Frame of Reference with Editor Zach Arnold


Zach Arnold was raised on a cattle farm in northern Wisconsin in a town of 400 people. He spent his summer days building barbed-wire fences, planting crops, and mowing hay. “I went to college at the University of Michigan and graduated with a degree in Film/Video studies. The night before graduation I was asked to interview at a trailer house in Santa Monica, CA, so I flew across the country the next day, interviewed that Monday, got the job, and drove 2500 miles across the country with whatever fit in my Pontiac Sunfire. Thus began my journey living and working in Hollywood.”


What got you interested in editing?

My brother (who is 13 years older than I) bought a VHS camcorder when I was 8 years old, and we started making home movies where we would chase each other around the house with Nintendo guns. I actually found this process quite tedious and boring. But a couple of weeks later he showed it to me, and he added the score of “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” to what we had shot, and I was hooked. It was like seeing porn for the first time. I’ve been interested in editing ever since.


How did you get started in editing?

In high school I ran a little side business shooting and editing wedding videos, I edited the yearly highlight reel for the local football team, and I even did some work for the town I lived in for their chamber of commerce. In college I had a job in the summers editing local cable commercials (car dealerships, local restaurants) for Comcast. Then, as mentioned above, I got my first job at a trailer company where I was an assistant editor. Six months in I was promoted to trailer editor, and I’ve been cutting ever since.


What is your preferred NLE(s) of choice? Why?

At the moment it’s Avid Media Composer. 2 years ago I would’ve chosen FCP 7, and there are things I love about both. But because of its current viability and steady position in the marketplace, I’m an Avid guy. But I find Adobe Premiere very compelling and hope to find time to learn it.


Give us a run through of your editing process

I am old-fashioned in the sense that I can’t cut a frame until I’ve watched all of my material for a given scene. I read the script first and analyse the scene I’m working on at that given time to identify certain things like: Who’s scene is this? What are the “moments” that I need to emphasise? What is the tone? Then after watching all the dailies for that scene in one sitting, I begin to piece the scene together as it plays in my head. I don’t really do a rough assembly, I make edits and polish as I go from start to finish. After assembling all of the scenes for the show or feature, I watch it down dry (i.e. without music), and then I begin to add music where needed. Once I have everything put together, I start cutting out material that I think is superfluous or not working. But I never cut out a frame until everything is cut as scripted. This way if we need to go back to the original intent, it always exists.


What tips were you given that was really helpful?

Watching all of the dailies at once was something I learned from one of Walter Murch’s books. I also followed his lead and I stand when I edit, and this has really changed the way I approach my job, as well as how I feel.


How organised are you?

Organisation is the absolute cornerstone of being a great editor. Thoughts and ideas are fleeting and escape your brain very quickly. So if you’re not organised, you can’t access your material as fast as you need to, and often you can lose focus on what you’re doing if you end up digging through bins and dailies. My organisation is impeccable to a point of driving my assistants nuts.


Can you work without a script, finding the story and building it on your own?

Once I have read the script, I generally don’t revisit it again unless I think I’m missing something or there are specific action beats that don’t make sense. The dailies are king. The material you shoot is never what’s written on paper, so you have to be true to your dailies and not force yourself into making it exactly like the script intended.


What is your favourite film? Favourite Tv show?

Favourite film is Memento. It was a huge influence on becoming an editor and still is today. My favourite tv show of all time is The Shield, but my current favourite shows are The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad.


What style of editing have you done (Narrative/Documentary/News/Corporate/Wedding/Etc)

I consider myself “genre-agnostic.” I have cut trailers for action films, dark character dramas, comedies, foreign films, and documentaries. I have edited comedy features, dramas, horror, action, and a quirky indie. So far my television experience is limited to Burn Notice, an action/drama with moments of comedy.


If you could meet any editor, who and why?

Probably either Hunter Via (The Shield, The Walking Dead) since we have a lot in common and our stories are similar, or Walter Murch. Not so much because of the films he has done, but because his scientific approach to editing is fascinating, and I’d love to pick his brain.


What advice can you offer to get through complex edits?

Never give up. The answer is always there, you just have to keep experimenting until you find the right combination. Editing is a jigsaw puzzle without the cover photo. There’s never one way to do things.


Which plug-in(s) do you find most useful? Why?

I’m not really a plug-in person. I stick with the basic toolset an NLE offers. I feel that if I can’t accomplish what I need to with those tools, it probably doesn’t need to be done. I stick to story and performances. However, Alan E. Bell is a genius at performance enhancing visual effects, and this is something I’m pursuing. The use of compositing tools to re-shape and enhance performance.


How does the director-editor relationship work for you?

It is very different in television versus film. On the features I’ve worked on, your relationship with the director is like a marriage. You practically live together 12 hours a day for months while working on their cut. In television directors go through a revolving door and you get a new one every month.


How do you deal with problem clients/directors?

My loyalty is to the film or tv show I’m working on. I believe the best idea wins no matter where it comes from. If I’m working on a project where the director or client doesn’t understand that, I generally stop working on that project. If that isn’t a realistic option, I do my best to understand their perspective. Sometimes I end up becoming a button-pusher. But this is a last resort and almost never happens.


What’s your overall philosophy about editing?

My job as an editor is to manipulate the audience into feeling very specific things at specific times. So I need to account for every decision I make and every frame the audience sees. When someone finishing watching something, they rarely remember every scene, line of dialog, or plot point. But they always remember how they FELT. So editing is all about knowing exactly how your audience is supposed to feel at any given moment.


Name one thing that you would tell an aspiring editor

Figure out what kind of material you want to edit, whether it’s narrative, documentaries, music videos, trailers, reality tv, etc. That will help guide your decision-making process as you search for jobs. You may not end up in the track you want right away, but knowing your destination determines which journey you take. If you’re motto is “I will edit anything,” most people won’t be interested in hiring you because you lack specificity. So be specific. But also be flexible. And ultimately, be patient. The road is long, tedious, sometimes impossible. But the only thing I can guarantee is that you’ll fail if you don’t try.


You can follow Zach on twitter.

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