First Assistant Editor
We are excited to introduce our member spotlight of the month, Sarah Baluch, who is currently a First Assistant Editor for Skydance Animation. Sarah, thank you so much for doing this interview. First and foremost, can you tell us more about yourself?
Thanks for having me! I grew up in Glendale, California and La Cañada and I am the daughter of immigrant parents. My mom, who is from Honduras, and my dad, from Pakistan, always placed a huge importance on education. Growing up, they made it clear that my career options were either to become a doctor, lawyer, or an engineer. Since math was my best and favorite subject I decided to pursue engineering and because of my love for video games, Computer Science felt like a natural choice. I attended the University of Southern California (USC) with the intention of becoming a master at programming, but as I took more classes I began to realize that I was not as passionate for this field as I thought. Having always been interested in television and film, I started to take some film classes, which USC has the best film school in the nation, so how could I not take advantage of that? I also decided to major in what was then known as the Critical Studies program, which is their film criticism degree. I found that I really enjoyed these classes and began to seriously consider pursuing a career in entertainment instead. I applied to summer internships and was lucky enough to get one at Warner Bros. Animation. After graduating, I ended up taking a job at a startup that was going to be the next Pixar. I worked there as a developer for four and a half years, but always had the hope of returning to entertainment in the back of my mind. Suddenly, a job opened up at WBA that I was their first choice for and with this I was able to make my transition into a new career. I haven’t looked back ever since. I’m pretty sure my parents still don’t understand what my job is, but I think they’ve at least been able to accept that I won’t be a doctor.
Did you you always know that you wanted to work in animation or was it something that developed over time?
It definitely was something that developed over time. I have been a lifelong fan of animation and anyone who knows me knows Sailor Moon is my Star Wars (Star Wars is also my Star Wars). I was very diligent about doing my homework when I got home from school, but I always took a break at 4:30 PM to watch the latest episode of Sailor Moon with my sister before going back to my school work. Despite my interest in animation, it never occurred to me that this was a field that I could work in, especially because I can’t draw. My ending up in animation was kind of a fluke. When I started applying for summer internships, while still an undergraduate, I had listed Anime Club on my resume under “Interests.” Someone working in HR at Warner Bros. noticed it and thought that I could be a good fit for their animation studio. It just so happened that the internship was in the post-production department. During my internship I got to meet Joseph Barbera of Hanna-Barbera, Iwao Takamoto, who created Scooby-Doo, and Bruce Timm the producer of Batman: The Animated Series. These were all series that I knew, but didn’t really think about who the people were behind the scenes. Meeting these amazing people who made cartoons that I never stopped watching was the first time I realized animation could be a field that I can participate in; that there’s a whole other side of the industry that doesn’t require drawing.
“Meeting these amazing people who made the cartoons that I never stopped watching was the first time I realized animation could be a field that I can participate in; that there’s a whole other side of the industry that doesn’t require drawing.”
You started out as an intern, yet had the chance to step into different aspects from post-production, development and production. How did these experiences help shape your current path? What did you discover about yourself in the process?
The internship I did at WBA in post-production was the most hands-on experience that I think influenced my path greatly. While I enjoyed getting to explore working in development and production, my experience in post left the biggest impression on me. When I graduated from USC, I ended up working as a software developer at a startup, but I always remembered my experience at WBA as a positive and wanted to transition back into that kind of work. I had stayed in touch with the people I met during my internship and made it a point of letting them know that I was available. When a position opened up in the dub room, I was their first choice. Once I was able to get my foot through that door I tried to make the most of my position and learned as much as possible. By the time I left the job six years later I had transitioned into doing assistant editor work. Over those years, I learned a lot not just about the work itself but also about what it takes to continue to grow your career. One of the most important takeaways I have is that you need to be vocal about your goals. I worked with editors for a while, but it wasn’t until I explicitly mentioned to them that I wanted to work in editorial that they tried to help me find those opportunities. I also learned the importance of being proactive and not saying no to tasks that were technically not part of my job. Being willing and able to take on more work does make a positive impression. However, I did (and still do) struggle with imposter syndrome and feeling like I didn’t know enough, especially since I felt like I had gotten a late start on this career path, but being mindful of how much I do know and have learned helps me stay confident.
“One of the most important takeaways I have is that you need to be vocal about your goals. I worked with editors for a while, but it wasn’t until I explicitly mentioned to them that I wanted to work in editorial that they tried to help me find those opportunities.”
You were an Assistant Editor for Dreamworks TV Animation then went on to Skydance as a First Assistant Editor. That’s amazing! Can you tell us more about what you do in your current position and what is it that you like about your role?
