I got my start a LOOOOOONG time ago when I was 10. I saw the making of The Empire Strikes Back
and got inspired. I borrowed a video camera, gathered my stuffed animals and shot an animated sci-fi movie, and a couple sequels. OK, that really isn’t where I started, but that’s where I got the filmmaking bug.I landed my first production job when I went to college. I was attending Montana State University when I got a job at a production company run by one of the professors. It was for a subsidiary of the local PBS station…Native Voices
. It was a company that specifically reached out to Native American filmmakers, which I am. I’m a Salish descendent of the Flathead tribe from Northwestern Montana. While at this company, I did all sorts of jobs, from grant writing to videography, to field audio recording, to directing. It really rounded out my production experience. And it’s what lead to my career in documentary filmmaking. Also while attending MSU, I worked for another professor on a series of documentaries for the Discovery Channel.
When I graduated, I moved to Phoenix to be with my soon-to-be wife as she finished college. While there, I worked at Apple computer doing tech support. I did this for a year and, while you might think ‘how on earth does this pertain to your career,’ well… it does. While on that job, I was trying to find production work in town, without much luck. Not much to be had, and it is a very tight knit community. I did some production assistant work for a company on a couple commercials, but that’s it.
When I tried to get work as a videographer, I kept getting asked for my reel (a sample of my work). I had many tapes, but potential employers wanted select scenes all on one tape. But back then getting access to editing equipment was not easy. It was very expensive and rare. Well, I noticed that the company I worked for as a PA had a computer editing system called Avid Media Composer. I asked if I could book a day on it in exchange for work days as a PA. The office manager asked, ‘Oh, you know how to use that?’ Then said that a Hollywood feature was being shot locally, and production was looking for a local hire as the apprentice editor…and that person needed to have Avid experience. (They happened to be the office for production in Phoenix, the hub of people looking for work.)
So I landed an interview and headed out to the location. I was interviewing with the producer and he said ‘Well, you have many skills that the others who came in had, but not the experience. What can you do that the others can’t?’ As if on cue, the director’s assistant came into the room, interrupting the interview process, and dropped her laptop onto his desk. ‘This is broken! It can’t do anything I need done. It’s always freezing and applications are quitting. I need you to fix this right now!’ ‘I’m in the middle of an interview’ he replied. But she didn’t care. Now, this is where the part about me having the job in tech support comes in. That laptop was one of the first Apple Powerbooks. So I spoke up. ‘Uhm, mind if I have a look? I currently work for Apple in tech support.’
I fixed the computer in 5 minutes and landed the job. Because not only was the office full of Apple computers, but the edit systems were on Apple computers as well. This movie was Oliver Stone’s U-Turn. And you think that would have launched me down the path of feature film editing. But alas, no- The editor who liked me (there were two) moved to Seattle. The other didn’t like me, so I didn’t move on with him or the company. Ah well.
My wife graduated, and we moved to Los Angeles. While there, I landed a job at a company that did Fox specials (When Animals Attack!) as the vault manager. A college friend got me the interview, but again, my computer skills came into play. They needed someone to create a database for all their stock footage as the current system existed only in the head of the producer. I took the database skills I learned on U-Turn, and created a tape database using Filemaker Pro. I also networked all the computers in the office so they could send files back and forth. Again, a company full of Apple computers.
Ok, from there I moved up to being the vault manager at America’s Funniest Home Videos. They needed someone to take their aging database and make it all shiny and new, which I did. While there, I did a little assistant editing on a couple pilots, as they had a couple Avid editing systems.
Then I moved on to Production Coordinator at a company that did History Channel shows, FOX Family Channel shows, A CBS special or two, and three HBO Behind the Scenes, This involved scheduling, and some assistant editing…and on more than one occasion, completely tearing down an Avid system and rebuilding it. I thought I was technical before. Nope. This topped that. While at this company, I was taught how to use their tape to tape online system (ancient as hell, but still used), and taught to “online” shows. What that entailed was taking all the low resolution “offline quality” footage, recapturing it at full resolution, and then color correcting it. Also, I needed to properly time out shows.
From there I bounced around. I assisted on a TV pilot for FOX that didn’t get picked up, onlining shows for MTV, Discovery Channel, History, Showtime and then assisted on Judge Judy for 6 months, until I was fired (Well deserved, I slacked off too much, but also hated the job. Still, one should never slack off.).
