The Finish Line

Experience Vs Experience

I often hear young people who are trying to get into our industry or any industry for that matter refer to the chicken and egg situation that is how to get experience when every job is asking for people with experience. How do you get experience if no one will give you a job to get it?

From my point of view there are two major misconceptions here, the first is that the request for experience is a request for experience in the industry you are trying to get into. The second is that you need to have a job in said industry to get experience in it. I’m going to do my best to address these points here.

I never went to university, actually that is a massive understatement, I hardly even went to school. I was out on my own at 15 and had no experience in anything… well I thought I had no experience, but in-fact I had shit loads, I just didn’t know it. My dad was a fisherman when I was young and he had to get up around 3am and head out to sea. Whenever I could, I would go with him, so I was very good at getting up in the morning. When I was around 9 or 10 my dad moved from fishing into tourism and there I worked as crew on the boat over weekends and school holidays. I was speaking to tourists every day, helping them to put on lifejackets and pull in fish. When I was a little older I started answering the phones, taking bookings and handling payments. I also had to feed penguins before school every day, so when I was 15 and I was looking for a job I had loads of experience but I just didn’t know it.

Looking back at my childhood, I also had learned something very important for my future that I had no idea was going to be so valuable, I had learned to edit! This started with Young Ones episodes that were on TV really late. I would sneak out and set the VHS to record and then run off back to bed. I would then have the episode on video, but with all the adverts. So I would setup two VHS recorders and dub the raw recording to another tape but would have to do it really quickly so there wasn’t a big dropout when you started rerecording. If you wanted smooth edits you would go through this process of playing the tape, hitting record at the right time, then pausing the recorder just as the adverts started, fast forward the player, then un-pause the recorder at the moment the player started to play the next part. This simple practice planted the editing seed but I had no idea at the time.

When I first left school I did some carpentry work which I liked but the boss listened to talkback radio all day which I couldn’t cope with. I’ll be honest, I don’t think I learned much in that job and I didn’t stay in it long but it did show me that there are all sorts of opportunities out there for anyone willing to get up on time and work hard.

Next was door-to-door sales. When I was 16 I moved to Auckland to follow my friend Jason who had (by a random set of events) met up with some people doing door to door sales and decided to go along with them. This was the most life changing experience I have had and it has honestly made me who I am today. At the time I didn’t think much of it, I was just happy to have a job and as it had nothing to do with post production you could be forgiven for thinking it was of little benefit to my future, but you would be very wrong. If you have had a job where you get doors slammed in your face and told to “fuck off” all day every day you can do anything! This job taught me so much about communicating clearly, sales, goal setting and most importantly getting knocked down and getting back up again. In any job these skills are very valuable. Communication is key when you are in a high pressure environment with tight deadlines. Being able to sell your ideas is massively beneficial and setting goals to push yourself will help you achieve things you never thought possible. You will get knocked down throughout your life so being able to take it on the chin and keep moving forward is integral if you want to achieve great things.

After my year in door-to-door sales (I left because my house was burgled three times) I returned to my home town, moved in with Jason’s family and started looking for work. At this stage my friends and I were filming sketches and I would edit everything together but I only had access to my dad’s old JVC VHS-C Video Camera and my dual VHS recorder editing rig. When one of my friends told me about this digital non-linear editing thing it sounded like a dream, I remember thinking it would almost be like working with film. I wanted to work in an appliance store as it would give me access to digital video cameras and computers. I could use the equipment from the show floor to learn more about editing.

There was a hiccup in my plan though. All the adverts for sales people at the appliance stores were after experience, which in my mind implied appliance store, retail experience. Looking back I obviously had an immense amount of experience in customer service, sales and a love of technology so I should have been the obvious choice for any of those positions. I lacked confidence and didn’t understand the value of my past experience so I didn’t sell myself very well and unfortunately I had no luck getting a job. However, that didn’t stop me. I figured I’d need to get some relevant experience somehow so offered to work for free. I applied at all of the appliance stores in my town and eventually one of them took me up on the offer. I was working there for 9 months for free after which they hired me to move to one of their other stores to train the staff, so I obviously made quite an impact.

While working in retail I was constantly editing. Eventually Jason bought a digital video camera and I started practicing editing on the computers at work until I could afford to get a Mac (OS 9 with a pirated copy of Final Cut Pro 2.8 or 2.9 I can’t remember) and loved it. I still didn’t think I’d ever be a professional editor or anything crazy like that but it was loads of fun and I figured I could make some cool stuff with my friends. Again I didn’t see the experience I was gaining as valuable, but how many other 17 year olds at the time had spent most of their life editing with VHS recorders and started using editing software the moment it was available to the public? Luckily for me someone would show up in the store that would give me the confidence I needed.

