The Professional Identity-Crisis of the Film & Television Editor

Originally published in 2014 for Massey University

“Film and video, the two most technology-dependent art forms of the twentieth century, have witnessed a profound acceleration in change, the shift from analog to digital-driven technology. The implications are enormous.” Ken Dancyger

Over recent decades, technological changes in editing have not only affected the work itself, but also the nature of the labor environment. The role of the editor has been both deprofessionalized and at the same time made more complex. Editors are now asked and expected to have a solid grasp on a wider variety of skills and disciplines than ever before. In a new, unstable work environment, they are also expected to incorporate a wider range of tasks into their job, for which they are not additionally compensated. The democratization of technology has created a labor market where professionals who spent many years training in what was previously seen as a specialized craft, compete with those who have learned to operate the tools of the trade as hobbyists.



In the early days of film, editing was an engineering-based job, based on finding ways to cut two pieces of film together as seamlessly as possible, with secondary attention to the flow of the narrative. Although editing was first recognised as a craft worthy of recognition at the 1935 Academy Awards, it was not until 1947 that editors were officially considered by the Academy as separate to “general technicians”. The tools of the editor were a small number of machines, clips, light, and a pair of scissors. As video editing emerged in the late 1950’s, and digital tools were developed in the 1970’s, editors added more complex engineering skills to their work. Editors and filmmakers worked with computer hardware and software developers to create products that intended to eliminate much of the technical and physical work of the film-based cutting room, with the idea that it would allow for a greater focus on the art of visual storytelling.


The work of the editor seemed to become more demanding of skills and expertise as technology advanced. But today, editors are becoming less valued for their specialized craft, and more often now can be defined as “below-the-line workers”. How did this happen?


The 1980’s and 1990’s saw changes in the business of film and television, with deregulation in the US allowing large studios to focus on broader distribution channels and create “vertically integrated conglomerates”. At the same time, another significant change came to the world of professional editing, as the first non-linear editing system, based on a standard Macintosh computer, was introduced to the market in 1989.


By 1992, the Avid Media Composer was able to access enough data to be used for any size production, and computer-based non-linear editing became the industry standard. Computer-based non-linear editing systems made editing much faster, as it was no longer necessary to handle physical tape or film during the editing process. It also gave professional editors access to a new range of visual effects, graphics and audio tools that allowed them to add these elements at the early editorial stage, incorporating them more seamlessly into the creative process.

Editors were, for the first time, able to create something that would look and sound much like the finished product. But the same technology also affected content production, making it less expensive and adapted to the deregulated industry’s growing demand for inexpensive programming. Because film and television studios conglomerated, invested and expanded so significantly in the 1990s and early 2000s, they became deeply in debt and required productions to operate on smaller budgets. In the past decade, analysis shows that low-end productions have come to dominate the market. Fiscal pressure on content producers in the film and television industry meant that greater pressure was placed on production personnel, including editors.


Emerging post production technologies are further consolidating and simplifying the craft. Avid, the first widely-used professional computer-based editing system, now advertises their products in terms of “scalability”, and “automation of workflows”. They also advertise that their automation and speed allows “more time for creativity”. Avid Interplay cloud-based server is promoted as a product that makes “remote cloud-based collaboration easy and cost-effective. What’s more, you can edit just as efficiently as you would if you were all at the home facility.” Avid also perpetuates immaterial labor, as their latest tools allow editors to perform the tasks of highly specialized professionals such as colorists and stereoscopic 3D artists. Avid is, of course, responding to the needs of the market. In the past ten years, Apple’s Final Cut Pro has become another software used by professional editors. Both FC7 and X include simplified versions of various tools, allowing editors (and the public) to perform tasks previously considered as professional and highly specialized. Apple has begun to move further away from the traditional editing tools than most editors are comfortable with, further simplifying the craft in Final Cut X (cynically referred to in many edit suites as “iMovie Pro”). This technological trend will likely expand the effects of deprofessionalization to more “above the line workers” in the post production industry.



The modern post production industry has changed in terms of what is produced, how it is produced and where it is produced – and these changes have been enabled by digital technology.


The most consistently discussed aspect of working conditions for editors and other creative workers today, is the amount of immaterial labor they contribute. The concept of immaterial labor has long been associated with below-the-line workers, but industry analysts over the past five years have begun to describe a “gift economy” becoming standard in digital and cultural industries.

