Back when I was a new, inexperienced editor, I learned about preparing for a screening the hard way.
It was my very first gig as an assistant editor. The project was an ultra-low budget educational series about the Russian revolution.
The editor I was working for handed off the project to me. Meanwhile the producer had handed off the project to an equally inexperienced associate producer, who in turn sourced footage by hiring an unpaid amateur off of Craigslist to go to Moscow.
This “videographer” went to a museum and shot completely static shots of informational plaques in front of the displays. That and some early 20th century archival footage from the Library of Congress is about all that I had to work with. The fact that I don’t remember any interviews may very well mean that there weren’t any.
So I did what any inexperienced assistant editor might do when charged with editing a 20 minute program with completely insufficient footage, and I played with split screens, 8-point garbage mattes and lots of transitions.
Rough cut screening day arrives.
The producer, assistant producer and I sit down in front of the computer to watch and evaluate my handiwork. I have Final Cut Pro open on my sequence. I hit the spacebar and it starts to play.
Not ten seconds in and the producer exclaims, “Zeez look like cigarette rolling pay-pearz!”
He is not impressed with my “nuclear frost” glowing cross dissolves.
The playhead keeps on its inexorable path down the timeline, and then something even more ire-provoking happens.
We hit unrendered territory.
The screen goes that dreaded red matte with white text and the audio soundtrack, while still playing, is intermingled with a recurrent beep. I nearly melt into the floor from embarassment. Not two minutes in and the producer declares in disgust that our screening is adjourned.
Among the many editing lessons that I learned that day (once I recovered from the utter mortification) is the first item in my list of how to bomb-proof your screenings.
1. Don’t watch directly from the edit timeline during a screening.
Whenever time allows, export your edit into a full-resolution, standalone video and screen watching that instead. (If you’re working with a producer or director, remember to tell them that you need enough time before the screening to export!).
Because your timeline has so many layers and clips, the timeline is much more vulnerable to playback issues than an exported (i.e. flattened) video file, and people watching your work in progress (especially executive producers) are not necessarily very understanding about unrendered video, out-of-sync audio, or slow playback in places where you have, say, lots of layers or video formats that tax your computer. Even if you don’t have a complete playback meltdown, even a few little playback hiccups are like sloppy points deducted from your overall screening score.
2. Make the first three to five minutes absolutely awesome.
A strong open is critical to hooking your screening audience – whether that’s an executive producer, a potential supporter, your roommates, business partner, Aunt Martha, or a crowd of fellow filmmakers giving feedback.
So DO spend a disproportionate amount of time forming and polishing it. This way you’ll create the impression in their minds as they settle into the screening that your entire film is going to be awesome.
Even if the rest of your cut has major flaws, the kind of positive psychological priming that comes from watching an engaging open will hopefully stave off the most brutal critiques. Just cross your fingers for an uninterrupted viewing. Which brings me to my next point.
3. Do whatever is in your power to prevent interruptions during the screening.
One time I screened a rough cut of a one-hour show with two executive producers. Both watched the tease and thought it was killer – maybe the best show open of the whole season. They were viscerally pumped up by watching it. Executive Producer 1 stayed through the entire screening, while Executive Producer 2 had to leave and come back later to finish watching.
The difference in their overall reactions to the film was dramatic. Executive Producer 1, who stayed through the whole screening, basically rode that adrenaline wave she got from watching the tease as she watched the rest of the show, so although it had some parts that were pretty painful to sit through, her comments were softened because some of the initial excitement from watching a great open was still with her at the end of the screening.
For Executive Producer 2, whose viewing was interrupted, that high of watching the killer tease had worn off by the time he came back for the rest of the bumpy ride, and his comments were pretty scathing.
4. Mix as you edit.
Of all the possible cringe-worthy experiences you can endure during a screening, watching someone in your audience struggle to understand dialogue whose level is too low, or be turned off by music that’s too loud, is all too common. Every audio hiccup counts as one more ding against you in the ultimate judgment of your cut. Yet these hiccups are easily avoidable.
Even at rough cut stage, you want your soundtrack to play back relatively smoothly from start to finish so that the audio doesn’t draw attention to itself in a negative way. The most reliable, and zen way, to achieve this is to mix as you go – without getting carried away, of course, and spending hours fine-tuning keyframes that you will surely have to change or delete on the next pass.
Mixing as you go means that from the very first sound bite or track of music that you lay into your sequence, you adjust its level so it sits well in the mix relative to the other audio tracks. This can be quickly done using keyboard shortcuts and the more you do it, the more automatic it becomes.
