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Film Editor

The Real Poop

Let's begin with a short career test. What's wrong with this story?

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, a boy was born to Darth Vader. His name? Luke Skywalker. As a young man, Luke leaves home to destroy a Death Star. He looks for it, finds it, and destroys it.

No wait, first he wins a medal from a princess. Then he meets Obi-Wan Kenobi and a couple of robots and learns to fight with light sabers. Then he goes to a bar and meets Han Solo and then blows up more stuff and there's some kissing and junk.

The end.

You may have thought, "Hey! Wait a second. That story is all wrong. It's out of order and it's super boring. Let me tell it!"

Getting warm….

If you thought, "Hey! Aren't all galaxies far, far away? And I know what a Death Star looks like and how to blow it up and I know the sound of robot voices...."

Congratulations, you may be headed for a career as a film or video editor.

You want to know the truth? The really, real truth? Then you came to the right place. Here it is:

Editors make movies.

Most people believe that scriptwriters, directors, producers, and television networks make movies. And editors certainly don't make commercials or music videos. Well, let's see.

How many times does a script go through a re-write?

How many takes do actors do before they get it right?

How many special effects are there? How many sound effects? And what about music?

It takes about eight hours to make one hour of film, and that's not including all the unusable stuff that gets trimmed away. With video, that ratio is even higher.

The calculation used by most digital media filmmakers now reflects the cost in time and labor needed to output the final production. This ratio is huge.

Editors are the ones who take ALL of the footage, talent, time, and labor…and throw out everything but the good stuff.

If that isn't movie-making, what is?

On your way to becoming an editor, you should get a degree in film and video production. You'll need to know editing software and equipment so well that you don't even think about them. By the time you're an editor, you won't spend a single minute thinking about the intricacies of color correction, setting key frames, or scrubbing through hours and hours of footage.

Assistant editors do all the technical and project management stuff. You'll spend many years as an assistant editor (telling people you spent the day logging doesn't have quite the cache in Hoboken as it does in Hollywood, so move to the West Coast). AE's assemble all the footage for the editor to review. Before you can be Captain Kirk, you need to be Bones, Spock, Scotty, Sulu, Uhura, and Chekov (yeah, yeah, we know, save your stamp).

Your AE is your trusty sidekick. He is a master of what's called workflow. If you don't have to worry about workflow, you can do your job.

Your job is to sit in with the director early in the film's development, perhaps even during the script review. Once shooting starts, the workflow begins.

At the end of every workday, all the footage is downloaded from the set to the post-production facility where you work. Even with the fastest Internet connection, the process can take hours, but no one is sitting there watching a progress bar. Even as the next sequence is being filmed, the entire post-production house is a fast-motion factory of activity.

The AE starts the workflow by cataloging the footage in Avid [Pro Tools or something else] or [Apple] Final Cut Pro, naming the files and sorting them in "bins." She then stitches together a rough cut of visuals (each one trimmed "from slate to slate") with early versions from each of the four departments working simultaneously on the film: visual effects, sound effects, music, and picture.

Even though each department is working on a separate and distinct part of the final project, they have to collaborate every step of the way. In the case of weekly television shows, editors have ten days to finish an episode, so focus and dedication are essential.

Once the film is underway, footage is shuttled back and forth between the director, post-production, producers, and networks. The goal is to keep the editor "up to camera," meaning the director starts each day with a rough cut of all the footage done so far.

This is the best part of your job: sitting with the director and watching the rough cuts. Together you look for irregularities in the story and action. You are on the lookout for any infractions of the 180-degree rule (two people facing each other can't suddenly switch sides), or sloppy cuts to be refined by cutting on motion or movement. You're also making notes about the visual and sound effects, the music, the dialog, and plot devices like foreshadowing or memory recall. Most of all, you and the director are refining the film's ability to convey story and emotion. You're making mental lists of everything that needs to get tossed out.

Editing feature films is what most editors strive for, but thousands of editors work on countless other projects.

There are two reasons Editors will be around for a long time:

  1. Commercials, short films, documentaries, industrials, and TV shows like hour-long specials, reality shows, MOWs (Movies of the Week), pilots, and series.
  2. Editors are artists. Software and cheap labor may be shredding all kinds of careers, but editing is a talent that can't be faked.

Editors have to look through hours and hours of footage, second-by-second with intense concentration.

Editors ferry a movie between directors, producers, or networks, and technicians. That means you'll need top-notch people skills. You need to be focused on tiny details and the big picture. You need to make decisions about mere seconds of action while gracefully heading off network executives breathing down your neck, as well as harried directors. You'll look at footage over and over, each time with new eyes, asking things like "am I supposed to know that the killer is actually the gym instructor? Have I included enough subtle clues about the lead character's upcoming cancer diagnosis?"

Editors need to be patient and trustworthy. They need to stay cool in the face of criticism and be willing to do tedious, solitary work late into the night, and then wake up bright and early, ready to jump back into the collaborative workflow.

The best way to find out if you have the skills for dealing with difficult people is to go to school rather than take a class online. Then, if you can hack being told to do boring, unglamorous tasks without complaint, you can earn your way into paying assistant gigs, where you can watch the pros while they work. The best reason to keep your people skills up is because editing work is almost always awarded by word of mouth. Be very careful of how you treat people on your way up, or even sideways, but especially during discouraging setbacks. You'll need to be stubborn about your goal, but patient and outgoing enough to earn trust among your peers.

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