Firmly in my third year of production on a documentary short, albeit while juggling other jobs and projects, and it's still a long haul. I'm not at the finish line yet either. Presently the story is at the phase of Screening, Feedback, Re-cutting, and Repeat. It's an arduous phase, but one that is imperative.
As an editor, I've worked on other documentaries where this process has been employed and others where it hasn't, or done minimally. This could be that certain stories don't need this kind of back and forth. Maybe the filmmaker gets the rough cut perfect the first time and then moves right on over to the fine cut, but in my experience, that's less often the case.
This is my first solo project, in that I'm directing and producing. I have the advantage of an experienced co-producer, as well as very talented filmmaker colleagues who are generous enough to give me their time and wisdom. A huge advantage to be sure. But one has to be careful when enlisting support.
I'm at the point now where I'm ingratiating myself by asking these colleagues to interrupt their own busy calendars and projects to make room for mine. It's the feedback stage.
The critical period when you've got your story together and need to find the holes and do your damnedest to fill them before the films goes out into the world - or hopefully does.
This is when the filmmaker can't see the forest through the trees. After being buried in research, shooting and editing, it becomes challenging to retain perspective - what is working, what isn't - what's in the latest version, what isn't. And so outside resources are recruited. For me this has been an invaluable period in the story's post-production period.
For anyone who wants to continue reading, I'm going to share my process so far with the caveat that this isn't necessarily a recipe for success. I'm following a similar example that other filmmakers I've worked for have set. Next time around I may have a completely different process. Here's how it stands now:
6 tips for screening and feedback before the fine cut begins:
1). Don't ask too soon.
Don't start asking for experienced filmmakers' time before the edit is really ready. I made this mistake and started too soon.
Whether you're paying a story consultant a fee, or asking a mentor or colleague to take a look, make sure it's worth your while and their precious time. It's embarrassing if you're showing something that isn't really a story yet. For instance, I had put a long assembly together and then started editing scenes to almost a fine cut (a terrible exercise in procrastination). What I had was a cut that was way too long and information driven. In hindsight I should have waited until I had a rough cut with a more realistic length (cutting out extraneous scenes and overall running time) and predominantly emotion driven.
Being at the information stage of the process was too soon for screening. I got caught up in concern over the story's clarity. It's a part of the process but at some point it's important to let that go and get to emotion.
Revisit what the core emotions are that drive the film. Ask what scenes highlight those emotions and resulting themes, and which ones fall short. This should help with getting to a cut you want to show.
Since I asked for screening and feedback at this point, I was told that it was way too long and it wasn't an emotional experience. Wait until you have a real film put together (where emotional stakes exist) so you're not torturing your viewers, but getting feedback specific enough that you can go back to the cut and move the story forward.
2). The viewing experience should be easy and minimal.
It's hard enough for colleagues or friends to put your viewing on their calendar, so don't let a tight window, technology issues, lack of direction, or ask too much of people, get in their way.
There might be an impending date looming that you want feedback for, such as a grant or film festival deadline. Try to give them a couple of weeks to watch it and get back to you. Badgering someone about whether they've watched it yet will leave some irritated and distracted when they finally do get to it. Remember if you're not paying, this is a big favor you're imposing. Be patient. If it's been a couple weeks with no word, send a gentle reminder and ask if they are still able to do it. If they can't, thank them for considering and move on to someone who can. This is also a good reason to ask multiple people to screen a given version of your edit.
Make sure your links work if it's an online screening. Double check those urls and passwords before sending them anything.
If you want viewers to think about specific concerns, create a feedback questionnaire.
I recommend requesting that they don't look at the survey until they've finished watching the movie. If they wait to refer to the questions, they won't be distracted by them and have a more authentic experience/reaction. Hopefully they'll fill out your survey and have a few additional thoughts that didn't occur to you.
In your questionnaire, don't ask for too much. Keep questions to a minimum. No one wants to fill out a multi-page document. Ask some "yes" or "no" questions with an option to add comment. Always ask if they have anything else to add that isn't included in the survey.
Some may ignore your questionnaire and just respond with an email or phone call. Take what they give you and be appreciative.
