A public lecture of the Objectifs Short Film Incubator 2020
The inaugural Objectifs Short Film Incubator presented by Objectifs in partnership with Momo Film Co took place online in Sept 2020 and comprised a month-long mentorship for five projects from Southeast Asia, three public lectures and an online film club featuring the mentors Davy Chou and Pimpaka Towira.
Chai Yee Wei is an award-winning filmmaker from Singapore who has co-written and directed several short films and feature films across genres from horror, to dark comedy, to musical romcom. He also founded Mocha Chai Laboratories, Singapore’s first boutique digital film lab with a state-of-the-art Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos facility. Today he splits his time between developing and producing content, while advocating the use of new technologies to tell better stories.
This recap presents key takeaways from his online presentation on Everything You Need to Know about Post-Production.
“Post is Not Post”
Yee Wei began by declaring: “Post is Not Post”. “Some think of post-production as an afterthought or of post-production as where problems are fixed. But in my experience as a filmmaker as well as running a post-production facility, it actually starts way earlier. The more you prepare and rehearse, the smoother your shoot will be with less problems on set.”
“When it comes to filmmaking I believe we should look upon all the technology — the cameras, the lenses, the different tools we have at our disposal — as our canvas and paint brushes to tell our stories. We hold a rather huge responsibility as filmmaking is very expensive and involves many people’s time, money and development.”
Yee Wei started Mocha Chai Laboratories in 2013 after making his second feature film. “At the time I was trying to solve a problem for myself. I was trying to figure out how to DIY DCPs [Digital Cinema Package], etc. at the advent of digital projection. I sort of stumbled into this business because word got around to distributors, exhibitors that I knew how to make films into a cinema-playable format.”
“A film print after grading and sound mixing cost US$20,000 and subsequent prints cost about US$1,000-2,000. Depending on how many halls you got [to screen your film in], the cost would go up. There were also shipping costs. So the advent of digital projection was quite empowering for indie producers and filmmakers to leap onto the big screen in a much more affordable manner.”
“Sometimes, you can “fix it in post” but the more you need to do so, the more it will cost you.” Yee Wei highlighted the following overlooked best practices with regards to post-production:
Overlooked Best Practices
A quick workflow test entailing “shooting two or three shots with some audio and sending it to the colourist can help identify many problems early, and allow[s] you to just focus on the creative and not have to fix problems in post.”
Common issues that can arise after a shoot are “not transcoding stuff properly, if you didn’t sync your audio, and mixed frame rate issues”.
Workflow tests can also help preempt solutions to the following possible problems:
- New codecs may not behave the same way as the old ones.
- Software gets updated, firmwares get updated – bugs get squashed or introduced.
- Your DIT [digital imaging technician] may not be converting it right for your editor.
- Your editor may not be able to export to what your colourist and sound designer need.
For Virtual Reality (VR) works, Yee Wei shared: “Picture-wise, the stitching is always still a big issue. Each tool comes with its own stitching tools. The higher the resolution, the better, but I don’t think VR goggles have caught up with our eyes just yet.
Right now, VR audio is a little trickier than the visuals. Make sure you are able to mix the audio in a format where you can export to multiple formats required by the different VR headsets. The audio technology is still evolving as well.”
On going with an ACES workflow, Yee Wei shared: “ACES itself is still evolving. While we’re doing it, we’re still finding bugs in it but it’s a fantastic way to future-proof your project.”
- Get a post supervisor.
- It is to save costs.
- This is the part to avoid “fixing it in post”.
- Color Management. Period.
“Pre-production meetings are very important to ensure everybody’s synced about what the technical requirements are for the project, as well as the special effects. Note that pre-production meetings should involve the creative partners. Even filmmakers may not be able to anticipate potential problems as they don’t do post-production. The producer may not be updated on the latest cameras and workflows. Get a post supervisor who will be able to help you watch things from the start to the end. Many times, the post house you work with could offer a post supervisor.”
“We request for the script the moment we are onboard a project. My sound designer, colourist and editor will look at it and provide feedback. For example, we will ask, how do you plan to shoot this? If there is a scene where people will be singing on a bus, the sound designer will recommend how they should be mic-ed and what the sound recordist should record, e.g. recording them singing outside of the bus as well, so that she can mix in ADR, so they have a separation of all the different parts and when the audience is watching [the final film] it’ll be unclear which part is a recording. It’s all about creating and completing the illusion.”
