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Career Make-Over

Novice Film Editor Says She Wants More Than a Cameo


Five years ago, Shin Whei Peng became interested in TV and film editing. She took some classes and did sporadic, short-term stints as a production aide and assistant editor on some low-budget films.

But as of June, the 30-year-old Los Angeles resident was still largely struggling as a temp, earning about $25,000 doing mindless administrative work at a Hollywood studio. And she was miserable.

Though she desperately wanted to get on the editing career track, she wasn't making progress. Editing assistant jobs have been dwindling because of studio cutbacks. And Peng admitted she's not the world's best schmoozer. She hasn't yet found a mentor or made influential contacts.

But what most irritated Peng was a seeming lack of altruism by some Hollywood employers and co-workers. Many times she asked for assistance in networking, but she said she was routinely rebuffed.

"Some of these people are in a position of knowing people who can help me, but they just will not help," she said.

Was it time for Peng to change careers? Frustrated, she contemplated becoming a film archivist, a researcher or even a yoga instructor. But would she find contentment in such jobs?

For guidance, she consulted New York-based career counselor Judith Gerberg.

Gerberg had Peng fill out a priorities list. The two found that Peng held some conflicting goals. First, Peng named "tranquillity," "stability" and being "at peace with [her]self" as her top priorities.

"I don't think there's much peace or tranquillity as an assistant editor," Gerberg said.

Second, Peng expressed a desire to move away from Los Angeles' "hustle and bustle," though most TV and film editing jobs are based here.

After much discussion over two sessions, Peng admitted to Gerberg that her principal goal remained becoming a Hollywood editor. The work is "intellectually challenging and creative," Peng said. "I'm happiest in the editing room."

Gerberg advised Peng to become more aggressive in her career pursuit. She needed to develop better social skills--perhaps with a counselor's help--so she'd be at ease cultivating business friendships.

Because Peng said she needed to improve her digital editing skills on Avid Technology equipment, Gerberg encouraged her to take courses or gain expertise at home by purchasing a professional system (such as Avid Technology's Xpress DV).

Though such a system can run as much as $7,000, many determined up-and-coming editors have anted up the money to start their own editing services and hone their skills.

Four months after Peng's last session with Gerberg, Peng said she had made some headway. She landed a $48,000-a-year job as a union editing apprentice/librarian at Universal Studios' feature trailers department.

But she's still not doing editing work and worries that it may take her at least two more years to nab an assistant editor's spot. She wished someone would give her a break. "Nobody has ever offered to teach me," Peng said.

According to Lori Coleman, chairwoman of the American Cinema Editors' internship program, Peng should be taking far more initiative to make her editing career a reality.

"She's already been [in the industry] five years," Coleman said. "She has contacts. She got her foot in the door. I would wonder why a person after five years hasn't succeeded in entering the arena. Is she sending letters to her favorite editors asking for jobs? Is she [offering to work] for free? Observing other assistants? These things aren't written down, they aren't taught in school. But you do them if you want to be an editor."

Two weeks ago, Peng received an unusual opportunity. Five-time Emmy winner Janet Ashikaga invited her to the editing room for "The West Wing" television series on the Warner Bros. lot.

There, Ashikaga spent hours answering Peng's questions and demonstrating editing techniques on an Avid Media Composer 9000 XL system. Other TV and film experts also had tips and advice.

Ashikaga first explained to Peng that, contrary to Peng's concerns, mastery of editing equipment is not the most important skill of editors.

Editors assemble dailies (also called rushes) into story form, create mood and pacing, select audio and visual effects and music, and prepare their TV episodes or films for viewing by a director or producer.

Though editors perform these duties behind the scenes, their artistic contributions are arguably as important as those of writers and directors.

"It's the creativity they put into the material that sets [outstanding editors] apart," said Roger Christiansen, senior lecturer at USC's School of Cinema-Television. "The most talented people understand story and how to tell that story visually."

Other key traits for editors include patience, excellent listening skills, a team-player attitude and the ability to intuit others' intentions, Ashikaga said. "A crucial part of great editing is making everyone else look good."

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