Thursday, November 17, 2016

A Starter Guide to Becoming An Assistant Editor & Editor In Hollywood

Hi there! Welcome to this brief primer on how to get started as an Assistant Editor in the film/TV industry in Los Angeles. I'm an Assistant Editor and Editor who has worked on a number of shows for networks like AMC, HBO & NBC. Hope this helps!


TABLE OF CONTENTS

THE PHILOSOPHY

WHAT WILL MY JOB TRAJECTORY LOOK LIKE?
TV OR FILM? DO I HAVE TO PICK?
SHOULD I GO TO FILM SCHOOL?
WHERE TO START
NETWORKING
TECH RESOURCES FOR WHEN YOU'RE A SCRIPTED ASSIST
CONCLUSION


THE PHILOSOPHY

A guiding principle in my life is not to behave or make choices out of fear. In competitive industries, there can be a feeling that there aren't enough jobs to go around. Philosophically, I am opposed to this mindset. There are enough resources in this world for everyone. If you want to be a part of this industry, assuming you're not mean or crazy, you will. 

So I offer this info from a place of abundance. I want everyone to have the knowledge necessary to find a job in post-production, the only obstacles being if you're mean or crazy.

I will also say, not everything will be spelled out for you in this post. Filling in the gaps is what separates casual, not-so-serious people from the serious people. Prove you want it!




WHAT WILL MY JOB TRAJECTORY LOOK LIKE?

VERSION 1 (THE LIKELY SCENARIO)

Start as a night assistant in reality or variety TV; gain technical skills and the 100 work days required to join the Editors Guild. Network your way into scripted and work as an assistant editor in scripted TV or film anywhere from 1-5 (or 20) years. Get a break to become an editor.

VERSION 2 (THE LESS-LIKELY SCENARIO)

Start by editing corporate videos, short films or indie features. Hope that one of those jobs allows you to network with someone you can work with long term or one of those projects becomes a huge success. Have a great career with those people. Skip assisting all together. Continue working as an editor.

VERSION 3 (A COMBINATION OF THE TWO)


Work full-time as an assistant while also taking on side projects that could potentially launch your career as an editor.


TV OR FILM? DO I HAVE TO PICK?

In the past, the answer would absolutely be yes. To an extent, the answer is still yes. Though there has been increased crossover between the film and television worlds, generally they are still separate ecosystems.

Along those lines, if you know you would like to work in film, it's helpful to focus your energy in that direction early on. Same for TV, though some would argue it's easier to go from film to TV than TV to film.

A general rule is that in major studio features you will make more money and individual projects will go on longer (sometimes for years). The hours will be long and the overtime pay will be plentiful. You will also wait much longer (1-20 years) to move up from Assistant to Editor. 

On the flipside, in TV the work is said to be steadier and it may take less time to move up. Sometimes people who work in features will go for long periods of time without work. However the same thing can happen in television, and in this industry in general, depending on your ability to network and how good you are at your job, and, of course, your luck.

All that said, the gap between the two worlds has narrowed in recent years and I know a number of people who bounce between film and TV as Assistants. It's just helpful to be aware.


SHOULD I GO TO FILM SCHOOL?

I didn't go to film school, but I know a lot of people who did, and it benefited them greatly. Besides instruction, you are paying for an incredible networking opportunity. Networking, as well as raw talent (and money), is the lifeblood of this industry.

If I could go back in time, I would strongly consider applying. However, I also really like that I don't have any student debt and am currently employed in the industry in a competitive job market. I'm making it work. 

Here are some LA-based film schools if you're interested in applying:


WHERE TO START

LEARN AVID

First thing's first: learn Avid. No way around this.
  • Lynda.com provides tutorials for all versions of Avid and signing up is a relatively cheap monthly investment. They do a great job of getting you oriented in the software and comfortable with the Avid mindset. You will not learn all of the skills necessary for an assistant, but much of that knowledge will come on the job.
  • Avid Media Composer 30-Day Free Trial - Download a 30-day free trial of Avid! No excuses!
  • Moviola.com - Moviola offers courses in Avid Media Composer. They offer both live and online courses.
  • Academy of Media Professionals (formerly VideoSymphony.com) - Academy of Media Professionals is the successor to the now defunct Video Symphony. It offers courses in a number of different subjects, including Avid. 

