Film School Confidential: Does It Really Matter?


Editor Donn Cambern, A.C.E., right, and director Paul Mazursky on-set in the mid-1970’s, photo courtesy of Donn Cambern.

by Edward Landler

In the age of YouTube, making movies no longer seems complicated. With an expanding range of visual media and easy access to affordable camcorders and editing software, many can shoot and arrange scenes without a big crew.

Nancy Richardson, left, photo by Gregory Schwartz, and Alan Heim, photo by Gregory Schwartz.

“The only way to learn to manipulate images is by actually doing it,” says Oscar- winning editor and Editors Guild Vice President Alan Heim, A.C.E. Nancy Richardson, A.C.E., Guild Board member and editor of Twilight, agrees, saying “Film school or not, the bottom line is you learn by editing.”

But some aspects of working in a high-pressure, heavily financed, collaborative industry cannot be learned by working on one’s own. Editors Guild Magazine talked to a cross-section of Guild members about their backgrounds and preparation for working in Hollywood. Reflecting a broad range of learning experiences, they shared their thoughts about gaining an education in their field.

The process of learning editing has never been static. Former Guild President Donn Cambern, A.C.E., editor of Easy Rider and Romancing the Stone, started working when an apprentice system still existed in the studios. He moved up from apprentice to assistant music editor and within six months to music editor. He became a picture editor 12 years later.

Chic Ciccolini, MPSE, sound editor on many of Ron Howard’s films, had a part- time job in production while attending the School of Visual Arts in New York. Realizing he was learning more on the job, he left film school and made a two-year progression from messenger to shipping room to print checker to apprentice to assistant editor.

Now a picture editor, Joanne D’Antonio was an unpaid intern editing news film in New York when she looked into applying for film school at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication. The dean of the school told her, “You are where our students wish they were. You could keep learning on the job.” She took his advice and moved to Los Angeles. Within three years, she accumulated experience as assistant editor and sound editor and became a dialogue editor on Apocalypse Now.

Joanne D’Antonio, left, and Chic Ciccolini.

But the change in technology from film to digital editing practically short-circuited the apprentice system. Sound editor R. J. Kizer, ADR supervisor on Inception, says, “Schedules these days rarely allow for an editor to show assistants the how-and-why of decision-making.” Assistant editor and Guild Board member Sharon Smith Holley agrees. “In film, assistants would observe the cuts and changes and understand the reasons for them by taking notes for the editor, ” she says. “Now the assistant is in another room organizing the data and out- putting it.”

Experiencing this change while an assistant editor, Stephanie Hernstadt decided to go to the American Film Institute Conservatory. “The apprentice scenario has evaporated and assistant jobs are harder to find,” she says. “I went to film school to learn how to tell stories better.” Along with an MFA in editing, Hernstadt says the training qualified her for an “undocumented degree in post-production supervision” and has since worked as a post supervisor as well as an assistant in TV and movies.

“The film school has replaced the apprentice system,” says Cambern, who teaches at AFI. “If you can afford it, you are prepared to step into the real world with a strong sense of self, strong editing aesthetics, real skill sets and the ability to stand up to enormous pressure.”

With students constantly making films—short movies the first year and longer projects later—“the film schools are like little film studios,” adds Heim, who studied at City College of New York. “In film school, a student learns the whole process, so that in the real world you can understand how your job fits into the whole process,” explains Richardson, a graduate from and a professor at the UCLA School of Theatre, Film and Television.

Also at school, Hernstadt says, “You pay for the privilege to make mistakes and not get fired.” Similarly, Kizer says his years at NYU were a protective bubble that he could “use as a playground and try any- thing. That’s where I discovered I really liked editing.”

Brad Buecker, left, and Stephanie Hernstadt.

“You find your own voice in film school,” says Brad Buecker, supervising producer and editor for TV’s Glee and editor of the recently released Eat Pray Love. “You learn how to talk about story. Later that helps on the job. On Glee, the entire editorial team gets involved in the storytelling process. Everyone needs to be able to communicate.”

