Is the A.E. career path broken?

In my enthusiasm for machine learning in post production (1, 2, 3) and my firm belief in the value proposition of automation; I may have given the impression that I don’t care about assistant editors, when nothing can be further from the truth. I got my start in ‘the business’ as an A.E.. I worked the night shift for years before advancing to Online Editor. Today, as a post supervisor, I care deeply for my A.E.’s and take great pride in seeing many of them develop into great editors.

But I believe the nature of the technology has changed the A.E.’s role and responsibilities so greatly that it no longer represents the apprenticeship path to editor like it used to. And I think 20th century rules make matters worse. And the field would do well to acknowledge the impending future.

Tapeless acquisition and Avid AMA (and previously FCP7’s reliance on file management and folder hierarchy) have transformed how Assistant Editor spend their time. On any given day an A.E. will spend the majority of their shift shuffling files from hard drives to servers, transcoding media, grouping footage, and preforming other technical skills. But at no point are they learning about the craft of editing. I’ve heard of A.E.’s working a 10 hour shift and then volunteering six additional hours just to cut a small scene. If they can even find someone to offer them mentorship.

In the meanwhile, being excellent at file organization and up-to-date on codecs has nothing to do with being good at pacing, timing, and manipulating images. However, the subordinate ‘assistant’ nature of the job means many struggle to make the jump when they’d be perfectly happy as an A.E. if it paid more and were treated with more respect.

The A.E.’s that want to make the jump to editor are further hindered by union rules that acknowledge only 2 positions: “Editor … a person whose primary skills include the actually cutting or selecting…” and “Assistant Editor … [who] at no time is he/she permitted to edit any portion of the sound or the picture … unless he/she is temporarily upgraded and works under the supervision of an Editor.” The mandatory rate gap between the two positions creates a disincentive for productions from bumping today’s A.E. to tomorrow’s Editor. The union membership would do well to find a way to create a junior editor position with a rate somewhere in between.

Many A.E. tasks can already be delegated to the software (media management if you use Avid Interplay & and Multi Grouping if you use Groupitforme.com) Ultimately I believe the cost savings of machine learning will be too great for productions to ignore. And just as we don’t keep typists and negative cutters around, I believe the A.E. role will be greatly diminished in the near future too.

I’m not happy about it, but the writing is on the wall. We’d do best to address the issue head on.

Published by lowbudgetfun

Seasoned Television Producer specializing in Post Production. Team builder. GTD enthusiast. Lifelong learner.

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