The Rough Cut: Deciphering The Director’s Intentions

Posted on by Larry

[ This article was first published in the January, 2011, issue of
Larry’s Final Cut Pro Newsletter. Click here to subscribe. ]

by Misha Tenenbaum

“Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” So said the 16th century artist Michelangelo. So too must we as editors adhere to it. Our block of stone is the footage – that much is clear – but what we need to learn is how to to find the statue.

The goal of a rough cut is to make the best possible version of the director’s original intentions. That is, the editor does not yet have permission to run wild with the material. That comes later in the process.

Here are simple rules for a rough cut:

  1. You MUST use all of the coverage, including at least one instance of each angle, all designed camera moves, and planned shots like rack focuses and dolly shots.
  2. You MUST NOT remove any script lines or scenes.
  3. You MUST NOT change the order of any lines or scenes.

WARNING: If you violate any of these rules (even the tiniest infraction), you will be caught by the director and they will ask you to put them back anyway. They have planned these shots for hours or days and have the right to see them in the first cut.

The coverage (meaning camera angles) is the first place to look for clues about the director’s intentions, which can be quite obvious. The coverage used in film and television looks distinctly different.

In television, we mostly see the classic wide shots, over the shoulders, and close up angles. There are two main reasons why. First, on TV a director typically only gets five days to plan a shoot, and almost never gets to be in the editing room. In TV, that’s the producer’s job. Second, a TV show has a specific style to adhere to, often written down in a “show bible”. So even if a director had a lot of time, the show creators want to stay away from anything that makes any one episode look different than the others.

Film coverage is different. With months to plan and edit (a film often takes a year from planning to picture lock), a director can really dissect which moments they find to be important and how best to show them. In fact, I recently heard a director say they ‘edit the film in their head.’ Meaning that, while they are shooting, there is already a place in mind for that particular shot. These shots greatly contribute to the art of film making and give the viewer a truly unique experience.

There are a few vocabulary words I need to define before I go any further:

In all narrative editing, the script and actor’s business help guide us during the rough cut to determine which camera angles needs to be used. Here are some general guidelines:

During the rough cut stage, I start by cutting in the the coverage which the story asks for using the circle takes. This is an important point.

In the classes I teach I have the students cut together a simple scene for an hour. When I first started doing this exercise it was astonishing to me how often students at the end of that hour would have only two shots cut together. They were spending all their time focusing on finding the best take, fixing continuity, and trimming for timing. All those other things are important of course, but now I tell them that they are trying too hard if they:

In instances where you have a lot of coverage for a scene I recommend breaking it down into bins which hold no more than 5-7 camera set ups.

After the angles are cut in, I re-watch the cut and, in this order, cut in the best performances (meaning other takes), trim for continuity, and smooth out the audio.

With regards to watching the material, on a film an editor typically has time to watch everything. This is due to a low shooting ratio, and a longer editing time frame. On a TV show (most of my experience being reality), I watch a lot of the material but usually just enough to start my assembly and skim the rest. TV show coverage is more like a shotgun; they just cover everything and hope they got it. If you are not sure why the director shot something, it is important you ask them.

Editing does not have to be [like] the Da Vinci Code. Communicating is much better than not using the shot, putting it into the wrong place, or beating your head against a wall until you figure it out.

If someone were to dump a thousand-piece puzzle out on a table and give me an hour to solve it, I would start with the edges. I use the coverage like those edges because they give me a basic frame work of the scene. I then go back and give justice to the material by using the best performances and make my cuts feel natural with trimming. Coverage can speak to us the way a stone speaks to a sculptor, if we simply readjust the way we listen.

Larry adds: Misha, this is really helpful. A rough cut is not the final cut. It is a place to start. And this does a very nice job of explaining the process.

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