BUT WHY AVID?

Because every major network television show and film, at least 90% of them, use this software.


BUT... AVID IS WEIRD AND CLUNKY AND I LIKE FCP AND PREMIERE

As of the writing of this document, Avid and their Unity (old)/ISIS (new)/NEXIS (newest) networked storage setup are the best option for collaborating on a project, period. Avid uses a system of bins that allows many assistants and editors to be working within the same project and accessing media at the same time. As of the writing of this post, you cannot do this reliably in any other piece of software (though Adobe has been working on project collaboration and recently announced compatibility with ISIS).

The other struggle you will find is that Avid is entrenched in this industry. All the editors you work with will use it and they will resist learning another piece of software (Premiere or otherwise) until they absolutely have to.

That said, once you learn it, Avid is really great. I started on Final Cut Pro and resisted for many years learning Avid. I have used Premiere and FCPX as well. From my open-minded experience, there is nothing out there as consistent and reliable as Avid Media Composer.

I'll also say: use the right tool for the job. I have found that for short form content both FCPX and Premiere have been great. Whatever works to suit your post-production needs is what you should use.


SHOULD I START AS A POST PA (POST-PRODUCTION ASSISTANT)?

Just about everyone in this industry starts as a Production Assistant in some form or another. Though the job of a PA will not be glamorous, it can be the entry point to a job as an Assistant Editor and great for networking. Once you've acquired the Avid skills and hours for the Union, these early Post PA jobs can be invaluable for transitioning into Assisting using the contacts you've made.

When I was a Post PA, I used to pick up footage (dailies) at a nearby post facility and I would meet other PAs and get to know the staff. I am still friends with and have worked with many of those people to this day.


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APPLY TO THE A.C.E. INTERNSHIP

There is a $100 application fee to apply to this internship program but it is some of the wisest money you'll spend starting out in Los Angeles.

If you're picked as an intern, you are given a guided tour of a Reality TV show, Scripted TV show and Narrative Film project where you sit with and learn from the assistants and editors. It is invaluable as a starting point. It helps to have very little experience and to be fresh out of either college or film school. You can find more about the program below:

https://americancinemaeditors.org/ace-internship-how-it-works/

Even if you have some work experience in the business it is worth it to apply simply for the lecture series, which features some incredible panel speakers. All applicants are invited to attend. 


GET YOUR FIRST JOB (IN REALITY OR OTHERWISE)

There are a number of online resources out there for securing your first job. Here are a few:
  • Staffmeup.com - Populated mostly by professional, paid (generally) non-union jobs
  • Media-match.com - Reality, documentary and short form projects
  • Entertainmentcareers.net Another popular site for paid non-union jobs
  • Greenlightjobs.com - Job listings as well as career advice
  • Mandy.com - Mandy.com is a mixed bag, some normal pay productions and many unpaid/low/student gigs.
  • Productionhub.com - I personally don't have as much experience with this site but I figured I'd list it in case it could be of value to try.
  • Craigslist.org - Craigslist is a mixed bag but if you're looking for experience and aren't as concerned with compensation you may find something to build your resume with.

I also see many jobs posted to forums on Facebook. Some of them are private and not searchable. Here are a few examples:

Generally these sites and resources will be Reality TV/Non-Union centric. All of my scripted jobs I have found through friends and acquaintances. Occasionally, though, you will see an indie feature looking for an Assistant Editor, Editor or PA.

You can also contact Reality TV companies directly.


