Guest post by Zack Arnold, ACE.
How to Decide What The Perfect Editing Job Is For You
Two words that sound so simple but are a million miles away from “easy."
For many trying to begin or advance their career as a film editor, taking the first steps can feel overwhelming. Without a roadmap to follow, it feels like there are a thousand different paths, an infinite array of different and unique ladders to climb, and any direction could potentially lead to stardom...or utter failure and years of wasted time and money.
The fear of potentially climbing the wrong ladder paralyzes many young, budding filmmakers in their tracks, and frankly this is a crime.
The world has enough lawyers and accountants - we need more “creatives!”
Yet many won’t pursue their dreams out of fear of making the wrong choices when in reality they just need a simple process to help them assess which ladder to climb in the first place.
I get it. When I moved out to Los Angeles 15 years ago from a dairy farming community in Northern Wisconsin (population 192 at the time...it has now grown to 222), I didn’t have a simple step-by-step checklist that would lead me to becoming a member of the American Cinema Editors (ACE) and editing such TV shows as Empire, Burn Notice, Shooter, Glee, as well as numerous feature films and theatrical marketing campaigns.
I was just a farm kid with zero contacts in Hollywood and NO IDEA where to start as a budding filmmaker and editor.
If Only We Had It As Easy As Doctors
Nobody signs up for medical school thinking it will be easy. It requires years of intense studying, training, specialization in one specific field, internships, residencies...and let’s not even get started on the sleep deprivation (maybe it’s not so different than film editing). But nobody graduates with an undergraduate degree with the expectation they can be a doctor the next day, they understand there are still years of specialized training ahead.
Despite the difficult journey to become a medical doctor, there is a clearly defined path to success, and more importantly there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
If you’re in your final year of medical school, you know that you’re so close to wearing that white coat you can taste it, so you keep plugging away. It’s like being on mile 25 of a marathon...with only 1 mile to go, you can mentally block out the pain and fatigue because the finish line is in sight!
Unfortunately for those trying to “make it” in Hollywood as an editor, it’s much harder to see that light at the end of an invisible tunnel.
- What kind of degree do I need?
- What software am I supposed to learn?
- What’s the right type of entry-level job?
- Should I be an assistant first? A PA?
- Can I get an editing job right out of school? Or do I need a master’s degree?
- Am I supposed to join a union?
- How long is it supposed to take before I “make it?”
If you’re reading this article hoping to discover the one magical path to becoming an editor, the bad news is there is no set path to success.
Don’t give up on me quite yet because there is good news: Not having one set path means you have the ability to forge your own unique path. And this ability to do it your own way grants you the freedom to change directions, switch paths, and ultimately still land at the same destination.
Your secret weapon = Specificity
I was at a Hollywood networking event recently (if you’re not familiar with the Blue Collar Post Collective, this is the place for you to network with your industry peers), and a young editor approached me and voiced his frustration with the post-production industry. He felt more than qualified to get a good job as an editor, he had all the proper technical qualifications, and just his mere presence at this networking event (despite his introverted and antisocial nature) proved his dedication to becoming successful.
But after asking him one simple question I knew why he wasn’t getting anywhere. I simply asked him, “What do you want to do?” And his response was: “I’ll do anything.”
I’ll. Do. Anything.
This is quite possibly the worst answer and the worst mindset to have if you want to be successful. Nobody wants to hire someone that will “do anything,” employers want to know that you have the exact skillset and experience for the position they need to fill, and moreover they want to know (or at least hope) you are passionate about the position because of how difficult it will most likely be to do the job.
So if you don’t know exactly what you want to do yet does that mean it’s time to give up? Nope. It just means it’s time to do some heavy lifting upfront to clearly define which ladder you should begin climbing (knowing you can always change directions and swing over to a different ladder in the future).
It’s Time to Define Your “Career Sweet Spot”
I know it’s tempting to start looking for work right away, sending résumés, and networking, but landing your dream job as an editor requires playing the long game and taking a more calculated approach. You can tweak the header font on your résumé or the name of your YouTube videos all you want, but if you’re interviewing for the wrong job, even if you get it you’ve wasted a lot of time and effort. There’s no reason to get a job as an assistant working with music videos if what you really want to work on is culturally relevant documentaries.
Employers love specificity. In our 24/7 go-go-go society your potential employer doesn’t have time to think or figure stuff out for you:
Make it easy for them to understand where you want to go.
For example, if I’m interested in hiring you for an assistant position and in the job posting I say required skills include proficiency in Avid, organized, good with paperless workflows, and basic knowledge of Trello, what you don’t want to say to me is, “I’m interested in this position because I love editing everything. I’ll do whatever you want me to, doesn’t matter!”
