How I Built (and Rebuilt) a Professional Video Editing Career
I am an editor and I've never been to film school.
I am an editor and I've never been to film school. And when I say, “I’m an editor," I mean that it's is how I earn the vast majority of my income, year after year. So when I was asked for my inaugural article for No Film School, the topic was obvious: How did I get I get from where I was—a random person with no film or TV connections—to where I am?
First off, my specific path may not work for you. Our circumstances and timing are different, and those things can’t be replicated.
Hopefully, my approach will give some of you new ideas and avenues to try for yourself. I’ll even drop some foreshadowing here: I made a significant career change for myself recently, using many of the same techniques I used when I got my first breaks.
This approach worked the first time, and it worked again when I was ready to make a change.
Be aware that this article is aimed at a very specific target audience: anyone reading this who would like to earn a living as a picture editor— be that film, TV, or any other editing capacity. With that in mind, let’s focus on different phases of a career, starting at the beginning.
I need to clarify something important. This piece can easily be read as a, “look at what I can do!” self-congratulatory ego-booster. I know, because I wrote it and it is a bit cringe-inducing even for me.
But I’m going to set the cringe aside and plow on, because the motives are otherwise. I am sharing my journey in the hopes that some of the steps are repeatable for others, that maybe there’s a teenager out there wondering how to turn their film hobby into a future career, or someone in their 20s wants to venture into the world of editing but doesn’t know how.
I am hoping there are one or two glimmers of advice in here that can help you find your way to the first thing, or the next thing (even if your path ends up being the polar opposite of mine).
"There are many who will disagree with me on this, but I think working for free to get experience is a very worthwhile thing to do. At least at the beginning of my career, I did it all the time."
How to Become a Video Editor Phase One: The Novice
At this stage, what you need most is editing experience....any kind of editing experience. Your own projects, your friends’ projects, your neighbors’ projects, etc. Let everyone you talk to know you’re looking for editing work of any kind, and you’ll take any job. You never know who might have something they need help with.
There are many who will disagree with me on this, but I think working for free to get experience is a very worthwhile thing to do. At least at the beginning of my career, I did it all the time.
I started out as an on-set PA (production assistant) for commercials, music videos, and indie films. As I got to know the producers, I made sure to tell them I was looking for editing work. Several of them ended up hiring me over the years, or asking me to work for free on specific projects. I said yes anytime I was able to.
If a producer needed me to come in and make changes to a charity’s promotional video for two hours, and I wouldn’t be paid or credited? I would do it. Because it gave me face time with a client and taught me how to make client changes. If I got a job as a PA on a commercial, I’d ask to also PA the edit session and provide client services. I’d run errands, get lunch for everyone, clean up the edit bay, and when there was nothing else to do, I’d ask if I could sit in the back of the edit bay and watch quietly (The directors and editors I worked with loved that I would do that, and several hired me repeatedly). If I got hired to digitize footage on a night shift, I’d ask if I could cut segments— for free, on my time— after my paid work was done.
That extra work I put in often led to the producers hiring me as a junior editor for future gigs.
I edited wedding videos, backyard talent shows, actor demo reels, low budget music videos, student short films...I cut anything I could get my hands on.
And during this process, I had my first revelation. Because I had never received formal training as an editor, I had no idea what the job was. I began my career as a BPM— a button pushing monkey. That is, I knew the editing interface, and I did what the client asked me to do. I used the shot they liked, put it where they wanted it, and asked what they wanted to do next.
I honestly had no idea that this was a fraction of what a true editor did.
It finally dawned on me that being an editor involves two sets of skills.
The Two Sets of Skills to Video Editing
The first, the technical side, is exactly what I was doing. It requires you to know your tools and know them well. Learn as many editing systems as you can. You don’t need to be an expert in all of them, but aim for basic proficiency in all the big ones. I regularly jump between Avid, FCPX, and Premiere. They all have their pros and cons, and I like some far better than others, but if the right job comes along, I can hold my own on any of those systems.
As I said, you can get this one through work opportunities and practice.
But there’s a second, far more important side to editing: great editors are actually creators!
A real editor will shape the finished piece. He or she will have huge amounts of creative input, and will work WITH the client or director, not FOR them.
It involves creative problem solving, coming up with unorthodox solutions, cutting different options to show the director different possibilities, etc. It means being able to respectfully disagree with the producer and show them ways of making the footage sing that they’d never considered.
That means it’s literally two jobs in one. And you’d better have both of them down, the creative and the technical side.
This phase is about learning all of the above: mastering the tools, learning the creative side, client interfacing, the art of editing, etc. Once you have that down, it is time to shape your career.
How to Become a Video Editor Phase 2: Now what?
So you’ve got the basic skills down, you’ve worked with a variety of clients in a variety of projects, and you’re wondering what the next step is.
I think this may be the most important decision you make in your career. It’s time to decide what kind of editing you want to do and find a way to break in. Wherever this step takes you, you will likely be pigeonholed here for a long while. Getting into any field here is doable, but making a lateral transition to a different type of editing once you’ve built up this experience will get exponentially harder over time.
What kinds of options are there?
Starting a Professional Editor Career
This is a much larger question than it might appear to be at first glance (so much so that I’ll be covering it in a separate article).
This is about my path, the only one I am qualified to talk about. For that, I’ll stick to the important points.
First, I learned how to hustle and cold-call. What choice did I have? With no family or friend connections, I built up whatever experience I could, and then moved to Los Angeles. Once I moved into my new apartment, I bought the local LA411 guide.
Back then, it was a book published annually. Every state with a film commission had their own version of it, a list of local production resources. Big cities even had their own. Now you can find all this information online. And then it was a matter of reaching out to as many as I could and asking who I could submit a resume to.