As a consequence of the modern media work environment, editors working in every genre must perform tasks outside paid working hours in addition to the tasks expected of them in an expanded job description, such as the new expectation of delivering cuts that include graphics, color correction and mixed sound. Editor Adam Epstein notes that in this environment, an editor’s professional identity is immeasurable, stating that “”I am an editor,” is now assumed to be the start of a list rather than a declarative statement.”.


Edgar Burcksen, A.C.E. describes one of the effects of the demand for immaterial labor, as an editor who has experienced significant changes in the industry throughout his career:

“Even though I re-frame, flip and zoom shots, I’m not a cinematographer; when I use the keyer on my Avid, Final Cut or Premiere Pro, I’m not claiming to be a visual effects artist; using the title tool and After Effects does not make me a graphic designer; adjusting the color of a shot to fit a scene will not turn me into a colorist; adjusting the EQ or level on a dialogue track is not transforming me into a re-recording mixer; adding sound effects and ambiances does not elevate me to a sound designer; and, by adding a temp track of music, I’m not becoming a composer.

Nonetheless, all of these tasks you now are expected to perform as a competent editor, especially in productions with a “challenged” budget. “

Documentary editors must research their subject, narrative editors must be familiar with adapted or reference texts. Commercial editors must have a good understanding of the products being advertised, reality and series editors must know the show and its characters. Being familiar with the director, producer, and the production itself is essential, as editors are now considered easily replaceable if they cannot immediately fit into the social hierarchy of the team. They must maintain knowledge of  the ever-broader range of distribution channels, and of the latest software, hardware, tools and technology. And all of this additional work is expected to be “gifted” to the employer.


Psychologist Jocelyn Handy tries to explain film industry freelancers’ willingness to give so much for so little, to the behavior of addicts. Sociologists David Hesmondhalgh and Sarah Baker noted a “hedonism” in workers from creative industries. While analysts warn that by accepting these declining conditions, people are harming themselves and others, editors will tell you that they love their job, and that this is just the way it is these days.


Researchers studying workers in today’s cultural sector have consistently noted a correlation between a largely unstable labor environment, in terms of intermittent work, and patterns of stress and insecurity amongst workers. Studies have shown that in the creative industries, where an individual’s identity and sense of worth is tied to his/her work, this is prevalent, and part of the structure of the business. A second factor tied to stress and insecurity of film and television production workers, is the large number of young people vying for jobs.


The deprofessionalization of editing, is in part caused by the economic state of the industry. Additionally, democratization of the technology and access to learning environments through personal computers and the Internet, means that any member of the public with an inexpensive computer and an internet connection can learn basic editing skills and produce content. A 2008 report acknowledged that there is evidence of the implications of this “for the work conditions of already under-compensated creative practitioners and media professionals— who work within conditions of ‘precarious labour’ … pointing to a crisis of uncertainty in the economic structures of the cultural industries”. Another study by British psychologists of television industry workers note the anxiety of their interview subjects about their “replaceability” by new graduates and young people willing to work for free, or for very low pay. A 2010 US report echoes this, noting an oversaturation of labor supply due to higher education training programs:

students learn a wide variety of production skills and are introduced to new technologies that cross-conventional union professional and craft jurisdictions. They learn how to produce on ‘shoestring’ budgets and to work very rapidly and under severe time constraints. They learn to work in efficient multi- functional production teams. When they graduate, they are ‘hybrids’, writer- directors, director- camera-operator-editors, who make up a flexible, independent contractor workforce.


For editors in particular, new technology has meant that previously highly specialized work has become something more people can do as a hobby from home. Before the digital revolution, the tools of the film and television trade were unique to studios and production houses because of cost and size, meaning that only professionals could be editors. Editors self-regulated to an extent; their ability to use these tools meant that they were the gatekeepers of their craft. Now that professionally-used editing software is being marketed as “prosumer”, editing work has been demystified and the creative skills of the professional editor devalued. A common phrase amongst professionals is ‘just because you know how to use Final Cut doesn’t make you an editor, just because you know how to use a stove doesn’t make you a chef.’ However, this sentiment is rarely heard outside the walls of the edit suite, and many young people with the ability to use these tools are competing with professionals for low-level jobs.


While for most editors, these low-level jobs are unappealing, they are essential to secure revenue in a market where there are fewer high-level productions and more cheap, low-level television jobs. Labor statistics show that in this market, with rising cable and reality television production, between 2000 and 2004 editors were the only group whose recorded work hours increased. However, the number of editors employed actually declined during this period, indicating that fewer editors are working harder, and that the ever-increasing pool of professionals are more often out of work.


