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The rise of the post supervisor

Change, they say, is the only constant.

In an industry like film production – where projects are usually large and development times can stretch into years – you can easily reach a point you've been to many times before only to discover that the way they do things now is totally different.

Enter the postproduction supervisor. By all accounts, he or she is a dichotomy; in equal parts technically proficient and a responsible business administrator – almost a geek in a suit.

The post supervisor bridges the gap between the producer and the deliverables needed from the various post facilities that increasingly come into play making a film. Increasingly, by the way, is the operative term; the post supervisor is on the rise, and even those productions who haven't had one, wanted one.

Sue Maslin, producer of one of the stars in Australia's cinematic crown last year – Japanese Story – is unhesitant about wishing she'd had one. "I would love to have had the luxury of working with a post supervisor," she says, "but it was one of the casualties of a tight budget while coping with a remote location and I ended up post supervising the film myself. Getting it finished in time for Cannes last May was the start of it. Nine months later, I'm still delivering to the US, France and The Netherlands."

So what's the appeal? As a producer, isn't that something you should be doing yourself?

The Why and How

"The role of the post supervisor is to work for the producer or production company to keep the post process within budget and delivered on time," explains Roger Savage, CEO of Soundfirm. " [They] oversee all areas of post – picture, sound, lab work and deliverables. Postproduction is complex by nature, especially the co-ordination and production of required delivery items, so the role of a post supervisor is quite specialised. Some producers just don't have the time or required knowledge."

And like everything in film – it depends on the production and what's required from post facilities.

"It can mean many things," thinks Mike Honey, facilities manager of Spectrum Films. "Every post supervisor brings different skills. It can be a purely technical job overseeing the delivery items and wrapping up the technical details, but it can also be a kind of management position given far more scope managing post budgets.

"They can also take care of all the needs of key crew – the director and editor – by arranging things like travel details and accommodation, basically making sure that if they're working away from home, everything runs smoothly."

Sue Maslin expands on the administrative role a post supervisor needs to fill. "The director and producer's job is to ensure every aspect of post remains true to the writer and director's vision," she says. "But it's the job of the post supervisor to ensure this vision is resourced adequately so it can be achieved on budget and on schedule. No director in their right mind would want to be bothered with that sort of detail."

Asked about visions of clients from hell sitting behind you at the editing suite shouting instructions over your shoulder, Mike Honey points out it isn't like that.

"A post supervisor won't necessarily sit in on the post process," he says, "They'll liaise very closely with facilities and simply monitor what's going on within the timeframe and budget. But if something isn't happening that should be at an effects house or lab, it's their position to kick arse and get the ball rolling, whereas before an assistant editor would have the authority to do that sort of stuff."

The Necessity of Invention

But once again – isn't that something a producer and his or her team should be looking after? Why add another level of noise to an already cluttered equation where so many facilities are involved, contributing services in visual effects, titles, sound, lab and print needs and delivery?

According to Sue Maslin, that's just the point. "It makes complete sense to me as a producer that if I could pass on most of this work to someone specialised in the area I could be moving on more quickly to developing new projects."

And put into further perspective by Marcus Gillezeau of Firelight; "Do you really expect Peter Weir to have time to worry about hiring a third assistant foley editor for three days?"

Another thing worth remembering is that the job descriptions across the board have changed because of the new post landscape. "Rather than working collaboratively in one or two rooms," says Spectrum's Mike Honey, "people now tend to focus on their own areas of expertise in isolation. The assistant editor manages what goes in and out of the cutting room, and the editor – who's from a creative background based in film – has very little idea of what happens or what's required on a technical level, and certainly can't have the overview they once had.

"So you get this post supervisor coming in who doesn't really have a huge technical background but needs an overview of what's required."

The New Reality

Surely it can't be that different in this post-Matrix and Moulin Rouge world? The last world beating breakthroughs in film technology – sound and colour – are still standard. You still need sound effects, visual effects and titles; how much harder can it be to manage production of what are essentially the same elements?

In the old days (you know, the early 1990s), postproduction usually began and ended at one desk – that of the film editor. There was very little outsourcing to one or more VFX houses, a sound facility or CG designer. The whole movie went from the cutting room to the lab.

"If you were to go back 15 years when everything was done on sprockets," says Soundfirm's Honey, "it was up to the people in editorial – that is the editor and his or her crew – to oversee just about everything that happened in post and coordinate all those things. And the editor had got to where he was because he was aware and involved in every aspect of post – in other words, what went on in the cutting room, what went on in the laboratory, and what went on in respect of sound."

But that isn't all that's changed. Once the film is ready to strike from the various (often digital) elements, gone are the days when you just got the lab to run a few reels in the standard format and chuck it in the back of a courier van. In these dizzying days of multiple formats and worldwide releases, getting your film through printing and onto screens is a mind-boggling job.

"There are more delivery formats than ever before," says Sue Maslin, ticking off just a few from an off-the-cuff mental list. "D2, HDTV, DVD, Digital beta, all in both PAL and NTSC, new DVD requirements such as 5.1 sound mixes and the CD soundtrack. The changes in post production technologies and production pathways have pervaded every area and I need to keep up to date with them in order to budget wisely and make sensible decisions. [It's] extraordinarily time consuming and complex given the plethora of delivery formats and the impact of the new technologies that continue to appear."

Embracing Change

So what do the post facilities designing aliens, generating CG explosions and striking film prints think of this new beast watching over them when the producer used to be too busy to bother them?

It turns out it's to everyone's advantage. As Sue Maslin explains; "It makes life a lot easier for post facilities if they can keep a few post supervisors up to date instead of having to educate producers every few years when they end up back in post with too little time, not enough money left in the budget and annoyed at how everything has changed again since last time!

"It requires a high degree of communication in an informed manner with highly technical personnel and an understanding of and respect for the creative needs of the project."

Spectrum's Roger Savage thinks it's a matter of more than giving post facilities someone who speaks their language of deliverables and budgets; "If [a post supervisor] has the knowledge they can save the production money and the facilities time."

What You Need

So what does it take to make it as a post supervisor? It's a relatively new job description in the industry calling on knowledge in different facets of filmmaking. Since they're responsible for an essentially administrative function, wouldn't they need to come through the ranks of a producer's office?

"They'd certainly need to understand the process," says Spectrum's Mike Honey. "Not in a broad sense, but their role is like a producer in that they'd make sure they hired the best people to run the cutting room etc."

But knowledge of the postproduction process – most likely through editing – is paramount, according to Soundfirm's Roger Savage. "Generally they're people who have experience either as film or sound editors or line producers," he says.

Wherever they're coming from, one thing seems certain. Because of the demands of a small budget on a lone producer or the schedules, budgets and outcomes of many different post processes to a big producer, the post supervisor is making inroads into Australian film in a pretty big way.

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