Countless starry-eyed generations of film students have exited the halls of film school convinced that they will be the next Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, Robert Rodriguez… or Thelma Schoonmaker or Walter Murch, for the would-be editors.
Why? Well, the cockier ones act as if – if not outright say – it’s their Manifest Destiny to be so, because I now have a film degree and that means I deserve to be the next cinematic demigod. Get out of my way, out-of-touch Common People Who Don’t Understand My Tortured Genius. The more humble ones will say that they want to be The Next One because they love movies and want to leave a mark on the world by being great at it. (An honorable goal, I might add.)
But here’s the thing – the educational and professional film and TV worlds have an attitude that perpetuates a whole string of stereotypes that I personally find repulsive:
That some editing is innately better than other editing.
That the editor who edits a studio feature is somehow operating on a higher plane of consciousness than the editor who “only” cuts a scripted drama on TV. That cutting literally anything that originates from a lined script is innately more valuable than anything that is “unscripted.” That no self respecting professional would ever stoop to cut a 2AM infomercial for one of those hyped-up ab machine things. You edit wedding videos? God have mercy on your soul.
And oh, you shoot and edit your own videos at home or on the weekends? That’s so precious. Here, let us pat you on the head while stifling a sarcastic smirk. Maybe one day you’ll do a project that actually means something.
And to those attitudes, I call bullshit. An enormous, steaming pile of condescending, elitist bullshit.
Let me clear up a few things from first-hand observation of editorial life in Hollywood.
Every above-mentioned category of editing requires a very different set of skills. Just because you have the skills to do one does not guarantee you have the skills to do another, going up OR down the stereotypical scale of supposed amazingness.
As a point of reference, the bulk of my career has been in unscripted, documentary, or reality television. As of this writing, I spent a good part of the last 4 years editing an extreme sports documentary promo series that required a very specific skillset. Every single editor on my referral shortlist that came on to the show either said, “Please don’t make me cut that show again, it’s too hard,” or was outright fired.
These people were all accomplished, career editors. And some of these people have cut scripted shows. And feature films.
Now I say this not to prop myself up, but to point out that different gigs require different sensibilities – just because you can cut one doesn’t mean you can cut absolutely anything.
I recently cut on a cable documentary series that had full-on, film style historical reenactments with full dialogue. The kicker: the actors were paid about the same as the set PA. The quality of the acting was, shall we say… uneven.
Having seen locked episodes that demonstrated to me that the standards of acting were lower for this show, I didn’t have to obsess over what the producers would think of my editorial choices for acting performance. Because they just weren’t nearly as big a deal as they would have been, say, in a scripted drama for HBO.
But were that same cable reenactment show an actual scripted drama for HBO, my choices would have been scrutinized much more closely. Maybe my choices would’ve been acceptable, maybe not. I might have even been replaced by an experienced scripted editor, who knows?
Thing is, the number one thing that scripted TV and film editors actively shape is the performance of the actors. And I’ll be the first one to say that the bulk of editors who have spent the bulk of their careers cutting reality TV don’t have that practiced eye for the minute details of what an actor offers.
Why? Reality and doc editors, by and large, don’t constantly need that skillset, if they ever need it at all.
But believe me, reality editors require a very special blend of creativity and problem solving just to do their jobs at all.
Years ago I was cutting a short-lived reality series for MTV. An extra editor came on board and said, “Wow, this show is amazing. This show requires so much more creativity than the scripted show I just cut, I love it.” I had to pick my jaw up from the floor – what is this craziness? Aren’t scripted shows always more creative than reality?
Sometimes, yes. Other times… heck no. Consult your lined pages for the circled takes, and assemble your cut like a good little edit monkey. And do exactly as the director looking over your shoulder says. My scripted friends will back me on this.
Can we all agree here, feature films and scripted television do not automatically have amazing things to say simply by virtue of existing?
Often they do. That’s why they so often capture the imaginations of their viewers.
But let me tell you something – when some snooty film student or industry veteran looks down their nose to inform you that you’re falling short creatively by cutting reality television – because all reality is trash, of course – or your own projects don’t really matter, or you ’re not a real editor because you’ve never cut for a national broadcast network, or ever seen one of your sequences projected in a movie theater…
I want you to smile, politely ignore them, and remember this:
YOUR PROJECTS MATTER, AND SO DO YOU.
You do not have to cut a feature film to capture the hearts and minds of your audience. You do not have to cut a hit drama for HBO to revel in the feeling of being creatively engaged and alive.
It can be accomplished by editorially engaging in the psychological process of what makes someone actually willing to buy that funky ab machine at 2AM – and they find legitimate encouragement in the thought that they are taking action to improve their health. And that hyped up, star-wiped infomercial causes them to make changes in their lives that they would never have otherwise considered.
You can get a huge rush of satisfaction when an extra cutaway and music sting you dropped into a reality scene causes your producers to roar with laughter, and you know that the audience will too. And that laughter just might release some of the tension in the audience’s mind and brighten their day.
And you can cut a montage of perfectly selected shots of a bride and groom on the happiest day of their lives, put it to the perfect piece of music, and know that the edit you are building will become quite literally a priceless treasure for those who took part in that event.
You don’t have to cut from a lined script to to introduce a new way of thinking to your viewers.
You do not need an Oscar on your mantle to leave a permanent mark in the hearts and minds of those who experience your work.
You can do all these things, where you are right now.
This is not to say that it’s easy.
But it can absolutely happen, no matter how grand or seemingly humble the project you undertake, no matter if the elitists approve of your work or not.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to have that happen for you, that’s why I wrote this book. It continues to receive rave reviews from beginners and seasoned pros alike.
And if you’d like to join an international, growing group of like-minded storytellers who are helping each other pursue these very things, then I invite you to join us here.
In the meantime, if you do have a burning, insatiable fire in your soul to edit scripted television or feature films, then honor that. You will need that fire to keep you moving forward. Speaking candidly: without it, you will likely fall short of your goal, or decide you don’t want it badly enough. Building a career in the film/scripted world these days is really, really tough and becoming more so. But it is absolutely possible if you want it badly enough.
Ignore the doubters who snicker at your dreams.
Tune out the haters who would pull you down, and press on towards the goal, my friend.
You got this.