Feature Film Update + Why I’m Locking My Film Reel By Reel

My upcoming feature film Shadows on the Road is currently in the finishing stages of post. Final editing tweaks, sound mixing, and scoring are all occurring simultaneously to meet our goal of having a festival-ready submission mastered by the end of this month.

In order to meet these deadlines, I needed to implement a new workflow that would enhance speed and efficiency throughout the post-pipeline, which I get into in detail below.

Back in March when production first wrapped, I anticipated only needing 2 months or so to get to a picture lock. But for a number of reasons (mainly to do with scheduling pickup scenes), the editing process took longer than expected, and only now at the beginning of August is the picture finally almost locked.

Ultimately, I’m grateful for the extra time that the process took, as it ‘s improved the film in many ways… More time was spent refining edits and experimenting with structural ideas, new pickup scenes were shot and integrated into the cut, and there’s been some extra breathing room to try out musical ideas with my composer. All in all, it’s been time well spent.

But with festival deadlines on the horizon – in particular Slamdance at the end of this month – it became crucial to pick up the pace and get to a picture lock, so that coloring, scoring, and mixing could get underway.

My initial plan was to lock picture and move into finishing using a very standard workflow. Like most of my other films, I intended to simply edit the picture until it was just right, lock it, and send it off to be scored and mixed. The usual protocol.

Unfortunately though, things couldn’t be that simple this time around…

At the rate I was working at, and with the amount of edits and refinement still left to go, I knew I wouldn’t have a locked picture until the middle of August. That would only leave 2 weeks to get color, sound, and music done, which would be virtually impossible.

So instead of going with the usual workflow, I decided to lock the picture differently… Reel by reel.

Often times, once a film reaches picture lock it will be sent out to post-audio (and sometimes even color) in reels. A reel is essentially just a 15 – 25 minute segment of a feature film, most often used to enhance speed and efficiency during the collaborative finishing process… A 90 minute feature film for instance, might be sliced into 4 – 6 individual reels that can then be ingested into ProTools, DaVinci Resolve, etc.

The logic behind breaking down a feature edit into several reels, is that shorter segments can be less intensive for finishing software to handle, and may result in less bloated project files. This is especially the case when working on legacy systems or slower machines.

That said, in the case of my film, I didn’t break things down into reels for that reason… In fact, we could have easily handled a standard workflow/post-pipeline that didn’t involve reels at all.

In my case, I used reels to allow me to lock the picture in stages, which meant we could get to the finish line faster.

By working sequentially through the reels and locking them as I went, I was able to keep pushing material through to post-audio on locked segments, even as I continued to tweak additional edits in other reels that had yet to be signed off on.

Rather than taking the standard approach (which would have meant the lock wouldn’t have occurred until mid-August), I was able to use this alternate workflow to lock the first reel in late July, which was immediately passed off to sound.

Now, I am about to lock Reel 2 (of 4), and the remaining reels will be complete in the next couple of weeks. So it will still technically take me until the middle of August to lock the film, however the majority of the picture will have already been signed off on / in post-audio for weeks. And this of course means that the amount of downtime along the way has been reduced significantly.

Interestingly enough, having now used this workflow, I’m not sure that I would change the process at all next time – even if I had all the time in the world.

Unlike locking an entire picture at once, breaking down the process into smaller steps (one reel at a time) can actually be really helpful from a creative standpoint. It demands more specific editing deadlines in a shorter timeframe, which has the positive side effect of forcing momentum.

If you give yourself 2 months to complete 4 tasks, chances are you won’t spend exactly 1/2 a month on each task… It’s just human nature. We tend to procrastinate or use our time less efficiently when there is an abundance of it.

Alternatively though, if you gave yourself those same 4 tasks, but now took them 1 at a time on a 2 week deadline, you might just hit your targets more quickly… I know I did in this case.

Everyone works differently, so I’m not suggesting that every film should implement this type of strategy or workflow… In particular, films that have a non-linear structure, or those that are still really rough around the edges may want to avoid this approach entirely.

But for filmmakers that are relatively close to a full picture lock as it is, but want to buy some extra time before officially committing to a lock, working reel by reel is an excellent tactic.

