How This Pro Film Editor Reclaimed His Creativity and Health After Total Burnout
October 14, 2016

How This Pro Film Editor Reclaimed His Creativity and Health After Total Burnout

By Robert Hardy 13 min read

With all the latest research indicating that sedentary lifestyles are destroying our collective health, you might think film editors would be doomed. Then again, you haven't met Zack Arnold.

For a little bit of background, Zack has been a professional film editor for fifteen years. His resume is impressive, spanning several independent features, web series, and most notably, lengthy stints on network TV shows like Burn Notice and Empire.

Zack Arnold

He's also the founder of Fitness in Post, a site that details everything he's learned while working to reclaim his health after dealing with total burnout and near-suicidal depression. Needless to say, Zack knows firsthand the dangers of spending 14 sedentary hours in front of a computer for days, weeks, years on end.

As someone who also spends far too much time sitting in front of a computer (running a couple of filmmaking blogs, putting together newsletters, photo editing, cutting footage, etc), Zack was someone I needed to talk to.

He's cracked the code of living healthily and vibrantly and creatively despite being bound to a desk, which is something I'm guessing will be helpful for not just me, but quite a few of us.

So the following is my full interview with Zack. It's pretty lengthy but jam-packed with the strategies and mindsets he used to completely transform his life. Enjoy.

Robert Hardy: First off, share a little bit of your history in filmmaking and editing. What sparked your interest in film, how have you pursued it throughout your life, and how have you worked your way to your current position in the industry?

Zack Arnold: I wanted to be a film editor since I was nine years old. At the time I had no idea that editing was even a job, but I wanted to "put pieces of a movie together.” One weekend my older brother showed up at my house with a brand new VHS camcorder and said we should shoot a movie. I begrudgingly accepted, and we ran around the house for the next twelve hours shooting Nintendo guns at each other.

He showed me the finished product (edited in-camera) and I was NOT impressed. All that work for just a few minutes of video? But then two weeks later he came back to show me the same footage but with the score to ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.’ My jaw dropped open… it was like I had seen porn for the first time. I was blown away by how cool it was to take two elements and combine them to create a specific emotion.

From then on I was hooked and spent the next 9 years learning how to edit with two VHS decks. By high school, I was already getting paid gigs editing videos for local businesses as well as highlight reels for the local sports teams.

Six days after college graduation I moved out to Los Angeles to work as an assistant film editor for a small movie trailer company. Within six months I was promoted to trailer editor and won a ‘Golden Trailer Award’ for the first trailer I ever cut (for the film ‘Northfork’).  

Two years later I abandoned my fully paid job as a trailer editor to edit low-budget indie features for pennies. I spent years building up a resume of indie features while editing trailers on the side to pay the bills.

In 2009 I edited a web series for Crackle called ‘The Bannen Way’ that won several awards, and I sent the trailer for this project to everyone who worked on ‘Burn Notice.’  I thought if I had any chance of breaking in, that was the show as stylistically it was very similar to The Bannen Way.

One film editor was impressed, we had lunch, and a few months later he got me an interview for a 1-episode fill-in position. I ended up getting that job, the producers on the show loved my work, and I worked on the last four seasons of the show.

From there through several different connections I edited an episode of Glee, the pilot for the WGN show Underground, and then the first two seasons of Empire. I’m currently completing season 1 of a new show for Paramount.

RH: Why should filmmakers and creatives care about their health?

ZA: As creative professionals in the filmmaking industry, the number one reason someone is going to hire you is your ability to make good decisions. Anybody can pick up a camera, a microphone and shoot a movie now. Access to technology and your ability to use it are no longer variables that determine whether or not you are a good hire.

It’s the decisions that you make that set you apart. The worst movie on the planet was essentially the exact same process as every Steven Spielberg film… except Spielberg made thousands upon thousands of better decisions every single day.

Your ability to make good decisions is largely driven by a healthy brain that is given the proper fuel. The better your brain fires, the better your decisions, and the more mental stamina you have to make those decisions for a longer period of time.

If you focus on investing in your health, you are investing in the future of your career as well. Health and career aspirations should not be seen as mutually exclusive endeavors. They are one and the same.

RH: In broad terms, what has your personal health and fitness journey looked like? What was your lowest point, the moment where you realized something had to change, and where are you today?

ZA: In 2005 I was working ridiculous hours as a film editor on my first indie feature, doing 16 hour days, 7 days a week for almost two months straight (no exaggeration…not one day off). I was suicidally depressed and couldn’t function anymore as a human being.

I distinctly remember the night when I was sitting on the client couch in my edit suite around midnight thinking, “I just can’t do this anymore.”

Rather than giving up on life, I instead decided to start focusing on my health and blending my knowledge of athletics and high-performance with my job. I had a black belt in martial arts and I had spent years practicing and learning about yoga and figured if I was going to make it, I had to start blending these disciplines with my career as a film editor.

Eight years of trial and error led me to finally cracking the code on my health, and as soon as everything started clicking, I thought, “I have to share this with other people in my industry.” That was the day I started building the Fitness In Post website.

RH: In the post industry, where 12 hour days are the norm and you’re chained to a computer that entire time, how on earth did you manage to reclaim your health? Walk us through some of the mindsets, strategies, and tools that have really made the difference for you.

ZA: The first key insight I had was realizing years ago that I was separating my health from my work. “I’ll get healthy again during hiatus” is what I always used to think. But that hiatus never seemed to come.

After reaching suicidal depression at the ripe old age of 25, I realized this wasn’t a sound approach. My philosophy then became, “I’m going to stop treating myself like a Ford Pinto and start treating myself like a Ferrari.”

