- Despite technological advances ever-increasing internet speeds, if you want to cut feature big-budget films and television, you should still move to “where the action is”—Los Angeles or New York in The States, or London in Europe.
- There are five key business, technological, creative, and human relational reasons you need to do this.
- Before packing up and making the move, make sure you’re prepared.
- Despite the benefits of moving, technology like Frame.io still plays a major role in the production process of feature films and television.
- Cutting big-budget features and television are not the only avenues for aspiring editors.
The question is dreaded by everyone who wants to work in the movie industry. We hate to ask it because we’re afraid we already know the answer.
Do I really need to move to LA?
We live in the age of remote work—we hope. In many ways, the internet has revolutionized the way work happens. You can be based anywhere. I’m writing this article from Alabama, after all, while my editor lives in Seattle (yet travels the world 8 months out of the year) and the company we both work for is based in New York.
Certain kinds of work function seamlessly under these new conditions. Others, however, will probably never be outsourced. A travel agent based in Dubai can do a lot to help a customer who lives in Massachusetts. But a Dubai-based plumber…? Less helpful.
Which kind of job is editing film and video? Can an editor use a high-speed internet connection to work from anywhere, or does he or she need to live where the action is, so to speak? Do you need to pack your bags and move to Los Angeles as soon as you can?
We put this question to several professional editors, and, to a person, they each agreed: if you want to cut big-budget features and television, you need to move. Given the number of productions headquartered in Los Angeles and New York (from the producers, to the representation, and the directors) that is where most of the action is. If you live in Europe, London is most likely where you’ll need to be. Though an editor can find other kinds of work in just about every major city, those coveted jobs of editing major “Hollywood” films and television almost always fall to editors based in one of the “Big Three.”
It can be tough advice, but it’s true. Starting out, your best strategy is making connections and being where the action is. That much is undeniable. Once you have gained a reputation, you may be able to leave the city and work from the comfort of your log-cabin-style mansion in the Adirondacks.
But, as we’ll see, even the most seasoned veteran loses something when he or she moves away.
The Five Reasons
Without further ado, here are the five reasons an aspiring features or television editor should make the move.
#1. Making connections
Our tools of communication give us many ways to work together, but one thing that online technology does not do well is create random face-to-face encounters.
If your goal is to break into the business of editing film and TV, making connections ought to be high on your list of priorities. To quote UK-based editor Chris Frith (part of the editorial team on Mission: Impossible—Fallout), “The movie business runs on word of mouth. People like to work with people they like, and face-to-face interaction is the main way we find out who we like. Despite technology, it’s still all about getting along with people, finding projects you want to work on and people willing to hire you to work on those projects,” Frith says.
Paul Machliss, lead editor of Baby Driver and long-time Edgar Wright collaborator, reminds editors: “You can be judged on your people skills as much as your editing skills.” Think of any other job: the personal connections you make are always more important than the skills you have. The only exception is when, as Paul says, you’ve gained such a reputation that you’re trusted to exceptionally work well on your own. An established editor may have more freedom, but the eager aspirer should plan to “get in with the pack and aim to stand out.” For those starting out, get thee hence.
Music video editor Taylor Tracy-Walsh agrees wholeheartedly with Paul’s assessment.
“As much as I want to believe that moving to LA, NY, Toronto, London, etc. isn’t a necessary step, I really think it is imperative, at least for a short time, for an editor’s career. The world is harnessing the increasingly popular idea of working remotely, but face to face relationships still sit high up on the totem pole. For me, moving to a bigger city wasn’t all about learning new techniques (you can do that from home thanks to countless tutorials). It was about creating connections with people, cultivating long-standing relationships, and learning about a job from pre-production all the way to delivery.”
On-the-job training is invaluable. And it puts you in a good position to find future work. Plenty of editors have gotten jobs because they happened to be in the right place at the right time. You might bump into a producer in the hall or meet a director at a party, fall into conversation, and find yourself with a new job. It does happen.
