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."
Of late, the path to Hollywood editorship has grown more difficult. Not only have assistant editor and apprentice opportunities dwindled, but on-the-job training has declined.
"Years ago, as an assistant, you'd get to observe the editor's art and eventually try your hand at it," said Rob Kobrin, vice president of product development for Avid Technology, in Tewksbury, Mass. "But today, because technology allows editors to work alone, there are less opportunities for an assistant to see the art."
Peng will need to find ways to introduce herself to editors and impress them with her skills so they might consider hiring her. First, though, she'll have to decide whether she wants a career in TV or film, as very few editors work in both, Ashikaga said.
Once she has chosen, Peng also should try to cultivate relationships with employed assistant editors, Ashikaga said. Not only might she learn from them, but she could get a chance to substitute for them.
Should Peng still wish to improve her technical editing skills, she might contact Santa Monica-based Montana Edit (http://www.montanaedit.com) about its internship program. In exchange for studio and office-related duties (on a full-time or part-time basis), interns are given the chance to take Avid-certified classes and perform editing functions.
Peng also can find out from her employer whether she may be eligible for Avid training at Video Symphony in Burbank (http://www.videosymphony.com). In 1998, Video Symphony won a contract with the California Employment Training Panel that lets it offer technological training to employees of California-based film, video and digital media firms, at no cost to the employers.
But most important of all, Peng should work on her networking skills and show determination.
"It's pure tenacity and tunnel vision," Coleman said. "You have to want to be an editor more than anything else."
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Time For a Change
* Name: Shin Whei Peng
* Occupation: Film editing apprentice/librarian
* Desired occupation: Television or film trailer editor
* Quote: "If [landing an editing job] is all about schmoozing and who you know, plus providing that you can do the job, I've done that. What am I not doing right?"
Meet the Coaches
Judith Gerberg is a New York City-based counselor and coach. Janet Ashikaga, A.C.E., is a five-time Emmy-wining editor. Her credits include "The West wing," "Sports Night," "Men Behaving Badly," " Seinfeld," "Murphy's Law" and "Sledge Hammer." She is on the board of directors of the honorary society of American Cinema Editors Inc.