A film crew came to my town to shoot The Last Samurai which of-course I wanted to be involved with. I went to the open auditions for casting but I didn’t get in, I probably didn’t have enough facial hair at the time (which isn’t a problem anymore). That didn’t bother me, I still loved having all the sets getting built and filming going on around me. One day someone came to the store and was enquiring if there was anyone around who could edit video and specifically someone who knew Final Cut Pro (version 3 on OS X 10.0 or .1 at the time) and everyone pointed at me. The guy came over and started chatting to me, he was David Forman, the Stunt Coordinator for the film and he wanted someone to help him cut their rehearsals so that he could show them to the director. He asked me to come and hangout with him for a few hours a week and teach him how to edit.

When I first started working with David I had absolutely no confidence in my ability, I was self taught and really thought I was not the man for the job but I knew he wasn’t going to find someone else in my town so I was his best option. I must have been doing something right because although I was happy to do it for free, he insisted I be paid and he gave me more for two hours work than I was earning in a week! I thought maybe, just maybe, if he thinks I’m good enough to be paid for my editing skills, other people will too and I started to think seriously about making a career out of it.

I started to come up with a plan about how I was going to get into post production. The first move was to Sydney Australia where the larger television industry would open up more opportunities for me. David from The Last Samurai gave me a few contacts to chase up which I sadly had no luck with, again I probably wasn’t selling myself well enough. I needed to start by getting a job, any job so I could pay my bills, well actually first I decided to have a mini holiday and use the money I was paid out from my old job (I hadn’t ever taken a holiday so I had a big payout). I stayed with some friends of mine and I bought a couple of cases of beer every day and drunk beer and learned to juggle. I finally understood why people go on holiday – to drink beer and juggle. Once I had drunk all my holiday pay away and needed a job, Apple Computers was where I had my sights set. People who work as editors bought Apple computers (this was when they really only served professional creatives, pre iPod craze), if I worked there I would meet them and offer free work to learn the ropes ‘wow’ them and get a job, it worked for retail so surely it would work for post production. I went from Apple store to Apple store with my resumé and introduced myself to all the managers. At this stage it was easy, I had learned to sell, had retail and Apple Computer experience so had confidence in myself and I managed to get a job, hired by another David who just asked if I like beer, to which I replied with a confident yes! I had a lot of experience with beer by this time too.

I also knew I had to up my editing game so that when an opportunity came along I’d be good to go. I committed to an hour a day of editing, editing anything, my own stuff, friends stuff, weddings, bits of non-sense to songs I was in to at the time, anything. One hour a day.

Every day I would chat with all my customers and be sure to drill info out of any that worked as editors, not in an annoying way but I would pick a few calculated questions to ask that would potentially give me some leads or some more areas to focus my training on. One day a customer came in and as we were chatting I gave my normal spiel about loving editing and growing up on British comedy, I’d love to work on something like The Fast Show etc. He said “That’s funny, I just saw an advert for an edit assistant for an Australian sketch series called Comedy Inc.” He sent through the details, I applied for the job and got it, this time from Scott (my run of Davids was over until I met my business partner David in London) who also asked if I like beer, to which I replied with a confident yes! This kicked off my life in post production and the rest, as they say, is history.

I must say I still lacked confidence at this stage but I did a Final Cut Pro course at the Australian Film Television and Radio School which cost me a fortune and frustrated me because I knew way more than the teacher. It did however give me the confidence to start my first job in post production with my head held high.

It’s only now with hindsight that I can finally connect all the pieces. Obviously I wouldn’t change anything because I love the course my life has taken and I have gained so much from every experience, but looking back on it and connecting the dots I do wish I was better at seeing the amazing experience and skills that I had, even the little things like learning to make coffee for my dad were things that I never would have thought important but are. If someone had said to me at 15, Zeb you have so much experience you can do anything, you know how to answer phones, talk to customers, handle money; you can use these skills in any job so set your sights on what ever you want to do and explain to the employer that you have these skills and you are happy to learn anything else they need you to know. That would have been hugely beneficial and maybe things would have moved quicker. I also hear young people all the time saying I don’t want job ‘X’ thinking it’s a shit job that they won’t get anything out of. Don’t turn your nose up at any work! You never know what a massive impact the most simple of jobs could have on your future. I could not run The Finish Line if I hadn’t had all of these experiences because they have taught me everything I know. I always look back at my year of door to door sales and think if that hadn’t happened, I probably would have stayed in my little bubble and would have never had the courage to chase my dreams.

People often say that life is short, it is not! It’s the longest thing you will ever do. Accumulate experience, knowledge and keep moving forward.