Every film editor will have a different story about how they worked their way up to the cutting room hot seat. But all will invariably include the following similarities:
A passionate love for big screen storytelling.
A burning desire to succeed and make it to the top regardless of how many obstacles are thrust in their way.
A willingness to work very very hard for years (often for very little money) learning the craft, politics and technology involved.
An enjoyment of working alone for hours in a dark room focusing on the broad canvas of the story as well as the tiny emotional details of each cut.
But most importantly... the hunger to edit.
Most editors would agree that if they weren't being paid to edit, they would do it anyway because they love it so much. I feel incredibly lucky earning a wage spending hours doing something I would do anyway as a hobby. The magic of cutting one image to another and the emotional response you can create in an audience as a result of that is something you discover at some point in your life, and grow to love the more you do it.
For me, I became obsessed by movies and wanted passionately to work in the film industry from the age of seven. Pretty young, I agree, and many people will get infected by the film bug later than that, but the more films I watched as a teenager and the more books I read about the process of film making, the more I wanted to make movies. It's something I simply have to do, and when you meet people who feel the same way and are as dedicated and passionate about their commitment to the film industry (from cinematographers to sound designers, composers to make-up artists) you instantly feel a connection.
When I was around eighteen I started editing on two VHS machines linked together and discovered that hours would fly by while I was lost in the creative process. The combination of storytelling challenges and technology really appealed to me, and I found artistic fulfilment in the process of film editing.
I edited constantly, whether it was recutting other Hollywood movies I had on VHS, editing holiday videos, shooting and cutting little short films, or working with friends on student film projects. Over three years at university (studying Psychology!) I literally spent four hours a day (minimum) editing student film and TV projects.
If you want to work in a film cutting room, some of this should sound familiar to you.
If it doesn't, you should reconsider if the film industry is for you.
You will not succeed if you think that making movies “might be fun”. Doubtless the long hours, the lack of job stability, the impact on your personal relationships, the enormously technical computer knowledge you must learn, and the many other challenges you'll face on your journey through the industry will eventually get the better of you.
For those with a true love of film making, none of those things matter. We have to do it, simple as that. If you're reading this nodding in agreement, then... hold on to your potatoes Dr. Jones, get your flux capacitor... fluxing... and read on.
Here's my advice for how to get your first break in a feature film cutting room. While this is targeted at people wanting to work in the UK, most of the theories will also apply in Hollywood or Paris or Bollywood or wherever you want to get started.
FILM SCHOOL vs GETTING A JOB RIGHT NOW
My feeling is that if you're already convinced that an editing career is for you, film school might not be your best option. It costs money, and it will delay your entry into the professional industry by however long your course is.
You see, what matters in this industry is how much professional experience you have on your CV, and film school does not give you professional experience. Sure, it gives you access to free equipment, you'll meet many fellow film-makers and you'll learn some theory and practise for sure, but you'll leave the course back where you started... with no professional experience (and probably poorer too).
However, if you seize the scary challenge of getting started in the industry today it won't cost you anything, and most likely within a few weeks or months you'll have an entry level job. Then you'll start learning how films are really made, working alongside professionals and seeing the challenges they face and overcome every day in pre-production, throughout the shoot, in the cutting room during post and beyond. And you'll actually be paid for this (although very often almost nothing on a micro budget feature, but that can only increase as you prove your mettle and gain more experience). All these people you meet will create a network of contacts, and if you did a good job, you'll be offered more work.
Film school is useful if you're not 100% sure what area of the industry you want to work in because while you're there you'll get to try everything: writing, directing, producing, cinematography, focus pulling, clapper loading, sound recording, assistant directing, script supervising, editing, sound design and the many other jobs that a film crew performs. Then you'll get a feeling for what you like (and might develop a lifelong passion for), and you can start looking for that kind of work.
Film school is also seductive because you'll delay the act of getting stuck in to the scary big wide world. Understandable, but you're going to have to take the plunge sooner or later.
(Of course there is always the very small chance that you'll work on an Oscar winning short film at film school and the director will go on to direct a feature and invite you along for the ride, but the odds on this are vanishingly small.)
So if you're leaving school and already thinking “I want to be an editor”, I wouldn't recommend any kind of film or media course because it will cost money and you'll get no professional experience.
