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Starting out in post production

April 2023 | Ellie Osborne

How do you make your way into post-production?

I never knew what I particularly wanted to do as a job but I always enjoyed media. So when I went to college I decided to take media as an AS level. I really enjoyed it so decided I would study a course, relating to media, at university. I picked broadcasting as I still wasn't sure if I wanted to go into radio, television or film, and I thought this course would help me figure this out.

It did, and 3 years later, after graduating, I wanted to work as an editor in film and television in London.

As I lived in Devon, and studied in Cornwall, a move to London was very daunting but I knew it was where I had to be to work in television and film post-production. There were a few facilities in the South West but the roles were few and far between. We were advised by our lecturer that London was the best place to be if we wanted to work in the media industry.

I thought I would move to London, get a job and after a few years become an offline editor. But I was very mistaken.

Firstly, I didn't live in London so travel was an issue. In the following two years, after university, I travelled to Oxford about two times, parked there, as that's where my brother lived, and then got the train into London. The drive was four hours to Oxford and the train about an hour. I used to just stay for one night and then drive back to Devon the next day which was extremely tiring. So if you are sure you would like to work in media I would suggest studying in London, which I wish I had done, as you will then be well placed to get work straight out of university.

So when going to interviews in London the comment I used to get regularly was "...but you live in Devon!" to which I would reply, "Yes, but if I got a job of course I would move up!"

I would say to start out looking for work experience. Most facilities will offer one or two weeks' worth. However it will not be in a senior role, like an editor, it will be in a runner role. Basically being a runner requires you to offer food and drink to clients, serve tea and coffee, run errands and basically live in the kitchen. It's not glamorous but it's a foot in the door. I was lucky I had a few friends I could live with when I did work experience, but you can also get cheap hostels if you don't mind sharing with other people.

It took me two years of constantly applying to get a runner role. In any free time I had, after shifts or in breaks, I would shadow editors or work in the MCR.

MCR is the career progression after being a runner, where I was working at the time. It stands for Master Control Room. It consists of making deliverables, importing and exporting files and ingesting clips, to name a few. However, I took too long to make tea so was fired. 

I was lucky enough to get another job as a runner in a small facility. At the time I started, the in-house editor had decided to go freelance and as I showed an interest, I was hired as a runner and a junior in-house editor. Right place, right time.

It dawned on me - as I had skipped the MCR role - I had no idea about the inner workings of the editing system so I couldn't offer edit support, and as the facility was small we didn't have a dedicated MCR.

After a further 6 months, I decided to move to a larger facility to work in the MCR to acquire the knowledge to make me a well-rounded and support-skilled editor. The skills I gained when working in MCR were the inner workings of AVID MC and  AVID Symphony, and how to troubleshoot a range of issues that would occur with AVID. I loved learning all of this and it was great knowing I could fix many of the issues that arose. As well as troubleshooting, MCR is file ingesting based, basically just putting footage into the system for editors to assess, along with exporting cuts and sending them to clients for viewing.

I leant a lot of other software too such as:

  • Adobe Media Encoder, to change a file's format i.e. from a .wmv file to a .mov file.
  • A teranex - this was a conversion piece of hardware - if you have video shot at 29.95fps (fps stands for frame per second) and need to change it to 25fps this will do a perfect conversion for you.
  • How to hard patch/connect monitors to screens. Patching is usually done through a Matrix, however, where I was working it was broken so we had to hard patch it.
  • Learning how to QC. QC stands for quality control. You watch through a final cut of a show, you should be in a quiet room by yourself. You watch the cut for anything that appears wrong. This could be flash frames, compression issues, audio dropouts or any spelling errors with the text on the screen.

All these skills mentioned above are what you will be taught initially in an MCR role. There are some skills you will be taught later in your MCR career. One of these is conforming.

Conforming is the process of suppressing (when editing the editors don't work with full res clips). These clips are given to MCR who save them onto the company storage and then ingest the clips into AVID at a lower res. This could be 4:1, 10:1, 15:1, so the editors work with these clips.

After the cut has passed QC and has been locked the cut is passed back to MCR. An assistant will then upres each shot to the original res it was shot in. It is a lengthy process but if you get a chance to shadow someone doing it, it is a valued skill to have.

