Endurance – What They Don’t Tell You About Filmmaking

Some time ago, I completed my first feature film, 1500 Steps. This is a project I have been working on since July 2011, so coming up to just over 3 and a half years. And while this may be a short time for a Hollywood blockbuster (which usually takes 5 – 10 years to produce) it is a long time for a ultra-low-budget independent feature film, and much longer than we expected it to take.

Sometimes, if you believe in something strong enough, you have to push through and fight for it.

This film had issues upon issues, mainly sound related, as well as some things such as the edit took almost a year longer than expected too. It was my first feature, and I’ve learnt some hard lessons going through the process. Honestly it has been such an ordeal that I’m seriously considering writing a book about my experience!

Our issues with sound were so many and so regular that I’m almost convinced that our sound was cursed! Commencing on the first day of the shoot, the sound recordist simply didn’t show up. Fortunately one of the other crew had a zoom recorder with him, so we plugged in the mics we hired into that and went ahead with the shoot. It wasn’t until about 11:30pm that night as I was about to head home after a 15 hour day, that he finally called me to say that he couldn’t work those hours for the money I was offering. While I appreciated what he was saying (independent film making is not for the faint hearted) it would have been nice to have that information a few weeks beforehand.

Then we hired a university student who had been studying sound, and he ended up recording the rest of the film for the remaining 2 weeks. After we commenced editing the film we found that the sound sync was all out and the levels really needed work. We ended up showing our work in progress to a recently retired guy who had been the sound designer on some very well known Hollywood films. He was going to help us fix the sound with his film students, but when he came back to us he said that the sound was so bad that he couldn’t justify spending the time fixing it. This was terrible news as it meant that we essentially had no usable sound and therefore no film. We had wasted our time.

But no. We would not give up. Not just yet anyway.

Next we found a guy who agreed to give it a good go, and he even did some ADR for bits which were really bad. This was good, but even then I worked out that we had only recorded ADR for about 5% of the entire film. Anyway, this guy also ended up being difficult to reach for a while, and when I finally got a call from him saying that he couldn’t do it now, I realised that we had wasted another 6 months.

After this I went to a friend of mine who had just finished studying film sound at University. He agreed to remix the sound and re-sync the dialogue.

Before he was able to do this I went through every single sound file from the original hard drive, plus the ADR. I spend four weeks (between 5am – 7am) each day, listening to each audio file, and making notes about the files into an excel sheet. The excel sheet ended up being about 17 pages long. At the same time I moved the files out of their original folders, and sorted them into scene folders. This process was excruciating for me and I hated it. But I did it – I got it done, because it needed doing.

The result of this was that I now had a long, detailed list of each file, and presented them to our new sound mixer where he could now easily find the right tracks for each scene, and even had notes on the quality of the audio.

This guy did a pretty good job. He mixed and synced the dialogue, created new foley and atmos, and mixed in the soundtrack. We were initially quite happy with this, as it was the first time in years that we were able to sit through the entire film and watch it as a film. We knew that it was not perfect, that some of the sync was still a little out, but we were really happy with it.

After this we sent the screener out to a couple of distributors, who gave us some very negative feedback on the sound quality. This was very discouraging. We felt like we were back to square one, and were very serious about closing the book on this project, filing it, forgetting it – finally giving up.

It’s a terribly awful feeling to know that something you worked on so hard, for so many years, has failed.

Out of the blue, we were approached by the guy who composed and performed the original soundtrack. He suggested that it may be worth one more go. He was friends with a professional sound mixer (who turned out to be one of the best in the country), who was willing to have a proper look at it. We thought this was worth a go.

So I sent down the separate audio stems which my friend had mixed already, down to the new guys. They were able to do two things. They re-synced the dialogue very carefully, which made a massive difference. Then the professional guy did a few small miracles with the rest of the sound, and ended by mixing in each stem to a professional level.

The end result was that we did in fact end up with professionally mixed sound, that was then layered over the existing video edit, and released to the public. We ended up with a professional looking (and sounding) film, which was very easy to watch, and no one would have ever know that we had ever had any sound issues.

When I sit back and watch the film now, I am amazed at the high quality it turned out to be. And most people watching it, will never know the 3 and a half years of hell I went through making the damn thing!

Interestingly enough, the theme of the film is about endurance. Pushing through the obstacles until you achieve the goal and receive the prize. It is even based on a passage from the Bible, Hebrews 12 verse 1. So perhaps it’s fitting that my own experience in making the film was all about endurance. I had so many obstacles to get over, that it almost killed me – but I endured, I conquered and now that I have done so, I have received the prize of my first completed feature film.

The end result was that I can now say what most people will never be able to say, that I have produced and directed a feature film.

What obstacles are you facing? Will you choose to let them conquer you, or will you rise up and conquer them, in order to receive your prize?