The Editing Process

The editing process is usually split into three stages: the assembly cut, the rough cut, and the fine cut. In practice, the stages blend into one another, so we are really using these terms as a quick assessment of where you are in the editing rather than absolute divisions of work.

The Assembly Cut

The assembly cut is the first assembly of your rushes. You take your best material, your best shots, and attempt to put them roughly in order according to your script. At this stage, you are trying to get a very loose sense of the whole film, whether it is organized well and whether the structure works. At this stage, you also are evaluating shots, selecting some and cutting others. The selected shots will probably be inserted full length, with no attempt to shorten them. You should be overly generous at this stage, using a variety of shots to make the same point and only later deciding which you prefer.

Your interview shots will go in with the corresponding sync sound track, but apart from that, you will not bother with sound at this stage. Nor will you bother with rhythm or pace; the objective of this first cut is simply to give you a rough sense of what you have and an overall feel of the film once it has been put in some kind of order. At this point, the film could easily be two or three times its final length.

The Rough Cut

The real work begins when you start working on the rough cut. Here you are beginning to talk about proper structure, climaxes, pace, and rhythm. You are looking for both the correct relationships between sequences and the most effective ordering of the shots within a sequence. You are checking whether your story is really clear and fascinating, whether your characters come over well, and whether the film has punch.

You should now be paying particular attention to structure. Is your ground plan for the film's development correct? Is there a smooth and effective opening? Is there a logical and emotionally effective development of ideas? Does the film have a growing sense of drama? Is it focused? Are the climaxes falling in the right place? Is your ending effective? Is there a proper sense of conclusion? Broadly speaking, this is where you leave all your theoretical ideas aside, and instead concentrate on examining whether the film is really working and holding you.

At this state, you are also looking for what I call overloading. During the scripting stages, you probably packed your film full of ideas. That may have looked fine on paper, but during editing, you may find that it's all just too much to take. You are overloaded. The audience also won't be able to absorb this much information, so you may have to dump a few of your choice scenes.

It soon becomes apparent that the material itself will dictate major changes in your first editing ideas. For example, a few viewings might suggest that a sequence would work more effectively at the end of the film rather than at the beginning.

In my automobile accident film, I had a series of interviews five minutes into the picture in which people talked about the effect of accidents on their lives. During the rough cut, I realized that I had too much and cut out two of the interviews. One I abandoned completely; the second, in which a father talks about the loss of his son, I held for later use, though I wasn't quite sure where. In the middle of the film, I had a good sequence but realized as we edited it that it had no climax. The sequence showed cars racing along roads, cut to cars on a racing track, and ended with a man looking at bikini clad women decorating sports cars in a lush showroom. Meanwhile, the commentary talked about the car representing power and masculinity. Looking at the sequence, I realized that it would work more effectively if we dropped the showroom, went from the racing cars to a rollover crash, and then cut in the interview of the father talking about the loss of his son.

You continually have to ask yourself, Is the material really working where I have placed it? If not, why not? Here, the editor's eyes become extremely useful in breaking your preconceived notions of order and flow. Often the editor can suggest a new order that might have escaped you because of your closeness to the material.

During the rough cut, you also begin to pay attention to the rhythm within the sequences. Are the shots the right length? Do they flow and blend well? Are they making the points you want? You also begin to keep an eye on length. Thus if your final version has to be a fifty-two-minute film for TV, your rough cut could be anywhere from fifty-seven to sixty-five minutes. In your fine cut, you will adapt the film to required length. There are no hard and fast rules here. However, if your rough cut is way over the required length, it defeats the purpose of the fine cut, which should be a trimming and refining process only.

The paper cut. During the editing, a tremendous amount of rethinking and reordering takes place. In many cases, even the editing script soon ceases to bear much resemblance to what is on the table. How does one cope and maintain order?

One of the best methods is to make a paper edit of the film. Each sequence is written out on filing cards that show briefly the points being made and the intros and exits. The cards are then pinned to the wall following the order of the first editing script. As the film goes on, a glimpse at the cards may suggest a new order. You can then juggle the cards to see what, in theory, this new edit would look like. If you follow through and reorder the film itself, the cards stay in the new order. Thus, though the editing script may be out of date, the cards always reflect where you actually are in the film. This paper edit is useful in scripted films, but it really comes into its own when you are working with verite and partly scripted material, where it becomes tremendously helpful in building dramatic structure.

The Director-Editor Relationship

The rough cut is a process of examining, building, and tightening that can take anywhere from a few days to a few months. And the editor's role in this is crucial.

