Remaking the Movie in the Cutting Room

To most of the people who have worked on the physical production part of the film, it seems to vanish for several months (or a year, or more) once postproduction begins. As if a curtain is being drawn across a stage, those left on the other side are the editor, his or her staff (at least two assistants, sometimes more, plus an apprentice), the director, and held at careful arm’s length, the producer.

Eventually they will be joined by sound designers, editors and mixers, ADR recordists, Foley artists, music editors and composers, and a myriad of other technicians and specialists. And, of course, the visual effects coordinator — and in the case of a large VFX movie, potentially hundreds of digital artists.

They will do their work based on what is known as a workprint: rough footage that will have no effects shots (other than mechanical effects achieved on the set), only temporary music and will not be color-corrected (all work prints used to be black and white, but now it’s cheaper to keep them in color). They will arrange the footage, rearrange it, never throw away anything, and somehow the puzzle pieces are put together.

Of course the entire postproduction process has been altered technologically by digital software, and so now picture editing, music editing and composing, sound effects creation and editing, and looping are all done with the aid of hardware and software of varying complexities.

For all the technological advancement these programs bring, the film’s fate still rests on the most basic and early-learned of filmmaking skills: the art of juxtaposition. Unlike other art forms, film evokes specific emotional and mental states by putting images next to each other at the very fast rate of 24 frames per second. The mood of a scene can change dramatically depending on how it is edited. A talented editor could make it work as either comedy or drama simply by rearranging a few crucial frames.

As mentioned earlier, the editor has been in close, if not daily, contact with the director throughout the production period as they evaluated the dailies. Now they may be joined by the music composer, particularly if the director has a past association with him or her. They will begin by roughing out the basic themes to give the film an emotional foundation, often running these by the director via a CD of a synthesizer or piano recording.

This is also the first time the production will seriously engage with the marketing department of either the studio or the distributor, if a distribution deal is in place. There should have been some interaction during production, with publicity interviews and press kit material, both written and with audiovisual.

Independent productions have to accomplish these requirements on a financial shoestring, but it is vital to have good written biographies on key cast and crewmembers, and professional-looking still images. They are even more important for a small film, whose image in a film festival program may be the only visual impression with which the audience is provided.

In the same way that great care and efforts were made to schedule production in an intelligent and well-planned manner, a similar approach is required when facing the complex postproduction process that awaits contemporary filmmakers. Once again, the goal is a realistic but exacting progression of carefully laid-out steps.

Much of this will depend on when the distribution dates have been set, and therefore how much time pressure the postproduction process is under. For blockbuster films who must meet very exact holiday or summer release dates, these pressures can be enormous and result in almost as much money spent in post on visual effects and sound work than was expended in actual physical production. A short postproduction period can be as little as three months, with some complex effects-driven movies taking more than a year.

A great movie, even a great big movie, can be cut in a short period of time. Director David Lean, with cinematographer Freddie Francis, shot 31 miles of film for Lawrence of Arabia in 1962. Just four months later, editor Anne V. Coates and her team premiered the film with a running time of three hours and 42 minutes, and won the Academy Award. And this was before Avid, Final Cut Pro or any other digital editing system had been invented.

New technology should enable this process to go even faster, easier and more precisely in its application. But the primary focus of the first postproduction period must remain on what’s commonly referred to as the first cut. By the time principal photography has wrapped, the editor usually has an assemblage of the scenes that have been shot. This will traditionally run about 15% longer than the first cut that follows it.

If the film was shot out of continuity, as is generally the case when mixing stage work with practical locations, then this will be the first time the director (and if s/he so chooses, the producer) gets to see everything put together, and the first key indication of whether or not the movie works as a whole.

An assemblage certainly doesn’t indicate the full potential of the movie, or anything close to it, but it does give the first clue about whether the basic structure of the story exists and whether there is any screen chemistry between the performers. Precisely because the assemblage can be misleading to individuals trying to read more into it than it deserves, directors and editors usually try to limit the number of people who view it.

The Directors Guild of America contract gives the director ten weeks from the time the movie wraps before s/he must present his or her first cut to the producer/studio/financier, although that deadline is commonly adjusted. If the producer has a strong and positive relationship with the director and editor, he may be given a look at a preliminary cut prior to the first cut screening. It is important for the director and editor to have this intense period of initial pruning to themselves, and then bring on the producer and others to give different objective evaluations of the first cut.

The reason so many directors enjoy the editing process is that it gives them a chance to almost re-make the film. Because editing is a dynamic process that involves constant creative choices, surprises often result. Editors can discover new emotional relationships between characters, visual energy and even story themes by looking at the footage with fresh eyes, not affected by the drama on the set the morning a scene was shot. Directors can be given the chance to rethink these issues by retaining different scene orderings and cuts on the computer.

Most editors attempt to establish a rhythm to a film. Because each shot selected has a particular temporal duration, similar to musical phrasing, editing can take advantage of the aesthetic pleasure found in the pulsation of visual beats. The Bourne films rely on such rapid cutting that it disorients some viewers. Cutting in short staccato bursts underlines bold action, while long, languid takes can create a lyrical feeling.

The skilled editor knows that his job is primarily experimental – to try things. But with the ever-higher cost of filmmaking, there is greater pressure to get movies out even faster, and less time for experimentation. Films are now test-marketed earlier and more often, with new endings, new footage and constant editorial tweaking in an effort to attract the largest audience possible.

It’s not unusual for an editor to be pushed to working virtually around the clock during the final days of postproduction, just like the UPM was putting in 20 hour days at the production office during the final crunch of shooting. That’s part and parcel of the movie business, and for all people’s complaints, most wouldn’t trade their positions.

There is a cost. Flawed movies are almost inevitable when postproduction periods are sharply curtailed, just as they are when production schedules are compressed and reduced. A producer and editor need time to fully tease out the story everyone fell in love with from the hours and hours of takes, second unit photography, ‘wild’ dialogue lines (separate and distinct dialogue lines recorded on location to get atmospheric sound tones), and interior and exterior, day and night, sunny and cloudy shots.

Without that time, finding the great movie inside all that footage may not happen. Dailies are rarely watched as a group any more, and the team spirit generated by seeing the day’s work collectively has also disappeared. The economic pressures are only increasing, not decreasing, and the postproduction process will probably become even more fragmented.

This situation puts more pressure on the success of the director’s cut, or first cut, which now must incorporate fine cutting, sound effects, music (still usually temporary) and some dialogue dubbing. While this is rarely the actual edited version that the director would want released, it essentially does represent his or her version of what the film should be. As editor Terry Rawlings once said, “You never want to stop cutting, but you finally get to the point where you’re not making the picture better, you’re just making it different.”

At some point, a final cut has to be agreed to. This by necessity includes the input of the producer, financier/studio and bond and insurance company, if they too have become involved. The only exception is the rare case of the director who has final cut, and whose version of the film cannot contractually be altered. There are few directors who actually possess this right, despite many who are rumored to have it (Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood are two of them), but even these filmmakers must acknowledge consensus when a film does not seem to work as planned.