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Becoming a Film Editor

Laurie Lathem

Breaking into film and television editing

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.

Take classes

Film editing is highly technical and there are two mainprograms 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 ofnarrative. The more knowledge you can gain on these subjects, the better. Obviously, a film editing course is ideal.

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 topractice the art of editing. Now all you need is a home computer andFinal Cut Pro. Invest in a copy and practice practice practice. More andmore film productions are relying on FCP so using the system at homewill give you this advantage when looking for work. Shoot some footagewith a camcorder and start cutting.

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, thetried and true way of gaining a foothold in any aspect of the filmbusiness 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.

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/shemight even ask you to cut a scene.

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.

Stay connected

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 toscreenings, 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.

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Laurie Lathem