Some people look on their editors as mere cutters, artisans who are there only to work under their control and put their great directorial decisions into effect. Such an attitude is the height of foolishness and stupidity. The good editor has honed his or her skills over the years and is probably just as good a creative artist as you are. So it helps to pay attention and learn. Most editors want to listen to you, to see where you are and where you want to go, but they can also bring something creative to the job. Sometimes they will propose radical departures from your original concept. The only criterion is artistic. Will such a suggestion improve or hinder the film? Most of the time you don't know until you try.

In my film on the children's village, I had a lovely sequence halfway through in which the children attend the rehearsal of a major symphony orchestra. The sequence concentrated on the players, with marvelous close-ups of violinists, tuba players, and trumpeters, and some especially good shots of the conductor. At the end of the film, the children watch David, their teacher, as he tells them about the Fire Bird ballet, puts on the music, and then mimes the actions of an orchestral conductor.

And that was where the film was supposed to end. Suddenly, my editor, Larry, suggested that we intercut some shots of the real symphonic musicians, the violinists and the conductor, as the children and David listen to the ballet music in their school shack. Initially, I opposed this suggestion. I thought that the audience would be confused between the scenes in the middle of the film and the scenes at the end, that there was no logic behind the second appearance, and so on.

I was completely wrong. The intercutting gave the scene a magic and an extra dimension it never had in the original version. And this magic was entirely due to the creative input of the editor.


Although writing narration is covered fully in chapter 15, I want to mention a few points that affect the editing process. As the rough cut proceeds, it often helps to write at least a tentative version of the commentary. You can record this yourself and then have it laid as a guide track for the picture editing. This will help establish the logic of the film and the flow and length of the shots. If you don't want to go to the expense of a rough guide track, you can just read the commentary to picture. However, as you will often be absent from the editing room, a guide track that can be laid in is much better.

At this point, there is a certain basic dilemma. Should the words dictate the picture or vice versa? I have always believed that where possible, pictorial rhythm and flow should be the first consideration, and that words should be written to picture, rather than pictures adjusted to words. That's why I have argued for the first editing to be done to ideas rather than to a strict commentary. However, when you are making a film about politics or complex ideas, you may find that the commentary has to come in sooner rather than later, that you need to edit against specific words rather than ideas. In such cases, write a fast commentary. There will be time to adjust it later, but it will be a tremendous help as the editor refines the material.


Your film may or may not have music. In feature films, we expect music everywhere, and the usual complaint is that there is too much. The music often drowns the film or leads the emotions so that there are no surprises. Documentary films tend to use less music, since it can break the illusion of reality. However, when used well, music can lift a film tremendously.

Most historical documentary series — unlike social realist documentaries— use music galore, so that Russian tanks go into battle accompanied by Tchaikovsky, and Polish partisans work wonders to the music of Chopin. Most people love it. Some people hate it. But it's all-encompassing. The interesting thing, as a filmmaker, is to see and understand what the music is really doing for the film.

Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl's paean to Hitler and his Nazi thugs, uses music to tremendous effect. The film opens with Wagner's stirring "Ride of the Valkyrie," which sets the mood of expectation and exultancy. Later, the drums add passion and drama to the dark mystery of the torchlight processions. Finally, German folk songs add excitement and vitality to the early-morning shots of hijinks at the Hitler youth camp.

One of the best documentaries for learning about the use of music is still Humphrey Jennings's Listen to Britain, a sound portrait of Britain in World War II. It has no commentary, depending for its powerful effect on the conjunction of music, natural sound, and images. Within the film, Jennings uses folk songs such as "The Ash Grove" and music-hall songs such as "Underneath the Arches" and "Roll Out the Barrel" to stress his faith in popular culture and the sense of the very "Englishness" of the scene. Later, he uses Mozart to stress the continuity of civilized human values threatened by Nazi barbarism. The Mozart scene actually begins with a Myra Hess piano concert at the National Gallery. But the music then continues, accompanying a series of public images. As the music swells, we see trees, a sailor, people boarding buses, the statue of Lord Nelson (England's savior against Napoleon), and a barrage balloon. Finally, and unexpectedly, the Mozart underscores work in a tank factory, where it is gradually lost among the natural sounds of the machines.

Many filmmakers use songs in historical documentaries to give a flavor of the times, and that seems fine in moderation. Thus, the old union songs in Union Maids are quite effective, as are the folk songs in The Good Fight, a film about the Spanish Civil War. Ken Burns's very careful selection of contemporary songs and period music in his Civil War films adds immensely to the feel and success of the series. The dangers are that the music may be used as a crutch and that the viewers may weary of Pete Seeger and his banjo or the like. This tends to happen when your visual material is weak, or when the connection between subject, mood, and music is not appropriate.

