Every film is made three times; once when the screenplay is written, again when it’s shot, and for a third and final time in the edit.
What happens in the cutting room should be the culmination of all of the hard work - the perspiration and the innovation - up to that point. You may have heard of filmmakers who “shoot for the edit”. These are directors who run a tight ship on set, with the intention of creating a clear pathway for the editor to follow when they are putting together the film, to the extent that the film appears to create itself. However, post-production can often be more of a process of discovery for the editor, who must ensure that he or she is staying alive to the possibilities in every shot.
When entering the cutting room, the first thing I like to do is watch the rushes - that’s all of the footage - from start to finish, so that I have a complete understanding of the production. I make small notes as - intuitively - I start to piece things together. Whether or not you “shot for the edit” will determine the length of your rushes, and can mean the difference between this step being a fun and creatively exhilarating exercise, or a long, arduous effort. Rather notoriously, Francis Ford Coppola’s gruelling production of Apocalypse Now (1979) resulted in 1,250,000 feet of printed film, which is just over 230 hours of footage. After a laborious three years in the cutting room, the film was successfully cut down to its two hours and twenty-five minute runtime.

Looking through the rushes and piecing together a first cut of 'Boredom'.

There are really only three fundamentals for every editor to bear in mind: rhythm, emotion and story. When considering the rhythm, think about the pace of your film. Does it build tension where it needs to, or is it standing still for too long? Your rhythm will be determined by where you choose to cut and how often. As for the emotion, what effect are you creating with every cut, and is it appropriate? Every time you cut, you’re bringing an end to one idea and starting something new. For example, cutting to a close-up of an actor's face can provoke a very different feeling than remaining with a wider angle. Finally, is there clarity in the story? Are your characters’ intentions and their obstacles clear, or are there plot points that aren’t being brought to the audience’s attention. To answer these questions, you’re going to have to share multiple cuts of the film to different people. Find out where their attention wavers and where the story becomes unclear. They may not be able to advise you of the exact changes you need to make, but by asking them questions about what they’ve just seen, you’ll be able to get to the source of the problem. Unfortunately, the most valuable feedback you’ll get from someone is when they’ve watched the film for the first time, so you’ll need a lot of friends!
Editing is a delicate craft. Your goal is to do the most with the least and engage the imagination of the audience. And just as writing is rewriting, editing is reediting, and with every new cut that your piece together, you come closer to creating the perfect movie-going experience for your audience. So don’t be precious about your craft; remain open to the endless possibilities and remain focused on honing the rhythm, emotion and story of the film, no matter how many visits to the cutting room it takes.
Remember, you can always make it look like you knew what you were doing in the final cut.
Back to Top