Veteran Film Editor Shares Insider Secrets on Breaking-in

Larry Jordan (known professionally as Lawrence Jordan), ACEMPEG, is a Hollywood Editor who has amassed more than 45 professional credits, including Fallen, Assassins, Deuce Bigelow, and much more . He is also author of a forthcoming course, Master The Workflow, which aims to be the preeminent training destination for aspiring post-production professionals. Today, I’m honored to have Larry on Premiere Gal to share some of his tips on how he got started in editing and some insights into the future of editing as we know it.

Gal: Thank you for being here on Premiere Gal, Larry. You’re insights will be invaluable to the burgeoning generation of film and video editors. So, first question: How did you first learn how to film edit? What software or (film editing tools) did you edit with?

Kelsey (Premiere Gal) and Lawrence Jordan at NAB SHOW 2018

Larry: I learned the actual craft of filmmaking from several people and was lucky enough to have some really great mentors. The first was my father who was a film editor in the commercial and trailer business. That was one of the first places I actually got to work in an editing room. After that I knew that I wanted to work on feature films. I was mentored by some of the greats including Dede Allen who was one of the pioneers of film editing. I worked for her on a couple of films and also worked with Lynzee Klingman, who was a great editor. And Richard Marx, who cut films like The Godfather: Part II, Apocalypse Now, You've Got Mail and Terms of Endearment.

Basically, I studied their editing methods. I wasn't taking lessons per se, but they would cut and we would talk about the work -- examining performance, rhythm, tempo and how scenes worked in the context of the whole film.  In the process, I learned by osmosis. Because of my own experiences, I really believe the way to learn how to edit is just by observing and doing. I think it’s more important than learning theory out of a textbook.

As for editing tools, when I started we were cutting 35mm film on Moviolas and flatbed KEM machines. These machines provided the model for non-linear editing systems, in that picture and track were separate and the film itself functioned as a timeline.  I subsequently was one of the first people exposed to digital, non-linear editing and taught myself how to use the Avid Media Composer, Adobe Premiere Pro CC and Final Cut Pro. It's been an ongoing process of learning new technologies.

[Editing] is an innate talent in the same way that people have a gift to write music or paint or take amazing photographs.
— Larry Jordan

Gal: Does film editing require a special innate talent that can’t be taught?

Larry: I believe so, although some people might argue with me about this. Although I think almost anything can be taught I also believe that some people have a natural inclination and talent for it. It has to do with a sense of rhythm, tempo and the ability to interpret performance and understand human nature. I do think certain people have more of an instinct for it.

So, yes, I think it is an innate talent in the same way that people have a gift to write music or paint or take amazing photographs. I'm not saying that it can't be taught. But I think if a person doesn't have that sort of natural instinct for editing, they might not do as well as someone who has more of an internal rhythm and a confidence in that rhythm that connects with the film.

For example, I could study painting for many years but never become a great artist, even though I might get good at it technically. But someone who has an innate talent for it will be able to produce much more beautiful works of art.

Gal: Over 50% of my readers and watchers are video hobbyists and aspiring video editors, what advices would you give them?

 Lawrence Jordan editing with Avid Media Composer and a  LogicKeyboard.  

Lawrence Jordan editing with Avid Media Composer and a LogicKeyboard. 

Larry: Kelsey, I think you're performing a great service by teaching people about Adobe Premiere.  In this digital revolution, one of the most misunderstood aspects is post-production and editing.   This applies across the board, even for hobbyists. Some people grasp it, while others just don't want to have anything to do with it.  But it's really important that your readers and viewers understand how integral editing and post-production is to making an interesting piece of content.  Whether it's a video of your kid's birthday party or it's a short film or a full-length feature film. You really need to know what post-production is and what editing is to be able to have real power over the medium.

Gal: How many self-styled filmmakers understand that editing is a big part of what they're throwing up there on YouTube (or however else they're distributing or getting their work out there)?

Larry: Well, the good ones understand!  There's not many YouTubers who can just put up a one-take video and have people find it entertaining.  At the most basic level, you have to cut out the bad parts -- and that's why we have editors. Take a look at the really successful YouTubers, people like Marques Brownlee or Casey Neistat, who have something like 9 million viewers.  If you look at their stuff, you see they have a serious command of the editing craft.

I think the more successful YouTubers have a pretty good handle on how to use a non-linear editing system -- and the power that it gives them in telling their stories.

Gal:  Do you really have to know someone ‘in the business’ to get anywhere? Is it possible to work your way up from the mailroom these days?

