Professional editors tell us the absolute worst notes they've ever received.
We all generally know what jobs in post-production entail, but so much of it involves the enigmatic process of "decoding." One must read between the lines to understand what's truly being asked, taking into account the myriad opaque forces motivating these often outrageous and unreasonable requests.
Below is a collection of such requests, ranging from the loony to the downright larcenous, recounted by producers, coordinators, post-supervisors, editors, and VFX artists who’ve stared down the barrel of nightmarish notes…
[Disclaimer: The names of those interviewed have been changed to protect their livelihoods (and, in some cases, lives) from the various corporations and power players which they so kindly agreed to trash for this article.]
“Why did the Holocaust happen?”
It’s a good question, really. One that haunts us politically, historically, and morally, probing into the darkest recesses of the human soul.
So when a small post team on a documentary received the note “Why did the Holocaust happen??” it’s fair to say they didn’t feel equal to the task of explicating this socio-ethical tragedy in a series of sound bites.
And yet, this was the mandate from a young studio executive.
Shelley, the post-supervisor on the documentary, recounts with a laugh, "What [they] meant obviously was 'Can you provide more historical grounding of the political atmosphere that led to Hitler’s rise and the execution of the Final Solution?' But the note literally just said, 'Why did the Holocaust happen??'"
Shelley attributes the incident to what she calls the "corporate language barrier": clients, executives, and administrative in-betweens attempting to express a narrative need but lacking the necessary film-specific vocabulary.
Linus—a VFX production manager and engineer with three decades of studio experience—has a more, one might say, "pointed" perspective on the nightmare note phenomena: "It’s all just dick swinging."
Bad notes are frequently not about the actual content. They are a malignant growth of ego, business, and political infighting. Post is almost always the unit tasked with performing the macabre surgery.
Such was the case in 1994 on a big VFX-heavy studio sci-fi thriller referred to by its director as "the next Star Wars." Quite obviously he was suffering from Delusions of Grandeur Moff Tarkin. This particular episode occurred squarely in the midst of mid-90’s post-Jurassic Park CGI mania, and as Linus puts it:
In this instance, the CGI showstopper was a flowing inter-dimensional wormhole, designed and executed by an agile VFX team capable of tackling even the most sweeping notes with record speed.
However, when a note reading “make it more ethereal” came down from on high, what could have been potentially Mission: Impossible felt more like Misson: Uhh…Wait...What?
The reigning VFX Supervisor provided no additional context to the “more ethereal” request, leaving the team to deduce how best to translate this magnetic-fridge poetry into technical specs.
“The impossible note is the same note, every time,” Linus says. After every new render, the VFX supe would simply repeat the note: “More ethereal.”
Eventually, there was a breakthrough. The team discovered that “ethereal” simply meant...more blue.
More blue, and what Linus describes as “a hazy, bleary, slightly blurred but local contrast-y” filter.
When editing branded content, you’ll have more success pissing in the wind than “pushing back” on notes from a corporate client.
In fact, you may very well get more sympathy from a stiff breeze than from a stiff.
Dinah—a creative producer for a major media company—recalls one such instance of client run-around run amok.
It involved: 1 cocktail recipe + 2 gin brands + 3 movie stars.
Here’s how that devil’s arithmetic added up:
The content was a three-minute recipe video featuring two actresses from a studio film coming to theaters near you.
Cocktail parties featured heavily in the film, so the premise was simply the actresses describing their favorite cocktail recipe on camera, intercut with b-roll of the drinks being made. Simple syrup, right?
However one actress, who’ll we’ll call ‘Laverne,’ had a movie star husband who had just launched his own brand of whiskey. Laverne only agreed to appear in the video on the stipulation that her husband’s bourbon be cross-promoted.
The shoot went off with only a few diva fits and starts, and soon editing commenced. That is, until an alarmed ‘STOP WORK’ email came in.
It turns out the other actress—let’s call her ‘Shirley’—had just signed a binding contract with a competing whiskey maker. This meant Shirley was legally prohibited from promoting any other booze, let alone another whiskey.
What did this mean for Dinah and her editor? The label of the prominently featured movie star-sponsored whiskey had to be blurred. This would ultimately prove rather difficult—since the video was deliberately styled as an advertisement for this specific whiskey.
