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  • Writer's pictureStephen van Vuuren

When Will It Be Done - Part 8


The variant of the Question within the giant-screen community is “When will you have a rough cut?” People want to give input, get a sense of the film etc. I can see the disappointed look in people’s eyes when I announce “there never will be a rough cut.”

Most all films, including giant-screen films, are made by shooting as much footage as possible and editing down to a final cut. Pure CGI animation films are completely created via audio and preview animations in pre-production. With both films, you have something to look at and show very early in the filmmaking process. And after editing, you have the proverbial rough cut.

I’ve edited well over 100 rough cuts for everything from a 10-second promo to a feature film. I love rough cuts and the process of refining a fine cut. But for a rough cut you need, well, footage that you can edit. Which means choices of footage: shot A or shot B? How long should shot A be? What if we moved shot C in front of shot A? And so on.

For In Saturn’s Rings, the final render of each shot is one take at the final speed and duration of the shot. For a small minority of shots, a little bit of the head or tail might be trimmed, or other minor changes might be feasible.

The rough cutting of In Saturn’s Rings all happens while working with the still photographs, before the animation ever starts. Here, resolutions are checked, layers built, animations imagined, and then final decisions made for what stays and what goes. My “cutting room floor” is full of takes, but these are all just still images, not fully rendered takes. I only fully animate what will be final in the film. Otherwise the film would take forever. Literally.


The only editing changes in the film have already been made. I had major ankle injury in February 2014, resulting in two surgeries, one of which caused me to miss two months of work. This was the same period when we lost the first SDSS team leader and had to have the new team start from scratch.

At that point, the film’s “found-footage illustrated script” included a journey to our Moon and back, recreating the journey of Apollo 17. This was possible because of the huge amount of high-resolution footage from Apollo and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter I had found. But the source of my love of space and Saturn was not Apollo. It was Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, where the Huygens lander, carried by Cassini, set down. Our first landing on an alien moon.

In 2014, Ian Regan, a key UK-based image-processing volunteer on the film, chatted with me about wealth of Titan imagery coming down from Cassini via radar, cameras, and other instruments. Knowing the film was delayed, I chose to cut the Apollo 17 sequence and replace it with Titan. This was painful, as the Apollo 17 sequence represented about nine months of the film’s work to date. But since Titan was at the heart of the film’s inspiration, and now that we have the final high-resolution imagery, it was a great call. And I found a slot to use about 30 seconds of the Moon imagery in the finale of the film.

The second edit was the original finale, the last five minutes of the film. My first concept of “Earth with Saturn’s Rings” started to appear in several YouTube clips from other people who had the same idea independently of me.  I had mixed feelings about this concept even before this, since this animation required making a visual composite that was not based on science fact and blurred the “no CGI” line. Fortunately, only one month of work had been put into it.

A new finale has been written and processed that is even more powerful. But you can see why the film won’t be edited. Edits to a single shot can mean weeks, months, or even years of work.


To avoid complete catastrophes in the filmmaking process, I created the “check render.” It is a simplified 3- to 10-second render using small sets of data in a simple multi-plane photo-animation to check resolution, color, etc. with a subset of photographic layers (planes) before the final go-ahead to proceed with the complete process for a shot.

Only about 20% of the material in the current trailer is final footage from the film (mostly Saturn); the rest is check renders. This will be true until the film is complete.

The final renders are built in layers — the planes of multi-plane animation. The editing decisions are made here, prior to final renders. This editing, like any editing, continues until very late in the film. The rough cuts consist of folders with thousands or, in some cases, millions of images, massive photographic planes and check renders. It’s unwatchable as film and requires a great deal of imagination to see what you are looking at.

This basic fact is the biggest challenge to the film as it’s taken great faith by people supporting the film that it is going to turn out as advertised.

Part 9 – read it here!

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