While watching the Academy Awards on Sunday, March 4, many viewers will fill out ballots to guess who will win each category and debate why a particular nominee is superior to his or her competition. But while the acting and musical fields lend themselves to easy critiques, some of the technical awards are more difficult to parse. To help enlighten moviegoers, a trio of local independent filmmakers spoke with Xpress about what they do behind the scenes.
“Essentially, if you think of the process of creating a film as a project, then the producer is like a project manager,” says Sekou Coleman. “Most of the work that I do is in the independent realm, which means a lot of my work involves not just making sure that the film project moves forward and gets completed, but also making sure there are funding sources and distribution options in place.”
If Coleman were producing a film for a studio like Disney or Sony, he’d likely have 10-15 assistants helping him with paperwork, scheduling, hiring, script delivery and other necessary tasks. But in his roughly 15 years of shepherding independent films forward — his preferred type of project — he typically has two or three helpers.
Under Coleman’s guidance, the combined efforts of the production team make sure that the director can walk on set and get work done as expected. With the proper people and equipment in place, the director may focus on the film’s creative aspects without having to stress about technical, administrative and logistical matters.
In regard to the role of executive producer, Coleman says that person is often the one “with the checkbook.” Though generally not a hands-on, everyday type of position, an executive producer ensures that the producer or producing team is competent enough to ensure the successful completion of the project. It’s also a credit sometimes given to actors or a director as a way of increasing their ownership and compensation for participation in the film.
As far as the Oscars are concerned, Coleman thinks the awarding of Best Picture to a film’s producer is an apt reflection of his or her work, but views the complete movie as a team operation. “It’s not just one person. It’s all the way from the executive producer down to the grips and the [production assistants] who cart the stuff on and off set after everyone else has gone home, because if they weren’t doing their job, then none of the other stuff would be taken care of,” he says.
Finding the rhythm
Madeleine Richardson began freelancing as an editor during her junior year at UNC Asheville. Over the subsequent four years, she’s come to specialize in custom wedding videos and marketing pieces, but also has experience with narrative films.
“Generally, I’m expected to present a first draft of the edit in a timely manner, and then, from there, work with the director to make any needed changes,” she says.
Richardson has a workspace at home where she does most of her editing. She uses Adobe Premiere as well as Adobe After Effects for motion graphics and will also sometimes use Adobe Illustrator for logo creation, then animate it in After Effects. While most of her work is solitary, she’ll sometimes bring in the director to work beside her as they go through any changes to get to the final cut of the film.
“The director has a vision that I’m expected to fulfill, but as an editor, there are certain things I can influence, such as the final pacing of the piece,” she says. “Having a great sense of rhythm, emotion and instinct is key.”
Another important contact for an editor on narrative films is the script supervisor. Richardson says that person keeps track of the director’s notes regarding certain takes and performances for the editor to reference, further enhancing the quality of her work.
“For me, editing can be an incredibly satisfying experience,” Richardson says. “I know to some it might seem tedious, but when you immerse yourself in the world that you’re creating and hit the rhythm of the story just right, it tastes so delicious.”
Lights, camera, etc.
When the Oscar for Best Cinematography is awarded, Brad Hoover will be one of many professionals wishing the honor went by a different name. “I prefer the term director of photography — DP — or DOP in Europe. It’s more descriptive of what we do,” he says. “No one calls the DP a cinematographer on set.”
In his 25 years as a DP, Hoover has been responsible for the photographic and visual elements of numerous films. He says determining a look and visual style based on the content of the script, in close consultation with the director, is the DP’s primary job. He also considers the relationship between a director and DP to be the key creative partnership on the set.
“I really prefer to work with directors who I can sit down with and create a shot list and storyboards beforehand. Being creative and thoroughly analyzing the script in the relative calm of preproduction is a thousand times easier than trying to come up with shots in the chaos of the set,” Hoover says.
The DP also chooses the necessary camera and lighting equipment, designs the lighting, determines camera setups, chooses lens focal length and creates compositions and camera movement. On independent films, the DP often operates the camera, but on larger or union films, there is a separate camera operator. Camera movement and shot design are usually suggested by the DP and must be approved by the director.
“Some directors have a very acute aesthetic vision and strong ideas on composition and lighting. With this type of director, I voice my opinions and ideas when I feel appropriate but always defer to them if there is a disagreement,” Hoover says. “Then there are other directors who focus fully on the performances of the actors and trust the DP to do their job based on their consultations in preproduction. Most directors are somewhere in between the two extremes.”
As these three filmmakers note, many other people are necessary to complete a work of cinema. If the success of current Best Picture front-runner Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri — shot two years ago in Sylva, Black Mountain and surrounding areas — is any indication, they’ll continue to be in high demand on the local front.