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Surprise Ending
After the Apocalypse’s road to completion
By Yasuaki Nakajima

DIrector of photography Carolyn Macartney and assistant camera Arthur Ellis for Nakajima's After the Apocalypse.
After the Apocalypse is a black and white science fiction film shot on 16mm, about five survivors trying to cope with the "new world" following mass destruction in the wake of World War III.

After principal photography was done in November 1999, I spent four and a half years finishing the film before its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival in March 2004. The reason it took so long is because I was in college full-time, and I was also doing internships at four different post-production companies in New York City to learn sound work and get access to equipment.

I created a work print to edit on a 16mm flatbed at Film/Video Arts. It was before Final Cut Pro became a sensation and Avid was still expensive. In December 1999, I spent intensive editing time at Film/Video Arts (FVA) when it was still on 12th Street and Broadway. I paid $6.50/hour for 4-plate flatbed and $7.50/hour for 6-plate flatbed. When FVA moved to the Wall Street area, I lost editing space. So I found a Polish guy who owned a 4-plate flatbed in New Jersey. I paid him $50/day and kept picture cutting in his room during the winter. It was a very cold winter I remember. It was tough to go to New Jersey everyday from Brooklyn (where I lived at the time) while everyone else was having Christmas or New Year’s vacation.

Once I had a rough cut, I kept editing only at night and on the weekends at Millennium Film Workshop, because as I said, I was going to college full-time at Borough of Manhattan Community College. I only have a high school diploma and want to have a college degree from the US. I am too old to go college in Japan.

Once we locked picture, we had to move onto sound process. I believe sound design is as essential as the picture, and considering the context of the narrative, sound plays a key role in After the Apocalypse. The film takes place where no modern society exists anymore, and only nature’s most basic elements—water, air, wind, breath, wood, fire, and earth—can be experienced. I wanted to create sound from the subjective point of view of these five survivors, allowing the audience to experience the story through the characters’ ears. I would like the audience to realize how beautiful nature can sound, as the protagonists of the film come to realize this themselves.

We shot the movie MOS, so there was no sound recorded during the production. Our locations were all in and around Brooklyn, and there were too many airplanes and trains around the tunnel where most of the story takes place, so we could not have recorded anything anyway. We had to build the full soundtrack in studio from nothing, just like sound work for animation film.

To learn sound work, I started an internship at Gun For Hire Post, which is The Shooting Gallery’s subsidiary postproduction company. At the same time, I started to do another unpaid internship at a nonprofit organization called Harvestworks Digital Media Arts Center, where I was able to take free ProTools classes. I worked at Harvestworks for four years, and did several other shorter internships at postproduction companies in New York to keep upgrading my skills.

It was during my internship period that I met my sound collaborator, Dong Hwan Lee, who was studying film sound at NYU. Dong Hwan had access to a recording studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey, where we would work once a week. I used the Foley, ADR education I got from interning at Gun For Hire Post. We brought tons of junk inside this tiny studio. We created everything from footstep, body movement, props, SFX, and breathing.

Traveling from Brooklyn to Fort Lee, New Jersey takes two hours. And Dong Hwan had a new baby, so he would always have unexpected conflicts. Often I ended up waiting for him in front of the studio for an hour in the winter. And sometimes we would only have two hours of recording time because he had to take his baby to the hospital, or things like that. The studio was located next to a street, so if a truck passed by during recording we had to redo it. The people who lived downstairs watched a lot of TV with big sound, especially on the weekends. So we would sometimes have to wait until they stopped watching TV, because we had no right to stop their enjoyment. But I was using the studio for free, so I could not complain.

A scene from After the Apocalypse
Then Dong Hwan moved to Vancouver, Canada, so I kept Foley/SFX editing and rough mix at Harvestworks Digital Media Arts Center for another year. I started to mail rough-mixed versions of After the Apocalypse to film festivals in the fall of 2003. I received a letter from Geoffrey Gilmore from the Sundance Film Festival that said he was considering the film for the festival’s American Spectrum program. Now I think I should have used that letter to look for a rep. At the time, I had no idea how to react and so I just waited for him to call me—the Sundance application guidelines stated that we should just wait. Sundance didn’t call me. But Matt Dentler from SXSW Film Festival called in December asking if I could finish the film before March 2004. I told him that I could. He said, "We are just checking status of all films," and hung up without telling me if he’d seen the film or not.

A few months went by and I didn’t hear anything. Then on February 7, 2004, a Saturday night after I’d gotten back from Harvestworks, there was a phone message to call Matt. It was two days before the 2004 SXSW film lineup was to be announced. I was jumping around thinking we got in. After I calmed myself down, I called his cell. Matt said, "Your film is not selected yet, actually. But it is one of films that we are trying to program at the last moment. I’ll call you Monday to let you know what’s happened"

That weekend was long. Monday, I waited all day but he didn’t call. I checked the SXSW website, but didn’t see After the Apocalypse listed in the lineup. I felt down. That night, very late, I went out for Chinese takeout, and when I came back there was a message from Matt to call him. So I called him back, but he didn’t pick up.

The next afternoon, I decided to call him again, expecting to hear his apology for why he couldn’t find a slot for our film. I asked him, "So what’s happened with our movie?" Matt said, "Oh, your movie is in!" I was like, "No! That’s impossible!" And he said, "Really, you don’t want?" Of course, I told him we did, and after I hung up the phone, I started jumping around and calling all my friends, boasting all afternoon.

Now we had three weeks to deliver the mixed After the Apocalypse master tape. I’d sent the full ProTools sessions file to Dong Hwan in Canada. He agreed to work on sound re-edit and mix, so that I could work on promotion—making postcards, phone calls, sending emails. One week later, Dong Hwan lost access to the Canada studio where he was working, and sent me back an unfinished ProTools sessions file. I was delighted to see his excellent editing technique and solved a lot of synch problems that I’d had before, but I was shocked when I found that all the rough mix I had done was gone. He needed to take all volume level out in order to smooth his editing work. All the tracks I had named in very detailed order were changed to numbers. He needed to name tracks with numbers to match his mixing console.

There were about seventy tracks, and I had no idea which tracks were what. And most of the plug-ins he used at his studio in Canada didn’t work at Harvestworks. So most of his hard work for equalizing staff was wasted. I was so angry, but I could not blame him. What could I do? The reality was that I was the only person who could finish the mix for this film, and I had two weeks to do it. I went to school in the morning and came back to my room in the afternoon to get some sleep before going to Harvestworks to mix for the night. This went on for two weeks straight.

Programmers from SXSW warned me that the film would get pulled from the first night screening if I wasn’t able to send the master tape by Monday, March 8, 2004. The first screening was March 12. Since I had done all the rough mixing myself and listened to the movie so many times, it was not too hard to get things back as they were before. But it was very time consuming and I felt really stupid redoing it.

And on the morning of Monday, March 8, after few hours of sleep, I ran to the Fed-Ex office with the finished film. We made it.

Yasuaki Nakajima was born in
Hokkaido, Japan. He is a self-taught filmmaker who moved to New York in 1996 to join the independent film community. For more information about his feature film, After the Apocalypse,visit www.aftertheapocalypse.com.

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