Unicorns that poop rainbows: why are union editing gigs so rare?

unicornMany tv or video editors view union jobs like unicorns. You hear they exist, and that they’re amazing… but good luck ever catching sight of one.

Since coming to Los Angeles, I’ve scratched my head many times about the whole thing. I myself joined The Union, left for the bulk of my career, and recently rejoined, and have watched people endlessly rant and rave about The Union – in this case, the MPEG, aka Motion Picture Editors Guild Local 700, part of IATSE, the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees.

People have all sorts of questions about unions, organized labor, and its place in entertainment hubs like New York and Los Angeles (for our international friends, I’m not familiar with labor outside the US, so I’ll stick to what I know). I doubt those questions will ever all be answered.

But I do see one question keep popping up over and over, usually from aspiring editors and assistant editors wanting to edit: why is it so hard to find a union editing job?

I propose two main reasons: projects and companies that disappear, and the technology-driven need for security in going big.

1: Projects and companies that disappear.

Unions typically become the strongest in entities that aren’t going anywhere. Think schools, factories, steel mills. In medieval Europe, artisan guilds operated in towns that had been in existence for centuries, and continue to exist 1,000 years later. In early 1900’s Detroit, unions gained positions of power in car manufacturing plants, because let’s face it: it really sucks to move an entire factory. And in Hollywood, unions sprang up because the center of production was based around a handful of large studios that created all the movies and TV shows in the same place. Making those movies or shows required a lot of gear, and a lot of money.

So in terms of the editors union today: virtually any union job is on a movie or scripted show that’s expensive enough to be bankrolled by a long-established studio or production entity, or it’s a staff job at one of those entities, or it’s a position on a non-scripted TV show that’s been running longer than three seasons. (As an example, I’m currently cutting on the 6th season of American Ninja Warrior, which became a union show after moving to NBC a few seasons ago.)

One show! My work here is done.
One show! My work here is done.

Union organizers don’t have long enough to set up shop when television shows or their related production corporations shut the shop down after one season or one project. Producers know this. The longer a hit show runs, the more likely it is to unionize. The vast majority of shows don’t go long enough.

2: The technology-driven need for security in going big.

Hollywood has undergone a huge technical shift over the last decades. Technology for making movies and tv used to be so bulky and expensive, big studios were the only entities who had the money to buy and use it. And the unions were already established there. Now, anybody can get the gear and create the content. In order to compete with the multitudes of independent content creators, Hollywood has had to go big. It’s had to in order to stay in business.

Hey, *you* try paying the overhead for this place every month.
Hey, *you* try paying the overhead for this joint every month.

If you examine the budgets of Hollywood studio-released movies within recent years, you’ll see a widening of the gap in production budgets. In broad strokes, you’re most likely to see a movie with a production budget of $200M or $3M, not $50M. Studios either wanna go all-out huge and bring in huge returns, or they cover their financial butts on tiny little projects that bring very little risk at all. Or better yet, they acquire the rights to projects they didn’t have to bankroll in the first place.

Because of this technology-driven shift, producers want to minimize risk in every way humanly possible. That means making movies based on proven franchises, and hiring editors who’ve been doing that specific kind of big-time cutting for a long time. You can get the gigs once you’re in, but getting to that place takes years. Even decades.

unicorn-poop-rainbow1The result? Union gigs have become so ridiculously scarce, it’s like hunting for unicorns. They’re out there, but if you want them, you gotta go where the large, heavily bankrolled, union-engaged entities are.

And even if you do go there, it’s no guarantee you’ll get a steady stream of union jobs or any union job at all. Many of my editorial friends in LA have been trying unsuccessfully for years.

The best answer I can give anyone who really, really wants to cut union gigs: meet and develop relationships with people who already have them. And you gotta really, really want it and act accordingly.

Because from my observations of Hollywood, I personally predict the number of union gigs going down not up.

On the subject of mythical creatures, there’s another unicorn I constantly hear people looking for – specifically from video editors who consider themselves advanced hobbyists or growth-minded pros:

Everybody will talk about the technical aspects of editing, but so few people discuss the creative, nuts-and-bolts aspects of editorial storytelling. How do I learn more about that?

If that’s you, then you need to see this.

