Misha Tenenbaum on THE Soft Skill He Gained Being an Assistant Editor in Hollywood
This is a guest post from Misha Tenenbaum, who went on an interesting journey from dreaming of moving to Los Angeles to become an editor to actually going through that experience and learning from the trenches, ultimately taking a path he hadn’t foreseen.
Misha’s story is emblematic of this moment in time where we confront our theorized aspirations with real life and discover what we want, and what that implies, work wise.
The Responsibility Ramp
Since moving to Los Angeles in 2007 I’ve been a part of a lot of editing rooms – from American Horror Story on FX to JOBS, starring Ashton Kutcher. Now, I’m the founder of EditStock.com, a site which offers film dailies (rushes) for people to practice editing with. I’m one of a fortunate few who has known what their life’s calling was since high school: editing. Now I get to live that reality every day.
Soft skills like dependability, flexibility, and focus, are as important to practice daily as editing software is.
My path towards a Hollywood career didn’t come without failure, and thus it has included a significant amount of introspection into the nature of my goals and character. Most of all, I’ve learned not to underestimate the value soft skills. Soft skills like dependability, flexibility, and focus, are as important to practice daily as editing software is. Soft skills are interpersonal, and can only be learned through real world experiences followed by reflecting on those experiences. The first step to improving them is simply by being aware that they matter, and by monitoring your own behavior. This is the think before you act voice.
The single most important soft skill that I’ve learned in my professional career has been responsibility. In this article we’ll dive deeper into how the meaning of responsibility changes based on what period of a person’s life we’re in, and based on what are their goals vs. what they are willing to sacrifice.
Technically, responsibility only means being given a task that you are in charge of. Schools instill responsibility in students early by assigning homework. Sadly though, schools pretty much only use grades as a lever to motivate students towards completing those responsibilities. For me, earning a low grade as punishment never mattered much, and so I got a lot of C’s in high school.
The place where I succeeded most was in our high school’s public access TV studio, Channel 15. When I was given responsibility for filming something like a class’ graduation ceremony, I had a responsibility to the other students of that class to succeed or else there would be no video of the event. This made me take my work seriously. Failing in this arena meant failing socially. Sure, I could show up late for Spanish class, but if I was filming a school play I’d be there three hours early (and bring extra batteries to boot!).
Responsibility is always measured in consequences. The bigger the responsibility the higher the stakes are for success and failure.
Responsibility is always measured in consequences. The bigger the responsibility the higher the stakes are for success and failure. Furthermore, the more responsibility a person has over a situation, the more ownership they take of it. As I got better at editing, I liked being given projects with greater responsibility. As EditStock grows, I’m prouder and prouder of my role.
Responsibility implies trust. At Georgia College (my alma matter) teachers rewarded my dependability by offering me paying, off campus jobs like editing wedding videos, commercials, and even the occasional news story for our local TV affiliates. After shooting dozens of school events with my teachers, they trusted me when the stakes were high. For me, earning trust from a teacher on a peer to peer basis was more rewarding than earning an A+ in Spanish.
The word responsibility broadened and deepened after college. My first ‘career’ job was editing a TV show for the Speed Channel. Suddenly what I edited was going to be on a ‘real’ channel though admittedly only in front of a small audience. Still, I loved the feeling of telling people that I made television. As time passed I began to aim for a new goal, to get onto a tv show that people had heard of.
This is the biggest learning curve I faced happened when I got my first big break as an assistant editor on FX’s American Horror Story. It was a huge leap from any work I had done prior. The interview was at Paramount Studios. When I came onto the lot I saw a 50 foot tall banner congratulating the crew of Glee (who were producing AHS) on winning a half dozen Emmy’s just months before. The stakes were so high – literally millions of dollars were spent to make each episode as opposed to less than a million to make full seasons of the other shows I had worked on – there was no choice but success and everything else would need to be sacrificed to meet that goal.
The only way to handle this much professional responsibility is with an ‘all-in’ mentality. Understanding ‘all-in’ is absolutely essential to the top levels of any career.
The only way to handle this much professional responsibility is with an ‘all-in’ mentality. Understanding ‘all-in’ is absolutely essential to the top levels of any career, including filmmaking (and founding a company as I have learned with EditStock). AHS required a total commitment of time and focus. While working on the show I spent the first month canceling diner dates with friends. In the second month I stopped making social plans at all. Towards the end free time meant the hour I had before falling asleep at night from exhaustion. Your friends stop calling. Your hobbies wither. Your health suffers. You’re achieving your dream.
The pressure to get things done right was so intense that I remember being asked to put dailies (rushes) on a hard drive so the editor could work at the hospital while his wife was in labor. Yeah, seriously. All-in is the ultimate state of responsibility. It implies focus akin to military duty.
Ok, I’m being a bit dramatic here. No one is going to die if you make a mistake. And not all network shows are like this. I’ve worked on great shows that had a lazy 40 hour week. I put the average editing work week at 50 hours. Of course, there is a flip side to working on a hit show. You work with incredibly talented people who are creating their life’s work. You get to win awards and dress in suits. You’re invited to insider events and you get a huge gulp of ego boost when you tell your friends what you’re doing.
What I’ve learned about myself is that I work well when the stakes are high. But I also don’t like the absolute drop dead requirements of some shows. I need a social life too. When I decided to start EditStock, I knew I was taking on a huge risk, but I love what I’m putting into the world and I love deciding for my self how much time I’m willing to put in (a lot!). I’ve learned how to turn on that ‘all-in’ focus like a light switch when I need it, but when I’m having diner with my girlfriend it’s time to turn that off. It’s each person’s job to decide what their threshold is for the all-in job. It’s a threshold which changes as your life does, over time. It’s up to you to find your line.