From there, I moved to a Disney Channel show called Even Stevens as the assistant editor. I got that job because when I was taking a class to learn the Avid better (when I was working at America’s Funniest Home Videos), I was partnered with an editor and we really got along. Well, his assistant finally moved on and so he contacted me, and hired me on the spot.
While on this show, I was taught how to edit. I would be able to sit in as the editors cut and to see their process. Both editors (the show had two editors) had very different cutting styles. And after watching for a bit, they would hand me scenes to cut. Well, one would leave early because he considered himself a lazy editor (which is wrong, he was a very GOOD and FAST editor- got scenes cut quickly). He would leave early and hand me scenes to cut. Then give me notes, and let me address them. Then, when screening the cuts to the director, would state, ‘My assistant cut three scenes. Guess which ones?’ Yes, they would be able to guess. But they’d give me notes too. The other editor also directed, so he’d be on set for a full week. That gave me a week to edit on his machine, and I’d get a lot of scenes done. He would also give me notes, but would be in such a hurry after missing a week that he’d just fix the scenes himself. Still, I learned a lot.
After that show ended we did another Disney Channel Pilot, and then another series, That’s So Raven. I assisted on that for a year before I suddenly got calls to edit. Five in one week! An editor I worked with kept referring me to companies. So I took the leap into the edit chair on a show for VH1 called Super Secret Movie Rules. I lasted all of a week on the show before I and 6 other editors were let go. The show wasn’t turning out how the network wanted, and we caught the blame. So there I was, high and dry, without a job. But only for two days. I was then hired by an editor who I used to online for. Now he was a producer and needed help on two shows he was producing for the SciFi Network (before it was SyFy) called Rage Against the Machine (about how machines were taking over our lives). I stayed at that production company for 2 years, cutting various Discovery Channel shows and History Channel shows, and I also worked at a company down the street doing more substantial History Channel shows.
Then the company I assisted for on Even Stevens and That’s So Raven started a narrative kids’ show for Nickelodeon, and I rallied for an editor spot. Because they knew me and my work, they hired me. It was a short-lived series, but a fun one… Just 4 Kicks.
After the show ended I went back to documentary work. I cut a couple shows from my home and have since bounced from company to company, working on various documentaries and reality shows, both onlining (color correcting) and creative cutting. I’m currently at a production company editing various History Channel shows, including the popular Curse of Oak Island, which is a hybrid doc and reality series.
I like creative input I get on reality shows. While we do have scripts, we don’t need to stick to them as much as one does with scripted narrative shows. We can re-arrange things completely, cut things, add others. I get more creative input than other show types. And I work alone, meaning I’m left to my own devices. I don’t have someone sitting over my shoulder. I cut in solitude. I do my work, show it, get notes, and get back to my work. And I like that I can jump from creative cutting to the more technical color correction and online editing. Gives my brain a break from the norm.
I also like the fact that I work on a variety of show types. From scripted shows to documentary shows, to reality, to show pitches. I haven’t been pigeon holed into one category. This also means that I’m constantly learning and constantly developing new and creative editing techniques. Not only flashy transitions, but better ways to tell a story. I think that the reality shows that I cut really benefit from the fact that I have cut lots of documentaries, and some of the reality scene work benefits from the fact that I cut scripted narrative, and I know that seeing people’s reactions to what is being said is very impactful.
I really like that I learn new things. Working on documentaries is very educational. For example, did you know that the United States invaded Mexico during the Mexican American War? And that we conquered Mexico City? But we didn’t keep them. It was all just so President Polk could force Mexico to sell us the southwest states for half what he originally asked.
I dislike the hours. I work 10 hours a day, five days a week, sometimes six. And sometimes I’m required to work late, so my days can get to be 12-14 hours long, because editing takes time and shows I work on have lots of footage to sort through. It often takes me 4 weeks for the rough cut on a documentary. Longer on a reality show if there is lots and lots of footage. So yes, the long hours of staring at a computer monitor –alone. That’s what I dislike.
Make a demo reel
Well, the one thing that was very often asked for after I left college was a ‘demo reel,’ a sample of your work. That’s not something they told us to make when we were at school, when we had the resources to do so. Because editing equipment back then was very expensive. It’s relatively cheap now, so that isn’t much of an issue. So yeah, make a demo reel.