“The ability to articulate is part of what makes you a good editor,” says Richardson. “You have to learn how to articulate your views about story, performance and what the scene is about,” Cambern adds. “It’s learning the language.” Students viewing and discussing contemporary and classic films, and how film storytelling has evolved, is part of this learning as well. “If you don’t think you need to know film history, you need to go to film school,” says Buecker, who took a summer program at USC and a dramatic writing class at NYU before attending the AFI.

These discussions help students form long-lasting friendships as they discover they share tastes and outlooks. “School provides a network of friends; it creates a community,” says Richardson. “Later, when one person gets a feature, their friends work on it. That’s harder to come by without the film school background.”

“At USC, I hooked into a network of people I loved to work with and continue to work with,” adds Rocket Science editor Yana Gorskaya. “My first four major jobs were from referrals from faculty. But I know not everyone can say that. I’m fully aware of how lucky I am.” “Every dime I’ve made in this town came from my first year at AFI,” Buecker states. “The contacts made in the editing program got me work.”

Tom Fleischman, left, photo by Kfir Ziv, and Yana Gorskaya.

Re-recording mixer Tom Fleischman, MPSE, CAS––who often works with Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee––dropped out of NYU after three semesters. The son of Dede Allen, A.C.E., he grew up immersed in the atmosphere of story and editing. “In film school, I wasn’t learning anything I did- n’t know already,” he reveals. “Film school would be good for someone with no back- ground in the dramatic arts.” Fleischman grew up with the contacts, too, proving that some luck in finding connections may come from being in the major centers of film activity. Academic programs outside those centers could offer an education in the art and craft of filmmaking, but may not have a faculty that can provide significant contacts.

Despite that, assistant editor Holley interned on Robert Altman’s Health on loca- tion in Florida while she was in high school. After graduating from the University of Florida, she found more location work on Hollywood movies which led to more work and to her move into post-production.

Without the benefit of a film school, Holley says that other venues can help a would-be editor piece together an educa- tion and find both contacts and work. For example, a focused selection of seminars and programs offered by film organiza- tions, film festivals and university exten- sions can offer grounding for a determined individual. “The Academy recently offered a four-week educational series—open to the public—about editing called ‘Cut to the Chase,’” says Holley. “In one session, Richard Chew showed how the zoom lens changed editing. This is tremendously useful to both professionals and stu- dents.”

Hughes Winborne, left, photo by Gregory Schwartz, and Sharon Smith Holley, photo by Wm. Stetz.

Oscar-winning Crash editor Hughes Winborne’s film school experience was limited to an intensive NYU program where he made three 16mm films in six weeks. Drawn instinctively to editing— “nobody else wanted to stay late in a dark room”—Winborne became an assistant editor on a shoestring-budget movie. One day he was sent out for coffee and came back to find the editor gone. He took over the job. Honing his craft editing corporate films and TV documentaries led him to Slingblade and to work in Los Angeles. There he had the luck of finding a mentor in director Daniel Petrie, Sr. “He navigated me through the social and political realities of the business,” Winborne says.

Big Brother editor Rod Schultheiss majored in film theory at the University of Colorado, but took only one Super-8 film- making course––having no intention of going into production work. His real training as an editor came on the job. Originally a post-production coordinator, he learned different aesthetics working on sports promos, video graphics shorts, music videos, documentaries, game shows and then reality shows. Schultheiss learned story structure from putting together longer-format shows. “In reality shows, you are crafting story scripts as you edit,”he says. Holley echoes Schultheiss’ experience, observing, “Today, you can work up through the post-production house, and that might be working on trailers, training and industrial films, commercials and airline versions of movies.”

Rod Schulthesiss, left, and Erich Gann.