What do you think? I’d love to hear about some of your experiences finishing projects in the comments below…

And if you liked this article, stay tuned as I have a follow up article on the technical aspects of our editing/finishing process coming soon.

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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!


  • Brian and Kim Seegmiller

    Noam great article. Would you set up an event for each reel?

    • You definitely could! I didn’t do that in my case, but it’s never a bad idea.

  • Brett

    Hi Noam, checked back to your site and saw this article. A few months back I had a couple questions for you about the X-T2 and lenses. I picked up one and love it! So thanks for the article and answers on that topic. Back to this one. I am also in the ending stages of my first feature “Fault Trace” awaiting color and composition to be completed. I too, cut my film that is roughly 90 minutes in segments, though in acts. The biggest act was small enough to send an OMF for post audio so naturally that worked out best in the long run. The main reason I decided to do it that way was not either a limitation on a capable machine, nor a time crunch, but more so for my own sanity. I find it much more consumable to cut in acts. As I am sure you are as well, I write, direct, shoot and cut like many of the up and coming filmmakers start out, however by trade I am an editor. It’s my bread and butter, or more so my pizza and beer if you will. Cutting in acts allows my brain to process the story and structure much easier. I tend to cut a few scenes then watch from the beginning and see how they play after watching what has came before it. Cutting the scene in reels or in acts makes this process much easier.

    Thanks for the articles. Would be curious to hear your categorical structure in FCP X as that is what I cut in since the program is not quite as easy to drag and drop media within the folders as Premiere.

    • Very cool to hear, Brett – and congrats on getting your film to the finish line. I agree with you too, working on one reel at a time does help with sanity. If it wasn’t for that approach I may have lost my mind on this project a long time ago, haha!

      I’ll certainly consider doing a follow up post on the FCP X workflow/setup in the future as well. Thanks for the note!

  • Sandeep Chahal

    Hi Noam, Which cameras have you used in this feature? Are you thinking of showing this film on theatres screens?
    If you are, then do you see any need of checking your post production work of a small reel on a theatre screen before proceding further? I mean how an image processed on a computer screen will show the details of quality needed on a big cinema screen.

    • Hey Sandeep! We shot this movie on the URSA Mini 4.6K. If we are lucky, we will have some theatrical screenings (festivals, etc.), in which case we will ensure the film is transferred to DCP for proper viewing. Color correction is being done on a calibrated monitor, so although it isn’t being graded in a theater, it will still hold up well theatrically!

  • Ryan

    Thanks for this, Noam. Really interesting way to work. I also see clear benefits for filmmakers who maybe don’t have a powerful computer that can handle an entire feature’s worth of RAW files, unmixed audio, color, etc. all at once.

    Clarifying question(s) for you. So when you get your four segments back (pic lock, colored, and mastered audio) how do you complete the workflow? I’m guessing you line the segments up in your editor’s timeline and publish. Is it really that simple? Are there any final adjustments to make?

    Any recommendations on where or how to cut your segments, such as leaving “breathing space” before and after your segments? Did you make any mistakes during this process that we could learn from?

    Thanks for your insight.

    • Thanks for the note, Ryan! To answer your question –

      In this particular case, I will be doing the color myself so the workflow will be slightly different. I have a master edit session of the entire movie on one long timeline, and from that I am creating reels for audio to work on. I’ll also send the entire locked timeline to Resolve to color myself, and when it’s done I’ll send it back to FCP X to be mastered.

      With regards to sound, the audio and score could theoretically be delivered back to me as one large file that spans the entire film (since the timecode on the reels corresponds to my master edit). I haven’t yet decided if we will do this, or if I will just get individual reels back… But either way, I would simply drop the audio into my new master session in FCP X and call it a day.

      My goal was to start and end reels during turning points in the film. The reel breaks may occur an act break or the mid point, for instance. This approach is ideal (especially for music), since it ensures minimal overlap from one reel to the next, and it allows for the composer to start a new idea or finish a previous idea cleanly.

      Hope this helps to clarify the process a bit!

  • Gareth

    Did you use resolves fairlight audio for the sound mix?

    • I haven’t used it yet as I don’t do a whole lot of post-audio myself. That said, I will definitely be testing it out in the future!


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