Larry: Have to? No, you don't.  Of course, if you do know someone in the business, it might not hurt. But the majority of people who are entering the post-production industry these days don't necessarily know anyone in the business.  The demand is just too high for new labor with all the different types of media that is being created.

From what I observe, the way people do it nowadays, is they get out there and network with those who are working in the business.  They're connecting with the people who are doing what they want to do, whether it's editing, cinematography or what have you. With the Internet and social networks, there are so many ways to accomplish this.

If you want to look for a post-production job in London or in Mumbai, you can join any of a number of Facebook groups, become part of the conversation and let them know who you are. This is a great way for people to get their foot in the door in a very directed way.

So I think the cliché of “knowing someone in the business” is a little bit of an anachronism. Again, it doesn't hurt. But I think there are far fewer people who use this as a means to get in than in the past.

As for working your way up from the mailroom these days, there's no mailroom in post-production.  And we don't get much mail anyway!

But more seriously, I do think you can start out as a runner or a post-production assistant in features or television, for example, and work your way up to be a full editor.  In fact, I was just reading a story about my friend, Matthew Wood, who is a superb sound designer and has worked on many Lucasfilm projects, including Star Wars: The Clone Wars and WALL-E.  Matthew started at 16 by writing a letter to the folks at Lucasfilm and got himself a job as a customer support person in their games division.  He worked his way up and became a supervising sound editor -- and he never went to college. There are all kinds of ways to accomplish your goal.  So, yes, you certainly can work your way up from the bottom with absolutely no experience. That's one of the beautiful things about the film industry.

Gal: What are your thoughts on the burgeoning class of #ShrEditors (shooter, editors, producers)?

Larry: It's simply a result of evolving technology.  Cameras have gotten smaller, non-linear editing systems have gotten cheaper and one person can now do several jobs, whereas it used to take a whole crew of people.  I think that has tremendous value.

Reporters embedded in war zones can shoot, edit and write their own stories and upload them to their TV stations.  You can now operate in stealth-mode to a certain extent with these small DSLR cameras. I think that is something we're going to see more of.

The other thing about shooters-editors-producers, is that this is essentially what a lot of successful vloggers are, right?  For all intents and purposes, they're one-man or one-woman bands. They're writing, shooting and cutting their own material. Some of them are incredibly successful at it and making a much better than average living.  I think it's great because the technology is giving a voice to people who otherwise would have never been able to communicate on a large scale.

Gal: That raises the question, how do you see that that style of filmmaking coexisting with the traditional system where you have separate individuals doing these jobs? Can they can coexist? Or is it going to evolve into this thing of just one-man bands?

Larry: It's always nice to have a little help no matter what you're doing.  I think it all depends on the person. A 22-year-old-vlogger is probably going to have more energy to stay up 20 hours a day and make films all by themselves doing every single job than, say, a 50-year-old vlogger. Are there any 50 year-old vloggers?? But then again, maybe there are some 50-year-old bloggers who can do it all themselves!

Ultimately, they're different animals.  You're creating a different type of content when you're making a feature film or television show.  You unquestionably need the help or you're probably going to kill yourself in the process. But in the shooter-editor-producer world, you can get an awful lot done yourself these days.

The danger, of course, is working for others and getting exploited. Doing three jobs and only getting paid for one.

Editing is 30 percent editing and 70 percent politics.
— One of Larry's mentors

Gal: What is the difference between a film editor and an assistant film editor? Is the latter a glorified description of a gofer or is it a separate career unto itself?

Larry: Absolutely not!  The difference between a film assistant and film editor is the film assistant organizes all of the material for the editor to cut.  In no way is it a gofer, glorified or otherwise. It's a highly skilled and critical job in the feature film-making and television post-production process.  Because of digital technology, we have many more types of media and a much larger volume of it than in the past. It's critical that you have skilled assistants to be able to organize and prepare everything for the editor (and later on, the director) to work on.  So the job is really that of a data manager, combined with the ability to interface smoothly with other departments.

The editor's role is much more of a purely creative role.  Editors do need to be trained in the technical and logistical aspects of the job, because there are all kinds of problems that come up and need to be solved on a film. But once people become editors most of that work is left up to their assistants.

Many people make a career out of being an assistant. With overtime, on a large budget feature film, some assistants can make $3,000-4,000 a week or more.  And a great assistant is almost always in demand. Having said this, the majority of assistant editors I've known do have the desire to become full editors someday themselves.

