Managing Your Time



Unlike many kinds of film work, dialogue editing is amazingly unsupervised. If you're editing the music or effects for a television special, or perhaps a documentary, you'll usually be working closely with a client or a supervisor. But if you're cutting dialogue on a feature film, you're mostly left to your own devices. A dialogue job with a lot of work and only a deadline to guide you requires planning and discipline. Otherwise it's easy to fall into a panic.

Ask the Right Questions

Chapter 9 deals with the goals (and politics) of the first screening with the director, editor, and whoever else comes along. As far as you—the dialogue editor—are concerned, this screening must be about the lofty goals and needs of the movie, as well as the earthly needs of you, the worker. So as you watch the film, there are a few issues you need to consider:

How long will the dialogue take?

What are the unusual problems?

Ballpark, how much ADR is necessary?

How badly do you want this gig?

That's all. But that's a lot.

Take enough notes so that you can remember what's important to you, but not so many as to take your concentration away from the film. You may want to use a form like the one in Figure 9.1 on p. 114 to remind you what to ask of the film and the filmmaker during this unique gathering. After the screening, review your notes to see how the film stacks up against previous projects. Of course, this only works because of another piece of data: project timesheets, where you record working hours and what you do each day on a project. Timesheets help you know if you're on target with hours, and serve as a reference to use in budgeting future projects (see Figure 16.1).


Figure 16.1 A timesheet for tracking editing hours. Recording time spent for each part of a project makes future estimates more accurate.

After the screening, ask yourself which previous projects this film reminds you of. Once you can limit it to a few choices, check those timesheets and then you'll have a pretty good idea where you stand. Of course, your opinion of what's needed is often of little importance; what ultimately sets the rules is the (often seemingly arbitrary) budget the producer has assembled. If a producer has etched into his mind what your budget will be—your fee and your allotted hours—then there isn't much you can do about it. If you think it's doable, take the gig. If not, walk away.

Set Daily Goals

You've negotiated the number of studio hours available to you and settled on a schedule. You know the deadline, and you know when the film will arrive. Aside from a screening here and there, no one cares how you organize yourself. Still, to make sure you finish on time and that the project doesn't turn into the film from hell, you must plan your days.

Because dialogue editing is a predictable, methodical operation, it's relatively easy to break it into parts and develop a strategy. I normally organize dialogue work into three passes, with the first one being the most demanding and each successive pass more general and flowing. A typical plan breakdown is shown in Table 16.1.

The schedule shown in this table is front-loaded, with the overwhelming majority of my editing time devoted to getting started and completing the first pass. Why?

Much of dialogue editing is about finding the truth amid so many shouting tracks. Allocating so much of your time to structure, organization, and correctness pays off in the end.

Many problems don't rear their heads until you've cleaned up a scene. You need to expend enormous effort balancing tracks, replacing horrors, responsibly splitting, and getting rid of noises before you can find out what's really going on in the scene. Once you turn the sow's ear into a respectable silk purse, it's easier to sort out the other issues.

Pass 1 is simply time consuming. Here's where you hunt through alternate takes to fix diction or remove a noise. That takes time. Also, you have to take detailed notes of what you can't fix so that the ADR supervisor (who could be you) will know what to spot for ADR recording.

Pass 1 is when you discover the structure and character of the film. Sometime near the end of it you realize that you actually will finish the project.

Table 16.1 Dialogue editing passes
Step Time Process
Preparation Two to three reels per day Prepare sessions, confirm sync, organize and label tracks, remove unnecessary channels, add sync pops and reference tones, mark scene boundaries, set up archive system.
Pass 1 Approximately 60% of schedule Organize tracks, balance shot transitions, replace problems with alternate takes. Do basic level balancing, make scene transitions, remove most noises, screen dialogue edit first time for director. Discuss ADR. Spot and prepare ADR, if you're doing this.
Pass 2 Approximately 25% of schedule Edit ADR into scenes (assuming ADR editor has chosen and synchronized the ADR lines; if not, do this, too), remove remaining noises, watch complete scenes and correct “flow” problems, screen second time for director.
Pass 3 Approximately 15% of schedule Do director's changes and fixes, remove more noises, watch entire film (several times) and solve “flow” and logic problems, revisit outtakes for problem scenes, prepare session for dialogue premix, prepare final project archive.


For me, pass 1 is the “get run over by a bus” pass (some call it the “heart attack” pass). Although there's much work to be done in passes 2 and 3, those can be picked up and done by any competent editor if I make it through pass 1 and then drop dead on the way home.

