Michael Black has been working in Los Angeles as a professional editor for over ten years. Black talks about what it was like going to film school during what he calls “the best and worst time to be studying film”, and how sometimes, dropping out of college is the best career decision one can make. He also shares his experience working on 4D interactive animation and explains what makes an editor great, and not just good. All that, career advice, and more…
Where are you from originally and how did you get your career?
My first job was in high school. I got an internship at a little production studio in Austin where I did industrial stuff and local commercials. I started out as a graphics intern, and learned a lot from this UT (University of Texas) student working there at the time. The first semester I was working as an intern, and by the second semester I took over the graphics role and became the only guy working there in that capacity. I was 18 when I got the job. That’s where I learned to edit on Avid and Final Cut, along with my first exposure to After Effects and Photoshop.
What have been your favorite projects to work on?
It’s been fun the past few years working on these 4D animation projects that have interactive elements, the seats move and shake and they spray water on you, stuff like that.
The project I’m working on now, editing as well as directing, HERO FACTORY, is an all animated TV show. It’s been fun because it’s a style and genre that I like. Getting to work on the LEGO Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Out was the most fun and most stressful because I cared a lot and wanted to get it right. I’m something of a Star Wars fanatic and getting to work on that and go to Skywalker Ranch for the sound mix was nothing short of a dream come true.
Did you go to film school?
After high school I was accepted into the School of Visual Arts in New York City. I wanted to move to New York the summer before school started, and looked up production offices/studios in New York.
I started going down the list, alphabetically, cold-calling various places and eventually found a place called ATOMIC. They were the first ones that gave me the time of day, let alone asked me to come down to meet them. It was a very strange place – they didn’t really do much. It was run by this 23 year old girl, and I’m still not sure how they made money. They were cool, cryptic and weird though. I kept in touch with them and they offered to hire me for the summer. I moved out there in late May, 48 hours after my high school graduation ceremony and worked all summer at this place before starting school. I would still do a little work for them from time to time throughout the year, which was a nice way to get a little extra money/experience along the way. In the fall, I started school. I always say it was the best and worst time to be studying film. It was in this flux time when digital was just hitting the scene, the concept of shooting digitally was in its infancy and editing digitally was still sort of new.
There was a general perception among the teachers that digital was a “fad”. In editing classes we were working off analog 3/4 decks or film. I had already been using Final Cut Pro and Avid for close to a year. I knew that digital was the future and eventually going to be at a much better place quality-wise. I would get in arguments with my teachers, telling them “it’s going to get better.” My first year, I spent as much time teaching friends how to use Final Cut Pro in our dorms as we spent learning outmoded methods in class. By my second year of school, I was supposed to focus my intent, so I chose editing. I talked my way into taking a third year editing class because the teacher liked me. I took his Avid class, which was kind of a big deal at the time. They had, I think, eight Avid machines, which at the time was like millions of dollars or something ridiculous. I figured out pretty quick that it was pointless for me to be in there. The first day we were allowed to use the machines, we had all the takes from a TV show to use to edit together, for practice. I remember the first day I finished the scene while everyone else was still learning. I played it back for the teacher and I remember he watched it, paused, looked at me, and asked, “Why are you here?”. That was the first of me starting to think “Why am I here?” I left after that year and decided I was done with school. I was constantly arguing with teachers about technology, or styles of filmmaking or what have you. And it was never a constructive argument, mind you. It was very, “I’m the teacher so I’m right” a lot of the time. I didn’t like the environment. I had the technical skills. I learned more staying up late watching and discussing movies with my friends than from any class.
When did you move to LA?