Get a job in the industry right now.
WRITING A GREAT CV
Firstly, you need a great CV. If you haven't got one, take a couple of hours to create one right now.
The following advice will apply to almost any area of the film industry that you might want to get started in, whether it's the camera department, hair and make-up, visual effects, production design or the cutting room.
Your first film industry CV should have the usual things: your name and contact details clearly at the top, a personal statement about your strengths and achievements, a section about education, your previous work experience (if any) and some references. Keep it to one page.
However, the most important thing it should have right under your contact details is a box with the words “CURRENT CAREER OBJECTIVE” and a short sentence about what kind of work you're looking for.
For example: “CURRENT CAREER OBJECTIVE – To find a job as a runner in a post production facility with a view to becoming a trainee edit assistant.”
That way, if anyone finds your CV they will instantly know what kind of job you're after.
Now spell check your CV, ask a friend to proof read it, save it as a Word document and PDF and give it a useful filename like “Eddie Hamilton – assistant editor CV.pdf”, then make sure your printer is full of ink and paper.
FINDING AN ENTRY LEVEL FILM INDUSTRY JOB
The next stage is to write to as many people in the industry as you can (in your chosen field) and introduce yourself with a polite personally written letter, enclosing your freshly printed CV and explaining that you're looking for some advice and possibly an entry level position if they know of one coming up.
You can find personal contact details in The Knowledge, both online and in print. Sometimes people list their business or home address (in which case write to them there), or sometimes they list their agent (in which case write to their agent asking them to forward your letter to their client,which they will almost always do).
A printed or handwritten letter is usually better than an email in the first instance. People will pay more attention to a personally written letter than an email. But if you can only find an email address, write an email and attach your CV as a PDF.
I expect you to send out at least 50 letters.
You'll be surprised how nice people are in the film industry (remember they all started somewhere, probably by doing exactly what you just did). Very often you'll start getting replies quicker than you expect, mostly with advice and encouragement, but if you're lucky you might be asked for an interview, in which case it's up to you to prove you want the job more than anyone else out there.
But, while this may work for other aspects of the film industry, if you're specifically interested in editing you are unlikely to get offered even the lowest trainee cutting room position if you have no experience working professionally with Avid Media Composer, the world's leading editing software.
But there is a way to get this experience.
WORKING AS A RUNNER
First, move to London.
If you're not from London that might sound scary but the simple fact is that most post production facilities are based in London so if you're here you'll stand the best chance of finding work.
It may be that if you ask around your friends and family you'll find someone who is connected to the film or TV industry in some way, however remotely. Buy them a coffee and ask if they know someone who knows someone in a post facility who could put in a good work for you. Personal contacts are often how this industry finds new people.
Either way, make a list of every single post production facility in London. Make sure the company does Avid offline editing (not online editing or visual effects or colour grading). Offline editing is where the creative storytelling decisions are made during the post production process, and this is how you'll get professional experience with Avid Media Composer.
Phone each company, explaining that you're looking for a job as a runner, and ask who you can send a CV to. Make a note of the person's name and ask how it's spelt if you're not sure.
Now, write letters to all these people introducing yourself and explaining that you're looking for a job as a runner in their facility. Seal up the envelopes, write names and addresses on the front, but don't affix any stamps because you're going to deliver these letters personally.
Next day, wake up early, take a shower and get dressed fairly smartly (but not in a suit).
Then visit every single editing facility one by one. Not only will you get to see their office and their working environment, you'll also start to find your way around Soho (where most of the companies are based). You may also discover companies you weren't aware of before, or see a small sign up in a window saying “Runners wanted” in which case, today's your lucky day (and your first break will often require luck alongside stubborn persistence).
It is absolutely true to say you make your own luck in this industry. Or, put another way, luck is where preparation meets opportunity, and after the preparation of your CV and all those phone calls, here's your opportunity.
Go up to the receptionist, smile, and ask if your contact is in today. If they are, explain that you're looking for a job as a runner and that you'd like to give them a CV personally. That way, you can meet the person in charge of hiring runners and start to make a good impression. If you're incredibly lucky, they may be actively looking for someone and you'll be interviewed on the spot. But usually they will thank you for coming, take your CV and be in touch if something comes up.
