So… You Want To Be An Editor


Many students go through film school and land upon the idea that they are best suited to edit feature films. Unfortunately, it’s a rare situation in which someone simply walks out of school and starts cutting motion pictures. Most of us work on many different types of projects for years – ranging from corporate videos to commercials – before we ever get a chance to cut a feature. Some never get that opportunity. Although much of the old apprenticeship systems have disintegrated, the general path is still to start at the bottom and work your way up. Potential editors often start in a number of capacities, including VTR operator, dubbing assistant or maybe assistant editor. The irony is that in most cases, the assistant editor has to be far more technically-savvy than the editor with whom they work. While the editor is prized for his or her creative talent, it’s the assistant who makes sure that the workflow functions smoothly. Here are some practical tips for skills you should learn on your way to becoming an editor.


Editing Software


There is plenty of debate about Avid versus Final Cut Pro, but at the end of the day, these are simply tools that get the job done. Right now, Avid is still the dominant editing software used to cut most feature films and television shows. Final Cut is still the upstart in these circles, but has made a serious dent in most small-to-medium post houses, as well as even many larger networks. It’s also favored by a handful of high-profile editors. But that could change. Next year, Adobe Premiere Pro could suddenly be the hot flavor. In my decades of editing, I’ve had paying gigs using close to twenty different editing systems. Most are now no longer in existence. The moral of the story is to learn the concepts more than the keystrokes. That being said, today’s budding editors should be conversant in BOTH Avid and Final Cut Pro if they expect to work.




Much of editing is more than just cuts and dissolves. Assistant editors often have to prep photos and graphics for use in edit sessions. The two most important “Swiss Army Knife” tools for editors are Adobe Photoshop and Adobe After Effects. I use Photoshop on nearly every editing project. As an editor or assistant, you should be comfortable enough with these tools to use them for cleaning up logos, handling image processing on stills and animation files and many other tasks.


Compression, the Web and DVD Authoring


More and more video is sent out for review and approval using tapeless methods, such as FTP sites on the web and DVDs. As editors we are called upon to also be compressionists and new media content creators. Many studios routinely use DVDs as a method for distributing film dailies. Learn to get comfortable with a handful of compression software tools, like Apple Compressor or Sorenson Squeeze. Learn the difference between QuickTime H.264 and Windows Media and when to use one over the other and why. I don’t mean that you should become a wizard at authoring studio-level interactive DVDs. Rather, you should at least understand the basics of efficiently compressing high-quality content and turning that around for a DVD with simple navigation – or a file that can be uploaded to a standard FTP site on the web, so your client or director can review it.


Video Basics


While I’m on the subject, I should remind you that videotape decks and patch panels are not a thing of bygone days. It’s wonderful to learn the art of editing, but to be successful in that first job after school, make sure you understand all that “old school” technology, such as reading and understanding video signals on waveform monitors and vectorscopes. Learn how to set up the playback and record levels of most popular professional videotape decks. Learn the difference between a BNC and an XLR and the logic of the “gozintas” and “gozoutas” (inputs and outputs) of most common audio and video patch bays. You never know when you’ll be handed a computer NLE, a few decks and a handful of cables and be expected to set up a quick ad hoc cutting room!


Organization and Productivity Tools


Make sure you understand the common tools that every professional uses each day. For example, learn how to use tools like Microsoft Word and Excel. Learn how to do research on the internet. Learn the importance of proper labeling and how to best organize the variety of media files, types and formats that you’ll encounter. If you don’t know how to use a computer and printer to create a videotape label or print on a DVD, the time to start is now. These may sound like simple tasks, but learning to perform them with excellence makes the difference between appearing professional or being an amateur.


Although many of these specific tools will change each year, the concepts behind them won’t. Time spent ingraining these concepts is far better than learning the newest plug-in effects filter and will serve you for years to come.


© 2008 Oliver Peters