saturdays.

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The entire process of making a movie involves the feedback of others. While the script and story began in my brain and my brain only, it has been greatly improved by collaborators. Smart actors round out their characters and motivations. An experienced producer has an eye on making sure the story makes sense. But all that collaboration is theoretical until we actually see it on the big screen.

Since I am relatively inexperienced at making feature films, it is important to surround myself with people who have more experience (read: know what they are doing). And it worked. My game was elevated because of the wisdom of others.

A friend once gave me some amazing advice regarding receiving and processing feedback: when one person gives you a note, it is only their opinion. However, once three different people independently give you the same particular note, then it is time to seriously consider what is being said.

Now that we are editing, it is especially important to bring people in throughout the process who have more experience. Our editor Jeff frequently sought the advice of two mentor editors who would give him notes. When we had a rough cut we’d invite in members of our production team to watch and give notes. Then after taking in their notes, we would bring in people unfamiliar with the story to watch and give notes.

From the feedback sessions we received a lot of notes, most of which were either immediately addressed, incorporated, or ignored. However, some big concerns were raised. These concerns were brought up by multiple people. In some cases, almost everyone:

  • The first act of the movie (the first 25 minutes) is too long. And way too slow.
  • One of the supporting characters’ motivation is completely unclear until it’s too late.

The first note was easier to address: cut, cut, cut. Lines of dialogue and even entire beats were cut. Beginnings and ends to scenes were removed. Even individual frames were snipped from moments. Some of my favorite jokes: gone. We scrutinized everything and managed to shave over seven minutes from the first 25.

The second note was a little tougher. How do we reveal more information about a character, specifically how do we tip off to the audience that this character might be playing for the bad guys? And how do we do this now that the movie is shot? We can’t go back to a location and do re-shoots. Even if we could magically get our locations back and convince actors to come in for free, the cost of crew and equipment would push us well past what little money we have left.

But thanks to editing tricks (what our editor calls “fakery in the bakery”) there are subtle steps we can take: we can reframe a shot to focus on a detail that otherwise might have been overlooked. We can blow up a shot to capture an emotion better that the original framing. Add a music theme that repeats, which subtly reminds the audience. Add sound effects. Hopefully using these tricks and others we are able to fix the problem.

Notes, adjust, notes, adjust, notes, adjust. After a few months of this we were ready for our next level of feedback: producers.

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We sent our movie out to those who make movies. People with experience doing exactly what we are doing. I won’t name names, but roughly a dozen people agreed to watch our film, and we got their thoughts. Most of it was positive; we were on the right track. Surprisingly, some of it was contradictory (one person thought we didn’t see enough of one character, another person thought we saw too much of the same character). Much of the feedback was constructive. We were on the right track.

Was all this feedback seeking worth it? After all, we didn’t get the feedback we really wanted. The comment that EVERY artist craves. Feedback like this:

“It’s perfect. Don’t change a thing.”

Does that unicorn of feedback exist? If not, we didn’t find it. But we did find a place, months into editing, when the three of us (producer, editor, director) looked at each other and said “this is it. This is our movie.”

So now our movie is picture locked. That means that while we still have sound to enhance, colors to correct, effects to create, the basic edit of the movie is done. Roughly 90 minutes of entertainment.

Is it perfect? No.

But it’s a movie now. And we are getting closer to showing it to you.

Editing Away

Compared to the grueling shooting schedule, life in post-production is pretty genteel. At least, for our movie. I set the hours. We sit in a darkened, climate-controlled room. There are snacks and a stocked fridge. We go out to lunch or bring in take out. J.J. Abrams’ production company is one block away. Also, I have my own parking place!

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When you know you’ve made it in Hollywood…

But it is work. I knew it would be a difficult process. First difficult part: the commute. In my five years in Los Angeles I’ve been fortunate that I’ve worked out of my home or in offices conveniently located near my home, with occasional meetings in far away places. We even shot most of Closure less than five miles from our home. I’ve watched Catia trudge all over town for auditions and sympathized, but never really experienced it. The edit room in Santa Monica is 15 miles from my home, and it takes 45 to 90 minutes to get there, depending on time of day. And in Los Angeles, there is no good time to hit the road. Maybe if I went to work at 11am and came home after 8pm the traffic gods would be kinder, but keeping up that schedule is difficult when, you know, you have to pick a kid up from day care at 5pm.

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If I leave the edit room after 3pm and before 7:30pm, this is what it’s like. Every week day.

 

Why Santa Monica? The editor (who was working well below rate) lives there. The edit facility (which gave us a deal also well below rate) is there. And when you are making an extremely low budget movie on limited resources, you sit in traffic. Totally worth it.

Once I get past the 405 and into the facility, then we can focus on the work. It is immediately apparent where we succeeded and failed. Fortunately, successes are many:

  • Excellent continuity. Our five principal actors (Catia Ojeda, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, John Sloan, Milena Govich and Tom Choi) are all TV veterans with experience as series regulars. This means that continuity has been worked into their blood. And I’m not just talking about making sure the drink level is the same. Continuity involves turning the head the same way every time, folding arms the same, walking and stopping at the same place. The continuity is important so we can use different takes, depending on which line delivery we like more. And with these five, they are VERY reliable.
  • It looks gorgeous. Our D.P. Senda Bonnet and her team certainly did a lot with very little, but it looks magnificent. And Chantal Massuh-Fox and the rest of the art department dressed things wonderfully with extremely limited time and budget. Many times after watching footage, I would say that “it looks like a real movie.” Because it is.
  • Everyone involved got the script. What I mean by that is that this movie is slightly surreal. Characters aren’t 100% true to life, and the actors understood this, as did our Costume Designer Jennifer May Nickel, who’s take on costumes was as slightly askew as the characters wearing them. Everyone is working from the same playbook. Which means as director, I guess I did my job!

But it’s not all roses and Oscar nominations. We shot the movie so quickly there was little time to breathe, let alone reflect on how we were doing. But now, sitting in the cold and dark room, staring at a large screen, all the flaws are sobering. And MAGNIFIED. There is no escape from the mistakes, and each time we watch there are more. Regrets? I’ve had PLENTY: some casting choices, some directing choices, many missed opportunities for better lines, better plot twists, better everything.

So I spend my days on a roller coaster of emotion, bounding between elation for what was going right and the lows of anxiety, debating internally whether I was more of a hack as a screenwriter or as a director.

Jeff, our zen editor, kept an even keel. He liked what he saw, and much of what he didn’t he said could be fixed with “fakery in the bakery.” So after over a month of faking, restructuring, hiding flaws and magnifying gems, we had my official directors cut, which ran an hour and 42 minutes (including a four minute blank spot for closing credits, which are usually included in the run time). Time to show it to some trusted members of the team.

And we did. And that’s when we REALLY went to work.


Coming up next: Surviving multiple feedback sessions.