The Slow Death of Thinking Time in Post-Production

With films such as Spectre being finished days before they're first screened, is post-production thinking time being short-changed?

This article originally ran on Den of Geek UK.

Photo courtesy of Robbie Carman/Amigo Media LLC

The editing window has long been a savior for movie directors. Penny Marshall, for instance, was once said by the now-extinct (in the US at least) Premiere magazine to find her films in the edit suite. That she’d shoot the footage, give herself lots of coverage and choices, and take the time afforded to her in the editing suite to sort the movie out, when there aren’t dozens of people asking her questions every hour of the day.

This was backed up to an extent by an interview she did with the Los Angeles Times in 1990 where, ahead of the release of Awakenings, she said that “a very famous director” once said to her to shoot a comedy “high and low and in the middle,” arguing “you decide in the editing room” what suits the film best.

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Marshall is not alone. Studio interference aside, that’s the way many famous directors approached their way.

The shift over the past decade in particular to digital filmmaking, however, has brought added convenience and flexibility on the movie set at a cost of truncating post production.

Take the most recent James Bond adventure, Spectre. Director Sam Mendes told the Kermode & Mayo radio show that he finished the film on the Saturday before the film’s first press screening four days later. It’s not hard to imagine that, given another month of editing, the impressive Spectre‘s bloated running time may have come down by a good 10 minutes or so. That it was the longest James Bond film not by choice, but ultimately by circumstance.

The Way It Used To Be

Penny Marshall’s patient approach to post-production (and there are many other examples) meant that she could make many of her key decisions away from the hustle and bustle of the shoot itself. With space built in for pick-up shots where necessary, she could work with her editor, and take her time to piece together.

With much success too. A League Of Their Own, for instance, finished shooting at the end of October 1991, yet wouldn’t see the inside of a cinema until the following July. Big, Marshall’s biggest critical and commercial success, wrapped in October 1987, yet wouldn’t be released until the following June.

Neither of these films had anything close to complex effects work. The post-production time was, at heart, for a director to sit down and work their film out. Whilst time had to be built in for the physical distribution of film to cinemas, and analogue editing systems, there was still crucial thinking time built into the respective film’s schedules.

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This was more common across the ’80s and ’90s, although occasionally a massive blockbuster would cut things fine. Lethal Weapon 4, for instance, started shooting in January 1998 and was finished for the start of July. Its bloated feel was, arguably, a forerunner of the era that would follow.

Running Times

It’s a common complaint that the running time of blockbuster movies has been rising, for little narrative benefit. Few of us have sat through a major blockbuster, for instance, and headed to the internet to decree “that needed another 20 minutes.” Instead, bloat has become a by-product of a system that’s cut thinking time on big movies in particular down to a bare minimum.

We’ve touched on this before on the site, but when you have, for instance, a film such as Avengers: Age Of Ultron, the editing time has been squeezed to meet a very firm release date.

Principal photography on the Avengers sequel finished in August 2014. The film was in cinemas in May of 2015. In that eight month period, an enormous number of complex effects shots were completed and woven into the film.

And while digital technologies meant editing and effects work could work concurrently with shooting (Kevin Smith, as an aside, goes further, and edits his film almost entirely whilst shooting), that eight months barely allowed director Joss Whedon the time to sit, look through his footage, and think.

In the case of that film in particular, there were also debates with Marvel paymasters behind the scenes, that further took Whedon away from putting the cut he wanted together.

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Let’s pick another example. The year before, the bottom-numbing Transformers: Age Of Extinction clocked in at 166 minutes, for a film whose story didn’t have the epic sweep to warrant that.

Appreciating that director Michael Bay rarely wins plaudits for his storytelling anyway, the bulk of filming for Transformers 4 was wrapped up in November 2013, with more work in January 2014. The film was released six months later, again with hugely complex technical post-production work needing completion. Even had he wanted to, it’s hard to see where Bay could have found the space to lock himself away for long periods with his movie to shape it. To make the subtle changes, or the larger cuts, it surely could have benefited from.


