Stages of the editing process

5 minute read

Assembly Edit

While the production team is shooting the film, the editorial team is often just a day or two behind them, building the assembly edit slowly and steadily from the previous day’s dailies. The editor has to move quickly and only has access to part of the film (the part that has been shot so far). So the assembly will be very rough, but it can provide the structure for each scene and ensure that each scene works as shot.

It can be very helpful to the director to have the editorial team working in lockstep because the editor will be able to spot any potential issues very quickly. Perhaps a mistake was made and an important shot isn’t usable. If the editor can spot that within a day or two, it may be possible to do some reshoots before the production team has moved on to another location.

On a short commercial or music video shoot, the entire production may only last for a few days, with no room in the budget for reshoots, and so the turnaround time for the assembly may need to be even quicker.

The assembly edit is usually very close to the script and includes every line and piece of action that was shot. The assembly thus is usually quite long, sometimes more than twice the length of the final film. There are no visual effects, no color correction, no sound effects and usually not even temp music.

While the structure of the story is all there, the assembly is usually pretty far from the finished product.

Rough Cut

Most of the blood, sweat, and tears of the editing process are shed in getting the film from the assembly to the rough cut, which may take several months of hard work.

In most cases, the director works closely with the editor during this stage. Because the director was required on set throughout production, the editor has usually been working without a lot of input in building the assembly edit.

For some scenes, the process may be as simple as taking the assembly edit and trimming it down and tweaking. In other cases, the editor and director may start from scratch with a completely different approach.

If the film has VFX in it, the rough cut probably will only show very basic simplified versions of the VFX shots. No professional sound people have touched the film yet, so the sound effects and sound mixing will have rough edges.

Once the rough cut is done, the film is usually shown to the client or producers for feedback, but that sometimes depends on who those people are. The producers of a Hollywood film are used to seeing rough cuts and are usually able to see past the many flaws of this version of the film to judge how the story is working. The client for a marketing video, on the other hand, may not have the experience to judge it properly, and so it may be a good idea to wait for a more polished version before getting feedback.

For example, the Jurassic World team released a sequence on YouTube that’s edited just with the dailies (no final VFX included). It’s quite strange to watch, since the dinosaurs play such a huge role in the sequence. It takes a great deal of imagination to be able to judge whether the sequence is working, at this point.

You can view the finished sequence here:

If reshoots are needed, it should hopefully be clear at this point, so that they can be scheduled in time.

Intermediate stages

Depending on the type of project, there may be several more milestones after the rough cut. There may be a “first cut”, which is shown to test audiences, especially if there is a concern from the producers or disagreement between the director and producers about how audiences will react.

There may also be a “fine cut,” which is shown to producers and others involved in the film’s production if the editor and director aren’t comfortable showing the rough cut.

On many feature films, the director will finish working with the editor, creating a “director’s cut,” and then leave the film to work on their next project. The producers, however, may request more changes to be made, resulting in a “producer’s cut” which ends up being the final version. Unless the director is also a producer and/or has a role in the financing of the film, he or she seldom has the last word.

Picture Lock

After much work, many versions, many arguments, and many compromises, the picture is “locked”, which means that no more editorial changes can be made. No cuts can be altered. The film is far from finished at this point, but editing decisions cannot be changed.

It’s essential to reach this stage and to actually lock the picture lock so that the color, sound, and finishing teams can begin work. If changes are made to the edit after the film has been handed off for the next stage of postproduction, that can cause all sorts of issues (and extra costs).

In an ideal world, the VFX is also delayed until picture lock, at which point the shots that need work are handed off to the VFX houses. It’s wasteful and demoralizing for a VFX house to spend weeks perfecting a beautiful animation only to have the editorial team decide that, in the end, they don’t actually need that shot.

In the real world, however, there is seldom time to wait. If the film is an action or sci-fi film with many hundreds of VFX shots, it’s often not realistic to wait many months between picture lock and the film’s release. Or if the VFX includes complex CGI (an entirely digital character, for instance), the VFX houses will need to begin work long before picture lock.

In those scenarios, the editorial team may focus on finishing the most VFX-heavy sequences before the others, so that at least those individual sequences can be locked. The unfortunate fact is that, sometimes, VFX work is done that cannot be used.

If you ever watch deleted scenes from a film, you may notice shots with lots of green screen or where digital characters are missing entirely. That is a very good thing – it means that the scene was deleted from the film before time was spent crafting the VFX.

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