Turning “yeah cool” into “holy ****!”

corkscrew-roller-coasterRoller coasters are large and in charge. When that shoulder harness locks down, you ain’t going nowhere except forward on those tracks, and there ain’t no steering wheel or brake.

Ever edited a piece like that? One that from the very first frame grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go until it says you’re allowed to leave? Here are some ideas to apply to a specific piece that can be applied to your pieces too.

I recently made virtual acquaintance on an online forum with Urs Westermann, a multi-talented young guy from Switzerland. He posted a video featuring Glidecam footage that he shot while visiting Spain and asked for feedback on his edit. Forum members’ comments consistently ended up saying some version of, “Very cool. Nice!” And they’d be right, it’s pretty dang cool.

Take 5 minutes, watch the whole thing, and note your reactions.


When I asked Urs what the purpose and audience of the piece was, he said that it was pretty much just a way to have fun and share it with people who’d like it. So here’s things progressed:


Let me start by saying, Urs, that your overall instincts are absolutely top-notch. The way you synchronize shifts of visual pacing to the music is something that eludes the vast majority of people who attempt it, even experienced, full-time professionals. Not just anybody has figured out how to do what you’re already doing.

From what I see in the edit and from your comments above, it sounds like the video is mainly an experimental piece for no particular audience, just something fun to make people say “Hey, that’s cool.” In which case, you have 100% accomplished that.

The conceptual challenge of the piece is that there’s no obvious journey or message other than “check this out, isn’t this stuff cool?” And it absolutely is – but here’s the thing… in order to keep having your viewer say, “yes, this is cool,” you have to either keep offering them new things, or offer them up in new ways. If you don’t, your viewer loses interest and stops watching.

Three ways to keep the audience even more engaged and take the piece over the top:

1. Echoing comments above, the single best thing you could do is to take the existing edit and cut it in half. Because shots won’t repeat themselves as much, and only the very best ones remain, the overall impact will be even greater. Absolutely guaranteed.

2. Match visual pacing even more closely to musical sections. The nature of this music cue is like riding a roller coaster that shifts up and down in energy. You clearly keyed into that, specifically with the speed-ramping at 0;56 and bumps in pacing at 1;04 and 2;35 (other places too). But then pace of camera movement and editing dropped back down to the previous energy level even though the music was still up in energy. So it’s kind of like teasing the audience to offer them something new, but not following through. If you make the overall piece shorter and blow through crazy amounts of footage during the fast sections, the viewer will literally feel a surge of adrenaline when those “up” sections kick in.

3. End the piece only once. As of now, it ends three times, which makes the viewer wonder what’s going on. You can still have a stopdown or two, just make it clear that the piece isn’t done yet. Continuing with the roller coaster idea: just like a roller coaster is always 100% in charge, this kind of piece should not ever allow the audience to wonder what they’re thinking or feeling. Tell them exactly what and when to think, and they’ll be more than happy to go along for the ride.

rollercoaster-handsupThe current edit is already seriously cool. Taking the above ideas and really ratcheting up the intensity and progression of the piece will change viewer reactions of “yeah, that’s cool” will change to “holy ****!!”

And let me say – throughout my career in Hollywood, it’s been a seriously rare thing to see people who get it like you clearly do – and those who do get it get paid very, very well.  Your instincts show that you are absolutely capable of doing this at the very highest levels, for very high compensation. Keep it up.

EDIT-BETTER-3D-front and back-transparentIf you feel you would benefit from more ideas like the above, and you as a video editor consider yourself anywhere between an advanced hobbyist to an enlightened, growth-minded pro, then you will absolutely love this book, and you need to get a copy right now.

Do it.


5 Feet, 100 Pounds: The Thing Behind the Thing

Time to get a little cerebral – for the times when The Thing you’re talking about isn’t The Thing. And in order to really make things work, you have to talk about The Thing Behind the Thing.

First: I just came on board this week editing on a monster hit show on NBC called American Ninja Warrior. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s based on a Japanese show called Sasuke, an athletic competition show that takes place on a mind-bogglingly difficult obstacle course that – in spite of thousands of attempts over 30 seasons of competition – has only been conquered three times.

