The Final Rewrite: What I've Learned Editing My First Feature 'CENTS'
If writing is rewriting, then editing your feature film is really the final rewrite.
The editing process is simply an extension of the writing process, only now with visuals and sound (and a lot more technical tools to help, or hinder, the work). Personally, I need some distance from the material to help make the cuts on my films. Otherwise, I'll be too precious with what we've shot. I also find editing someone else's edit is easier than editing my own cuts (another similarity to writing and rewriting). Finally, writing is so solitary that I enjoy the collaboration of working with an editor, especially someone who goes beyond technical proficiency and really gets the storytelling process.
For CENTS, I am grateful to have been able to work with our editor Reuben Finkelstein, who contributed a tremendous amount to the film during our editing process to help shape the final story. For several weeks, I essentially lived on the couch in Reuben's editing suite and had memorized the full catalog of his tea collection. Reuben and I had a great dialogue about the film, including a number of healthy debates about particular scenes and shots, and the final film is a much stronger piece as a result of our collaboration and Reuben's specific input. This post will highlight the key lessons I learned along the way of editing my first feature film.
Nobody Likes Their First Assembly
The week immediately after the shoot wrapped, I left the footage in Reuben's capable hands and disappeared to a tiny, two-room cabin in an RV park (sans RV) for some much-needed family time, including a favorite pastime of gawking at the monstrous RVs with my kids. After 24 days of shooting and watching dailies, I needed to clear my head and reset my priorities.
Shortly after my return, Reuben invited me over to watch the first assembly. I expected a bloated cut, a monstrosity from the 97-page script ballooned up to some dreadful 150-minute runtime. Instead, first assembly was surprisingly only 92 minutes. Reuben likes to make tight edits at the beginning, and then add things back, he informed me.
The first assembly was exactly that: an assembly of shots roughly in the order of our shoot, stitched together. The assembly was really hard to watch, which I anticipated, but still didn't help with the knot in my stomach that our team had spent so much time and effort on this project to create -- that. My first instinct was the assembly was too fast, too tight. I wanted to spend more time developing our lead character Sammy in the early moments of the film, but I still recognized that we needed to keep the film moving swiftly to keep the audience engaged. Writing and rewriting those first pages of a screenplay takes so much time and energy, and the same was going to be true for editing those opening sequences. Our real work began with the fine cutting.
This Scene is in the Wrong Place
When watching the rough assembly, one scene jumped out at me. I was convinced the scene was in the wrong place. I even asked Reuben why he put this scene at this point in the assembly, and then had to check my own script to see that the scene was exactly where I had written it. This may sound idiotic, I know ("You don't even know where a scene is supposed to go in the movie you wrote?"), but neither I nor anyone else who read the script over the several drafts and rewrites ever noticed that this particular scene arrived too early in the story.
Here's what happened. This particular scene showed the audience a private side of our antagonist and made her more sympathetic for our viewers. On the page, the scene worked, and when people read the script, this scene offered an interesting and unexpected aside in the second act. When the film was cut together, though, and was moving swiftly, this scene felt like it arrived way too early in the timeline. Only when we put the film together could we see and feel that the scene was in the wrong place in the story.
Reuben and I initially thought we could move the scene back in the timeline, but we encountered a problem. The end of the scene set up an important and specific transition in the story’s timeline. Thankfully, we had shifted the camera's perspective at the end of the scene, so we could make the end stand alone from the rest of the scene. We then split the scene into two pieces and moved the first part later in the timeline where it should have occurred in the first place. We could get away with this split because the character's wardrobe and hairstyle were non-specific, and the location and time of the scene were always separate from the previous and subsequent scenes in the timeline. So, one scene became two.
Music is So Important (Even If It’s Temp)
After the film started to take shape, the lack of music was glaringly obvious. Reuben and I spent hours combing through sites like The Music Bed, Soundcloud, and individual sites of composers we discovered along the way to find temp music. We figured out a mood and tone that worked well for key scenes, and then looked for a temp score that supported those ideas throughout the film.