REALITY/VARIETY TV SPECIFIC RESOURCES TO HELP YOU LAND YOUR FIRST JOB
  • Learn how to Multi-Group (this is the process of creating a large group clip with multiple cameras in Avid. It is absolutely essential in Reality TV.) I have written a tutorial that teaches you this process: LINK
  • Moviola.com - Moviola offers courses in Avid Media Composer. They offer both live and online courses.
  • Academy of Media Professionals (formerly VideoSymphony.com) - Academy of Media Professionals is the successor to the now defunct Video Symphony. It offers courses in a number of different subjects, including Avid.
  • The Assistant Editor's Bootcamp - Hands on experience with real reality TV workflows which will also help get your technical knowledge up to par for scripted TV/Film. The guys who run this are personal friends and are really amazing resources.

SHOULD I JOIN THE UNION (YES, EVENTUALLY)

Should you join the Union? Yes, yes you should. But ideally only once you have secured your first Union job. I say this mostly as a financial warning, as you will be paying quarterly dues and a relatively costly initiation fee as a member that you may not want to incur before being gainfully employed. 

Why should you join the Union? Just a few of the many reasons:
  • 95% of scripted shows are Union. This is just a reality. Just about every narrative scripted show/feature is Union.
  • Base-level wages. My weekly rate will go no lower than $1922.80 as an Assistant Editor with the Majors Post Production Contract (there are other contracts with lower negotiated amounts, but generally anything broadcast that is the starting salary). You can see all the wages/contracts here: LINK
  • Great healthcare
  • A pension (in our industry, this type of financial security is extremely rare)
  • Protection. If your show is violating Union contract in any way, the Union enforces its contracts and protects its membership. You will find that Non-Union work can be exploitative, avoiding overtime payments and other benefits afforded to Union members. These same things can happen in union work, but there is a least an apparatus to deal with it directly when it does occur.
  • Events/Mixers. The Guild hosts screenings of major releases and monthly mixers where you can meet and network with other members. 

Following up on that last bullet point, a membership with the guild will give you access to their networking and social events, which can be invaluable. However, I will also say, if you have a friend who is Union, you can get into most Guild events as their guest. :)


HOW TO JOIN THE UNION - WEBSITE

Many people have expressed confusion with the requirements to join the Union. Though I won't type out all of the steps here, I will paint the (very) broad strokes of how to join as an Assistant Editor:

  1. Work 100 days of non-union work (Paid at least minimum wage on a project that had some kind of theatrical distribution, festival showing, or television broadcast)
  2. Get your paperwork in order for CSATF (Contract Services Administrative Trust Fund) and get on the Industry Experience Roster.
  3. Join the Union.
You can find the requirements and specifics here: https://www.editorsguild.com/Join/Join-West-Coast

I'll warn you, it can be confusing. But think of it as testing your mettle, proving how interested you are in being a Union Editor or Assistant Editor. You can always call the offices and try to get direct answers from a human being as well. In my experience they were helpful.


THE INDUSTRY EXPERIENCE ROSTER

You will want to fulfill the requirements for the Union before actually joining. Again, you will generally not want to join the union before landing a union job, as the quarterly dues and initiation fee can be costly. This is what the Industry Experience Roster is for. It signifies that you have fulfilled the requirements to join the union and are eligible, enabling you to join when you're good and ready.


NETWORKING

NETWORKING RESOURCES

There are a number of "user groups" that are post-production centric and meet in Los Angeles. They are all open to the public. They often feature panels and special guests and can be a great source of networking. I cannot stress to you enough the importance of networking. Most, if not all, of my jobs have come either directly or indirectly as a result of networking at these types of events.


Here is a list of the most popular monthly user groups:

ONLINE USER FORUMS

You'll find once you start working that you will rely on the collective knowledge of your colleagues to solve the numerous technical problems you will encounter. Here are a few forums that you may find helpful:

If anyone knows of any other relevant Reddit or forum links, let me know.


