If a director gave you the chance to watch a 4-hour exclusive and early edit of your favorite film, would you take it?
For a lot of us film lovers, the answer would be an instantaneous yes. We’d grab some popcorn and then practically camp out in our seats. And that’s because this type of experience doesn’t come around often (or at all) for everyday viewers.
Then again, if you swapped places with the video editor who created that edit, the experience would automatically lose some of its novelty. Instead of seeing everything with fresh eyes for the first time, you would be seeing it for what felt like the millionth time.
It can take months to finalize a video, film, or other project in post-production. And since there are so many visual and auditory elements involved, it’s a massive feat to put together an assembly cut — let alone a theatrical cut or director’s cut.
With that said, let’s unpack what a first assembly (or assembly cut) is and how it fits into the post-production process.
What is an assembly cut?
An assembly cut is the first rough draft of the final project. Like the name suggests, it’s made by assembling all of the crucial video clips and media in order of how they will appear on-screen.
This cut is usually very lengthy — up to five hours long for films — but it’s far more manageable to work with than the several weeks’ worth of RAW footage leftover from production. Once the first assembly is made, editors can chip away at the footage and work toward a cohesive final edit.
There are a few universal truths to keep in mind when it comes to assembly cuts:
The assembly cut doesn’t need to be pretty.
While it’s true that aesthetics matter, assembly cuts serve a purely functional purpose: To create the foundation for your entire project.
Even though you might feel compelled to go overboard in the editing room, it’s better to focus on basic assembly first. This means arranging the footage, voice overs, music, etc. in chronological order of appearance on-screen without making any extra cuts or changes yet.
The first assembly is meant to be a rough edit because it’s for the post-production crew’s eyes only — not the audience. So if there are voice overs that need to be re-recorded or footage that needs to be re-shot, that’s okay. Those elements can always be added into a later cut.
The first assembly is different from the first cut.
If you wanted to give your audience exclusive access to an early edit of your film or project, odds are you’d show them the first cut instead of the assembly cut. And there are a few reasons for that.
For one, the first cut is a more polished version of the assembly cut. After finalizing the assembly cut and receiving feedback from your team, video editors go back over the initial assembly with a fine tooth comb and start making intentional edits.
As you make changes to the assembly cut, the first cut becomes less lengthy and starts to resemble what the final project will look like in the end.
Nothing in the first assembly is final.
Video editors don’t just put together an assembly cut (or even a first cut) and wrap up post-production right then and there. They go through multiple rounds of small- and large-scale editing before landing on the final version.
With that being said, an assembly cut doesn’t have to be perfect by theatrical cut standards.
Since the assembly cut is made so early on in post-production, not all of the added visual and audio components will be finalized and ready yet. You’ll probably need to wait to add in the final versions until later on in the post-production process — but this doesn’t mean you should hold off on making the first assembly.
If you don’t have the finalized version of your visual effects, a placeholder card for your VFX shots will suffice in the first assembly. The same goes for absent Foley, voice overs, and other elements.
New changes can always be made to the assembly cut. All that matters at this stage in the editing process is that video editors have a first assembly to work with and improve.
Assembly cuts aren’t exclusive to filmmakers.
Making an assembly cut is an important first step for every creator in post-production — not just the ones producing films. Whether your final edit will end up being minutes or hours long, you can still benefit from creating an assembly cut.
Here are a few of the different types of projects that you can make with the help of an assembly cut:
- YouTube videos
- Social media videos
- Brand/client videos
The type of content you include in an assembly cut can vary from project to project. For example, the first assembly for a podcast might exclusively consist of audio clips while the first assembly for a documentary could combine a hodgepodge of b-roll, voice overs, interviews, and more.
Regardless of the scenario, an assembly cut helps you organize all the necessary material and start off on the right foot in post-production.
How to shape the assembly cut into the final project
Now that we’ve covered the basics of what an assembly cut is and why it’s important, let’s dig a bit deeper into how this type of cut evolves into the final version of a project. There are a few key steps involved in any type of post-production process.
1. Follow the script.
The script, storyboard, and shot list are a few of the many documents that are used throughout the entire production process. In post-production, video editors rely on these types of documents to sort through the footage and shape the assembly cut.
From that point on, the script is a constant reference point for editors as they create new and improved versions of the project. Even though creative changes can always be made at the last minute, it’s unlikely that the final cut will deviate too much from the original script.
2. Get feedback from collaborators and clients.
Once the first assembly is made, there is typically an interim period before the first cut where production teams (and sometimes clients) will review the assembly cut and provide feedback.
This is an important step that helps you identify what changes should be made going forward, so the sooner you do this the better.
Let’s say your client watches the assembly cut of their brand video and isn’t fully content with a few of the most important shots. By communicating this to you early, your team might be able to pull off a re-shoot or improve the footage quality with some editing finesse.
Either way, this type of review process helps you find and address problems while you still have time on your side.
3. Finalize the VFX, voice overs, and more.
A lot happens in post-production, and creating an assembly cut is just one part of the entire process.
At any given time, one person is editing the shot footage while someone else is building out the VFX or mixing the Foley. And, of course, there’s also another person in charge of licensing music and/or producing original music for the project.
After creating that initial assembly cut, the entire post-production crew works together to finalize all of the VFX, voice overs, music, and more. Once that’s done, the many different visual and audio components can be integrated seamlessly into the project.
4. Make a lot of strategic cuts and finishing touches.
An assembly cut gives you a good baseline to work with in the editing room. During each new round of edits, you’re able to make deliberate cuts and changes to the original material so that the end result is exactly what you want.
Through a bit of trial-and-error and plenty of planning, you’re gradually able to chip away at the first assembly and shape the footage into a great final project.
Hopefully, we’ve been able to shed more light on what assembly cuts are and why they’re so valuable to creators during post-production.
Whether you’re freelancing with new clients every week or focusing your efforts on one major production at a time, making an assembly cut is the first big step in shaping a final project you’ll be proud of.
If you’d like to learn more about different areas of production and hone your creative skills in new ways, these articles from the Soundstripe blog are worth checking out next:
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