Editing a movie can have as diverse a process as there are diversity of movies. Each and every edit will be unique in its own way, and present its own unique problems, this however has not stopped filmmakers from discerning a somewhat uniform process for the post-production workflow. While abiding to these guidelines will not edit your film for you, it will give you a framework to hang your ideas from, and understanding and respecting the role of each step will help you to avoid problems later in the edit.
The first, and oft overlooked, step is to watch all of the footage. Your footage is known as ‘rushes’ and as an editor it is crucial to be across all the rushes. It is highly likely that as the editor you were not on the shoot, you were probably in a dark little room working on other projects when a camera operator (the jock’s of the film world) were out playing in the sunshine pointing cameras at things. Because of this it is vitally important that you see every piece of footage so that you are not out of the loop as to what is there. If your director asks for the shot where ‘subject–x’ smiled whilst playing with the kitten, you better know the reel/clip number to go to, because they won’t. In some instances a crew will record a shot list as they shoot but in the frantic and unpredictable world of event coverage or any type of observational documentary this won’t always be possible. So watch every frame!
First impressions last, and you only get one, so its important to take note of what the footage makes you think, or how it makes you feel. These are the feelings your audience will take away with them upon watching your film, so its important to make note of what you think works or doesn’t work, and what reaction you have to it. Watching rushes is often done with the Director, DoP and editor, and can be a collaborative process where thoughts and ideas about footage start to take shape.
Whatever your system, once all the footage has been seen (or before/during) you will need to organise your footage. This can be done in a variety of ways, usually separated in your NLE (non-linear editor) into bins. Bins are just a fancy word for folder systems, but they take their name from the old days before digital where reels of film were stored in physical bins. Footage is often separated into scenes, for our interview heavy documentaries we tend to separate footage into scenes, interviews and cutaway, so that we can intuitively find it later on.
A useful way to organize reels is by date and camera, so “20120713 Cam A – Interior House” or “20120619 Cam B – Richard PTC” will keep your clips in chronological order and then camera/setting groupings. There are an infinite number of ways to organize your footage so make sure everyone who will be handling it uses the same method and workflow. More on this under File MGMT.
Start writing down the ideas that come to you, or that have come to you as you watched the footage and communicate with your director over the direction they want to head. Sometimes storylines will only start to emerge through editing or footage review so have a plan. This plan will change, and will most likely not be your final film, but you have to start somewhere.
For ‘talking head’ (interview based) documentary, it can be helpful to do a transcript of the interviews with time-code annotations. This means you know what the powerful moments are and where to find them. Regardless of whether you do a ‘Paper Edit’, a transcript of your film is a very handy tool to help you, especially in the later stages of the edit, to go back and identify bits you may have missed or forgotten about.
A Paper Edit is when you take the transcript, and create a script for your film based around what is said. This can be a really good way to organize the ideas and narrative of your film, and can create a very cohesive structure that flows like an essay. The downside of the paper edit is that it ignores the visceral and visual imagery of scenes, and the pacing may suffer before further work.
Once you have your transcripts, identify the best bits of every interview and start to put them down in some sort of order that roughly represents your director’s intent. Make a conversation out of these disparate pieces of interview and you will be surprised at the flow that you can create. If things aren’t working, juggle them around, keep working at it until you have a conversation that flows and tells your story. This is called an ‘Assembly Cut’. As you lay down pieces of dialogue think about what that person is saying and take notes (either on paper again, or use the text function of your editing software to leave a text-plate note for yourself in the spot on the timeline) as to what type of overlay footage you want to use.
An Assembly Cut is the first run through with your NLE. All your footage is labeled and organized, you’ve watched it and have some idea of what you want the film to look like, and hopefully you have a transcript of what’s in the footage. At this point you don’t want make any cuts to finicky, don’t worry about frame matching, or cleaning up audio, in fact don’t worry too much about anything, except structure. The assembly cut is where you start to delineate what your narrative structure is. It’s also where your ideas will either come to life, or die. Some of the things you had on paper that looked great, won’t, and some things you thought would be terrible, shine. The assembly is mostly about narrative structure, think of it like a rough idea of your film, or what your film could be, don’t get too bogged down in perfecting any one little thing. If you get too attached to anything now, it may become harder later when you have to, or feel the need to axe it. Remember, its still early days.
The Rough Cut is where your movie starts to take a bit more shape. You’ve finished your assembly and the key creatives have signed off on it the structure of the movie. Now your task is to hone the rhythm and pace of your project. You do this by making finer cuts and introducing some placeholder assets, music that sounds like the music you would like to use, title cards and text to show where graphics will be. At this point you take those long uncut sequences from your assembly and digest them down, into watchable sequences. You can start to find those compromised bits of audio and do some initial work on them so they aren’t too distracting. The Assembly Cut is only for internal use, in other words, you wouldn’t want to show it to anyone, (often not even the client) as it doesn’t give an accurate portrayal of what the movie will be, and requires a lot of faith and assumed knowledge to fill in the blanks. The aim of the rough cut is to be watchable, you may want to show your rough cut to friends, test audiences or experts to get there thoughts on the movie so far, but remember it is still not supposed to be your ‘finished’ piece. Don’t polish it too much, just make sure that the intention is clear and there isn’t hugely distracting audio inconsistencies or visual gaps.
The Fine Cut is reached once you’ve all signed off on a Rough Cut, and are happy with the pacing, rhythm and structure of the movie. This stage is all about polish. You start to fix and focus on all the little things. Micro-cutting, overlapping cuts (L and J cuts), and filling in any blank spaces. Once you have finished this stage this will be an accurate portrayal of your movie. Any of those little things you’ve been putting off, fix them now, this is your last chance.
Picture lock off is achieved once your satisfied with your Fine Cut (or when you run out of time…). No more cutting should be necessary (or indeed allowed) once Picture Lock is achieved. This is, for better or worse, what your film is.
Ok, so you’re sitting at your desk with a copy of your picture-lock-off file. I bet you feel pretty darn pleased with yourself. And you should be. I’ll give you a moment to bask in the reflected glow of your creative warmth, and then I’m going to tell you something you don’t want to hear.
You’re not done yet, my friend.
So pick yourself, wipe the sweat from your brow and keep going, you’re almost there, just a few steps to go. Let’s call it polishing, and mostly all you’re going to polish is the sound and the colours (remember, at this point all the shots are locked off so you can’t change them, but with the pictures in position, the audio can be finally settled and the colours/lighting in each shot can be balanced and adjusted). But more on that in Colour Theory and Sound Mix.
Then there’s your GFX, your soundtrack, your exporting…