It's a personal thing. I like to work very intensely at the beginning of a project so that I can quickly overcome the “how will I ever finish this?” jitters. Plus, it makes the end of the job deliciously relaxed. I never do an all-nighter at the end of a project.

Schedule Your Time

Make up a schedule that marks the important landmarks of your film. These landmarks aren't yet your steps in the process but rather the important dates for it.

Picture lock.

More realistic picture lock.

OMF/AAF and other materials delivered to you.

Character A leaves the country (and is not available for ADR); character A returns (and is available for ADR).

Director not available from ____ to ____.

Holidays and personal commitments.

Studio rented out for another job on these days ____.

First screening with director and picture editor.

Final screening with director and picture editor.

Special schedule needs of the sound designer.

Dialogue premix; final mix.

Anything else useful.

Put these dates on your calendar. They're the realities you have to deal with. Of course, everything will change, but you have to start somewhere.

See how many days remain for actual editing. If you originally had 30 days for dialogue editing but four will be taken up with ADR spotting, director meetings, and the like, assume you have 26 actual working days. Using the percentages from Table 8.1, determine how many days you have for each step in the process. Your 26-day schedule for a six-double-reel film might look like Table 16.2.

Before plugging these days into your calendar, remove one or two from pass 1 and one from pass 2. Unfair? Perhaps, but this is your contingency

Table 16.2 Breakdown of 26-day schedule
Step Time Process
Preparation 2 days Prepare OMF and postconform, confirm sync, organize and label tracks, remove unnecessary channels, add sync pops and reference tones, mark scene boundaries, set up archive system.
Pass 1 15 days Organize tracks, balance shot transitions, replace problems with alternate takes, basic level balancing, scene transitions, remove some noises.
Pass 2 6 days Cut ADR into scenes (assuming an ADR editor has chosen and synchronized the ADR lines; if not, do this, too), remove remaining noises, watch complete scenes and correct “flow” problems.
Pass 3 3 days Make director's changes and fixes, remove remaining noises, watch entire film (several times) and solve remaining flow problems, revisit outtakes for problem scenes, prepare session for dialogue premix, prepare final archive of project.



Figure 16.2 Dialogue editing schedule.

if something surprising comes up. Something surprising always comes up. The computer breaks, your child gets sick, the director wants to screen again, you get stuck in an unanticipated ADR recording session. It's limitless. Stealing from yourself about 10 percent of your editing budget will save you when you need it. Armed with all this information, you can create a calendar that looks like the one in Figure 16.2.

As a last step, I calculate how much film time, on average, I must complete during each shift. Our imaginary six-double-reel film is 105 minutes long and we've budgeted 15 days for the first pass. This means we have to average seven minutes of film dialogue each day to stay on schedule. Of course, some days are good, others are bad. There are times you're the smartest, most creative editor ever seen and times when you wonder how you got the job. That's why the seven-minute average is just that—a bench- mark for this film—but it's a useful tool for knowing where you stand.

Occasionally you'll find yourself editing smaller projects with very quick turnarounds. Say you have a 90-minute documentary for which you have to edit—or rather salvage—the production sound in three days. That's 30 minutes of film per day. Now, if you work a ten-hour shift, which means about nine useful hours, you have to average about three and a half minutes of film per hour of work. The first day will be slow because you have to set up your session, label the tracks, and get to know the film. So day two will have to be extra aggressive (as though you could be more aggressive!) to make up for lost time from day one. Some people find this kind of microorganization stressful and neurotic. Others find it comforting. Your choice.

Estimate How Long the Editing Will Take

Although it's not really up to you to decide how much time and money the film's dialogue will get, it's still important to have a grasp of the possibilities. At the very least, you need to know if it's worth your while to take the job. Use the timesheets from previous projects as a guide for estimating how long the job ought to take. If your estimate is reasonably close to the producer's mandate, then you can likely scrimp a bit here, give up a few free hours there, cut a corner or two in places, and pull it off. But if the schedule you're being “offered” is wildly out of line with any comparable project you've done under similar circumstances, reconsider the offer.

What's “reasonable”? It depends. In general, six to seven days per reel of dialogue and ADR editing, along with ADR spotting, is very comfortable. Except on mammoth films, you'll rarely get this much time. It depends, of course, on the problems you'll inherit with the tracks, as well as the expectations and temperament of the director—and, of course, the budget. What usually trips you up when scheduling is ADR. Spotting and managing it usually takes far more time than you'd think, and all of these tasks fall at the worst possible moment in the editing process.

