Terror Tuesday: Indie Horror Filmmakers, Take Pride In Your Work

Brian gets into the nitty gritty of post-production and talks about how even the lowest budget filmmakers can do a little extra work to make their films at least hearable.

People often ask if I think I’ll ever run out of movies to watch for Horror Movie A Day, and I’m actually sad to reply “no”. I’ll probably just quit before I actually run out, because the horror genre is more populated than the others due to their nature of being “cheap to make”. Time and time again it has been proven that a great horror film can be made for the price of a new luxury car, unlike most other genres where those kind of success stories are few and far between. So at least once a month (week?) I end up watching a movie made by amateurs who don’t seem to understand the basic principles behind shooting, blocking, editing, etc, because they got it in their head that they can make the next Blair Witch Project because they have the same amount of money and “Hey, my cousin Dave owns a camera!”.

But in principle, that doesn’t bother me. These movies can be entertaining, and if you genuinely want to have a career as a filmmaker, there’s no better way to get started than to just pick up a camera and shoot. My problem is that so many of them don’t go the extra mile (or even 30 metaphorical feet) to apply that same spirit that got them to shoot in the first place as they do when it comes time to edit/finish the film. I hardly think any of these guys watch a rough cut of their film and say “Yes. I have created a classic here.”, but I DO think that some of them watch said rough cut and say “Eh, good enough - let’s sell it to Lionsgate” (or Echo Bridge, or MTI, or any of the other companies whose logos I see far too often). Because while there’s nothing you can do about a bad actor or clumsily shot action once all of the cast and crew have returned to their day jobs, there are things that are essentially free to do right in your editing software, and it’s those movies that don’t even bother doing that much that really just insult me.

The most common offender is the lack of proper sound editing. I can’t tell you how many movies I’ve seen where the actors all talk at different levels, causing me to wear out the volume button on my remote as I turn it up to hear someone one minute and then have to turn it way down for a booming voice the next. To this day one movie sticks with me: A Brush With Death, which was one of the first movies I watched in HMAD’s early days. For example, there’s a scene where the characters were sitting around a pool talking - some of them dubbed, others not. So you get half of a conversation that is clear as day and perfectly recorded (if not perfectly synced), and half that is all but completely unintelligible because it was recorded outdoors next to a pool, and probably with the built in camera microphone (read: a worthless “bare minimum” device), and as a result the scene - and several others in the movie - just made me wonder if I was going deaf.

Here’s the thing about no-name actors: no one knows what they sound like. You can’t exactly re-dub an entire performance by Angelina Jolie without someone noticing, but if it’s some local “actress” that will likely never make another movie again anyway (and I checked, of the five main girls in this particular film, only one has another credit since), you can re-dub her lines with any random girl who was willing to come in if the original actress couldn’t. And even if you didn’t have the money/time for a dubbing session, you can probably determine that your way of recording sound isn’t working after the first day or two of dailies, and take an alternate approach for the rest of the shoot (or if nothing else, have the actresses read their lines directly into camera at the end of the day). But this sort of issue plagues the entire film, which turns an honest “first day” mistake into an unforgivable and fatal flaw. They would have been better off just leaving the original audio untouched rather than make halfhearted attempts to fix some of it.

I also see far too many movies where the editor (who is often also the director in these things. And the writer. And the main actor. And the producer. And…) apparently doesn’t understand how to separate the video from its source audio. In Dark Harvest 3 (a “series” of retitled/unrelated films that are only linked by the fact that they’re all horribly made), whenever they cut to something like a gearshift on the car or a door handle, the sound cuts as well, because (first mistake) they actually shot these sort of things with sound for some reason and (second mistake) they didn’t bother to replace it with audio that would blend with the rest of the scene. Editors: when you’re done with a movie, a timeline should look like this:

Not this:

Because if it does, then you haven’t “edited”, you’ve “assembled”, and a drunk child could probably figure that much out. Granted, editing is something one more or less teaches themselves, and I actually encourage directors to edit as it can only help them understand the necessity of things like coverage and inserts when they go off to shoot their next film. But if you don’t know how to do the basics, for Christ’s sake just ASK someone, or consult a few web sites. Unlike your footage, you can pretty much do anything you want to improve your soundtrack. Hell, just look up what “room tone” is and start from there.

