How To Become a Film Editor
“The job of a Film Editor (also known as Picture Editor) is to figure out how to tell a story using a bunch of video footage. Sometimes it’s a commercial, sometimes it’s branded content, sometimes it’s a feature film. There’s never really a typical day as an Editor regarding content, unless it’s a long job,” says bicoastal Film Editor Daniel McDonald.
The actual process of editing involves spending time with the footage shot in principal photography and figuring out what the story will be. Often a movie is remade in the edit room. Storylines will be cut and shots from one setup will be used in a completely different part of the story.
The Editor offers a fresh pair of eyes able to refine the cinematic grammar of a film. They shape character and perspective in the storytelling to convey a new meaning from each shot. To do this work, it’s important for all of the footage to be organized and constantly reviewed.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the editing process:
- All of the footage is imported.
- The media is transcoded into a workable codec.
- Shots are organized by scenes and takes.
- All footage is viewed at least once.
- An assembly cut is created.
- A rough cut is put together.
- The fine cut is tweaked.
- Picture lock is set.
For stages five through seven, notes are given on the project by Producers, the Director, and other trustworthy people. This can result in major changes for the film. The more organized a project’s media is, the faster they’ll be able to implement the adjustments.
When a project reaches its final stages, much of the Editor’s job is to think about taking out cuts and making sure the flow of the film is correct before picture lock. Any changes after picture lock are called conforms and are expensive. After picture lock, the Editor will sometimes attend other parts of the post-production process, but it’s usually as a consultant to the Director.
The average annual salary for Film Editors is approximately $52,100. The salary range for Film Editors runs from $35,000 to $79,000.
Freelance Editors must set their own day rate based on their level of expertise and the budget of the production seeking to hire them. Editors who are members of the Guild work for scale established by the union. Rates may vary from project-to-project.
Editors typically work freelance but some are employed by post-production facilities. Each job is different and can sometimes have insane hours if there are tight deadlines but usually, an Editor will work from 9 am to 6 pm.
“If they’re ambitious, in the evenings they’ll take on another project to work on for a couple of hours. However, it’s easy to get burned out, not only mentally, but also physically. An Editor can hurt their eyes from staring at a screen for too long.
“They can damage their back due to sitting down for an extended period. Carpal tunnel syndrome will set into the wrist if it’s in the wrong position for too long. Overall, it’s important for each Editor to find their own work balance and pace themselves,” warns McDonald.
The Editor works with a Director in the room and receives notes from the Producers via email. The people who work remotely with them are Graphic Designers, Visual Effects Artists, the Post Sound Team, and Composers.
If the budget is big enough, an Assistant Editor is hired to help clean up the timeline and handle exports. On many nights it’s just an Editor alone in a dark room toiling away. Of course, every project is different and has its own needs.
“Advancement within the Editor’s career field is frankly just becoming a better Editor. There’s a correlation between the paycheck and proficiency of the artist. There’s always a negotiation over rates and that takes experience to get good at because Producers will always try to hire for as cheap as possible. If the Editor is talented, they can walk away from the deal and find another job. Great Editors are always in high demand,” says McDonald.
In the beginning of an Editor’s career, the daily rate is smaller, usually around $100 per day and then it generally increases because the Editor’s network expands and there is past work to show, usually via an editing reel. People reach out, giving more options.
Post-production houses will hire the Editor, too. With more money, Editors invest in better gear and are able to handle larger projects with bigger budgets. (It takes quite a bit of computer power to cut a feature film.)
Some people will begin as an Assistant Editor or Production Assistant in the editing department of a post house or studio production. That is a good way to shadow more experienced professionals and pick up their trade secrets. After years of experience working as an Editor, the things that change are the rate and scale of jobs.
“One of the keys to growing as an Editor is working on lots of projects. Growing a network of employers and referrals provides job security and career advancement,” says McDonald.
In the beginning, it’s hard to find jobs but the more work that is done the easier it is to meet potential clients. If an aspiring Editor has just graduated from college, they can also do internships or free gigs. These are good ways for someone to get real-world professional experience and expand their contacts. After years of work, an Editor will develop a reputation that should serve them in getting future jobs that pay well.
- Make a website, make a website, make a website. (A simple one is okay.)
- Build a portfolio or demo reel of past work.
- Network with Directors, Producers, and fellow Editors.
- Do an internship with a post-production facility.
- Practice making movies. There is lots of stock footage online to download.
Experience & Skills
Obviously, filmmaking and editing skills are essential for this career. “My first experiences making films were some of the happiest memories of my life,” McDonald tells us. “My buddies and I would skate around town, get chased by cops and film all the nonsense we could. There were no grades, no teachers, and no clients to yell at us.
