Veterans and Assistants on How to Get Ahead in Editing

Becoming an editor isn't like training to be a doctor or a lawyer. Sure, you can go to film school and get hands-on experience. But when you've graduated, you're faced with the realites of an industry that is both medieval – apprenticeship is mandatory – and blisteringly modern – the editor you work for wants you to explain that new high-def codec.
Making the leap from assistant to editor has never been easy. Now it’s as nonlinear as the digital tools that have changed the dynamic in the edit suite over the last two decades, derailing what was once a traditional career trajectory for assistants. Once a true apprentice, the assistant literally stood behind the editor and learned as he worked. Today’s assistants often teach editors how to use the editing tools and spend less time than ever in the edit suite. The statement, "I don’t want an assistant that doesn’t know more about computers than me," has become the mantra of the successful A-list editor.
While a young editor has to avoid becoming a data wrangler, at the same time digital technology has opened the door to low-budget filmmaking, giving more assistants a chance to try their hands at being an editor and, if they’re lucky, get a credit that counts.
What does the generation gap mean for assistant editors trying to plan their career now? We asked three top editors in features and TV and three assistants to explain the combination of strange accidents and training-up that make for a successful career.
Paul Rubell, A.C.E. >>Collateral, Peter Pan, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
After getting a degree in English Literature at UCLA, Paul Rubell faced the common crisis of literature lovers: How to make a living. His first job out of school was apprenticing to editor Alan Balsam who was cutting a very low budget film. Rubell’s friend sold him as "highly experienced in the cutting room" and then spent a frenetic weekend teaching him how to sort trims in a trim bin and roll up trims using the flange on a moviola. His first day on the job, Rubell was asked to check the film for synch. "I grabbed the reels, took them into an empty room, called my friend and asked her,‘What’s synch?’" says Rubell. "My whole career has been sink or swim."
A breakthrough came when he became assistant to the renowned editor Lou Lombardo (The Wild Bunch, Moonstruck) and soon found himself editing and re-editing scenes for Lombardo. "I imbibed his rhythm," says Rubell. "He was my mentor." Lombardo was also his godfather, telling director Andy Davis to hire Rubell to cut The Final Terror, his first editing credit. In the movie version of Rubell’s life, that film would have launched his career. In real life, it did nothing of the sort. He floundered his way through a series of low-budget movies until he went back to assisting, this time on TV series, in order to get regular work. Ten years passed before Rubell got back to editing features, when director John Frankenheimer tapped him to edit The Island of Dr. Moreau.
"Editors of my generation are in a unique position," he says. "We were trained on film and when we became editors we knew much more than our assistants who we trained on film. That’s not the case now. I know next to nothing about assisting on digital systems. I’m at the mercy of my assistants." The downside, he notes, is that most of the conversation in the edit suite isn’t about dramatics or aesthetics but about formats and files. "I think this is a temporary situation," says Rubell. "Going forward, this will just be the ground base of what an assistant needs to know and an editor will teach his assistant these things as he’s coming up. Maybe then we’ll get back to discussing dramatics and aesthetics."
Scott Hill, editor >>Bruce Almighty, Win a Date with Tad Hamilton, Monster-in-Law
After going to USC film school, Hill got a job cutting negative (including sex, lies and videotape). He made the leap to assistant after taking a UCLA Extension class with editor Bernie Balmuth, who started recommending him to assist in small non-union jobs. That led to his entry into M.P.E.G. (the Motion Picture Editors Guild), and a great job assisting editor Billy Fox for the first two seasons of Law & Order.
Making the switch to features happened when he was hired by editor Don Zimmerman to be his assistant on The Nutty Professor. Hill stayed his assistant for eight years, learning a variety of other skills including VFX editing. "To assist Don was a big deal," Hill says. "It was a huge honor and I learned a lot."
The relationship with Zimmerman led to his leap to editor. Director Tom Shadyac asked Zimmerman to cut Bruce Almighty but Zimmerman had already committed to Cat in the Hat. Hill asked Shadyac to consider him as an assistant. "He said, why, don’t you want to cut?" Hill remembers. "I was in shock."
Hill urges assistants to "be expert" with the tools, noting that Zimmerman hired him in part because he was proficient with a specific system, Lightworks.
Scott Powell, A.C.E. >>24, The Lot, Atomic Train
As a child growing up in a Hollywood home – his father Norman was a CBS executive and is currently a producer – Powell fixed his sights on being either a cameraman or an editor. When he grew up, his dad got him a first chance – as an apprentice at CBS (Radford), where hot TV shows like St. Elsewhere were being cut. The apprenticeship and assisting years were fruitful, says Powell, who noted that editors Ray Daniels, Sidney Katz and Buzz Brandt were his chief mentors and teachers.
After assisting for four years, he made the leap to editor with a short-lived CBS show Wolf. The stint didn’t yield the toehold that he needed. "I was a fledgling," Powell says. "I went back and forth between editing and assisting, as did lots of people." He landed an assistant gig on a TV movie where he got many chances to cut, and then begged the producers to bring him on to their next TV series. They did, and he began editing for Rescue 911. He no longer had to take assistant jobs and got his chops in the niche arena of reality TV/documentaries. The new roller coaster rattling his career was the ups and downs of TV network pick-ups and cancellations. "But if you’re patient and persevere, something will eventually hit," he says.