Color timing is another one that only takes a few button clicks to improve. Scenes are sometimes shot on different days, and maybe the weather isn’t the same or the lighting setup got changed for some reason, so the resulting footage will LOOK like a different day when it shouldn’t. But it’s easy enough to fix, or at least improve - drop a color balance filter on one shot and play with the hue/saturation until it approximates the one next to it. If you’re lucky you can then copy/paste those settings onto all of the other shots that need fixing in the scene and it will all work out. It probably won’t be perfect if you don’t know what you’re doing (big movies hire someone to do this specifically), but anyone can make it look better than not doing it at all, which is what the director of Vampire Assassin did (check out THIS article at Devin’s old site for a funny story about him - and note he does claim that he was at odds with the producers). So you get one side of a conversation that’s dark and bluish, and then the other side, of a person supposedly right next to them, where the image is bright and orange-tinted. This is the sort of thing that not only distracts an audience and takes them right out of the movie, but also reminds them that they’re watching a movie that isn’t even technically finished (and in this case I can CONFIRM that it’s not, as there are a few appearances of temporary “slug” shots - Final Cut Pro’s term for a shot that hasn’t been put in yet). I also notice that the DVD cover pluralizes “Assassin”, which is technically false advertising as the movie only offers one.

Hell, some of these things can’t even be bothered to do their credits properly, with numerous misspellings*, uneven layouts, etc. Some names will be in ALL CAPS, others not, or sometimes the names will switch to from the left side to the right without any rhyme or reason to it. Petty thing to complain about? Maybe. But keep in mind, the very last thing someone sees in a movie (assuming they haven’t shut it off long ago) is the end credits. If you’re ending your film on something so sloppy and unprofessional looking, then that’s just going to reinforce any other issues the viewer may have had. Besides, unlike those other things, it’s not adding time to your post production schedule - it takes just as much time to do them wrong as it does to them right.

There are numerous other things: ill-fitting locations (Vampire Hunter includes several fight scenes that inexplicably take place inside what appears to be a high school art room, for example), needless CGI used for things that could/should have been done practically (the horrid zombie movie Doomed features, I shit you not, a friggin VENT made with some sort of 2nd rate CGI software), and questionable camerawork. In Dark Fields, the characters run out of gas and bemoan how they’re “screwed” and “in the middle of nowhere” and what not. However, if you look in the background, you can see a big ol’ Shell station sign maybe a half mile away, the sort of thing a more careful director might zoom in a bit to avoid seeing, or even go nuts and have them drive another 40 feet up the road so that the sign would no longer be visible. But those are the sort of things that are the result of rushed productions or filmmakers who didn’t know what they were doing. Maybe not wholly forgivable, but when I’m watching the movie I can at least come up with a plausible theory why they look that way. Those other things I listed above, I cannot for the life of me conceive of any reason why they weren’t fixed, because none of them take any appreciable amount of time or even major skill to at least attempt to do right.

And it’s not limited to amateurs who might have never even picked up a camera before. I recently saw a movie called Haunted Echoes that stars Sean Young and was directed by Harry Davenport, who made the Xtro movies (the first of which is actually kind of awesome). The film is bad, but also sloppy, especially in the editing, with shots that go on long past the actors have walked off, and numerous/jarring cuts to black, as if there were supposed to be Shining style title cards that they forgot to actually put in. These no-name folks have their excuse - they’ve probably never made a movie before. What’s yours, Mr. Davenport?

It’s even more frustrating when you consider none of these movies are due to play in 4000 theaters on a predetermined date. You see bad CGI in some big Hollywood movies, and more often than not it’s because the studio set a release date and didn’t give the FX guys time to finish things properly. But why are independent filmmakers sending their films out when there’s still plenty of work to be done? The film that inspired this article, Beneath The Mississippi, suffers from every single one of the problems described above (and many more), despite the fact that it was shot in 2004, apparently had its very first screening in 2008, and then didn’t debut on DVD until 2011. In SEVEN YEARS they couldn’t fix the audio so that a viewer could understand anything that was being said (it’s literally 115 minutes of what sounds like under the breath muttering)? Or make credits that I could read and thus know who to blame? Look at this goddamn thing:

It also suffers from an issue wholly unique to this particular film: they couldn’t even stick to one aspect ratio. Every now and then I’ll see one shot in a movie that is wider than the rest, usually of a moon or something, because they took some stock footage (or stole the shot from another movie) and forgot/didn’t bother/didn’t know how to match it to the rest of their footage. But throughout Beneath The Mississippi, the aspect ratio changes from 1.78:1 (normal HDTV size) to 2.35:1 (the size of most big action movies - Star Wars, for example), often back and forth in a single scene. And more, sometimes the 2.35 shots move vertically, so that the “black bar” area on the top of the screen is thicker than at the bottom. After nearly 2000 movies in a row I have not only never seen this, but I’m still at a loss to come up with any sort of explanation for how they managed to fuck this up so royally. And I’m even more confused how in seven goddamn years it was never corrected. The primary filmmakers are still active, having made 2-3 films each since then, so my original theory (that they died during the first stage of editing and the movie was released “as is” as a sort of tribute) doesn’t hold up.

Again, it’s not that these movies are bad that bothers me - it’s that the filmmakers seemingly didn’t even try to fix what they could, and instead just shopped it out to DVD companies once they had completed their first pass at editing. And there’s not a lot of quality control at these distribution places; especially nowadays with the DVD market being in such poor shape. If they can get it on a disc and Photoshop a halfway decent cover that might catch a few eyes, they’ll put it out and it will sell the same number of copies as it is now (seemingly unfinished) as it would had the filmmakers taken the time to deliver a professional transfer.

Now I know this article is a lot of technical jargon and probably has inspired more than one reader to go “What? Who cares?” before going off to complain about the Star Wars blu-rays some more (a case of a guy who “fixes” his movies too damn much, ironically), but hopefully some of you reading it are indie filmmakers and can offer some insight. Am I way off base here? Is there some sort of nefarious overlord of low budget/indie productions that prevents you from properly mixing your film even if it doesn’t have a release date? The Vampire Assassin guy points out that he was “interfered with” on that film, but I fail to see how that could result in the film being released to retail with actual shots missing - wouldn’t those “money men” have cleaned up that much? Besides, I have seen a ton of these sort of amateur productions over the years, and there are just as many that are delivered in a professional manner than not. Lest anyone forget, Paranormal Activity was shot by a first time filmmaker, in his own house, for 30 grand or something like that. Yes, Paramount put in some dough to “fix” it a bit, but when I saw it in 2007 at Screamfest, long before Paramount stepped in, it already had a great sound mix, perfect color timing, etc. In other words, a simple “We’re an independent production!” doesn’t quite cut it - it can excuse some things without further explanation (i.e. “bad effects”), but not others (“your movie changes aspect ratio three times in this one scene”). So if you are a filmmaker, and your film is out there suffering from some of the issues I described above, please detail the reasons why - I am honestly curious if there’s a legitimate (and presumably common) excuse that I am constantly being subjected to what seems like rough cuts that are being sold at the same prices (sometimes more; Mississippi sells for 24.99) as wholly professional productions.

And if you have no excuse, I implore you - take some time to put effort into making your movie as best as you possibly can. Even a bad movie deserves a proper soundtrack (especially a horror film - apart from the musical there is no genre in which sound is just as important as image), and I guarantee that you could address all of the above issues - even with a rush job - on an entire feature in just a day. Plus, every second you spend fiddling with dials and settings in Final Cut Pro is spent learning something that you can apply toward your next film. Maybe there’s no saving this one, but you’ll be that much wiser and ahead of the game when it comes time to make the next one. And then guys like me can feel that much better about the time they spend watching your movie. I’m much more interested in seeing a second film from a guy who clearly put 100% effort into his film than one who just tossed it off, and because I’ve seen so many examples of both, I give the “A for effort” guy a lot more benefit of the doubt in the review. Everyone wins!

*Yes, I did the credits for Hatchet II and yes, there is a typo or two, as I am sure there are in thousands of movie credits. I’m not talking about an honest mistake (“living” in the legal language came out “lving” - not nearly as embarrassing as “Marilyn MASON” in the first film’s credits, which I did NOT do, I must point out), I’m talking about words like “technician” being misspelled as “technition” throughout the entire sequence. There’s a pretty obvious difference between a typo and plain ignorance. Just ask Lance Henriksen (or Henrickson, Hendricksen, Henricksen, Henriccsen…).