Finishing Projects is Hard
by Bill Simmon
Finishing a film/video project takes more time than you think. I always try and warn my students about this. Once you’re done editing and the piece looks more or less the way you want it to, there’s still a ton of work to do before you can release it to the world — sound mixing, color correction, final little touches, drop shadows on titles, fade-ins and fade-outs — all the little fiddly bits and fine tuning to get it ready for prime time, not to mention getting your export settings right for delivery, etc.
This lesson is particularly on my mind now as I complete the final touches on a documentary I’ve been working on for literally ten years. Before I can explain why, I should talk about how sometimes beginning projects is hard too.
High Water Mark: The Rise & Fall of The Pants is a film about a rock band that nobody has ever heard of and that doesn’t exist anymore. Back in 2006 I heard that this band that I had loved in the 1990s Burlington, Vermont music scene was going to put on a reunion show at Higher Ground, the biggest music venue in the area. I immediately knew I wanted to shoot the concert on video. Once I had a green light for that, I thought, wouldn’t it be a great idea to make a documentary about the band?
Here’s little tip if you’re a filmmaker or an aspiring filmmaker: don’t make a film about your friend’s band. Just don’t do it. No matter how much you love the band and no matter how interesting you personaly think their story is, expressing your love for them in a way that will translate to other people who aren’t already fans is incredibly difficult.
I believe this lesson so strongly that I actually make it a rule in my intro film classes. When a short documentary assignment comes up, I refuse to let my students make films about their friend’s band (or about pot legalization… for different reasons).
I wish someone had sat me down in 2006 and told me how difficult the process would be.
For one thing, making any film is time consuming, but making a feature length documentary is ridiculous (hence the ten years it took me to do it in my spare time).
It was additionally difficult because I was telling a story that happened in the past — I couldn’t follow the band around on tour or go backstage at shows or into the recording studio with them. They were done. All I had to work with was the reunion show footage, a series of interviews, and a whole bunch of archival materials (old shows on video and audio, old photos and posters and flyers, etc.). Telling a compelling story through talking-head interviews is really hard. The filmmaking axiom is “show, don’t tell.” It’s hard to “show” a story when all the material you have to work with is in the past.
But mostly it was difficult because I was never sure what the film wanted to be. Was it a love letter to a band I loved in the 90s? Was it a universal story about bands that struggle to “make it” in the shifting markets of the music biz? Was it a film about “the best band you’ve never heard,” that tried to expose new people to the music that I loved? Without a clear answer to those questions, it was hard to get past the outline stage in the writing process.
Ultimately, the film began to come together when I stopped worrying so much about planning and just started editing — something that goes against all my best advice, but I needed something to jump start the process or I would never make any headway.
The actual editing came fairly quickly once I trained myself to stop second guessing and to just make the film about this band that I would want to see as a fan.
I had a cut that was very close to the finished product before Christmas of last year. The premiere is in late March at Higher Ground (in the same room the 2006 reunion show was in) and there is still a lot to do as I type this in late February.
Here’s where all that finishing stuff comes in. Different filmmakers have different processes for this, but I generally have to watch the film over and over and address little issues that I notice. It’s a painstaking process because this film is an hour long so watching it ten times means spending ten hours minimum, and I need to watch it way more than ten times to iron out all the little details. Basically, I watch the film and if I notice something, I either fix it or make a note about it to address later. Sometimes I don’t notice a particular issue until my 5th or 6th time through — I react once something bugs me enough that I know it will bug me every time I see the film for the rest of my life if I don’t address it. This audio fade is too slow, that photo animation is too fast, this shot lingers a frame or two too long, etc. The devil is in the details.
I’ve been doing this for two months now. I currently have a list going of items I need to address and it will be a full day of editing at least to fix them.
Then there is the sound mix and the color pass and dealing with final screening formats, etc.
Even when you think you’re done, you’re far from done. So make sure you build in plenty of time for finishing touches, even on a short piece. The details matter.