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Editing From The Gut: How I Cut My 90 Minute Feature Film In 3 Weeks

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!

For more content like this, be sure to follow me on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter!

About Author

Noam Kroll is an award-winning Los Angeles based filmmaker, and the founder of the boutique production house, Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television, and in various publications across the globe. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!

11 Comments

  • Ali
    March 19, 2019 at 5:18 am

    Thank you for sharing your great insights on editing and writing. it’s really helpful. but i have a bunch of questions.
    1) didn’t you ever fall in to perfectionism? didn’t you ever think that maybe if you spend more time on that or this scene it would be better? when you are the one in charge of time, how do you keep yourself to that self-set deadlines?
    2) how do you fund your movies? do you save money from making advertising videos or find some producers or run a crowdfunding campaign?
    3) how do you gather your team? where do you find and meet them? do you pay them or they work for making a better resume? (what do you think about working with newbies? do you prefer expensive experts or free/cheap passionate amateurs?)
    4) Please explain your full marketing strategy. especially social media. how do you get distribution? Please explain this especially for foreign language movies. is there any chance for them?
    5) how much money do you spend on advertising? what percentage of you budget?

    sorry for too much questions 🙂

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      May 17, 2019 at 9:47 pm

      Thanks, Ali! Answers are below:

      1. I’ve been through enough projects to figure out how to turn off my self-critic. I did have moments where I would catch myself spending too much time on one specific thing, but would stay aware of it and move on.
      2. A mix of everything – my own investment, crowdfunding, small investors, etc.
      3. I always pay my crew. Everyone I’ve met on other shoots primarily, or as referrals from other filmmakers who I trust.
      4. I am working on this now – will do a full post on it in the future.
      5. Very minimal. On the last one, I spent a tiny fraction of the budget, but that may change in the future as my films grow in scope.

      Reply
  • Jonathan Keys
    January 18, 2019 at 12:03 am

    Hi Norm what computer did you edit on and what storage type and size did you use as I’m planning to shoot a film using similar cameras. Warm regards Jonathan keys

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      March 5, 2019 at 5:02 pm

      Thanks Jonathan! I edited on FCP X on my 8 core Mac Pro (trashcan). For storage, I am still using an OWC RAID (24TB) that is a few years old but still does the trick!

      Reply
  • Chemi Ferreiro
    January 17, 2019 at 7:36 pm

    Great read Noah! I just finished a first rough cut of a feature I DIT for in just over a week… Having all the material processed during the shoot and neatly organized with metadata before investing in FCPX was a dream to work through… 10 days after the shoot was over, the director and producer sat down at my studio thinking we were gonna review selects and maybe a couple of edited scenes and we watched the whole movie! You should have seen their faces!!!!

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      March 5, 2019 at 5:01 pm

      That’s so awesome to hear. It’s amazing how fast post-production is becoming… It’s not uncommon for edits to be turned around days after production wraps, especially if an editor was on set, cutting dailies as the footage was coming in. Best of luck with your project!

      Reply
  • Paul
    January 17, 2019 at 1:23 am

    Wow, you’re really knocking it out of the park right now Noam!

    Whenever I visit your site I’m genuinely inspired by your work and the insights into your evolving creative method. You really get to the heart of the creative process, describing what can hold us all back and offering solutions to allow us all to hopefully make better work. Me and a lot of other film makers owe you a massive thanks.

    White Crow sounds really good, looking forward to seeing it when it’s released.

    Reply
  • Toby Bajrovic
    January 16, 2019 at 12:15 pm

    Hi Noam,

    Looks amazing! Are you editing the 2k ProRes HQ Files in LOG? Or have you added a LUT and transcoded dailies?

    Cheers
    Toby

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      January 17, 2019 at 1:39 am

      Thanks Toby! FCP X automatically adds the Alexa Log – Rec 709 LUT, but outside of that I haven’t made any corrections!

      Reply
  • kishore
    January 16, 2019 at 9:14 am

    while doing color grading in Davinci resolve, what color space should use in resolve and monitor (Mention the settings as well please). In which format is to give for QUBE Convertions for theatrical release.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      January 17, 2019 at 1:38 am

      I personally work in sRGB, but everyone has a different preference. There is no right or wrong answer, it really just depends on your unique needs! As for theatrical release, the film will play off of a DCP, which will be in XYZ color space.

      Reply

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