Becoming a Film Editor

Many people have written to me and asked me how I became a film editor, so I decided to write a little bit of my story here.  (Who am I kidding, this is more like a short novel length ha ha)  To read more about my childhood influences that lead me to pursue editing, you can visit my About The Film Editor page. 



My first step to becoming an editor was getting a degree in Film Studies from the University of California at Irvine (U.C.I)  The curriculum was largely theory and history, but I also was able to take a few production courses.  I took courses in the history of film and television, screenwriting, video production, French Cinema, German Cinema, Japanese Cinema, Film Theory, Avant Garde Cinema and more.  I did not get the opportunity to edit much during my college years, but I tried to edit whatever I could.  I will always remember two of the best compliments I received in college that kept me inspired to be an editor.  The first was from the head of the Film Studies program, who told me that an essay I had written was being passed around the faculty and they had encouraged me to submit it to a film magazine.  The second compliment came after a viewing of my first "reel" in a video production course.  The professor and the room were silent after the screening, and for a moment I was terrified, until the professor said "Clearly, Janelle has a knack for editing," and the room exploded in applause.  It was the first time I had really screened my work and it felt good to know that the audience was blown away!  During school I completed editing several short films and projects, and also produced, directed and edited a documentary short on a spray can artist.


After graduation, I moved up to the Los Angeles area and started looking for work at all of the major studios.  A friend of mine had been working for some temp agencies whose clients are mostly studios and production companies, and she recommended that I try getting a job at a studio through a temp agency.  So I registered with several of the agencies and started temping immediately.  I worked for several entertainment related companies such as CAA, United Artists, and FOX as a temp (mostly secretarial work).  One of my first temp jobs was in the Studio Parking Pass and Studio Tour office at 20th Century Fox.  Luckily for me, after temping there for a few weeks, they told me that they were looking for a permanent hire and would like me to stay on and start training to be a tour guide for the V.I.P Tours of the Studio.  This was NOT my dream job, but I knew that  being on the studio lot, getting to know people all over the lot by giving the tours, and answering phone calls from anyone and everyone who needed parking passes would be my ticket in to making the contacts I needed to find work in post production. I fielded calls from actors, producers, directors, editors, and studio execs.  Because I was a studio tour guide for VIP guests, I had access to tour most of the sets and stages of the feature films and television shows that were shooting on the lot.  I was also able to visit the scoring stages during music scoring sessions, the ADR stages where they would be recording dialogue for The Simpsons, and foley stages where artists were creating foley sound for features and tv.  Best of all, I was able to tour through most of the editing rooms on the lot.


While working at FOX, I started to put the word out to anyone that would listen that I was extremely interested in editing and eager to learn everything I could about it.  I familiarized myself with all of the productions that were cutting on the lot, who the editors were, and who their assistants were.  When these people would call in for parking passes, I would often ask them questions about the editing process and ask if I could come and visit them or watch them work.  There have been a handful of people who have really influenced me, whether they realized it or not, and I will try to mention them throughout this article.  The first two were Dan Valverde and Lori Coleman.  Dan was working as Lori's assistant editor on the TV show Picket Fences, which was being cut at FOX.  They allowed me to sit in and watch over their shoulders, both as Lori edited and as Dan assisted.  I borrowed their AVID manual and read it cover to cover so that I fully understood the software that they were using.  I tried to be a sponge and absorb everything that I could.  I was also able to visit the film editing room of the feature Robin Hood: Men In Tights, where Gina Lombardo and Cynthia Thornton introduced me to my first film coding machine and showed me what a real live film cutting room looked like!  I visited the editing room of Little Rascals, where Michael Matzdorff showed me the Lightworks system (and I quickly decided that I was an AVID girl).  Finally, I had the chance to visit Don Zimmerman's editing room for a film called The Scout.  I got to peek over all of these people's shoulders and I wanted nothing more than to be in their shoes.