The show attracts muscle-bound male competitors who otherwise spend their weekends in the wilderness, cavalierly dangling by one hand from rock formations 100 feet above the canyon floor, 6 hours from the nearest hospital.

But as of this writing, one of the most astounding competitors ever to appear on the show is not a 220-pound block of testosterone-fueled muscle: she’s a 5-foot gymnast weighing in at 100 pounds, and her name is Kacy Catanzaro.

Whether you’re familiar with the show or not, I’m telling you: you need to watch this video right now, and I defy you to not drop your jaw on the floor.

Watch it? Good. Now here’s the thing: a lot of people watch this and say, “That’s so stupid. What bearing does that kind of stuff have on real life?” Others say, “Oh, crap. I could never do that. I really need to get to the gym,” or “Oh crap. I could never do that. I suck as a human being.”

Others watch that video and say, “Whoa… for every woman who has felt inferior for not being a man in a man’s world, we all win a little bit through what she just accomplished.”

Or: “Oh. My. God. Look what she’s doing. Think of all the things I might be able to do too.

And that, my friend, is The Thing Behind the Thing. This video is not about a woman running an obstacle course. It’s about a human being facing overwhelming obstacles and fearlessly tackling them head-on. It’s an idea that is deeply connected to everything we aspire to be in the face of everything that stands in our way.

When you tell stories, either in person, in print, or in your video editing… always ask yourself: what is The Thing Behind the Thing? What is the underlying, deeper motivation for what is happening in this story, and how can I tap into that?

Anyone can show a Thing, say “Hey, here’s the Thing.” And that would be it. But it takes an artist to say, “Here’s the Thing… but here are clues to what lies behind the Thing, and why you care so strongly about it.”

American Ninja Warrior CatanzaroThose are the kind of stories that cause your audience to react, to feel, to stand up and cheer.

And you don’t have to be a major television network or Hollywood studio to accomplish that. It takes the application of core ideas that guide what you say as a storyteller, and how you say it.

It’s possible for YOU. Here’s how.

Avid is still king, and its users need to take a laxative

Recently, I saw an article posted on how a news station in Detroit is using Final Cut Pro X as its house editing system. A proponent commented about some of FCPX’s genuinely professional features that supported that shift, and a long-time Avid user commented underneath:

“Sounds like more bad FCP ideas like drag & drop mousey smart tool BS. Enough with the geeks reinventing the wheel. Editing is old school. Bins, Source Side, Record Side, in + out = Cut. Please stop trying to teach us old dogs new tricks. The kids can be happy with their advanced iMovie, leave us pros be.”

This photo is believed to be the very first Avid editor.
This photo is believed to be the very first Avid editor.

Yep, full-on Avid snobbery.

Cue the FCPX evangelists: See? What did we tell you?!? SEE HOW LAME AND STUPID AVID SNOBS ARE??? SEE??!??!?

Well, there’s a reason that the stereotype of the “Avid Snob” is so long lasting – because it’s so often completely true. Avid snobs are so often convinced of Avid being the only way… because they can’t stand the thought of learning new tools. And changing the way they do things, God forbid. (Full disclosure: while I do have an ancient version of FCP on my laptop, I cut on Avid for virtually anything I’m paid to edit.)

But I regularly see ill-informed comments online declaring that Avid is dead, it’s dying, etc. If you’re working on independent, self-contained projects, it’s certainly easy to feel that way.

People constantly ask me, “Jeff, which editing platform should I learn?” The answer: it depends on what you want. If you’re doing your own stuff or working with individual clients, use anything you want. Seriously, all the usual suspect platforms are equally capable. What’s “good” or “better” is totally subjective and up to you.

Now, speaking to a select segment of storytellers who aspire to make their living in broadcast tv or film that actually pays in real money, not IOUs and cold pizza (I’ve been there and it gets really old)… you are actively shooting yourself in the foot if you want to cut this stuff regularly for pay and refuse to learn Avid. Certainly if you have any desire to do so in LA or NYC. (Many Power Edit friends don’t live in the US, so I’ll stick to what I know first hand.)