If you want, try something original. When I was applying for runners jobs in editing facilities, I enclosed a Kit Kat with every letter (very envelope friendly). When I went for interviews they always remembered me. But this only works for entry level jobs... when you're job hunting higher up people are rarely impressed by this, they just want to know what previous projects you've worked on and if you have a good reputation.
Once you have visited every editing facility in London and given them your CV, keep your phone on and check your email regularly so you can seize the opportunity if someone gets in touch.
In the meantime buy or borrow every book you can on film editing and post production and read them from cover to cover. Surf editing websites. Watch lots of films and TV. In your interviews people will ask what you've been watching recently.
If you hear nothing after a week, go and visit every company again doing exactly the same thing, explaining that you're still looking for work and are checking back just in case anything has opened up. They won't be annoyed, once a week is fine, and you'll win points for your polite persistence.
Eventually all this hard work will pay off and you will be offered an interview somewhere.
YOUR FIRST INTERVIEW
It's up to you to convince them you're the right person for the job, but here's some tips:
Be on time.
Shake hands firmly.
Maintain eye contact.
Let your enthusiasm for post production shine through.
Say you know that being a runner is very hard work indeed and may not necessarily lead to a trainee editing job, but that is your goal.
If you get offered the running job, congratulations! You've taken your first step into a larger world.
HOW TO SUCCEED AS A RUNNER
Once again, this is up to you, but here are some ideas:
Arrive early, leave late.
Work very hard indeed, smiling all the time.
Carry out every task, however menial, with good humour and perfectionist attention to detail.
Don't screw up. One mistake will be remembered much longer than all the good work you've done.
If in doubt, write down your duties so you don't miss anything.
Ask everyone if they want a cup of tea at least three times a day.
Learn everything about every single piece of kit in the facility.
Teach yourself how to use Avid Media Composer in the evenings and weekends. Ask the editors for help and tips.
Remember, the job is what you make of it. If you simply do all your duties then go home, you will not succeed.
All the editors in the facility will have started as runners so will be watching to see how you make the most of this opportunity you've been given. Make friends with them, ask questions, and be nice to clients who pass through the facility.
If you work very hard and smile every day, eventually you'll be offered the chance to train as an edit assistant. Well done.
But be under no illusion, there is much to learn both creatively and (as important) technically about professional standards within the industry. Digitizing or importing hours and hours of footage and making hundreds of Quicktime movies will get tedious, but everything you learn will eventually become second nature, and this will stand you in good stead throughout your career. And remember, you never stop learning in this industry.
In the meantime, keep an eye on the various film-making websites. People are always looking for editors to cut their films for free. And guess what? You can help them because you have access to all the facilities your company has to offer. And usually if you're working on a personal project your boss will let you use any kit you want for free in downtime.
After a year or two of digitizing, troubleshooting and EDL creation you should have enough Avid experience to start looking for work as a trainee in a feature film cutting room. And if you've been editing in the evenings and weekends you may even feel ready to cut a micro budget feature.
THE NEXT STEP
You're now in a great position to look for work on a movie. You're earning money, you have lots of technical and creative experience on Avid Media Composer and you're more passionate about editing than you were a few years ago.
Update your CV with all your achievements, but now your CURRENT CAREER OBJECTIVE box will read “Looking for work as a trainee / second assistant editor in a feature film cutting room” or “Looking for an opportunity to cut a micro budget feature” depending on who you're sending your CV to.
Firstly, consider all the people you've met in your facility over the last few years. Are any of them now working on films? If so, get in touch and ask if you can help them. What about all the film-makers you've helped for free? What are they working on now? Is anyone producing a micro budget feature in need of an editor?
If nothing comes of this, find contact details for every film editor and first assistant editor in the country, especially if you particularly admire their work in films you've seen. Write a letter/email explaining that you've been working in a post facility for a year or two and are looking for some advice and a chance to work with them on a film.
Once again, you'll be surprised at how nice people are. You'll get encouraging replies, and, if you're incredibly lucky, your CV may hit someone's desk at exactly the right time and they'll call you in for an interview.
