Interview: Zeb Achonu

Zeb Achonu is an Associate Member of the Guild of British Film & TV Editors (GBFTE) and has extensive experience in editing across a wide range of genres, most notably factual and entertainment.

She spent 9 years working for the BBC before going freelance and moving to Paris. During her 2 years there she started the French branch of BalconyTV, an online live music show, before eventually moving back to London to continue with her editing career.

See her work on Vimeo.

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Can you tell us about your recent work on Bear Grylls Survival School – you’d recently come off maternity leave? How did you make it work with childcare?

Yes, I have just finished cutting BGSS. It was a very high pressure, fast turnaround edit, which coming straight off maternity leave was all encompassing, engulfing even. Although it was definitely a job I wanted to take on, I don’t think I had fully considered the impact that would make on my family’s life just 6 months after my 2nd son was born. I am extremely lucky that my mother lives so close by and is so hands on. She was absolutely ready to take care of both our children when my partner was working, as he’s also freelance, that could mean at very short notice.

Our oldest, Thames, had also just started school so I wanted to keep his routine as stable as possible. Add a house move into the mix (typical pregnancy/ new parents extreme nesting chaos!) and we had a recipe for disaster, but I put rigid plans in place. I took Thames to my mum’s every morning so he knew where each day would begin, and he could have some calm after his whirlwind mum had left for work! Baby Arthus would join us on the days the Léo was working but didn’t need the same structure. Then either my mum or Léo would do the school collection and make sure everyone was home and fed for bedtime, which I rarely made. Over the 8 weeks I was on the project I did feel close to meltdown at various points, but relied on the incredible support of my family. I don’t know how I would have coped without my mum, although many families do. It’s just not easy being a parent, let alone a new one, in our industry. And it often feels time and budgets are shrinking.

As the baby was still so young, I was determined to continue to breastfeed him throughout and beyond this work contract. I was so lucky that not only was the edit producer I worked with understanding and supportive, but the reception staff at ITV were wonderful, offering me the use of a very comfortable rest room whenever I needed it in order to express. This was such a relief and a huge change to my experiences of my first baby, when I would have to express in toilets either in the buildings I worked in or even local shop toilets. Not at all nice, but I had no idea who to talk to about this. As freelancers we seldom have a line manager/ HR available to discuss these matters with on site, and I didn’t really want to inform my mostly male colleagues of my issue. I felt quite alone and used to dread jobs going into overtime! As a new mum it’s possible to feel vulnerable and not want to cause any distractions. Having the confidence this time round to ask for what I wanted and be honest about my needs meant I could focus on my work without the added pressure of wondering how I could continue to fulfil my parenting wishes.

Having the confidence this time round to ask for what I wanted and be honest about my needs meant I could focus on my work.

How have caring responsibilities shaped your creative practices these past years? Are you surprised by where you are now – maybe working on different types of projects than you imagined?

I never though job sharing was something freelancers could benefit from, but I discovered that it was possible while working for The Farm. Myself and another editor, Sarah Feltham, who also happened to be a mother, were taken on to edit promos at UKTV. Splitting the weeks into an alternating 2 and 3 day pattern meant that we were both across what was going on the whole time. Even though our paths rarely met, we were in regular contact, and could pick up each others’ work where necessary. As we are both very experienced promo editors the company were able to benefit from our combined knowledge of the area, while we were able to enjoy being part of a permanent team but also had time for our young children. The added bonus was that if one of us needed last minute cover, we were able to organise this between us and keep the daily work running smoothly. It was win-win for everybody.

After my first son was born I fell into roles which had more convenient schedule patterns, but during my second pregnancy I took part in the Women in Film & Television (WFTV) mentoring scheme. This meant that I used what maternity leave time I had to consider roles I wanted to chase in the future. I took time to speak to people who I admired or who could offer advice and this time round I am attempting to work in areas which really interest me while trying to create a work-life balance. It’s difficult, as I am focusing on drama and documentaries, which can require a lot of time and energy, and I see why I fell into the jobs I did before, but I believe I can find a balance which allows me to gain more satisfaction in my work.

After Thames was born I was torn about how much time I could give to my own creativity. I have always sung and made music but didn’t feel I had the time or energy to do my own things. [So] I joined choirs [and started] a Facebook group called Mothers Make Music.

Has parenting/caring affected any specific project you’ve worked on and if so in what way?

I have become a lot better at time management, like most parents. I no longer give in to the myth that longer hours create better or more work. I value down time, free time, to recharge, breathe, spend time with my family. I think this makes me more focused and productive in the edit as I am fully aware that that time is for work and to be used wisely.

After Thames was born I was torn about how much time I could give to my own creativity. I have always sung and made music but didn’t feel I had the time or energy to do my own things. I counteracted this in a couple of ways. Firstly I joined choirs, The Sound:Check choir and the London Contemporary Voices Kin choir. This was a great way for me to continue singing and performing without having the added pressure of writing, arranging and organising, and a great way to continue to mix with adults with similar interests.

The second thing I did was to begin a Facebook group called Mothers Make Music, to connect with other women in a similar position. This resulted in reconnecting with a musician I knew from my time living in Paris, and lots of conversations about parenting, women and the arts. We ended up co-founding MUSEfest, an international network and showcase of women working in music and film. Through this we put on music and film events in London and Paris, creating a wonderful network of women in the arts and giving awards to inspiring women. Without my newfound time management skills, and desire to meet other parents creating their own work-life balance I would never have been able to pull off something so huge.

