How to be a Video Editor: In Conversation with Pixar's Helen Hawaz
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How to be a Video Editor: In Conversation with Pixar's Helen Hawaz

How to be a Video Editor: In Conversation with Pixar's Helen Hawaz

by The Luupe
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The Luupe speaks with Pixar's assistant editor about taking creative chances and staying innovative

Meet Pixar video editor Helen Hawaz. After taking a screenwriting course in college, Hawaz became deeply inspired by visual storytelling. A few years later, she wound up at Pixar editing some of today's most impactful and innovative animated films like Turning Red.
Hawaz is widely active as a creative freelancer, doing everything from managing complex budgets to bouncing from animation to live action. It's all driven by a desire to tell a wide range of ever-evolving stories.
We caught up to learn more about her inspiration and blossoming career.
The Luupe: How did you first get into film/ editing production, etc? What inspired you to work in the industry?
Helen Hawaz: Storytelling is a language we all understand as humans, so for me it’s a bridge between people who likely have little in common on the surface. And film is much more accessible these days; I liken it to a net that can be cast far and wide. So those of us behind the scenes have a responsibility to ask: “Never mind the noise; what are we trying to say?” and embrace it and run wild.
My interest started with screenwriting, then I found my way into editing through a cinematography course I took in college. It was essentially writing in picture, but what locked me into the medium is the emotive capacity of a single cut, the movement of montage, and the way an edit breathes. I’ve made myself cry and laugh in an edit suite numerous times, and I’ve definitely cried and laughed in others’.
The Luupe: We've heard you referenced as "lighting up" the industry. Amazing. What's most exciting to you about working at Pixar/ in the industry, etc right now?
Hawaz: I don’t know about lighting up, but I’ll take it! Definitely, again, the stories— there is a huge swath of perspective blessing screens everywhere. I’m extremely proud to be working in a time like this, where a larger variety of voices are uplifted and there’s room to experiment and hone your voice over the course of a career.
▲ Helen and her favorite Pixar character, Barley Lightfoot
The Luupe: Whose voices and visions are on your mind, making an impact for you?
Hawaz: I think of people like Jordan Peele, Michaela Cole, and Donald Glover when I say this, but also people who’ve been doing it for quite some time - like Mira Nair, Taika Waititi, and Destin Cretton. There’s still plenty of work to be done, but I see the rigidity slipping away. I see the fear behind the questions “Will they like it?” “Will people be able to understand?” slipping away, thank goodness.

