Demystifying Careers: Film Editing
'The notion of directing a film is the invention of critics - the whole eloquence of cinema is achieved in the editing room' - Orson Welles
'The essence of cinema is editing. It's the combination of what can be extraordinary images of people during emotional moments, or images in a general sense, put together in a kind of alchemy' - Francis Ford Coppola
When two of the biggest Hollywood directors of all time say something, you can’t really ignore it, because they know what they are talking about. Of course there will be others who will quibble at their proclamations but the above sentiments holds true for most filmmakers. The editing table is where the film finally gets made. The editor spends hours scanning through the footage and by the end of it she – unlike the rest of filmmaking process, this is one field that women have made their own – is the one who knows the film better than everyone else.
What is film editing?
Wikipedia defines film editing as the art, technique and practice of assembling shots into a coherent sequence. But the job of the editor goes much beyond this. An editor is not an operator but a dynamic partner in the process of filmmaking. For those who are not aware of the filmmaking process, a film isn’t shot as we see it. There’s a lot more that is shot and it is the editor’s job to select parts and thread a narrative out of it. The editor decides what shots to keep, what shot will follow which one and how long each shot stays on the screen. A slight change in how the shots are placed or a seconds delay in cutting the shot can dramatically alter the experience of a film.
An editor thus creates rhythm, builds subtext and manipulates human emotions to create an experience. Like Walter Murch, the acclaimed film editor says in this video below, a film editor has to be a good story teller first.
A day in the life of a film editor
Film editing, for most parts, is a lonely job. The editor sits inside a dark room staring at the screen in front of him going through hours and hours of footage to decide what to keep and what not. It’s a meditative job best suited for those who don’t mind being alone.
The editor watches the same scenes play out again and again till they become embedded in her memory. That is not to say that there’s no human interaction. Depending upon how involved the director is in the process of editing, it could turn out to be a dynamic two-way process of give and take. Especially once the editor has cut the film, everyone bears down on her with feedback which she may be forced to accept at times.
What skills does a film editor need?
Focus and patience are two things that editors need in abundance. Given the nature of the job this seems obvious. It also requires a deep understanding of film theory and a feel for storytelling. You develop editing muscles as you practice more and more. It’s a skill that you polish over the years.
Editors also need to be adept at handling technology since most of their work is done on software systems today. Technology keeps on evolving and there’s a new update every few weeks. It’s therefore important for any good editor to be on top of technology and be able to work with different softwares. The most commonly used softwares are Adobe Premiere Pro, Final Cut Pro and Avid.
Given the easy access to editing technology a lot of institutes and media schools have cropped up all over. Most editors are usually trained in the basics of the software before they begin their careers. The explosion in online video content has created a huge demand for video editors. A basic knowledge of editing softwares might be enough to get you started as an intern or an entry level editor in any of these places. As you gather experience, you go up the value chain handling more and better work.
Most editors working in films have degrees in film editing from film schools like FTII or SRFTI or Whistling Woods. The last few years have seen a number of film schools open up across the country, which provide quality film education. Usually 2-3 years long, these courses teach the basics and the history of film editing as well as critical film theories to enable the editing student to develop a holistic understanding of filmmaking as a craft.
Most such film editing students start by assisting established editors while taking up freelance editing projects like short films or documentaries or corporate videos on the side. As an assistant, one is expected to go through the entire footage, sync audio and video and line up the footage according to the workflow his/her editor follows.
With experience one grows and starts taking on projects to edit herself. There is no structured hierarchy or road to follow.
Where can you find work?
Like I mentioned above, a lot of media companies today hire video editors. It should be easy to find these jobs on job portals online.
For film or TV editing there is no such avenue. Although, you can still subscribe to forums like Mandy.com for regular feeds on job opportunities in films. The easiest way to go about it is to identify the editors whose work you admire, find out their contact details and try and pitch yourself to them. Having a work reel in place will help. Needless to say, knowledge of and comfort with technology and the varied softwares will only improve your case.
I'd like to close by saying that Editing is the heart of filmmaking and a hugely satisfying job if you can have the patience and focus to get a hang of it.