Documentary, stories and mistakes

As a beginning assistant editor in the television and film industry a lot of my projects happen to be documentary style projects. If you asked every film editor in Hollywood where they started out about 65 percent of them would probably say documentary, another 20 percent would say children’s shows. I can see why some of the best feature film editors started out assistant editing or editing on documentary style shows. It’s hard, the amount of footage the assistant editor has to keep track of can be mind bending at times and the story possibilities are endless. It is great practice for feature work.  Kids don’t knock the Doc.

I felt like writing about this topic because I just finished my stay at PBS and Boyer Productions assisting on a 90min documentary special called “Retirement Revolution: The New Reality”. This project was somewhat of a big deal to me as I am just starting in the industry and I would love to share what I have learned.

Many young people starting out as post production assistants and assistant editors think that for some reason if their first assisting job is not on Spiderman or the next Michael Mann project that they are not on the right path. I also thought this, being somewhat young and stupid myself.  If you are just starting out like I, the chances are you read blogs, listen to podcasts, receive three billion postproduction magazines in the mail and read In the Blink of an Eye once a day. I also contacted many Hollywood film editors and asked them questions. Well, actually asking just one question – “How did you get where you are now?” surprisingly the answer I kept getting was – “Oh, I started out editing children’s shows and documentaries.” Umm what? You cut four out of five of my favorite television shows and you started at the same place I am now? That can’t be right? Can it? Maybe I’m on the right track.

The truth is that Chris Dickens didn’t fly out of the womb and cut Slumdog Millionaire, he worked on sketch comedy shows and BBC documentaries first. It can take close to or even over 20 years to get on major features as picture editor.

But anyways, here are a few things I learned while assistant editing on a 90min PBS documentary.

  1. If the editor asks for a coffee, you should probably get him a coffee. Simple right? Nope, I screwed this one up. I actually said “no” when he asked and he didn’t finish all his work that day because he had to walk down the street and get himself a coffee. Yeah, next time I think I’ll just go get him coffee.
  2. Do not be afraid to speak your opinion when the Executive Producer asks for your advice at a Producer’s Cut screening. A lot of people like to tell the Executive Producer what he wants to hear and then you have twenty people saying, “Yeah, that’s great.” He, like most people probably asked you because he trusts your opinion and has found you to have a good understanding of the project. I was asked, “What do you think about the ending of this segment?” and my response “Honestly, I think it’s crap. It doesn’t lead into the next segment well and I kind of think it feels like the story was cut slightly short” So, what happened? Well, they decided to do a different take on the ending using some ideas from me, the shy entry-level assistant editor. Guess what? it all worked out and the new ending is now in the final broadcast version. I was also awarded my own 20min. segment to cut for broadcast too. Not bad.
  3. Write notes and communicate, don’t be shy. As I said in learning experience two, I am a pretty shy person. In the beginning of the post process there were originally two assistant editors. We had to figure out how to communicate to each other which tasks we finished so we didn’t use up time doing the same work. I would probably put good communication at the top of the requirements for an assistant editor. We left notes on paper in the edit suites, talked by phone and color coded project files to stay in synch to what the other person has been working on. Communication never became a problem.
  4. GO FOR IT! Seriously, if you have finished up your work for the night, stay late. Duplicate the last sequence and give it a go. Start cutting a bit of the project and show it to the editors the next day. What’s the worst thing that could happen? An editor deletes it? No big deal. Who knows they may like it. I am an assistant editor that stays after as much as possible and spends as much time in the edit suite as humanly possible. Yes, I usually pull 14-hour shifts, the last four usually with no pay. Just experimenting, laying b-roll for the editors. Once I started staying after hours when everyone else was gone and began duplicating and cutting segments I would show up the next day and see some of my edits in the actual project. Also, the Senior Editor noticed my skill level and promoted me to Associate Editor because of this.
  5. Keep in strong contact with every person you worked with on the project.This is very important. As a younger, newer assistant editor it is extremely hard to find work. Please, stay connected to the industry professionals you meet. Once the project is over ask them kindly if they wouldn’t mind giving you a reference. Also ask if they know of any companies who might be hiring or hire assistants on a regular basis. Always inform them if they may be receiving a phone call from a future employer checking references. Most professionals in this industry are very busy and hate being caught off guard.  I usually keep in touch with everyone I have worked with once a month at least. If you live near a big city check for user group meetings. Going to user group meetings is a great way to meet editors and senior editors.

Well, I hope other younger assistant editors and post PAs can learn a thing or two from this post. Everyone makes mistakes, everyone learns from mistakes, everyone knows they will make and learn from mistakes. It’s part of life. I learned from mine and the next picture editor I work with will get some amazingly brewed coffee.

More Stories to Come-


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