HOW TO MAKE MONEY FROM MOVING IMAGE: EDITING
If you’re reading this then congratulate yourself for being a bit smarter than most. Editing is not sexy. Editing is not cool. Editing won’t get you girls. Editing is unlikely to turn you into a blog superstar. And editing is unlikely to earn you your own signature series endorsement deal. Editing, however, will pay the bills. Far better than camerawork or directing. Fact.
The editing profession is like the legal profession: recession proof. No matter what happens, as long as people shoot there will always be a need for editing. It’s a criminally underrated skill, editors hold all the power and really don’t earn commensurate with their ability to influence the outcome of a project. Remember that character Mr. Wolf in Pulp Fiction? There’s an almighty mess in Tarantino’s garage and they’ve no idea what to do. Mr. Wolf turns up way faster than expected, clears up the mess, then leaves having sorted the thing out quickly and efficiently. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief. How much do you think that’s worth to those guys? This is exactly what a good editor is like. Which is why, if you’re good, you’ll be working more than you ever dreamed possible.
A sea of shite floppy handed crap peddlers
There are lots and lots of editors around now. Final Cut Pro put the editor’s toolset within easy reach of anyone with a mac and it became the de facto edit system for everyone who wasn’t delivering for broadcast. And then broadcast houses started cutting on it as well. It was cheap, quick to learn and suddenly you could afford to have lots of editors working simultaneously. Great. Except that no-one really knows how to edit. Editing is not about Final Cut Pro anymore than painting is about the brush. With camerawork you have a decent amount of room to lean on the camera, but if you don’t know how to edit then you’re stuffed. And most people haven’t got a clue (though of course they believe they do…).
Final Cut Pro has made it deceptively easy to place one clip after another, put some music underneath and do a bit of colour correction. Well done. Think you’re ready to edit professionally? Think again. Let me switch it around. As a producer, what do I expect from you when I hire you to edit for me? I expect you to manage your media properly, label things correctly, export clips, encode them, create multiple versions of sequences, rough mix and rough grade those sequences, deal with last minute changes with good grace and make me look good. I expect you to understand exactly what’s required from the project, how I want it edited, be able to pick music, knock up graphics for me (preferably in After Effects) and, above all else, I want you to be blisteringly quick. Can you do that?
I’ve hired shit editors from agencies and I always end up having to redo everything myself. In fact, there’s only perhaps two editors I’ve ever worked with who I consider my equal when it comes to understanding what’s required and delivering it fast. Many are fast and have no talent. Some have talent but it takes them all night. Very few have that rarest and most precious of abilities, to deliver what’s required in record time. Speed is so important you have no idea. Post production is always underbudgeted these days, and producers get very nervous about post running over, particularly when the client’s a bitch. Deliver first cuts nice and early and producers will love you forever. As the editor the buck often stops with you and the longer you can give your producer to refine, polish and improve, the more they will love you.
There’s a famous saying attributed to Michelangelo describing his process as “cutting away everything that isn’t the statue.” Editing is a bit like this. The skill is knowing what the sculpture looks like and understanding how to cut away everything that doesn’t belong. I see inexperienced editors going down the wrong route so often it’s kind of sad really. Just because you know how to use Final Cut Pro doesn’t mean you know how to edit, remember? You have to be knowledgeable about film genres, you have to build up a heap of experience that allows you to quickly arrive at the right solution for the edit in front of you. Sometimes it’s appropriate to go all MTV, and sometimes a more measured approach is right. There are so many choices it can be bewildering, and if you’re not blessed with a good memory then give up now. Editing also demands an almightily patient spirit. Clients are invariably idiots and make stupid demands that are clearly wrong and make a mockery of all the careful work you’ve done. Being the good employee you’ve done everything very fast, accomplishing a vast amount in a short space of time and they simply don’t appreciate what it takes to do that. Patience. Patience. Patience.
Tackling the industry
So, what do you do to earn a living in this difficult little industry. Well, you need experience, and that takes a huge amount of time to build up. I’d been running my own production company for 8 years before I turned freelance and I was terrified I wasn’t going to stack up in the editing world since I’d never worked for anyone but myself before. As it turned out people were astonished at how quickly I worked and how knowledgeable I was about their type of production. That’s the benefit of having been a director and producer for a long time. My broad level of experience gave me a massive advantage and I was very quickly inundated with work. Lucky me. I wouldn’t recommend freelancing to start with. Try and find yourself an internship with a small, fast-moving production company that churns a lot of stuff out very quickly. Short form is a good place to start, so music videos, or sports web content, or that religious programming again. Try and find a place that does lots of different types of work from lots of different directors. You want to be exposed to as much variety as possible. Editing the same stuff again and again gets so boring and you need the challenge of creating different feeling in your edits.
