The Freelance Video Editor
There are some coveted jobs in the moving image industry. The writer/director is the most prestigious out of all the directing roles, someone who is lucky enough to be allowed to not only write their own materiel but also direct. Few people are granted such power in the higher echelons of film and television.
In my own branch of the industry the coveted title of freelance video editor is perhaps one of the most sought after and for a number of good reasons.
One of the major differences and genuine perks of being a freelance video editor as apposed to an in house editor at a production company, edit facility or broadcaster is the freedom to choose what we work on.
With the help of a good agent we are crafting our own careers and gravitating to projects that either fascinate us in some way or will enhance our resumes.
Another great perk of course is money, you simply get paid more as a freelance video editor. One of the downsides to working in house is that you rarely get to choose what it is you’re cutting.
That’s fine if you’re working on a show you love making but shows don’t last forever and at the end of the season you may be told to work on something that you’re really not feeling the love for.
If you’re spending hundreds of hours in that dark and solitary edit suite, working on something you’re really not interested in or doesn’t challenge you in some way can be very frustrating. I have quite a few friends who work in house and they do complain of the lack of variation and choice in their careers.
There are, of course, upsides to working in house and the biggest one is financial security. You get that pay check at the end of every month which can be important if you’ve got mouths to feed and a mortgage to pay.
A freelance video editor doesn’t have that kind of security and there are lean months in any year where you can be forced to work on some of the more ethically questionable Reality TV shows in order to keep earning.
Crafting your career
I’m often asked by aspiring editors what the best way is to start crafting a freelance career. What are the pitfalls and the perils, the do’s and the don’ts. There are many but I was lucky enough to be given some great advice in the early part of my career.
I think what’s interesting is that this advice is not just applicable to the freelance video editor. Camera operators, directors, writers, producers etc… often have very similar trajectories to editors in their chosen genres and so some this advice might also be relevant.
There are two primary concerns here. Firstly, entering into a genre that you really want to work in. And secondly making sure you’re always in work so that the landlord isn’t knocking on your door asking for the rent.
Having a clear idea which specific genre you want to work in is an excellent goal setter that concentrates the mind and drives the will in the exact direction you need to go in.
Is it music videos or documentaries or drama or entertainment? So many people enter Film and TV not knowing what role or which direction they’d like to go in, even after three years of film school.
There’s nothing wrong with not knowing and if you’re lucky enough to get a few jobs early on it can be fun finding your path by doing several different roles and finding out which one you most enjoy.
But here’s the thing. There are hundreds if not thousands of people attempting to scale the walls of the industry at any given time and many of them do know what they want and where they want to go.
It’s not exactly a race and many times getting through the door has a lot to do with luck but they do, to a certain extent, have a head start. The more focused any aspiring filmmaker is, whatever their specific vocation, compared to the rest of their age group the more opportunities will arise.
They’ll naturally start doing things like researching which production companies do the type of work they want to get into and looking at what they need on their resume in order to get into a certain department at a broadcaster who makes the programs that float their boat.
The other factor is of course is income. Very few people make a lot of money in film and television, if it’s a ton of cash you’re after this is not the industry for you.
We all have our dreams about working on the type of films that interest us. For me it was the complexity of political, historical and science documentaries. But there are financial considerations to our lives.
As a freelance video editor I was told early on to create maximum employability on my resume. What does this mean I asked? Well, quite simply it means in the early stages of my career I should work on as many different genres of TV shows as possible.
I was told not to turn down any work, whatever it was. Documentary, Reality TV, entertainment shows, showreels, Drama, cookery shows, lifestyle shows, advertising mood reels, daytime diet shows, whatever.
This strategy provides the financial safety net when that million dollar show you want to work on gets delayed for a month because the director is in bed with nervous exhaustion and you’re now missing a month’s income.
You’re gonna have to get some work, and fast. Yes, you might have to work on something that you wouldn’t proudly tell your mother about but at least you have an income for the next four weeks.
If you have a varied resume that covers many different genres you’ll never be out of work and can always fill up those gaps in your schedule in between projects you really want to work on.
Another really interesting point to make is that on many TV shows it is often not the director who finds you.
It is very often the production manager or someone similar at the production company/broadcaster who looks through a bunch of relevant resumes either from their files or from an agency or from a personal recommendation.
The interesting issue here is that they are looking for two things. One, do you have the credits on your resume that match the film they’re making. And two, what production companies or broadcasters have you worked for before.
Production managers aren’t filmmakers and so if they see that you’ve worked at a very respectable production company they’ll quickly shove your resume into the pile for the director, exec or producer.
One of my major breaks in getting into documentaries was that on my resume it said that I’d worked at a very famous documentary production company and the production manager included my resume for consideration.
By a stroke of luck she didn’t read the credit I actually had at the famous production company, I hadn’t edited a huge 60 minute film which they were know for but only a two minute ‘making of’ feature. Careers are often made by these small slices of luck.
Learn when to say no
This second point is very pertinent as if you’ve got most of your credits working at the same production company or with the same director this can ring alarm bells.
I was always told that if I wanted a great freelance editor resume, never work on the same shows, at the same production companies or in the same departments at a broadcaster for too long.
Learn to say no if you’ve done too much of one thing and that same company want you back for another 6 months. Variation on a resume shows that you are in demand and also talented.
Unless you’re Thelma Schoonmaker some people unfairly question whether this director is a friend of yours and just carrying your career.
After the first five or so years of my career I had built up such a varied resume across multiple genres that I was then told to actually create several resumes and customise each one dependant on the job I was going for.
High end documentary clients can look down on people who’ve worked on X Factor and so I ended up having a documentary resume, a docudrama resume, a reality resume, and entertainment resume etc…
Of course every career is different, every filmmaker is different. Some people take years to get their break and some people are extremely lucky landing that dream job pretty quickly.
But however long it takes some careful thought and planning is always a good idea. When sending off any resume or meeting any director for a job I’d always ask myself beforehand ‘what do they want to hear from me’.
It’s a fine balance in the early days of being freelance between working on what you want and paying the rent. But the advise I was given early on in may career has meant that I have never been out of work.
I’ve been very lucky to work on many films in my favorite genre, hour long and feature length documentaries for many of the big broadcasters in the UK and the US.
But of course this has also meant that occasionally I’ve had to cut a few shows with titles like ‘When Dogs Do Backflips’ for some obscure cable channel. It’s not an easy road becoming a freelance video editor but it’s a fun one.
If you haven’t heard about Paddy Bird’s amazing “Inside the Edit” then you are in for a treat. It’ the world’s first REAL editing course design to teach you the black art of creative editing. It’s a great start to becoming a freelance video editor.
For the month of December Inside the Edit will be 25% OFF! The discount code is ‘UPPM25’. The promotion is that it’s 25% off monthly, annual and lifetime but that the discount only applies to the first month of the monthly. Click here and take a test run: Inside the Edit
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Author: Paddy Bird is one of television’s most prolific and accomplished editors. For the past fifteen years he has edited dozens of prime time documentary, entertainment and reality TV shows for British and American television. He has even worked in war zones, spending time editing news stories on location in Iraq. You can find him at: Inside the Edit