Also, there are many websites which list all films in various stages of production, along with production company contact details. Write to these productions, asking for your CV to be submitted to the cutting room team when they're hired.
In the meantime you're still learning and working hard in your day job.
Keep your ear to the ground and eventually an opportunity will come along. Bear in mind that you'll probably have to take a pay cut when you get a break working on a movie, either as editor on a micro budget indie, or as an assistant on a bigger budget feature.
Congratulations once again, you have succeeded in getting your foot in the door.
There is still much to learn, but you're one step closer to becoming a professional feature film editor.
Welcome to the crazy world of the film industry.
When I was a runner I spent every evening and every weekend teaching myself how to use Avid Media Composer. I would take a week's annual leave and spend it in a cutting room working on my own little films. I strived to work harder than anyone else. One day a freelance editor didn't show up, leaving their clients editorless, so I volunteered to step in. Luckily all my hard work on the Avids paid off because I flew through the session.
Then I was promoted to edit assistant, and about three months later, to editor. This was summer 1995.
For the next 18 months I worked long shifts on the Avid, editing (among many other things), Portuguese and Spanish sports TV shows. Now I don't speak either language, and I'm not really keen on sport, but nevertheless I worked hard and fast, learnt an incredible amount, and soon found myself with a deep knowledge of the Avid editing system.
During this time my love of movies was still pumping in my veins, and I was reading film books non-stop, including one called The Guerilla Film Makers Handbook, written by Chris Jones and Genevieve Jolliffe. I read that they were planning on making their third low-budget feature Urban Ghost Story, so I emailed Chris to ask if they had an editor. He replied no, so I immediately made my way to their production office in Ealing Film Studios and introduced myself. Chris, Gen and I hit it off immediately, and they offered me the job. This was the start of a lifelong friendship.
I handed in my notice and started to work at Ealing Studios two weeks later. I remember the first time I walked in to the studio gates like it was yesterday. I was so excited. The crew were all paid very minimal wages, but none of us cared, we were young and wanted to make a movie.
So from spring 1997 I spent around a year working closely with Chris and Gen cutting their movie on an old Mac Quadra Avid bought from the company I'd just left. Then after locking the picture I tracklayed the entire movie, creating all the sound design, cutting all the ADR and fitting the foley and music, in readiness for our final sound mix. I wanted to learn about film sound, and there was no better way than actually doing it.
Once Urban Ghost Story was complete in 1998, I went on to cut two further no-budget features for free. Yes, for free.
I supported myself with two days a week freelance editing at the Paramount Comedy Channel, which just about paid my bills.
Now I was starting to build a network of friends and contacts, and gradually people contacted me about cutting short films and other features, and the pay started to improve. And the more people I met, the greater the chance of a personal recommendation to someone else who was looking for an editor for their project.
On my first ten features there was no budget for an assistant editor. I was my own assistant. Digitizing, synching rushes, logging paperwork, cutting the film, doing playouts, creating EDLs and generally overseeing the entire post on the movie. That is how I learnt my craft.
I've now been editing profesionally for 17 years and have cut over 20 feature films as well as TV dramas, documentaries and award-winning short films.
And I love the craft of cutting picture more every day.
Good luck with your own adventure finding a path into the industry.
Let me know how you get on.
HOW DO I GET INTO FILM EDITING?
WHAT IS A FILM EDITOR?
This very entertaining and informative 90 minute documentary produced by American Cinema Editors called "The Cutting Edge: The Magic Of Movie Editing" will explain all about this mysterious and intensely creative art I love.
Watch and enjoy.
Directed by Wendy Apple
Edited by Daniel Loewenthal and Tim Tobin
More about this film on IMDb here
FITNESS IN POST PODCAST
These two Episodes of Zack Arnold's fantastic podcast contain some of the best advice I've ever heard.
Zack dives deep into what it really takes to break in or advance in the post-production industry with none other than USC professor and former head of the editing track, Norman Hollyn. They distill the process down to the most basic steps that anyone can follow regardless of how specific they want to be about what type of job they want. Norman has some great advice on how to set goals, realize your potential, and take your career to the next level. An essential listen.
A terrific short from the team at Inside The Edit... a homage to every editor out there in those dark rooms creating art with moving images.