4 Keys to a Fulfilling Editing Career From a Veteran Editor
In the film business, you can be lucky, or you can be consistent, sometimes both. Most of us aren’t lucky, but if you’re consistent and follow some basic principles, you can build a fulfilling career.
After a series of award-winning independent features and documentaries, Yana Gorskaya is cutting a series for NBC right now.
When she started grad film school at USC twenty years ago, the only thing she knew was that she wanted to be a filmmaker and that she had to have a marketable skill and experience by the time she left. She owes her fifteen years of work (spanning documentaries, features, and television series) to four key principles she set early on: establish a goal, work with the best, stay thrifty, and stay flexible.
Establish a Goal
If you know who you want to be, you can decide what you should be doing.
To know what’s important to you, find some role models. At every stage in your career there’s someone you can admire or look up to – someone you want to be like in some way. As Yana says, “I didn’t know that I wanted to be an editor but, I was crewing on a documentary for a thesis project and Kate Amend was the teacher. Kate was so lovely, she had a nice house, and she seemed really fulfilled. And I thought ‘I want to be Kate Amend when I grow up.’ So I really focused on editing.”
The more you figure out what it is you like in a role model, the more you can narrow down your priorities to become more like them. It doesn’t have to be someone “you want to be when you grow up.” Maybe you like the shows they’re working on or the people they’re working with, or even just how other people talk about them and their work.
Set literal goals, not just figurative ones. Yana knew that her career would take different twists than Amend’s, but she saw that Amend was doing creatively challenging work while maintaining both financial stability and her sanity. She says of her goal on leaving film school, “I really wanted to be making a paycheck and working steadily out of the gate.” In turn, it meant she needed to have a practical skill, “something that someone would pay me to do.”
If you already know what you want, knowing what you’re not willing to do can be helpful too. It sounds like common sense, but most people don’t take their dislikes enough into consideration. Yana knew that she wasn’t up for the kind of 24/7 struggle that awaited many of her classmates who wanted to be writer-directors. “Editorial was a place which was extremely creative, had a sort of pace that didn’t make me crazy, and I knew would lend itself to wrapping around a life as well.”
Work with the best
Knowing who you want to surround yourself with is probably the next most important thing after knowing yourself and your priorities. Filmmaking is by its very nature a collaborative industry in which you spend many hours hashing out material with colleagues. You rarely have final, unilateral say. “My theory has always been that I’ve tried very hard to work with people that I genuinely like and respect. And to work on stuff that I think is going to be good, at least when I start, so that the actual process is rarely a grind.” But she acknowledges that “that’s not always possible to do in our industry, and we all have bills.”
Any strategy you put in place will be strengthened by having the right people around you. Yana went into school thinking, “I was a student, and so I knew that while I was there I needed to get a credit or do something that could get me work as soon as I was out.” She also realized that “no one was going to let me edit anything until I’d edited something.”
So she put her name out there, knowing that if she was working for free or little money, she could build a body of work. A student ahead of her at USC whose thesis film she’d seen, Jeff Blitz, was looking for someone to cut a promo for a documentary he wanted to make about the national spelling bee competition. He approached Amend, who recommended Yana. In turn, Yana had seen Blitz’s thesis film and already thought he was someone she’d want to work with. The documentary feature was Spellbound, which went on to receive an Oscar nomination, and she and Blitz have been steady collaborators ever since. Yana emphasizes that “you have to feel confident that there are people out there whose values will match yours and who will be making things that you are interested in.”
A habit of staying thrifty can ensure that you’re not forced to work on something just to make ends meet. According to Yana, Quentin Tarantino’s long-time editor Sally Menke “had this advice of keep your overhead low, which I think is probably the best advice for any filmmaker ever, because if you keep your overhead low and you don’t live above your means, you can say no. You can choose to work on things that maybe don’t pay as much but are with people you really like around something that you really care about. That has been a mantra of mine in the back of my mind.”
Spellbound was far from set to be a winner from the get-go. After the promo, Blitz still had no money to make the feature. Yana wanted to keep working on it and to collaborate with Blitz, so she agreed to spend two afternoons a week editing it for about two years, with breaks for paid work as needed.
“If you are working for free or little money, be really picky. You have value, so wait and choose something that you think is going to be great to work on. Don’t just pick something because it’s an opportunity to cut. Pick something because you think the people who are making it are smart and talented and it’s a subject matter that you personally are passionate about and find compelling. You’re going to be working for free or very little money for quite a long time in order to finish a long form project, so pick something that you care about.”.