It took me almost ten years to really figure out how to treat myself like a high-performance machine, but the mindset has never changed. I firmly believe that my success as a film editor has very little to do with my editing talent and more to do with my ability to persevere through stressful jobs and consistently show up every single day with energy, enthusiasm and focus.

After experiencing a second bout of complete and total burnout in mid-2015, I took a month off and reassessed my life priorities. I had accumulated ten years of knowledge but I was applying it the wrong way.

The first thing I prioritized from this point forward was sleep, something I no longer compromise for any project. With sleep firmly in place, the next place I focused on was stress management and anxiety reduction (which goes hand in hand with better sleep).

The next focus was movement throughout the day because being sedentary all day long leads to a host of health issues as well as cognitive issues (and it also shortens your life span, even if you exercise regularly).

After developing the strategies to habitually move throughout the day and avoid being sedentary, I then focused again on diet and how to properly fuel my brain for maximum focus and creativity. And then came time management skills and mastering productivity.

RH: I’m also curious about mental health. For me at least, I know exactly what I should be doing to get healthier, but the biggest roadblocks for me are my psychology and some of the shitty habits I’ve picked up over the years. How do you approach the mental aspects of getting healthy?

ZA: The mistake the vast majority of people make when they want to “get healthy” is not clearly defining their goals. A common new year’s resolution is, “I want to lose weight,” or “I want to eat better,” but these aren’t goals or even resolutions, they’re vague ideas.

In order to achieve your goals, they must have specificity. And once you have a very specific “macro” goal, you must know how to break that macro goal into smaller “micro” goals.

But the most vital part of achieving goals has nothing to do with the steps, the tactics, or the tools. The most important part of making sure you achieve your goals is to properly define your “why.” Without defining your most important why’s, your goals don’t have a deeper meaning.

RH: Talk about some of the benefits you’ve experienced since shifting your focus towards health. How has it impacted your ability to do high-level creative work on a day-to-day basis?

ZA: The most profound shift I’ve seen in the last two years since really cracking this code is how much more quickly I’m able to do the same high-quality level of creative work.

For example, when I was editing Burn Notice (pre-Fitness In Post), 12-14 hour days were typical, and I was even putting in unpaid work on the weekend because I just couldn’t keep up with the workload. I was secretly napping almost every day, and the only way I was able to focus on the job was if the deadline was looming, and I had an insane amount of work to accomplish in a short period of time.

Fast-forward to editing Empire (post-Fitness In Post), and I was leaving at 7 or 8 almost every evening to put my kids to bed, I was usually delivering cuts early, yet I was dealing with tighter deadlines and higher volumes of footage on a creatively complex show.

Most importantly, I was no longer working secretly on the weekends to keep up, and I wasn’t crashing and burning every single weekend from burnout. I had energy to spare, and Monday morning I was ready to jump right back in.

RH: What’s Fitness in Post all about, and what’s the grand vision for it going forward?

ZA: Fitness In Post is the resource I desperately wish had been available to me 10 years ago when I was ready to give up on this industry and my life. I had no tools that were specifically designed for someone working long hours in a highly creative job who just didn’t have time to hit the gym.

When you work 14 hours a day and have a family, saying “I can’t get to the gym” is a very real excuse. It took me years of research and experimentation to crack my own health code, and my mission is to shorten the learning curve for others in this industry so they can skip the years of trial and error I went through and go right to the good stuff.

My “grand vision” for Fitness In Post is to empower editors and creative professionals in the filmmaking industry to start taking back their health and stop accepting the way we are treated.

When producers say, “We’ll order you a pizza if you stay late,” they aren’t doing you any favors. But in order to stand up for yourself, you need the energy and the confidence to do so. My

health as a priority, we can change the culture of overwork rampant throughout the filmmaking world.

RH: A lot of your work with Fitness in Post revolves specifically around helping editors and post-professionals be more active. How can more generalized filmmakers and creatives apply what you teach, even if they’re not computer-bound all day?

ZA: When it comes to diet and exercise, not every program works for every person. You really have to experiment and find what fits your tastes and your lifestyle.

But when it comes to movement, EVERYBODY needs to move, it’s built into our human DNA. Movement is what drives the engine of life. If you are stagnant, you are dying. Whether or not you are chained to a desk all day like editors are, the key question anyone in the filmmaking industry needs to ask themselves is, “How can I find more ways to do the same things I’m already doing, but in a more active way?”

The Move Yourself program I developed is designed to help walk people through the psychological process of introducing more active movement into any schedule or lifestyle, step by step.

RH: Share a little bit more about the course you’re working on, who it’s for, and where people can go to learn more.

ZA: For the last year, I have been developing the Optimize Yourself program, and the first component of that program is Move Yourself. It’s a four-week online learning course that teaches anyone working a highly creative job in a sedentary environment how to sit less, focus more, and create a more dynamic work environment so they can be so active throughout the day the gym becomes a bonus but no longer a requirement.

In addition to the learning course, there is also the Activity Video Vault that contains over 100 short videos with exercises that can be done in a few minutes per day to help you reduce pain, increase mobility, and level up your energy and focus right at your desk.

RH: Anything else you’d like to share with the PostLine audience?

ZA: I would like every filmmaker and film editor to think about the thousands of dollars they invest in equipment - cameras, lights, editing software, plug-in packages, etc. Then compare that to the money invested in their health.

I’m guessing the comparison isn’t even close, film equipment will win 100:1. You can have the best equipment and software on the planet, but if your brain isn’t firing, what’s the point?

Focus on optimizing the most powerful operating system you have - yourself.

For anyone interested, Zack's going to be holding a free webinar next week where he'll share all of his best tips and tricks for moving more throughout the workday. If you're hoping to boost your focus and creativity as a film editor, this is definitely worth your time.

This article first appeared on Filmmaker's Process.

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