I left New York and moved to LA at the end of my second semester, so summer of 2002. I remember being up late one night with my friend Ben, talking about how much we didn’t like it at school and the vibe in New York post-9/11 was very unappealing. We spitballed the idea of quitting school and moving to California. We determined that it would be just as easy to get a job without a degree…by the way, I’ve only ever had one job ask me where I’ve gone to school. So I told my parents I was going to leave school- they weren’t too happy about that, but eventually realized I made the right decision- and we drove to LA. One of my New York friends told me he had some people he could hook me up with for work, so I felt like once we got there, I’d hit the ground running. I’m in touch with this guy our whole trip out and then the day we get to LA he stops returning my phone calls! I never found out what happened. Anyway, we manage to get an apartment with our parents co-signing, and borrowed money from them and tried to live cheaply as we looked for jobs. I got an interview with an animation studio that needed someone with Final Cut experience. At the time, FCP (Final Cut Pro) was still sort of figuring out its place in the industry. Despite two great interviews, I didn’t get it.
So I got a job as a video game tester. I was only there for six weeks, then got laid off. It turned out to be a blessing because that animation company ended up calling and offering me the job, literally the Monday after the Friday I got laid off. I always think how weird it is that if I hadn’t been laid off, I might not have been available for that gig. This was my first big break. Pure luck, good timing. There I worked on THE PROUD FAMILY, a Disney show, for nine months.
Do you like editing, is it something you do because you’re good at it, or both?
Both. I like the idea of having all the elements and putting it together. There are so many opportunities when it gets handed to you. There are so many ways to put it together, but so few that will work. It’s fun to go through and refine and watch it. It’s a lot of feeling and understanding how something works. Every project is unique. Each time, I feel like I’m putting a puzzle together.
What separates a great editor from a good editor?
There are so many different approaches to material, so many different styles that are appropriate for each piece. My attitude is always that the best editing should always be something that you don’t notice – shouldn’t be calling attention to the craft itself. Every year there’s this symposium I go to that has all the Oscar-nominated editors talk about the film they worked on. it’s called “Invisible Art, Visible Artists.”
When you’re doing the job at it’s best, when all you’re doing is telling the story, people shouldn’t be noticing it. It should be something that’s invisible. I feel like that applies to all the elements of film making, too. I think if someone comes out of a movie saying, “That was some amazing acting!” or “Those costumes were great!” or “How cool was the editing?” then you weren’t paying attention to the story, or the characters. I believe that it should always be something you get lost in and don’t notice all of the elements that are being put together. A great editor combines all the elements into something greater then the sum of its parts, and editing is that last step that puts all the elements together.
What’s the best part of being an editor?
I have my space, I get to work in that space. I have a lot of control over how things unfold and how story is put together. Like I said before, it’s like putting a puzzle together and I like that challenge. Finding the right take is like finding the right puzzle piece that fits better than something else would. It’s good and bad. There are days when I’m in my office for twelve hours and don’t see the sun, or interact with other people. I’m able to work from home, which is good because I don’t have to drive anywhere. Driving in L.A. is the worst.
What advice do you have for someone interested in pursuing a career as an editor?
Nowadays, there’s no excuse to not have resources available to you. When I was in high school, our only option for editing was getting all our VHS players together and getting really good at hitting play on two machines at the same time. iMovie and Final Cut came out just as I was finishing high school and I would have killed to have had that as a kid. Now every single person has a camera that shoots HD in their pocket. Hell, you can even edit on the same device you shoot on… and make phone calls and access the internet and play games. It’s insane. You can edit anything, photos, videos, movies off the internet or DVD rips. There’s no excuse to not use it. The more you do it, the more you understand how it works. Watching movies, understanding why a cut works, and why a shot works, and breaking it down to really understand it. We all have access to so many amazing things: Netflix, On Demand, YouTube…so many cool new things people are doing, as well as all the classics. There’s no excuse to not be watching the best of the old and the best of the new when it’s so readily available. I’m amazed at how little some kids appear to be watching even what just came out the generation before. A friend of mine that teaches at USC said he overheard film students talking about Pulp Fiction that had never seen it before, and that movie’s only 20 years old! If you want to be working as a filmmaker in any capacity, now is the best time to be learning and absorbing every movie you can. If I had Netflix streaming when I was a kid, I probably would have never left the house.
Do you need to be in LA to survive as an editor?
It’s definitely where a lot of the work is, but you can find places in New York, Austin, Dallas… commercial houses and TV stations are everywhere. It depends on what level you want to work at, but those smaller local places or independent places are great ways to get experience.