Because from my direct career experience in Hollywood and continuing monitoring of industry chatter, the OVERWHELMING majority of anything you see on network or cable TV or in wide-release theaters in the US (again, I won’t speak to non-US markets) is cut on some sort of Avid system. I’d personally estimate 80%. This is changing (going down) and will continue to change as users of Final Cut and Premiere keep trailblazing. (In Los Angeles, Premiere currently comes in 2nd after Avid, mainly because LA freelance editors HATE Final Cut Pro X. Did I say “hate”? I meant “despise.”)

But for the moment, to those of you who are learning to edit and aspire to cut high profile projects for a living: I assure you, you are actively damaging your chances for success if you don’t know Avid. Period.

And don’t try to trot out all the features that the other platforms can do better than Avid. This is not about feature sets. This is not a logical thing, it’s about established precedent and wildly irrational emotions – the stubborn refusal of tv/film professionals to change their ways.

Even if a jaw-dropping number of them are in need of a personal box of Ex-Lax.

I would, however, be remiss if I didn’t point out that tools are far from the most important thing when it comes to editing projects that grabs your audience by the throat – you gotta know how to use the tools.

And even if you already knew how to use them, what if you had access to a way to use them more powerfully and effectively?

Here’s how to make that happen, whether you’re a “trailblazer” OR a “constipated sheep.”

Weird shoes, FCPX, and the sheep barn

Ever seen people walking around in those funky toe shoes? They tend to elicit strong reactions (and did even before the class action lawsuit was filed against their manufacturer):

  • Whoa, those are crazy! Are they comfortable??
  • Eww, those are gross. Get them away.
  • You’re a moron for wearing those things. [sniff loudly]

The people who wear them usually aren’t all that sensitive to other people’s opinions of them. In fact, wearers o’ de toe shoes might even get a kick out of yanking other people’s chain, so to speak.

jefe vibrams in bayConfession: I wore out my first pair and recently bought a new pair.  I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t at least a part of me who wears them to get a reaction from people. I also find them crazy comfortable, which is the main reason I wear them.

But let’s just call a spade a spade here: in a world where everybody’s seeking to be meaningful in some way, wearing toe shoes is an easy, low-stakes way of saying, “I am a non-conformist, I am unique, I’m not like everybody else, dammit.”

Kind of like becoming a Final Cut Pro X evangelist. Throughout my conversations and online interactions with FCPX fans, I’ve directly observed a distinct, recurring attitude that goes something like this:

“This software is the future of editing. By associating myself with it, I become more cool than those out-of-touch morons who don’t. In fact, anyone who tries to say anything in support of any editing software other than X is either a dusty, old dinosaur or a brainless sheep hopelessly disconnected with modern reality. What losers.”

sheep goofyDon’t kid yourself, peeps, it ain’t about the features. Any modern editing software can do pretty much anything you’d ever need it to do. And don’t think for a moment that it’s any coincidence that FCPX – the software that changed some fundamental things about how editing workflow functions – comes from the same company that designed its newest computer to look like a trashcan. Literally.

So let’s be clear: you are not instantly cool because you use FCPX. And you are not instantly a mindless sheep for using anything other than FCPX.

However.  If you think that knowing any particular editing platform means you are instantly capable of telling powerful stories that cause your audience to be glued to their seats… well, you might be closer to the sheep barn than you want to admit.

But I happen to believe you’re way beyond that. If you care as much as I do about playing at the very highest levels of storytelling possible through your video editing, you will benefit by checking out the book that’s been described as follows:

“I can’t even begin to count all the wisdom nuggets in this book. Every one, invaluable.”

“Simply outstanding! I’d even go so far as to describe it as essential reading for the 21st century editor. Please quote me on that.”

“An outstanding and useful bit of writing that shares ‘why’ as well as ‘how.’”

“Jeff is the real deal, and so is his take on the process. Pay attention and you will not just learn how to edit better, but how to edit best.”

So throw on your toe shoes, and click here to stay away from the sheep barn.

ps – don’t worry, I have some choice words for Avid snobs too for a future post.

Mrs. Roosevelt and the bad notes

ep feels rough IMG_4235

Ever gotten a note or comment from a director, client, or producer that feels downright insulting?  Of course you have. If you haven’t yet, you will.

