RedShark Replay: Part three of our series on How to Edit gets to the heart of the matter and looks at how to approach the edit itself.
The rough cut is where you begin applying cinematic language, such as montage, music, sound effects, etc., to build a stronger movie. This is probably the longest phase of cutting your film. Some would argue (or joke) that your film is a “rough cut” until you deliver the final product!
Before you dive in, the first thing you'll want to do is make a copy of your assembly edit. In LightWorks go to the viewer monitor and press “Make A Copy.” A new copy of your edit will appear on the desktop area. Open up that copy and re-name it “MyFilmTitle (Assembly Edit).” You can now tuck that edit away somewhere in case you ever need to go back and reference it.
Now, back to work on your edit It is difficult to provide exact “how-to” notes here because every film is unique and director's vision is different. These are the sort of details that are beyond the scope of this article, but I suggest you check out some books about the language of cinema and editing (see suggested reading section) to give you ideas on how you might approach putting your film together.
Here are some general helpful tips based on my experience:
The rough cut is also where you want to start revising the structure of your film to make sure that the story is clear and concise, as well as correct in timing. You should be as clear as possible about information in the beginning and end of your film. The audience needs to feel like there are able to access your story and at the end need to understand that the story has come to a conclusion. The middle reels of the film are where you get to put the “sweet stuff,” the memorable, epics moments of a film. There are many roads to doing these things, experiment! Have fun!
Thing about the basics: who, what, where, why, when, and how of your story. The answers to these things can be subtle (but not too subtle!) and should take the first reel / reel and half of your film to answer. You are right to reject tightly imposed structure, but all things have to have a beginning, middle and an end. It helps to create these things if your audience has an understanding of who's involved and what they are doing.
Find a way to build up your character's personalities, add gravitas to the situation(s) at hand. Remember that showing is always better than telling. If you can portray something through visuals and sound, rather than having something outright spoken, do it. You're audience will thank you.
Simply plopping down gorgeous 4K footage in front of the audience isn't going to get people interested in the film's story, or at least not for long. Make sure you give them even the most tangental story to grasp to, something to keep them invested and interested.
When you're arranging your scenes, make sure you're giving information, building on the knowledge you've given the audience while at the same time raising new mysteries and questions in their minds
Cut in late, leave early. This is probably some of the most classic advice for editors I can think of. You want to make sure that your audience has context for the scene before them, but not too much context. It's an incredibly thin line between understanding and boredom!
Ignore certain external pressures. There are a lot of voices out there, professional and not. There are some worth listening to and others that should be ignored. Anyone who proclaims that you need to tell your story with a particular “language” or “style” because “that's the way it is” or “that's what is popular right now, it will get you sooo many internet hits!” is your most fiendish enemy. There is a mindful ear that must be put to the ground to gain an understanding of the latest trends, but this is merely for educational purposes. Poppy cutting and flashy edit effects of the day are the tricks of small minded, untalented, fear-filled advertising agencies and will grossly date your film and possibly insult your audience. That being said, if you can find a solid reason to use any of these ultra-modern methods, do so, but only if it adds to your story.
Not all feedback is bad! Filmmaking is one of the most complicated mediums, and one can be easily lost in the fray. After you've done a pass or two at the rough cut, you should find an individual or two who you can trust to give constructive feedback and show them your cut. The type of questions you should be asking are things like: “how does this make you feel?,” “is there anything that isn't clear?,” “are there any points in the film that you feel lost?,” “what is your favorite scene / character / moment? Why is that?” Always ask about what is and what isn't working, but avoid any detailed advice about how exactly to fix it. I say this because the fixes should be organic to the story and unless your note-giver is able to gain professional distance, they will be impressing their own vision and experience upon your film. You can try this, but ultimately the results may feel forced.
Ask yourself “Am I enjoying this?” This is more important than you think. Are you making a film that you would enjoy watching? Can you imagine yourself opening this video on Netflix? If not, ask yourself how you can make it entertaining to you.
Make sure to keep that notebook close at hand. You're going to be taking a lot of random notes about shots and timecodes, etc. I always keep a little section of my notebook called “Notes To Future Me.” This is my space for jotting down general revelations about the story (or filmmaking in general), and as a place to write down things I want to remember to do differently on the next film. Being reasonably self critical is part of the learning process, and every film should be part of a greater education towards the craft.
Finally, to paraphrase the Buddha: if any of these teachings are untrue for you, or prevent you from collecting a paycheck, ignore them.