A term commonly associated with film and video editing.

A rough cut happens early in the post-production cycle of a moving picture; in fact, it often begins during the production shoot as the editor receives footage. It is an interim stage of cutting a project that can be easily identified by the following traits:

  • The pacing and style is rough and not yet polished.
  • The sound is untreated, unfinished, and will require sound editing. For this reason, often dialogue and sound effects will be incomplete.
  • Titles, graphics, composites, and special effects are usually represented only by crude placemarkers.
  • Sometimes previsualization sequences, if available, are cut in to represent future CGI effects.
  • Colors are untreated, unmatched, and generally unpleasant.
  • Total runtime of project usually far exceeds final theatrical release runtime.
  • Unlike the assembly that came before it, slates have been removed from the material.

The rough cut is the film/video editor's first shot of piecing together the soul of the story. The emphasis here is to get all the basic cuts taken care of for story (or concept) cohesion as the director and editor see fit. Because little emphasis is given to any other purpose during this stage, rough cuts are crude and often double or more than double the eventual length of the finished project.

Because of this, the rough cut stage presents problems and opportunities that inform the flow of the work. Often enough the ideas that looked great in the screenplay and even looked great during production look terrible cut together with all the other great ideas. The editor, under the guidance (or command) of the director, must make informed decisions about what, where, when, and how to cut dynamically so as to at all times strengthen the story.

Industry legend in picture and sound editing Walter Murch has said of cutting beyond the rough cut stage:

You need the time to find all of the redundancies.  On The Conversation,
which was the first film that I edited, our rough cut was four and a half
hours long.  And a wonderful one hour, 52 minute film came out of it ...
(we) had to jettison many things that seemed at the time to be important
parts of the script.  And you're naturally kind of depressed at all of the
work that went into the things you are now taking out.

This is the critical launching point in the post-production cycle, as the decisions made from this point on in whittling down the rough cut literally create the movie you see on the screen. Note that the sequences or individual scenes that appear in the rough cut but are subsequently removed often return in director's cuts or -- especially in the era of the DVD -- in separate reels included with the home video release.

In the sequence of events that define the post-production cycle, the rough cut follows the assembly but falls before the fine cuts.

Giannetti, Louis. Understanding Movies. Prentice-Hall International, 1999.
Wohl, Michael. Editing Techniques with Final Cut Pro. Peachpit Press, 2002.
Interview with Walter Murch taken respectfully from the Wohl text.

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