British editor and Inside the Edit founder Paddy Bird sat down and dug deep to share 10 tips to career success as an editor.
Inside the Edit is the first creative editing course that was offered online. I’ve been in touch with Paddy and his team from the get go, I’ve tried out the course that is dense in both quantity and quality, and shared several articles about its content along the way.
So I’m glad to say that on top of learning from Paddy’s experience making a career as an editor, mentorless readers can get a 15% discount when they enroll to the online course by using the code: CREATIVEMENTORLESS
ZEN AND THE EDIT SUITE
10 KEY SECRETS TO CAREER SUCCESS
by Paddy Bird
If mastering one of the most complex and difficult art forms around was not enough, there are several other key talents outside of cutting ability that can be refined when trying to build a successful career as and editor. We want directors busting down our door to work with us so that at no point throughout the year do we have a gap in our schedule.
So how do we go about doing that? How do we maximize success with every single possibility or opportunity? Well, just like the editing process itself we can fine tune parts of ourselves in order to guarantee a constant inflow of projects to work on. We can take ourselves from rough cut to fine cut.
Over nearly twenty years, around 45,000 hours of cutting and working with an army of different directors of varying abilities and temperaments I built up a list of ten things to ask myself on a daily basis that have nothing to do with the actual craft of editing but more of the way I am inside the edit.
I asked or reminded myself of these all the time, again and again, until they became a reflex. Like mastering anything the goal was always for it to become habitual. To get to the point where it was automatic and I didn’t even have to think about it.
I built a belief system, a set of edit mantras, affirmations or ways of being if you will, that maximised my chances of getting further employment from directors and producers. Following these ten steps in pretty much any creative endeavour that is a collaborative process will turn anyone into an approachable and sort after creative artist.
#1 – AM I ZEN?
Quite simply how calm are you when you work? Do you emit a nice and relaxed energy in the edit suite or are you tense? This is a big one as many directors, especially in long form television, would rather work with someone who was great and a really nice person than someone who a genius but an absolute nightmare. They are going to have to spend a lot of time with you in that dark room and if it’s not a pleasurable experience it will be like doing a prison sentence.
I figured out pretty early on that one of the really powerful things that directors respond to, especially in the early days of the edit, is a relaxed and nurturing environment. When I created this I quickly saw them shake off the stress of the shoot and all those stressful production meetings they had to go through leading up to it.
If you create a relaxed and ‘can do’ attitude, all of that tension just washes away and you’ve got what you should always strive for from the very first moment you start working with someone… a partnership.
The best ideas, the best creativity, the best thought processes always happen in a relaxed environment and we must always be aware that the director has gone through a really long and arduous process to get all of this footage in the can and ready for us to start crafting. This translates into pretty much everything we say and do in the edit suite.
Every time you talk to a director, just think for a second what you’re going to say and how you’re going to phrase it. Don’t forget, this is their baby. Yes, you’re making it together but it’s their baby. Be very careful not to insult or insist that they’ve missed a certain shot. They know this already, you don’t need to point it out or over emphasis it as by doing so they will feel judged. You want them to perceive you as a creative partner and not a detractor. They get enough of that from senior producers.
#2 – HOW DO I REACT TO PRESSURE?
Professional film and television is filled with insane deadlines and at times a ton of pressure. I’ve been cutting a scene in part three of a one hour reality show while part two is being transmitted to millions of people from the broadcast truck outside my window.
Do you freak out under pressure? It goes without saying that director’s don’t like that. What they do like is someone who is calm and gets on with their job despite the tornado of stress that is happening around them. At times like these I always find it helpful to go within myself and meditate. Slowing my mind down and concentrating on the only thing that matters, the scene I’m cutting.
I centre my mind no matter who rushes in and out of the edit suite shouting this, that or the other. Or even if the director is on the phone with senior producers with her head in her hands and they’re giving the poor soul an earful of stress. At times like this a good set of headphones is a must. They can keep you in the emotional environment of the scene despite a hundred different distractions.