You can increase your chances of being in the right place at the right time by making the right place your base of operation. Chance encounters happen in NYC and LA more than they do in Boring, Oregon (that’s not a judgment on Oregon. There’s an actual town called Boring.)
Dr. Strange co-editor Sabrina Plisco had these words of advice for any editor hoping to break in: “To break in will take perseverance and building a network. Seek internships or offering to work for free is one way to meet people. I suggest to all young people that are interested in editing which begins with assistant editing to read Make The Cut by Lori Jane Coleman and Diana Friedberg.”
#2. Staying in the thick of it
Several of the editors we spoke to mentioned that an established editor with a long string of credits under his or her name could conceivably work outside New York or LA. Even the editors at the top, however, risk something when they’re based outside the major production centers.
Sabrina Plisco says that even established editors usually work in LA, even if they live in another city for the rest of the year. That arrangement is strictly for those who have built a network around themselves, and are thus assured of continuing work. “Only once one is successful and has built a solid working network could they potentially live elsewhere for part of the time while they are between projects,” Sabrina says. Even the most established editors have agents based in Los Angeles, who are always beating the bushes for new work opportunities.
Doug Pray (co-editor and writer on HBO’s The Defiant Ones) has lived in LA for thirty years and hates the traffic with a passion. But he’s still there because that’s where the action happens. “Loads of happily employed editors in LA and NYC want to get the hell out. And everyone I know who’s moved away for a better, quieter life has had that nagging feeling that they’re not in the flow anymore, and, sorry to say it, but they aren’t.”
It’s true. The trade-off is real: living outside LA or NYC means you’ll have a quieter, (likely less stressful) life, but you may miss out on an exciting opportunity or two. Make your choice. For the aspirer, of course, there’s only one right answer.
#3. The physical demands of media
In the age of email and file sharing, why do editors still need to be in the same location as the director? One reason is that the nature of the editing process means that a lot of material is moving around, very quickly, all the time, and we still haven’t developed technology that can keep up. Email, file sharing, and, yes, even Frame.io are all valuable tools, improving all the time—but there are still limits.
While working on Mission: Impossible—Fallout, Chris Frith assisted Eddie Hamilton in setting up a cutting room and a screening room in a house on the edge of a lake in Queenstown, New Zealand. A cushy place to polish off the film, right? No, actually, they based their operations in Queenstown because that’s where the film was being shot. As Chris says, “Production likes the cutting rooms nearby during shooting.” There is a short window during which the director and editor can sequester themselves and cut away, but once the project is in its final stages, mixing sound and VFX and all the rest, they have to be close to the rest of the post-production team.
“VFX and we regularly pump over a terabyte of material in and out of the cutting room on an almost daily basis at this stage,” Chris says. “So that has limitations as well – you need very fast internet or close enough to run drives around. A director’s cut can and does happen remotely but shooting and finishing dictate that cutting rooms are in one of the hotspots!”
Speaking of that short window of time, Paul Machliss points out that technological advances have had an important impact on how and where the edit happens. Specifically, technology has allowed the director to pick the location. “I’ve been offered potential jobs where the shoot takes place in the UK, but the director’s cut happens in Iceland, with picture lock occurring in LA!” Paul says. “Technology has certainly allowed that to happen.”
But notice that the new tools give that freedom to the director, not to the editor. Paul continues, “In other words, you need to be in the room with the director, regardless of where that room is. Technology has given the director that much more freedom—but, of course, the editor follows the director.”
Our nifty tools still don’t let us transfer enormous files fast enough for a remote editor to work at an effective rhythm. But for some editors, that’s not entirely a bad thing, which brings us to point number four.
#4. The energy of the edit suite
Almost all of the editors we spoke to commented on the chemistry that must exist between a director and an editor. The editor assembles the director’s vision in the timeline just as the cinematographer did in the lens. Video conferencing can go a long way toward getting people on the same page, but when it comes to making hairline aesthetic decisions, you have to actually be in the same room.