We also included some tracks from a local Albuquerque band, Red Light Cameras, when we needed more of a soundtrack vibe instead of pure score. Musically, those songs worked well, but lyrically, the songs presented a challenge. Edgy love songs do not fit in a story about a girl math wunderkind/troublemaker and her three frenemies. But hey, it's temp!
The temp score helped us fine-tune certain scenes and convey the underlying emotions during our quieter moments. To get honest reactions from people screening cuts of the film, we needed temp music to make sure viewers tuned into the emotional journey of our characters. I always treated the temp score as a way to set the mood, but I purposely did not fall in love with any of the tracks because we simply couldn’t afford to buy all of them. Also, while temp helps underscore specific scenes, it makes the film feel disjointed since one composer didn't create the score with a unifying goal in mind. The temp score would ultimately serve as a launching pad for my future conversations with our composer (more on that in another post).
We Need an Audience
After seven weeks passed in a blur to make one major festival deadline with a rough cut (guess who?), we realized we needed feedback on the cut. We initially screened the film for my fellow producer Ella Sitkin as well as other respected local filmmakers. Their notes were helpful, and we made additional edits based on their feedback, but we realized we needed to hear from one of our main target audiences: middle school students.
Luckily, I have a daughter in middle school, so I approached her school about the possibility of screening the film for a group of 30 or so kids in the sixth and seventh grades. They came up with an even better idea: let's screen the film for the entire sixth & seventh grade division of the school. That’s over 300 students!
Three weeks later, we screened our most recent cut for this huge audience of 11 and 12-year-olds. While the school has a great auditorium and a giant screen to project Blu-rays, I was quickly reminded how important sound systems are for screenings. Our production sound was remarkably clean, and we even explained to the kids that the cut they were about to watch had no final sound editing or mixing (let alone color correction, original score or foley work). School auditorium sound systems -- as nice as they may be -- can be horrible for film dialogue. The theatre arts faculty member who assisted us with the screening even added speakers on stage to help with the sound placement, but these speakers couldn't change the fact that the auditorium's sound system gave the dialogue a huge echo effect. The kids had to strain to understand the opening scenes.
Soon, though, the kids' ears adjusted, a visual laugh came at the right time, and the kids started to react audibly to the film. We could gauge kids' physical and verbal reactions from the back of the theatre throughout the screening. This experience reminded me of what I had been saying throughout production regarding my desire for clean audio -- audiences will forgive bad picture, but you will lose an audience if you have bad sound. Thankfully, our film's story was engaging enough that the kids adjusted to the auditorium's sound issues.
After the screening, we gave each student a short survey to complete (customized from John August’s test screening questionnaire template. Thanks, John August!). The survey began with a simple question: "Did you like the film? Yes, Sort of, Not Really, No." I was quite surprised at the number of surveys that answered the first question "Yes" (see the picture below). I was also pleased that both girls and boys liked the film, not just the girls. Middle school girls are more likely to gravitate to our film once we have an official trailer and bring it out into the world, but I was excited to see that the boys got sucked into the story and the conflict just as much as the girls, even if CENTS isn't a movie they would naturally seek out. This will be helpful information as we work to screen the film for middle schools in the future.
I took all of the responses with a grain of salt. I assume the kids were a little biased. Some of the students know me as the father of one of their classmates. I think other students may have wanted to like the film no matter what because they were told they were the first audience to see it and their feedback would influence the final cut. Taking that bias into account, I knew we still had more work to do. I also recognized that you can't please everyone, so I decided to focus on the comments from the surveys from the "Yes, I liked the film" pile to figure out how we could improve the film for our future fans.
We Need To Make Some Cuts. And Put Some Stuff Back. And Shoot Some More Stuff.