A coworker from my Tour Guide office had left Fox and gone on to work for a production company as an assistant accountant.  He called me up one day saying he had remembered how much I wanted to get into editing, and said that there was an assistant editor job available on a movie that Jon Voight was producing.  It was extremely low budget and I would not be getting paid much, but I knew I had to get a film on my resume.  I was able to switch my hours at FOX so that after a full workday as a tour guide, at 5PM I would head straight to the editing room and work until roughly midnight, and also worked full days on Saturdays.  Needless to say, I was exhausted but learning all that I could.  This was my first experience at coding picture workprint and audio mag stock.  I was also learning how to sync dailies and the fine art of "re-conning" (reconstituting picture and sound trims into their original dailies rolls)  The post production supervisor for the film was Jack Tucker , who encouraged me to join the Motion Picture Editor's Guild (Editing Union) and helped me to get my paperwork together to do so.  Thanks to the big Northridge quake, our editing rooms were shut down indefinately and the post schedule came to a schreeching halt.  My first big break was over in a matter of months, but thankfully I still had my "day" job as a studio tour guide.


After losing my first film assistant job, I was back on the job hunt with full force.  Now I had a few more editing connections, my union membership paperwork, and actual "cutting room experience".  I again started putting the word out to all of the people I knew on the FOX studio lot and tried interviewing for post production assistant and runner jobs, as well as executive assistant jobs around the lot.  I kept hearing the same things, either I was overqualified to be a P.A., or I was underqualified to assist the executives (I guess I was terrible at answering phones!).  At the time I felt as if I could not catch a break, but in hindsight, I am grateful for each and every one of those "No's".  After a few months of looking for jobs outside of editorial, fate stepped in and I landed my first full time feature film apprentice job.  I had mentioned  to the NYPD Blue stage security guard whom I had befriended on my daily tours that I wanted to be an editor, and he insisted that I call one of the editors on the show, Farrel Levy.  Almost simultaneously, a friend of mine who was the assistant production coordinator on the same show, Patti McGuire, said that I should meet one of their assistant editors, Rob Brakey.  I went and met with Farrel, and had arranged to meet Rob the same day as their editing rooms were next door to each other.  Farrel said that I should also meet the editor that Rob was assisting, Lawrence Jordan , because she had heard that they were leaving to work on a New Line Cinema feature and that they needed an apprentice.  All the pieces fell into place, I interviewed with Larry and Rob, and landed my first job as an apprentice editor.  I was ecstatic and although the job was a very low budget non-union film, I would still be making more money than I had been at Fox.


After completing my first feature with Rob and Larry as the apprentice film editor, I was then promoted to "second assistant editor" on the next film which Larry was cutting.  I was primarily a film assistant but tried to learn everything I could about the AVID as well from "my boys".  Larry and Rob then left the film to go onto another project and I was promoted to "first assistant editor". 

When the film was complete, I was offered a "fill in" job as an assistant editor on a TV Series because the original assistant had to leave town for a while.  The editor, Paul Dixon , then hired me on his next Movie of the Week (MOW), which was a union show, so I finally officially joined the union and started getting a nice paycheck. I was Paul's first assistant editor for 5 TV movies over the span of a year.  I would practice cutting scenes on the AVID in my downtime (which I didn't have much of) and Paul would give me notes and talk to me about my cutting choices.  I also did a lot of sound effects (SFX) cutting for temp tracks and became much more familiar with editing on the AVID. 

I then went on to work on a big budget union feature assisting on film with Larry and Rob again, to help them during an audience preview screening crunch time. 80 hour and 7 day work weeks was very familiar to me during these years, and I was very thankful for the union rules of overtime pay and 6th and 7th day rates. 

After several more first assistant editor jobs on various features, a few pilots and a commercial, I started working on a Disney feature, Whispers: An Elephant's Tale, with Editor Nena Olwage .  The film was supposed to be a three month gig and it turned into a two and half year job!  This film had over 250 visual effects, so I learned how to order opticals and pick color wedges like a pro.  I also got to practice recording and cutting temp dialogue, as our script was always being re-written.


