Before the lush celebrity gift suites, the sold-out Q&A sessions, and the long lines of frozen but eager cinephiles trying to grab the hottest ticket in Park City, a movie was made — and it was hard work. And behind the producers and directors and actors who led the charge, a “below-the-line” crew of anywhere from tens to hundreds of craftspeople worked to bring filmmakers’ visions to life. They’re the post production engineers, the editors, the camera operators, or the composers whose names are in the credits but not the numerous story pitches to Sundance press outlets like the COW. Union or non-union, aspiring or veteran, these individuals spent weeks of their life behind the scenes dedicated to telling a story. And in my 2018 COW Sundance Film Festival coverage, I’m telling their stories.
A lot of assumptions are made about post production assistants, or “post PAs”: that they simply fetch lunch, sort M&Ms by color, or other “small” tasks dolled out at the whim of a producer. But Briana Kay Stodden’s career so far has been anything but minor. After jumping from rural Illinois to New York City, she has served as post PA on some of the most talked-about shows and movies of 2017 and 2018: Oscar contenderMudbound, Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It, Golden Globe winner The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel — and now making its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this week, Private Life directed by Tamara Jenkins.
Briana graduated from Southern Illinois University with a BA in Cinema Studies and spent her college years working in news. Upon graduation, her partner Eric was offered a job at Light Iron in New York. They moved together, without so much as a quick visit to NYC before the relocation. “There was a lot of uncertainty in those first few months and being unemployed was scary for me but I had a few projects I did from home that kept my bills paid.”
Those side hustles involved producing an educational video series about working in post for the City of New York and mixing short films from her home studio: key aspects of her success as a PA in the competitive post production industry of New York. “I’m so grateful for my time as a Post PA because it helped me understand all of the different jobs available in post. Because of this, I was able to learn about myself and what I like and don’t like. When I started my first Post PA job I was CERTAIN I wanted to be an editor — but through my side projects, I discovered post sound is what really makes me want to get out bed in the morning.
Briana is moving up and out of the post PA role and into a 2nd assistant editor role at a documentary company where she hopes to return to her journalistic roots. But before she goes, she’s got some great insight about the role of the post PA: how to succeed, how to be a good person, and how to think of yourself as anything but small.
Creative COW: How did you get into your first post PA job?
Briana Stodden: When I moved to New York, all of my previous work experience had been in news but I was eager to work in film. Finding a job here was extremely difficult at first because I was applying for post jobs but I didn’t understand why I wasn’t getting any callbacks. I had almost completely given up on trying to get a job in post and I started to look for jobs in news.
Then one night, Eric came home and said an editor at Light Iron was needing some help organizing her edit room. I thought it would be a fun project to get me out of the apartment which was still full of unpacked boxes. Plus, I needed to get away from an inbox that continued to taunt me with no job offers. Little did I know, the editor turned out to be the amazing Susan E. Morse and what started out as a couple of weeks worth of helping her to set up her edit room turned in to my first official Post PA job.
How do you continue to find jobs?
All of my Post PA jobs since have come by recommendations from assistant editors or post supervisors that I have worked with on various films. At first, I didn’t know many people in the post industry but going to post gatherings such as those hosted by the Blue Collar Post Collective (BCPC) really helped me make friends and learn more about how the industry works. Some days, I still can’t believe that this small-town Midwesterner has worked on shows like, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel with director Amy Sherman-Palladino or Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It.
However, working as a Post PA on Private Life was one of the most fun and educational environments I’ve experienced in the industry thus far. I had already worked with the editor Brian A. Kates on the pilot for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel so I had an idea of his workflow.
However, what I really enjoyed observing were the interactions between him and the director Tamara Jenkins. He also edited her previous film The Savages so from day one of watching them work, I was seeing two old friends collaborate to tell a beautiful story and it was everything you imagine filmmaking should be. No matter how difficult or challenging the workday might have become, it was always a good day because I was working with good and kind people and that is what really matters.
What’s a typical day for a post PA like? How can someone shine as a great PA?
It seems a lot of people think Post PAs just order lunch — and on some days I admit ordering the lunch was so time-consuming it seemed that was all I got done that day. However, the Post PA’s job is much more than that if you are willing to learn and do the work.
If you get the chance to start a Post PA job while the film is still in production, you might get to help the assistant editor set up the editing room. I’ve found it really helps to get to know the post facility staff in the building where you work so can reach out to them when you have questions. I also like to walk around the neighborhood and learn where some great lunch, coffee, and drugstore options are so I can suggest them when they are needed. And I will already have some takeout menus collected.
Additionally, if your assistant editor requires you to fill out the post crew’s time cards or summarize the petty cash expenses throughout the job, it helps to get to know the production’s accounting department. I’ve learned every film does things a little differently, so you can’t assume that the paperwork procedures from one job to the next will be the same. The accountants love it when you ask questions early on and avoid simple mistakes later. (You should also show that you appreciate them by writing legibly on all paperwork and by bringing them donuts.)
While the film is still shooting there is a lot of paperwork that has to be organized such as camera reports, editor’s logs, and lined script pages. Every editor and assistant editor will have a different way of doing things so it’s important to ask questions and revise your workflow as they require.
During the director’s cut, things start to slow down a little, but this is a great time to observe and learn from your assistant editor if they are able to show you some of their workflow. However, be respectful of their time and make sure you aren’t distracting them while they are providing support for the editor or the director.
