In the ancient world, it was said that a blade made from Damascus steel could cut a regular blade in half. The secret of Damascus steel and how it was made was a closely guarded secret. There are different theories as to how historical Damascus steel was made, but growing up the version I heard as a child which captured my imagination went something like this…
A regular sword is made by heating the steel and folding one layer over another. Damascus steel is made by heating the steel and folding one layer over another seven times. This process takes much longer to create than a regular sword, but it produced a blade with many layers of steel, that can cut a regular sword in half.
Rewriting a script or editing a movie is something like making Damascus steel.
How Marvel And Pixar Keep Making Hits
Lets take a look at how the two companies that consistently produce hits – Marvel and Pixar – create their films.
Marvel had a writers program where they developed scripts for each of their characters over the course of a year. Most of the big films Marvel is releasing now – Ant-Man, Dr. Strange, Black Panther – came out of this program.
In an interview at the Austin Film Festival, the writer of Guardians of the Galaxy described how every week she’d have a weekly phone call with Kevin Feige (Marvel Executive Producer) where he’d offer notes. Often they were just explorations. “Let’s try a version where we include this set piece and use these characters instead – just to see what it would be like.”
At Pixar, they create an animatic of the film and watch it all the way through. Then the team revises the film, based on their viewing of the animatic- essentially remaking the film over and over. Most of the actual animating isn’t done till the several months of a three year process.
Why Other Studios Aren’t Making Hits
Compare this to the process at DC, which is currently struggling.
Suicide Squad was written in six days. Six days. Of course the film had issues – it was basically a first draft. Had DC had the work ethic to put their script through the Marvel process, putting a year of work into the script, I’m certain they could have made that film better.
Rogue One had major reshoots post-production. The version of American Beauty that we all love is the result of major changes in editing. The Marvel film which had the most issues – Iron Man 2 – was being written as it was it pre-production.
We all know what it takes to do the work. The problem is – people don’t wanna do the work.
The Editing Process
As I’m writing this I’m exporting the 3rd test edit of my documentary American Circumcision.
I’m certain I’ll have done seven edits by the end of the process, if not the end of the month. That edit is the result of hundreds of hours of footage, revised over many months. Many plotlines and interviews that were shot but edited out.
People ask – when can I see the film? If you’ve got an edit, why can’t I see it?
The truth is – I could probably release the version I have and it’d be good. Maybe even great. Better than most films.
But it wouldn’t be Damascus steel quality. Or Marvel. Or Pixar.
I’ve often said the editing process is like compressing coal into a diamond. A massive impenetrable rock of footage condensed into something glitters from every angle you look at it. But that result come from fire and pressure. And time.
Make Decisions Faster
There is a corollary to this. It’s possible to dull a blade, and it’s possibly to lose objectivity and forget how moments played when you first saw them. That’s why it’s important to test your edits, to see how audiences react.
This process doesn’t mean isolation. The Marvel writers are constantly showing their drafts to producers. The Pixar animators are watching their edits as a group. In my own process, I’ve been showing testing my edits at every stage and getting feedback. It’s improving.
This process is not an excuse not to publish. Going through a rewrite process doesn’t mean taking seven times as long to make a decision – it means creating seven versions in the time it would have taken you to make one.
Not sure which version works? Make both, and test them.
This process should give you permission to make decisions faster, because you know you can always rewrite.
Make More Films
Anther corollary: if you want to make better content, produce seven times as much of it.
A writer who’s done 70 scripts is more likely to have a hit than a writer who’s spent the same amount of time revising just a few scripts.
“But I thought you said we should keep revising our work? Which is it? Do we write more or rewrite more?”
Doing The Work
I shared this process with a friend. She said, “I could never do that. It seems like a lot of work.”
Yes. That’s why most people do it.
But those who do can make something that slices the competition in half.
Get to work.
P.S. To get an email when that documentary I’m working on is done, subscribe here. People who’ve seen our test edit have said it’s powerful. Imagine how much more powerful it will be when this process is done.