I once cut on a major network show whose showrunner had an Avid in his office, and he left black locator marks in editors’ cuts. And the comments attached to those black dots weren’t just “upgrade this” or “swap this bite,” they were real doozies.  Like “Who on earth thought this music was a good idea?” And one for the holiday special episode: “With this edit, you have single-handedly ruined Christmas.”

Not kidding. Some editors almost quit over those notes.

Eleanor RooseveltEleanor Roosevelt was quite the lady who said some very self-aware things. I offer one for the consideration of us editors and those who aspire to be editors:

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Uh… are you telling me that  getting offended is on me, not the jerk who actually insulted me?

Yes. Exactly.

It is the literal opposite of what the world tells us. “That action is offensive!!” screams Person A. “No it’s not,” retorts Person B. And around they go, both being simultaneously right AND wrong.

Comments are neither good nor bad in and of themselves – their perception of “good” or “bad” is entirely up to the person who receives them.

I at one point received a huge stack of notes from a network executive  regarding the first rough cut on the first episode of a new series.  After the obligatory, “Great stuff everyone, love how things are coming together,” the exec wrote that “the episode feels rough around the edges.”

Should I as the editor who works my butt off to assemble smoothly flowing sequences be insulted by that comment? Many years ago, I would have. Here’s the thing, though – I had cut the pilot episode of that show, which had received ecstatic, rave reviews from that very same executive. I put forth no less effort on the premiere episode than I did on the pilot, and my skills certainly didn’t decline from pilot to series. If anything, they improved. Plus, the decision makers at the company who hired me for both the pilot and the series love me and my work.

So it was equally possible for me to see that comment as good or bad. And if I had chosen to get ticked off at that comment, it would have been just that – my choice.

We don’t always have a choice on what happens to us, but we ALWAYS have a choice as to how we react.

These kinds of ideas deal with the editorial role that I refer to as the Psychologist Hat. For more ideas like this, plus specific strategies and tactics on how to achieve editing that blows away your audience time and again, check out EDIT BETTER: Hollywood-Tested Strategies for Powerful Video Editing.

The editor’s audience: [insert manly grunts here]

This morning I was reminded of a crucial editorial concept while standing in line at that most manly of places: AutoZone.

Autozone signs IMG_4222 sm

At first I noticed the poster of UFC Hall of Famer Chuck Liddell lending his image to DuraLast batteries. Makes sense, right? Then I noticed all the other posters and started cracking up. Not because they were funny per se, but because of how plainly the DuraLast brand is pitching very specific ideas to a very specific audience that LOOOVES The Ice Man. Heck, I’m a fan myself – I spent 4 of the last 5 years cutting the UFC’s flagship Countdown to UFC show. IMDB will eventually back me up on this. Anyway.

On the poster featuring brake pads: “Tough enough to STOP ANYTHING you start.”

On a starter: “Go ahead and START SOMETHING. We dare you.”

With The Ice Man: “If your parts aren’t PROVEN TOUGH, Chuck ’em.”

On an alternator: “Packs ALL THE POWER of a roundhouse kick.”

On some sort of chassis assembly: “Put this stuff in and TAKE CONTROL.”

There are more, but you get the point. It’s not about car parts. It’s about connecting car parts to expressions of rugged individualism. Also, notice the color scheme in the store: Red. Orange. Blue. Green. Not a shade of teal or periwinkle to be seen, except for the in the custom seat cover aisle.

Now if you’re into market psychology you already know exactly what I’m talking about and why it’s so important – AutoZone must absolutely know their target audience, what they want, and why they shop there. It’s an overwhelmingly male audience who doesn’t want to spend the money having mechanics fix what they can fix better themselves for less money, dammit. We are self-sufficient, rugged men who take pride in fixing our own vehicles, thank you very much. Pardon me while I step outside to let out a Tarzan yodel:

AHHHH-ihh-uhh-ihh-uhh-ihh-UHHHH!!!!!tarzan yell

If you were editing a tv spot for AutoZone, would they want you to use a weepy violin solo with dreamy 3-second dissolves between shots? Heck no. They’d tell you to slam together shots with straight cuts, preferably playing over the Rolling Stones. Well, not the actual Stones, we don’t have the budget for them.

When you edit, be crystal clear on who your audience is, what they want, what they expect (or might not expect), and how they think. Edit accordingly.