The fix wasn’t impossible but it required a massive amount of masking and tracking. In the video the whiskey bottle is picked up, poured, panned into, and even spun around on a Lazy Susan.
Obscuring the logo ended up taking three times longer than the actual edit. All to create an elaborate sponsored cocktail video highlighting a censored alcohol bottle.
Dinah remembers. “This all had to get done in one day and we were scrambling. We should have asked for more time.”
Laverne caught wind of her hubby’s bourbon getting axed and issued an ultimatum: her whiskey or she’d walk.
Finally, the studio, in its infinite wisdom, decided a three-minute cocktail video that’d disseminate for less than a week on Instagram wasn’t worth a war of attrition between two bankable stars.
The video was canceled. Not surprisingly the actresses didn’t leave the experience in (pardon the pun) good spirits.
“Make It Worse”
Notes and revisions are, by their nature, intended to improve the work. Seldom is the intention to actually make the work...worse. And yet…
“I’ve gotten it a few times,” says Dennis, an animator and VFX artist.
“The first was when I was animating a dragon for a flash banner ad. I spent a lot of time making sure it had the proper smoothing and weight. It looked really good.”
“Too good,” was the feedback Dennis received from his superiors.
The problem was his work was so accomplished that the banner now didn’t “match the animation the previous artist did.” Which, Dennis admits, looked “reeeeally shitty.”
Dennis’ boss worried that the client would notice the sudden spike in quality and start questioning what their money actually could have bought.
The verdict: Dennis painstakingly removed frames to more accurately emulate the inept, jerky motion of the earlier animation.
This required several rounds of worsening, with similar feedback each time: It’s just not quite shitty enough. Can we try again?
A Monstrous Ask
Some notes demand the post team work overtime, affecting them physically. Others are demeaning, with psychological repercussions.
Few and far between, however, are notes that require actual crimes and misdemeanors. Here’s one of them:
The year was 1997.
The project, Linus recalls, recoiling, “was a $150 million dollar show, back when that was a shit ton of money. Among the highest budgets ever.”
A monster movie to be exact, for which the studio hired a boutique VFX shop. That company had their eye on becoming belles at the VFX ball, with this creature feature as their backless gown.
Quickly it became clear these upstarts “couldn't do the work quality-wise, couldn't do the work quantity-wise, and couldn't do the work within the budget they’d agreed to do the work for.”
So one Friday morning, less than a year before the film’s release, Linus was called into the office of the studio’s Chief Technology Officer.
His directive was as follows:
Rent a half-size moving truck, drive to the VFX shop, and retrieve a large number of disk arrays and workstations.
Linus says, “They were machines that had human-created data on them. Which is the most valuable part of any of this.”
He realized his superiors were after the disks that contained the models and assets specifically for the monster.
The studio technically had title to these assets, but not necessarily to any of the hardware. They wanted to protect their investment because, as Linus later learned, there were creditors coming down the following Monday to begin repossessing machines.
“I drove the truck and backed it into the fucking loading dock. And we rolled pallets onto the truck and took [the Studio’s] assets on disks and machines that may or may not have been paid for and spirited them back to Culver City.”
Though the heist itself went off smoothly Linus agreed that “steal the computers” was, in retrospect, a pretty monstrous ask.
“Rough Cut By Next Week Or We’re Canceled”
Perhaps the biggest source of tension between clients and post teams stems from unrealistic expectations. More specifically: turnaround times.
This incident on a reality series—recounted by James, the lead editor—is one the most unrealistic turnaround scenario imaginable.
The story begins: it was a dark and stormy production...
A 30-day, three-camera reality TV shoot, all outputting 4K raw footage.
James was hired last minute after another post team was dramatically fired mid-shoot. He was told all the footage was “prepped,” he just needed to take the baton.
His first task: produce a rough cut of the pilot episode. When James inquired about timeline, all he was given were four crimson flags: “A S A P.”
The details were vague and the warning signs neon but the money was real and James was hungry.
After signing a contract, James was let in on the full scope of the challenges ahead: yes, the project was prepped, but in Premiere (which isn’t standard for reality) and without proxies (which isn’t standard for… anything).
