How to Become a Film Editor

By TACP Staff on August 15th, 2019

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A film editor has the heart of an artist and the mind of a computer expert. Film editors take enormous amounts of raw film footage and decide how it will ultimately be connected; transforming it into a cohesive and insightful presentation. The editing process can make or break a film’s quality and success; therefore, the film editor must be able to harness and apply conceptual directives put forth by the film’s director and producers.

1. Learn the Basics of Film Editing

Think of a feature film as a sports car. If the screenwriter is the person who built the car, the actor is the person driving it, and the director is the person telling them where to go. But, the film editor is the master mechanic who keeps it functioning perfectly at all times. Film editors do a lot more than just rearrange shots in chronological order. To be a successful film editor, you must be a “big picture” thinker. You need to be able to take hours of raw footage and whittle it down to its bare essentials, while at the same time organizing it in a way that maintains intention and deepens effect. When an editor is functioning at the top of their game, you barely even realize they exist at all. Yet precision, intelligent editing can make or break even the shortest online video – taking an immersive, enjoyable experience and turning into an absolute chore to sit through.

Film editors use hardware-based non-linear editing systems like Avid, and software-based solutions like Final Cut Pro to take what starts as a collection of disparate elements and turn it into a much larger, more integral whole. Yet at the same time, a film editor is also something of a master surgeon. If there was a mistake during the filmmaking process, the savvy editor knows how to hide it. If a particular moment needs to be exceptionally funny or heart-breakingly dramatic, a film editor knows how to rearrange shots to drive emphasis and maximize impact. There’s a reason why film editing has its own category at the Academy Awards.

However, ALL filmmaking is a collaborative medium – no matter how large or small the production. As a film editor, you need to be able to work closely with other strong, creative personalities. You need to be able to communicate, must be willing to make compromises and must know how to passionately argue for creative decisions that you believe in; without stepping on the toes of writers, producers, directors, actors, and more.

2. Learn Formal Concepts & Techniques of Film Editing

There are a number of important concepts that filmmakers will rely on in order to assemble footage into the best possible version of itself. By and large, editors must develop a systematic framework to help determine what to show, when to show it, what order to show multiple events in, and in what order. In many ways, they rely on design methods that are very similar to other visual, creative professions. They will need to think about deliberation, rationalization, reasoning and more. As filmmaking is a subjective experience (like all art), they will also need to be try multiple variations of the same basic act in order to identify the strongest possible outcome.

One of the most important of these fundamental concepts that a lot of 21st century film editing is based on, is called the Kuleshov Experiment. Lev Kuleshov, a filmmaker from the Soviet Union, theorized that juxtaposition played a more important role in emotion than anyone had realized up to that point. He cut a stoic shot of an actor’s face with three different objects – a plate of soup, a girl in a coffin, and a pretty girl on a couch. What he uncovered was that viewers projected emotion onto the face of the actor depending on which shot they had just viewed. People who viewed the soup and then the actor said the actor was hungry. People who viewed the girl in the coffin and then viewed the actor said the actor was sad.

Though this is not the only theory that film editing is based, it remains one of the most important. How shots are arranged in sequence can change everything from the emotion to the impact of the sequence as a whole. Likewise, the length of shots can impact pace. Film editors must understand theories like these to better know HOW to execute something based on what the original intention was, and the effect that the creative team is trying to achieve.

3. Build a Strong Portfolio

In an era that is now long past, film editing (and many arts-based roles) were treated very much like a trade. You went to school (in this case, film school), got an education, obtained an entry-level position and worked your way up under someone’s guidance. These days, things have changed. Thanks to the digital revolution and how affordable film and editing equipment has become, it’s easier than ever to make an impact on your own terms. Consumer-grade cameras now offer professional results, and non-linear video editing software comes as a standard feature on most new computers.

Film school is still an incredibly efficient way to get access to the type of professional-grade material you would likely be unable to buy on your own. If you are having a difficult time producing your own work, this is one option you may want to explore. Likewise, you may choose to take the funds you would have spent on film school and put them into mounting your own production. Both options are equally valid.

While film schools like Columbia, NYU, and USC offer a great way to obtain industry connections, they are no longer the only way. Many documentary filmmakers, for example, have built careers by teaming with local creatives, producing quality work and putting it on the Internet to be discovered. Networking is certainly easier if you’re at a film school surrounded by like-minded individuals on the same career path, but thanks to the Internet and directories like IMDB Pro, it’s may now be just as easy to produce your own work and get it in front of the right people by skipping this process entirely.

In the end, the only thing that matters is the quality of the work you can show someone. Whether you created that work on your own or in the context of a film school does not matter. A degree from NYU will help get you a job, but a fantastically-edited short film likely will.

Depending on the types of industry connections you make, there is no telling where your career might take you. Even if you don’t want to work in Hollywood editing film and television, every organization that has some type of video production needs an accomplished film editor at their side. This can include talent agencies, marketing firms, television stations, and more. Freelance work is also always a strong possibility due to the limited nature that most video production entails.

Additional Guides

If you are considering a career within the film and video industry you have a wide variety of exciting professional options to choose from. Check out these additional how-to-become guides to learn about additional career options in the field.