3 Things I Learned from Award-Winning Editor Jim Helton

He cut the Times 'Truth Is Worth It' campaign

As an editor, I have done a lot of learning by doing, directing and editing—everything from documentaries screened at Lincoln Center to montage promos for music influencers on social media. But another essential part of editing in my career has come from the advice and mentorship of filmmakers I admire. 

When I first saw the edits for the New York Times' "The Truth Is Worth It" campaign, I was captivated by their docu-style approach and their nimble nature—they are both cinematic and shareable. The artful mélange of soundscape, cadence of typing and fury of imagery captured the stream of consciousness of what an investigative reporter experiences in a vast and vivid way. 

In the editing chair for these award-winning pieces was Final Cut's Jim Helton, whose work on the campaign won a Grand Clio in Film, among other prizes. I had the chance to chat with him regarding his approach to his work as an editor, and he shared some of his personal insights about the craft. 

Doing is practice.

According to Jim, "It's all practice in the end. Doing is practice, so the more you practice, the better you get, and the better you get, the more you practice." 

Part of that practice involves playing with the ideas presented. Jim encourages editors to experiment with their ideas in the edit suite. "Don't be precious with your ideas," he says. "Be open and give. Try a version, save that copy, then try something else you want to try. Then show it to [your creative collaborators]. It doesn't mean they're going to accept it. But it leads to a dynamic that builds trust."

Trust the brain trust. 

Often, editors use their time alone in the edit to experiment with ideas on their own, but Jim finds value in collaborating: 

"I've gone through the period in my career when I needed to be alone. I used to work until 4 or 5 in the morning. I would avoid people. I went through that period because, at the time, I needed that kind of space. But the thing that really inspires me now is the opposite—the connection, the brain trust, the fear of it at times, too. But when you make that connection with someone, and everyone knows it's starting to work and starting to be good, it's a really good feeling. I love the bouncing of ideas.

"That said, there is, of course, still lots of necessary alone time; especially early in the process, there is so much viewing and organization that needs to happen, and that process is solo. To make good work, you need to read the entire menu—in other words, watch all the footage—and to be nimble and collaborative, the footage needs to be organized well." 

The ideation and process will always generate creative tension among collaborators, but Jim notes that balancing the team's perspectives helps to mold the work into something great. 

"A thing that I realize in terms of working with people and being as effective as I possibly can be is that we all debate the work," he says. "We all talk about the work a lot, and I love that part. But I try to catch myself if I'm arguing and just try the ideas that we're talking about. I save the piece we just did, and I will try this new idea, and if it wins, then we're all winning. So I never feel like I'm losing anything. Try your best to make an idea work. That's the greatest thing about the brain trust of working with other people. I try my best to be open and trust the brain trust." 

Embrace failure.

If there is any secret sauce in Jim's work, it is that he believes embracing failure solidifies trust among a team. 

"One of the foundations of trust is to try," he says. "When the trust gets really good is when you try [an idea] and your collaborators know it's not working, or you try something that you think is going to work and you acknowledge it's not working. I think the acknowledgement of failure or that it's failing is one of the steps to success. 

"Expectations of failure along the road free you from being bound to perfection and deepen the trust of the team. For things to be really good, they have to be wrong, too. If you don't find all the wrong things, you're not going to be making it right." 

Jim's insights really get to the crucial importance of building trust among your collaborators by embracing a spirit of experimentation. Unlike the earlier days in his career, his embrace of creative collaboration, self-awareness and an open-minded approach has led him to an understanding of the building blocks of trust among a team. 

One can see how these insights manifest in his award-winning work for The New York Times. His insights serve as testimony that mutual trust and creative input can produce excellence.

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Simone Maurice
Simone Maurice is an assistant editor at Second Child, the in-house production studio within Droga5 New York.

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