Ash Career Advice

9 Principles For a Long Career as a Video Creative

After 20 years in the industry, I have seen that there are many ways to fail. But just a few principles seem to make all the difference in your career longevity and growth. Whether you are starting out, mid career, or even getting long in the tooth, you probably want to stay busy and working for many more years. These simple reminders can enable you to build your career and also to weather the major shifts we will continue to see in art, tech and project management.

1. Be a people person

Your relationships are everything. Everyone knows the importance of networking, but they don’t really know exactly WHY it is so important. Or how to leverage it. Your ability to get along with people without burning bridges or holding grudges will be directly responsible for your future opportunities.

If you are lucky, your career will be long, and if it is, I guarantee that you will meet every person again. Even the person you hoped never to see again. In my career, I have hired people I once worked for, and I have been hired by people I once hired. I have been trained by someone who was once my student, and given lessons to someone whom I later worked for.

Career paths are winding, and you will sometimes find that a terrible boss is actually a great collaborator, or that a clueless producer grows into a visionary director. Since you never know where people will end up – including yourself – don’t close any doors just because of a bad experience.

Our industry may seem to be growing, but in many ways it’s still really small. Gossip spreads fast, especially in the online world, and reputations are nearly impossible to escape. Gone are the days when our embarrassing Christmas party faux pas stayed at the office. Drink with your colleagues, but go home before you embarrass yourself.

2. NEVER stop learning

Until the 80’s, the way to record media (on film) and the way to edit it (with a sharp blade and something sticky) went unchanged for nearly a century. When I was in film school, I learned to edit on flatbeds, review work on hand cranked film winders, and load a film camera magazine in a black bag. Skills I only rarely use today.

Since then, I have used over 20 different types of media (16mm film, 8mm film, 2 inch reel to reel videotape, VHS, pixel vision, Umatic, Beta, Beta SP, 1 inch tape, SVHS, Hi8, 35mm film, Digibeta, D1, D2, D4, mini dv, DV cam, Digital8, HD, RED, 4K, and now 6K) and more than 15 professional post production systems (Sony Editing consoles, Grass Valley Switchers, Paintbox, DPaint, Video Toaster, Media100, AVID, Lightworks, Matador, Flint, Flame, Inferno, Smoke, Adobe Premiere, Final Cut Pro, iMovie, Vegas, and After Effects.)

At times, I have been hired simply because I was the only person who could operate a certain type of software.

If you haven’t figured it out already, the advertising world loves “the new.” While it’s true that there is also a unspoken fear of true originality, agency creatives do want to feel that they are making use of the latest and greatest tools on their projects. By the time agency people hear about a new piece of kit or a new style, you should already know about it, and ideally be able to offer it. Stay up to date by reading the trades, following blogs, and networking with others in the field. First adopters of time-saving or labor-saving tools are really the only ones who gain an advantage from it. Once everyone embraces it, you can’t own it, and you are only keeping up.

But your learning should not stop with tech updates and industry chatter. Film history, fine arts, literature, music, and even current events are not only fascinating hobbies for your free time, but are also incredibly valuable to your career in two ways. First, it’s the fresh ideas that you bring to the project that are your value-add. An editor who can reference a deep well of knowledge in storytelling, visual history, and music has an innate ability to differentiate the ‘acceptable’ shot, from the sublime one; to create a piece that is layered in meaning, not just slickly finished.

3. Work for someone who you want to be in 5 years

It’s rare to have the dream job dropped in your lap. It does happen, but most successful creative people grew through mentorship. They worked for someone who could model the behavior, the skills, and the leadership tactics that lead to success. Not only that, but seeing first-hand the discipline and focus needed to achieve spectacular results is invaluable.

This may be most clearly relevant if you are starting out your career and trying to choose what kind of opportunities to pursue. Do you take the low-paying assistant job with the amazing editor, or do you take the higher paying but creatively unsatisfying job cutting wedding videos? I have made both choices… and I can tell you that at the beginning of your career, definitely choose the former.

But later in your career, the advice also holds. You may have a successful career as an editor or motion graphics artist, but you still need to find clients. Again, the person who has already made the life choices you hope to make can show you how to get there, even if not in your precise career path. Seek out collaborators whose work you wish you made. Seek out the producer with the clients you want to work with. Seek out the clients telling the stories you want to tell.

4. Learn as many roles as you can, when you can; but be known for doing just one thing well

When you are starting out, it is great to be a jack of all trades. The more you know, the easier it is to get the results you want. The more effective you are at communicating with other departments. The more valuable you are as an employee.

But if you are too valuable as a floater (someone who moves easily between roles), your employers will be unlikely to promote you. Senior positions in production are almost only done by specialists. That is not to say that senior creatives can only do one thing… but they have chosen to be known for only one thing.

On a commercial project, there are two very important reasons for using specialists: First, from the point of view of the producer, each role is a line item. It is much simpler for their budgeting to be able to slot a person into one line item. Second, from the point of view of the client, the specialists take responsibility for their department. The post-production buck stops with the editor. If the editor is out on a shoot, or in a back room working in 3d when the client wants to discuss the edit, they think there is no clear chain of command, and they lose trust.

5. Own something

Own a company, own a project, own a product, real estate or even a typeface or a plug-in.

If you are working for a rate, a day rate, an hourly rate, or even a salary, the only way to grow your business is to work more. However, work more and you won’t have a life. You won’t have time to network or learn new skills. The only way to grow your income is to charge more, but charge too much, and you could drive work away and lose business.