Instead of mixing as you go, you might be tempted to say, “I’ll just do an audio mix pass the night before (or morning of) a screening.” But I guarantee you, you won’t have time in those last precious moments. You’ll likely still be slamming scenes together or taking care of last-minute script changes.
Again, I’m not talking about fine tuning and creating lots of dips with keyframes – this would be a waste of time. I’m talking about quickly adjusting clip settings in a more global way – so adjusting the gain on dialogue and interviews to around -12dB, and music to around -22 or -25dB, and adding fade outs or crossfades between different clips of ambient sound so that you don’t have any audio abruptly falling off.
This way, when it comes time to screen, you’ll hit play and feel confident that your audio levels won’t be all over the place and you won’t have ambient or music tracks coming to a sudden end for lack of a fade out.
5. Keep your disclaimers to a minimum.
No one likes to hear excuses, especially commissioning editors or executive producers.
Once everyone settles into their chairs and you’re giving your preamble before pressing play, it’s fine to mention scenes or interviews that have yet to be filmed, or point out that the narration is just a scratch track with the producer’s voice. Just resist the temptation to tee up and explain all of the film’s flaws. They’re to be expected – sit through them gracefully.
When your film’s areas for improvement come up in discussion, own them, and try not to get defensive. A defensive attitude will not win you points in your audience’s eyes and will set the wrong tone for the remainder of the discussion, marring an opportunity to have an otherwise constructive conversation. They only care about your plans for fixing what’s not working, not your reasons (however legitimate they may be) for why.
Keep your focus on the final product, not on the process you went through in order to achieve it.
6. A rough cut is really a fine cut.
Just because it’s technically a rough cut doesn’t mean you have wiggle room for not hashing out a certain scene, not putting moves on photos, leaving the cut 10 minutes too long, or just overall being sloppy. It’s your job to make the editorial decisions. Show your screening audience that you are decisive. You want to demonstrate that you’ve made your best effort to wrestle with the film’s structure and finesse the writing before the screening, not that you’re coming to them for help because you’ve gotten stuck.
And don’t neglect sound design and music at the rough cut stage either. Even though it’s rough, it’s still important to keep the film’s momentum going from start to finish. Plus nowadays, post-production schedules generally don’t allow for rough cuts of yore, where you built up the film in stages. You’ve got to accelerate the process and make it as watchable as possible on the first pass.
7. Fill all holes.
This point is really an extension of the previous one, but it bears repeating. First, black holes kill the film’s momentum. Second, black holes say, “the filmmakers don’t have it together.” Third – and the reason that PBS Frontline editor celebre Steve Audette repeats “a rough cut is really a fine cut” like a mantra – is that no matter how sophisticated and smart your screening audience is, you can’t leave anything up to their imagination. Because whatever they imagine to fill in the hole, it’s probably not something that exists in your edit bins.
Your creative intentions are best shown on screen, not explained after the fact (or as commentary during the screening). For example, if you intend to do a graphic treatment on something, try at least to find time to do a sample so your client/boss/prospective supporter can comment on the style and get of sense of where you’re going with it.
8. Provide scripts for everyone in the screening.
If people are screening online on their own time, make sure to include your script as a link or attachment along with the link to your film so that they can follow along as they watch. If you’re providing printed scripts to an in-person screening audience, print off more than enough for the number of people you expect to attend. I’ve seen filmmakers ask people to share copies, but this kind of script rationing is bad form.
9. Have alternate sequences lined up and at the ready.
Before a screening, cue up assemblies of strong scenes, unused (but good) sound bites/grabs and broll/general vision that haven’t yet made it into the film. In case the executive asks you, “what else do you have?,” these cued-up snippets can be the springboards for very productive conversations about the direction of the film on the next pass.
10. Ask for extra time.
If you really feel like a cut won’t be ready by the scheduled screening date, and you’ve been working every hour of every day, consider the possibility of asking for an extension (or in the case of a festival or funding submission, suck it up and wait until the next deadline). Obviously this request will sometimes be met with scorn, but I’ve been granted extra time on more than one occasion. Bottom line, it can be counter-productive and a waste of everyone’s time to watch something – especially with an executive producer or funder – when you know important scenes still have to be put together properly.
11. Pay attention to non-verbal reactions.
For most screenings, remember that this is your audience’s “virgin viewing.” Put a lot of stock into that. You can get valuable information just from paying attention to their non-verbal, spontaneous reactions – their gasps of surprise, facial expressions signaling interest, or those moments when they shift in their chair from boredom. When it comes to the film’s ultimate audience – on TV, in the theater, or online – the first impression is the only one that will matter.