“So when I got to film school I didn’t need to learn the software because I already had a lot of hours under my belt. I think that experience served as an important foundation — not just technically, but also kind of emotionally. Even on the worst projects, with the most difficult clients, deep down I know filmmaking is a lot of fun.”
His response demonstrates an attitude that is conducive to success. It’s important to learn the software but what helps triumph over adversity is a passion to create. If people have the passion and initiative to make their own stories when it comes time to help shape someone else’s vision they can be a better asset.
“The people most likely to succeed at editing understand that it is a craft. They need to be the kind of person who can work every day improving their skill set. It’s the only way to be able to keep up with the competition,” McDonald says.
That isn’t the only quality a person needs for success, though. Editors are constantly working with clients so interpersonal skills are crucial. Learning how to handle difficult situations, like convincing Producers and Directors to try new ideas, can be difficult. They’ve lived with a project for so long that often they can’t see the film in any other way.
The Editor can’t overstep their bounds but if they can convince their bosses to try better ideas, the film will come out better. It sounds simple but things rarely are when egos get involved.
Education & Training
“One of the best assets for an Editor is YouTube. It has the answer to all of the technical problems involving software. There’s usually some twelve-year-old on the internet who has made a tutorial video that walks through the issue. With the accessibility of digital cameras, it isn’t difficult to get practical experience with the software,” says McDonald.
However, learning how to tell a story is a refined skill that takes time to develop. Many people will take writing courses and enroll in film school to hone their storytelling skills. If people have access to the internet, they can solve most of the technical problems involved with editing but telling a good story requires practice.
“One of the best online resources is YouTube. It’s not only a great place to receive technical information on software but also a place to acquire different editing techniques,” says McDonald.
There are video essays that break down popular and classic cinema and teach shot progression and sound elements. The more an Editor knows about what the intention of a shot was, the easier it is for them to either use it correctly or redefine it. Online video essays and tutorials are some of the best learning tools available.
Professional, working Editors hold membership in the Editors Guild, a good resource for networking and education.
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“The biggest action an Editor can take to propel their career forward is to make a website. If there isn’t a place where potential clients can view the Editor’s past work, then it’s difficult for them to evaluate the Editor’s potential. It has become a required asset.
“Directors and Producers would rather watch work than read a resume. Some Editors send links to past work when trying to book a job but that comes off as amateur. Things look a lot better on a website.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“The biggest mistake beginners suffer from is looking for instant gratification. By understanding that becoming a successful Editor is a long process, there will be less pressure to succeed. It’s important for an aspiring Editor to hone their craft instead of judging their careers. The better Editors can become, the faster success will find them.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“Why is organization important for an Editor?
“Producers and Directors never ask why organization is important, let alone budget time for it. If the Editor isn’t allowed to organize assets because the bosses are pushing for results that can cause issues further down the line. Footage can get lost and additional assets like fonts and graphic work will be difficult to find in hard drives. Simple tasks that should literally take less than ten minutes will require an entire day of searching for a specific asset.
“Notes will take longer to turnaround because time will be spent rewatching footage. Also, a lack of organization makes it impossible for multiple Editors to work together on one project. It’s a danger that is easy to get out-of-hand without constant maintenance. The best way an Editor can organize is to create a simple and consistent structure for the project’s folders, then stick to it. Organization is the foundation that lets an Editor work quickly and follow their creative impulses.”
What is one thing I should have asked which I didn’t?
“What’s it like working with different Producers and Directors?
“One of the biggest challenges of being an Editor is working with the different client personalities. Some people are a pleasure to work with — they are very collaborative — but others are aggressive and stubborn. They give commands on exactly what they want done, even though it’s not always the best thing to do.
“It’s the Editor’s job to politely show alternatives and explain the technical aspects of the editing process without getting too much into the technical mumbo-jumbo. At the end of the day, the Editor is there to work with the client, which can sometimes be harder than cutting the film.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
Daniel McDonald is a Film Editor, Producer, and Filmmaker. He holds a degree in English from Lafayette College and an MFA in Film Editing from Chapman University.
He has worked with Awesomeness TV, Nice Studios, PopSugar, DreamworksTV, Whalerock, Beats by Dre, Zambezi, Directors Guild of America, History Channel, and with Directors Randal Kleiser (Grease), Penelope Spheeris (Wayne’s World) and Aron Gaudet & Gita Pullapilly (Beneath The Harvest Sky). He’s based in Los Angeles and New York.