One of the best questions John August put on his test screening questionnaire is: "If you were given a pair of magical scissors, what would you cut out?" Combined with a question about any parts of the movie that didn’t work or make sense, we learned that the scene that was in the wrong place of the story timeline (the one that we split into two pieces) just wasn’t working. Some audience members didn’t know why we would show a more sympathetic side of this antagonistic character. I wanted to make this character more human and relatable, but several of the kids specifically wrote on their surveys that they wanted this character to be meaner. The audience actually cheered when this character stormed out of a room at the end of one scene! Another question on the survey asked if they were confused at any time during the movie, and this scene was also listed under this question by a number of students who commented that they just didn’t understand the purpose of the scene. So, we took out our magical scissors and cut the scene.
We also discovered that some of our audience wasn’t exactly sure what triggered our protagonist to kick off the major event of the story. Part of this was the echo-y sound making the dialogue difficult to hear at the beginning. More importantly, we had cut an opening scene way too close to the bone and we needed to put some dialogue back to make things clearer for these audience members. Finally, I wanted to find a way to show our protagonist’s motivation much clearer a little later in the film so we didn't have to spell everything out at the beginning, but for those audience members who hadn't quite caught up with us, this scene would clarify her motivation before the story raced forward.
I didn't want to create a new scene because I thought that would slow down the pace at the beginning of the film. After much brainstorming, I figured out an elegant way to include a seamless insert into one small scene that clues the audience into our protagonist’s intentions without belaboring the point. The clue is visual, and the reshoot would be easy to accomplish without bringing talent back.
This meant we needed at least one day of additional photography. Because the insert was so small, we used this time to grab some additional 2nd unit photography (shot by our DP and directed by me, so I guess that’s still technically 1st unit, but whatever) for our editorial wish list of transition shots that we didn't get during production. This reshoot happened in November, three full months after we wrapped principal photography. Thankfully, one of our main locations still had green leaves on its trees and bushes so we could get some nice exterior transition shots. We also grabbed some school exteriors with buses and kids in motion that help us move from location to location and day to day in the story. Although I scripted several transitions, I will certainly be much more cognizant of scene transitions in my next screenplay as well as during the storyboarding process.
Stop Fiddling and Lock the Picture
You can edit a movie forever, but it won't necessarily make it better. Besides, without a locked picture, work can't begin on the score, color correction or sound editing. We locked picture on Nov. 12, just over fourteen weeks after principal photography wrapped. This included approximately three weeks in October when we were waiting for our test screening before making additional changes, plus time waiting to shoot additional photography in early November when work schedules aligned. And remember when I said I thought the first assembly was too tight at 92 minutes? The final runtime before end credits now clocked in at 82 minutes, and I still wonder if it should go faster at the beginning.
After we locked picture, we already had our colorist lined up, and we had been talking with a local foley artist and supervising sound editor with major credits who were both excited to work on our project. I used those three weeks in October before our test screening to continue my search for a composer, who I hoped to find by the time we locked picture. The story of that fortuitous connection and the process of working with an experienced composer via long distance phone calls will be the focus of my next post about CENTS.
For more frequent updates on our progress, you can follow CENTS on Facebook and Twitter. If you missed any of this series of posts about my experiences making my first feature film CENTS, you can find them here. Posts include:
- Why We Shot a Teaser for My First Feature Film CENTS a Year Before Making the Feature
- The 1 Thing I'm Doing to Write My Best Screenplay Ever: Make My First Feature Film
- Lessons Learned from the 15 Story Beats of My CENTS Kickstarter
- The 15th Story Beat: More Lessons Learned from the Finale of My CENTS Kickstarter
- Finding the Note Behind the Note: Rewriting CENTS for Production
- Making Sense of CENTS: 5 Lessons Learned on Set of My First Feature Film
- Still Making Sense of CENTS: 5 Mistakes I Made on the Set of My First Feature Film
- The 1 Thing I'm Doing to Write My Best Screenplay Ever in 2015: Get S#!t Done
What are the lessons you have learned from editing your first feature film? How have those lessons impacted your future screenwriting, directing, producing and editing efforts? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.