This meant that over 200 hours of footage was organized into merged clips, but without editable proxies attached. And, very unfortunately for James, since the clips were created first, attaching subsequent proxies wasn’t an option.
The footage was NOT editable.
James came up with a workaround: create sequences for every clip, replace the video with proxy-enabled media, then recreate properly merged clips.
He broke the bad news to the producers: prep maintenance alone would take two weeks. Which meant a rough cut of the pilot would take a minimum of a month’s work, at the soonest.
The producers responded with even worse news:
A pilot episode must be delivered to the network by a specific date or all funding will be immediately severed.
Additionally, the network retained an option to shut down the entire production.
The date in question? Friday of next week. James relays the feeling of realizing he had 30 days of work to squeeze into 7:
“I wanted to die. Not kill myself, per se, just cease to exist. Anything, to not feel the stress anymore.”
James tried pushing back but was powerless against this impenetrable production contract.
If he wanted to get paid, James had to do the impossible.
“I woke up every morning with a Terminator vision readout of every micro-task that needed to get done that day.”
He also recognized a shift in the power dynamic with the producers. “They were in a way more vulnerable position than I was. I might not get paid but they had careers at stake. So for that one week at least they could deny me nothing.”
James’ laundry list of essentials included:
- 2 brand new Mac Pros with two 5K monitors each: one dedicated solely to proxies, the other solely for editing
- 64 TB of additional external drive space
- A full-time Assistant Editor to handle prep and a Story Producer to log and string out the episode
Even armed with all this, James and his team worked 18-hour days right up until the deadline.
In the end, they were able to squeak out a pilot and deliver it to the network on time, although James wasn’t exactly thrilled with the quality of the work:
“It was complete garbage. But it bore a distant resemblance to television and that’s all it needed to do.”
After this herculean effort, James received an email from his producers. He anticipated heaps of praise for his superhuman achievement...
The email simply said: “When can we expect episode two?”
“Maintain Consistent Genital Velocity”
Linus can recall, with perfect accuracy, his colleague in the early 2000’s whose sole job it was to….“animate the balls.”
The project requiring this level of, ahem, specificity involved the animated recreation of an accurate male human form.
Before the days of motion capture there was really only one way to achieve this. Linus explains:
“A cyber scan of an actor, and then an inverse kinematic skeleton digitally constructed inside of the cyber scan, which in this instance included that actor’s cock and balls. So when [the actor] moves his right leg, his right testicle had to balance correctly so that when his left leg moved forward it was in the right place, etc.”
This section of the CGI skeletal system demanded such detail that it became one artist’s sole task throughout the entirety of post-production.
While maintaining consistent genital velocity was a tedious and painstaking responsibility, the true toll was having to articulate a response to the question: “So what are you working on these days?”
Linus reminds: “I told you it was all just dick swinging!”
The Monster At The Top
“I didn’t realize how strongly I felt about this,” Shelley says.
“I am continuously shocked by how limited anyone outside of post’s understanding is of how long things are supposed to take. In production, you’re told you work a 12-hour day and you're not allowed to go over that. Everyone knows that.
Post-production people end up working longer hours and experience more emotional and physical exhaustion.”
So why aren’t the same professional boundaries in place for post?
Shelley posits that, “People are really scared to push back and as a result, I think we all suffer this culture of ‘anything that it takes to get it done.’ And therefore feel horribly abused.”
She recalls one producer’s demand that he be able to watch a full cut of a feature film the same night that the mix was finished.
“I said ‘No. No way.’ Sometimes you have to say ‘no.’
Just because these people are responsible for hiring you, or continuing to employ you, doesn’t mean they’re God. You were hired for a reason. You have abilities and insight into a process that these other people do not have."
"You have to push back.”
Linus, always reliable for putting a finer point on things, agrees:
“It's either people emulating the monster at the top or impersonating the monster at the top because that's what they think works, or that's what they think they're going to get rewarded for. And it goes right down the line.”
Considering nightmarish notes in this context, as a cruel chain of command that nobody breaks out of both fear and circumstance, does echo a familiar question:
Why did the Holocaust happen?