Some director’s can crack under this type of pressure and there’s a very good reason for this. They are not in control. In many other aspects of the filmmaking process they are in control, they can see the outcome and they themselves can take the reins to make that happen. But here they simply can’t as they cannot operate an Avid system.
Pressure and stress also build up over the course of an edit. Towards the middle and end of a long project the hours often get longer and that stress starts to seep into the edit like a poisonous plant growing in the corner as senior producers start of apply more pressure. Another few key questions at this point are… Can you sleep at night? Do you take your work home with you?
Rest and sleep are two big factors in resetting your reservoir of creativity on a daily basis. In the second half of any edit, after the mountain that is the rough cut has been climbed, a large percentage of the work that is done is problem solving. Pure analytical and narrative structural work that requires a sharp brain to problem solve at a very high pace.
I remember reading about Earnest Hemingway’s creative process. He would write his daily quota and then deliberately force any thoughts about what he was writing out of his mind until he returned to it the next morning. He said the creative part of his subconscious mind would then re-fill like water in a well and be ready for more magic the next day. This technique has helped me enormously in numerous edits, especially towards the end when the stakes are high, the pressure mounting and the clarity of my mind is being called upon every single moment of the day.
#3 – DO I TAKE CRITICISM WELL?
This is a big one. When you cut something that is not to the director’s or producer’s liking, how do you react? Do you take it well or are you defensive? Your ability to not be precious about any of your creative ideas is a trait that really makes you come across as a pro. It gives off the aura that you’ve seen it all before and that not only is it not a problem but that you can simply try something different this time. It really does inspire confidence in the minds of who you’re working for.
How well or how badly you react to criticism is a key trait that a director will talk about when discussing you with someone else, especially if you don’t take it well. Don’t forget there are hundreds of different ways to cut any scene and starting again from scratch with a can do attitude is never going to make you look anything but professional in the eyes of the director.
#4 – AM I ARGUMENTATIVE?
Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a debate inside the edit. Discussion and debate are one of the cornerstones of creative editing. The thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis of creative ideas can very often come about when you and the director have talked through the idea together.
One of the editors main jobs is to voice an independent opinion that is not tainted by having met the characters, having been on the shoot or in the dozens of meetings with the production company. We’re getting paid to give that opinion but arguing or being negative when a director doesn’t want to go your way is a guarantee that you won’t get hired again by them.
Looking for justice or one-upmanship in the edit suite is a road to nowhere. You’ll have burnt bridges with this director and guess what, directors talk to each other. Think about the long game, your career. It’s crazy but some of the best projects I’ve worked on have been given to me by people who were not the nicest of characters but throughout the whole process I just acted zen.
#5 – AM I PUNCUTAL?
This is one that can really annoy directors. Even being consistently five or ten minutes late creates a negative attitude about you in the mind of the director. It says to them that this film is not your highest priority which is exactly what you want them to think.
Throughout my career I’ve always tried to make sure that I am in first and already working on something. A really nice touch is to come in early and cut something new. It doesn’t have to be anything big, it would even be a nice music track you’ve found for a particular scene. When the director walks in sipping on their latte ten minutes later and you show them a new idea this sets a really great tone for the rest of the day. In their mind you are dependable, passionate and most importantly emotionally invested in making their film the very best in can be.
#6 – DO I MIND WORKING LATE?
Yes it is very annoying. Picture the scene… you’ve done 14 hours today, you’re brain is close to shut down from all of that cutting and the director finally says you can quit and go home. All you’re thinking about is crawling onto your couch and opening that HBO box set you haven’t started yet or the buddies you were supposed to meet two hours ago in the bar round the corner. Suddenly the phone rings, it’s a senior producer on the phone who tells you that the broadcaster wants to see some more changes before the viewing tomorrow. You’re gonna have to pull an all nighter.
How you react over the next two minutes will stay in the mind of the director for a very long time. They don’t want to be there either but having you moan and throw your toys out of the pram is the absolute last thing you should do.
