That first fully-assembled version was ‘cut 03’, and we’re now on ‘cut 08’. In between, the film got longer. We had a viewing. It got shorter. We re-shot one of the scenes (for technical reasons, happily – editorial reshoots are always harder). It got longer again. I found a duplicated sequence I’d stupidly left in there. It got shorter once more.
That was the easy stuff, though. With a film like this there’s not a great deal of scope to reorder or second-guess oneself. The die was pretty much cast once we’d finished the script, and while we made plenty of changes as we filmed there were relatively few decisions left for the edit. With most documentaries you agonise about big structural changes for days and weeks, but we simply couldn’t afford any of that. We’d shot what we’d written, which at least makes the edit simpler.
No, the time-consuming part has been, for want of a better term, polish. Most scenes have seen at least two completely different colour treatments at different times. Sensor noise has been processed out of a significant number of shots, eating dozens of hours of processor time. There are graphics overlays of one sort or another on a couple of dozen shots, which took anything from a few minutes to sort to the better part of a day. At one point I found myself painting out a fly, frame by frame. That nobody will ever notice is rather the point.
Are we done? Almost. We’re now at the stage where we’re arguing about individual shots, and whether things should go a little quicker in places, or need room to breathe, or whether this shot needs a graphic and this one doesn’t, or vice-versa.
Traditionally, video production is split into three phases, imaginatively called ‘pre-production,’ ‘production’ and … wait for it … ‘post-production.’ For a field which depends on imagination, film-making jargon can be spectacularly tedious, so we try to make ourselves feel more important by corrupting our own jargon. Thus, you’ll often hear the phases referred to as things like ‘prep,’ ‘shoot’ and ‘post,’ respectively.
So it comes to pass that I write a blog post titled ‘Post.’ Oh ho ho, how terribly droll.
Thought we’d wrapped shooting last night? Nope. It’s never that simple.
Day 11 – Saturday 24th August – San Francisco and home
We’d filmed every scene in the script, every bit of dialogue (well, apart from the bits we crossed out, rewrote, abandoned, or generally disregarded. Which is normal), but we’d known for a couple of weeks that we had a hole to fill: the odd schedule dipsy-doodle around Las Vegas, where we filmed the magicians, ditched my beloved Jeep thing, then flew to San Francisco in the nick of time to film at the Exploratorium had left us with a problem. In the grammar of the film, how had we travelled to San Francisco? It’s not an irrelevant problem, in that one of the stories the film tells is of Alom’s Summer holiday road trip. How does that resolve?
Our destination all along had been – and this isn’t really a spoiler, honest – the Exploratorium in San Francisco. My previous visit to the Western US had been effectively a pilgrimage to their original building, and this was my first glimpse of their new digs. I was excited.
Though first we had to convince the staff we weren’t going to burn the place down, or at least: if we did, that our insurance covered it. That was a bit nerve-wracking as the way location insurance is done differs somewhat between the US and Europe. We finally received the ‘You’re all good’ confirmation only when we were in Las Vegas, which was… a little close for comfort. But hey, as long as the camera gets to roll, that’s a win, right?
The last time Alom or I set up a shoot like this we got to start phone calls with lines like, “Hello, my name’s Jonathan and I’m working on a documentary for the BBC, I wonder if…”. It’s remarkable how many doors those three magic letters open. Sure, some are slammed in your face too, but at least the person you’re contacting has some sort of mental model into which they can place you. No such luck when you’re working for a production company and charity few have heard of. Several people we really wanted to talk to said ‘No.’
One of the things you typically do when you’re making a documentary is scout out locations ahead of time. The recce is a crucial time-saver, but this project clearly didn’t have the budget for it. That’s one of the reasons we shot the film in Colorado, Las Vegas, Death Valley and San Francisco: as you’ll have gathered from these posts, I’d done the whole ‘road trip’ thing before and hence had a bunch of locations in mind already.
Now, the last time I was in Beatty was three years ago, and at that point it had a couple of motels, a couple of bars, a crossroads, an implausibly-grand carpark, and a gas station. It’s since added a vast casino with a 24-hour Denny’s. So, you know, pancakes happened.
It’s rare to film a script in page order: usually one records whichever bits fit the schedule rather than adhering to the script. This becomes mightily confusing, but not so confusing that one can drive past a city the size of Las Vegas by accident. No, no – we absolutely intended to do that.
This film interleaves several stories, then brings them together (we hope) neatly at the end. There’s the obvious ‘Alom’s road trip summer holiday’, but there’s also the story of that bottle you’ve glimpsed at the top of Pikes Peak, and there’s a little tickle of a story about a remarkable guy by the name of Oppenheimer.