Paul Machliss grants that technology can play a part in working together from a long distance, but, he says, “as the fine cut is such a one-to-one process you would want to be in the room with the director to do the edit – I certainly would.”
The advantage an editor gets from being in the room with the director can’t be overstated. Doug Pray calls this “the human element – the intangible, immeasurable, yet powerful communication that happens when people are face to face.” He describes it this way:
“The shared laughter over a particular edit, the arguments over structure, the process of being in a room and staring down a ton of index cards, the emotional camaraderie between editor and director, or fellow editors—these are highly valuable. And the most important thing of all: watching edits with others in the room with you. This is usually the best way for me to really know if an edit is working or not, because I’m somehow able to see the cut through their perspective. When I’m alone, I can get halfway there, but nothing replaces an audience (or having a director, producer, fellow editor, neighbor, or whoever, in there with me).”
#5. The danger of relying too much on technology
The last reason is closely related to the previous one. The bigger a role technology plays in editing, the more valuable the human element will be. Different companies have designed programs to automate editing. Some of the developments will no doubt save editors (and assistant editors) a lot of time.
Like many automated artistic solutions, however, the final result contains a certain mechanicalness that grates against the human viewer. There’s nothing to stop an editor from using the good parts of technology and ignoring the bad parts—but an overemphasis on convenience and speed could easily lead to sterile storytelling.
Doug Pray expresses it this way: “As our society keeps relying more and more on technological disconnection, in the name of convenience, I worry that our storytelling will become more technical, more A.I., more paint-by-numbers, too. That’s a cynical take, but I think most technological solutions tend to be overhyped, and unaware of the human consequences of their gadgetry.”
Remember the human element. There’s no greater test of a film’s emotional impact than playing it in front of a live audience.
Are there exceptions to the rule?
What about the exceptions? Surely there are a few happy folks who get to edit feature films and don’t have to put up with LA traffic or sky-high New York rent. Doug Pray has even directed some remote edits. “You can do anything long distance these days,” he says. “But remote edits still require phone calls and long emails of notes.”
New tools solve certain problems of distance, it’s true. Lee Unkrich edited Pixar’s 2017 film Coco on a plane (at least, partially). And it goes without saying, Frame.io does away with those long emails of notes.
John Gilbert is one of those rare exceptions. Based in New Zealand, John is highly respected for his work on The Fellowship of the Ring, among other films. John’s path to fame was a highly unusual one, however, a fact he readily admits. If Peter Jackson hadn’t needed John’s Avid skills for the 1996 horror film The Frighteners, the two would not have met, and Jackson would have never asked John to work on The Fellowship of the Ring.
Without that connection, John likely would never have expanded beyond small local films and television. Editing The Lord of the Rings put John on a path that culminated in winning the Academy Award for Best Editing (for the 2016 WWII movie Hacksaw Ridge). Sometimes a small town editor gets lucky.
But for most of us, the path to success is more of a plod. It involves going to where the films are being made, not waiting for them to come to you.
On the other hand, according to assistant editor Shannon Zawartka, who works from Canada and occasionally London, “whether LA is the place for you depends on what kind of editing work you’re looking for. If you want to cut trailers and features, LA is probably the place for you (though, as I’ve said, NYC and London may also work). Some editing work, however, merely requires access to a major city. Commercials, documentaries, independent short films, and music videos are filmed and cut all across the United States. Finally, wedding videos, corporate events, realtors’ home tours, and anything based on the internet could theoretically be cut from anywhere.” Shannon specifically identifies music videos and online content as very good candidates for remote work.
But, as always, be cautious. As Shannon says, “The problem is that an editor is not seen as valuable enough to disrupt a workflow for. No one’s going to ship a bunch of rushes to Boise or deal with time zone differences to accommodate an editor working out of Chiang Mai. The editor accommodates the director and producers, not the other way around.”