A 2010 study of workers in three creative industries, including television, notes that there is a distinct correlation between the devaluation of professional roles, and decreased salary and other working conditions. In particular, this study notes the recent increase in hours required of workers on a daily rate, alongside the elimination of overtime pay. Where a typical work day was previously eight hours, it is now ten or twelve hours, effectively decreasing wages. The authors also asserted that attention needed to be paid to the increasing trend of self-commodification and voluntarism.


Exploitation of editors’ immaterial labor has become a reality, along with declining pay, future prospects and working conditions.

Overall, there is a general lack of unionism in creative industries, with the film industry being unique because unionism is still strong in the production sector. Commentators have noted a declining union membership in post production. This in part is due to the flexible, freelance labor pool dominating the film and television industry in New York and Los Angeles. Small-budget productions, making up a majority of the work for editors, save costs by relying on staff on non-union contracts. Studies also note the dramatic decline in union membership for younger professionals, citing an “exclusionary” attitude of some unions. British researchers found that many television production workers felt unionization was a barrier to work, because in such a competitive labor market, it was unwise to demand higher pay or better conditions.


Self-organization of the industry is evident in blogs, user groups and other social media, where editors are able to discuss employment related issues with a level of anonymity that gives a feeling of solidarity without risking future job prospects. Even though these networks provide nowhere near the effectiveness of a fully organized union, they allow people to express themselves and feel that they are heard. In 2013, VFX artists, in a similar labor environment to today’s editors, took to social media to organize and build collectivism in the face of large-scale job losses in California. This online mobilization did not lead to a change in the labor environment, but it did lead to physical organising and picketing. This resulted in vast media coverage, ensuring the workers’ grievances were heard worldwide. Social media organizing lead directly to a meeting held in March 2013, in Los Angeles, attended by an estimated 250 workers and streamed live to around 100 others in San Francisco, Texas, Vancouver and New Zealand. During this meeting, a previously physically fragmented workforce discussed realistic ways to organise and affect change, despite the various barriers to traditional union collectivism.

Online and alternative forms of collectivism may become even more essential for editors as the industry continues to fragment physically.


The size and cost of the infrastructure required to produce film and television prior to the modern digital age, was significant. Although it was possible to make such devices portable, early videotape and primitive digital technology was so costly, and so physically large, that professional editors could only work at a studio. In this environment, an editor had access to assistants, additional crew, and their counterparts. For two decades, editors were centralized as a community around studios and production hubs.


With the portability of many editing tools and the availability of fast communication networks able to handle large enough amounts of data efficiently, many productions are able to complete parts or all of their post-production outside of Los Angeles and New York, and even outside of the US. This further reduces costs of post production, as there are many smaller cities where production can be moved to, with tax incentives and lower-cost labor pools. Many editors now work a number of days on film productions from home, in isolation from their peers. There is again further immaterial labor required in these situations, where communication has become such a part of the process of cultural production, that workers are expected to combine creative, technical and entrepreneurial skills, as well as the management of social relations within the production team.

Technological and global changes of the past two decades have affected film and television editors significantly, changing the job in a number of ways. Modern capitalism, brought on by political and technological change, has caused the industry to shift from a localized structure of labor communities, through conglomeration, to a post-recession model where distributors take advantage of a fragmented labor pool of workers whose job has been derecognized and destabilized by new technology and a demand for low-cost services. The craft of editing is no longer considered a specialized or unique skill, as the tools of the trade have become available to the public and the Internet has democratized the ability of the public to learn how to edit. While Ken Dancyger predicted in 2007 that new technology would mean “the means to produce quality visual stories will drop, democratizing the cost of production.”, other theorists studying the outcome of this situation have shown that although production costs can be lower, it does not mean that the market has been opened up to a wider range of content producers, because of vertical integration of the market. The expansion of editing technology has been exploited by many productions, which employ low-level, low- cost workers to save production costs, forcing experienced professionals into a precarious labor environment where they must contribute a large amount of immaterial labor to the role.


Editors are experiencing a significant period of change, as digital technology and post-recession economics in the media industry continue to affect their work environment and professional identity. This change will likely extend to remaining above the line post production specialists, requiring a long-term flexibility, where these workers find new and innovative ways to use technology to collaborate and commodify their immaterial labor in a positive way, and reclaim a level of recognized professionalism.

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