Many indies find the filmmaking momentum they had churning during production grinds to a halt during post-production and leaves everyone asking, “Why is post-production taking so LONG?” Take a deep breath if you’re months into this feeling and still don’t have a movie despite your best efforts to track and meet editing deadlines.
There are a number of pitfalls to avoid, but sometimes on the low-budget level in particular, the film has a way of dictating its own timeline. The technology gods wield their almighty power and won’t let the film online properly, crashes a drive or two, or Rick-rolls your soundtrack the night before the mix. Often, the post-production costs and task lists are underestimated and that can lead to a longer calendar than expected. If you’re new to working with editors, that is also a collaboration that requires practice and technique, perhaps you’ve had to work with several editors due to scheduling conflicts or misunderstood expectations on their time. Any one of those things can push your post-production schedule. Many low-budget independents don’t benefit from the wisdom and experience of a Post-Production Supervisor; they simply don’t have the budget to add that position. Producers and Directors manage the schedule and may or may not have a full picture of what they will ultimately be asking the editor to deliver at the time of the hire.
Scope creep is a huge player in post-production. One of the ways you can set yourself up for success meeting delivery deadlines is to be clear about what you will be delivering. Sounds obvious, but due to lack of transparency in the distribution process, many filmmakers don’t have easy access to a list of exactly what they’ll need to output (and how many different variations) at each phase of completion. All of these deliveries take time and you will undoubtedly turn to your editor to output these things for you, but so often this phase is not part of their contract. Perhaps you include delivery to sound and color, and then the contract with the editor ends. Please consider getting a sample spec delivery list from a distributor and working backwards. If you know any filmmakers who have delivered a film, they’ll have this and can share a non-confidential version as a sample of deliverables.
Think about each life the film will have: festivals, cast-crew or community screenings, SVOD, VOD, theatrical, DVD or Blu-Ray delivery, archiving. Ask yourself for each of the items listed if you will be asking your editor to help complete them. You will be tempted to tell yourself this delivery can’t be THAT hard and in lamenting the budget for paying someone to do these things, many indie producers enter denial that post-post production exists, OR decide they can take on these tasks themselves. If you will turn to your editor when these needs arise, including these deliverables specifically in the editor’s contract will give them the opportunity to negotiate a fair rate for those tasks, which, in turn, allows them to expect them on their calendar months after they’ve completed their editing work. Planning means you might not lose three weeks for that delivery because they’re no longer doing you an urgent (and resentment filled) favor – they’ve signed up for that. Exporting and building these files, quality checking, and organizing them takes a lot more time than you might realize or assume.
Other items it is frankly unfair to assume your editor will do without negotiation and last-minute: a trailer, your end-crawl and titles, clips for marketing, clips for your crowd-funding, reels or fellowships for lab applications, festival filmmaker introduction videos, a different output for festivals. Some of these items will be due before sound is complete and your picture editor is not your sound editor. All sound editing, even minor smoothing out of dialogue, takes time and expertise that your editor may or may not have. You are careful to define scope in so many other roles, please also be respectful of your editor’s time, particularly if you are paying a flat rate instead of hourly. Ask your editor to also think carefully about their availability and make sure you are all on the same page about delivery at each phase. It’s fair to ask your editor about their experience with delivery. Be honest with yourself and them if you are ultimately asking them to carry some of the load of post-production supervising. Discuss ahead of time what you’ll do if technology fails and try to build some wiggle room into the schedule for that, so one drive going down doesn’t mean you lose your editor to another project. The goal of this collaboration, like all film partnerships, is to set everyone up to do their best work with clear communication.
Be mindful also that injest and syncing also takes a good deal of time (weeks) and a good editor also spends time taking in the footage and making their own notes before they begin assembly. If you have a visual style you’re developing together or special effects, those need time to percolate. Perhaps you get an amazing idea for a sequence that requires pick-ups. No one is denying that is essential to the finished movie but be understanding that squeezing in pick-ups and the injest, syncing, and editing of those shots might not align with your original schedule.
By allowing for those things out of your control to be as much a part of post-production as they are of production, you’ll gain more reasonable expectations for your post-production and delivery calendar. Educate your crew about the full scope of what delivery means for a film. Enjoy the process by understanding the process and build better editing relationships.