Small-Town Boy Makes It in the Big Time

UNION MADE

by Mark Herman

I grew up in a small town on the East Coast, maybe 1,000 people, tops. Not too much to do at night, but great for a kid; we pretty much had the run of the town. Every Sunday night without fail, Dad would take me to the movies. I never saw one I didn’t like. In retrospect, it’s hard to separate the pleasure I got from the movie from the pleasure I got from the movie-going experience. It was a cornerstone of my childhood.

High school changed all that. It wasn’t cool to go with my father anymore. Instead, I would hitch into town with my buddies and, after the movie was over, we’d go to the local diner and hang out. Movies were still fun but something about the experience was more cynical. I still liked them, but not all of them anymore. The pure visceral enjoyment I’d had as a kid was filtered by my intellectual process.

Then I kind of drifted away from the movies. Other things took priority — mainly girls and sports.

After high school, I had no particular drive or ambition. I ended up working for Wheeling Steel as a riveter’s assistant — pulling a chain that turned 1,000-pound pipes in a slow circle. Each pull turned the pipe 12 inches, and the guy on the rivet gun would pound in the next rivet. I never left work without a headache. After about six months, I knew I’d be better off if I found a different line of work. I was sick and tired of waking up sick and tired (to quote an old song sung by Waylon Jennings).

I became aware of how much work went into the filmmaking process. As a kid, I’d loved movies; now I respected them too.

So off to college I went: University of Utah in Salt Lake City. A mediocre student, I couldn’t find a subject that interested me, and felt I was being force-fed the core curriculum. I allowed myself one fun class a quarter. First photography, then filmmaking… As I submerged myself into the medium, my original love for movies came back full force. I started to become aware of how much work went into the filmmaking process. As a kid, I’d loved movies; now I respected them too.

Love and respect. A good basis for a long-term relationship! Although I didn’t know anyone who actually made a living in film, I figured I’d give it a shot. I’d hate to look back 30 years later and think, “What if…?”

I found documentary work in Salt Lake City. It was great! My first job was working out of the editor’s house. I would work from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., and Larry (the editor) would work from 1:00 to 6:00 p.m. Then I’d work from 6:00 p.m. to midnight, with Larry, a night owl, working from midnight until he fell asleep. He was passionate about his craft and became a good friend and a great mentor. But I had a hard time making a decent living and it was a struggle to keep working. I realized that I needed to move.

I ended up in New York. After a few months, a buddy got me into a commercial house, Editor’s Gas, right in the center of the city. I had big-time products to work on. Lots of action. Plenty of money. People in and out of your room all the time. We worked on many commercials at the same time. Very frenetic. It was the complete opposite of documentaries. Not much soul in our product.

After that, I drifted into the low-budget, non-union, feature world, working in New York and Los Angeles. Crazy times. No overtime pay but lots of overtime. Sometimes I didn’t get paid at all. Pulled a lot of all-nighters.

Then I worked on a film called Playing for Keeps, which went union during post. And I finally had my Editors Guild union card. Union post-production was more structured and I learned better habits. I gained an understanding of the dynamics of a well-run editing room. And the paychecks never bounced.

I had the opportunity to work in sound, music and picture editorial. But I had never found my niche until I got involved in visual effects. I was working for a terrific editor, Dennis Virkler, ACE, and he gave me the opportunity to become a VFX editor. He had the kindness and patience to put up with my shortcomings.

I enjoy the entire lifespan of an effects shot from pre-viz to final. It’s fascinating to me. I have a foot in both worlds: Editorial and VFX. It’s often an interesting balancing act. There is always something new to learn.

Early on, it seems like I meandered around but finally circled back to my innate love of images. The work is interesting, fun and difficult. I’ve made a lot of friends, I’m surrounded by talented people and, as Dad said, “There’s no heavy lifting and you’re out of the rain.”

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