I’d recommend working for a company for at least three years. Take the time to learn all the technical side of the business, the media management, the server room, and, if you can, some broadcast onlining skills. Delivering stuff for broadcast QC sorts the men from the boys. It’s highly stressful, highly pressured and, when the buck really stops with you, it makes you focus. When you’re ready to go freelance make sure you take the time build contacts in the industry you specialise in. If you’re good you won’t have any difficulty finding repeat work. But whatever you do don’t get stuck working for one company all the time. It’s bad news. They will start fleecing you. They don’t mean to do it, but they will. Where you were originally being given four days to do a job, now suddenly you’re only being given three, because you’re quick and fast. You’ll be told it’s a client tightening the purse strings but guess who’s pocketing the additional day’s editing fee? Yup, Mr Producer. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do repeat work but don’t let any company get too comfortable with you. As producers we feel like father Christmas dishing out work to freelancers because they’re all desperate. Don’t be desperate, spread the work around and make sure the producer knows you’re in demand. You’ll get better jobs and they’ll work harder to keep you happy.
I highly recommend trying to pick up representation with an agency. It’s bloody hard work contacting production companies the whole time and agencies will vet production companies hard to make sure they’re not going to end up unable to pay you. If you’re good you’ll quickly find yourself rising to the most wanted list where you’ll be a top pick for the agency to valued clients. This means better day rates and better jobs. I was on this list with my agency (Blueberry creative consultants) and my rate was about 5-10% better than it had been before I was on it. You give up your agency percentage of course but that’s okay, a good one will earn that no problem. For half of 2010 and half of 2011 I only did agency work and that was more than sufficient to keep the rent paid and new camera equipment rolling in. It can be a bit of a rollercoaster but it’s very workable.
However, agency work is a double-edged sword. It’s nice to get lots of different clients but it’s always the same story. You walk in and they think you’re a moron and know nothing. Rightly so. Most freelance FCP editors are not very good. After a couple of days they start to understand what you’re capable of, then the job’s over. On longer jobs this isn’t so much of a problem, but one of the reasons I stopped freelance editing was just this constant education job to clients to show them I wasn’t a moron. There are also editing specialist houses, such as Final Cut in Soho. These represent high-end editors for commercials etc. and these guys earn a very nice day rate. Funnily enough, the higher up you go, the easier it gets, much less turd-polishing and much more crafting and finessing which can be a lot of fun. The rates are very good too. How easy do you think it is to get these kinds of jobs? Exactly.
Now, please please please remember this. A good editor is incredibly valuable. Protect your rate, don’t drop it just to get a job. Be prepared to say no if it’s too little. My day rate for editing is £300. I will not drop it anymore. You want someone cheaper, go get them. I know what I’m worth. Invariably what happens is the producer will hire someone crap then the project goes tits up and guess who they call. I’ve earned that position but you can too. Please, please, please protect your rate. Whatever you set it as, stick to it and don’t just take work for the sake of it. About 70% of edits go tits up because the producer has underbudgeted them. If you’re suddenly in for a bunch more days with a client and your rates crap you’ll be in a world of hurt. You can make yourself more valuable by learning additional skills. These days I expect editors to have after effects in their locker as well. I never got up to ninja level AE but my skills were pretty good. Make sure you learn this valuable skill and you’ll be in great shape for being rehired. Editors can be horribly exploited so just make sure that you go into every job with your eyes open, knowing exactly what the situation is before you say yes. More often than not there’s a sting in the tail. You’ll also often find yourself being offered a buyout fee. It looks like a nice juicy sum of money but think carefully. Finishing the job early rarely happens. They invariably run over and there you are, stuck fulfilling your commitment. I much prefer day rate jobs. But it’s really dependent on the producer.
Final Cut Pro?
Good question. For about 8 years now it’s been a no-brainer but then they dropped FCPX on us and everything’s up in the air. All the companies I ever worked for had FCP but now they’re in a quandary. There simply isn’t a trained, skilled workforce to draw on who understand Premiere. And who’s to say that Premiere is actually the one you want? It almost certainly is, but I don’t know any companies who’ve made the switch yet. Really, the best bet is to learn Premiere and at the very least download the trial of Avid MC6. I landed a job on Avid back in 2005, having never used the software. I bought a book and read through it on the train on the way down to the job. For two days I just blagged my way through it and managed to cut a whole TV show on it over the next two weeks. They all do the same thing, just in slightly different ways. Granted it’s all expensive but these are the tools of your trade. We’ve been spoilt that there was simply one choice and that was it. Not anymore.
So, that’s it. Editing is a smart choice for a solid profession. Feature films offer great apprenticeship routes through assistant editing and the work is highly valued. Elsewhere it’s a bit of a sweatshop but there’s so much work out there it’s always going to be a solid banker if you decide to go that way. Editors are the director’s best friend and they tend to be pretty loyal to the ones they like. So, if you can make a director look good and they go on to good things, then that’s always a good relationship to have. Editing involves a lot of sitting a dark room making god awful crap into something passable. Sometimes it doesn’t but most of the time it’s just rancid. Strangely some people really like that. If you’re one of them and you can handle all the twattish behaviour from moronic producers then this could be a gold mine for you. Good luck.
Next up: Entreneurship and producership or something…
Follow along for more idiocy @aka_skid