Who's Shaping Your Content: The Secret Lives of Assistant Editors 2097 words · 10 minute read

They’re the glue that holds your project together. They’re the first ones in each morning and the last ones out each night. They’re always listening, always thinking, always anticipating. They’re your rock.

They’re your Assistant Editors, and they’re more privy to industry trends and secrets than they’re given credit.

We wanted to give the Assistant Editor position its long-overdue exploration, so we spoke to five Assistant Editors whose final cuts are helping companies create meaningful engagement. Their testimony will give anyone in the industry – from CMOs to pre-production scriptwriters and aspiring Assistant Editors – insight into an integral part of every spot. It might also make you look differently at that AE skirting behind you.

Here’s what Emily Tolan and Dustin Kaufman of Cutters Chicago (@Cutters), Cameron Yergler of Cutters New York, and Ashley McGinn and Travis Hockswender of Whitehouse Post Chicago (@WhitehousePost) had to say about their roles as assistant editors, their ambitions in post-production, and their perspectives on the industry.

MD: What brought you to the editing and post-production industry?

Cameron Yergler: “Like a lot of industry professionals, I fell in love with movies as a kid. Watching and making them with my friends was all I wanted to do. My parents bought me a version of Avid that I put on our family computer, which sparked my interest in editing. It was like working on a puzzle – I loved figuring out how to put all of the pieces together to craft a story. I knew from that moment in my childhood that I wanted to be a film editor and I’ve stuck with the dream ever since.”

Dustin Kaufman: “When I was a kid I played a ton of Counter-Strike. I figured out how to record your gameplay and from there I would fire up Windows Movie Maker and cut together my own videos. […] I kept cutting throughout middle and high school, where I learned Final Cut 7 and saw Goodfellas for the first time, and I was like, ‘Wow, editing is awesome and I think I want to pursue this.’ I was lucky enough to have an outstanding media studies program at my high school that furthered my skills and interest in editing.”

MD: In your opinion, what is the role of the Assistant Editor in the overall production process? And what is the function of music in that role?

Cameron Yergler: “[…] I see what we do as the oil in the gears that keeps the machine moving along smoothly. At the start of the post process, we have to make sure footage is transcoded properly, all accounted for, and organized before the editor can get started, as well as make creative choices when pulling sound effects and music so the edit can get off to a good start. This is especially important as post schedules are constantly being tightened.

Clients are […] expect[ing] higher quality work in a shorter amount of time, so it’s our job to help ease any tension or stress the editor feels as a result. We have to be able to adapt quickly and find solutions for any technical or creative issues that may arise as the edit is being put together. Music is such an important element in creating the right atmosphere to tell the most impactful story, and it’s the Assistant Editor’s job to make smart creative choices when pulling music selects before an editor begins his or her process.”

Travis Hockswender: “Assistants are the unsung heroes of the post-production world. We’re the first person outside of production to see the footage and the last person to handle it before it goes out the door, so there’s a lot of responsibility in terms of knowing what content we have and what needs to be done to it. […] As for music, most editors will ask their assistant to pull tracks unless they’ve got something very specific in mind.

I’d say of all the projects I’ve worked on this year, the final track ends up [being] something I pulled in maybe 80% of the time. An assistant will pull dozens to hundreds of tracks for a project, so the odds are sort of stacked in our favor. ”

MD: At what point are you thinking about music in a project? What is your process for music discovery, selection, and cutting to screen?

Emily Tolan: “I usually think about [two things]: does it build, and how does it end? You want to edit the music so it complements the picture and you want to do it in a way that is invisible, and people can just feel that emotion. Music searching can often be an interesting and difficult process due to sound being extremely subjective.”

Ashley McGinn: “I think about music from the moment I receive a script. Usually if the agency or client has not requested a specific track, I begin searching various music outlets. At the start of a project, the editor and assistant will have a discussion about what the tone and feel of the spot is, and from there the assistant is better able to search a wide variety of music house options. We will pull anywhere from a few [tracks] to a few dozen for our editor to listen to. Sometimes a music option works right away and other times it doesn’t. It’s a lot of trial and error until you discover a track is working nicely and marry it to picture.”

MD: How can that music process be better optimized to make your job easier? What are your music pain points? What are your music passion points?

Cameron Yergler: “During a music search, I’ve really appreciated the stock sites that decrease the number of search results as more keywords are chosen. When music options are culled down and refined into specific categories early on, it makes the selection process run that much more smoothly. I’m able to pull good options right away, test them against picture, and repeat the process. The relationship is always an important factor in this business as well. It’s great to be able to connect with someone at the company who may be able to make a few initial selections to help get things started.”

