Why Post-Production Supervisors Are the Industry’s Unsung Heroes
We’re back in the throes of awards season, the time when behind-the-camera artists like directors, editors, cinematographers, composers, and production designers are recognized and celebrated for their enormous creative contributions. And as we here at Frame.io research the post-production workflows for the Best Picture and Best Editing Oscar nominees, I’m reminded of how many hundreds (or thousands) of people it takes to produce a film or television show—and how many of them aren’t nominated for awards.
The fact is, anyone who works on a production of any kind is going to work hard—and somewhat thanklessly. Think about the deeply behind-the-scenes jobs like grips or casting assistants or, let’s face it, PAs. Minimally, they’ll get a paycheck and their names will whiz by in the credit crawl. In the best case, they’ll make great connections or build relationships that will lead to future, and potentially higher level, jobs.
Then there’s a category of people who work behind the scenes and always have—and probably always will. They’re the caretakers of the production: the ADs, the script supervisors, the transportation coordinators, etc. Their jobs are both essential and demanding, and if they don’t do them well they can throw a serious wrench into a shoot day.
And then there’s the job that is one of the most difficult and thankless of them all: the post-production supervisor, or post supe. If they’re doing their jobs well, they’re under the radar as the production hums along. But if there’s a problem, they’re the ones who have to scramble to fix it—whether or not it’s their fault. Their contributions, which span the course of the entire production (often from before the first frames have been shot through the final delivery), are sometimes under-appreciated and under-acknowledged, but they play a huge role in seeing a production through.
How do I know this? Because I used to be one. Not on large-scale films or TV shows, but on VFX-heavy commercials and music videos. Enough to know how important the role is, and how difficult it is to do well. And definitely enough to have the utmost respect for those who do it at the Oscar or Emmy level, without the chance of being nominated for awards.
We were lucky enough to get two of them to make time in their incredibly busy schedules to speak with us: Bill Wohlken, the post-production supervisor on last year’s best picture winner, Green Book, and Frank Sackett, co-producer for NBC’s Emmy-nominated The Good Place, whose series finale airs on January 30.
What does post-production really mean?
The term post-production is much broader in the age of digital cameras than it was when everything was shot on film and needed to be processed and printed, or transferred to some sort of tape format to be ingested into an NLE (in real time) before editorial could begin.
In the feature realm nowadays, editors are frequently on-set, working in tandem with the production and beginning the editorial process with material shortly after the director calls, “Cut.” (It’s part of Frame.io’s reason for being!) And in the case of an episodic show, post-production is almost always running concurrently with production as deliveries are staggered to meet air dates.
It’s why post-production is now commonly divided into two stages: post during production and post-post production, meaning after principal photography has wrapped.
The responsibilities of the post supervisor
To say that a post supe has a lot of responsibilities is like saying that a millipede has a lot of legs—it’s part of the definition.
Ideally, the post supe will be on board before shooting even begins. They’ll work with the editor or assistant editors to set up the post-production workflow and cutting room, and help hire the crew. They might work closely with the producer to understand what the “big three” on the creative side (the director, cinematographer, and editor) will need, and how to strategize about and choose which outside vendors to use. (If you read our article last year about the Mission: Impossible – Fallout crew and post supe Susan Novick, you’ll see how many entities are necessary to execute a super high-end, VFX-intensive production).
And, of course, that means that they are instrumental in creating the post-production portion of the budget.
Bill Wohlken mostly works on features in the $10 – $40 million range, a medium-sized budget on a Hollywood film.
Because no two workflows are exactly alike, Bill refers to every production as a “snowflake.” But his duties typically encompass budgeting, staffing, and workflow management through the following departments:
- Production (film/lab)
- Picture editorial
- Sound editorial
- Sound mixing
- Music (composition, supervision, editorial, and licensing)
- Graphics and titles
- Post-production film and lab (DI/Color/Finishing/Deliverables)
If you’ve ever looked at a post-production budget form, you’ll notice that there are tons of detailed line items that need to be estimated, which is all fine and good as you’re stepping through what it “should” take to complete a project if all goes according to plan—except that in the world of production, plans can change. Unexpected weather and lighting conditions that necessitate sky replacements, excessive noise on a location that requires ADR, a bruise or blemish on an actor that needs to be painted out—all unforeseen factors that add to a post-production budget.
“It’s a lot of plate spinning,” Bill says. “You’re dealing with managing creative people in a creative environment but it all comes down to money and time. You’ve heard the saying ‘Fast, cheap, good—pick two?’ No matter the budget or schedule, there’s almost never enough money or time.”
Which means that the post supe is also answerable to producers, finance companies, studio executives, and bond companies. At least.
If Bill is a plate-spinner, Frank Sackett considers himself more of a juggler.
With a background in episodic TV comedies (he began his career as a PA on Seinfeld), his duties and accountabilities are similarly broad.
“During production I am most in contact with the line producer, who may or may not stay on through post. But at a certain point, I end up reporting more to the show runner (the show’s creator) and the executives from the studio or network,” Frank says. “I can make up a schedule, but it’s kind of arbitrary—especially in the first season of a series, when the show runners are so squeezed for time. It’s a juggling act.”
