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A Serious Amateur's Guide to Making Movies - Step 4: Create the Rough Cut

By  Aug 12, 2010

Topics: Digital Audio, Video

Assembling the pieces of the story.

If you stuck to the shot list you created in step 2 and acquired all the video you need in step 3, you should be ready to tackle the next step, which is to assemble video clips into a rough cut of your story. This is where you get to try out your non-linear editing skills and test your knowledge of your video editing software.

The purpose of this article is not to explain how to edit video with your software of choice—or mine, for that matter. Instead, I’ll explain the kinds of things you should be thinking about and doing as you assemble the clips.

Organizing Your Clips

The first thing you’ll need to do is get the video clips you shot from your camera and into your computer. How you do this depends on your camera model and the software you use to edit. Consult the manual that came with the software or its onscreen help for details.

I recommend only importing the clips you know you might use for the project. Omit unrelated clips and poor quality footage. No need to have it cluttering up your workspace. After all, if you were baking an apple pie, would you also leave the pears, bananas, and overripe avocados on the countertop with the apples you need to follow the recipe?

If you do feel a need to import all the clips on your camera, try to organize them in such a way that the clips you need for the current project are separate from the others. This will help you stay focused on the current project. Again, consult your software documentation for details.

If your software has a cataloging feature that enables you to enter names, descriptions, ratings, or other identifying data for each clip, use it. This will help you find clips quickly when you need them.

If your software enables you to organize clips into folders or bins, do so. I usually organize based on an outline that I create during the storyboarding or scripting process. Although all the clips are available throughout the editing process, organizing them into bins makes it easier to find the clips I need for specific parts of the movie.


If you haven’t already created a script, this might be a good time to do so. Your script could be as informal as an update of the storyboard based on the clips you know you have. You can even jot down the clip names for each scene.

If your movie will have narration, then you’ll need a written script for the narrator to read and record. Using a standard two column script format (refer to Figure 04-01) will probably be helpful.

Figure 04-01:
The first page of my script. Although I created it just before shooting, I didn’t need to make any major changes before assembling my rough cut.

Assembling the Clips

If you’ve done a good job getting prepared and organized, assembling the clips in the order you need them shouldn’t be a big deal. In fact, it always surprises me how quickly the process goes.

Your goals in completing this part of the process are as follows:

•    Use the best portions of the best clips.
•    Make sure each clip helps tell your story.
•    Keep the story moving forward in an interesting way.

The rest of this article offers plenty of tips for achieving this.

Clip Length, Revisited

In step 3 of this series, I mentioned that you’ll seldom use clips longer than 15 to 20 seconds. I lied. In reality, you’ll seldom use clips longer than 10 seconds.

If you think I’m pulling your leg, take a time out and tune into any professionally produced documentary on the Discovery Channel, History Channel, or any other cable television network. Start counting off seconds the next time there’s a scene change. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi—you get the idea. How far do you get before the scene changes again? Five seconds? Seven? You probably never even realized that each clip in a documentary was that short.

It’s short for a reason: people have an extremely short attention span. If what they’re seeing doesn’t change frequently, they lose interest. That’s why documentaries are composed of so many short clips.

In my cherry harvest movie, for example, I have a section that shows various pickers at work high in the trees. One clip I really liked showed a woman picking fruit and then leaning way out, using her other leg as a counterbalance as she reached for more fruit (refer to Figure 04-02). The movement was graceful and it demonstrated how comfortable an experienced picker feels on a ladder 10 feet off the ground. The trouble was, the portion of the clip I wanted to use was more than 12 seconds. Too long. I wound up cropping it so I could give equal time to other pickers and show off their techniques. That’s what editing is all about.

Figure 04-02: This is as far as this picker leaned in the final movie. It was more important to show how quickly she gathered the fruit.

(A side note here to writers: in creative writing, this might be referred to as “killing your darlings.”)

Of course, short clips might not be appropriate for your movie’s subject matter. But keep this in mind as you edit and review the flow of your work. Are you boring your audience with a clip that’s longer than it needs to be? If so, trim it to keep your audience from losing interest.

Use Multiple Views

Using clips no longer than six to 10 seconds may not seem like enough time to communicate what you want to say. That’s where the two-shot rule comes into play.

If you recall, the two-shot rule suggests you get at least two different shots of the same thing. The reason you do this is so that you can switch from one shot to another in the finished movie. The more shots you have, the easier it is to illustrate something.