Don't continue asking the same people to watch each version. There might be one or two people you feel close enough to ask more than once, or who you can return the favor with pro-bono work, but be considerate. No one will care as much about your project as you do. For most, assume you're asking a lot of them to watch any one version. Thank them and eventually you can send those people an invite to the premiere and give them a 'thank you' in the credits.
3). The first screening and feedback session won't be your last.
The film might have hit magic the first screening and feedback round, but don't count on it. I've worked for seasoned award-winning documentary filmmakers and even they can't always see clearly. It's very difficult to retain objectivity and perspective. Everyone I know has had multiple screenings for feedback and dealt with both major and minor issues to go back into the edit room with.
So far I've had about 5 different types of screenings for various versions of my story. I've asked editors and filmmakers to come and watch the cut with me, then give me there initial feedback then and there. Some are kind enough to follow up with additional notes, but I never ask. I've asked a small handful of people in and out of the film business to watch a cut via a link and password with a survey. Last fall I had a living room screening of a small group of people, some who had seen earlier versions, others hadn't and didn't even know much about the project. Next I will have a larger work-in-progress screening at a small venue, but I will have at least one outside resource look at it first. I hope what follows is fine-cutting, but you never know.
It's important to screen rough cuts in a variety of ways because each is a different experience.
Make sure that at least one screening and feedback is done when you're in the room. It is an enlightening experience to feel what does and doesn't work when you're watching with other people. You notice things that you haven't before when it's just you, or just you and your editor.
4). Get eyeballs from filmmakers and non-filmmakers.
Both those that do this for a living and those that only experience moving picture as entertainment or education, are valuable to hear from.
Filmmakers might be more focused on a three act structure, a dramatic arc, themes, pacing and rhythm. All very important to consider and sort out.
Those who don't work in the film business might focus on whether it was enjoyable to watch or not, or whether they liked the main character, where they got bored or confused. Those are just as valuable. Sometimes they are also similar to filmmaker response, but just articulated differently. Other times they are new and insightful points filmmakers miss.
5). Look at all the feedback in a logical fashion.
This is easy to say, but try not to take criticism too hard. Getting blunt but honest notes can be initially painful. We all want to hear how amazing our films are, but it takes a long time to get them there and the final version is usually fairly different than their initial proposal - at least with documentaries.
Remind yourself that the purpose of screening and feedback before a film is completed is to figure out what's working and what isn't before it's out there. The film will never be perfect, but you should get it as close to it as possible.
For any given round of screening and feedback, sort through your notes before you begin to work on your cut again.
If you received feedback from 4 or 5 people, look for commonalities amongst the responses.
If more than one person gives similar specific notes, you might want to consider at least trying to address those concerns.
There will always be random comments that don't seem to resonate with you or your other screeners. Those can be put aside, at least for now.
Are there any responses to your film that sound familiar? For instance, I received a note recently that mentioned some redundancy between the opening of the film and the first scene where we meet the main character. When I got that note, I remembered that it had occurred to me at the time that it was a little too similar, but I had ignored that and moved on. Now I'm going to address it.
Some people will give feedback that sounds like a good idea, but isn't realistic, such as go back and shoot this scenario, but you know that would be a different film and not the one you're making. Or maybe it's a great idea and as much as you were married to the idea that you were finishing shooting, maybe this is the key to getting the film to click into place. You must weigh those comments and decide.
6). Create a plan of action to get to the next stage.
Now the notes are sorted and prioritized.
In my case, I've conferenced with my co-producer and we agreed on a time line and goals for this next pass of edits after reviewing feedback together. There are still some structural problems, especially toward the end. I'll work with the editor using index cards to outline the plot points and try re-arranging them with the cards on a wall, before heading to the edit bay. I recommend to always be willing to return to some very basic exercises like these.
During this process with the index cards, we might discuss a few ideas for how the story could unfold in a new order, and how the transitions between scenes might work. We'll re-examine what each scene represents on an emotional level and minimize scenes that are more about exposition. We created a calendar to impose deadlines and a decided on length for the overall running time.
Make strengthening the story the biggest goal, as apposed to rushing to the finish line.
My biggest advise at this stage is to keep certain imposed deadlines in mind in order to get to the next stage, such as grant opportunities or film festivals that seems like the perfect fit, but at the same time, focus on just improving your story at each phase. You will get to the finish line eventually. These things take time. Hang in there. I am.