Time is money. If you devote any amount of time to a project, you should finish it if you can. Yana emphasizes “knowing that you have to finish something, you should shoot for something that is as close to what you want to be doing as possible.” For entrants in the field especially, they’re often told to work on anything, cut anything you can, direct anything they’ll let you, shoot as much as you can, etc…. That can be valuable experience up to a certain point but, once you know what you like, whether it’s cutting animation or shooting music videos, try to do that and get as many finished credits as you can in that genre.
A set goal and a basic method propelled Yana directly from film school into her career, but she had to develop some intangible skills over time. Take stock of your strengths and weaknesses so that you can figure out what non-obvious skills you need to work on. Accept that you’re always learning something, even if you don’t realize it. In other words, stay flexible.
For instance, getting along with people and handling criticism about your work are not the same thing. Yana credits Amend with giving her a lot of advice early on about how not to be antagonistic so that people want to work with you again. If you don’t have someone you can ask for advice, look around you. There’s probably at least one person everyone finds easy to work with: try to observe that person’s mannerisms, or maybe even just have a conversation with them about how they approach work relations. People like to be seen as mentors, and you are paying them a compliment by asking for their advice. Don’t be afraid of asking for guidance from someone you respect.
Working with people that you like and respect requires that they like you and respect you as well, which means you have to have a voice. “Ultimately it’s the director’s movie, but I do feel I get hired because they respect my point of view and my sensibility. So if I don’t speak up when I think something isn’t working or could be better, then I’m doing a disservice to the movie.” What skill does Yana consider possibly one of the most important ones to develop in editing? “A really good thing to project to the room is not taking anything personally. Everything is in the service of making a better movie and isn’t impugning your choices.”
Learning to not take things personally also means being willing to try other approaches. She feels that starting in documentary really helped her in fiction “because I don’t think of the script as the final form of something, in fact I always think of the material as elastic and the order of things as fluid.” But Yana admits that not every idea sounds good. “There have been a number of times when in my head I’ve thought “no,” and then we try it – and I do my best effort and really commit to trying to make it work – and oftentimes it will surprise me. So I’ve learned to not completely dismiss an idea that initially sounds bad to me.”
Think of at least one specific aspect of each project you’ve worked on that is useful in general, perhaps even in spite of conventional wisdom. Yana doesn’t think there should be a divide between documentary and fiction filmmakers, because the skill sets transfer from one to the other. “As a fiction filmmaker, I bring a sense of act structure and storytelling to documentary, and as a documentarian I bring a fluid kind of thinking. We’re constantly changing the order of scenes, lines, and moments, and looking for ways of creating juxtapositions that might not have been shot or scripted that way. Both serve me well on either side of the fiction/documentary divide.” You have to find what makes sense for you and helps you do your best work. If you’re consistent about it, after a while you’ll have a collection of best practices that will help you tackle any project.
Pulling it all together
With some discipline and a game plan, Yana thinks young filmmakers have bright prospects these days. “There’s more work overall with the rise of non-traditional outlets. There’s more product and projects, which means that there are a lot of positions to fill.” When she started, “the cost of an editing system was so prohibitive and the doors were much harder to pry open. But now it’s so inexpensive for someone to cut something and put it on the web and get it seen that there seems to be many more opportunities for a plurality of voices and points of view that would never have gotten the light of day even twenty years ago.”
• Be as specific as you can be about your goals and how to go about accomplishing them. Write them down, even if they’re vague.
• If you can, find a mentor. If not, ask the opinion of people you respect.
• Be picky about what you work on.
• Be picky about the people you work with. You’ll probably spend a lot more time with them than you thought you would.
• Break down your financial needs. Decide what compromises you’re willing to make to do the work you want to be doing.
• Don’t spend money unnecessarily. It’s easy to make high quality stuff with some basic equipment, and there’s plenty of educational material available for free on the web. Tangerine was made with an iphone.
• If you start something, finish it. Even if you never end up showing it to anyone, finish it. Everything you finish is a part of your arsenal which, at the very least, will boost your self-confidence.
• Learn to be diplomatic, but know when to assert yourself. If you need to work on how you talk to people, practice with your friends and family. They’re already on your side.
• Don’t get stuck into a single way of working. There’s something to be learned on every project.
• Understand that everything is in the service of making a better product, whether it’s a thirty second commercial or a two hour feature film.
In the end, your ability to accomplish all of these things may rest on the company you keep. Yana encapsulated it this way: “Try to work with the smartest people that you really respect, and hope that they find you equally smart and respect you. That’s the way a fulfilling career is made.”