Guy Maddin's Keyhole: A Post Production Diary

A collection of thoughts (and plot points) found along the way toward finishing Guy Maddin's latest feature film, Keyhole.

Colour Correction In A Black & White World

If someone were to tell me they had a feature film and wanted to know how many days of colour correction it would require, my stock answer would be “a minimum of five days”. When you factor-in balancing different light sources, compensating for low light conditions, smoothing the transition between edits (just for starters), that 90 minute film of yours starts to move very, very slowly.

So, when I heard there were only a few hours in the budget for colour grading Keyhole, I was shock-amused. However, to understand how this can be, we have to take a look at how it was shot. Historically, Guy shoots in a very low-fi style: Super-8, 16mm, with flourishes of 35mm film. This time around, the production shot using a digital SLR camera - yes, digital. This is a new technique that can (pending many factors) bypass many of the traditional stages of post while providing a very clear hi-resolution image. Because of this innovation, the picture editor was able to import a hi-res copy of the dailies. This also allowed him to do most of the colour correction locally on his HD edit system - it should be noted that not everyone has an eye for colour correction (hell, I’m happy if their monitors are calibrated properly half the time), so it should not be assumed that anybody other than an experienced eye could have pulled off this procedure.

Now, Keyhole is a black-and-white film. So, you may ask “How do you colour correct a black-and-white film?”. Well, the lack of colour certainly makes your palette of options smaller, yet you still have flexibility: brightness and contrast.

For example, take this photo:

It’s fairly neutral. There’s a lot of mid-range (that is, lots of grey “colour” space between black and white). So, what if we wanted to add some severity to it, to make it more dramatic? Here:

As you can see, the latitude between white and black (the grey “colour space” or mid-range) has been compressed: as a result, the whites are hotter and the blacks are deep and inky. This is an example of how you can colour correct black-and-white.

In the end, Guy and I spent all of two hours tweaking shots, accentuating electric sparks, and making sure nighttime shots looked like they took place at night. An unqualified success, thanks in large part to colourist Jim Fleming at Technicolor.

Suits me fine! Editing’s hard!

Guy Maddin, revealing he was locked out of the editor’s house.

A Sound Evaluation

When last we left Keyhole, picture was locked and the editor was rushing to send it to Toronto for picture mastering and sound mixing.

This morning, Guy, myself, and producer Jody Shapiro went to Tattersall Sound & Picture to sit-in for a sound evaluation session. This is where you screen the movie, stopping hither and thither to discuss sound FX ideas, and also make note of any potential fidelity issues with the production sound recordings. A lot can go wrong on a film shoot: actors mumbling, hollow-framed sets making everything boom-y, airplanes passing overhead. I’ve worked on shows where over 80% of the dialogue had to be replaced in post. Thankfully, this was not the case for our film.

(Sound Editor Dave Rose at the console)

The thing about Keyhole is that it’s not a big budget movie: nobody is walking away from this one with a wheelbarrow full of money. Thus, things like adding foley are judged judiciously. Equally important is Guy’s aesthetic: in this instance, he’s happy with much of what John Gurdebeke (the picture editor) has already added for sound effects, so that takes some pressure off of the sound team (which is a “team” of two people and an assistant: Dave Rose, David McCallum, and Krystin Hunter, respectively).

(Guy Maddin, listening intently)

With all the stopping and starting (and discussing), the sound evaluation session can easily extend to three times the length of the film. Our film was 93 minutes, and our eval took about 3 hours. Coffee and the obligatory fruit plate - two staples of post production environs - were provided.

At the end of the session, the sound team had their plan in place, Guy had emptied his head of any lingering thoughts, ideas, concerns, and I managed to take some poorly exposed photographs with my BlackBerry. Sure, I could’ve had them all standing outside, high-fiving each other in well-lit atmospheres - but…well, maybe I’ll consider that next time.

Tomorrow: colour! (well, it’s mostly black-and-white, so - more realistically - we will be tweaking contrast)

Isabella Rosellini as Hyacinth, and Udo Kier as Dr. Lemke

Isabella Rosellini as Hyacinth, and Udo Kier as Dr. Lemke

Comments Enabled!

Still adjusting to Tumblr - have now enabled user-comments (via Disqus). Bombs away!

Small Fractures

A post production schedule is not unlike a rollercoaster built expressly for the purpose of running one carriage of passengers once: a large undertaking of cost and logistics with a one-time goal.

Over the weekend, just prior to FedEx’ing his locked picture to Technicolor for mastering, the editor caught an error with his output. He had to redo it, which meant missing the Saturday drop-off deadline, which meant the package wouldn’t get delivered (from Winnipeg to Toronto) until Tuesday rather than Monday, as originally hoped.

