…and When You Should Stop.
One question that I’m often asked when interviewing for a low-budget feature is: “how long do you think you’ll need?”
The answer is… it’s complicated.
There used to be a rule of thumb for feature films: 1.5 times the length of the shoot. This was based on the assumption that you’d also be editing during the shoot, so it was really the shoot plus 1.5: so 2.5 times the duration of the shoot in total.
Six week shoot = fifteen week edit.
This was based on a lot of assumptions, the first being that you were shooting on film. This limited the amount of footage that would be shot because film stock is expensive to buy and process. Shooting on film also encouraged the crew to be better organised than a digital crew, and that organisation meant that rushes were quicker and easier for the cutting room to navigate. Less material, better organised = quicker edit.
The 1.5x rule also assumes that the material has been shot on one camera. For smaller movies this is still generally true. Bigger movies, however, have embraced the relative cheapness of digital rushes and are more commonly shooting on multiple cameras, and that really slows things down. Murder on the Orient Express editor Mick Audsley reports that on many projects he now finds it difficult to watch all the rushes that he receives in a day, let alone cut them.
How long you’ll need will also depend a lot on the style of shooting. Working with director Sacha Bennett, I’ve been lucky: Sacha loves long developmental shots that sometimes cover several minutes of screen-time. The result is quite a quick edit. Other directors do things differently. I’m told that Stephen Poliakoff shoots everything from every angle, giving him maximum flexibility in the edit. Paul Greengrass, by contrast, sometimes opts for a semi-improvised style of shooting, deliberately keeping his camera operators in the dark as to what will happen in a take, so that you get a real sense of them struggling to keep up with the action, lending the material a freshness and spontaneity other styles miss. The edit ends up being a mosaic of great moments. And with a mosaic there not only come more pieces, but also more possible combinations, none of which are wrong. A long edit.
The experience of the director and crew will also affect the length of the edit. Inexperienced crews are less organised and make mistakes. Poor organisation can lead to endless searches for the right shot, or worse: wasting time on finding a workaround for a missing shot, which eventually turns out to be in the last place you’d think to look. Inexperienced crews also make mistakes, mistakes that the cutting room is often called upon to fix. The term “we’ll fix it in post” is beyond being a cliché.
In short: there are a lot of variables.
But mixed up in this is another question: when do you stop editing? I was once asked by a producer “how much longer do you think we need to get the film right?”
There’s a false assumption in this question: that there’s such a thing as a film being ‘right’. Film editing is not a perfectible art. No art is perfectible, as Leonardo da Vinci well knew: “Art is never finished, only abandoned” (not even abandoned, if you’re Ridley Scott). The number of different permutations allowed by most sets of rushes are unimaginable; when you add the possibilities that sound and music provide you have an infinite number of possible films. You can’t try them all. Even if you were to find your ideal edit, other people might disagree. You just have to judge which edit is better; ‘best’ is not a useful concept.
While it’s generally the case that the longer you’ve got the better, it ain’t necessarily so. Painters talk about a big part of the art being knowing when to stop working on a canvas: stop too soon and you might not have fully realised the potential of the subject; work on it too long and it becomes stale and lifeless, robbed of spontaneity. Terence Mallick is known sometimes to keep working on the edits of his films for a year, two years for Knight of Cups; but then some of his more recent films are effectively rewritten in the edit. For most people, if you spend this long in the cutting room you will lose everything: your way, your memory of what’s good about the film or why it’s being made, all sense of perspective, and certainly your sanity.
But there is such a thing as too little time. At the absolute minimum there’s the time it takes to put the shots together so that they form some sort of a functional story. Perhaps 3-4 weeks for a 90 min feature. The film will be too long and without nuance or a considered pace: the roughest of rough assemblies. Nobody should want this to be the final version: editing is one of the cheapest elements of filmmaking – any film deserves better.
Spend another couple of weeks and you’re getting closer to something that could potentially be released to public view. You won’t have squeezed all of the goodness out of your rushes, the result might be a bit of rough round the edges and will be untested. Not recommended, but doable (depending on the provisos above). Once you have a schedule of about 8-9 weeks you’re starting to get into a more realistic duration for producing something good.
So, if “getting it right” isn’t the yardstick, what is? Ideally, it’s about making it the best film you know how to make with the footage available. As with everything in filmmaking, however, it’s the art of the possible. The real answer to the question “when do you stop editing”…?
When the money runs out.
Copyright © Guy Ducker 2018
Edited by Dr Sara Lodge