How to Move up from 1st Assistant to Film Editor
Editor Evan Schiff, who most recently cut the well-reviewed John Wick Chapter 2, was kind enough to answer my questions on his process of cutting that film in this other post.
I also asked Evan some further questions about his journey to the editing chair, after an incredibly successful career as a first assistant editor. That’s what you’ll find in this follow up interview below.
Evan has worked an an assistant film editor on films like Star Trek: Into Darkness, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Warrior, Star Trek, Hellboy-II: The Golden Army and many more.
Having worked on such big budget, technically-complex and beloved franchises’ he’s well-placed to offer the rest of us a masterclass in what it takes to be a successful assistant film editor.
If you’re an assistant film editor or looking to become one then I’d also recommend checking out these previous posts too:
Working as an Assistant Film Editor
Took my daughter to see my name in the credits tonight. She won't remember it, but I will 🙂 pic.twitter.com/aJGhp4igmy
— Evan Schiff (@schiffty) December 17, 2015
What do you think most people don’t understand about the role of assistant editor?
The thing I find myself explaining most frequently to people outside the field or industry is that assistant editing and editing are now entirely different skillsets.
Assisting has become very technical, very administrative, while editing is largely creative.
This presents some hurdles to moving up the ladder, since you can work on huge movies and be very good at your job but still not have anything to bring to an editing interview.
It’s also easy to just keep taking big budget assistant work, since it’s a really fun job that keeps you close to the action, but if you want to work towards being a feature editor that often means stepping away and finding something very small to edit.
What are the challenges of working on really big movies in any role?
There are challenges that are unique to being an editor or an assistant editor, but one challenge that is common across both positions (as well as the industry in general) is making time for yourself and your personal life.
Finding the right work/life balance is really hard because there are so many moving parts on big budget films, so there is always some deadline to meet or some peripheral responsibility you have to take on.
And since these films have such massive resources to draw from, there is no pushback to paying as much OT as it takes to get the job done.
There’s also a lot of long-term travel, some of it with little to no advance notice. What ends up happening when you do a big budget film is that you essentially agree not to make any plans that can’t be canceled or abandoned at a moment’s notice. It takes some getting used to, both for yourself and anyone around you.
When I was younger and newer to the game, I was happy to sacrifice having a personal life for the OT that I earned instead, but the more experienced I got the less I found myself willing to make that trade.
These days I have a wife and young daughter at home, and I’m of course still willing to do whatever is necessary to get the job done, but if I’m going to stay super late it should be because there is no other option.
How has experience as an assistant editor benefitted you in the editing chair?
I’m generally pretty tech savvy, but I feel like the organizational skills I learned and practiced as an assistant editor still come in handy as an editor.
How I organize myself and my project has a direct effect on the departments we interact with (sound, music, vfx, DI, etc.). The more organized we are in Editorial, the easier it is for other departments to work with us and the less chance there is of errors being made.
Having the knowledge I gained from being an assistant of how every other department functions helps prevent that scenario where the editor just does whatever they want, things get lost or fall through the cracks, and it falls on the assistant editors to repeatedly come in and clean up after them.
I’ve also benefitted from working on very vfx-heavy films, since knowing how to cut with VFX is a valuable skill to have as an editor, and dealing with 1000+ VFX shots on a film as an assistant editor gives you a huge leg up.
If you are involved with the VFX as an assistant editor, you learn how to critique shots, how to cut with previs and temp footage, and how to composite your own temp vfx shots.
Those are all skills that are necessary and highly useful to have as an editor.
Any advice for AEs looking to move up?
My biggest piece of advice on moving up is to work towards the ability to step away from assisting, and start turning those jobs down in favour of finding editing jobs instead.
If you can build up enough of a cash reserve to afford some downtime, use it to give yourself space to find a short or a film to edit.
It’s really hard to convince producers you’re working with as an assistant to hire you as an editor without some intervening time away.
So although it can be difficult to leave the comfort of a job you’re good at and a reputation that gets you regular work, taking the risk of saying no to those jobs I think is the first step to changing the way that people see you and the types of jobs they’re willing to offer you.
Any advice on skills and software someone looking to be an AE should learn?
I like working with assistants who are organized, proactive, and know everything that’s happening in every other department.
Assistant editors have the responsibility of making sure that all the various departments are working in sync, and staying in the loop on what’s going on in all areas of Post-Production, often more so than even the editor, is a requirement for doing your job well.
I think most editors don’t really want to get involved in the nitty-gritty details of workflow unless they have to, so if I know the assistant editor has everything under control, and I can get a thorough status update when I need it on what the current issues are and who’s doing what across the board, that frees me up to focus on the edit instead of worrying about administrative issues.
On the technical side, I think it’s great to be constantly searching for better and faster ways to accomplish your tasks.
Always ask yourself if there’s a way to automate all or a part of what you’re doing, especially if it’s a very repetitive task.
Learn keyboard shortcuts and experiment with different workflows, since that makes you a faster assistant and a faster editor, and being faster at things can only help.
As an assistant I regularly created shell scripts and regular expressions to copy files, modify EDLs and Excel spreadsheets, and save myself time wherever I could. I don’t think getting that technical is for everyone, but that attitude of making your own solution to problems is a valuable skill.
You have a blog and a website where you’ve put some of those scripts. Tell me a little about that.
Way back in 2008, I had just finished as the 1st Assistant Editor on Hellboy 2, and I realized that we were one of the first films to do an all HD workflow in Post.
I had also come up with a few Automator scripts to handle things like daily project backups, and I wanted to be able to write down my experiences while they were still fresh, and then share all of that with the wider community.
I’m well aware that the big-budget feature film world is a small one, and it comes with perks like the ability to test new, expensive workflows that are out of reach for many other editors throughout the world.
So I just started writing up as much as I could remember, and since then, any time I’ve had an interesting experience on a film (Media Composer 5.1 native temp mixing for Star Trek: Into Darkness), or created a tool that could save everyone some time (VFX to SubCap: Article | Converter), I’ve posted it online.
I’ve also written some posts for assistant editors who are just starting out, such as my guide to creating turnovers. As I’ve moved away from assistant editing, I’ve had fewer cool new workflows to write about, but I have a few ideas for posts I hope to add in the next couple months.
Lately, I also started feeling like there were more little online tools that I wanted to create, but that just putting them in blog posts on my site was a little too decentralized. So last Fall I created a new site that would put all these tools in one place, and made myself a framework that would allow the next tool to be built much more quickly than in the past. You can find it at https://www.shift-e.net/tools.
It’s still a work in progress, you’ll see a couple tiles just labeled TBA that are waiting on my next patch of hiatus time to put together, but I’m going to start redirecting everyone over to that site soon.
I’ve heard from a lot of people that they either use my tools or reference my site for how to accomplish specific tasks, and that makes me really happy.
Part of the reason I post all this stuff is that I think the less time people spend doing tasks inefficiently, the better off we all are, and if I can help speed things up at all then I’d like to help.
And since I do most of this on my unemployment time between films, I find that programming stretches some of the same muscles that editing does, so it’s enjoyable for me to spend my off time working to make my site better and more informative.
Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom and expertise Evan!