Plate spinning, juggling, and balancing acts
Productions at that level never work in a truly linear fashion, whether it’s a feature film or an episodic show, and they always work fast. On a feature, you’ll have at least one principle editor and several assistants, along with the sound editors, VFX editors, and music editors. Choreographing how all those departments get what they need and being able to pivot quickly to address fixes or changes is, as Bill says, “a balancing act.”
There’s also work-in-progress that needs to be sent to producers and studio executives for screenings and to PR departments for trailers, all of which need to be coordinated through several post departments. And that may be before principal photography has even wrapped.
On an episodic show, several principal editors may be working on different episodes concurrently. “We have a big show to deliver every week,” Frank says. “In a perfect world, you’d have four weeks to do this. We have five days to do it. We can bounce things back and forth, but we always have to keep the train moving.”
In much the same way as in the feature world, the post crew is also responsible for teasers and spots, as well as previews of upcoming episodes—which requires coordinating deliverables across multiple teams.
If the role of post supe sounds a bit like that of a circus ringleader, that’s because it is. Every time something changes in one phase of the process or schedule, it ripples into another. Reassigning crew, updating schedules, stealing money from one part of the budget to pay for another—it’s all part of the job.
As is making sure that all your departments and crew have what they need when they need to work on it. If you’ve got people in seats, you’d best be sure you’re maximizing their time. “There are days when someone will say, ‘We were going to do this today,’ and I know that’s not going to happen so we do something else,” Frank says. “And I’ll remind myself that what’s most important is that we’re moving forward.”
If you’ve worked in any facet of post-production, you also know that the hours can be somewhere between long and brutal. Post supes do their best to control the crews’ hours to keep people from burning out, as well as to control overtime costs in the budget.
Of course, what many people who aren’t post supes don’t realize is that the post supes themselves are working extremely long hours, too. The difference is they don’t have a cut or a final sequence to show for it.
We’ll fix it in post
There comes a point in every production where reshooting is no longer an option—and then it falls to post-production to fix it. From a director’s standpoint, whatever the problem, it needs to be solved. By someone. From the editor’s standpoint, the director needs to be happy. It’s why post supes dread the inevitable words, “Can’t you just…?”
“Someone will ask me if we can just paint something out,” Frank says. “And sometimes we can. But if you’ve got a tracking shot with 15 people crossing through the frame, then for us to fix that one thing might take two days and $5,000.”
Which is not to say that post supes don’t do everything in their power—and then some—to accommodate creative changes. That’s why great communication skills and a cool head are key to being effective in that role. “Sometimes it’s a lot of listening and then trying to come up with a good plan,” Frank says.
Speaking from personal experience, the methodical approach is always the best. You’ll often need to figure out how to find the funds or the crew to get it done. You may start with neither. But losing your cool helps exactly nothing and no one.
And then there are those rare times when you have to persuade your creatives to just move on. “CBB” is a common term in the VFX sector. It stands for “could be better.” “We get so persnickety about little fixes here and there, sometimes we just have to step back and realize that nobody outside of that room will ever see what we’re fixating on. Or something will come up at the eleventh hour and we’re like, ‘We’ve got to move forward. If we had another day we would fix it, but we don’t.’”
award reward goes to…
So if there are no gold statuettes, and post supes spend long hours toiling in relative anonymity, why would anyone choose to spend a big chunk of their waking lives doing it?
Well, for one, you get to be around some pretty amazing creative people and work on some pretty amazing projects.
Frank has credits on some of the most iconic comedies of all time, working with people like Michael Schur, Jerry Seinfeld, and Larry David. “Some of the show runners I’ve worked with are so damn funny that it can be hard to get the work done,” Frank says. “It’s just fun to sometimes be the bug on the wall.”
Or you get to tell the kind of stories that only become funny with time. “I had one instance years ago where we had a very complicated main title,” Frank says. “An actress had gotten married so we put her new married name on there, but by the time we had the premiere party she was getting divorced, so she wanted to go back to her maiden name. We had 46 different masters that we had to fix!”
For Bill, it’s about knowing that your efforts helped make something better. “When you do an awesome job, and no one knows what you put in and how that extra thing you did that one day affected that other thing, and how that is reflected even just a tiny bit on screen, and as a result it’s that tiny bit better than if you didn’t do all the work—that’s the reward.”
All that to say, if you love working really hard in a super fast-paced environment as part of a team of incredibly smart people to solve problems, and if you’re good at overseeing complex projects while keeping track of vast quantities of details, you might just be cut out to be a post supe. Circus ringleaders don’t get the applause that the acrobats and lion tamers do, but they help keep all three rings going, to the delight of the spectators.
Meanwhile, when you’re watching those awards shows, be sure to raise a glass to all those people who aren’t on the stage, but who have no less a hand in bringing us first-rate entertainment. I know I appreciate their efforts.
Original image by Henrik Bothe, adapted for use in accordance with CC-A Share Alike 4.0.