Become A Movie Editor

Become a Movie Editor

I learned cut film by physically taping pieces of film together then winding the pieces around sprockets, hoping that the splices would go through without jamming. Editing always takes longer than anticipated. During one exhausting all night session when I was helping a friend at UCLA, I stumbled upon a truth: around 3:00 AM both upright Moviolas and editors get hungry. Luckily, the machine only ate my work print, not camera original.

Today, almost all projects are cut on non-linear edit systems, all based on computers. It’s word processing for video, far easier, but the principles remain the same.


1. Watch well edited movies with the sound off. Then watch them again with audio on. Here are a few of my favorites that have won Oscars for best editing: “Chicago,” “The Departed,” “Matrix,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Forrest Gump,” “Unforgiven,” and “JFK.”

2. Take classes. Search community colleges or trade schools for hands-on editing instruction. The non-linear editing world has finally started to sort itself out after years of running into dead ends. I was a demo artist on three different systems, Night Suite, Time Gate and Targa 3000, none of which are sold today. Now there are two dominant systems, Final Cut Pro and Avid.

When I was Director of Sales at Lightning Media, we routinely offered FCP seminars as a free courtesy to our customers. Trade shows like NAB or Videomaker Expo sometimes have introductory sessions where you can use the gear. Moviola in Hollywood has thrown in the towel on its classic upright film editor and now offers certification in both FCP and Avid. Take advantage of these opportunities.

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3. To become an editor, cut. It’s not enough to simply take a class. You need to practice. Buy some editing software, put it on a computer and practice. When I look at the help wanted ads, Final Cut Pro dominates, so buy a copy. FCP also has a software based waveform monitor and vectorscope, essential components you’ll need for broadcast television color correction.

4. Get a computer that can handle your editing. It’s a good idea to use a separate system for editing. That way no memory hungry applications like anti-virus software run in the background.

Consider this: as you probably know, photos eat up a lot of resources. Now picture that image changing thirty times each second. That is video. To offset the demand, you’ll need to buy as much random access memory, RAM, as you can and as fast and as big a hard drive array as you can afford, with the fastest connectivity you can muster. I have an older system running on SCSI 160. Many today use fiber channel.

I also suggest at least a dual monitor playback video card and a dedicated video capture card. The system won’t be cheap, but you’re launching a career.

5. Start gradually. When I taught editing, I began by asking my students to bring in a favorite song along with a slow paced movie. Some schools actually had access to the raw footage from popular TV series. You don’t want to use a Michael Bay film as a video source for this exercise, since his cuts are often so quick that they barely register on the retina. It’s okay to use an older movie for this exercise, one before the birth of MTV. In class, we’d lay the song down as an audio bed and then cut picture to it. This shows you cut on an action, to the beat, and tell a story visually. Remember, this is strictly for practice. You are using copyrighted material and shouldn’t take credit for it as your own work. As good as this might become, do not post this on Youtube. You’ll be violating copyright law.

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6. Next, borrow a camcorder, even a cheap automatic one and shoot footage of your own. I suggest a portrait of a place. Let’s take Boston’s Freedom Trail as an example. It’s rich in historic sites that can be sterile without a thread to tie the narrative together so use your imagination. Follow a friend or a couple around. Show the map. Portray the buildings. Vary close ups, tilts, pans, zooms and long shots of interiors and exteriors. Tape live location audio. If you have a friend who is a musician get a piece from her or go buy royalty free music from a site like Now you have a real project that you’ll have to massage into a presentable video. Be modest in how long you want it to be, 2-3 minutes. You’ll learn a lot, and find yourself cursing your cameraman for not providing you with enough shot coverage and your audio guy for delivering muddy sound. This exercise will force you to cover your mistakes with cutaways the next time you try this exercise.

7. Finally, once you’ve mastered the rudiments of your system, intern. Go to Craigslist, see who is hiring editors and offer to digitize footage. If you prove your eagerness to learn, your enthusiasm and competence, like a former intern of mine, Viral Shaw, you’ll be working as an editor in no time.