So much of directing is cajoling and convincing people into doing things. By the time they’re in the edit the director has done a ton of it and won’t want to do any more. Having to do it again with their editor is definitely a negative check mark against that person’s name the next time they’re thinking about hiring someone. The amount of times I’ve overheard senior producers say “he’s good but he doesn’t like to work late” is almost incalculable.
In these circumstances I always do one thing… chuckle. I completely defuse the situation and sit back down in my chair. You can literally see the tension disappear from the director’s face when they realise that you aren’t going to be a problem and guess what? That is another big star next to your name when the next project comes around.
#7 – AM I GOING TO TRY AND UPSTAGE MY DIRECTOR IN FRONT OF SENIOR PRODUCERS?
One of the best words you can use in the tense situation where the director’s bosses, i.e. the senior producers are in the edit suite for a viewing is “we”. You know and the director knows that the amazing new idea that is now in the film and the producers absolutely love was 100% yours.
If you say “we came up with that idea because we thought that…” when talking to the senior producers the director will love you forever. It creates the idea of a perfect and harmonious partnership in their minds and you can guarantee when they get hired to make that huge film next year they’ll only have one editor in mind.
It’s always worth bearing in mind that building a network of people who are desperate to work with you is based on one thing. As your career grows most of these people will be directors not exec producers. Letting the senior producers know that this great idea was yours by saying the word “I” immediately annoys the director. Yes, you’ve won the battle but you’ve lost the war.
#8 – CAN I HIT A DEADLINE?
Editors are famous for saying it takes less time than it actually does to complete something. You can be an absolute genius in the cutting room but if you miss that deadline no one will remember how good you are.
Yes, we’re in an artistic medium that requires time to think and get creative inspiration but there are timing and budgetary factors that have to be adhered to. Hitting that deadline is an essential talent that must be mastered.
#9 – AM I A GOOD EXPLAINER? DO I ARTICULATE THE ISSUE WELL?
One of the most detrimental things you can communicate in the edit suite is “that doesn’t work” and not explain it. Directors and senior producers need information as to why something will work or not work. They feel comfortable if you’ve given them an articulate breakdown of the issues that any particular problem presents and you’ve explained it to them in a methodical fashion.
This creates a sense of completeness in their minds and they’ll feel confident that they’ve explored every avenue. A key fear of any director is “have we tried absolutely every shot or logical path to make this the very best film it can be?”. If we don’t articulate why or what the issues are we create tension in the edit suite.
I always try and give a clear list of what these problems or issues are and then go on to list a set of possible options that will address them. At the end of the list a fantastic thing to say is “what do you think?” or “which way would you like to go?”. This gives the director a sense of power, a sense of control. You’re articulating that it’s them who’s in charge and it’s their call to make.
More often than not they’ll think for a second and then ask you what your opinion is. But what you’ve also done is subconsciously re-enforce the psychological hierarchy in the edit and consciously or unconsciously, this will give them a feeling of confidence.
#10 – AM I GOOD AT MY CRAFT?
Ok so we are going to talk a little bit about the craft. Well, finally, ask yourself this… Am I the very best editor I can be? Have I sharpened every single one of the many talents needed at the highest end of the editing world? Have I memorised the few thousand structural, journalistic, stylisation and pacing techniques that every editor must have if they want to reach the top of the industry?
If not, get yourself signed up to Inside The Edit. Quite simply it is the only place in the world that teaches you absolutely everything you need to master this beautiful craft of ours.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE ATTITUDE
Our goal is to present ourselves as a reliable ally as quickly as possible to every single director we work for. It’s always a battle to make every disparate set of rushes into the best film it can be. Creating that equilibrium inside any cutting room is a huge part in making that possible.
If you’re unlucky enough to work with someone who does not handle stress well always be cool. No matter what they sling at you, stay present. Act, don’t react. Remember, it’s not personal, it’s usually their stress shouting at you, not them.
Directors hire people again and again who are not only good at their job but are also dependable, unflappable, cool and most importantly supportive. This pretty much guarantees you a successful career.