Gal: What other skills are necessary to be in the film editing business other than learning how to use a computer editing system?

Larry: I think it's really helpful if you have a broad liberal arts background. For example, it's really important to know story. Study literature to understand how a good story is crafted. Of course, it’s also important to understand the acting craft and how to judge performance. Having an understanding of basic human psychology is helpful here. You’ve got to be able to tell when someone is being truthful in a performance or when someone is bluffing or doesn't seem authentic.

Understanding how music and sound impacts a story are also important skills.  I don't mean you have to be musician, but you need to have an instinct for what music is going to be appropriate for a given scene, what kind of mood you're trying to set, and the effect it’s going to have on your audience.

It's very important to have an appreciation and knowledge of the visual arts -- of composition. This comes into play so you can have good instincts for when a cinematographer has composed a shot poorly or when one take is not as elegantly executed as another. So it's very helpful to have a certain level of good taste in the arts.

Besides the creative skills, you also need to know how to get along with people and be a somewhat of a diplomat.  You're dealing with a variety of creative individuals -- directors, producers and studio executives -- so it's important to know how to communicate in a way that gets your ideas across without offending them.  As one of my mentors once told me, "Editing is 30 percent editing and 70 percent politics."

Gal: Why do you consider film editing to be such an integral part of movie making?

Larry: I don't think it's just me -- anyone with an informed understanding of the filmmaking process would agree that editing and post-production are one of the three critical aspects of filmmaking.  The others being writing the script and production.

Editing is where you assemble the film from its disparate elements into, hopefully, a magical whole.  Think of it this way: you theoretically might have over 100 hours of material to choose from to what ultimately becomes a 90 minute or two-hour film.  The process of editing consists of deciding which performances, which camera moves, which visual effects are the best to tell your story.

It's also about a place where you solve problems. Everything from purely technical problems to aesthetic problems.  Legendary director David Lean once said that the editor is the final author of the film. Of course, that authorship is in concert with the director, because it's the director's vision you're trying to deliver.  

Those not in the industry usually think of the production set, where the movie stars work and all glitz and glitter occurs as being where a film is made.  But the editing room is the other place where a movie is made. Think if it this way, an average film might shoot for four, six, maybe eight weeks. But the editing and post process usually goes on for six, eight, 10 months or a year! Editing might not seem quite as exciting, but it's certainly just as critical and can make or break a movie.

There’s an old expression in the film editing business and that is you can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit.
— Larry Jordan

Gal: A question about an editor taking ownership of the movie.  Is it your film? How much do you think of a movie you're working on as yours?

Larry: Absolutely!  I consider it to be my movie, but not in a proprietary way and not without respect for the others I work with.  As an editor you live with a film for months and months. As I said earlier, you can be in post-production for upwards of a year -- sometimes more.  The movies that you work on -- you craft and shape and birth them. You go home and dream about the film at night, and sometimes come up with solutions for problems in your dreams.  I certainly have. And when it's done, it's really like one of your children.

 Lawrence Jordan in front of his current Avid Media Composer editing system.

Lawrence Jordan in front of his current Avid Media Composer editing system.

I've often said to people that you love all your movies, even the really bad ones. Some you have fonder memories of than others.  But they are all like your children.

Maybe I can compare it to a craft person who builds a house.  They may not live in that house, but they put their blood, sweat and tears into it.  And they probably take it as a point of pride and I certainly do. That applies to all the projects that I've ever worked on.

Gal: Is there an argument to be made that if you have a terrible director and a terrible cinematographer, that's when an editor really shines?

Larry: If you have a terrible director and terrible cinematographer, you'd better have great actors and a great story.  Otherwise, you're in deep trouble. There's an old expression in the film editing business and that is you can't make chicken salad out of chicken shit.

Gal: Any final thoughts?

Larry: Just keep honing your skills on Premiere. Get better at the program and learn others. But I am seeing more and more projects being done on Premiere. So keep pushing Adobe to make it a better and more robust program. I think there's going to be work out there in Hollywood for people who know Adobe Premiere.  In fact, there already is.

Gal: You’re right, there is. In fact, Adobe Premiere Pro keeps gaining momentum in Hollywood, such as TV shows like MindHunter on Netflix.  Adobe just released a playlist on YouTube which gives an overview of who’s using Adobe in Hollywood and why they are using the tools.

Thank you very much, Larry! You can follow Larry on Twitter @jordanl61

You can also find him on IMDB.