Guide to Becoming a Film Editor
Breaking into film and television editing
By Laurie Lathem
out of 10
Choose your rating
9 - Uncommonly Useful
Add Your Comments
Film editing is one of the most creative aspects of film making, and also one of the most demanding. The process of cutting film is painstaking and largely unheralded. Editors famously work long hours alone in a dark room, sometimes working magic on less than perfect footage, only to see the glory and high pay go to the director. After all, depending on the style of the film in question, good editing should often be invisible. If the editor has done his/her job well, one shouldn't notice it. So why become an editor? Any editor will tell you that they do what they do for the pure love of putting a film together. I once watched an editor work on a rather slow and sentimental scene, and by deleting whole segments of it, stealing a few lines from another scene, and changing the order of events, he transformed it into a scene with dramatic pacing and tension. It truly seemed like magic. There is a saying that a film's final rewrite is in the editing room. Editors create the story out of raw footage, piecing each scene together in the way that best moves the narrative and holds the tension of the entire film. An editor does everything from picking takes and temp music to masking mistakes in continuity and lack of film coverage to re-envisioning entire scenes. An editor can spend hours finding a way to compensate for a missing shot, for example. Once the editor has a first cut of the entire film, the director comes in and the two collaborate on a final cut, a process which can take months. Therefore, an editor's job is both solitary and collaborative, and a good relationship with the director is essential. This is why directors so often stick with one editor for their entire careers.
The best contacts and resources to help you get it done
Film editing is highly technical and there are two main programs you will need to know in order to get a job as an editor or an assistant editor. These are Avid and Final Cut Pro, although since FCP is the cheaper of the two, it is being used on more and more projects. Both of these programs are digital; very few people make physical cuts on the film itself anymore. Obviously if you have a film school nearby, you should learn as much about the process of film making as possible. Editors need to understand acting, directing, sound and the flow of narrative. The more knowledge you can gain on these subjects, the better. Obviously, a film editing course is ideal.
I recommend: Check your local community college for classes on film editing. Read books on the craft such as Conversations: Walter Murch and the Craft of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje. Trade shows such as Videomaker Expo have introductory sessions in editing systems. Check out videomaker.com for conferences and workshops. And of course, watch movies edited by great editors such as Dede Allen and Walter Murch, and films nominated for Academy Awards for editing.
Practice cutting at home
Luckily this has never been easier. Back in the days of cutting film it was a lot more difficult and expensive to practice the art of editing. Now all you need is a home computer and Final Cut Pro. Invest in a copy and practice practice practice. More and more film productions are relying on FCP so using the system at home will give you this advantage when looking for work. Shoot some footage with a camcorder and start cutting.
I recommend: Make sure you have a computer that can handle Final Cut or Final Cut Pro. Get as much RAM as you can afford. Go to apple.com/finalcutpro. This is an investment but a necessary one. Buy a cheap camcorder and shoot a simple story. Make sure to add music, but beware of piracy issues. Get live audio from a friend or go to Flyinghands.com for royalty-free music downloads. Don't be overambitious with time or subject matter. You can document an aspect of your neighborhood, for example, rather than trying to stage a battle scene. Aim for a piece of about three minutes in length. Shoot and cut various styles and then eventually cut them into a demo reel.
Intern and apprentice
While formal apprenticeships are increasingly rare, there are still internships available. If you want to get your foot in the door and learn the craft, this is one of the best ways to go about it. As an intern you won't be doing much more than running errands, but you'll get a chance to see how the inside of an editing room operates and how the editor goes about his/her work. Also, the tried and true way of gaining a foothold in any aspect of the film business is to get a job as a Production Assistant. In this case you'd want to get hired as a Post-Production Assistant. Spend as much time in the editing room as possible.
I recommend: American Cinema Editors has an internship program. Go to Editors.net for job postings including internships. Craigslist and productionhub.com have job listings. Get a job as a Post-Production Assistant. Work on a student film. Learn how to digitize footage as you will need to know this in order to take the next step.
Becoming an assistant editor
The next step to becoming an editor is to become an assistant editor. As an assistant you will digitize hours of footage as well as look for specific takes, sound effects and music. Once you're in the editing room, be helpful and efficient. If you're lucky and competent, you will begin to develop a relationship with an editor or two. The editor might ask what you think of certain scene, so be prepared with ideas and helpful, intelligent suggestions. Make sure to be well-acquainted with the project, from the script to the footage. You'd be surprised at how many people working on a film project don't bother to read the script. In editing, this is a major mistake, as the story is being shaped in the editing process. Once you have gained the trust of an editor, he/she might even ask you to cut a scene.
I recommend: This is not uncommon as editors are often overworked and under intense deadlines, so while they might keep the most important and difficult scenes to themselves, passing along a simpler scene to an assistant is a good time-saver for them. This is your chance to show what you can do. This is where all that practicing at home pays off.
If you impress the editor, he/she will want to work with you again, and will most likely give you more and more responsibility to cut scenes. Editors want to work with assistants they can trust to cut. If you are lucky, they will offer useful criticism. These same editors are the ones who will hire you as a second editor or recommend you for a job as editor. Working your way up from assistant editor to editor can take years. I know a woman who has been working as an assistant for twenty years and has no desire to be an editor. But most assistants ache for the chance to become an editor themselves. If you are prepared, competent, helpful and eager, you should expect to move up. Being an assistant, you will learn more than just how to cut film. You will also learn about the politics of working in post-production, the relationships between editor and other members of the filmmaking team, and how to handle various sticky situations. Making movies is very high pressure. A lot of money rides on every day spent in post-production and editors can never do their difficult work fast enough. So pay attention to how the editor handles this.
It is increasingly true that editors get work through agents --however, much of their work still comes through recommendations from other editors. While there is tremendous competition for work, editors also know that jobs come by way of word-of-mouth. If one editor is busy on a TV series, he/she will gladly recommend another editor for an available job. If you are an assistant looking for work or looking to get bumped up to editor, make sure to stay in touch with your editor friends, go to screenings, conferences, seminars, etc. Make sure to let people know you are available and what kind of work you're interested in. An editor I know worked for years as an assistant, and then, frustrated that she was not getting bumped up to editor, simply stopped taking jobs as an assistant. She told everyone she knew that she wanted work as an editor and eventually she got her chance and has never looked back.
I recommend: Even if you are not a member, stay apprised of networking events through American Cinema Editors, some of which are open to non-members. The Motion Picture Editors Guild has screenings for its members. Go to editorsguild.com for guidelines on joining.
Tips & Tactics
Helpful advice for making the most of this Guide
Editors are overworked and sleep-deprived and editing rooms are often small. Keep this in mind when in the cutting room. Don't demand too much of the busy editor's time or talk too much. Even when you have nothing to do, the editor is always working under a deadline and needs his/her space in which to concentrate.
Stay connected to the film and TV industry as a whole. Know who is doing what, keep up on the work of directors you admire and the editors they are hiring. Be professional at all times. Follow all leads. Read the industry trades. Variety.com has a production chart as well as essential industry news.
Keep cutting at home, honing your craft, perfecting your use of the shifting technology. An editor I know once cut a low-budget film in his dining room while working as an assistant on a TV series. Work as much as you can even if it means eating off your lap for a few months. Good luck!
Answered By: gabrielle - 7/25/2008