“We did special effects for a Thai production that went very successfully. The filmmaker sent us pictures of the shoot locations, the angles they planned to shoot and discussed how they wanted to shoot it. We had pre-production meetings with the special effects expert to check what was possible and how far we wanted to push it.”
“Many people don’t know how to quote a price for special effects-driven science fiction because they’re anticipating the worst. As this team communicated with us so clearly, we were able to recommend where we could save them money if they made particular changes to their process. On their shoot day, they even sent us photographs from the location to ask what changes they could make based on the situation on the ground and we could respond with tips. In the end, we could reduce the quote for them.”
“For another animation project, we talked to the animators about the tools they were using and suggested how they could apply certain light when they did the animation. When they exported and gave us a locked image, we could colour grade the animation and make it better. Because the colour management was done properly, we could use the post-production colour grading session to explore how to elevate the final product to a different level rather than having to fix problems.”
Budgeting and scheduling
- Set aside money for post. Typically, 15-20% of your budget should be allocated to post-production.
- Allow adequate time for post. “Between price, quality and time — you can only choose two. Often, when you have no time, quality will suffer as well.”
- More time and attention to detail = better quality. “Booking studio time is expensive. Make sure you can use it to make creative decisions rather than fixing problems.”
Yee Wei shared “We work with all kinds of budgets. I believe all the post houses in Singapore are trying to help out. Local production costs are much lower than or the same as those of our peers in Thailand, Taiwan and so on, because our market is small… Everyone is also very much into working with people around the region. Thanks to the Internet, working remotely is not that difficult any more, and is not going to cost a bomb. It’s just about preparation and setup. Technology has enabled collaboration beyond borders.”
When asked if it is better to bring one’s own equipment or rent locally for overseas productions, Yee Wei responded: “Rent locally wherever we go, unless you have a piece of equipment that’s really hard to find. If it’s a commonly owned item rent it locally because bringing your equipment to different countries can require a lot of paperwork and declarations which cost time and money.”
- It is essential to subtitle every line, regardless of language, for accessibility. “You have to cater to people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Big players like Netflix, Apple TV and HBO will also insist on properly done subtitles. You may even have to pay for descriptive subtitling; it’s the law in France, for example. You make films for them to be seen and you might compromise your reach if you don’t make them accessible.”
- It is essential to get a native speaker to do subtitling.
- Do not do literal translation.
- Get an expert / professional to do this job.
- It is usually the step that delays the final delivery.
Know Your Deliverables
- Make sure you know what are the common files requested by a sales agent and prep them. “It’s not cheap but at the minimum make sure you have a clean [unsubtitled] picture. If you can afford it, have a non-texted version [a version without supers]. Have both in the highest format possible, which will allow you to derive other formats. If you have these clean copies, you can always recreate the other copies but if you have only a subtitled copy, you can’t go back and erase the subtitles. Keep your subtitles in a texted format.
- Set aside a comfortable amount to prep this out of your budget – if not when a sale happens, you are usually required to deliver materials almost immediately.
- Your deliverables can determine your production decision – down to the make of camera.
- Future proofing your film
- Reversioning it for future technologies / platforms
- Re-monetize. “In Hong Kong, the studios archive very well. We are helping to restore a lot of old films. Once cleaned up for re-monetization, they get sold to subscription companies and put on platforms for people to buy and rent — the two biggest now are iTunes and Google Play. Because it’s online we can forever be upgrading; we’re looking at 8K now but we can scan them to 10K if we want to.”
- You have made a significant record of human history.
- Understand the options and adopt a strategy of long term archival
Other Important Post Neglects
- Aspect Ratio. “This has to be decided before you shoot as it can’t differ across mediums like cinema screens and TV screens. There are two main aspect ratios for cinema — scope and flat. Just see them as containers to put whatever aspect ratios you want — it could be a circle if you want!”
- Title / Action Safe zones: “There’s no such thing as keyframing in cinemas so they will apply a crop if required and your subtitles will look bad or get cut off if they’re in the non title safe area.”
- Colour management / conversions. “You may have colour graded for cinema and exported to broadcast TV and suddenly it looks different, especially the white balance. It’s because of bad colour management and conversions. I see it a lot. Don’t try to do frame rate conversions yourself unless you know how to. Your film may fail QC checks.”