AMERICAN CINEMA EDITORS (A.C.E.) - WEBSITE

You may have seen the three letters following the names of editors on large and prestigious film and TV projects. That acronym stands for American Cinema Editors, which is an organization whose stated purpose is (from their website):
"To advance the art and science of the film editing profession; to increase the entertainment value of motion pictures by attaining artistic pre-eminence and scientific achievement in the creative art of film editing; to bring into close alliance those film editors who desire to advance the prestige and dignity of the film editing profession."
Beyond that, they are the responsible for a number of events the public can attend:


  • EditFest Los Angeles - A day long event with panelists from multiple genres.
  • EditFest London - Same as EditFest LA, just in London :)
  • The Eddie Awards - This awards show is the "Oscars" of editing. The public can buy tickets.
  • A.C.E. Holiday Party - You can buy tickets to A.C.E.'s annual Holiday Party, where you will see new members inducted into the organization and can enjoy mingling with colleagues and membership.
  • Student Fellowships/Awards - There are a number of fellowships for students that A.C.E. offers. If I had known about these in college I absolutely would have applied to any/all of them!


SHADOW A SCRIPTED ASSISTANT EDITOR


With all of the networking you've been doing, you will more than likely cross paths with a working scripted Assistant Editor. If you strike up a friendship, it's more than likely that they would be willing to let you shadow them at their job. This is an amazing opportunity as it allows you to meet the rest of the editorial staff and introduce yourself. 

Beyond that, you will get an inside look at the day-to-day tasks of an Assistant. Some people list that they've shadowed on their resume, which can be helpful in landing that first scripted job. Make sure when you visit the editing room you bring donuts... because donuts are a way to make everyone think you are instantly awesome (advice c/o Make The Cut by Lori Jane Coleman, A.C.E. and Diana Friedberg, A.C.E. - If you haven't already bought this, do it now!).


CONTACT YOUR FAVORITE EDITORS

Once you are eligible for the Guild, another great strategy is to research your favorite editors and write them a letter. Compliment specific things you liked and appreciated about their work and invite them to coffee. I know multiple people who this has worked out amazingly well for. If you send your letter to the Editor's Guild (LINK), they will forward your message on to the member you're trying to reach.


TECH RESOURCES FOR WHEN YOU'RE A SCRIPTED ASSIST

I'm still building out this list with links, feel free to contact me with other suggestions:

  • Evan Schiff's website - Evan is a very talented working editor. His website has some really incredible tools available for Assistant Editors & Editors.
  • 24p Blog - Michael Phillips blog features incredibly in depth technical tutorials and posts.



CONCLUSION

This is a post that I intend to update with as much new information as possible as often as possible. If you have anything you think I missed or should add, please feel free to contact me through the contact form at the top of this page.

Thanks so much for reading and I hope this was helpful to you! Good luck!


Thursday, April 14, 2016

How to Build an Animatronic Talking Dog


This post is one in a series of (I hope) many where I outline the creative process and choices behind the short film Limbo, starring Raul Castillo and Sam Elliott.

This entry goes into detail about the animatronic, wish-granting dog voiced by Sam Elliott, which could have been played by a live dog. So...



Why An Animatronic Puppet?


If you grew up in the 80s like I did, then you know exactly (or mostly) why!

But if not, let me break it down.

Before the age of CGI, classic films such as Labyrinth and The NeverEnding Story used practical special effects and puppetry to tell their stories. Though the audience was aware that the characters were puppets, you accepted them as living breathing creatures and there was a simple charm and magic to their physical presence captured on film. These days, though CGI has become incredibly advanced, I still find myself drawn to practical special effects over digital, especially when it comes to monsters and fantastical creatures. There is something more tactile and "real" about their presence on camera.

Part of what initially got me excited about adapting the comic was the interaction between the main character and the wish-granting dog-- very early on I knew I wanted to recall a classic special effects aesthetic to help accentuate the fantasy of the story. Beyond the aesthetics, though, there would be a number of practical benefits as well. 


Atreyu talks to his Luck Dragon companion in The NeverEnding Story

For one, the actor would have something physical and present to act against. Many times in CGI-heavy films, actors are forced to perform with tennis balls or other random objects. Consequently, their performance (and the film) suffers. Additionally, with a puppet we would have full control over every nuance of the dog's performance; no need for a handler or applying make-up to a live creature. 