Here’s an example from my cherry harvest movie. In one part, I discuss how the empty bins are loaded on a custom trailer. If you watch that part of the movie, you’ll see that I show three different views of the same process (Figure 04-03); later, I show another view of the same process in another context (Figure 04-04). This was possible because I shot numerous versions of the same activity in accordance with the two-shot rule. Rather than boring my viewer by forcing him to watch 15 seconds of one clip, I can show three different five-second clips. The variety of views offers a better overview of what I’m trying to communicate.

Figure 04-03: These clips show three different views of the same process.

Figure 04-04: And here’s another view of that process used later in the movie.

Cut Away from Talking Heads

Talking head interviews can be dull. After all, who really needs to look at someone’s face as he describes, for half a minute, what made him want to be a kid’s soccer coach?

That’s when it’s time to use cutaways. A cutaway changes the view of what you’re seeing while enabling the sound from the original clip to keep playing.

So while Coach Henry talks about the joy he feels getting involved with the league, you can show joyful kids kicking around a soccer ball. While he talks about how hard it sometimes is to make calls, you can show him standing on the sideline as the ball bounces past him with kids chasing it. You hear his voice apparently talking about the clip you’re showing.

In my opinion, this is, by far, the best way to handle interview footage that’s part of a documentary. The key to making it work, however, is to make sure you have enough footage, including b-roll, to display when a head is talking. Start with an establishing shot of the talking head and let him talk, then change the view once or twice or even more. Come back if you need to, then cutaway again. It’ll keep things interesting. It’ll also make it easy to cover up undesirable visuals during the interview, such as people walking by in the background or edit points where you removed his long whine about the school system cutting funds for sports.

Look at Clips Different Ways

In my cherry harvest movie, a line from the narration states, “The pickers position the ladders, climb up, and get right to work.” There was one problem with that: I didn’t have any good footage showing someone climbing up a ladder.

I did, however, have footage of someone climbing down a ladder to reposition it. Down is the opposite of up just as forward is the opposite of backward. I ran the clip backwards and guess what? It looked as if the picker was setting up the ladder and climbing up (refer to Figure 04-05). Now you know my secret: I ran one clip in the movie backwards. 

Figure 04-05:
Which way is this man really going?

Here’s another example: I needed footage of pickers coming to work but I was just not dedicated enough to get to the orchard at 4:30 AM. So I shot footage of the workers leaving at about noon and used that footage as arrival footage. After all, did my audience know which way was out? Since I didn’t show them walking through an exit, they could have been walking anywhere (refer to Figure 04-06).

Figure 04-06: Are they really walking into the orchard?

I also fooled around a bit with speed. My opening sequence zooms out from a close-up of trees to a big aerial view of the orchard. When I ran the clip, it was too long. Since the clip didn’t feature any motion other than the movement of leaves on the trees, I was able to speed it up and run it at four times its original speed. That shortened the clip without requiring me to crop the zoom.

The point is, you can look at existing clips in different ways to see how they might meet your needs.

Still Images

A final trick you might find useful is to use still images to fill in gaps for video footage. This is something that professional documentary creators do all the time.

Ken Burns is a perfect example. When he created a documentary about the Civil War, how much Civil War movie footage do you think he had? None, of course. While reenactments of battles could provide some footage, it would quickly get very expensive and seem more like a drama than a documentary. Besides, he had plenty of still images, including authentic photographs from that time. So he shot the still images, using pan, zoom, and dolly camera techniques to add motion. Today, this is referred to as the Ken Burns Effect in many software products.

If you have a still image you want to use to illustrate an important point in your movie, don’t be afraid to do so. Add it as a clip with or without the application of the Ken Burns Effect. Check the documentation for your video editing software to see how this might be done most effectively.

Remember: This is a Rough Cut

As you create your first cut, remember one thing: it’s a rough cut. That means it isn’t finished or polished. It shouldn’t include any transitions, narration, music, or other finishing touches you might be tempted to add. Adding elements like this will only frustrate you when you make changes and have to add them again. In addition, the render time required for some software when dealing with transitions and audio can slow you down. Best to wait until the rough cut is done before finalizing.

When your rough cut has all the movie elements you want to include in the order in which you want to include them, you’re ready to move on to Step 5: Fine-Tune and Complete.