It hit with a bang when Powell got an offer to edit the new TV series 24. A former assistant, Larry Davenport was assisting on 24 and recommended Powell to the producers as a good editor and team player. In a happy turn of events, Davenport recently made his own leap to become Powell’s fellow editor on the show.
Ian Silverstein, assistant editor >>Cradle Will Rock, The Ice Storm, O Brother Where Art Thou, Intolerable Cruelty
As an undergrad, Silverstein majored in film studies and knew he wanted to work in film. But he was uncertain about what position would suit him in actual production until a family friend who was an editor met with him. "He gave me sound advice," remembers Silverstein. "On the basis of that meeting, it seemed like a worthy endeavor to pursue a career in film editing." The friend also gave him a few names, and Silverstein found himself pounding the pavement in New York looking for a job. He got one, on a low budget 16mm film, and recommendations led to more low-budget projects.
Most importantly, Silverstein discovered that his personality was suited for editing. "You have to pay attention to the minutiae, the small nuances that you need to construct a scene, and the big picture," he says. "I liked the intimacy of that aspect of the profession." Through yet another recommendation, he snagged the job of first assistant editor on O Brother Where Art Thou. But he still hadn’t made the leap into digital editing. He packed his bags for California and jumped into Avid training through the Editor’s Guild. Since then, he says he is continually learning new technologies, most recently Final Cut Pro and 24P high definition. "Change is constantly occurring," says Silverstein. "You have to show a willingness to embrace it."
What’s his advice for climbing the ladder? "Try to develop contacts and make them enduring ones," he says. "And bring a positive attitude to the job." But, he cautions, first make sure that you really, truly want to be an editor – and then let everyone know. "The pace can be hectic and the nights can be long," he concludes. "But it’s ultimately highly rewarding."
Tim Serda, assistant editor >>Scrubs
Serda’s journey to become assistant editor blossomed out of his stint as a member of the original Final Cut Pro team. When FCP finally launched, he was eager to take the new software to Hollywood and left Apple to try to use his FCP chops on films and TV shows. In L.A., he hooked up with an old friend, Ramy Katrib and they co-founded Digital FilmTree. As a tech support person, Serda assisted the editor of Scary Movie, Rules of Attraction and Full Frontal. But the more he got exposed to editing and feature films, the more he wanted to make films. "I wanted to be a client, the end-user," he says.
A friend coached him to get a job as an assistant editor, and his first union show was TV miniseries Children of Dune. They needed an editor to assure that the show’s EDL transitioned between 24P and 30 fps. His first few assistant gigs were won on the strength of his intimate knowledge of FCP. Things have changed since he signed on to assist on the TV series Scrubs. "This is my first TV episodic and my first entirely traditional first assistant editor job," says Serda. "My editor John Michel and the other assistants have made this a training ground for me." Editorial is a great position to "figure out what your place in the industry is," he says. "You’re exposed to everyone who works on the film and all the different roads in the industry." Despite the fact that he’s successfully created a career as an assistant, Serda isn’t entirely sure he wants to climb the ladder to becoming an editor. "This is my first TV show, so it’s hard to say," he says. "Down the road, I’d like to maybe write, direct – or edit."
Lizzy Calhoun, assistant editor >>A Little Trip to Heaven
Calhoun studied photography at Columbia University in Chicago, and an interest in documentary shooting led her to an internship at Kartemquin Films, the Chicago-based production house that produced Hoop Dreams and, more recently, Stevie, a film Calhoun worked on. It was her first time touching the Avid, and she got plenty of experience helping with dailies and logging. But she needed to make more money, and became an assistant editor at Chicago post house Cutters, where she stayed for two years. "It was like going to school," she says. "They really encouraged us to stay late and work on our own projects."
But she eventually got tired of commercials and moved to Los Angeles to rekindle her passion for editing long-form film and TV. She got in touch with editor Michael Palmerio from Chicago who was the former roommate of a friend, and he brought her aboard the indie film Surviving Eden. Through another Chicago friend, she got a referral to work on another small film, Waiting, which gave her the hours she needed to join the union. She also got a chance to learn a lot from the film’s editor, David Finfer. "To work for someone who’s been doing this for so long was great," says Calhoun. "I learned things I’d never really known before, and got to watch how he structured the story. Those are things I know I have to learn, and it takes experience."
In Fall 2004, she answered an ad on Craig’s List and got a job to edit a no-budget film to be shot in Ireland. "I got a trip to Ireland and an editor’s credit," she says. She’s currently finishing up work as an assistant on A Little Trip to Heaven, with editor Virginia Katz. Katz has a new show coming up, Dream Girls, written by Bill Condon, and Calhoun is hopeful she’ll be brought along. The bottom line, says Calhoun, is to keep working with editors that have something to teach you. "I need more time," she says. "Eventually I’d love to be an editor, but it may be years. You’ve got to stay with the good editors for awhile and that’s what I’m trying to do."