Monday, August 3, 2009

Making a living as an editor?

This is the eternal question facing post production professionals. The answer is a variable set of principles, hypothesis that point out the emerging changes we must all face.

I don't know a lot of editors but I speak for myself. The magic potion that brings stability and business is none other than skill. And perseverance. Knowing something the other man does not know. Knowing how to tell a story.

The transformation of post production in the last decade from SD based, tape work flow to visual effects driven, grading HD work flows necessitate the learning of new skills. Things only learned by experience, by doing. In the golden age of the studio system, the editors were in charge of cutting picture, and supervised the sound mix on shows. Movies had the assembly line according to union rules, it was one discipline. Done.

Fast forward the past 50 years and here we arrive. With more and more people focusing on post production as a career, schools are stuck in a quagmire between teaching the tools and preparing people for arguably the most important thing of it all: getting a job.

The above is more important than learning the tools, because experience comes in opportunities. You must cut to know what it is. Any dummy can learn Final Cut Pro and pick up a tutorial to press the keys, but editing is an art form and that alone don't cut it. I knew since day one I wanted to be a filmmaker but my disdain for the school system changed my priorities. I wanted a career, not content to being a filmmaker in word only. I studied Graphic Design with an eye on Motion Graphics, and learned the discipline of working with what you've got. How the arrangement of things work to fit the whole. It was THE most valuable experience and the reason why I am an editor today.
But that is just theory. Everything is doing.

But what do you desire in this business?

When I talk to people about this, they all tell me they want to cut features. Features are the holy grail of any editor. But features are union based, I'm talking studio funded ones where the credits roll and more than one person is responsible for post.

I'm not so lucky. I cut what they give me and don't worry about the rest. Great editors cut shitty works at one point or another, and this day and age one can't afford to be selective. You either know what's good for you or you don't do the job.

The eye of the eagle in the 2000's points to hustling, the learning something the other guy doesn't know to get the job. Done. There is more asked from an editor than ever before, and we must meet those deadlines because it's all supposed to be done in the same amount of time. For example, I grade. I learned titles. My background helped me ease that and editors who know their sh*t come from a disciplinary background.

The quality of post production in most shows is standard, some exceptional. But the role of the editor in those results is indeed prominent in it's success or failure. One of the great things about editors is that we're barely blamed for something that sucks, but also we don't get the kudos we deserve because it all goes to the director. Most picture cutters don't care anyway, we're too busy cutting to worry about what that means.

And what it means is two ways to the same equation: work. How do you work? how do you get work?

I've done my share of freebies to build my portfolio. Some worth it, some done just for doing it. All valid.

Here are two doors:

1) Assistant Editor

The path most of us have to take. It's a great way to learn the editing room and all it's responsibilities, but you won't learn how to cut that way. You'll learn how to manage time which is the step to learning how to cut. I've worked many times as an assistant editor and it was great, this was on more commercial based stuff.

According to the editors guild, assistant editors are predominately Avid based. Most shows are still edited on Avid, which is the standard although Final Cut Pro is the better alternative in my opinion. Assistants can spend up to ten years or even more on that position, since the gaps between assistant and editor are wider now. Assistants are just too busy and demanding to serve the cutting room needs to actively learn how to edit. Just like the camera guild, you gotta be grandfathered in if you wanna work on union productions and you gotta pay dues first. These guys know their shit, and are competent. That's why they work on features and shows.

But does that mean they'll ever be cutters? the article on the link points out the dilemma. Yes it's great to work, but wanna spent years supporting a staff and not learning your craft? it's up to you. There are no guarantees.

I chose the other path. Path # 2.

Learn by doing.

I learned one craft and applied it to others. The best editors come from another background. Nobody I know studied editing, they fell into it. And so did I.

Unlike cinematography, editing cannot be taught. Sorry but it cannot. It has the be learned. Because there is no one philosophy to approach it, and theory is a clutch, and film schools teach that at the mercy of creativity. The rules are constantly being rewritten, with trends are born any minute. The question is, why do you like it? you must love something to be devoted to it. That cancels out financial considerations, although it's a necessity to pay your rent. I don't make a lot of money and probably never will, but I love what I do. When I get paid for it, it's icing on the cake. I took a job last spring on a project that I've been very grateful for. It gave me a chance to work with someone whose work I really admire, and I learned a lot in the process. Didn't make a cent. And the video still has no release. But that is out of my hands. I just hope that I pleased the director and did the job accordingly.

And there is nothing more gratifying than knowing when something goes well. You watch it and people laugh when they have to, cry when they have to, or hate it when they have to. A reaction is the sign you're doing something right or wrong.

And that's knowing how to tell a story.

Ten years ago, I said to myself I wanna learn to cut. The psychological reasons for making people feel a certain way afforded by editing were attractive. I just love putting things together. I used to cut on tape before as a child. Taking VHS tapes and using two VCR's with flying erase heads to edit. I knew then this was interesting, and temperament (patience) and obsession also being requisite parts of the agenda. Final Cut Pro came and that changed the industry, it made it possible for you me and Joe Schmuck to edit. Shooting stuff helped, but professional environment is were you learn, were you're thrown under the bus.

You don't arrive at those steps without paying dues. Editing is instinctive. It's psychological. It's true to film making. Commercials are a safe heaven for editors, because it's a demanding business. Everyone needs an editor. Work for an agency and cut commercials. I've done it. I love it. Wish I could do it more. Knowing what is realistic within your skills is what sets your limits, and your capabilities. It's astounding when professionals call themselves editors but don't know sh*t from shynola. And there are a lot of them.

And you don't learn how to tell a story through technical manuals. My mother is the greatest storyteller, and so is the friend who tells you a great story and leaves out the boring parts. That is life, and life is storytelling. What you bring to the job is your sensibility, but the footage tells you how to cut.

Average editors rule the airways, in television a lot of chances are being taken but there's a lot of crappy edits too. Schedules are shorter, facilitated by the assembly line way shows are turned out. Only a selected group of editors are in demand, people who work in film, commercials, music videos with filmmakers who are like partners.

These are the people who you see in the credits. Repeatedly. Watch a Tim Burton film? watch for Chris Lebenzon. Tony Scott? same one. How about Dylan Tichenor? he's got the market cornered. These are great editors, and they're great because they have experience to fail or succeed. Someone starts somewhere. And that's my whole point.

The future.

Is now. We're living it. And it is going to end one day. Learning the tools and techniques to execute something quickly and proficiently is what gets you a job, but actually knowing how to cut and seeing the results play out is what gets you a career. Bring the disciplines to one and use it like a swiss army knife, all instruments are useful.

But you gotta know how tell a story, and leave out the boring parts.

The rent is due, by the way.

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