Sight, Sound & Story: How these editing, VFX pros found their path

By Fergus Burnett

Earlier this month, Manhattan Edit Workshop held its yearly Sight, Sound & Story conference in New York City. It was a full day of panel discussions featuring editors and visual effects pros at the top of their game. The conversations were refreshing and helpful — the panelists focused on their individual journey to where they are now, as well as the craft of filmmaking rather than tools and techniques.

At these kind of events, someone always asks, “What advice would you give to someone just starting out? How did you do it?” Funnily enough, many panelists seemed a bit bewildered by their own success and tended to credit luck mixed with dogged enthusiasm. There seems to be no conventional career pathway in the film industry, and people get started in a number of ways. Some are grandfathered in, some attend film school, others work their way up from sweeping floors, or maybe it’s a chance encounter at the back of the grip truck, or even drug dealing (seriously, this was one pro’s experience).

Kelley Dixon, ACE, (center) started as a PA, while Leo Trombetta, ACE, (to her left) was a sound editor.

Many of the editors who spoke at Sight, Sound and Story had no idea that their path would lead to editing. Kelley Dixon, ACE, (Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Better Call Saul) started her career working as a PA. She said she just enjoyed being a familiar face driving to and from sets and post houses. She found the air-conditioned confines of post houses to be appealing and used that familiarity to get in and start learning.

Leo Trombetta, ACE, (Madmen, Narcos, Roswell) was an established sound editor for years before deciding to make the jump to film and TV. It meant a lower position and a pay cut, but it paid off in the long run, allowing him to follow what he was truly interested in. An added bonus: his knowledge of sound proved to be a useful asset.

The Legend That Is Editor Anne V. Coates
My favorite discussion of the day was when Bobbie O’Steen interviewed legendary film editor Anne V. Coates, who has over 60 years of experience and a list of credits on many films that are now household names, including Murder on the Orient Express, Lawrence of Arabia, The Elephant Man, The Pirates of Penzance and Fifty Shades of Grey.

The British-born Coates started off splicing film for her uncle’s company, which produced and distributed religious films for screenings in churches. Though she had the intention of becoming a director, she soon began working as an apprentice editor at Pinewood Studios, finding it matched her natural instinct and talents. Coates’ mentor, Reggie Mills, liked to finish work early for afternoon tea, and, out of respect for her skills and instinct, trusted her to cut scenes after he had left for the day.

Anne Coates

Anne V. Coates

Coates then became respected as an editor in her own right. And after getting a few feature films under her belt, nearly turned down Lawrence of Arabia because she didn’t think it paid enough. While she worked on celluloid film, using Moviolas and Flatbeds for decades, Coates saw the age of digital editing approach and made the wise decision to learn the ways of what was then known simply as “the Avid.” Coates said that while she liked the intimacy of the Moviola — being so close to the screen and cutting the film with her hands — she still feels the art and craft of editing is mostly the same with digital.

Lessons To Be Learned
These professionals all managed to place themselves in the right place at the right time with enthusiasm and persistence. They had a willingness to learn and hone their skills. They took opportunities and paths that were not necessarily the ones they had envisioned, but held a particular interest that was exciting to pursue.

The obstacle is the path. Remain persistent!

Fergus Burnett is a camera tech and music video director, recently imported from New Zealand, and currently based in New York.


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