Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The first assembly

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In film editing, there’s a concept known as the first assembly, which the book Behind the Seen by Charles Koppelman—one of my favorite works on creativity of any kind—defines as “all the scenes, as shot, put together in order, as written.” In many cases, the editor starts putting it together using the available footage even as the movie is shooting, and, in a perfect world, he or she would be done with it the week after the production wrapped. It usually takes a lot longer in practice. But the key takeaway is that nobody involved expects it to be any good. Instead, it’s designed to serve as a source of insight into how long the movie will ultimately be and how long it will take to wrestle it into its final form. This information is so valuable that the editor will often make an effort to forecast it during the shoot itself. In describing the process by which Walter Murch edited Cold Mountain, Koppelman writes:

As Murch later explains, “It’s in my job description. I should be able to tell a director—Anthony [Minghella] in this case—that at this pace of shooting the assembly will be over five hours long.” The length of the assembly matters because it may determine whether the director, who is responsible for delivering a film on time and on budget, fulfills his or her contractual obligations. Other crew members and production executives can keep track of production costs and scheduling issues, but only the editor can predict with any certainty if the schedule for editing is accurate, given the amount of work and footage to come. Moreover, the amount of time it takes to edit a motion picture relates, in large part, to the length of the first assembly. The more footage an editor and his or her crew have to begin with, the longer it will take them to assemble it all, and then the longer it will take to pare it all back down to a releasable length.

Film editors are used to thinking in these terms, but it doesn’t always come naturally to writers, although maybe it should—which is one reason why I reread Behind the Seen whenever I start to revise a manuscript. I doubt that many authors think of their rough drafts as first assemblies, but it’s a useful approach. For one thing, it emphasizes the provisional nature of any draft. When you’ve finished your initial pass on an extended writing project, the result is less meaningful in itself than as a source of data about the stage to come. What finished length should you target? How long will it take to get there? These are questions that you should be asking throughout the process, but it isn’t until you have a first assembly that you can get at meaningful answers. (Like Murch, I often find myself uneasily predicting how long the draft will be while I’m still writing, based on how big each section ends up being in relation to the outline, and, like him, I usually find that I’ve underestimated it.) Just as important is the emphasis that it places on reducing the overall length. Writing is cutting, as I’ve said many times before, and thinking of your manuscript as a first assembly reminds you that your primary responsibility is to extract the core of the story out of the deadwood of the draft. As Koppelman vividly puts it:

The orientation over the last six months has been one of accumulation, a building-up of material. Now the engines are suddenly thrown into full reverse. The enterprise will head in the opposite direction, shedding material as expeditiously as possible.

And even if you don’t have a contracted length, it helps to impose one on yourself, simply as a reminder to scrutinize every sentence as critically as possible.

In Murch’s hands, the notion of a first assembly leads to two related concepts that are worth bearing in mind for any kind of narrative work. One is the crush ratio, which refers to the relationship between the footage that comes out of the shoot—which can amount to hundreds of hours—to the length of the first assembly:

[Murch] refers to this volume reduction—compelling the first assembly from all the raw footage—as “the crush ratio,” a term in winemaking that measures the first pressing against the original volume of picked grapes. A second pressing will get the first assembly down to a release print. Much already looks beyond the first crush to the second pressing: getting a five-hour-plus assembly to a releasable length…

From here on out, editing is, for the most part, all about story, structure, character, and length. There were hints, clues, and portents about these big issues as the dailies flew by over the last six months. But now the material has been “crushed” (first assembly), so the process of revision and reordering can begin in earnest. In film editing, however, unlike the winemaker process, none of the raw material is ever really discarded.

In writing, particularly in nonfiction, the equivalent is the proportion between the amount of raw material that you’ve gathered, in the form of primary sources, and the wordage that ends up on the page. A sense of this ratio can be helpful in the dusty middle innings of a project, when you’re trying to figure out how long the work will be, based on the volume of the subject matter. And it can clue you into the organic length that the story wants to take, which you can embrace or resist to various degrees.

Nearly every literary work, like every movie, ought to be as short as you can make it, and Murch’s other major concept has important implications for the second pressing:

Murch also has his eye on what he calls the “thirty percent factor”—a rule of thumb he developed that deals with the relationship between the length of the film and the “core content” of the story. In general, thirty percent of a first assembly can be trimmed away without affecting the essential features of the script: all characters, action, story beats will be preserved and probably, like a good stew, enhanced by the reduction in bulk. But passing beyond the thirty percent barrier can usually be accomplished only by major structural alterations: the reduction or elimination of a character, or whole sequences—removing vital organs rather than trimming fat. “It can be done,” says Murch, “and I have done it on a number of films that turned out well in the end. But it is tricky, and the outcome is not guaranteed—like open-heart surgery. The patient is put at risk, and the further beyond thirty percent you go, the greater the risk.

I’ve used the thirty percent factor as a guide for everything I’ve written, along with the admonition—endorsed by Stephen King and Calvin Trillin—that every rough draft should be cut by ten percent. Ideally, the amount that I cut from first draft to the last will fall somewhere between those two extremes, although I often find myself engaging in the sort of open-heart surgery that Murch describes. The numbers are slightly arbitrary, but not entirely. They match well with my experience of practical revision. And when you’re staring at that first assembly and wondering how you’re ever going to cut it down, you’ll take all the help that you can get.

Written by nevalalee

May 26, 2017 at 9:30 am

One Response

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  1. Excellent post! I use this strategy for my tech writing assignments without even realizing it had a name!

    Andrea Kenner

    May 26, 2017 at 5:12 pm


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