What is a rough cut in film?

Learn what a rough cut is and how it fits into the filmmaking process.

Think of a novelist watching piles of pages come off the printer and stack up into a first draft, and you’ll have a good idea of what a rough cut is in film. The first draft of a film won’t have all the bells and whistles of a finished production — in fact, it probably won’t have any bells or whistles — but it gives filmmakers their first idea of how a story is actually going to look onscreen.

What is a rough cut?

A rough cut is the first edited version of a film, usually without sound, music, or titles.

What’s in the rough cut?

The rough cut will contain all the key scenes of the film, in their approximate order. There won’t be any smooth transitions between major scenes, however, and there may even be major flaws or mistakes in the footage.

Typically, the sound and music aren’t included at this stage (although basic sound effects or a temporary score may sometimes be added). Visual and special effects are usually incomplete or missing entirely, like other components that will be added in post-production such as titles and graphics or animation.

These basic elements are unfinished and unpolished, but they are enough to tell the story and give the overall shape of the film.

Why is it called a rough cut?

In the earliest days of filmmaking, directors had to cut the film stock apart with scissors and then tape it back together to create new sequences. When the pieces were spliced and reassembled, that crude preliminary version was called “the rough cut.” (And what was left was, literally, on the cutting room floor.)

Today, of course, many projects are recorded and edited digitally, but the phrase is still used to describe the first edited version of a film.

Where does it fall in the filmmaking process?

Film production workflows vary, but most industry guides categorize the rough cut as the second stage of post-production.

After principal photography concludes, the director or film editor first compiles an assembly cut. This version stitches together all of the footage that has been shot for the entire film, with minimal trimming or editing. (With modern digital editing capabilities, this cut is sometimes compiled concurrently with the shooting, before post-production even begins.)

Because it contains all the shots from all the cameras that have been used, the assembly cut is typically many times longer than the final cut of a film. (The theatrical release of Justice League 2017, for example, had a runtime of two hours, versus an assembly cut that ran around five hours. The initial cut of Blade Runner 2049 was said to be so long that it made director Denis Villeneuve wonder whether he actually had two films on his hands.)

Film editing begins the process of refining this assembly cut into the rough cut, trimming excess footage and blocking out major scenes in sequential order. The rough cut will still be considerably longer than the finished film. It’s important not to take too much out — editors preserve some shots at this stage just to make sure they’ll have plenty to choose from later in post-production.

When the film crew has completed the rough cut and received all of the necessary feedback, collaborative audio and video editing can begin in earnest. This includes sound editing, color correction, transitions, and visual and special effects. Individual scenes are tweaked, and their frames are further refined with increasingly more detailed fine cuts. When the film as a whole has progressed to its final cut, complete with soundtrack and score, it’s ready for the finishing touches like titles and credits.

Why is the rough cut important?

Watching the rough cut may be brutal, but filmmakers can’t do without it. (In fact, Martin Scorsese claimed, “If you don’t get physically ill seeing your first rough cut, something is wrong.”)

Initial feedback.

The rough cut gives the director their first real feedback on whether the whole thing is going to fly — will the story being told actually work onscreen? (Sometimes it doesn’t.) The rough cut gives a sense of the general shape and flow of the production, its feel, and how well the actors have performed.

In addition, the rough cut provides vital insight on specific things like:

This feedback, with additional input from the film crew as they get their first look, tells the filmmaker what changes or new directions may be needed before getting any further into post-production.

Other changes.

Management (the producers) may also use rough cuts for test screenings with focus audiences or to conduct market research. These test screenings may result in other changes to the production — changes that are not always to the filmmaker’s liking.

That’s why we sometimes end up with one additional version after the final cut, the one that comes out later in the boxed DVD set or theatrical re-release — the original Director’s Cut.

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