From Engineering to Arrested DevelopmentA Career Transition Story

A collection of vintage still and video cameras in a studio

Mine is a story that surprises me as much as anyone else. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Electronics Engineering in 2005. After graduation, I worked in a middle-office finance function for an investment bank, and then spent a few years as a headhunter. While working my fairly intense day jobs, I produced and edited a feature film and 8 short films. This experience helped me decide to enroll in film school to pursue film editing.

Now, I am deep into a new life in Hollywood. I work on everything from festival circuit feature films, to notable TV shows, to web series, to music videos and commercials. I was able to find my passion, and transition to doing things I love every day. Here are a few things that worked for me along the way:

Lesson 1: Finding your passion is intense work

I don’t think you can find out what you are good at, or what you enjoy by just working 9 to 5 and having a healthy work-life balance.

I did like each of my previous jobs to varying degrees, but they each lacked something. I enjoyed the analytical rigor of working in the middle-office at a bank, but it lacked dynamism. I loved the dynamism and entrepreneurial energy of being a headhunter, but I couldn’t see myself in that role for the rest of my life. My evenings and weekends were packed doing things I enjoyed and challenged me. These things would eventually give me the direction and confidence to pursue my dreams.

I have always had a craving to be part of creative endeavors. When I was 14, I produced a one-act play for a local stage competition. Seeing an audience enjoy and applaud a show I put together made an indelible impact on me. It created an appetite I needed to whet.

Through high school and college, every spare minute outside of classes and homework was spent producing plays, organizing music shows and festivals, and convening large international events like the World Universities Debating Championships. I tried different art forms and worked with different artists. I built a deeper appreciation of the creative process, and a deeper understanding of my own talents and capabilities.

When I started my first full time job at a bank, the initial inclination was to focus on the job. That was short-lived. I felt like I had an itch to scratch, and found that a few of my theatre colleagues felt the same way. We didn’t have the time for stage productions, so we tried our hand at short films.

We juggled our day jobs with shoot days. We made mistakes and learned valuable lessons. I realized that the foundation of my creative itch was the need to tell stories to an audience, and that I was willing to go to great lengths to do it. A collaboration that started with one short film, led to seven more. We were shooting more ambitious scripts and our films were getting noticed at competitions and festivals.

Like most self-funded independent filmmakers, I took on various responsibilities. I scouted locations and actors, handled the lighting and camera work, and managed the editing and color grading. I observed and learnt from my colleagues that wrote, directed, designed production, acted, and composed music. This helped me develop my creative voice, and an appreciation for everyone else’s. Most of all, I enjoyed sharing a creative vision with like-minded people, and the collaboration and camaraderie that went into achieving it. Within a couple of years the artistic relationship resulted in our first feature film.

The ultimate test of my skills and perseverance was “The Insomniac”, the first indie feature that I edited and co-produced. I completed this film while working full time as a headhunter, coping with the fallout of the economic crisis. I spent my weekdays fighting hard to reach quarterly targets to keep my job, and my evenings and weekends shooting and editing a feature film. After 18 months of work, guerrilla marketing, promo interviews on TV, newspapers and radio, the film opened to a full house in Singapore in August 2009. The credits were received with applause and I felt a familiar feeling. The one that got me started down this path as a teenager, and it was stronger than ever. I knew now that I had to take it seriously, so I resolved to give my filmmaking dreams a real shot.

Lesson 2: Don’t wait for a formal lesson to get started

The only way to learn a craft is to practice it. I didn’t live in Los Angeles. I didn’t know anyone who was a film editor. In fact, I didn’t know any filmmakers at all.

One time we produced a college play that needed promo reel for our marketing efforts. I found myself a borrowed copy of Adobe Premiere Pro and that gave me my first taste of modern editing tools. Being able to manipulate footage, and juxtapose different visuals to create a compelling story, excited me. My curiosity piqued, and I spent the next few months learning the little features and nuances of the tool.

Once I got my hands on the tools, I started to build a body of work. I created amateur promotional videos, short films, and a feature production. This work gave me the confidence to pursue video editing as a career, and also to served as a body of work to help me get into film school.

Lesson 3: It’s not just about finding your passion. It’s also about finding your role

Finding your specific role is critical and it involves trying a lot of different things and finding the specific places where you can create the biggest impact and importantly, involves a craft that you really care to pursue and perfect every day. I am really grateful that in the years leading up to film school, I got the chance to learn about and try out nearly every role in the filmmaking process. This helped me find editing as the craft that I wanted to perfect.

I ruled out many other disciplines like directing, cinematography and production design. These didn’t quite fulfill my career aspirations. I narrowed my choices down to producing and editing. My time as an editor taught me that I had the patience and perseverance to make something the best version it can be. Being an editor requires you to revisit various creative decisions over and over again. You have to manage and negotiate with everyone involved in the film — a process that I was not just good at, but enjoyed. I love being the person at the end of the creative process who gets to pick from the best performances of 30 to 50 artists. I get to create the best version of a story that highlights every part of the creative team. Although I still put on my producer hat every now and again, the editor in me has a much stronger voice. This made my career decision very clear and simple. I wanted to be an editor.

Lesson 4: Meshing passion with pragmatism — Construct a journey of many smaller steps

A lot of us have big, amorphous dreams, and mine was to go to Hollywood. Ironically, it’s not like the movies where you pack your bags, land in Los Angeles and start a new life. Going to film school involved significant opportunity cost for me, so I didn’t just want to go to Hollywood. I wanted to give myself the best possible chance of being successful.

As I look back at the journey, it was really a series of smaller, deliberate steps. If I was giving up my current career, I only wanted to go to a great film school. To do that, I needed a strong application backed up by a body of work, and I needed as much real film experience as possible. This meant I had to find the right people to work with, learn the right tools, and discover my creative voice. Which brings me back to my first lesson of always being busy finding your passion.

I even applied to business schools with media focused programs in parallel, so in the event I didn’t get into a film school of my choice I could go to a business school and approach the film industry from a different angle. I think my desire to pursue my dreams meant that my film school applications were probably much stronger.

Lesson 5: You have to have faith that the dots will connect in your life

Steve Jobs wisely said in his famous Stanford commencement speech that you can’t connect the dots forward; you can only connect them backward. At the time I decided to go to film school I thought that I was discarding my previous education and 5 years of professional experience. I felt that it was an accumulation of useless knowledge that I would never need again. But as I think back and reflect on my career so far, I am better at what I do for the years I spent in engineering, banking and recruiting. My undergrad education gave me the broad technical knowledge, problem-solving skills and an attention to detail. My banking experience gave me insights on operational efficiencies and redundancies that help me manage complex workflows. Similarly, the ability to hustle and network that you develop as a headhunter is critical to opening doors, starting conversations and getting jobs in Hollywood. I lean on the lessons learned in my previous education and professional life to get better at my current craft.

If you too aspire to switch careers, have faith that the dots will connect and your experiences will come in handy. Sometimes in unusual and surprising ways.

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Varun is a Los Angeles-based editor who holds an MFA in Film Editing from the American Film Institute, and is a member of the Motion Pictures Editors Guild. His recent editorial credits include Arrested Development Season 4 for FOX; and the indie feature comedy Miss India America -- which was a Centerpiece Film at the Newport Beach Film Festival 2015, and was awarded Best Narrative Feature Film at CAAMfest 2015. He has edited online content for The Academy, Issa Rae Productions and AwesomenessTV, and numerous music-videos, commercials and short films, including Samnang -- which was nominated for a Student Academy Award in 2013. You can follow his career on IMDB or LinkedIn.