Explorer, author, trail prospector & travel writer

Diary Of An Adventure Filmmaker: Reaching The Rough Cut, And What To Do When It Sucks

There comes a point in any major artistic endeavour when you have to stop what you’re doing, take a few steps back, and take a dispassionate look at what you’ve got.

After 4 weeks (already!) of full-time editing work on the Patagonia film, this is where we’re at.

Scott, Leon and I went through the process of whittling down the footage, pulling out the best stuff, putting it in an order that makes sense, cutting together the scenes, getting them flowing nicely together, adding temporary music, writing and recording first-draft voiceovers, producing placeholder VFX, and tidying up as many loose ends as we had time for.

Then we took a weekend off (incidentally, to run the first of the filmmaking microadventure training courses that many of you lovely people pledged for), before sitting down and watching the first proper rough cut of our shiny new movie.

(The rough cut, for the uninitiated, is the cinematic equivalent of the first draft of a book, where you get your raw material down and have your first go at wrestling it into some kind of coherent shape.)

Now, the thing about taking a dispassionate look at what you’ve got is that you’re not necessarily going to like what you see.

I only started liking what I saw… ooh, perhaps 25 minutes into the 62-minute cut.

The first 25 minutes, while mildly entertaining enough on account of the fact that I’d been there, from an objective standpoint felt confused, unfocused, and ultimately not very interesting.

That’s the opposite of what the start of a film should feel like. You should watch 5 minutes of a feature-length film and be absolutely compelled to continue watching to the end – to find out what happens.

Why does the rough cut suck? Because, like first drafts of books, they pretty much always do. Good films are bloody hard to make! And getting the start of a film right is one of the more difficult – if not the most difficult – aspects of the already treacherous editing process.

In stories about journeys, you can rarely just start at the beginning of the journey, though it’s tempting to do so. The audience must know why the journey is being made in the first place; what the protagonist aims to discover or what problem he or she needs to solve.

Incidentally, a great many DIY travel videos fail right here: they start at the beginning of the journey, forgetting that the leaving day is usually not the beginning of the story at all – rather, the journey is a consequence of something else. What happened in order to get those characters to the starting line?

You often have to dig for this. Allow me to offer an example from the world of fictional films about journeys. The first film in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy (I know, I know) is a good one, because a good half-hour at the beginning of the film is concerned with setting up the overarching reason for the main character, Frodo, to set out on his quest.

(In case you don’t know the story: A gold ring hides a secret; it is the source of power for all evil in the world; by chance it ends up in possession of a peace-loving hobbit; he discovers that it must be destroyed or the entire world will end; and the only way to destroy it is for him to go on an epic journey to the far end of the world. And that, I reckon, is a pretty good reason to leave the house.)

This backstory is all told before the journey itself begins, in order that we, the audience, will watch through the next 9 or 10 hours of movie (plus DVD extras) desperately wanting to find out what happens.

Leon and I have a beginning to our film, of course. But it’s wishy-washy. It isn’t compelling. It isn’t a real beginning, because it doesn’t explain why the middle happens. And without an understanding of what’s driving the story, our audience will have no particular reason to care about what happens. Not until about 25 minutes in, at least, when we start to understand the main character’s motivations a bit better. But by then, it’s too late. Our friends and family will forgive a weak beginning, but nobody else will.

This is pretty much the point of making a rough cut – again, just like writing the first draft of a book. It allows you to see what is and isn’t working at the highest level, before you get involved in the details of each scene, shot and edit point. 4 weeks is about the right amount of time to get to the rough cut stage for a film of this duration and with this amount of raw material.

Our next job, then, is to rework the rough cut and come up with something better.

Easier said than done, of course. We are all used to consuming finely-crafted narratives through TV and film. Occasionally we’ll come across something that we just don’t like – it doesn’t grab us, so we switch off or change the channel and forget about it. What we don’t ever have to do is diagnose what isn’t working about the narrative. That’s the job of the director, and this is now our biggest challenge for the Patagonia film.

It seems there are several ways we could fix the film, and they all boil down to either simplifying it more, explaining it more accurately, or both. It’s worth reminding ourselves of our prerogative as filmmakers, which should always be to seek out the strongest story in the material available, and to tell it as well as possible. In this regard, I have a pretty good idea of where to go next. But it’ll require another 1-2 weeks of editing time at least, and that’s time we haven’t budgeted for, so we’re going to have to get creative.

What we’re going to do before any of that, though, is take a break from the film. We need a break in order to be able to see clearly and ultimately to be able to make the best of what we’ve got. Putting space between yourself and your work is an important part of the creative process, and, for us, now is absolutely the right time to do it.

At the same time, we’ve sent our rough cut to a small group of friends and contacts who work in the film and TV industries in order to hear their feedback and advice – yet another critical part of the process, and one which could really inform where things go.

In the meantime, of course, work on the feature-length version of Karun continues. Expect more on that next week!


One response to “Diary Of An Adventure Filmmaker: Reaching The Rough Cut, And What To Do When It Sucks”

  1. Ian Magrisso avatar
    Ian Magrisso

    Great article. What did you do for pre production? Did you plan a beginning and shoot for it or was the process more flexible?

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