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You're a what? Videotape editor.

When the director yells "cut," the lights go out and the cameras stop rolling. But the show is far from over. Postproduction comes next. Now the tape must be edited, cut, and shaped into the show or commercial that you will see on your TV. Hundreds of hours of planning and production are reduced to minutes, even seconds. It's the kind of pressure that Steve Seng thrives upon. "The editor ties everything together," says Seng. "He takes the producer's plans and the director's technical execution, then kind of strikes an arc with his editing computer and binds it together on tape." You may have seen the products of Seng's technical wizardry and artistic eye. Since he first sat down in the editor's chair at Atlantic Video, a postproduction house in Alexandria, Virginia, he's cut hundreds of commercials, dozens of shows. Editing is the last link in the production chain and the most cost intensive. "An average session will run upwards of $750 and more per hour," says Seng. What do clients get for the money? An array of equipment that makes the bridge of the Starship Enterprise look like a VW Bug; an editing computer that lniks the electronics together; and Seng's fingertips at the keyboard. "Every editor has to reach an intuitive level when you're working the controls," says Seng. "Hunt peck doesn't cut it. I'm thinking about what happens next. The two most important things in television are 'the next two things.' If you know what those are, you know how to get there."

Seng got to where he is by following the formula that leads to success in any field, persistence and hard work. In 1982, he earned his bacherlor's degree in speech communications with an emphasis in broadcasting. Then he spent the next year and a half looking for work in the field. That interval was typical then. "Now," says Seng, "the competition is unreal. It's a question of supply and demand. And it's part of show business. A lot of people want in on it."

After 18 months, he found a job as a dubber's assistant, "the lowest form of video life that still has a pulse," he says. "It's so entry level, it's the YUGO of video." The position would be perfect for an intern, if they hired them. Internships in production companies are common; in postproduction they are rare. "Postproduction is costly," says Seng. "Each person has a specific job to perform and is expected to perform it flawlessly. There's every little time to train an intern."

In his next job, this time as a dubber, Seng stepped up to a "YUGO with air conditioning." A dubber takes the master tape of a production and copies it to other tapes. "It's important to realize that there is a chain in the business," says Seng, "and the dubber is a link in the chain. Some jobs may be more glamorous, but all are important."

Typically, these first two links in the video chain work the least desirable hours for the lowest pay. For example, Seng estimates that a dubber with no experience might make $14,000 annually. And since many postproduction houses operate 24 hours a day, these employees may be working while the rest of us sleep. But the graveyard shift offers an important advantage to newcomers to the business--access to the equipment. "On a quiet night, you can sit down in an edit chair, put the tapes up, and learn how to use the tools of the trade. You have all that equipment to yourself with no one to yell 'Don't touch that!'"

The next link in the postproduction career chain is assistant editor. Essentially, the assistant does whatever the editor says. The day we spoke, Seng had edited a 30 second commercial for a local car dealeship. "First we figure out what equipment we'll use, then set up and focus them. Then we clean the heads on all the machines and link them into the editing computer."

It took Seng about a year to become an assistant editor and another 6 months to earn his seat in the editor's chair. In that half a year, he worked a lot of Saturdays and Sundays. "I spent nearly all of them here, on my own time, learning the equipment. Then, on Monday morning, I'd come in with a list of inane questions to put to the ditors. You have to do it with your hands. You can't read it out of a book."

Seng now holds the title of senior editor. "Different shops look at editors in different ways," says Seng. "Essentially, a senior editor should be able to deliver everything the hardware can and have ideas that the client never thought of. Sometimes a client will walk in with one idea and leave with a totally different product after an edit." He adds that junior editors can probably figure their way through a complicated edit, "but at $900 an hour, no one will let them."

Seng believes an editor needs four essential qualities: Speed, creativity, accuracy, and consistency. "You need speed because time is money, big money. And deadlines loom large. "Federal Express waits for no one," he says.

Creativity is as important as speed. "You have to have a bag full of creativity to make something that didn't exist before. I have to be able to pull an effect out of my black bag that earns the check. That's the difference between an editor and a button pusher."

An editor must also be accurate. Seng says, "You're orchestrating a lot of different hardware and each piece must work at the right time."

Finally, says Seng, an editor must be consistent. "If I can do an effect one day, I better be able to do the same thing the next. Some clients push you hard."

The clients doing the pushing range from advertising firms through political consultants to television stations. Some will be involved throughout the postproduction process and, in Seng's words, "Others will simply fax me a set of instructions and leave me to do the job." Client relations is "the half of editing they don't teach in college. You have t learn what buttons to push here, too," says Seng.

Seven editors work full time at Atlantic Video. Each of them has a signature or style. "Everybody does something a little bit different," says Seng. "The average viewer might not notice it, but we can." Just as they have different styles, they also have preferences as to the kind of work they like to do, either shows or "spots" (commercials).

Seng prefers spots. "A 30-second commercial, with 30 frames a second, has 900 frames. Each one counts," he says. And each cut costs time. It's no unusual to take 8 hours to edit a half minute commercial.

Seconds become hours because editing is not a simple cut and paste job. Edits and effects can be layered upon each other. "If you want to change something in the first level, it affects all the others," says Seng. "We'll get up to the 8th or 9th floor only to have the producer say that he doesn't like the parking garage. So you get out the bulldozer and start from scratch. In the editing suite, that means we go to black. That gets expensive."

Advances in consumer technology have contributed to rising costs in the edit suite. "TV viewers have become much more sophisticated," he says. "As the technology progresses at that level, so it also must by three fold at my level. We've got to stay ahead of the consumer."

In some ways, Seng laments the fascination with technology and special effects. "I'm a fundamentals editor. I believe in the well-timed cuts. Some of the best work you see is all cuts. That's what students get a huge dose of in college. But people want to see what's on the other side of the fence. They lose sight of the basics."

Beyond the well-timed cut, what's basic in a postproduction house is the dollar sign. "What a client can afford to pay directly affects the tools I can use. If a client asks for something, we don't say no." Mixing the pressures of time and the bottom line with the strong personalities that are part of show business can lead to spontaneous combustion. An editor needs a healthy ego to withstand the heat. "Without confidence, clients will second guess you," says Seng. "They'll say 'try blue. . . red. . . green. . . yellow.' The editor says 'the blue's perfect and by gosh everybody loves it.' Why? Because the editor says so," Seng says. "But if the client wants to play, go for it."

For their skills and their confidence in using them, editors are generally well paid. Seng estimates that the top editor in the Washington market probably earns in excess of $125,000 annually. It's money well-earned, he asserts. "I go to work to work. If I'm not editing. I'll be meeting with a client about an edit, or talking about editing with my colleagues."

At the end of the day, what does he feel? "Satisfaction. There's a tremendous amount of satisfaction. You can see the finished product and hear it. And everyone else can see it and hear it, too."
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Author:Stanton, Michael
Publication:Occupational Outlook Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 1991
Words:1546
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