Lessons Learned as a Low-Budget Author

One of the things that happens as a low budget filmmaker is that you often end up languishing in an overlooked corner of the process, one that is usually dealt with by paid experts in the field. This can be the logistics of pre-production, the niceties of daylight vs. artificial light and how the camera will cope, to the true labyrinth of post-production. Many a filmmaker has gone in there and never been seen alive again.

‘Foley’ for instance -recreating the sound of footsteps, of someone chewing, of the rustle a particular coat might make as someone shifts their arm. Very often the sound that works is a million miles away from the materials that might create that noise in the first place.

An aspect of this journey raised itself very recently for me. I’d got horribly ripped off by a pseudo-sales agent when I first made my last film and it took a long time to recover from that, emotionally as much as financially, it happening at the same time as my birthmother passing.

But with the recent transformation in distribution avenues, with the whole landscape altering beyond all recognition, it felt like the time to reappraise ‘Greys Inbetween’ and see if I couldn’t find a way to finally get it out there. That is after all, the goal of most that go into making a film in the first place; that it find its audience.

It’s also a unique kind of torture, that of being so close to a film, having formulated a story, written the script, rehearsed it, shot it, reshot it, then gone over it frame by frame in the picture edit ad infinitum, followed by all over again in the sound edit and then in the online. It takes a particular kind of application to be able to continue to look at the screen and absorb with new eyes what you’re actually looking at.

Even a computer gets bored, worried about retinal burnout when the picture doesn’t change for any length of time, switching to a screensaver as being more interesting and less likely to cause madness. But a filmmaker has to reach beyond that, leaving behind first the pen, then the actors, then the editor, the sound mixer and online editor, staying with the same thing, over and over.

These days, on top of those processes, a new fiendish addition to the torture: Closed Captions. Of course, a laudable, welcome and necessary addition, allowing more people to enjoy the film in more ways, as well as make the movie accessible to the hard of hearing.

But before I had to tackle the CC’s, I first needed to get my film into a format that was anything approaching acceptable to todays platforms. Shot in 2008, it was nowhere near up to speed and after several abortive attempts, I was forced to reach out to my storage facility in the deepest recess of Cambridgeshire for a Digi-Beta Master, in the hope that I could create an image that not only was uncompressed, but also offered a fast enough Bitrate to satisfy any potential TV channels.

The Digi tape allowed me to employ a Post House to create a Pro-Res HQ version, almost doubling the size of the film from 21GB to 41GB. However, I still failed to pass muster as the ‘Pixel Aspect Ratio’ was unacceptable. At first, I thought this was merely the Aspect Ratio.. I’d shot on Anamorphic lenses and worried that any distortion to the pixels lay there. I’d no idea whether this was something I’d even be able to fix, leading to sleepless nights.

But yet again, after an intense deep-dive online into the finer points of pixels, I worked out that PAL, the UK standard format, actually uses oblong pixels and the distributor, FilmHub, wanted square ones. The US use NTSC and NTSC has.. you guessed it.. square ones. But this took 6-weeks of scrapping around with substandard versions to get to. Calling every Editor I knew and a few Post Houses I didn’t, in order to decipher my situation to a point where I understood it.

I liked working with actors… that was my background and my interest, this really wasn’t territory I wanted to understand. But -beggars can’t be choosers. The life of the film stood or fell on the decisions I made here and now, about how determined I was going to be to see my film get out there. It cost time, money and most of all patience, in a way that really tested me.

Closed Captions, you can employ a company to do. This I did and then they allow you to go in and view the film, with the CC’s alongside, just to check it. It was bad. I’m not going to bore you with the extraordinary story here, taking three goes to still get it wrong, but this was the ultimate test.. going through that same film, watched, heard, digested countless, countless times before, but forcing myself to pay attention to every single beat.

Because, in the US at least, there is a set of regulations, created I believe in the early 90’s, to which the CC companies adhere. And it may well suffice for dry, official documents and infomercials, but it falls Waay short when it comes to fiction. Sentences might start, but take a while to finish, carrying with them the intrinsic drama that entails. Words may be accentuated by the actor, imbuing specific meaning.

But the rules dictate that a sentence be typed out, not last more than a few seconds and not have to be timed at all to the way the words are actually spoken. Caps are never used, not even in the everyday, like the ‘Houses of Parliament’, let alone to accentuate a line, like ‘I said, I Kill Him.’

So, I found myself past 4am, poring over my film a yet again (the first version I fixed got lost somewhere in process, a month earlier), cutting lines up so they happened the way the actor spoke them, fixing spelling errors, typos, misinterpretations of words (Sort/Sought, threat/thread, fun/far) and writing out aural descriptions (church bell tolls, police siren). It was Absolutely exhausting.

But it was also so worthwhile. Having laboured for so long on this film, getting it written, then shot, then edited and mixed, it made no sense to allow for shoddy CC’s, however deeply I didn’t need to view it again.

To fall at the last hurdle and have your film judged adversely, because you couldn’t bring yourself to go through it to find those key stumbling blocks that would come to define an audience member’s experience of your story, that felt criminally negligent. The last viewing as important as the first, despite your ears, eyes and sanity telling you different.

Having failed six times with picture and three times with Closed Captions, I wait with bated breath as to whether it has finally been accepted for sale to the TV world.