What is a rough cut? If you have any interest in editing or filmmaking in general, then one of the first terms you should learn is the rough cut or rough edit. The rough cut is not always confined to just the Post-Production stage as you might expect. In this article we’ll explain exactly what a rough cut is, why it matters, how it can begin taking form during the Production phase, how rough cuts differ from production to production, and we’ll be answering the broader question: what are the stages of editing?

What are the stages of editing

First, let’s define rough cut

Assembling a rough cut is a key step in the Post-Production timeline for a film. A rough cut in film is far from the only type of rough cut. Rough cuts are also key to film-adjacent professions as well such as in the television and advertising industries. Directors, editors, assistant editors, VTR operators, and producers can all be involved with rough cuts, so anyone interested in these filmmaking roles will end up working hands-on with a rough cut eventually.

Technically speaking, the first edited version of a film is the “assembly cut.” You could say that the assembly cut is the first iteration of the rough cut, or that the rough cut follows the assembly cut as its own phase.

It’s important to have a clear understanding of film terminology before diving headfirst into the creation process. If you encounter any other unfamiliar terms throughout this article, our ultimate glossary of filmmaking terms is a handy resource for looking them up.


What is a rough cut?

A rough cut is the first edited version of a film, which make include unfinished visual effects and a temporary musical score. Rough edit and assembly cut are also terms that can be used to refer to this initial cut. All of the main pieces have been assembled in sequential order, but it may not contain all of the finer details, such as finished CGI. Rough cuts are sometimes used during focus group screenings. Scenes will continue to be tweaked or removed at the discretion of the director and editor before reaching a final cut. Rough cuts, and especially assembly cuts, tend to be far longer than the finished film.

Purposes of a rough cut in film:

  • To assess the general pacing and performances
  • The need for any pick-up shots is determined
  • For test screenings and market research

Stages of film editing

Rough cut vs. assembly cut

Now that we know what a rough cut in film is, it is important to draw a distinction between a rough cut and the other types of cuts and edits that it could be confused with.

First, and most readily apparent, a rough cut is different from a final cut. A final cut is the version of a film that ends up being released, not to be confused with a Director’s cut, alternate cut, or extended cut which could be released after the fact on physical media, on streaming platforms, or rereleased in theaters.

In between a rough cut and final cut, you can have what is called a fine cut. Though the term fine cut is widely accepted, it would not be considered improper to refer to every cut before the final cut as a rough cut. The following video quickly demonstrates the specific differences between a rough cut, a fine cut, and a final cut.

Stages of film editing: Rough vs. Fine vs. Final Cuts

Another type of cut, one which precedes the rough cut, is the assembly cut. The assembly cut is a stitching together of all of the shots gathered for the entire film with minimal editing done to them. The assembly cut can begin forming during principal photography as a VTR operator edits shots on set right as they leave the camera.

An assembly cut is typically extremely long, much longer than the film that ends up getting released will be.

Anchorman 2 released in theaters with a runtime of 119 minutes, while the assembly edit was over 270 minutes. More than half of the footage present in the assembly edit was excised to help the film reach a more manageable length.

Avengers: Age of Ultron had an entire hour removed from its assembly cut length before reaching theaters. The first cut of Blade Runner 2049 was so long that Denis Villeneuve contemplated releasing the film as two parts at one point.

Clearly, the length of a film can fluctuate extensively throughout the editing process.

First Edited Version of a Film

Saving your film in the edit

The rough edit is the first time you're seeing your project take shape. And sometimes that shape is quite a bit different than what you first envisioned. The rough cut is an opportunity to find out whether this story being told will actually work. And sometimes, it doesn't.

Here's the famous backstory to how George Lucas shared a rough cut of Star Wars to his pals like Steven Spielberg and Brian De Palma. As the lights came back on, it was immediately clear to everyone in the room that the film needed work.

How Star Wars Was Saved in the Edit

As many have said, editing is the final re-write. If anything along the way didn't quite work, editing can step in and take care of it. Most of the time — don't rely on the old adage, "We'll fix it in post," try to get it right the first time. If anything, remember that even the best filmmakers don't craft perfection every time they try. 

Stages of film editing

How rough cuts are put together

Some filmmakers approach rough cuts and the overall editing process in different ways than others. The Post-Production workflow can vary from project to project. Using our production calendar software can be a great way to ensure your timeline stays on track.

The traditional process for assembling a rough cut begins with decisions the director makes on set. The director will decide on a number of ‘circle takes’ while shooting, and this list of circle takes may or may not inform the editor’s decisions when assembling the film.

The term ‘circle take’ refers to the director’s preferred take or takes of a particular shot. The term gets its name from the script supervisor circling that take number in their notes once the director decides they like it.

Nowadays with digital filmmaking technology, every take recorded can be watched back at no risk. But when shooting on film, circle takes can be extremely important because it would cost a great deal of money to process and sync every single take of a shot to play back at dallies.

There are many great Martin Scorsese quotes on directing. He once said, “If you don’t get physically ill seeing your first rough cut, something is wrong.” Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker follow the traditional editing pipeline; circle takes on set, reviewing dallies, assembling and reacting to a rough cut, and continuing to further the edit until completion.

In the video below, Schoonmaker discusses what it is like to edit some of Martin Scorsese's best movies.

From the Royal Ocean Film Society

Schoonmaker and Scorsese know the value of screening rough cuts. At this stage, the film has been living in your heads for weeks, months or years. In other words, you've lost all objectivity and you need "fresh eyes," even if it's the janitor.

Pre-Production Rough Cut

Rough cut before you shoot

Now let’s take a look at a director who doesn’t follow the traditional editing process. Gareth Evans, the man behind The Raid films and Apostle has developed his own process for shooting and editing with digital systems that is both cost and time efficient.

If you’re interested in using digital systems yourself, our file sharing software makes it easy to transfer files between the director and editor when using a digital workflow.

Gareth Evans takes the time during Pre-Production to fully pre-vis the most complex sequences if not the entire film from beginning to end. Pre-vising is essentially making an extremely detailed video storyboard which can be fully edited into a coherent, stripped back rough cut, before ever stepping foot on set. See some examples of the pre-vis work done for the choreography of The Raid in this production diary.

Behind the scenes of The Raid

Doing this ensures that Evans knows exactly how the film will be edited before principal photography begins. Knowing this saves an incredible amount of time in Post-Production as many of the key decisions have already been made. Time is also saved on set, because Evans knows precisely which shots he needs to tell the story, and doesn’t waste time grabbing shots that won’t be used in the final edit.

Evans also makes use of an on-set editor while shooting. This on-set editor can begin assembling scenes as they are being shot, and with instant digital playback, Evans can decide within seconds of calling cut, whether or not a particular take is exactly what he wants to use in the final edit. Given that Evans works as his own editor, the overall editing process is far more streamlined on his productions.

There are a number of different ways to go about achieving a rough cut and subsequently a final cut. As you gain experience in filmmaking, you will figure out what process works best for you.


Match Cuts and Creative Transitions

Now that you have an understanding of what a rough cut is and an overview of the stages of film editing as a whole, it’s a good time to dig into the nitty gritty and take a look at scene transitions. There are many creative ways to transition from one scene to another. Learn all about the different ways to use match cuts, up next.

Up Next: Match Cuts and Creative Transitions →
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  • Sam Kench is an internationally-awarded screenwriter, independent filmmaker, and film critic. Lover of foreign films; hater of American remakes.

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