As a producer, I am not much of an editor myself. I can string a few shots together and tell a simple story, and I know that not all editors are created equal. Over the last 15 years working as a producer and running a production company, I have found that most of the editors I have worked with can be easily be cast as one of four types. Now a great editor can become maybe three of the four, but all editors start out somewhere, and that is your native type. Once your recognize that, you can both focus on your strengths, and identify areas where you want to grow. To me, the amazing thing is that most editors are completely unaware of their type. If you have been editing for a while, you are probably at least two of these types. Which type are you?
This is the easiest guy to recognize, he has a guitar or keyboard in his office and needs to find inspiration before he can really begin cutting. He began as a musician or a dancer and started cutting to make his own music videos. Before the Musician even begins editing he needs a temp track, and he has to love it. When they show you their work, Musicians tap out the important cuts with their fingers. They are a composer and a conductor and their NLE is their sheet music. The visuals are just another note, just another harmony in their Symphony. The great musicians know that they are using music and images to create a feeling. You can let them loose on a fairly finished piece and they will make the drab parts sing.
Regardless of what you give them, they seem to make it work, even if it doesn’t always make sense. I almost want to call this the Montage editor because that is where they shine. They also get hired a lot because they can put together great demo reels regardless of the quality of their source material. As a former owner of a production company, this was the type of editor we most often looked to hire.
Strengths: Music videos, Spot work, Montages, Demo reels, speed, Teasers (sometimes trailers).
Weakness: 9–5 jobs, having to use a music track that they don’t love. Letting a story slowly develop, following a script. Building graphics, logging footage, or using a vectorscope.
Every editor can spot the technician, but the technician is usually the most oblivious to his own status. He has stronger opinions about the tools that an editor uses than the videos they produce. This guy want’s to argue about the best NLE and latest cameras. Sure all of us do this, but this guy will use numbers to defend a camera instead of the images it produces. Chrominance, luminance, waveforms and vector-scopes are all simple concepts to him. Do you have a render error, they are on top of it.
Listen, you need to be friends with the Technician. He is the one who contributes to the forums. He is the one who will begrudgingly help you fix that problem that you created for yourself when you did it the wrong way. Technicians are indispensable if you have a production facility, but you only need one. Every single editor that I know, that isn’t a technician, could benefit from more technical knowledge, but I have known a lot of great editors, that didn’t really know how their systems worked.
Technicians make the best assistant editors. They know WHY you have to transcode the footage, they organize bins. Every editor should have to go through the assistant editing process under a good technician so they understand the whys behind everything. Unfortunately, while many technicians know how your edit bay works, they often struggle with knowing how a story works. But they are willing to learn, and they will learn everything that they can, up to and including how to become a better editor of a different type.
Strengths: Making sure you green screen footage was shot appropriately, Building best-practices, managing/teaching editors, assembly edits, compliance, color-correction (not grading), continuity, keeping everything from falling apart, learning.
Weaknesses: Picking the right take, Musical montages, telling a story, making eye contact.
The Painters usually have the best looking edit bays, usually their own art or photography graces the walls. If it is a movie poster, it’s not because it’s a great movie, it’s because it’s a great poster. The Musicians are cool, but the Painters actually look cool. While they can often be confused with the musicians, the guitar in the edit bay is largely decorative. And where the musician can throw together a great montage, the painter may spend hours on a shot to make it glow. These guys are visual artists, they may not actually use a brush, but they paint with pixels. Every editor needs to know how to make a title, but not every editor can make it look good. Every editor needs to know how to do some basic color correction, but not every editor knows how to make the shot come to life. Many painters start as editors and end up designing motion graphics, or start as graphic designers and end up editing. Sometimes they started as DP’s and began editing so no one would mess up their footage. Their cuts don’t always make sense, but they look great.
The Painter is the most frustrating editor to learn color correction from because they assume that you know exactly why the shot is ugly and then show you how to make it fit their vision. They skip color correction and go straight to color grading the film. They pick up traits of a technician only because it’s necessary to make their video look polished. The painter is a meticulous finisher, and will make any of your edits look better if you let him spend a day with it. Just make sure to tell him that the picture is locked. He won’t let it go out the door until it looks as good as it can.
Every edit facility should have one great painter. If the painter is smart they will go on to specialize in color grading or motion graphics.
Strengths: Color grading(not color-correction), Title design, motion graphics, polishing a piece, shooting, decorating, being cool.
Weaknesses: 4,0,0 color pulldowns, grainy footage, Quick turnarounds, low res jpeg logos from clients, jobs that aren’t cool. Green screen that looks right, but isn’t.
Every editor should aspire to become a storyteller, and every editor thinks they are one, but a true storyteller is hard to find. She is a mythical creature who takes all of your nonsense and listens, and watches, and careful puts it together until it makes sense. You know you are talking to a great storyteller because she is listening to you and piecing together your story. She knows when to let a person ramble, and when it’s important to leave in the pregnant pause. Where the musician slices out all of the “ums” in an interview, the storyteller knows when the indecision is important. An interesting irony is that many of the great storytellers I have known don’t actually spend a lot of time telling stories out loud. They aren’t the braggers and yarn spinners. They know how to tell your story and they know what you are missing and will send you back to get it. Storytellers let their work do the talking. Every film-school grad thinks they are great storytellers, but most just know how to hear a story and tell you what’s wrong with it. I believe that the greatest weakness in Hollywood is having good writers and good editors at the same time. A great Storyteller will do their job and you will barely realize it, but you will have a great story to tell (though you won’t do it as well)
In a conversation with a feature editor, I tried to find something to talk about and tried to start the usual banter about editing software. He just shrugged and said, “That’s like arguing about which hammer to use when it’s knowing how to build a house that matters”.
As I began writing, I wanted to switch back and forth from feminine to masculine pronouns, but I realized that more than any other type, this type of editor has more women. In time Ihope it will even out. I have known female Musican-types and Painter-types, (I just finished a pilot with a great Painter-editor) but some of the best Storytellers are women. Men currently dominate most roles in Hollywood, but some of the greatest directors lean on women to make their films work. It is one of the few major roles where women have a significant presence. More than any other type, the Technicians are dominated by men. Even still, I can’t say that the Storytellers are dominated by women, there are just more female storytellers than any other type. This could easily be another article in itself
Storytellers have a hard time creating demo reels. Out of context their work means nothing. I would like to be a better storyteller, but perhaps the only way is by listening and watching.
Strengths: Telling a clear story where you know what is happening and why it matters.
Weaknesses: finding them, becoming them.