Many emails ensued, seeing as we had colour-tweaking scheduled for Wednesday morning and Guy was only going to be in Toronto for a brief window of opportunity (busy man that he is). In the end, it all worked out, but it demonstrates how sometimes the rollercoaster tracks need switching at the last minute, the carriage (and its passengers) slowed (or alternately quickened) to avoid calamity.

Post production is a living, organic process where even the smallest fractures in the track can prove hazardous to the whole.

Post Production Basics: Editing, Editor & Picture Lock

I suppose I should clarify some terms I use as we go along, for those who may not understand some of the lingo.

Editing is a general term which tends to specifically refer to Picture Editing. In the words of one of the godfathers of cinema, Sergei Eisenstein, editing is the only art form native to filmmaking. Camerawork is inherited from photography. Acting, sets, costume, make-up: all inherited from theatre.

Every edit is a decision, made by the Editor - sometimes with guidance from the director or producer, other times unilaterally. During production, the editor receives a daily bounty of footage from the previous day’s shoot - these are conveniently called dailies or rushes (the latter because there is often intense pressure to see the footage). The editor assembles the previous day’s scenes throughout the shoot, ultimately working alongside the director after the production has wrapped (or ended).

Every editing schedule is different, but there is generally a Rough Cut, a Fine Cut, and then Picture Lock. Picture Lock (or “locking picture”) is when the editor and director are happy with the film and stop editing (or at least that’s what happens on nice productions like this one). Once picture is locked, it is a signal to the rest of the post production supply chain that the bulk of their work is about to begin. The editor now creates EDLs (edit decision lists): these are electronic files which capture the in and out-points of the locked picture edit. These EDLs are sent to the picture-finishing house (in our case, Technicolor) and the audio design team (as mentioned, Tattersall Sound & Picture). They will proceed to build the show from the master picture and sound elements from production, using the in and out-points in the EDL as a guide.

The Maddin-esque  view from my office window (Maddin-esque being a nice way to disguise my revulsion at what I hope to be our last snowy/freezing weekend of Spring 2011)

The Maddin-esque view from my office window (Maddin-esque being a nice way to disguise my revulsion at what I hope to be our last snowy/freezing weekend of Spring 2011)

Keyhole: Week One Summary

Editor John Gurdebeke has locked picture. Of course, the work isn’t over for him yet. He spent the week splitting and balancing the picture into what will become separate film reels, liaising with Technicolor (where the picture will be mastered and digitally output to film), and with the sound team at Tattersall Sound & Picture.

As of Monday, everyone should have what they need, including composer Jason Staczek, and so the magic of post production shall spread its wings beyond the dark confines of John’s edit room and a little closer to the rest of the world.

Next week: Guy’s in Toronto to discuss sound effects (!), colour-tweaking (it’s mostly b&w, so I use the word “colour” loosely) at Technicolor, and voice-over recording in Montreal. I will also endeavour to explain the cutting-edge (yet slightly unorthodox) post production workflow that Keyhole is using.

Who am I?

My name is Matt Cahill, and I’m a post production supervisor in Toronto. I am in charge of overseeing the disparate picture and sound processes, eventually guiding the project to delivery to the distributor. Most of the other film/TV projects I’ve worked on are listed here. I also teach a weekly class for Humber College.

When I’m not getting my hands dirty with film and TV, I write fiction. I’ve contributed non-fiction pieces to the site Ryeberg. I also have a blog.

Feel free to ask any questions about this production, the post production process, or stuff about film/TV. I will try to answer promptly.

Jason Patric as Ulysses Pick

Jason Patric as Ulysses Pick

What is “Keyhole”?

Keyhole is a new film by Guy Maddin, whose previous work includes The Saddest Music In The World and My Winnipeg. He has a definitive style and approach to filmmaking, as well as an unabashed love for (and encylopedic knowledge of) the medium. If you’ve never seen a Guy Maddin film, try this.

Keyhole stars Maddin accomplice, actor/director Isabella Rossellini, along with Jason Patric, and Udo Keir.

The story:

"A gangster and deadbeat father, Ulysses Pick (Patric), returns home after a long absence. He is toting two teenagers: a drowned girl, Denny, who has mysteriously returned to life; and a bound-and-gagged hostage, who is actually his own teenage son, Manners. Confused Ulysses doesn’t recognize his own son, but he feels with increasing conviction he must make an indoor odyssey from the back door of his home all the way up, one room at a time, to the marriage bedroom where his wife Hyacinth (Rossellini) awaits."

More soon, and rabidly!

Guy Maddin