Ashley McGinn: “[…] What does make my job easy is the fact that if you reach out to most music houses with a specific track in mind, they will scour their libraries and pull a bunch of similar track options for you. This saves us a lot of time and hassle. Vague music direction can make for a long and painful process when trying to narrow down a genre. It oftentimes makes the trial and error process all the more difficult.

The best part about music searching is discovering new tracks you may have never heard before. Many times when I’m searching for music and I find a track I like that doesn’t fit our particular piece, I’ll pull it anyway for future projects. As assistants, we’re always trying to stay one step ahead of the game.”

MD: To what degree does it matter who the musician/artist is; i.e., a composer or a band? What does music do for the audience?

Travis Hockswender: “Unless it’s a very well-known artist (in which case the song rights have already been negotiated and locked in), an agency is a lot more concerned with how a song sounds than who’s singing it. Not to discredit the music itself – a good music track can completely change a spot. Lousy acting can seem charmingly cheesy when set to the right track. We’re always looking for the perfect fusion of a good track that doesn’t cost a zillion dollars.”

Dustin Kaufman: “If there’s a big-name artist/label/composer behind a tack, it comes with a pre-established audience and can probably sell itself without the help of any sort of video component. To me though, it doesn’t really matter who’s behind the music if the music is itself is good. If the track is killer, that will make me interested in where it came from and how I can get more.”

MD: What differentiates a great Assistant Editor from an average one? What do you do in order to stand out, and what advice do you have for aspiring Assistant Editors?

Emily Tolan: “A great assistant usually anticipates what happens and prepares for it. The best advice [is] to keep on creating, by either editing your own version of the spot or personal work. I am constantly creating in my free time because being in film is something that I love wholeheartedly.”

Travis Hockswender: “An average assistant reacts, while a seasoned assistant anticipates. Whether it’s your producer, your editor, or your client, you want to have an answer ready before anybody even asks. 90% of an assistant’s job is making other people’s lives easier – so if you can neatly organize your dailies [the raw, unedited footage from production], clearly articulate what changes have been made to the latest round of cuts, or quickly explain what kind of coverage production has on a certain shot, you’re all the more valuable. At the same time, you have to be comfortable with waiting – waiting for direction, feedback, or for something to render out.

My advice to aspiring assistants is to make yourself indispensable to whoever’s asking for your help. Anybody can learn to break down footage and reformat a couple files, but if you can do it well enough that editors start requesting you, you’re in. Being well-versed in After Effects – even just for simple title animations – is invaluable and will please your editor and your clients alike. Keep your clients happy and keep the complaints to yourself – or at the very least, file them away for a future tell-all memoir.”

MD: There has been a strong shift towards brands telling stories through commercials rather than simply advertising a product or service. Why do you think this is important for brands to do?

Emily Tolan: “There is a shift for truth through advertising through [telling] real stories with real people. There are a lot more social media/long-form videos, which let things take their time to resonate with you. I think that it’s good to stay true to the message that the brand is achieving. It’s not only just about the product, but what the brand beliefs are. It’s easier to trust a brand that is about more [than] its product.”

Dustin Kaufman: “I think it’s important for brands to sell their products through storytelling because it better establishes an emotional connection with their consumers that traditional advertising can’t accomplish. We’re a more closer and connected society than we’ve ever been, and with that comes the desire for brands to want their consumers to relate to them on an emotional level and I don’t think you can reach that kind of connection through hashtags and Tweets. With good storytelling, brands show their human side and with that comes a more engaged consumer.”

MD: How do you see the industry evolving in the near and long-term future, and why?

Ashley McGinn: “The post-production industry is always evolving in terms of technology and the speed at which we output spots. I think there is going to be a much bigger demand for digital content as media streaming hubs such as Netflix, Hulu and HBO Go continue to expand. In the long-term future I expect we’ll see more 1-stop shops for post-production. There is something to be said about the convenience of having offline editorial, sound recording/mixing, color correction, and graphics all under one umbrella. As the industry continues to grow I believe so will post-production collaboration.”

Dustin Kaufman: “I really hope to see a larger shift toward digital and web content. We’re starting to see that now with brands like Geico killing the pre-roll ad game and Taco Bell Snapchatting up a storm, so I’d love to see more brands really embrace the digital/web landscape and create content that can only exist on those mediums.”

For every ad, there are inevitably numerous cooks in the kitchen to ensure it goes from script to screen in the best possible way. The industry cannot overlook the importance of the Assistant Editor in that kitchen. The AE is the oil in the gears that allow for brands to tell their stories to consumers. Music is one of several ways Assistant Editors tell those stories, and these 5 AEs are forging a new era with their dedication to the craft.

By: Zach Miller, Music Dealers

Photo Credit: MIKI Yoshihito

Photo Credit: Leon Terra