Work on passion projects
And, on that note, work on passion projects for free and learn your craft. Don’t work for free on projects that someone will use to earn a buck, but short films and docs that are passion projects. Work on those. Learn your mistakes early. Learn the craft early. This also allows you to add something to your reel. I know an editor who did lots of free stuff that lead to a body of work that landed him a web series, then a cable series, and now he’s cutting network TV shows.
Your reputation is important
One thing that is very important is your reputation. Not only in skill level and creative and technical knowledge, but also personally –how well you get along with others. So always be on your best behavior, professionally and personally. Be easy to get along with. And never ever lie about skills you have. If you don’t know how to use Photoshop, don’t say you do. Your reputation follows you. And this business is smaller than you think. We are always asked by employers for recommendations for people to work on shows, and we always recommend people we like working with, who are also skilled at what they do. If someone has a reputation for behaving badly or lying about their skill level, they won’t get recommended nor hired.
Network, and by that I mean just meet and talk to other editors, other people in your field. Just knowing someone and being personable can get you your first big break. An editor and I got along together very well in an editing class, and that lead to him hiring me to be his assistant. Another time I had a great conversation with an editor at a union get together, and he recommended me to someone else as a possible assistant. But it did take me a while to figure this out.
Watch things you want to work on
Here’s a good one: Watch a LOT of movies and TV, things you are wanting to work on. And watching bad movies and TV shows are just as good as watching good shows, if not better. When a show is good, it’s tough to pin down just why it is good. What formula makes it work so well? You might be able to figure that out. But when you watch a BAD movie, you know right away why it’s bad. And that in turn helps you know what NOT to do. But yes, watch lots of movies and TV. It’s called “research,” and it is a valid tax deduction for those in our industry. Yup, your movie stubs and cable bill are tax deductable. As is Netflix. It’s all research.
Work on as many projects as you can. This was also mentioned above, working for free. This is the best way to get experience. Work on a paid job so you can get by. But working weekends and nights on projects while you are young and don’t have a family that demands your spare time is a good thing. The more experience you get, the better. Make all your mistakes when it’s a small free project, not when it’s an expensive movie, or TV show, in front of professionals who’ll judge you.
Make your own films
Make your own films. Partner with other passionate people who also want to make films. Who knows which one of them will break into the big time and want to bring you along. Even working on lower budget films that pay little is a good thing. An editor I worked with was doing a very low budget feature for free and needed some graphics work done. I had just figured out how to use After Effects when making a gag reel for a TV show we were on, so he asked if I would do it. I agreed. Now, the producer on that movie ended up working on a larger budget Hollywood feature, with a name director, although one with a lower than normal budget. And they needed a news report with news ticker and LIVE and the whole package. Because they didn’t have a big budget, they thought of me. I was paid pretty well and got my work in a feature. I also solved a few problems on the set, and that helped my reputation and lead to future work in that area.
You’ll most likely start at the bottom
Know that you will most likely start at the bottom, as a production assistant, or runner, or working in reception. A lot of skills are learned on the job in a lower level position. Sure, you made a film or two, but that doesn’t mean you know how things are actually done on the set or in the edit room. So starting on the bottom will show you a ground-up view of how things are done. I was an apprentice editor, vault manager, and post coordinator before I became an assistant editor. And everything I learned in those lower levels I applied later on. Heck, when you are a production assistant driving across town all day long making deliveries, you learn the town, find the shortcuts, the bad spots.
Be nice, and be friendly
Talk to a lot of people and just be nice and friendly. Being nice and friendly gets you remembered, and if someone needs a PA or post assistant, they will think of you. Don’t be afraid to ask if they might need a PA on a project they are on. Go to events like user group meetings (LACPUG has a monthly meeting, and Alpha Dogs post does as well. Both are Los Angeles based). There are groups on Twitter and Facebook that have Pub Nights on occasion; stuff like that. Get to know people. I recall when I was first in the union and added to the roster, I asked how they helped me look for work. They don’t.
Make sure you like what you do
Enjoy what you do. This industry requires a lot of hours. Ten hours a day on average, up to 16 or more on the set and in the edit room. So loving what you do helps deal with these hours. But yes, enjoy yourself. This is a very fun, and challenging, industry to be in.