On low-budget films, four to five days per reel is more common. This is doable if the gods are with you, but when the schedule creeps below four days per reel, beware of problems. It's by no means impossible to cut a film in less time, but there'll be the inevitable compromises. I've cut dialogue at a reel a day, but such jobs are more embalming than editing. And if you're the least bit conscientious, very tight schedules result in far greater stress than more reasonable gigs do. You work harder only to be paid less.


When negotiating your time and fee, try to keep the dialogue and ADR as separate items. First of all, they are separate. Dialogue editors edit, ADR supervisors plan and direct the ADR, and ADR editors cut the tracks. On small films, though, it's common for the dialogue editor to have some (or all) of the ADR responsibilities. Since small films often budget for “just a little” ADR—but ultimately turn into massive looping jobs—there may be no ADR supervisor, and the dialogue editor is expected to fill in the gap. Before you shake hands on the deal, clarify your ADR responsibilities: spotting, planning, directing, recording, and editing.

ADR supervision is a full-time job. Properly spotting the calls and preparing the paperwork aren't minor tasks. Be certain that you know the range of your responsibilities before you settle on a fee and schedule. If the supervising sound editor is covering the ADR planning and recording, or if there's an ADR supervisor, you may be left with just the dialogue and ADR editing. Once the supervising sound editor comes up with a count of the lines to be recorded, you can calculate how long it will take to cut those lines into the film. There's no need to get petty or paranoid or greedy about the extra work. Just take this into account when you're making your deal.

Negotiating the amount of time you'll have to work on a film is one of your most important responsibilities. It's not just about money. If you can get an extra week, or even a few more days, to spend with the film, your tracks will be more than happy to show their appreciation.

Haggling, scheduling, and budgeting are of greater concern to freelancers than to editors who work as employees of a studio or on union films. But even if matters of money and schedule are out of your hands, you need to know how to manage what time you're given.

Consider Working Out of Sequence

As you organize your tracks and figure out how scenes were constructed, you'll begin to crack the code of the film's dialogue. You'd think that cutting dialogue would be very similar on all films, but it's just not true. Beyond the obvious technical differences, each film's dialogue tracks have personalities of their own. It's up to you to figure out what they are. The more time you spend with a film's dialogue, the closer you'll come to understanding how to edit it. Too bad for the first reel you cut, because that's where you know the least, where you're stabbing in the dark for inspiration. As you work more on the film, you get better at knowing what to do to make the tracks happy.

The first and last reels of any film are its most important. During the first few minutes of a film, viewers—listeners—pass judgment on the soundtrack. “Is this a competent soundtrack? Is the dialogue well edited? Can I relax and enjoy the movie, or do I have to be on the alert for sound silliness?” Like meeting prospective in-laws, you only get one chance to make a good first impression. Don't blow it.

Similarly, there's no room for sloppiness or insecurity in the last reel's dialogue, since the “sound memory” that a viewer will go home with comes from the end of the film. Run a perfect three and a half laps of a 1600-meter race but choke on the last turn and you'll be remembered only for your fizzle. The last reel is no place to learn how to cut the film.

Combining all of these factors, I don't like to edit dialogue in film order. I start with an interior reel and then work my way outward. I don't save the final reel for last, since I can count on being tired and stressed at that point. A typical six-reel editing sequence might be 3, 2, 1, 6, 4, 5. While I don't eliminate editorial teething pains by beginning with an interior reel, I nonetheless bury them in a less critical location, in the film's “soft underbelly.”

There's another practical reason to forgo the first and last reels when you begin editing the dialogue. You did everything in your power to make sure that the picture department locked the film before handing it over to you. In truth though, there's nothing you can do to prevent an avalanche of changes. The problems of the film really are bigger than you, but this doesn't mean that you have to be stupid about changes. Beginning your edit in the middle of the film may, just may, buy you a bit of peace. Of course, you can't predict where postlock picture changes will occur, but it's reasonable to assume that the first and last reels are more vulnerable to change than are the interior ones. Story setup problems occur largely at the beginning; resolution issues, at the end. If the film is still having birthing pains after picture lock, the odds are good that the first and last reels are most at risk. Start with an interior reel, and hopefully by the time you're ready for the exterior reels the dust will have settled. Of course, a chat with the picture editor may sort out all of these uncertainties.

You may decide that this approach carries with it a certain amount of superstitious voodoo, so if it's too much for you to swallow, work in chronological order.

Expect Changes

Despite your three-color, cross-indexed schedules (or perhaps because of them), things will change. The film will be recut, a key actor will be away during ADR, the director will need a special scratch mix to show at her daughter's birthday party. That's filmmaking. Take a breath, pull out a fresh calendar, and redo your schedule. You'll survive.

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