I could have plucked pretty much any example really to illustrate the schedule differences between movies 20 or 30 years ago, and today. I’m not deliberately picking on those that I’ve chosen.

Sure, there are exceptions, but the very idea of delaying a release date is poison to many studios now, not least given the fact that individual blockbusters are nine figure businesses in their own right. Sequels come with two year gaps between them – sometimes one – and the need for a production line of ‘product’ means that studios are using digital tools not primarily to give filmmakers more options, but instead to speed the whole filmmaking process up.

Clint Eastwood’s approach is one such remedy to this. There was a lovely article in the Telegraphback in 2011, where a man by the name of Richard Preston recalled when Eastwood filmed a scene for his movie that year, Hereafter, in his London home.

The article covered the intense preparation for the one scene even before Eastwood arrived. As it concluded, “The Eastwood method, it seems, is to prepare everything meticulously, do the scene in one take, and go, no messing.”

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More than that, though, Eastwood’s method is for the bulk of the work to be done before the cameras are unpacked. That, appreciating time in post-production is dwindling, to get more locked down beforehand.

Animated movies work on this approach as well, with stories worked and storyboarded time and time again before animation is started. In the four year cycle it tends to take to make an animated film, animation itself often isn’t even commenced in earnest until nearly the three year point. By that time, the story has been interrogated time and time again to come up with a workable film and narrative. Not always a great one, but it’s surely little coincidence that at the very least, major animated films tend to be at the least coherent.

Occasionally, a major director has the clout to try something different. Is it any surprise, for instance, that Mad Max: Fury Road is garnering so many film of the year gongs for 2015, given how tightly edited it is? Yet Miller had time, and no shortage of it.

Miller finished principal photography on the movie in December 2012. Some reshoots followed nearly a year later, but Miller and his editor – Margaret Sixel (who happens to be his wife – their dinner table chats must have been fun) – afforded themselves three months just to wade through all of the footage. Not to edit it: to simply watch it.

The two and a half years between end of production and release meant the film could be edited, digested, edited again and locked down. It also meant it was safely in Warner Bros’ hands long before the May 2015 release date.

Mad Max, in many senses, was one exception though. JJ Abrams having just over a year to shape Star Wars: The Force Awakens‘ final cut is arguably another, and thanks to release days – due to Star Wars clashes – Duncan Jones’ upcoming Warcraft movie has such a post-production window that the director may have completed another movie by the time it’s released.

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The Current State

Yet go back over the blockbusters of 2014, from Jurassic World and Ant-Man to Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation and San Andreas, and virtually all of them had less than a year for post-production. For everything: the edit, the effects work, the arguments behind the scenes, the studio notes, the test screenings, the pick-up shots, the lot.

Perhaps this is why we hear the phrase ‘fix it in post’ a little less than we used to. As movies lean towards television-esque rates of pace (although they’re still some way away from them), more often there simply isn’t the time to fix more than the basics. There’s not the time to fundamentally alter a film that’s testing badly. There’s not the time for the director to take a two month break, come back refreshed, and attack their footage with fresh vigor.

The move towards annual movies in sagas – not least in the rush towards movie universes – suggests that multiple editors, faster computers and more efficient effects teams are where the investment is heading in many blockbuster movies, rather than where it may count most of all: time. As Sylvester McCoy always used to say of his time on Doctor Who, the cheap budget they could cope with, it was extra time that they always craved.

I cited Penny Marshall at the start of this article, but in truth, I could have picked from many directors of the time. Filmmaking has long being a profession for those who have to cling on for dear life sometimes as it hurtles forward, but also, it used to afford stops and pauses.

Would Spectrehave been a slightly better film, then, had Sam Mendes been given, say, another two weeks? We’ll never know. But what we do know is that it went off to the magic DCP machine, with the director still having a checklist of things he wanted to fix. And whilst Mendes was reportedly satisfied with the version he ultimately signed off, I do think it’d be a fascinating DVD extra feature to see what different another month in the editing room would have made.