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How to Become a Video Editor

| Doug Walker | March 3, 2022

IN THIS ARTICLE:

The last few years have seen an explosion of content and channels through which it’s distributed. This content ranges from short-form (even as short as Snaps and TikToks) to independent films shot on iPhones or GoPro cameras (at least for certain sequences). With this increase in content, there’s a large market for video editors — not to mention people who want to shoot and edit their own stuff.

These days, there are many paths forward to becoming a video editor, ranging from traditional courses to self-taught. Still, even self-taught video editors have many different approaches.

Here’s a handy breakdown to help anyone looking to find the right path for them.

How To Become a Video Editor the Traditional Way

Film Schools

Most film editors went to competitive film schools. Highly-ranked film schools like NYU/Tisch, USC, UCLA, and AFI offer editing courses in their comprehensive film production education.

Most of these schools (besides AFI, a graduate conservatory) offer undergraduate and graduate programs. Editing concentrations or bachelor’s degrees are rare, but many students hone their skills by cutting their projects and others.

But a complete degree isn’t always required. Many of these universities offer short summer courses. For example, famed film editor Thelma Schoonmaker was doing a short summer course at NYU, where she met Martin Scorsese. They would go on to collaborate for decades to come. Yes, she’s a features editor, but video and film editing are converging, with less and less differentiation between the two, particularly now that most projects are shot digitally.

The reasons potential editors go to a reputable film school come down to three factors: experience, instruction, and connections.

Experience

By working on diverse projects, editors can cut their teeth on many different genres. Film school projects also include footage that didn’t go as planned or with problematic elements that need to be fixed. These are all great educational opportunities.

Instruction

Film schools often hire working (or at least experienced) professors who can provide detailed feedback. Workshop settings are also helpful, where peers critique one another’s work and help each other improve. Of course, teachers vary in expertise, and not every fellow student will be helpful. Still, it’s great to have somewhere to try out new ideas and see if they work. At their best, film schools offer a spirit of innovation and encouragement, far away from commercial pressures.

Connections

Unless video editors are committed to working only on their own material (even though they will probably need to collaborate at some point), film schools can be important hubs where editors can meet fellow filmmakers. The trust forged at film school can power relationships and collaborations well into the future (as in the above example of Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker). Connections at film school can include recommendations from professors to potential employers and providing access to internships. A sense of prestige comes with graduating from a top film school, making employers more likely to trust graduates with their projects.

Pros of Film School

In short, the benefits of a film school path are:

  • Film school provides graduates with an official stamp of professionalism and (hopefully) a reel they can share with potential employers.
  • Students can make mistakes without the pressures of the commercial world. They will be able to learn a lot of helpful information and tricks from professionals.
  • Film school helps filmmakers forge connections and professional networks, so they’re good to start their professional careers once they’ve graduated.
  • Film schools teach the history of cinema. That may seem irrelevant, but it provides great inspiration to future filmmakers. Many techniques that may seem cutting-edge have their roots in early film. And great editors tend to reference great past work in their own projects.

Cons of Film School

On the negative side:

  • Film school is expensive. A lucky few get scholarships, but these are few and far between.
  • Critics of film school also note that it may be a relic of the past. They argue that once, filmmaking tools were concentrated in the hands of a lucky minority. With those tools more democratically available in cheap digital cameras and free editing and VFX software, film schools are no longer required. Knowledge about filmmaking and video editing is everywhere.
  • Film school is long. Does it really take three or four years to learn to edit when kids are doing it themselves on YouTube?

Critics of film school may be right. Still, many young people starting careers as film professionals or editors choose film school because it provides a path they would otherwise find daunting. It’s understandable why many budding editors choose the film school route.

If aspiring editors can’t see themselves doing a three or four-year program, they should keep an eye out for short courses, continuing education night courses, and even digital programs offered by schools like USC, UCLA, and NYU.

Commercial Work

Another traditional path for video editors is to get a foot in the door at a postproduction house (a facility that typically edits music videos and commercials and potentially movies and TV shows).

By starting as a production assistant (PA), many aspiring editors have worked their way up to second assistant editor, assistant editor, and finally editor. The benefit of this apprenticeship-style system is that editors are getting paid (not much, but still something) as they rise through the ranks. They’re also able to see how mentors approach editing problems.

The drawbacks are that it can be a very slow path when editors rely on getting a certain amount of work and promotions. To get around this, it’s best always to be working on side projects. This can be exhausting, but it’s the reality of the field.

One plus of climbing the ladder as an editor this way is that some postproduction houses provide access to their facilities, allowing employees to use their high-end suites. As with film schools, connections can be forged at postproduction houses, allowing for future collaborations. And it can also provide exposure to a litany of exciting projects and challenges.