- No clean / textless copies
- Dismissing new technologies. “Filmmakers could be using new technologies as a tool to make things so much more interesting. We forget we’re playing with a medium that gives us a certain kind of privilege _ we’re able to present our very important image on a large screen with speakers all around. Make that one hour count. Make your story count. Make use of all the different tools at your disposal. What’s standard today was new before. If I asked you to make your film without sound or colour, you probably couldn’t do that today.”
- Dismissing old technologies. “Understand where things come from and where they’re going and then you’ll be able to understand how to use both in your storytelling. I use a lot of old techniques to do my effects in-camera — I’ve put stockings over the camera lens to get a particular look like 16mm film.”
- Frame rate conversion problems: “After you export anything, please make sure to watch it in full before you send it to anybody.”
In response to an audience question about examples of narrative films that have used emerging technology or old techniques in interesting manners, Yee Wei said: “During the Covid-19 period I’ve been seeing people doing animation and claymation, perhaps because they don’t need to work with a crew. We worked on a stop motion project and advised them how to shoot it in a particular format — with their regular cameras — compatible with our workflows that we could grade it and hit HDR during post-production, which is something new. At the same time, stop motion has been around for the longest time. So I would say people should not overlook animation; it could be a lifesaver for filmmakers to try to explore storytelling.”
On the biggest challenges of shooting on analogue, Yee Wei responded: “The biggest challenge with shooting on 8mm and 16mm is where to send it for processing because the processing houses are closing down. You could send it to the US and have it shipped back but unprocessed film cannot go through scanners. The processing house can typically scan it for you, or Mocha Chai Laboratories has a scanning facility where we can scan 8mm, 16mm, 35mm film. But once processing is done, anything goes. Just scan it and treat it as your digital intermediate.”
On editing, directing, and running a business in the film industry
Yee Wei started out as an editor before embarking on his own directing and writing. He was asked how much freedom he likes to have in the decision-making process for the first cut of the film, and whether the directors he has worked with oriented him. He shared: “It depends on how much the director allows the editor to have that kind of freedom to break everything apart and see what inspires them, regardless of the script or based purely on the pictures. If you’re working with a director like Christopher Nolan who is very specific about how he wants the story to be told, you’d be silly to try to tell them how to go about it.”
“As a director, you’re in an easier position because you can give all the freedom you want or not. But if you want to be an editor, a colourist or a sound designer you have to hone how to communicate to and with people: how do you read them, find out what makes different people tick, look through their eyes or have them see the way you do? These are life skills.”
“As a director you should also let your post facility or effects person figure out certain editing styles for you and show you. You can find references and examples for what you want and what you don’t like and from there we can tweak it to how exactly you imagine it to be. There have been times I insisted on certain things I really wanted and others where I really needed the expert to surprise me with something I didn’t expect.”
“If you surround yourself with people who are much better than you are, your overall product will become a better product. Don’t be afraid to let other people give you the idea… It could be achieved with a different method from what you imagined. And it could be even better. We don’t know. There are different ways to achieve the same thing; they’re all just puzzles to be solved.”
“I was never a film student. I didn’t get into filmmaking the traditional way. I started off from the technical side first — wanting to learn a new tool, liking cameras, liking images and this slowly evolved from [an interest in] still to moving images. I started realising that in order to tell stories the technology can only help so much because I can’t use it to tell people how to act, to write a script, to structure a story. I am a very puzzle-solving kind of person. People use index cards but I have an Excel spreadsheet with my characters and I plot out their arcs. Then I start shifting them into the whole story structure and seeing how they intercut. I plan this way before I write my story.”
“I see technology as a means to an end rather than something that is in the way. It should always be something that opens doors. For those who find technology daunting, it’s a hurdle you need to overcome to just focus on your story. The story and the characters are still most important. The tech is just the medium and the carrier. How can I use cameras as a window into a person’s mind? We are using the camera to channel the perspective of how we want the audience to look through the character’s mind.”
“[My familiarity with] post-production frees me from worrying so much; I can just focus on the story because I am confident that I know how to get to the look I want. I personally feel that filmmakers should understand how to use lenses, colour science. I wish I could work on a Marvel film some day to see how they work and learn more.”
“When it comes to storytelling, rather than take a blanket approach to our work, we should do what is best to serve that particular medium or narrative we’re trying to drive or experience. Don’t restrict yourself, take opportunities to try out different kinds of storytelling.”