My new short film Aquatory reached the finish line this week. The final render began in the evening of October 15, with a release date of October 23. This has been a long time coming, and I’ve certainly kept the idea of “finish early, finish poorly” in mind.
As I watch my workstation chug along at 1 frame per second, I can’t help but think about a good piece of advice I once heard. I’ll adapt the phrase for my own purposes: a late movie is only late once, but a bad movie is bad forever. Unless you’re George Lucas, once you ship your film, it generally rests as-is, forever.
Before I get into it, and before I get angry emails, I am well-aware of project deadline realities. I know the accordion effect that happens when somebody drops the ball and misses a deadline. These sorts of internal project failures can cost hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars. I’m talking about passion projects in this article. Or projects that otherwise have little at stake if the film does not play well.
Take the time to ship it right
Let’s pretend you have a film you’re making. You’ve spent six months or so sharpening the script (you used Downpour Production’s script coverage, of course) The shoot goes off without a hitch. Everybody’s thrilled. Then, the question comes. The question that will plague you for the rest of post-production.
“When do you think it’ll be finished?”
Actors want their reel material (you did offer this to them, right?) and the crew want to see the fruits of their labor. Most of these people you probably convinced, bribed, and swindled into helping you make your project. Maybe you plan on working with these people again. Your reputation of delivering could be at stake.
Guess what? Those are all fantastic reasons to take your sweet time. If you finish early, you finish poorly. To finish early is to give up.
Fix it in post – the ultimate guide to finishing poorly
Anybody who’s tried their hands at making a movie has heard the dreaded phrase “we’ll just fix it in post”. This often leads to bad things down the movie making pipeline. Amateur filmmakers often use the “fix it in post” mantra to rush production for one reason or another. But what happens if you use the same logic in post-production itself?
Imagine an actor receives a copy of your “completed” project, but you rushed the edit and the story’s illogical. Or that sweet visual effects shot that was the crux of the film? Poorly done to get the movie out the door. Disappointed, the actor likely won’t help promote your work, and they’ll probably feel like they wasted their time. How did we get here?
Finish early, finish poorly. That’s what happened. You said “we’ll fix it later”, but unlike on the set, now there is no “later”.
Conversely, delaying the project rarely disappoints. In fact, if you play it right, it can serve the project by building anticipation. Think of how “disappointed” everybody is that Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, the new James Bond No Time To Die, and Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch are delayed. Those complaints will only last until the films come out.
Looping back to Aquatory, my film had a lengthy development process. I’ll take a deeper look at the process in detail later, but the takeaway is this: the film spent a year in post production. There was a picture-lock edit (to include visual effects) a couple months after the shoot wrapped. But the VFX were not complete. It didn’t live up to my intention or the potential I knew was there. The audio wasn’t right either. So instead of shipping an unfinished product, I chose to refine it. Life got in the way, other projects came and went, and here we are just over a year later.
But the film’s finished. And it’s shipping, the way I want. It takes a proud place in my portfolio. Only late once.
A word of caution – just finish
Just like with all aspects of project management, you can go overboard. Early in the Star Wars “Special Edition” iterations, George Lucas brought the idea up that films are never finished. They’re abandoned. That’s the simplest explanation of why he re-cut the films, he says.
37 years later and we’re still editing the damn films.
In the case of Aquatory, there were ideas I had to cut. Time, budget, or the story itself didn’t agree with these ideas. Some I could have forced back into the film via VFX or clever editing. I did not.
Here’s my own filmmaking philosophy: the hardest choices when you make on a movie production are to start it and to finish it. To do the process correctly, you learn that the film you picture in your head is probably radically different from the film you hit “export” on. Choosing to finish and ship your film is ok.
But that doesn’t mean finish early.