The role of assistant editor
Assistant editors are the unsung heroes of feature length film post production. They not only mark the halfway point between the production crew and the editor, but they’re also responsible for keeping everyone communicating well, and the post process running smoothly.
For this reason, not only do assistant editors need a cool head and technical chops, they also need top notch communication and interpersonal skills – not an easy task when all you want to do is get to work on the raw material of a film.
The first priority for an assistant editor is to ensure that editors are free to focus on the job of compiling the edit. While they’re locked in a room working their magic, you as an assistant editor will be acting as the go-between, getting rushes from the DIT and liaising with the script supervisor – keeping the busy work away from the editor.
Big budget studio films vs. low budget indies
One of the most common reasons that anyone starts to work in the world of film, is the hope that one day, they too will get to work on a big budget studio feature. Before that happens though, it’s much more likely that you’ll get some years of valuable experience under your belt by working as an assistant editor on low budget indie films.
So, what’s the difference?
In a word, budget. In the world of film, budget equals people. The bigger the budget, the bigger the scope of the film, and the bigger the crew required. You’re much more likely to see multiple camera assistants, a crew of runners, and numerous ADs on a big budget studio film than you are on an indie. Of course, this means that roles are much more accurately defined, more on which later.
Big budget films also come with big budget stars, visually appealing locations, and complex SFX to name just a few features of this kind of film.
In comparison, low budget indies ask a lot of the people working on them: you will find that your role incorporates the kind of tasks you thought you had progressed past – like making the ubiquitous cups of tea and coffee. Low budget films are often more story-driven as they can’t rely on star appeal. Another factor is that lots of low budget films have to beg borrow and steal to get their films made. This limits scope, and means that filmmakers make do with what they get their hands on. This often results in a dynamic and organic set which in turn, can mean that your role as assistant editor gives you lots of great experience in terms of creative decision making and the ability to turn on a pin. To use a film analogy, think of your role as being more Chewbacca to Hans Solo, than Storm Trooper to Vader.
The pros and cons of working on an indie feature vs. a studio feature
The biggest benefit to working on a low budget or indie film, is that assistant editors get more responsibility. The ability to leverage that experience can mean that working on indies is often the best way to progress to the holy grail: assistant editor on a full-length feature.
On a low budget film, assistant editors are often found syncing rushes and working above and beyond the normal hours of the film’s editor e.g. when the software is free.
But it’s not all bean cans and make-do. The digital revolution means indie films can now achieve high shooting ratios, and often from two cameras – something only big budget films of the past could achieve. While this does give more options in post and down on set, it also means that assistant editors on low budget films deal with a lot more raw footage that can be hard to manage if you’re not organised.
Skeleton Crews and tight deadlines
Some indies have to take difficult decisions to do away with key member of a crew – one such role that often disappears is the DIT. This in turn makes the role of assistant editor much more challenging as you may find it your responsibility to sync and name clips, and transcode all on set when in better circumstances, you’d be much more focused on the editor.
Big studios are tight ships with tight deadlines, but there can often be a little flexibility. On an Indie however, the whole schedule is more stretched and there is often a hard festival deadline looming on the horizon making the whole production schedule much more restrictive.
Similarly, assembling the edit can be more of an organic process rather than a tightly organised and managed assembly process. This is because low budget indies often have inexperienced crew and maybe even a first-time director without the experience to know that properly slating each and every take, labelling and naming folders and hard drives correctly, and delivering script and continuity notes to the editor are all very good ideas.
Circling back to that high shooting ratio, one of the biggest challenges faced by directors and editors on a low budget indie is that the first cut of the film is just way too long. Making cuts to personal projects can prove to be especially difficult – particularly if your director is a newbie and doesn’t have the experience needed to shoot with post in mind. While test screenings can go some way to overcoming this problem by offering the chance to see what works and what doesn’t, trimming the fat in this way can make your role as an assistant editor much more demanding, and much more political. Trying to keep everybody happy is never an easy task.
In summary, virtually every con listed here can easily be turned to your advantage. Being an assistant editor on a low budget indie is perhaps the very best training ground for new editors. The creativity involved in every aspect of the film, right through from script, to post means your flexibility, imagination, and ability to react to an often-changing situation will serve you well in the rich and productive career you have ahead of you. SEO Meta data: Learn more about the pros and cons of working as an assistant editor on a low budget indie and a big budget feature film.
Niki Smith is a freelance writer and film academic from the UK. You can find out more about her here: www.rocketsmithcontent.com