Too often, music is used for emotional uplift alone. This is a pity, because it can also comment effectively, even ironically, on the visuals. One of the best films in the series The World at War was John Pett's It's a Lovely Day Tomorrow. The title was taken from a well-known song of the 1940s, performed by Vera Lynn. The film is about British soldiers fighting the Japanese in Burma, and the song is used sparingly to accompany shots of soldiers dragging themselves through the mud during the monsoon rains. The song evokes a dreamy, wistful mood, a sense of regret and abandonment. But the music also suggests that there is no tomorrow, only the continuing shock and horror of today.

When should you begin thinking about music? Probably somewhere between the rough cut and fine cut. A lot of your film may actually be cut to the rhythm and beat of the music; therefore, it's best not to leave the choice until the last minute.

Your music will either be specially written for the film or taken from prerecorded albums, tapes, or compact discs. My preference, where budget permits, is to have music written directly for the film. It's not just that the music is fresh, but you can aim for a unity that is hard to achieve when your music comes from all over the place. When you are using prerecorded music, the simplest way to deal with the whole business is to record your possible music choices on cassette and then play them against the picture. You will soon sort out what works and what doesn't. The effective music is then transferred to 16mm magnetic track or video, and the other music is put aside.

Test Screenings

At some point in the editing process, you will probably have to hold some test screenings. These might be for the sponsors or the executive producer, or to get the reactions of the intended audience. The aim of previews is to get feedback while you can still change the film. The best time for this is toward the end of the rough cut. A critically constructive preview can be tremendously helpful to the director, enabling him or her to see where the mistakes are and to guide the film closer to the wishes of the sponsor or senior producer. But you also have to guard against comments that are meaningless and even destructive.

On one occasion, I held a preview of a university public relations film with the university president and five of his junior colleagues in the cutting room. After the screening, the president asked his juniors to react to the film. Their problem was that they didn't know whether the president liked it or hated it, and they wanted to show that they agreed with him. The result, which was rather funny, was that they all hedged their bets. "The film was fine, but . . . " "The issues were clear, the photography was good, but . . . " In the end, the president, to my relief, said: "I think it's great. We don't need any changes."

Most directors of any worth know the faults and problems of their films well before these screenings. But the one thing they lack is the reaction of a test audience to a teaching or training film. Previews are essential. You are trying to find out whether the film is really achieving its goals in terms of altering or reinforcing attitudes. Ideally, these test screenings should be held in normal surroundings rather than in a screening room. If the sponsors are present, they should be at the back so that their presence does not inhibit discussion. In the end, the discussions do two things. First, they show you whether you are reaching your audience. If you are, that's great. If not, you can begin to see where the problems lie. Second, such screenings often assuage the sponsors' fears. In private screenings with you, they may have objected to certain scenes, characters, or language. In the test screenings, they can see that the fears were baseless, with the result that you can go ahead as planned.

After the screenings, think through the criticisms. Some will be valid, others nonsense. It is useful to remember that the general tendency of these screenings is to look for problems, so don't be surprised if there is little praise. And don't revise just because a lot of people have said you should. They may be wrong, and you may be right. Make changes only if you think they are actually going to help the film.

The Fine Cut

During the fine cut, you make the last changes to the picture and start adding or finalizing commentary, music, and effects. Locking the fine cut is the process of saying "Enough. That's the film, that's its length, and that's the way it's going to go out." When you get to the fine cut, you will have expended a tremendous amount of time and energy on the film, and you will want to get out as fast as possible. You will have to resist this impulse, draw a breath, and ask whether the film is really working; if it is not, ask what can be done. You should ask yourself for the last time whether all the issues are clear, whether any of the information is redundant, whether the film has the right opening and ending, the proper rhythm, pace, and flow. Does it grip the emotions? Is it interesting to an outsider? Does it fulfill your intentions?

The three elements that begin to dominate at this stage are narration, music, and effects. Some narration and music may have been added while you were working on the rough cut, but both must now be finalized. This becomes a see-saw process; sometimes the narration and music are adjusted to fit the picture, and sometimes exactly the reverse happens. Only when the picture is locked do you add missing sound effects.

Film Making

Film Making

If you have ever wanted the secrets to making your own film, here it is: Indy Film Insider Tips And Basics To Film Making. Have you ever wanted to make your own film? Is there a story you want to tell? You might even think that this is impossible. Studios make films, not the little guy. This is probably what you tell yourself. Do you watch films with more than a casual eye? You probably want to know how they were able to get perfect lighting in your favorite scene, or how to write a professional screenplay.

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