Making Susie Sunshine

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Director Chelsea O'Connor with Jessica Howell. Photo credit: Emil Chang.

The Los Angeles Women's International Film Festival opens downtown at LA Live this weekend. One of the headliners is a short film called Susie Sunshine directed by newcomer Chelsea O'Connor. Susie Sunshine is the story of an employee at a very unique energy company who breaks a rule that leads to a discovery, both about herself and the company she works for. O'Connor actually did a lot more than just direct this compelling, dexterous, feminist sci fi film. O'Connor was working with a limited budget so she wore many different hats, including post-production supervisor. It's this last role we talked about recently.

Not everyone knows just how much goes into a film once it's shot. What were some of the biggest lessons that you learned in post-production?

Chelsea: Oh wow. So many. I think the biggest lesson I learned was how valuable a post-production supervisor is. We didn't hire one because we're a short film and we didn't have any extra money. It seems like an extra position that you don't really need. They're just organizing everyone, right? What ended up happening is that as the director, I ended up being the post-production supervisor. I spent a lot of my time coordinating delivery of files or making sure that everybody had what they needed. I had my editor, my VFX editor, my composer and my sound designer. Most of the communication had to go through me.

So much of post is not glamorous and it's understanding all the technical things like EDLs and all the different file formats. A director doesn't usually know that stuff and they don't need to, but a post-production supervisor does. In a way it turned out to be a great thing because, in fact this is true for the entire filmmaking process - every corner that I cut ended up being a million times harder and more complex. But I also learned so much about the filmmaking process. The more you understand what everybody on your team is doing, the better you can serve their work. So I learned an insane amount, but I primarily learned that you should hire a post-production supervisor.

VFX is one of the more pronounced aspects in filmmaking. You have a lot of VFX in your film since you created a completely alternate world. What was that process like?

Chelsea: We always knew we had a heavy amount of VFX in the film. I knew that would complicate things, but I didn't know how. It ended up creating a longer post-production process. If we hadn't had a couple different things going on, we would have finished post in 3 or 4 months instead of 8. But I hired an editor who was also editing Star Wars, which made him available a lot less than he would normally be since he was already working 14 hour days. Just getting picture lock took us a lot longer. Even after that, the VFX took a long time and not just because VFX is a long process. We hadn't had a lot of VFX designed for our stuff in advance. It was a lot of designing and discovering and creating as we went. But when you're working on a science fiction film, it's all new ideas like- these computer screens don't look like what we're used to, so how do they look? It's a really fun part of the process, but it's also time-consuming. Sound and score can do work without the VFX, but they can only do so much. At a certain point, they had to stop and wait. Those were huge challenges. If I were to make the film again, I would have gone over some design of VFX in advance.

What was your favorite part of the post-production process?

Chelsea: The music is the most fun. Everything feels like it can take a long time and it's a lot of analyzing and going back over it. It can, at times, suck the fun out of it. Not to say that it wasn't a great time, it really was. But music can feel like some of the most creative stuff and it's more fun to listen to music than bad ADR or try to figure out how to get the pops out of some sound.

The mix was the single most fun day and I wasn't even expecting that. I was nervous about it all coming together, but I also knew I was in such good hands with my composer and sound designer. I just had never had a real mix like that.

All the other parts of post, they are there to help support the story that you've written. But the music is like writing the story in a different way. It tells the emotion of the story, but with a totally different set of tools. To see that come together with work that everyone else has been doing - that's the part that really moved me.

Talk about sound design. What makes good sound design?

Chelsea: My sound designer, David Raines and I talked about it a lot. He said that really good sound is the stuff you don't hear. But with science fiction that's not always the case. There are so many layers to our sound design. David found foley libraries and cut sounds from those into the film. You don't really hear it all, but the film still feels better. When someone walks up and you don't hear their footsteps, your mind is wondering why their feet don't make any sound. It takes you out of the film. It's a fine line of knowing where sound belongs and then keeping sound levels consistent. These are all things you aren't supposed to hear because that means he did a really great job.

But in a science fiction world, there are sounds that you're supposed to hear. We have all these computers and what kinds of beeps and buzzes are they supposed to make? Our train in the film is powered by sunshine and runs on water. How is that supposed to sound?

Chelsea wrangled a top-notch crew for post with decades of experience. Here's what they found so appealing about Susie Sunshine.

Julian Smirke, Editor- The appeal of Susie Sunshine for me was apparent in the script. The story had this old 50's period piece feel within a science fiction world. It's also exciting to be involved in a story that has strong female characters. Chelsea is great to work with and very open to exploring different ideas during editing.

Jase Lindgren, Visual FX Supervisor- Chelsea is a great example of a director who truly appreciates the input and ideas she gets from her team and combines those into one cohesive film. Her dedication to the project and her never-ending optimism are the primary reasons why this film exists today. I chose to work on this film because I was inspired by her story, the unique artistic vision of it, and by Chelsea's dedication to working with the best possible team.

David Raines, Sound Designer- Chelsea has a unique voice. A unique perspective and a wonderful quirky way of drawing the audience into that perspective. When I first watched Susie Sunshine I couldn't wait to help Chelsea take us into this world and Susie's story. I think the audience is really going to love the journey Chelsea and Susie take us on.

Dean Harada, Composer- To take on non-ironic, alt world, sci fi vision of feminism as your directorial debut takes courage. To actually make it happen takes an insane amount of commitment. That Chelsea mixes those strengths with genuine curiosity and open ears makes her an incredibly compelling leader. I trust her direction implicitly - you know it when you sit with her: she's the real deal.