I also wasn't exactly sure what the difference between offline and online editing was, surprisingly we were never taught this at university. Offline editing is more the 'storytelling' part of editing i.e. cutting clips together, building the structure and story from beginning to picture lock. Picture lock is when the cut has been approved by the director, producer, etc and they don't want any changes made. Online editing is better known as the 'finishing stage'. It happens after conforming, bringing footage from low res to high res. It will be done in a suite which will run AVID Symphony. Symphony is a bit more 'heavy duty' than AVID MC and can handle high res footage. So at this stage, all final colour corrections, audio, titles and effects are added together. In my view, it's less creative but I know people who much prefer it to offline editing and vice versa. 

While at university I recommend you learn as many edit systems as you can.  Unfortunately at the university I attended we only had one system to learn which was AVID Media Composer (MC). AVID MC is industry standard editing software mostly used for long-form programmes such as documentaries and films. The other widely used editing software is Adobe Premier Pro.

Since I graduated back in 2010 Premier has become a lot more widely used, even on some films such as Deadpool and Gone Girl. However, it's mostly used for short-form content i.e. adverts. I would not bother learning Final Cut Pro (FCP) as this is not industry standard. If you do have access to free FCP by all means use it if you don't have another editing software.

When working in a facility the computer operating systems can vary. Some are all PC based and some are MAC. For this I would make sure you have a little knowledge of the differences between the two. Both systems are easy to work with and switch between.

The career progression to become an offline editor for television and/or film, in a facility, is:

  • Runner
  • Library
  • Junior edit assistant in MCR
  • Senior edit assistant in MCR
  • Head of MCR
  • Head of post-production
  • Going freelance as an offline editor.

I was lucky, I skipped the library rung of the ladder as I moved into a new facility straight into edit assisting.

After about a year, as a junior edit assistant, I was speaking to one of the freelancing edit assistants working at this larger facility. He asked me what I wanted to do, and when I said "offline editing," he said, "Why are you working here then?" I wasn't sure what he meant so I asked him. He told me the career progression was from MCR to the online editor. I was surprised and a little disappointed. I also found out the manager of the machine room had spent four years in her role and had lost her passion for editing. I was scared of this happening to me so I decided to go freelance as an edit assistant. I did that back in 2015. It was the best career decision I have ever made. It never gets dull as you get to work on all sorts of projects, with loads of people. I hate the idea that 6 years on I would still be watching progress bars!

There are pros and cons to being freelance:

  • The money is a massive pro as I was earning up to x4 what I was when in the facility, but there is no sick pay or holiday pay
  • You can take a holiday whenever you want
  • You don't get stuck doing the same processes day in, day out
  • There is no contract work.

I decided, knowing all of this, I would give freelance a shot and I haven't looked back since. I have also found with freelance work if there is a bit of downtime at the facility they might hand you editing roles, or if an editor is off sick you can jump in. Doing this I have done some editing for some pretty major shows.

The main things I know now that I wish I knew back when I started out are:

  • Study somewhere where there are jobs in the industry you are interested in
  • Don't be fooled that you will go straight out of university into a job,
  • Do work experience so you know you are going into the correct career,
  • Learn all available editing systems, many offer free trials,
  • In your free time show an interest in your next career move by shadowing, it will be noticed,
  • Don't settle for being paid under minimum wage, it's extremely hard to live on,
  • Don't think the career path to your career goal is quick, it's not, but you will get there. 

When applying for jobs I found out the Managing Directors name and tried to email them directly. At university, we are told to email human resources a 1 page covering letter and CV, but this is wrong!

At one job I had to sift through CVs, and cover letters and file them. I didn't have time to read a page-long cover letter, I just scanned for the role they wanted and filed it away.

After doing this I have never written a long cover letter ever again. Now I write my name, where I saw the job, how long I have worked for and attach my CV. Short and sweet and it works! Also to stand out, subject the email with something more than 'Edit Assistant'. I have used 'Very Good Edit Assistant', 'Amazing Edit Assistant' and 'Best Edit Assistant Around' to name a few. This will make whoever reading it laugh and makes you memorable.

In a nutshell, don't expect to leave education and go straight into a senior role. You need to start at the bottom and work your way up as you go. Go to networking events, in the media industry it's a lot about who you know. The career progression, in the right order, is important so you have all the relevant skills to make yourself a valued media professional.

Find out the best way to achieve your career goal and follow it, but remember the best way may not be the quickest!

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