The thought of using animatronics on Limbo was a lark-- but the more I thought about it, the more self-evident it became, the more excited I was to make it happen.

The only problem: I had no idea how to do it. I don’t possess any of the skills necessary to create realistic-looking 80s throwback fantasy creatures and I don’t know anyone who does.

Enter Mike Honeck, my friend and roommate, who is an Imagineer at Disney Studios and erstwhile puppeteer. I mentioned my initial plan to him and he took an interest in helping spearhead the effort to find a designer.

Pictured on the wall: Mike Honeck

The first step for us was discussing about what the dog should look like and how it should behave. We determined that our initial budget was going to be between $2,500 and $5,000. After reviewing the script, we decided the puppet should have the following features:

  •       Fully controllable eyeballs/eyelids
  •       Lip curling/snarling
  •       Controllable tongue
  •       Moveable head
  •       Breathing rib cage
  •       Moveable legs

Using LA411 (essentially the Yellow Pages of the film world), we researched a wide variety of companies including ones that looked to be well above our budget level. We contacted those high-end companies first in hopes that maybe someone would connect with our story and be willing to work within our budgetary restraints. We received incredulous but polite responses. To do what was described in our design packet (LINK HERE), they said we would need a budget between $35,000 and $150,000.

It was incredibly tough to hear those numbers. I felt like I was way out of my depth. At the time, the budget of the entire short was roughly $10,000. Even the low end quotes of $35,000 were astronomical.

We began to scale back our expectations of what could be done-- which was painful. No one wants to compromise; I certainly didn’t, not that early in the game. We contacted companies that did simple animatronics for museums and explored options of renting existing puppets. Unfortunately, the compromises on that front were so significant as to be prohibitive. I had no idea where to turn next.

A composer friend of mine, Greg Nicolett, recommended that I contact a special effects artist named Tim Martin who had worked on a low budget sci-fi film he composed for. Tim had designed space suits in the film in addition to having fabricated many of the sets. I had seen the film and remembered thinking the suits and the set design were impressive. Because my options were limited and time was running out, I decided to contact Tim in the hopes that he, or someone he knew, might be able to help.

What does this image have to do with our little indie comic short film? You'll find out soon enough...

To my surprise, when I called and pitched him on the project he was immediately receptive. And, as it turns out, he worked at one of the most revered special effects houses in Los Angeles, Amalgamated Dynamics Inc., and had an impressive resume that included the X-Men films and Hellboy 2 among many, many others. At the time he was looking for a challenge, something that he could use to expand his skill set and also make some money on the side. We had adjusted our budget figure to $8,000 (still not industry standard, but the most that I could afford). I cringed when I told him the number. But, he did the unexpected: he said yes. I was so unbelievably surprised and relieved. We met for dinner, I handed him a down payment and he was off. We had two and a half months with the clock ticking to get the dog ready for our shoot date. The next step was agreeing upon the design.


Designing the Beast


When discussing the look of the dog, I felt it was important that it strike a balance between realism and fantasy. My initial conversations with Tim were that the dog can be macabre (emaciated, sickly, pus-encrusted) but should not appear to be a zombie; it shouldn’t ever slide into full horror. It was also important to me that the fantasy of the creature be felt but that it also seem grounded enough that when it speaks with Raul it doesn’t feel silly. Tim was immediately on board to tackle that challenge.

For inspiration, I gave him some pictures from the comic. Mike and I had decided the dog was somewhere between a Setter and an Australian Shepherd:




Once we had agreed on the breed, it was time to start creating a mock-up. Tim and I both worked full time jobs so most of our collaboration was over the phone, either via text or calling. First we had to roughly determine the size. He sent me a picture with a water bottle and ruler for scale:


It came out to about 3.5 feet x 2.5 ft in length, but to be sure that all of the dog’s features would register on camera, I asked him to make the mock-up closer to 4.5 feet wide and scale everything else up accordingly.