Between paperwork, running errands, or ordering lunch, I found it was a good time to practice tutorials online or read up on developments in the industry. It’s easy to forget sometimes but these film jobs usually only last about 6-8 months, and as a Post PA you have access to incredibly smart and talented people. Depending on the editing room setup, you might only get small windows of opportunity to ask questions or interact with the editor, assistant editor, or the director, so you want to be knowledgeable and prepared to take advantage of those moments.
For example, I like to make lists of questions to ask should I get the chance. Those questions could be about something technical or something like, “On this film so far, what edit are you most proud of?” These kinds of questions open up a dialogue, and you will learn more from the stories around the lunch table than you ever will from surfing your Facebook or watching YouTube videos, so always be ready. You might not get all of your questions answered and that is okay, just stay engaged.
Are there any odd tasks you’ve had to do as a PA?
Every job is unique and every post crew has different needs. It’s important to find joy in any task even if it seems small and unimportant. Overall, the Post PA is there to help keep the editing room running smoothly and do whatever is needed to keep the editor, director, and the AE focusing on the film’s creation.
This could mean running to the store for cold medicine, special ordering Red Vines to make the director feel more at home, or assisting the post supervisor. Sometimes this extra effort seems thankless, but it will be noticed by the people who are watching and those are often the people who will ask you to do more work with them in the future.
Did any of these out of the ordinary tasks come into play during Private Life?
I’m really proud of my work on Private Life but I felt especially useful to the director during one of the film’s early screenings. Before the film was locked, Tamara expressed how helpful it would be if we could record the laughter in the theater during the screening to know if certain moments in the film were getting the reactions that she had intended. Thanks to my interest in sound mixing and to my previous work on personal film projects, I had my own field recording kit. Not only was I able to record the laughter from the screening, but I also captured the Q&A afterward and she was able to reference it as she finished the film.
What kind of challenges have you had to overcome as a PA?
An interesting challenge I had to overcome as a PA was learning how to read the room. Every job is different, and when tensions are high and deadlines are approaching it’s hard to know how you can be useful. Your assistant editor or post supervisor can be your best allies during these moments, and it is best to ask what is expected of you if you are not sure. It might be the most helpful thing to just stand back, observe, and be ready when you are called upon.
What do you think are some of the most important assets a PA has?
In my opinion, being organized, dependable, and enthusiastic about your work are requirements for all jobs. But the most important asset for a PA is a great personality. In post, you have to work in small, cluttered offices for several hours a day. It’s important for the editing room atmosphere to stay positive and kind.
You and everyone around you are working hard, and sometimes you may want to vent your frustrations but resist that feeling if you can. Remember that talking negatively about someone might feel like friendship and trust-building, but you can’t make a real connection that way. Your number one goal as a PA should be to leave a lasting, positive, and trustworthy impression on your co-workers. Besides, they will be the ones you run in to at all the post holiday gatherings.
What’s some advice you have for people who are maybe about to get their first post PA gig?
Don’t give up. When I go to post gatherings like the BCPC meet-ups, I often meet people who were just like me and trying desperately to get a job in the editing room but can’t seem to get their foot in the door.
What helped me finally break through this barrier was an overhaul on my résumé. When I got out of college I had what I thought was a perfect résumé: organized, easy to read, and full of all the editing related jobs that I had done.
However, a wonderful AE took the time to show me ways to improve my résumé and showcase the duties specific to what a Post PA is required to do. It’s a good idea to highlight your future career goals in a cover letter, but the people who are doing the hiring want to know that YOU know what your role is and that you will be focused on supporting the editing room without doing any actual editing. And don’t worry, you will get your moment to shine and showcase your other skills after the job has started.
What is the path upward in post production for a PA, and how can other people in the cutting room help PAs with that ascension?
Two words… Side. Hustle. The post industry is a little broken right now in that there aren’t very many opportunities in the editing room for Post PAs to get actual editing experience which is needed to further their careers. All of my actual editing, AE, and audio experience have come from small non-union jobs that I’ve picked up in addition to working as a Post PA. These opportunities have come from other AEs with whom I’ve expressed my desire to learn, and they have graciously let me help out on their side hustles and gigs. While you are building your reputation and skills, focus on what you can do for other people who have more experience. Don’t come to them with an attitude of “What can you teach me?” but rather “How can I help you?” This will make all the difference.
Two more words… Speak. Up. On Private Life we were all at lunch one day and the director asked me what my career goals were. I admitted that I was grateful for what I had learned working in edit rooms, but I have discovered I am more interested in post sound. She and Brian (the editor) got excited hearing this and then offered to let me come and sit in at the mix stage. It was incredible watching the film come together like that. In between the mixing sessions I was able to ask the sound engineers questions about their workflow which I have now applied to my home mixing sessions. I am so lucky that Tamara and Brian are the type of people who would invest in my interests like that. I will never forget their kindness.
As you move on from your time spent as a PA, what final advice do you leave behind for future PAs?
If there is one thing I would like other aspiring Post PAs to know it’s what you do matters. I am lucky to have worked with some incredibly kind and generous people. But some days it can be overwhelming when your job entails minding all the little things and it seems everyone around you is doing all the big things.
Some people may knowingly or unknowingly make you feel small while you are doing the small things but remember you are enough. You deserve to be in the room.
You won’t learn everything you need to know from one job. Moving up in the industry will take time and this is YOUR time to determine what path you want to take. Choosing a different path than the one you thought you wanted does not mean you have failed, it’s just part of the process.
While I was interviewing foley artist Joanna Fang for the post educational video series that I produced last year, she inspired me by saying, “This industry asks you to be very good at a specific task. So go out there, find that task and don’t be afraid if you fail.” That’s what I am striving to do. To summarize: I want to encourage you to be kind, work hard, and keep going.