Editors can get in the door by keeping an eye out for openings and starting as a PA or even a temp. Another way is an internship. These often go to film school students but are often open to anyone enrolled in a college program. And highly motivated individuals will always find a way to get a foot in the door.

Less Traditional Paths and DIY Approaches

As noted above, there’s a world of more grassroots approaches to becoming a video editor. The simplest approach is simply to start: find some affordable software and edit projects.

There are many good free editing platforms out there (or at least free tiers), including:

These all have pros and cons, and some interfaces may be more appealing than others. There is also editing software available for purchase, including Final Cut Pro, AVID, and Adobe Premiere. But for editors just starting, the free versions should be good enough.

Some of these platforms come with helpful manuals. Others, like DaVinci, rely on their passionate users to post videos on YouTube explaining their various features.

Ultimately, the best way to gain experience as an editor is by working — but editors still need footage to cut. Before editors have had a chance to gain the trust of other filmmakers, they may need to create their own projects to start a reel. A reel is a highlight compendium of their best work, usually cut to show off their range.

While the technical aspects of filmmaking can be covered in YouTube tutorials, DIY editors will likely need the most help with aesthetic and professional issues, such as planning a shoot.

Creating Work To Edit

Editors looking to build a body of work need to learn to plan before a shoot. Editors can even work with directors in preproduction to ensure they will have the footage they need. The two biggest ways to plan are:

Storyboard

Many great filmmakers insist on storyboarding before shooting footage. It helps previsualize a project and get a sense of what filming it will involve, and it helps with editing. It’s an excellent place for a novice editor to get a sense of the angles they’ll need for any coherent visual narrative.

Shotlist

Of course, if the task at hand is more about covering an event like a wedding or a documentary shoot, then a shot list — literally a list of shots required to tell the story — might be more valuable. Editors and filmmakers can’t control their subjects, but they can understand what they need for a compelling project.

The building blocks of any film or video narrative are wide shots, medium shots (usually involving the actors from the chest up), and close-ups. So when approaching any shoot, it’s a good idea to think about how to cover it effectively. Some editors may prefer to have longer, fluid shots, and others shorter, punchier ones (if they want a faster pace).

Eventually, in the DIY model, the path is the same: to put together a reel and a body of work that’s as professional and inspiring as possible.

One job leads to the next, after all.

Working as an Editor

Many video editors work on a self-employed, freelance basis from project to project, while others work full-time at a postproduction house.

Some spend years in each mode, toggling between freelance and full-time employment. Postproduction houses typically edit projects like TV commercials, web promos, industrial shorts, music videos, and branded content that can vary in length.

Editors should think about the kind of content they want to work on. If they see themselves editing TV shows, their best bet is to try and find work as a PA and then an assistant editor to a working TV editor to work up the ranks. It never hurts for prospective editors to send a letter to an editor whose work they admire since editors are always looking for assistants and interns, depending on their current project’s needs.

Many subspecialties are involved in editing, including music editing and sound effects editing. There are also different genres with different needs, like comedy, documentaries, and 3D animation. These are labor-intensive specialties that make freelancers in demand, as these involve specific skills.

Comedy editors, for example, are known for their skill at getting the most comedic value out of extant footage. It’s worth thinking about niches to help stand out in a competitive field.

Personal Skills Editors Need

Editing is a craft that requires a lot of patience and attention to fine detail.

It’s typically a collaborative role. Editors must get accustomed to listening and communicating if they think an editing choice isn’t working — not to mention offering possible solutions.

It’s an art of compromise and requires a problem-solving mindset. There’s often a gap between the footage expected and the footage captured — and it’s up to the editor to make it look good.

Some formats, like documentaries, are particularly open to being “made” in the editing room, with substantial restructuring or the addition of voice-over, as needed. So editors often have good all-around skills with writing and other thoughts.

Now that all editing is a digital process, it helps to have strong computer skills (including patience to help you get through lost files or frozen computers).

Formal education can sometimes help potential editors hone these skills, but they are often innate. Editing can take long hours, sometimes in small, cramped editing bays. It typically comes toward the end of the process, meaning that all frustrations of filmmaking can come to a head in the editing room. Successful editors tend to be thoughtful, candid, relatively soft-spoken, and positive. A can-do spirit can go a long way.

Becoming a Video Editor

Whichever path a video editor chooses, there will be challenges. It’s not a linear career path and will require tenacity. Still, it’s an exciting and personally rewarding profession for those looking for a career that combines creativity, logistics, and computer savviness.

 

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