by Aeolan Kelly
There are a lot of things I wish I’d known before I started working in film and TV. By far however, as a film & TV editor, the best piece of advice I’ve ever received about how to work successfully on industry projects was to always start with the end in mind. In other words, know where you want to be when the project is over, and plan your way backwards from there.
Sidebar: This advice is closely followed by “don’t burn bridges” because the industry is smaller than you think,” and for filmmakers and actors, “build your physical evidence.” I would also add, “read your emails out loud before you send them.” That last one is something I always do when I have lots of details I must communicate to other people on the crew or post team.
Post is filled with many moving parts. Even if you plan a project down to the smallest detail, it can still go sideways in an instant due to something unforeseen and/or out of your control. Planning backwards from where you eventually want to end up helps you strategize, stay on schedule, and avoid going over-budget.
The advice about working with the end in mind came from a wildly successful producer-financier. In the many years since then, it has become words to live by. In general, the advice could apply in many different industry scenarios, like how you network, which skills you learn, which jobs you pursue, etc. In the specific world of post-production (henceforth, “post,”) though, this strategy affects everything, especially in my day job as an editor.
It has saved me when I’ve been Lead Editor on a TV special or series and had a team of editors to manage in addition to my own work. It has also saved me when I was fried from working 18-hour days, and having a hard time thinking straight, but still expected to deliver pro results. It helps me when I am tired during the day and can’t work out what to focus on first.
And it works on both long-form and short-form projects, even if the amount of working backwards you do is writing a few notes on a post-it. Sometimes I use a post-it, sometimes I make a spreadsheet—it all depends on the size and scope of the project.
Countless factors affect post. These can include, but are not limited to, the source(s) of the project’s funding, the amount of time in which post must be completed, the tech being used, where post is being done, actor/crew schedule conflicts, reshoots, rerecording sessions, the process for giving and receiving notes on edited cuts, festival deadlines, time needed for legal clearance, etc. And then you have the rare large-scale event that can affect everything, like COVID-19. Or a major industry strike. Or a company integral to the project closing permanently.
Pro film and TV projects are expected to be delivered on time and on budget. End clients are not interested in excuses about technical issues or slow uploads—in their view, time is money.
Delivering on time and budget often requires that one artist or group of artists finishes their part in the process, and hands it off to another. This new artist or group then works on it and then passes it yet another, etc. Such hand-offs between artists and vendors can happen both in a one-way pipeline, and/or in a back-and-forth daisy chain. Again, all of this depends on the project’s scope and budget.
Any work that is not handed off on time can create a negative domino effect. For example, a VFX artist can only begin work after being provided with the raw materials needed to create the VFX. If the artist receives the raw materials later than expected, it will be more difficult for them to deliver their VFX work on time. This may affect the edited project where the VFX will ultimately end up, which may affect the approvals process by the producer/director/anyone else involved in approvals, which may affect the time needed for doing revisions, etc.
Here is another example: There might be an actor who has dialogue or voiceover (VO) that is critical to the story, but for some reason the dialogue or VO doesn’t work. The files got damaged, or the lines were rewritten, etc. The actor needs to rerecord that dialogue and is only available during a specific window, as he has another job booked soon after this one. If his window is not within the dates designated for ADR (automated dialogue replacement), your producer can work out alternative plans more effectively, such as moving the ADR session to accommodate the actor’s schedule. Or sending a sound recordist to the actor’s location, etc. Anticipating potential issues and planning so they can be avoided is part of planning with the end in mind. Waiting until the last minute to address unplanned-for events will leave both the post and production teams with very little margin for error.
So how do you work with the end in mind? I usually ask a lot of questions when I start an editing job, even during the interview. “When is this project due,” “how are we delivering it,” “does it have to be a specific length,” “what are our deliverables,” etc. I ask questions based on when I have to hand off the project to others, such as, “Will we have VFX or graphics in this project, and if so, what do they need from us, and when?” “When and where is the mix?” “Are there going to be other editors and/or assistants?” That last one is very helpful when planning, especially if you are in a position to delegate.
Depending on if the project is animated or live-action, I may ask specific questions about those workflows, such as “which animation studio is doing the work?” If the studio is overseas, there may be a time zone difference that has to be considered when working with them. Or for live action, “Is there going to be more than one camera?” “How are we receiving dailies,” etc. It’s also a good idea to reach out to any departments you may interface with, and ask them directly what they need from you when you have to send edited material to them, and how you should deliver it (file formats, slates, separated audio, etc.)
I also review any production schedules I can get my hands on. These usually come from the Producer, Production Manager, or Production Coordinator, depending on the size and budget of the project. On very low-budget projects, these three hats are sometimes the same person. I then make notes about any specific milestones I notice, any deadlines, any special viewings for end clients, etc., and what I need to do to meet those milestone deadlines in time. I note these on small post-its on my paper calendar, and/or spreadsheet, depending on the size and length of the project. Sometimes I include a digital calendar if I have to share it with other people. Each method makes it easy to rearrange and update milestones.
If the project is ongoing, something you work on every day for example, start with the time and date of the delivery deadline (when you must be finished with your part of the project), and work backwards from there. Planning with the end in mind is only as complicated as the size and scope of the project.
In the world of TV promos, which can be one-off jobs or ongoing work, hypothetical questions an editor might ask themselves when starting a promo project might include: When will the promo have to be exported? When does it go to the graphics department? How late are the graphics artists in the office? If it’s not ready to go to them, can you export a placeholder for them to work with? When does it go to mix? Try to consider every possibility—who will check in on you, who you have to interface with, and what you have to have delivered to them by that time. How long will the finished edited piece take to export from the editing computer? How long will it take to upload to the end client? Who is going to be doing approvals? If so, when can you expect notes? When should you go to lunch so that you can fit it in around this process? And etc.
There is never going to be a 100% foolproof pipeline for post. We can only control the process so much. Making contingency plans with both the schedule and budget of a project is critical. Managing expectations is ideally part of that contingency as well, especially when working with those with little industry experience.
The strategy of planning with the end in mind helps everyone cover themselves in the event that something goes wrong, or a vendor can’t meet deadlines, or an executive changes his or her vacation schedule (this has affected several shows I was on), etc. Planning with the end in mind also includes backing up all work, regularly, meticulously, and keeping careful records. It sounds like a cliché to say, “always be prepared,” on a film/TV project, but there is truth in this.
Whenever you have a new project, take the extra time to create even a simple post workflow that starts at the very end of the post process and ends at where you currently are (usually, the beginning). It may take some time if the project is very complicated, or if you are taking over from someone else. But when, not if, things go wrong, you’ll realize that it was worth spending your energy on that extra preparation.
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