Some of you may be thinking, “What about Vancouver, British Columbia? Aren’t a lot of features and shows being shot there now?” You’re right, they are. But as Shannon told us, the footage from those shoots is sent back to LA to be cut. Shooting is a very quick process, usually completed in a matter of weeks, whereas editing may take several months, usually with lots of face-to-face supervision by the director.
Editing, then, occurs in a location that’s convenient for the director. Vancouver also handles a lot of VFX work because, although VFX takes a lot of time, it does not require direct supervision.
If you’re a film editor in Omaha, hoping to score remote editing work on some major studio production, Shannon warns you against clinging to that dream. “The better remote editing software becomes, the more likely it is that studios will outsource their editing work to other countries,” Shannon says. “After all, there are English-speaking editors in India willing to work for a quarter of your rate. Just ask the VFX industry.”
Before you pack your bags
Moving to LA or NYC is a big step. There’s no reason to rush into it with your hands over your eyes. Think through your best strategies for succeeding once you arrive. You may have to get a part-time job. If you can, arrange to stay with a friend while you find your feet.
Taylor Tracy-Walsh encourages editors to head for the hubs only once they’re comfortable with the craft and have begun to find their own editing style. That confidence can make you more receptive to what the old hands have to teach you. “What’s paramount is that you can be good at what you do and discover a passion/talent from any place you live. The next step to move, become teachable, and truly push yourself to the limits is your choice to make.” It’s important to remember that moving to LA isn’t a magic bullet for success. There’s still a lot to learn, for any editor.
So, what about Frame.io?
I realize the irony of arguing for the value of working face-to-face on the blog of a company that makes online tools for reviewing video remotely. The five reasons stand. Anyone who wants to edit feature films or television should plan to move to LA or New York because it’s the most reliable way to make valuable industry connections, you’ll be “in the room where it happens,” the physical demands of editing still require editors to be physically close to the rest of the production and post-production process, working together in the same room conjures an energy you can’t get through a computer screen, and leaning too much on technology turns your edit cardboard.
But what about tools like Frame.io? Are they still valuable?
More than ever.
Frame.io is used on Hollywood productions all the time. The working relationship between an editor and director on features and television may be best served faced to face, but there are still quite a number of collaborators and decision makers not in the editing suite who will need/want to add their notes—exec producers, studio heads, DPs, composers, music supervisors, A-list actors, etc.
Many of these other artists and business partners may be remote and unable (or unwilling) to deal with LA traffic or NYC subways to sit in a 4-hour edit session. Even Doug Pray makes this admission: “All of the tech advances that allow us to put a project on a thumb drive, or edit on a plane, or do remote sound mixing, and everything Frame.io provides, are amazing.”
Do you work in the industry and have a different experience? Do you have personal anecdotes that can corroborate what I’ve written here? Share in the comments and let us know.
Hollywood Isn’t Everything [Update]
Editor’s note: When we first published this article, the response was varied. Many editors in the business confirmed (via comments and social media), the information gleaned from the 7 professionals interviewed—if you want to be on the editing team for the next Phase of Marvel movies, but you live in Middle America, pack your bags and head to “the coast.”
But there was an equally vocal group of professionals viscerally agitated at the suggestion. Some of the comments were based on a disdain for the quality of life in cities like LA or NY. Part of the response was the implication that “Hollywood” productions are the only (or best) way to go. We felt it was worth addressing those concerns.
It should go without saying that cutting big-budget features and television are not the only opportunities for editors who want to cut features or television. Some of the most fulfilling work you can do might be on a $250,000 indie shot and edited in your midwest hometown, the Australian outback, or Trondheim, Norway. Technological advancements have made not only the production and collaboration of films and television outside of the Hollywood system feasible, but also opened up the distribution of said productions so once you make your opus, you can get the world to see it. You can actually run a full-blown “movie studio” out of Boring, Oregon.
We started this article with the question “Do I need to move to LA?” At the end of the day, the better question to ask is: “What do I want to do with my craft, and what kind of life do I want to have?” As is the case with all things in life, it comes down to priorities.
As always, let us know what you think and share your experience.