As an assistant editor, it’s my job to make the editor’s job as easy as possible. I want to make sure that when my editor sits down to work, that they have all the elements they need ready to go. This means making sure all the latest assets, such as storyboards and sound effects are in the project. I also keep track of what dialogue we need and help make sure we have it or that it gets recorded. I also work with the editors to make sure the project is organized in a way that works for everyone. As the First AE I manage the assistant editor team and keep track of what work needs to be done and making sure it happens. I’m also in charge of interfacing with our production team to make sure they have what they need from our department and that we have what we need from them. Additionally, I’m in charge of making sure any technical aspects that come up are handled correctly, whether it’s troubleshooting any software issues or making sure we have the right configuration for playback for a screening. I’m finding that being the first AE feels like a true blend of my experiences from WBA and DWA; a lot of my technical skills and dealing with software/hardware issues were honed at WBA while the “assisting editors” part of the job is what I developed at DreamWorks.
I really enjoy working in animation post and getting to see how a show comes together. Since editorial is involved from the storyboard phase all the way until the end, we get to see how a show evolves and the work it takes to get it to the finish line. I love seeing the editors work and learning how they do what they do. Working in editorial is creative, but allows me to flex my technical muscles as well.
I understand that from your own experience, editing in general is a male dominated field. What did you do to set yourself apart and is there something that you feel you bring to the table that is unique to you?
My Computer Science background has definitely helped me to stand out. I have been able to write scripts to speed up tasks when my co-workers didn’t even realize that could be a solution. And I find that I’m able to communicate better with IT and Technology since I understand what kind of information may be more relevant to them. Sadly, Computer Science is also a male dominated field so being the only woman in the room or department is something that I am use to, which I don’t find it all that intimidating. I’ve found that being confident helps to combat against any insecurity I may feel when I find myself to be the only woman or person of color in the room. Confidence isn’t always easy to come by, but I’ve learned to trust my skills and if I know that what I have to say is correct it’s easier for me to stand by it.
“Thanks to my STEM background I don’t find having to [work with various programs] all that intimidating and I’m not afraid to dive in and figure out how to use new ones.”
What is your ultimate career path and what are you most proud of up to now?
Ultimately, I want to be an editor either in television or features. In the short term, my goal is always to learn as much as possible from those around me and to grow my skills as much as possible. So far, I am most proud of the work I was able to do on 3Below; I got to be more hands on with the show and even got to cut an act for one of the episodes. It’s the most involved I’ve felt with a project and I love how it turned out.
Many people say that they love animation but can’t draw, yet you are the perfect example of someone who has used her own education in computer science and engineering to work in the field of animation. From your own experience, how do you use a traditional STEM career to transition to Art?
There are broad aspects of working in STEM that can be applied to any other field including something creative. A lot of Computer Science is based on problem solving and stopping to look at the big picture and planning out a solution before you start. This style of thinking is still something I use every day, even if I’m not using my specific programming skills. Additionally, in my experience not many people working in animation or post-production have a STEM background, so it has become a way for me to stand out. Working in post means working with various programs that are specifically tailored to the kind of work we do. Thanks to my STEM background I don’t find having to do that all that intimidating. I’m not afraid to dive in and figure out how to use new programs.
“I have been guilty of defaulting to male for casting generic roles such as ‘driver’ or ‘henchman’ [for scratch recording], so I always try to challenge that bias and suggest we cast women for such roles. It’s a small thing, but I think if it can make it all the way to the screen it can have an impact.”
As you know, the push for diversity and minority representation is a hot topic. When you think about who you are and the direction of your own path, what is the story you hope to tell future generations?
I hope that my experience of often being one of the only minorities in the room will be a thing of the past. I’m grateful that I haven’t often felt that I’m at a disadvantage or being treated differently as a woman of color, but I never realized how much it means to have other people in the room who look like you until I worked with LXiA founder Magdiela Duhamel on Trollhunters. I also hope that with increased diversity behind the scenes there will continue to be more diversity reflected in the work we do as well. I really believe in the importance of representation–when you see yourself represented in media you feel seen. I think it is very important that every person has the opportunity to experience that feeling; it’s something that I think about a lot. I try to be mindful of what I can do even in my role to help advance this goal. I’m often involved in recording scratch (temporary dialog using crew members before we can get the voice actors recorded) and I always try to push for casting women more often. I have been guilty of defaulting to male for casting generic roles such as “driver” or “henchman,” so I always try to challenge that bias and suggest we cast women for such roles. It’s a small thing, but I think if it can make it all the way to the screen it can have an impact. I really believe that the more diverse voices you have behind the scenes, the more diversity you will see on screen as well, so I am excited to see groups such as LatinX in Animation working to help get more people involved behind the scenes every step of the way.
Thank you for interviewing with us, Sarah!