The solution? Own something. A product earns money even when its maker isn’t around. People can download your tutorials, or typefaces, or stock footage even when you are asleep. A film or song or performance gets royalties even after you die! Invest in stocks (you get best long term results with a simple index fund) and the value of your investment will grow without any effort on your part.

If you are planning to keep freelancing, you are probably already commitment-challenged, so being on a month-to-month lease is just about right. But time flies when you are freelancing, and if you haven’t taken steps to protect your lifestyle, as well as your career, you may find yourself without savings. Real estate is nearly always a good investment. You won’t be paying rent AND you get the profit when you sell. Buying a home is challenging, particularly if you are trying to get mortgage as a freelancer, but there is no better way to grow your wealth, increase your sense of security, and improve your credit.

6. Schedule your life around your work, rather than vice versa

The schedule kids follow in school is pretty much the same schedule that most working people follow. Work is during the weekday. When summer comes, we think of the beach. At Christmas and New Year’s we go on holiday.

When I worked in broadcast television, we were on three day shifts, alternating day and night. Our busiest time of year was closely tied the the TV seasons. We worked flat out August and September till the new shows launched, then had a two month lull until the lead up to holiday themed promos. There were some of us who had kids or partners not in the industry and we were constantly frustrated about the incompatibility of our schedule with our family’s.

But I knew one editor who had it figured out. He took his holidays during our slow periods. He never had trouble finding a flight or a hotel, because demand was low. He could visit tourist sights when they were practically deserted, and have long lunches on weekdays. Unlike the rest of us, he never had to reschedule his plans, because he never made them at a time he might be needed.

This approach can work for you. Not only in scheduling holidays, but even in how you schedule your day or your week. Pay attention to workdays. What are the times of day that are most busy? What days are most busy? Personally, I find I am most productive between 4:30pm and 9pm, so I try to make sure I can be working during that period. I do my more demanding work at a time when I know the phone won’t be ringing, so I don’t break my concentration.

We are lucky that we work in an industry that is flexible, but if we don’t take advantage of it, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

7. Have a life

I know, we love what we do. Our clients are our friends. Our workplaces are comfortable, and takeout is just a text message away. There is always another article you could read, another short to watch, another tutorial to try… but we NEED to go home. I have seen editors have nervous breakdowns, abuse drugs and alcohol, destroy their marriages and even collapse with a heart attack because they just couldn’t maintain a healthy work-life balance.

This is especially challenging in fast paced markets like New York, LA or London, where there is always another wave of younger, hipper, faster, and cheaper talent about to enter the workforce. Clients are used to 24/7 production schedules and seeing revisions instantly. How do you step away? How do you keep your sanity?

It’s simple. First, schedule your time off. When you are not at work, do not answer any work related calls or emails. Trust me, nothing in our industry is life and death (though your clients may behave like it is), so even the most urgent call or email can wait until work hours. If you feel insecure about being unreachable, set up an auto responder… a message just reminding your client that working hours are over and you will address their issue in the morning.

Second, waste time. When you were a kid, you must have had things that you enjoyed doing. Activities that really kept your attention for hours at a time but were completely not goal-oriented. Things like playing catch, painting, beading, origami, running, hiking… whatever. The things you wanted to do, rather than had to do.

Now is the time to rediscover those activities. Our industry can get very intense, and having a way to decompress that you can do by yourself, anywhere, and inexpensively is vital. My personal favorite is washing dishes. Something about the visceral feel of sticking your hands in warm soapy water and the simple satisfaction when it is done. It always helps me to destress.

8. Never stand against change

Whenever there has been a shift in the industry… from film to video, from big houses to boutiques… there are always a group of people resisting the change. In the beginning, they might seem wise to resist investing in an unproven idea; but very quickly, they will begin to seem like dinosaurs who just couldn’t see the meteor.

While it is probably true that you shouldn’t mortgage your house to invest in every new tech innovation… ALWAYS be FOR the change. Your clients will respect you more, and start to think of you as an early adopter, a trend setter even… and as we said, your clients LOVE ‘the new.’

9. Be known for your IDEAS, not just your skills

The marquee names in editing don’t have to figure out a new software package on each new job. They could cut the project on chopping block with an axe, as long as they bring their signature ideas to the project.

How can you be in that position? The obvious way is to work on an incredible and high-profile project that will be widely distributed. But rather than sitting around waiting for Walter Murch to call, you can improve your own standing. Networking is important of course, as is learning new skills and broadening your knowledge.

Today with the growth of social media and blogs, you also can write articles and essays, create tutorials, and enter online competitions. These can help to make you an ‘authority’ on editing, rather than just another editor.

Teaching courses is another way to grow your audience. The process of teaching will also help you to see what you do in a new light. Breaking down the instinctual processes so that students can recreate them gives you an x-ray view of the process. It makes you more conscious of why it works. Following these ideas should help you to become better at talking about editing, understanding the craft, and even making the cuts themselves.

My personal career journey has taken me around the world, across the country, and through two decades of paradigm shifts. These principles have helped me to keep balanced and to stay employed. I hope they can help you too.

Ashraf Meer

Ashraf Meer considers himself a storyteller and image maker, but most producers call him an art director, editor, animator or designer. He has worked in New York, Hong Kong, London and Seattle at broadcast networks, design companies, post houses and agencies. As an independent filmmaker, his work has been shown at film festivals and museums. He lives in Tacoma, Washington with his wife, 3 kids and many boxes of obsolete media.