If this seems like common sense to you, then fantastic. You might be interested to know I’ve built my editing career in Los Angeles by fixing the cuts of working professionals who don’t get this.

For more on this and many more ideas, check out EDIT BETTER: Hollywood-Tested Strategies for Powerful Video Editing by yours truly, Jeff Bartsch.

Gonna go add some oil to my car now. Grrr.

Get productive with The Tomato.

When it comes to getting things done, the tomato is your friend.

I came across an excellent post today written by Josh Short from Screenlight.tv – he was speaking about how to focus on cranking out the edit on those days when you just… don’t… feel like it. Errrrrgh.

The method he describes is known as the Pomodoro Technique, named after the Pomodoro tomato. One of the main elements of it involves the use of a separate, very visible timer that counts down how much time you have until it’s time to take a break.

timer and Saint IMG_4209 smI literally had set a kitchen timer rolling before I embarked on trolling the Intarwebs for tasty bits of info and news. Saint, our VP of Canine, is wishing I’d take a break to take him out an a walk – which I’ve already done this morning. Sorry, dude.

If you want to be more productive in the bay *every day*, click here to check out Josh’s post, and harness the Power of the Tomato.


Why you gotta sell it.

springfield newsWhy do newspapers have headlines? I’ll tell you why. It’s because any given newspaper or magazine has eleventy-two articles, and guess how many are of significant interest to you? Exactly TWO. The headline is the single most important element that chooses whether we decide to read the article or not.

Examine your Facebook feed or personal email inbox. If you’re anything like me, you absolutely require a decent pitch to get me to click on/open anything. And it’s gotta be a legit pitch that delivers. If it makes an outrageous prediction, it better actually make my jaw drop – or at least raise my eyebrows. Otherwise you end up like the online world now rolling its collective eyes at Upworthy and its headlines promising “Your life will change after watching this video!!” (No. It won’t.) Or “What happened next will leave you BREATHLESS!!” (Sorry. I enjoy breathing. Next.)

upworthy-dogOr even the well-meaning friend who posts some video with no explanation whatsoever. It could be the most amazing thing ever, but without making a case for why, people will not watch. I see this happening constantly. Every. Single. Day.

And any given TV show or movie out there. It will always begin with something that either sucks you in, or at very least gives you an idea of what you’re about to see… so you can decide whether to hang around or not.

Your videos must always give the audience a compelling reason for the audience to give of its precious, increasingly limited attention. Call it a cold open, a tease, an overview, or whatever. Just make sure you set the context so your audience gets it.

And once you’ve put that promise out there, deliver.

Speaking of which, I’ve written a book called EDIT BETTER: Hollywood-Tested Strategies For Powerful Video Editing.  It makes a pretty gutsy promise in its headline, it’s up to you to decide how it delivers.

Well played, The Google, well played.

Context and positioning are hugely important when it comes to communication. Google certainly knows this.

My friend Josh Forbes (a hugely talented director) posted the below video on Facebook – without resorting to any of the recently popular “What happened next will blow your mind” or “The most AMAZING THING EVER” descriptions (cheers to that, Mr. Forbes). I watched, and was caught off-guard – both from a human standpoint and from a storytelling perspective.

The idea of Google developing cars that drive themselves without any human intervention can be downright freaky on the surface of it. The idea of driving in Los Angeles with zero manual control of a car? God have mercy.  But clearly Google knows that, so what do they do? They focus on the human angle.

No matter how Skynet-esque Google might appear or actually be, Google folk know these cars won’t be sold by virtue of 3D graphics showing how technically advanced they are.  The cars are sold by the idea of life changing benefits – restoration of time with kids, restoration of freedom and independence for those who are no longer eligible to drive or never were able to drive in the first place.

As we shape our stories through our editing, feature elements that go beyond the mere surface context to the deeper, core elements that will touch your audience’s heart and mind. The first time I watched this, I got a bit emotional – especially with the blind gentleman.  The video’s not just about a car that drives itself;  in this one instance, the idea of a self-driving car is literally a key to a blind man’s freedom.

In the words of a gifted communicator who knew this idea inside and out:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  -Maya Angelou

We help amateur and pro video editors reach the next level of creativity in your editing, no matter your editing tools.