There are other parents, carers and people with lives outside of work [on your project] so it is not unreasonable to expect to be able to leave when your hours are done.

What advice would you offer someone thinking about becoming an editor and wanting to have a family life as well?

Well, it can be tough. I think you have to have a thick skin, and survive on adrenaline some days, but that’s the industry anyway! Know your worth and know what is expected of you, by others and yourself.

I think it is very important to enjoy maternity leave if you can afford to take it. Set an ‘out of office’ email reply and don’t fend every job email as soon as it arrives. I didn’t do that first time round, and the guilt of turning down jobs meant I agreed to go back sooner than I was ready. I worked for one day, and realised my mistake. I just wanted to be home with my baby, not forever, but for then. So after I finished the job, I put myself back on maternity leave for 3 more months. And was relieved to find it didn’t completely exclude me from the industry, and I was ready to work when I did go back. If you enjoy what you do you probably have friends as well as colleagues in the industry, and keeping in touch with people is much easier when you like them, so you don’t really have to worry about losing all your contacts in just a few months or a year. Technologies do change, but not so fast that you’ll miss everything while you’re taking some time out with a baby.

When you do return to work, it’s worth remembering that there are other parents, carers and people with lives outside of work so it is not unreasonable to expect to be able to leave when your hours are done. I often work 10 hours in front of a screen, and I believe that is absolutely enough. Obviously there are times when overruns are necessary, but not every day. And it takes more planning. I can’t just go home 4 hours later without warning. My life requires advance planning for other people too now.

Is there anyone who has become a role model for you – and why? Any inspirational work practices?

I am hearing more and more about editors working from home for part of their projects, which is totally doable in this day and age. I have only had a couple of opportunities to do this but it is something I want to do more. Without a stressful commute taking up such a chunk of my day I can be much more relaxed, take my children to school/ nursery, and get on with my work without the panic of reaching home in time for them later. I believe this results in more creativity and a greater ability to problem solve.

I want my children to be proud of the work I do and I know that I do it for them both financially, and also because it keeps me sane, lets me express my creativity.

What good/bad attitudes have you encountered in the industry?

Sadly, when some parents/ carers leave work “early”, I have heard people suggest they are slacking off, without considering what that person has to deal with when they reach home. (Additionally, this is usually directed towards women. I have heard people describe men who leave early for their children as “amazing fathers”.) Often people who have to leave for childcare or other care reasons have already made up those hours or completed their tasks for the day. We really need to be helping each other as much as we can.

It is frustrating when people assume I can’t take on certain roles because of my children, even when I am working with fathers who have an equal responsibility for their children. When I put myself forward for something it is because I have childcare in place and am capable.

But saying all that, I have recently been empowered by some of the wonderful women I took part in the WFTV mentoring scheme with, and the absolute support they offer. And I am quite lucky to have worked with incredibly understanding edit producers who also have lives they want to manage and refuse to work so late that no-one can see the wood for the trees!

I love my job, and am proud of the work I do. I want my children to be proud of the work I do and I know that I do it for them both financially, and also because it keeps me sane, lets me express my creativity. It seems that there’s a kind of symbiosis happening and as I am now in a position to be able to work from home, and have been actively looking for short films or docs I can edit from there, I am also meeting people who are happy to work this way and planning future projects.

 

Your partner also works in the industry? How do the two of you make it work – do you take it in turns to do jobs, are you able to work from home sometimes?

Sometimes we work different days, making childcare arrangements easy, but that is purely luck. As I mentioned before, my mum is extremely helpful and flexible so if we are both working she can often help out. My work hours tend to be rather inflexible, but when on shoots Léo is sometimes able to rearrange his prep hours so we can cover the children between us. It can often feel like we have no time together as a family, but then we’ll both be out of work and there’s loads. I am constantly re-evaluating my career choice and the jobs I take, and wondering if I take on another longer contract, whether I could get the baby into a local nursery temporarily, or negotiate varying work hours so I don’t see as little of them.

As the children grow there are other challenges to factor in. For example, if I get any breaks during the day at the moment they are spent arranging school visits for our oldest and working out the application process because of our move. Like many working parents, our criteria for school choices goes beyond, say catchment area, and liking the schools, we also have to be able to get there en route to our jobs, so if the greatest school is off the beaten track or adds a 40 minute detour to our commutes, it’s just too difficult for the long run. This is something we have to learn about and adapt to as we go.

The whole industry [needs] work life balance: people are only new parents for a short time, and many of us also need some space to care for loved ones, or even for ourselves.

What would you most like to see change about the industry? What changes would help you most when it comes to continuing to work as an editor?

Besides the return of workplace crèches, I would love to see a network of local nurseries with flexible availability, I would like to see more working from home or flexible hours introduced. This requires trust that your editor is putting in the time and skill necessary, rather than the factory style, set hours button pushing that is becoming so common. Time in the edit suite can appear to be valued higher than output. Longer hours dont bring out the best in many.

As a freelancer, not currently entitled to childcare vouchers, a system that could help with that would also be welcome.

The whole industry could probably do with finding some sort of work life balance, people are only new parents for a short time, and many of us also need some space to care for loved ones, or even for ourselves. If we were all able to work together, job sharing when necessary, shifting our patterns where possible, we’d still get amazing work done.

One thought on “Interview: Zeb Achonu”

  1. Absolute eye-opener. A very well-considered non -emotional positive take on the challenge and the fight to divide oneself.
    There is a definite organic about how children grow so situations change and re-evaluation of career and creativity paths alter and always it’s good to go over stuff to retain sanity.
    Well done.

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