The next step was for him to carve out the body in foam core, leaving interior space for a plastic bladder that would inflate to simulate the dog’s breath.


The sizing now felt right to me so the next step was for Tim to begin sculpting the dog’s facial features and head out of clay. These are some photos leading up to his initial sculpt:




Though I liked his initial sculpture, I felt like the nose was too long and that consequently the breed looked too much like a bloodhound. In order to best communicate changes I drew on the photos he sent:


He then sent this picture back:


In response, I drew:


I indicated that I wanted the eye to be lower on the head, so to verify that the positioning was OK, he sent me this photo, which I approved:



It was looking more like a retriever at this point, but I wasn’t necessarily opposed to that breed. I asked him to flatten the top of the head and the jaw as a final change to streamline the head.


Which then became the below image. He warned me that it might look strange without the ears, but he needed to remove them in order to properly make the mold.


Tim then created a mold into which he poured latex that would become the dog’s skin. So the image below…


Yielded these latex masks that would stretch over the 3D printed bones of the dog’s facial structure:


Tim is a sculptor by trade and with special effects puppetry such as this it is normal to have multiple people from separate disciplines collaborate. We were lucky that Tim brought on Dave Penikas, who is known for his animatronics work on classic films such as Gremlins 2 and Alien vs. Predator among many, many others, to create the moving parts of the dog.



Animatronics


Using a 3D printer and design software Dave printed a skull that fit the proportions of Tim’s sculpture and latex mask (the eyes are temporary mock-ups):




Now that the head was partially constructed we began discussing what the eyes should look like. I decided I wanted the dog to have piercing blue human eyes— I felt human eyes would add a surreal quality that hinted at the entity beneath the surface. This is what Tim sent back:



The eyes were hand painted by Tim. I was really happy with them, so he plugged them into the rough animatronic assembly that they created, and he sent this video:


I was incredibly excited when I saw this—and to be clear, many steps of this process I couldn’t actually believe this was happening. Quite literally, creating a puppet like this this was a dream come true. The next step was for Mike and I to come into the ADI workshop to see the animatronics in person and approve them. Here’s a video of that visit:


There were two bike brake levers that operated the jaw and the neck and a remote control, pictured below, that operated the lips, eyelids and eyes.


Freaky looking, but awesome:


The next step for Tim was placing skin over the entire dog. Alejandro Wilkins (our DP) and I returned to ADI to take some video and test out some of the shots we had in mind:


Full disclosure, in seeing the dog in this state, partially airbrushed and purple looking, I was genuinely concerned. The dog looked much more cartoonish than I would have liked. We were only a week away from our shoot date but Tim reassured me that it was still in process. I took him at his word and we moved forward.

The next step was fur flocking, which is grafting individual sections of hairs (and sometimes individual hairs) to the skin on the dog. It’s an extremely time-consuming process. These are pictures he sent as he progressed:




I’ll be honest—at this point I was still nervous. But Tim had yet to airbrush (paint) and trim the dog’s fur so I staid my nervousness. He invited me to come into the shop for a last look and changes before our shoot day.  I took this video below:


Here are some pictures of the 95% complete dog:




Seeing the dog in action, fully designed and performing, was surreal. I was incredibly happy with Tim’s work, to the point where he had to tell me to stop hugging him. The expressiveness of the puppet was more than I ever could have hoped for and the artistry that went into the final puppet, especially working within the restraints of our budget, was simply unreal.

Here are some shots of the dog from the finished piece:


For a refresher and for comparison, here are some references from the comic:



Thanks for reading and if you’d like to know more about Tim Martin and Dave Penikas, you can find information about them on their IMDb pages:





If you still haven't seen the finished film, you can watch it here:



LIMBO from Will Blank on Vimeo.

Hope you enjoyed the film as much as we enjoyed making it! Thank you from the bottom of my heart for helping make it a reality!