After the two+ year stint at Disney, I was back on the job search and was hired by a Director who was looking for an editor to cut a trailer/ EPK reel of the feature he had just shot.  There was no pay, but the director offered meals and the experience and credit was important for me.  The trailer would be used as a showpiece to garner interest and funding for the completion of the film. (The film had not even been cut yet, so I would be building the reel from scratch!)  I spent over a month cutting the trailer (using an AVID that had been "donated" to us for evening use) and by the time it was complete, the director was used to working with me and asked me if I would come on to cut the entire film.  I was going to be taking a huge cut in pay as most of the budget was deferred (ie. rarely do editors ever recoup any deferred pay), but this was a chance for me to have a solo editing credit on an independent feature, and I jumped at the opportunity.  I had seen some of the scenes and read the script and I thought it would be a great project.  I completed the editing of the film in about four months, and was back on the job hunt again.  I got a lead on a night editor job on a couple of BET series, which I did until the seasons ended, and then was back looking for work.

I still did not have enough editing credits under my belt to get a union editing job right away, so I decided to look for work as an additional editor or associate editor.  Sloane Klevin , an editor that I had kept in touch with for years, was about to lose her current assistant, so she brought me on to her next film, with the promise that she would give me scenes to cut and try to get me additional editing credit.  I worked with her on two features as her additional editor & first assistant editor, and was able to cut a lot of scenes as well as sit in with her as she was cutting.  She would give me notes on my scenes and I would make the appropriate changes, and she also spent a lot of time talking to me about why she made the editorial choices that she did.  Sloane is an expert when it comes to selecting music for her films, and we had a blast finding the right songs for our films; she taught me a lot about how important music selection is for a film.

Sloane moved to New York and I was again looking for work as an assistant/additional editor.  After a few short term "crunch-time" gigs (working on a David Lynch commercial, film assisting on a Kevin Smith movie, editing a zero-budget feature), I went on as and additional editor with Luis Colina on an MOW, on which I was able to also do a lot of cutting and work closely with the director and producers.  I then received a call that someone had referred me to interview for the first assistant editor job on The Chronicles of Narnia.  I went on to work on this film for a year, entirely in pre-production working with the editor, Sim Evan-Jones and cutting animatics/storyboards with him.  I learned everything there was to know about cutting storyboards and animatics, and was able to travel to New Zealand!  I was given the title "animatics editor" by the director and producer, but found out that when the lawyers were going over the final film credits, that my title was changed because the film had "gone union. Because I had never been paid as an editor, they could not give me editor credit. I found that with many union studio shows, studios are hesitant to give "additional editor" credit as it means by law they have to pay editor union wages.  This was the catalyst that started me looking again for a full time editor job.


When I returned to the states, I worked on a few more shows as a first assistant editor but was also cutting a lot on each project, and I was determined to be cutting full time. After being refered by several friends to the series producer of Dog Whisperer, I was finally able to realize my dream of being a fully paid and fully credited editor!  I absolutely fell in love with the show and the crew and cut three seasons of the series.  I also had a chance to edit Trading Spouses between seasons of Dog Whisperer. After the fourth season of Dog Whisperer, I went on to cut seasons four and five of the hit E! channel show, The Girls Next Door. The road to becoming an editor was a long and hard one, but I wouldn't trade any of it.  I am looking forward to editing more features and dramatic television series and know that the road ahead will be filled with great projects and great people!

Thanks to the people mentioned above, along with several other amazing editor friends / influences along the way (Patrick Don Vito , Steve Centracchio , Gregg Featherman , Kate McGowan , Mary Sweeney, Annamaria Szanto and more) I was able to make my way into a career that I love, and learn so much from each person about all aspects of editing...technical, storytelling, emotional, music and sound effects editing, cutting room "politics", how to work with directors, producers and executives, manage films and shows from start to finish, basically work with all aspects of finishing a film from pre-production to color timing and negative cutting. I can absolutely say that I love what I do for a living!


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