Remember how I told all the producers I PA’d for that I was an editor? This was the exact same process, only I was calling complete strangers at every post-production house with a listed phone number.
Uh, oh, I think I just lost all the introverts, to which I can only say, "I’m sorry." But breaking into this industry— at least the way I did it— is going to require effort...real, consistent effort. You have to push through a lot of “no's” and “not interesteds” and “not hiring right nows” to get a handful of, “sure, email your resume to me” responses. There might be a better way of doing it, but I haven’t found it.
My resume was pretty thin at the time, but I had enough reasonably sized projects that eventually, I got a callback. I listed on the resume that I spoke Spanish, and a boutique edit facility had a client coming in that needed a Spanish-speaking editor.
Hey, there’s a tip for you! Make your resume stand out with any potentially helpful information. Are you fluent-enough in any language other than English? Put it on your resume. Have an interesting hobby? Maybe it’s worth adding? (One of my hobbies—card magic—landed me a six-year gig on a magic TV show years later).
In the end, I did my best work for the Spanish client and it went great, and the boutique facility hired me again. They became a steady client of mine for the first six months I lived in Los Angeles. I always showed up on time and worked with any client they gave me. I always did the best work I could.
I know that sounds obvious, but let me set a scene here. Most of these jobs were low budget, some were really cheesy gigs. But I did them all and that changed the course of my career.
One of the gigs? A commercial for a used car lot in Orange County. As low-end and cheesy as many used car lot commercials are, I treated it like a professional job and gave it my all. When the job was over, the director— who was in the edit bay with me the entire time— told me he did these spots now and then for some extra cash. His primary gig was directing multicamera network television specials, and he hired me for his next show then and there.
This is an IMPORTANT LESSON, one that has proven itself to be true time and time again: You never know where your next job is coming from, so always do your best work.
Working as a PA and telling the producers I wanted to edit got me in as an assistant editor. Staying for free after I did my work then got me hired as an editor. That lead to more jobs, which meant I had an actual reel and resume when I moved to L.A, where having “Spanish” on my resume eventually lead to a job in primetime network television.
Remember, I foreshadowed a big twist at the beginning of this article? Well, that wasn’t it.
But once I got my foot into the TV door, that’s where I stayed for over 15 years. I’ve done a little bit of everything— all unscripted. TV specials, clip shows, reality TV, talk shows, competition shows. I’ve been the lead editor on some shows, a polish editor on others, everything from single episodes of a series, to working for several years on the same TV series.
And now, for the twist.
Choosing The Video Editing Career You Want
After many years in television, things were going well. I had been working steadily as a freelance TV editor, paying the bills and supporting my family.
But my youthful dreams of working in film— of cutting actual movies!!— were pushing against the complacency of my career. Heck, even scripted television was a huge draw, as it was morphing into the current golden age of scripted content.
I made up my mind: to jump from the unscripted world to the scripted world of narrative film and TV.
But I’ve already warned you about being typecast, of being crammed into a pigeon hole as a certain type of editor. It’s real, it happens all the time, and there is some logic behind it. Each style of show requires a specific kind of editorial skill. Cutting a reality TV show is hard, kind of like putting together a complex puzzle from random pieces, and it all needs to make sense when it’s finished.
Scripted projects— be they film or TV— are more about building powerful performances, controlling pacing, enhancing moments. It’s a different skill set.
So unscripted producers want to see similar work on your resume before they hire you, and so do scripted producers.
My jump from the unscripted world to the scripted world was long and arduous. It required steady and consistent effort on my part. I did it by copying what I did at the start of my career.
I talked to people and told everyone who would listen that I wanted to make the jump, that I’d cut anything for the experience.
That's when I got a call from a producer I’d worked with before. We got along well and did a really cool documentary project together. And I’d let him know I wanted to work In scripted.
Now he was calling about a short film he was going to direct. I read the script and immediately agreed to edit it (for free and for the experience and credit), working nights (after my day job) and weekends.
I got called out by so many of my peers for this, telling me it was a waste of time, that it would never go anywhere.
And I knew it was a risk, but I’ve always believed that if you won’t take a risk on your own behalf, why would a producer risk their budget on you?
So I edited the short, and it took up a huge amount of my free time for the next six months.
Then I made two other shorts with the same director, over the next two years. And I kept telling everyone I met that I wanted to do more.
That word of mouth led to additional projects, including a series of comedy shorts with excellent and established actors. I even quit a paying job a week early to edit a short for free, because they wanted it done in time to submit to Sundance.
All this is to say that I took the same risks and put in the same effort that I did to break into editing when I was 22 years old.
And just like before, it took several years to build up a solid reel and resume. And I didn’t make a dime on any of it, so I had to keep working my day job at the same time. All along, I kept telling everyone I worked with that I was looking to make the jump to scripted.
Last year, I finally made the jump for real.
One of the producers I mentioned it to knew of a company looking for editors. That random conversation led to my first Lifetime channel movie. I then did a second with the same producers and director. Those credits then lead to my work as a polish editor on a really cool indie horror film. That credit led to my being hired for a horror/sci-fi film that was shot in Australia and that’s where I’m writing this article from, as I am currently in Melbourne for several weeks working on the cut with the director.
None of this is meant as braggadocio, none of it is “look what I did.” There are the steps I took that lead to a specific set of results.
The steps I’ve taken have consistently yielded the results I’ve wanted, even as they’ve taken several years at each stage. Now, I’m going to be using the same steps to continue to grow my career into larger projects (or so I hope).
There are no guarantees, but it’s worked for me so far, and now I hope it also works for you.