The Luupe: That's amazing. Getting into your own work, what does your day-to-day?
Hawaz: It varies from animation to live action, short form to long form, deadlines, and budgets, so it’s hard to comment on the day-to-day. My favorite days as an editor involve holing up in my edit bay, watching through footage, marking my favorite takes, and getting things set up in a way that’s intimate and open. Letting the footage tell me all the ways the script may have to change.
Then once I’ve worked my way through, I take a bite out of the middle (or beginning or end). I grab a scene that stands out to me and begin working.
The Luupe: You recently worked on Turning Red - a movie that has some really powerful feminist metaphors. What was your experience like working on the film?
Hawaz: Turning Red was an epic crash course in that risk-taking I mentioned earlier. I came into the production during their last year as an Assistant Editor. It was also 2020, the year that required a lot of ingenuity, flexibility, and resourcefulness. In hindsight, I see that as so fitting.
It was no secret that Turning Red would be a step in new territory for Pixar — which can feel like a lot of pressure to put on a project — but everyone rose to that occasion and utilized it to tell a story that (in my opinion) would resonate deeply and honestly with a lot of people, especially women of color. Being a third culture kid myself, I felt lucky to have landed on this particular project.
▲ Barley Lightfoot (right), Hawaz' favorite character from Onward
The Luupe: Love that! So many of us at The Luupe are parents (or honestly, or just love the messages in these films) - it's inspiring to hear how positively this impacted you working behind the scenes. We read recently that you identify with the character Barley from Onward...
Hawaz: So I’m a big fan of that kind of unbridled support he provides to his little bro, Ian. It comes from a genuine place of seeing what someone is capable of even if they don’t yet see it in themselves. A hype man, so to speak. That mixed in with his offbeat nature (I tend to personify my cars to the point of ridiculousness, too) and a willingness to step into bigger shoes and start stomping forth when it’s needed (without really questioning if you’re the best person for it), and you have a me.
The Luupe: What are some other favorite projects you worked on over the past few years?
Hawaz: Fav projects: Abercrombie’s Fierce Campaign (2018,2019) and the trailer cutdowns for SNL’s Live From New York! doc (2016).
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The Luupe: In a Disney Q+A last year, one piece of professional advice you gave to readers was the importance of taking risks. Can you talk about two risks that you took in your career that has stuck with you to this day?
Hawaz: I like this question a lot because it deglamorizes risk-taking. Not every risk results in a “success,” but every risk definitely results in a worthwhile lesson. I’ll start with the risk I took for worse:
I stayed at a job that was pretty terrible for my stability to gain work experience. I was rarely paid on time (and severely underpaid at that) and I would often have to track down the owner of the company in order to receive my pay.
Now, I’ve got my opinions on the way internships and entry-level positions are managed, but here I’d just like to say that this didn’t seem like a risk to me at the time. It seemed like the obvious first step.
I was young and hungry, new to the film/tv workforce, and I didn’t have a blueprint or mentor. But I learned here that enduring this type of behavior wasn’t actually necessary to my success— and no one was going to tell me that.
There’s a lot of messaging to simply be grateful for any work you do receive, especially when you’re starting out. I laugh at that now, because while I was never short on gratitude, I was consistently short on rent. In recent years, I make it a point to assess what I can realistically manage when taking a risk, and I encourage others to do the same.
The Luupe: How about one you took for the better?
Hawaz: A risk I took for the better: I like to remember that there are always the values written “on the wall.” Corporations, especially, pride themselves on their values via the huge lettering sometimes literally written on their walls, - teamwork, leadership, balance, efficiency, etc - and then there are their actual values, demonstrated by how they work in the day-to-day (especially during busy season).
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The Luupe: So many of us have worked at companies where values were just words on the wall. It's inspiring to hear that you were going beyond that.

Hawaz
: The risk I took here was to consciously be the person that demonstrates the values on the wall, because they’re the ones I’ve signed up for. It can feel lonely because I’ve noticed not many people have the bandwidth to do this, or it feels scary to do so, but it’s what’s ultimately better for the collective. If there are things that don’t sit well with me or my team, I make it a point to talk to my boss, supervisor, etc.
Sometimes the solution could be found in a couple of conversations, others I need to work through a bit more/differently. When burn-out creeps up, I reassess my approach: is there a way I can work smarter? Is there anything I can delegate? How can I shift priority so that the work benefits?
No matter how you slice it, boundaries are how we get to where we want to be. Sometimes that means you push something off of your plate, sometimes that means you take something else on and adjust your schedule, and sometimes it honestly means you walk away.
Things like saying no and negotiating are not reserved for the rich and famous - don’t let anyone fool you. Your personal agency matters now. And you don’t need to be a bull about it. There doesn’t need to be a dramatic or climactic sense of resolve. However, you do need to use your voice and approach these interactions with your team and the work’s best interest in mind. Best way to learn? Just start — wobbly knees and all.
The Luupe: On the flip side, what's some inspiring advice that you've received, and how has it shaped how you work and your career?
Hawaz: That bit about the values “on the wall” was a piece of advice I received from a friend with managerial experience. I’ll never forget it, as it has positively changed the way I prioritize tasks and respond to ad hoc requests.
Another piece of advice that’s carried me through the years was from editor Andy Keir, whom I reached out to on LinkedIn when I was a young and budding editor. He said: “I started in commercials and made my way into narrative when I was able to."
FYI — this is a downwardly mobile career move as far as money is concerned, but it was absolutely essential to my sanity. Money isn’t everything. Just keep plugging away, work with the best people you can, and make your own stuff if necessary (and if that interests you).
Learn everything you can, watch movies, listen to music, go to plays and work hard. Express your opinions confidently and listen to other people’s opinions openly. Make yourself irreplaceable.”
The Luupe: Thanks so much for your time and insights. In closing, is there anything you're currently working on that's exciting you right now/ care to talk about it?
Hawaz: There is a live action short I’m working on with another female Ethiopian American filmmaker. Stay tuned!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The Luupe
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