Procrastination and Picture Lock

I'm supposed to be editing. I'm not, obviously.

It's not like the old days (you knew I'd say that), tied to a Steenbeck, but Procrastination still reigns supreme. No matter whether they give you Final Draft to ease your script out like some sort of technological laxative, or Final Cut Pro to staple the film together with the speed and vitality of a gymnast, I can still procrastinate.

It's sunny outside, which is nothing short of miraculous, given the week we've had, and yet I'm stuck in a dark room with no windows and a computer.

I'm trying to achieve Picture Lock on a film I wrote and directed in 1993. The reason it's taken over fifteen years to get this far is partly due to the P-word, mostly due to the complexity of the film and oh, let's call it LIFE.

Picture lock, for those of you who aren't versed in the arcane world of cutting strips of plastic into pleasing montages, is that very great moment when you reach the conclusion that you will not cut the image any more. There's still several audio tracks which need to be cleaned up or "sweetened", there's the sound-effects to "spot" and there's the music score to drop in. Not to mention a million other things from the time you declare the images to be arranged properly (picture lock) and the time people actually see the finished film.

A Steenbeck or Moviola flatbed has one or more picture tracks (for the image, naturally), and one or more (usually two) plates for any two of the audio tracks. When you have achieved picture lock, you can double-splice the workprint (adding splices to both sides of each cut), you can start to write down the edge codes, and loads of other boring but essential post-production tasks. Picture lock is that moment when you know post-production is going well, and will soon be over. Picture lock is when you know for definite, exactly how long the film is going to be. To the frame.

Yes, if you decide there is something terribly wrong with the audio in one track, you can go back and re-edit the picture to fix it, but generally this becomes harder and harder because now you have six, eight or many more sound rolls, and any change to the picture means resyncing the audio on all those rolls. Not to mention removing splices from both sides of the cut. In other words, not something you would choose to do lightly.

That's why picture lock is such an exciting moment.

It's a significant milestone in the journey from FADE IN: to "take your seats."

But here's the rub; in the world of Final Cut or Avid, it's a simple matter to resync all the audio, there is no need to double-splice anything, and picture lock loses its significance. It's not really there anymore, except in the minds of people who have cut plastic, who claim some sort of ancient heritage, clutching to it like some old grail; "I used to cut on film, you know." But still, when you're wading through a project, one ripple-cut after another, searching for greater meaning, picture lock still holds its allure. It's that last furlong.

On Wednesday last, I declared that I was a mere 5 or so hours away from Picture Lock. Oh how the mighty have fallen. Some 50 or so hours of staring at Final Cut have yet to produce that battle-cry of the editing ages. There are still a few places where I'm uncomfortable with the edit. I'm not happy with the end of the film as it stands, and it's not like choices are readily available.

Remember, I said I shot this in 1993, so let's put the phrase "pick ups" out of our heads, shall we?

At least one festival deadline looms on the horizon like the proverbial locomotive, while my film lies tied to the tracks, and I struggle with the knots. I wonder should I untie the feet first, or the arms?

The danger is that I will look away, push the "Burn to DVD" button, and open a bottle of wine. In short, tell my film-in-distress, that I've untied its hands, it can do the rest. Oh, and that's definitely the train coming.

I have great admiration for people who can keep plugging away at a script, until the ribbon is worn through, or keep rearranging shots of picture until even Final Cut is exasperated. For me, I come to the conclusion that I can do no more, and I declare victory. Move on. There is much else to do. I would strive to be more of a perfectionist, but pragmatism is never far away.

This film is twenty minutes long, approximately (I will know exactly how long, once I declare PL, of course). I have written it, directed it, assembled it, polished it, edited it, telecine'd it, and of course, watched it. Repeatedly. I can quote from just about every frame of the film. And yet, I'm not prepared to declare it just yet. Just one more pass. One more look at the film, one more ascerbic viewing.

Editing is a convergent process. You start the process, flush from the joys of production. You remember wonderful readings, excellent performances, stunning camerawork, brilliant lighting, and so on, ad nauseum. The woolly head from the wrap party is still there, and you begin to screen the rushes. Individually, they always look good. One at a time, you can find brilliance in each take.

You select the takes you want, and assemble them together for the rough cut. It is at this moment that you lose all faith in the script, in the project, and most of all, in yourself. What was a wonderful script and a delightful shoot is now sheer hell. It's just not "there." What "it" is, remains a mystery, as does where "there" is. Whatever. They're not happening.

Bit by bit, you trim and coax, you try to figure out why you don't like certain scenes, and how you can fix that, you try to rearrange shots to cover the glaring problems, and you try to bring out the film as you originally saw it. It's a roller coaster. When a cut works, it really works! Time to break out the champagne, book our tickets to Cannes, baby! When it doesn't work, well, use your imagination.

You struggle on, looking for that drug. That addiction of a sequence which works, while avoiding the horror and monotony of those cuts and those scenes which fall flat. They're downers.

You become so attached to the film, that you know that in the fifth scene, the actors hand doesn't quite match across the two shots. Fix that, and his dialogue doesn't match. Pick your poison. You know that you need just one more shot, to fix the scene where they meet. Just a simple cutaway would do wonders, but it isn't there. It doesn't exist, and this isn't animation - we can't just will it into existence.

Slowly but surely, the rough cut becomes a fine cut, and now you can watch the film from beginning to end, and it seems to flow. But you're still not sure about picture lock. You're still not sure...

At some point, hopefully, the film will play in front of an audience who have no qualms about disliking your child. They will laugh when you don't want them to, and they will sit still when you want them to laugh. Now is the time to get it right. Now is the time to make sure that it "works", whatever that means.

But, how many times can you screen the fine cut and worry about that cut coming too late, or the other cut coming too early? How many times will I stare at that ending before I like it?

Is that the wind, or do I hear a train coming?