Long read about a short film
PART 5 — We’ll fix it in post
APRIL 18TH, 2016 — POST 105
The story so far…
Having reached 100 posts, I’m going to try something different for my daily pieces. Instead of one idea per day, I’m going to spend a week diving into a single idea. This week will look at the short film I made in 2014 that saw a limited festival run in North America in the latter half of 2015. This isn’t a story about sweeping success, nor one of crushing failure. It is a story merely about something that happened. My intention is to write the story I wish I could have read before embarking on the process.
On the morning of March 19th, Lilly, Alexis, Bridget, Alex, and I got breakfast in Newtown after spending all night shooting at the coin laundry in Enmore. Through babbled innanities drawn out from sleep deprivation over bacon and eggs, we talked about what it meant to be done with production. For Alex and I we knew there was still a lot to do: if you recall from Part 4, there was not one bit of usable sound captured during production. Additionally, the machines at the coin laundry all had little digital displays showing the amount of money needed to run them, a small detail that was most certainly not period-friendly. I left Newtown in a cab with half of our hired gear and took it back to Paddington, spending $100 for a diffusion frame we had somehow lost. Getting to bed at around 10AM, the only thing more salient in my mind than sleep was how exactly I’d go about cutting Corner And The Cutman.
Given our issues with sound, we decided against uniting any on-set sound with the rushes. As such, I began to assemble a cut completely silent, reading lips and checking against my memory to keep track of dialogue. I started to see that, at least where some of the more central story beats were concerned, I didn’t have enough coverage, or rather wished I had better coverage. Try to smash out an edit before heading into ADR the following week, I rued some of my decisions during production. The biggest takeaway for me was not to move the moment I’m satisfied with a take. Let myself be satisfied, then do one or two more. The good take isn’t going anywhere if you do more. Simultaneous with cutting, I also had to catalogue every shot to be able to communicate accurately with Alex. As I was building the assembly, Alex was building a ProTools session to line up the delivery of lines in ADR with the footage, implementing an audible “count” of pips before each line. Then it was time to get the actors back in.
Neither Alex nor I had done ADR before. We both knew intellectually what it entailed but I don’t think we were prepared to be open to being flexible to how each actor would perform. After all, ADR is an extremely unnatural process with the intention of recreating natural results. Fortunately, we were lucky enough to be able to utilise one of the studios at Alex’s uni, one the desk and recording room are isolated. Alex had wheeled in an old CRT TV into the recording room for each actor to be able to watch themselves on-screen as they delivered. With headphones on, mics and cables snaking around them, watching silent footage roll back and forth, an actor is expected to say a line that has an indistiguisable visual profile from the one they delivered on set. It might not need to sound the same, but it’ll be obvious if it doesn’t look the same. Now, a lot of movies use ADR a lot less precisely than we did: sometimes it’s glaringly obvious when a line has been changed or when lips aren’t matching up in an over-the-shoulder. Generally, though, they’ll have a tonne of on-set sound to pull from. Alex was adament in rendering the most believeable ADR captures because our movie was to be entirely made up of ADR. Right down to chopping and stretching takes to match with beyond-frame-perfect accuracy (audio software suites run at 48 000 Hz, not 25fps) in searching for those perfect takes. With some roomy treatment with reverbs, I’m execptionally proud of the result. But dialogue was not even half the story.
After breaking from ADR, the length of post-production increased dramatically. Both Alex and I were in our final years of uni, me a thesis to write and Alex a series of major production and technical work to do. I was still left to fix the image (colour grade and rotoscope out those digital displays) as well as compose, record, and produce the score. Alex had to build out the sonic image of the film from nothing.
Rotoscoping was something I had never done which made the process excrutiatingly protracted. Entirely self-taught in the technical aspects, I felt I was smashing my head against the brick wall that was After Effects. To give some idea to those who might know more than me, I didn’t discover you could “fix” rotoscope in After Effects until after I had already spent months rendering out as much as my computer’s RAM would hold at any one time (from memory around 20 or so frames). Right up until finishing the film, I was still tweaking with the roto and know for sure there is one frame in the final product where the mask over a digital display jumps, exposing the display. It’s at that point that you say “Fuck it, no one will see” and move on with your life, promising to never require such an annoying but time-consuming process to be done again.
Alex went into foley, the process of capturing diegetic sounds like footsteps and clothes rustling, with a friend of his, claiming a small meeting room at his mum’s offices to make a mess. And he did make a mess. The one session I sat in on involved Alex punching, slapping, and sinking a wooden mallet into a leg of ham, a full watermelon, or raw chicken wings amongst other things. With a lot of punches from the boxing scenes to cover, Alex wanted a lot of options to choose from. One of the critical sonic beats the script called for was of the washing machines, specifically the sound of a washing machine struggling to spin. Without revealing Alex’s secrets, the solution involved a 1970s home sewing machine and a technique of micing that had both of us completely zoned in to extended 7 or 8 minute takes. I know truly believe there is not a single repeated mechanical sound (from a destist’s drill to a helicopter) that can’t begin life as a sewing machine.
After colour grading, the score was my final stamp on the movie. Critically, the climactic scene had been written to my ideas for the music at that point and these ideas had been stewing for almost a year since I came up with them. I had had a melody for years I’d wanted to hear come out of a trumpet. Despite this, years ago I played it out of my guitar regularly in one of my band’s song. In writing this final scene, this melody came back to me and I was committed to hearing it out of a horn finally. With percussion, guitars, bass, piano, trombone, and horn contributions worked out through shitty electronic demos in Logic Pro, I set up a day in which I could take my studio-in-a-bag around to each players house to record them. This rig, one I’d honed over the years playing in a band, consisted of my laptop, an 8-channel interface, two mic stands, two mic leads, and dynamic and condensor mics. I recorded my guitar bits with the bassist from my old band to a click track a few days before then spent a day jumping on and off trains, spending an hour or so at each player’s house, then heading back to begin putting it together. Despite some reservations I have about my execution of the movie as a whole, the score, and specifically this song, was executed completely as intended. My only regret is that I didn’t do more of it elsewhere in the film.
Alex and I spent the month of February 2015 racing to lock this movie off for festival submissions. With Sydney Film Festival’s deadline on February 27th, we were able to lock Corner And The Cutman at close to midnight on the 26th and set it to upload overnight. This began the equally — lengthy process of submissions.
But that’s for tomorrow.