5 Tips to Think About When Getting Started as an Editor

By Lawrence Jordan

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Editing Pioneer Sergei Eisen

The craft of the film and video editor is one which combines both technical proficiency and the eye and ear of an artist. The explosion of inexpensive digital editing tools, along with a growing demand for media for a variety of new and emerging platforms has made this once mysterious craft more desirable to creative people than ever. But there are some important things to consider before going out and attempting to land your first editing gig. In this short article, I’ll point out some things you should keep in mind, some of the pitfalls to avoid and a few concrete action steps you can take to get yourself started.

1. What do you want to edit?

The first decision you need to make before embarking on this journey is what kind of editing work would you like to do? Seems pretty obvious right? But you’d be surprised how many people look at the editing suite as just a stepping stone on their way to another craft. If you ultimately want to be a writer or director that’s fine, but I would advise finding some kind of work that will more directly lead to one of those jobs. There’s a saying in the film business; “writers write, directors direct.” The same goes for editors. They want to hire people who are in the craft for the “long-haul” and you’re much more likely to land a job if your prospective employer gets the sense that you are dedicated and committed to becoming an editor. Sure, people transition from one craft to another and have since the dawn of cinema, but in today’s ultra-competitive atmosphere, you’ll serve yourself better by deciding which path you want to pursue and making a focused movement in that direction.

Once you’ve determined that editing is indeed your goal, next will be the decision about which area of the editing world you want to stake your claim in. There are as many types of editing niches and post production specialties as there are types and styles of programming.

Many of us are interested in dramatic narrative editing, the type required for traditional movies and television, and this is an admirable goal. But It’s important to understand that this world is decidedly different from that of commercial or music video editing. And it doesn’t stop there. There’s also documentary editing, corporate and industrial editing, event and instructional editing. All these require a slightly different skill set, but more importantly, a different set of employment contacts. Yes, you can transition from one area to another and many people do, but the longer you’ve been practicing in any one particular niche, the longer your list of contacts will be there and the more likelihood that you will find work in that domain.

2. What’s Your 20?

Where you are located geographically is another factor in determining the kind of editing work that will be available to you. While there are growing hubs of long-format production work in many cities around the US, the majority of editing and other post-production work is still done in Los Angeles and to a lesser extent New York. This is where the studios and networks who

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Editing on Film

finance higher dollar projects are based, as well as the producers and directors who oversee the post process. You can find editing work In the secondary US markets such as Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta and Miami, but you will be more limited to local and or regional commercials, corporate, non-profit and educational work. All these project areas can be interesting, challenging and gratifying but unless you have a friend from school who writes the next world shaking script, don’t be fooled in to believing that you’ll be able to launch a career as a feature film editor from here.

So if long-form is where you’ve got your heart set, don’t wait too long before you make the jump to NY or LA. Yes, learn your skills and hone your chops wherever. Just don’t wait too long before you start building your network in the place you want to establish your life-long career connections and where you plan on being for the long haul.

3. No Pay, But You Get to Play

So you really want to be an editor some day? Great, but are you willing to work for little or no pay while building your network and putting in the time to gain experience? In any business starting out as a low or unpaid intern is a time tested method to get your foot in the door. This is also a good way to ingratiate yourself with a potential employer in the film and video business. The big reason for this is because fundamentally, it is an incredibly competitive industry and many people starting out are willing to work for nothing.

Even in these tough economic times people still flock to the media creation industries and crafts such as editing because they are well suited to the creative personality type. Many people loath the idea of getting dressed in a suit and tie every day and working in a corporate environment. And while often indirectly working for major corporations and clients, editors are not required to wear the uniform of business and will often find themselves at several different locations throughout the year working on different, ad-hoc projects.

While working for little or no money during the early period of an editors career isn’t the most appealing idea to most of us, it does present an opportunity to start building a collection of work and credits, more commonly referred to as one’s “reel.” Your reel is your C.V., resume and will often be considered by prospective employers to hold far more weight than other factors including where you’ve worked or where you were trained or went to school. Let’s face it, raw talent is what get’s people noticed in our business and when one has a reel which displays spectacular, or just really exceptional talent, it’s hard for people not to take notice. Of course I’ll qualify this by saying yes, other factors do matter and if you’ve burned a bunch of bridges or have a reputation for being lazy, crazy, difficult or all of the above, those factors will most likely hinder you, but all things being equal a quality reel with a variety of different examples of what you can do on a project will be a deciding factor with most creative employers.

4. Get Some Cred

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Modern Digital Editing Suite

But we’re jumping ahead of ourselves. The aspiring editor often starts out by serving a certain amount of time in an assistant or apprenticeship position. Even those with masters degrees in film will often start out working as a P.A. (production assistant) “gopher” or “schlepper,” (a yiddish term from the earliest days of film for one who used to carry the heavy cans of film from one office or studio location to another). For those just starting out, don’t fret. I imagine if you are anything like I was, you’re chomping at the bit to get behind a keyboard and start cutting. But the fact is, much knowledge and information on how an editing room works including the politics of the cutting room, the equipment and logistics of the craft, and the way to conduct yourself with co-workers and clients will be learned during this initiation period. If you keep your eyes and ears peeled and your mouth zipped, you will pick up tips, insights, skills and techniques that will last you a lifetime.

5. Taking Action

The next step is to take all the things we’ve talked about here and to get them straight in your head. Take some time and answer the questions for yourself. What kind of projects and material do you want to edit? Where you want to edit? What can/are you willing to sacrifice (at lease at the beginning) to get a foothold in the editing business? What is your specific plan to build your reel and establish your credits?

In conclusion, my advice is to “go forth and edit media creator”! Whether it be in a tiny one person shop or a studio with 1000’s of co-workers, decide where you want to be. Make a plan and go out and pursue your dream. Editing is storytelling and while the ascent up the ladder can be frustrating and difficult at times the goal you are aiming for, to be a professional editor who helps people communicate their ideas, messages and vision in a multitude of areas can be incredibly rewarding. Creatively, financially but most importantly, being an editor can be rewarding to the soul.