I’ve always looked for ways to use aggressive deadlines to enhance my creative productivity. Having too long to work on something, or not feeling any sense of urgency can be a total creativity killer – for me, at least. Whether I’m writing a script, directing on set, or making decisions in the editing room, speed is my friend.
This is why, when it came time to edit the first cut of my upcoming feature White Crow, I committed to turning around a first assembly cut in record time.
It’s not that I wanted to rush through the edit (I love editing and wish I had all the time in the world for it), but I’ve learned over the years that being too relaxed with creative work will yield poor results. Too much time on your hands generally leads to overanalyzing your work, and once perfectionism becomes part of the equation, you can wind up spending ten times longer to create a lesser final product.
Working quickly isn’t about cutting corners, or avoiding important detail oriented decisions – it’s about using your instinct. Focusing on the right details, the ones that will truly make your work shine, and not getting bogged down in menial work that may not matter in the grand scheme of things.
Achieving great results in the edit is as much about having an open mind as it is about having technical skills. Great editors see their footage as pieces of a puzzle that have to fit together without a complete set of instructions. They may have a blueprint in the screenplay, but in a sense they are “writing” the movie all over again, using raw footage in place of words.
And in that sense, editors can get editors block just like writers can get writers block. If stuck, a short two-minute scene might take an editor a week to get through, when it could have easily been completed in a day. They get stuck on the coverage, are indecisive about editorial decisions, can’t find a good pace/rhythm, or have any number of other issues that prevent them from moving ahead. And when they do finally finish, their work often comes across as overthought, as it has been beaten to death.
I’ve experienced these issues first hand, as I’m sure we all have, but I’ve also learned that they can be avoided entirely, simply by choosing a more intuitive path. It took years of working as a filmmaker to truly grasp this concept, but when it comes to the creative process, instinct is the only thing you can rely on. No amount of extra time or effort can make up for the wrong instinctual choices.
It’s not about the amount of time you spend on something, it’s the quality of time. The headspace you’re in, the ideas you have, the work you create… All of which can be negatively affected if you are overly critical of your work too early on. And you are most prone to do this when you have too much time on your hands… When you are too comfortable. For that reason, I always work off of challenging delivery schedules.
On my latest feature, not only did I write the screenplay in record time, but I edited the entire movie (with a 90 minute runtime), in under 3 weeks. I decided on a 3 week timeline as it was least possible amount of time I would need to compile an assembly, with zero wiggle room in the schedule except for some planned days off.
And while you might imagine that I was having to work like crazy over that three week period, it was quite the opposite. My editing sessions were not at all intense or laborious – they were enjoyable, fun, exciting.
I had many days off in that period, and often finished my edit sessions early. My average “working” day was no more than 5 hours, not because I didn’t have more time to work, but because I was in the right flow and was able to work at record speed.
Now that the assembly is done, I will take a similar approach to the fine cut and the picture lock, as well as the finishing stages. The full festival cut will be completed by March 1st, just in time for some of the big Spring festival deadlines.
While I could have easily given myself until the summer (or even the fall) to get the film finished, why would I? By simply breaking down the schedule and setting tight deadlines, I had no choice but to get to the finish line solely relying on instinct.
Not to mention, when I really broke down the amount of work I had to do, it wasn’t unreasonable to cut the movie in 3 weeks by any stretch. It just took some simple math to get there.
I divided the amount of days I wanted to spend editing by the estimated length of the movie, and that told me how many minutes of the film I had to cut each day. This equated to an average of 4-5 minutes per day, with multiple days off sporadically in the 3 week period.
So each day, I would sit down at my computer and not stop until I edited at least 4 minutes of the movie. Some days I was flying, and would cut as many as 15 minutes in a single session. Other days, I only cut one or two minutes if I was short on time. But no matter what, I kept moving.
What I did not do, was watch through every single piece of footage, pull selects, audition different ideas, and cut multiple versions of every scene. I allowed myself to make decisions from my gut, and to put myself in the position of an audience member.
From the opening shot, I asked myself – What would I want to see first? What would grab me? What do I picture when I close my eyes? And I used that intuition to guide my decisions.
Weighing every variable would have been too scientific. This is an artistic process – there had to be spontaneity to it, otherwise it would feel dead.
I never thought about what I “should” do in any given scene. I never worried about cutting anything “important” just because we bothered to shoot it. All I focused on was what the movie needed, and in effect I allowed the movie to edit itself. I got out of the way and all of the decisions became very clear to me. I didn’t feel like I had to debate with myself about which take to use or musical cue to temp in. All I had to do was ensure that I remained as open to new creative ideas as possible, and that I would ignore any over-analyzing.
Being open to creative possibilities strengthened the edit in so many ways. I wasn’t married to the screenplay in the slightest. Some scenes were re-worked from the ground up… One in particular was muted and set entirely to music. In another I omitted every piece of coverage we shot except for a single close-up. So many new ideas emerged, just because I allowed them to. With more time, I’m not sure I would have.
When I was through editing any given scene I would never go back to re-work it or experiment further. I simply moved from one scene to the next, committing to the decisions I had already made. That’s a technique I’ve learned from screenwriting, but it works wonders during the editing process too.
If you don’t allow yourself to take any steps backward, you have no choice but to move forward.
On a quick technical aside, I streamlined my workflow to be as simple as possible too, to avoid getting slowed down during the picture edit…
We shot in ProResHQ (not RAW) on the Arri Alexa Classic in 2K, and I edited everything in FCP X. The combination of the 2K ProRes HQ files and Final Cut’s interface worked like a charm. I’ve edited on just about every software out there, and see all of their strengths… But for projects like this, FCP X is truly hard to beat. It is just so fast, easy to experiment with, and gets out of the way of the creative process. I’m sure I could have achieved similar results in the same time with another NLE, but I doubt it would have been as smooth of a process…
I did hit some snags during the 3 week assembly, and I certainly needed to do some real problem solving at times – but that was totally fine. I was solving important creative problems (not made up ones), and the solutions to those problems resulted in amazing new creative ideas.
My next step is to move on to revisions, which means I will need to become more analytical again. This is the time for that, as I am not sitting in the editing room trying to make creative decisions, I am making critical decisions about an existing piece of work.
There is a time to be creative and a time to be analytical. Doing both at the same time won’t work, but focusing on them each individually absolutely will. So take off your creative hat when it’s time to scrutinize your own work, and check your analytical mind at the door when it’s time to create.
I will be sharing lots more content on my blog about both sides of the editing process over the coming months. If there is anything you want to hear more about, please ask in the comments below!