Supervising sound editor on TV’s Sons of Anarchy, Erich Gann is a good example of working one’s way up through a post-production house, starting at Smart Post Sound in 2006. Before coming to Los Angeles in 1999, he mixed albums for rock bands and got additional tech training in music post-production at Full Sail University in Orlando. The LA Film School had developed Full Sail as a technical training facility for film and video as well as music. While he was there, Gann started working on film and video projects.

Similarly, Luis Galdames, MPSE, sound effects editor on House M.D., came from a music background, where he learned ProTools. He trained five months at the LA Recording Workshop (now the LA Recording School, affiliated with LA Film School), learning post-production, scoring- to-picture and Foley editing. But it was the luck of having director Alexander Payne as a neighbor that brought him his first job as assistant sound editor to supervising sound editor Frank Gaeta, MPSE. “The school was the starting point. The hard-core train- ing is really on the job and who you know,” Galdames says.

The change from film to digital editing represents a change in learning and an obligation to keep up with constantly evolving software. “Today, the mastery of the computer is a given, no matter what the back- ground,” says Cambern. “You have to learn the new technical skill sets.” Short-term and long-term training services and facilities abound for both picture and sound editing software—Avid “boot camps,” LA Film School, Apple stores, UCLA Extension, to name a few. But learning the computer skills is essentially technical. It does not teach story, character and rhythm—things emphasized in film schools. And coming out of tech training leaves students less likely to have formed the personal relationships necessary for the industry.

Luis Galdames, left, and Donn Cambern.

Many editors and mixers say they learn the new versions of software on their own as they come along, building on what they already know of the older versions. “When you figure it out your own way, you may not know the best way, but you get the job done,” says sound editor Kizer. “Later, you revise your method as you work with people who show you.” As systems become more complex, though, it is harder to learn the technology on the job. “It’s like watch- ing someone play a computer game,” Holley says. The work schedule doesn’t allow time for training.

Dody Dorn, A.C.E., editor on Memento and Australia, is a prime example of what she calls “the University of On-the-Job Training.” Her father was a set builder and B-movie producer. She skipped college, going to work as a production assistant in her late teens. She was capable, so productions kept pushing her into more responsible positions in an industry where the vast majority of jobs are blue-collar, no matter how well paid. Starting as an assistant— working on film—Dorn learned quickly and moved to editor, then sound editor, supervising sound editor and eventually owner of her own company, Sonic Kitchen, before returning to picture editing. Just as quickly, she adapted to the computer and the digital medium. “I wish I had the leisure of college to explore film history creatively,” Dorn says.

R.J. Kizer, left, and Dody Dorn.

“But I wound up doing it anyway. I fell in love with the magic of film through editing.” Everyone interviewed agrees about one thing that is difficult to learn outside the workplace: politics. “There is a hierarchy and protocol in our business that could be explained more clearly in detail by the schools,” says sound editor Ciccolini. “Working in the real world, I had to learn the political dynamic between producer, director, studio and editor,” Kizer adds. “Failure on the job isn’t an option,” notes editor Buecker, adding, “You learn the time to speak and the time not to speak.”

“You’ll want to collaborate with the director and be nice to the producer,” explains Cambern. “If they argue, don’t get in between them.” He adds, “If you see a better way to cut a scene, take the risk and show it to the director. You won’t get laid off and the director will take the credit for how well it plays. The director will remember you and hire you for his next movie.” Richardson concurs: “In my experience, when you are focused on making a good movie, the politics can be overcome.”

The education never ends. “Every good project I’ve worked on has led to more good things, with more aesthetic sense, more technical sense and more jobs,” says Buecker.

Ultimately, all interviewed agree with Heim when he says, “It’s still storytelling.”

“Whether you go to film school or not,” says editor D’Antonio in summary, “you have to have the innate ability.”

About Edward Landler 113 Articles
Edward Landler is a filmmaker, media educator and film historian. He made I Build the Tower, the definitive feature documentary on the Watts Towers, and is currently completing a cultural history of film. He can be reached at [email protected].