Case Study: Editing "Mother's Day"
At the end of the assembly edit, the run time was 30-minutes. By the time Mother's Day was screened in its final state, it was 22-minutes. How does a short film with enough scenes to fill 30-minutes reduce down to a much leaner 22-minutes?
First, it's best to get to know how Mother's Day came to be, who was involved, and how I came to lead the post-production of this film.
Mother's Day is a short film directed by Nico Raineau, and written by he and the film's lead actress, Lauren Schacher. From the start, Nico and Lauren had set out to shape a story around a strong female protagonist. I watched the two research, draft, and test storylines and characters in order to find the story of Mara, a struggling, twenty-something woman who must face her life decisions, shortcomings, and the expectations she has constructed in her mind.
The opportunity to work on Mother's Day came because of a long-standing relationship. Nico and I have known one another for nearly fifteen years, having met and made movies while both in high school. Attending Emerson College to study film, we conspired on multiple film projects, culminating with Nico's thesis film, Safe Haven. For that project, I assumed the responsibility of editing, and over the course of months, we worked to build the best performances and trim as much from the film as we could. Despite our best efforts, we both now look back in hindsight and see a film filled with bloat: long stares, dead air, and needless repetition.
Mother's Day would be Nico's first short film of the same size and scope, and the first he'd consider of his professional career. With Mother's Day, we saw an opportunity to learn from all the experiences that had come before it.
Organization / Workflow
No good post-production workflow begins without a backup strategy. For Mother's Day, all Red Epic footage was backed up twice immediately after the day's filming. Footage was transcoded to a low-resolution, processor-friendly codec.
Over the course of backing up and the first weeks of editorial, I catalogued all the footage by adding locators/markers, writing notes, and color-coding certain takes within Avid, my editor of choice for this project. I additionally built long stringouts of select scenes in order to easily compare performances back-to-back.
Assembly led to working directly with Nico for the remainder of the edit. Multiple screenings were scheduled with independent viewers in order to garner feedback and act as guideposts along the long road of post production. Once final picture lock was completed, color and digital final assets were handled by Prehistoric Digital and sound design was created by Unbridled Sound.
For the most part, building an assembly is a matter of filling the canvas in, much the same way a sketch is the start of any painting. I am trying to put the entire film on the timeline as quickly as possible to begin to see the overall story and performances in context. Of course I endeavor to start with the best takes I have found throughout my organization of the project, but I do not start digging for the best line reading and performances.
Performances and themes can be colored not only within specific scenes but by surrounding scenes and sequences. It is important to have that information quickly rather than work tirelessly on individual scenes.
Once the assembly was built, Nico was invited to join the process. We started with a screening that gave us an idea of the foundation on which we would be building the film. From here, we began talking about quick and easy changes.
It is with Nico that each scene was broken apart. Initially, quick and easy changes were made: how to start a scene, how to exit a scene, etc. The hard work is the bulk of the work. With Nico, we began to discuss story beats, what characters should be highlighted during certain dialogue, truncating story elements, and decisions like cutting entire scenes. Through all of this, much experimentation was conducted.
Having worked on multiple projects, Nico and I know one another's tastes. We have a shorthand during discussions. We also allow one another the freedom to test ideas, no matter how far-fetched they might sound. Such dynamics, paired with a mission to tell the best story possible, leads to some bold choices in cutting.
Cutting Large Scenes
In the end, Nico and I both agree that story and performance comes before production value, big-budget set pieces, or nice camera work. No scene is safe if it does not move the story along or share a new detail once unknown.
Take for example the bus scene.
Viewers of the film will possibly recall the bus shot, not scene. It is roughly five seconds long, and features Mara and Brandon sharing a bus ride to fetch Mara's car. Nothing is said, but the image conveys multiple meanings. In the context of the story, we understand from this silent moment that Mara has accepted that she will be caring for Brandon. From the performances, we see that Brandon is at home with this stranger, while Mara is far from it.
During assembly, the film had an elaborate bus sequence that Nico achieved at great expense. He rented a bus, a driver, and populated it with extras. The scene featured Brandon and Mara seemingly fighting on the bus. All of it was an attempt to show how unprepared Mara was to the task of caring for a child like Brandon, and how other people were reacting to her treatment of Brandon. The scene ended with Mara exhausted and Brandon continuing to play with his action figure (which eventually became the surviving shot in the film).
Nico and I knew we needed to cut time from the film. And the bus scene was nearly a ninety-second speed bump in the story. It did much of the same work that would be done in the next scene (i.e. Mara running away from Brandon, lighting a cigarette in his face, etc), and it did little if anything to develop the characters in new and unique ways. It was just a repeat of information.
We cut the scene, but with it we lost an essential beat. The shot that survived acts as an exclamation point in the story. It is a vital reset. For five seconds, we as viewers are allowed to acknowledge that Mara did not turn her back on Brandon at the house and that Brandon is now in her reluctant care for the day. Cutting immediately to the Hollywood sidewalk with Brandon trailing Mara doesn't have the same iconic impact as the quiet image from the bus.
It's a lesson we take to heart and continually learn every time we sit down to edit: sometimes a five-second image can be more impactful and poignant than a ninety-second scene of highly-choreographed movement and two pages of dialogue. Being open to those opportunities is important.
Only with screenings can an editor and director accurately assess if the film is working overall and where stubborn problems remain. The editor and director share a proximity to the film that becomes a weakness as the film grows closer to completion. As the filmmakers, we just seem to go blind to certain options, or become frightened that large changes might make the movie completely baffling to an audience.
It never ceases surprising me when outsiders are able to point out glaring omissions or errors, highlight how repetitive a scene or sequence might be, and prove just how savvy they are as film viewers.
Before every screening, Nico and I would outline problem areas we specifically would want feedback on. We'd also generate a list of questions that would act as discussion prompts.
Screenings always begin with a viewing of the film. Afterwards, general thoughts and concerns are asked of the audience. Here, Nico and I can note new issues we may have overlooked or really press on areas that are known problems. Next, we engage the audience with questions regarding specific problems, film length, and general viewer experience.
Having held two screening for Mother's Day, I can say without a doubt that the film would lack the drive and clarity it does without feedback.
So, how does a short film with an assembly length of 30-minutes get to a final cut of 22-minutes?
Story must come first.
You must put story before ambition. I've watched many directors keep the bad crane shot because of its cost, or the nonsense scene in which nothing happens because of the amount of prep it took to conceive and direct.
When we were editing, we continually questioned: why? If there was ever a question of the value of a scene, we'd cut it, watch the film, then evaluate. Our mission was to avoid redundancy in the narrative without confusing the audience.
Did we succeed?
Films can always be more concise. The opening of Mother's Day once had an elaborate sequence in which Mara gets ready to leave the home. There were full scenes in the kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom. We compressed it to essentials, using just a few shots from each and building a montage. Looking at the sequence in hindsight, I now see opportunities to compress even further.
Months after picture lock, Nico experimented for fun with reducing the film to a 20-minute cut by lifting two short scenes, and he feels it is just as welcome an experience as the final 22-minute cut. With more time, Nico and I may have arrived at a even leaner cut, but deadlines stopped us at a cut I'm proud to put my name on.
In the end, Mother's Day has screened at multiple film festivals and has now debuted on Vimeo for a broader audience. Reactions have been favorable. I'm proud of the story we were able to tell, as well as the working relationship I had with Nico Raineau throughout the process and the lessons we both learned.
It's now the audience's story to share, which is the great reward of editing.