Assistant Editing: Getting In (and Getting Out)

To the general public—even to some inside our industry—the role of assistant editors is often misunderstood. Certainly when you compare it to the editors they assist. But even though assistant editors are essential to film and TV production, their contributions are typically unsung. And trust me, these contributions reach way beyond coffee fetching.

Start with the obvious

It’s stating the obvious, but assistant editors assist the editor. But what does that actually mean? These days it can mean preparing and culling footage, setting up computers and edit projects, creating first assembly edits, building the first pass on sound effects/music, taking the first go at all the VFX shots and yes, occasionally doing a coffee run.

It’s a lot. And because every editor works differently and every project presents its own set of requirements, the role has a lot of flex. Meaning the people doing it need to be just flexible.

But it wasn’t always like this.

(Not the) Same as it ever was

While the general mandate of assisting the editor has remained constant, the form has evolved. For years, being an assistant editor meant that you’d be in a room with the editor and a Moviola or a Steenbeck.

Steenbecks and Moviolas were the film-based editing machines that preceded modern day NLEs.

You’d work in tandem, laying in sound, physically cutting reels, and fetching actual film out of actual bins. And for a long time this was the only path to becoming an editor. So much so, unions in the states required a minimum of eight years as an assistant before you could be considered for an editor position. As evidenced by this quote from Bobbie O’Steen’s fantastic book “Cut to the Chase” where famed editor (and Bobbie’s late husband) Sam O’Steen has just been contacted about editing a feature film:

Jesus. I only had four years as an assistant and I needed eight years [the union rules required eight years of assisting before you could become an editor], so I said ‘I’m not ready yet, the union won’t let me.’

Sam O’Steen (from “Cut to the Chase” by Bobbie O’Steen)

Being an assistant editor was your editing apprenticeship. By the time your mandatory eight years were up, you’d have spent countless hours in edits hearing conversations with directors as they sculpted the story. You’d have perfected your technical skills. Aand possibly built up a roster of director and producer contacts to help you land your first editing position.

So, how does that compare to the role of assistant editor today? The biggest difference is that the scope of the work is now a lot larger. But you’ll now be in a separate editing suite, only checking in with the editor from time to time and rarely, if ever, interacting with the higher ups of the project.

You’ll need a lot more technical skills, you’ll get less “teaching” time with your editor, and a lot less organic networking with those essential connections you’ll need later on. Which seems like a retrograde move. So, why the change?

Technology’s to blame

The post production industry was turned on its head by digital editing systems. Where the assistant editor would once load film reels for the editor and director, their tasks now moved to digital ingest and sync. And as the technology progressed to the point where chromakeying and other VFX was possible inside the editing platform, this meant more tasks…and then more… and then more…

Eventually it just made sense for the assistant to have their own space to focus on this expanding workload. Even to extend the department to 1st and 2nd assistants. The 2nd assists could take on tasks like ingest, sync, prep, and turnovers leaving the 1sts with stuff like offline SFX, VFX, assembling, tracking, and anything else the editor needed. And while technology continues to evolve, this is largely where we’re at today.

Which brings us to…

So if there are no more “editing apprenticeships” and no more predetermined pathways and career promises for time served, how do you even get a job as an assistant editor? Is it even still a viable path to becoming an editor?

I wouldn’t call myself a “professor of post” (though that does have a nice ring to it), but I have walked the walk. Early assisting, 2nd, 1st, VFX editing, assembling and, in the last few years, editing. So I’ll tackle these questions through the lens of my own experiences and tell you what worked (and what didn’t) for me.

How do you become an assistant editor?

In 2012 I completed a three year film degree in Auckland, New Zealand with a major in Editing. Like many graduates, I soon found that my degree held very little weight when it came to job applications. Nor did my “portfolio” of uni-made projects. So I took a step back to re-evaluate what I wanted and what I could offer at that time.

What I did have going for me was a true passion for story-telling. I also had an incredibly powerful motivator—a six month old daughter.

So my first step was to look for everyone who was already doing what I wanted to do. In New Zealand there’s an industry directory for film and TV professionals called The Databook. These days they’re mostly online, so it’s a lot easier to find your local equivalents, like Scotland’s Film Bang, or even global online directories, like Production Hub.

Making the rounds

I looked up all of the editors and reached out to all of them. Not to ask for a job—that would be too hasty—but to see if they’d be willing to meet and discuss the industry. To show them how keen I was and to hear their insight into the landscape of post production. And to see if they could show me a way in.

A handful got back to me with kind words of encouragement and some leads to chase. And one, the legendary drama editor Eric de Beus, even invited me over to his house for a chat. We had coffee and a long discussion about post, our favorite films, and the current situation in New Zealand. And I’ll be forever thankful for his generosity. He wished me good luck and told me that if anything ever came up, he’d let me know. And that was that.

The big break

Shortly after that I got a job at a boutique post facility in Auckland as a general in-house assistant. This is a great first step if you’re starting out. You’ll meet editors, producers, and directors, as they come through with their projects. You’ll gain a technical grounding in real world projects, learn industry-standard workflows and skills that you don’t get in Universities. Plus, if you’re lucky, you get to listen in as directors and editors discuss their projects in the cafeteria.

If you’re lucky, you get to listen in as directors and editors discuss their projects in the cafeteria.

This summed up the first year of my career and I thank the Peters (Peter Barrett and Peter Roberts) who gave me that opportunity.

At the end of my first year there, I got a call. From Eric. He was about to begin on an indie feature film that was quite low budget. This meant they couldn’t pay the full assistant editor rate, so he asked if I’d take on the role for half the usual rate. He assured me that he’d teach me anything I didn’t already know for the job.

