Years ago, Norman Hollyn and I would get into long debates about which essential skills make a video editor successful.
Norman, who was then the Department Chair for Editing at the USC Film School, was a firm champion of storytelling. My perspective, after years providing training and support to editors around the world, recommended a deep understanding of technology.
Norman: “Without the ability to tell a story, the audience won’t watch what you create.”
Larry: “Without the ability to successfully use the technological tools needed to edit media today, editors won’t be able to create and output their programs. Even if the story is brilliant, the audience won’t see it.”
We were both right. And both wrong.
I’ve thought a lot about those conversations over the years. Twelve years ago, Norman and I began creating a 32-part webisode series on filmmaking. (You can see the results here: 2ReelGuys.com) Norman’s background was editing feature films. Mine was producing and directing live broadcast television, special events, and mini-docs. We worked together developing the scripts and programs, which was where these conversations came from.
During the five years we worked together on 2ReelGuys, I finally understood the importance of story. As well, after yet another long phone call on “how do I do this?,” Norman appreciated the benefit of really knowing how the gear worked.
There are many character traits that make for a successful video editor: focus, strong organizational skills, handling stress, working to a deadline, among others. These are traits that all of us have, at least to some extent.
But, what about skills — things you can learn? I think there are four key skills that are needed to make a video editor successful. The good news is that all of these can be learned; which I find reassuring:
It’s been said that editing is problem-solving. I liken it to assembling a jig-saw puzzle without looking at the picture on the box. You know where you are and you have a pretty good idea of where you want to go. The trick is to figure out how to get there.
There are many different ways to edit video, which one is the most effective? Which one will connect most directly with an audience? Which one can be achieved within the time and budget you have to work with?
Given what you’ve got, how do you get to where you are going? Solving this requires an ability to see as many different options as possible, then navigate to the one that makes the most sense.
A good editor avoids getting trapped by: “We’ve always done it this way,” and looks for different ways to tell the story effectively. A good way to practice this is to keep asking yourself: “What’s another way to do this—what are the options?”
Even though we mostly work alone in dark rooms, our ability to work easily with other people – especially as the deadline looms and stress levels go through the roof – is essential. Creative people tend to have strong opinions. Creative people who are under stress tend to express their strong opinions very, um, strongly.
Channeling that energy into something useful falls to the editor. That requires an understanding of people and communication that only develop over time.
When I was young, listening to – and accepting – advice was difficult. It took me several years (and some painful experiences) to learn that collaboration and listening to others did not diminish my role but, instead, enhanced the results.
Sitting in an edit suite, working with a team of creative people and listening as each shares their thoughts on how to make something better is an exciting creative opportunity. One of the sad tradeoffs of the pandemic is how stilted those creative conversations have become as we all dial in remotely. I miss the sense of team.
“Great gear,” I wrote recently, “does not tell great stories. Great stories require great storytellers.” The craft of editing is learning how to tell stories with moving pictures.
We’ve all listened to great storytellers. People who could make a trip to the grocery store sound like “War and Peace.” But there are many ways to tell stories – and the best way to learn is to practice.
Keep exploring new ideas; failure is the only way we learn anything.
Play your video and watch the audience. Watching an audience become bored is a brutal way to learn that your story missed the mark. Watching an audience get excited is a great reward for hard work.
Fortunately, as editors, we are part of a creative team telling this story. There are others who’s perspective provides valuable feedback. The story is not your burden to carry alone. Your job is to lead the team that’s responsible for bringing the story to its ultimate destination.
Media today exists solely as bits and bytes. It is impossible to create, edit, view or distribute media without using technology. Technology which is so advanced that, for many of us, the tools we use exist in a “magic box.” Media goes in and stories come out.
Viewing computers today as a “magic box” is dangerous, however. I’m not saying that we all need to be chip designers, but we need to understand the technical foundations of media and computers.
At least once a week, I get a panicked email that starts: “HELP!!!! I can’t output my project! Nothing works. Call me immediately!!!”
I know how frustrating it is when gear doesn’t work. But, in most cases, it’s caused by something simple. The more you know about your gear and how it works, the easier it is to solve problems. And, if you can’t solve it, the more helpful you can be to the tech who is helping you solve it.
The more you understand, the easier it is to fix problems. The more you understand, the easier it is to push technology to do new things. The more you understand, the more in control you are during the entire editing process. Understanding reduces stress and increases capability.
I think these four skills – creativity, people, craft and technology – are essential for every video editor to master. I also think it is impossible say that one is more important than the other, because if any one is missing, the project suffers.
But the good news is that these skills can be learned. We don’t need to be born with them – we just need to open our minds to discovering what we don’t yet know.
What do you think?
7 Responses to An Intricate Balance – What Makes a Video Editor Successful?
This is right on the money. All of these skills and traits are vital. One thing that I believe helps your creativity mature is to constantly watch the work of others. Seeing what moves you can give you insight on what moves others. If you see a technique that communicated an idea well, don’t hesitate to explore how your own version of it can tell your story more effectively.
Watching contemporary work also keeps you to date on the latest trends and styles of communication. They’re constantly changing, and staying current is important if you want to stay relevant as an editor.
These are excellent points. Some elements of creativity are inherent in each of us. What you point out are ways that all of us can increase our ability to think outside the box and stay current with creative trends.
A really wonderful analysis. You capture a lot in those 4 points.
Thanks for your kind words. For many years, I thought there were just three traits: Craft, Technical and People. This summer, as I was doing some extended writing, I realized that there was a fourth – Creativity – and that none of the four were more important than the others.
I enjoyed reading this, Larry! Thanks for the good tips as always!
“What’s another way to do this—what are the options?” this has become my mantra and because I have invested in a lot of different plug ins I have been able to achieve this. The other thing I do is build a lot of story related graphics and backgrounds to exemplify the theme. It sure helps when I do a lot of talking heads.
The other thing that jumped out at me lately was when a colleague asked me who my audience was for my current project. While this is one of the first questions I ask going into a project , it became problematic because I started doing this project last summer and things have changed. She helped me rewrite the script for the voice over but said the video was too long and much of the information and statistics I used are probably known by many of the people I was trying to reach with the video. I think it is more concise and even though some people know the information I believe if it is uploaded to our YouTube channel and a link is placed on our web page it may be of some use to some people. Time will tell.
Larry once again thanks for this article and your effort to make us all better at our craft.
Thanks for your comments. I agree, continually thinking about the audience and what they need is really important to our work.