The best response you can give me is, “I can’t wait to learn more about how to become a great assistant editor because I’m obsessed with Trello and paperless workflows, I’m super organized, and I want to become better with Avid. I’m definitely proficient already but know I can take my game to another level.”
Now that’s a candidate who knows the job they’re interviewing for and has the right skill set. Assuming this person has a personality that jives with my own, they’re a no-brainer to hire as part of my team.
But what if you have no idea how to be that specific in your interview, and moreover you have no idea which jobs you should even apply for?
If these are the questions stopping you from moving forwards, the next page contains a useful exercise to help you clearly define the ladder you should start climbing. If you’re climbing the right ladder, knowing how to respond in an interview becomes infinitely easier.
NOTE: The following 5-step exercise is inspired by my podcast interview with Norman Hollyn, former head of the editing track at USC.
Step 1: Define Your Skillset
For this exercise, just write down your existing skill set. To clarify, these are skills you can bring to a job right now. And be confident in your choices, try to avoid negative thinking like, “Well I guess I’m good with After Effects, but probably not good enough for this job so I won’t list it.”
- Compile a list of every relevant task you have done at your current or past jobs (i.e. syncing dailies, developing workflows, organizing paperwork, etc)
- Compile a list of the different technologies you have experience with
- Compile a list of different responsibilities you’ve had
- Compile a list of the different types of education you have received, and this goes far beyond just the software you’ve learned
Step 2: Define Your Employer’s Needs
For this exercise create a new list, but this time write down the skill set required for the job you are seeking. This could either be the skills you presume are required for the type of job you want, or this could be the actual skills listed on a real job application that you want to apply for.
Step 3: Define Your Personal Needs
This is the most crucial but often the most overlooked step.
Most often we simply focus on the income or the title, yet we fail to think about our own personal needs and desires in life (Note: There’s more to life than work).
- Compile a list of your personal needs as they relate to choosing the right career path (e.g. I need health insurance, I want weekends with my family, I won’t work more than 50 hours per week, etc)
- Compile a list of your personal needs as they relate to the type of work you want to do (e.g. I want to work on comedies, music videos, etc)
Step 4: Find your “Sweet Spot”
In order to find your sweet spot and know where these three lists intersect you will now draw a Venn diagram. One circle contains your skill set, the second circle contains the skill set required by your prospective employer, and the third circle represents your own personal needs. Once you write everything down, where does everything intersect?
Step 5: The ‘Tornado Technique’
With a clear intersection of your skills, the skills required for your job, and your personal needs and desires, it’s time to clarify with laser-sharp focus where you intend to go and who you will become.
For example, let’s say your skills intersect with a potential job as an assistant editor on a scripted drama, and let’s further assume this job meets your personal needs. Now it’s time to drill down to a single point, the way a tornado begins wide at the top but is a tiny funnel at the bottom.
“I want to work in Hollywood as an editor working with scripted dramatic material that has character-driven complex story structures.”
It’s Time to Take Action
I know how tempting it is to look at an exercise like this and simply consider it several hours of distraction or wasted time, but frontloading the hard work and buckling down with laser-sharp focus for just a few hours could literally change the direction of your entire career.
Stop thinking of your career as a game of checkers and start thinking of it as a game of chess.
I have colleagues whom I worked with very early in my career doing the same job as me cutting trailers and tv promos who are still cutting trailers over a decade later, and they HATE their job because they never bothered to assess whether or not they wanted to climb that ladder in the first place. And now they feel like they’re “stuck” and can’t start over because they have a home, a car payment, and a family.
Because I took the time to specify what I was truly interested in editing early in my career, I ended up leaving a well-paying job editing theatrical trailers at twenty-five to instead cut indie films for next-to-nothing for years because I knew the ladder I wanted to climb was to edit “scripted dramatic material that has character-driven complex story structures.”
15 years later, my résumé is full of projects that fit this description to a ‘T.’ To be clear, I didn’t climb this career ladder overnight, it tooks years of hard work, perseverance, and several deviations in my career path along the way. But because I clearly defined my destination with specificity, I was able to pursue all of the right opportunities and end up exactly where I wanted to be.
If you’re truly serious about becoming a successful film editor, I invite you to download my Ultimate Guide to ‘Making It’ In Hollywood (As a Creative) which contains deeper dives into not only how to define your career path but also how to hone and perfect your craft, pitch yourself and your talents, and most importantly build your network of professional connections (plus bonus tips on how to build relationships with industry “experts”).