Seize the day

I leapt at the chance. Yes, it meant driving to another post facility to work evenings after my day job, and it may not have been the most widely watched project of my career. But I loved every minute and see it as the spark of everything that came after.

The Last Saint was my first assistant editing gig.

This gave me the confidence to go freelance. I assisted for Eric on a number of TV drama projects over the next three years, cementing myself as his go-to assistant editor.

Long story short: reach out to as many editors as possible who are working on the types of projects you want to be working on, nurture those relationships, grow your technical skills, and keep company with those in the industry as much as possible.

How do you progress as an assistant editor?

How I got from general assistant to 2nd, then 1st, and then to VFX editor and ultimately editor is much an evolution of the same sentiment of how I got into it in the first place.

Side note: TV dramas are great for assistants because you’ll typically be  working for a number of editors. Those first few years with Eric I worked on dramas for a large company called South Pacific Pictures. On a full slate of different scripted projects, which had two editors on board at any given time. Across these gigs, I met and worked for editors Gary Hunt, Allanah Bazzard, Tom Eagles, and Jochen Fitzherbert. That’s four new editors in my network and potential future jobs.

During this time I also made a point to complete all my essential tasks—ingest, sync, prep and layout—as quickly as possible. I focused on efficiency, using automated workflow scripts where appropriate, and becoming very fast with my custom keyboard. This freed me up to provide any additional assistance to the editors, like green-screen compositing.

In quieter times, I’d take one of the scenes and just start cutting! And I was lucky that Eric and the editors were generally very happy to give me feedback. As a result, this was when my post and editing skills advanced the fastest.

In quieter times, I’d take one of the scenes and just start cutting.

As my skills, assisting experience, and network grew, so did my work. I took assisting roles with these editors on feature films like Beyond the Known World or larger series like Ash vs Evil Dead. Larger productions give you the best opportunities for advancement because they require more than one assistant and place greater demands on you. It wasn’t long before I was a regular 1st assistant and got to learn from VFX editors like Anu Webster (when time permitted). 

How do you stop being an assistant editor?

You may not want to. Not every assistant editor dreams of being in the big chair. But if you’re looking to move up to an editor role, it can be a challenge—especially given that you’ve been reliant, to some degree, on editors to give you work. Now it might feel like you’re competing with them. But maybe a better approach is not to.

By around 2018 I felt ready to make the jump to editing. I looked around for more junior editing roles that may be a stepping stone. This led me to a web series called AFK based out of New Zealand. I had coffee with the creators Peter Haynes and Hweiling Ow and pitched myself as an editor for the second season. I ended up cutting six out of the ten episodes, earning me a broadcast credit, more industry contacts, and invaluable cutting experience. Once again, reaching out to new people got results. If there’s one thing you take away from this piece, it would be this. As my mum always said “If you don’t ask, you don’t get!”

Young gun

My first proper shot at editing was on Guns Akimbo with Daniel Radcliffe. I was assisting for an editor who I’d worked with a few times before and who I still consider a mentor—Luke Haigh. Which is another tip. Be prepared to switch back to assisting until you gather enough forward momentum as an editor.

Guns Akimbo is an action movie, so the shooting ratio was very high. Some days would land us countless takes from eight cameras. So on top of my usual tasks, I was drafted in to help Luke with assembly. We worked like this through the shoot and it was great.

Fast forward a good few months and I’m contacted by Guns Akimbo’s VFX producer, Tony Willis, whom I’d gotten to know well during the shoot.

He asked if I’d like to be the VFX editor (in Munich!) Once again, this was outside of my comfort zone, but just like Erice at the beginning of my career, Tony insisted he’d show me anything I didn’t know.

To cut a long story short, the production spilled out, editorial turned over, and I was still on the production a year later—which made me very familiar with not just the material, but everyone on the team. So when they needed another pair of hands in the editing suite, I was there.

Seeing my name on the same credit roll as Gareth and Julia meant the world to me. It boosted my resume and my confidence, and was the step up for lead editor roles on productions ranging from action/drama Northspur to CBBC kids series Olga da Polga and upcoming TV thriller AMAH with director Michelle Ang (whom I’ve now cut three projects with).

Is assistant editor still a viable career path to editor?

This is the big question. For those of you wanting to edit, is being an assistant the right path? It’s certainly not the only one. I know some very experienced, successful editors who’ve never assisted. But I can wholeheartedly recommend it.

As an assistant, you’ll meet and learn from many editors. You can forge your own unique cutting style and build your skills on the foundation that these masters of the craft can give you. And if you can put yourself out there—which for some, is the hardest part—you’ll speak with directors, producers, and others who’ll be invaluable later.

It’s also the best opportunity you’ll get to practice cutting on high-end material and get feedback on your work. Putting in extra effort will get you not just noticed, but remembered. And the reputation you build will get you recommended for work and introduced to the right people.

Just remember to:

  • Reach out to people where you can.
  • Leave the best impression possible.
  • Seize opportunities when they appear (and make the most of them).
  • Grow your skills and practice your craft.

If you do that and keep your objective of becoming an editor in mind, I have every confidence you’ll excel. Not just as an assistant editor, but at whatever that might lead you to.

Jack Brown

Jack Brown is an Avid editor based in Scotland. He's worked in a variety of roles ranging from assistant editor, 2nd assistant, VFX editor, and editor on productions including Ash vs Evil Dead, Guns Akimbo, Shadow in the Cloud, and Northspur.

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