Where are you currently employed?
Los Angeles, CA – Freelance
Recently wrapped on “Cowboy Bebop” for Netflix. It’s a 10-episode live-action adaptation of the original Japanese anime.
Describe your job.
Part of the visual effects editor’s job is nearly fully creative. The task: temp out all visual effects as best you can before the first cut is screened. The goal: help sell the story. You don’t want to lose anyone because the visual effects are distracting or incomplete. A top priority is to take out all green screens and replace them with backgrounds. In a space show such as “Cowboy Bebop,” sometimes you can get away with just pulling the green out (“pulling the key”) and leaving it black. Easy! I found that dropping in stars as the background could sometimes be more distracting, though some elements from NASA’s catalogue were quite useful.
I love creating a temp effect by using something in a way that was never intended. It feels kind of like Foley for the sound team—high heels walking on tile plus crunching cornflakes equals the sound of a pig walking through leaves. For visual effects, it could be a spray from glass cleaner with the background layer removed, tinting the liquid purple, and shrunk way down. Now it’s a futuristic application to heal a wound. You can get really creative without it being “good” because you’re just trying to convey the idea to sell the story point.
Then, the technical side: Breaking up temp shots into elements and handing them off to the visual effects vendors to work on. I also track those shots as they go to, or return from, two or three or 20 vendors.
As finished effects finally arrive, I cut them in, see if they work, and adjust if needed based on the effect (with the editor’s consent!). You also talk about creative intent with the team. There are lots of visual effects reviews with everyone in a room or on Evercast. At that point, It becomes a highly collaborative part of the process, and it really makes you feel like part of the team!
How did you first become interested in this line of work?
As a kid, I went from wanting to be a cartoonist—drawing the Sunday comics, like “The Far Side”— to wanting to work in 2D animation, to wanting to do stop-motion animation like “Wallace and Gromit” and “Brothers Quay.” I was already into building miniatures and clay figures, so that paved the way. When I was about 13, there was an epic attempt to adapt “The Phantom Tollbooth” using stop-motion—until our dog walked through and ruined the “set” I built.
In high school, I made friends with kids who had similar interests, and we started to collaborate on live-action shorts. My favorite part was post. I learned a lot about doing motion graphics and small visual effects.
And then I saw “The Matrix,” and it sealed the deal for me.
Who gave you your first break?
There were many people, of course. This career is not the straight-line path it used to be. I meandered from Milwaukee to New York to LA trying different routes to “get in.”
My biggest break was via John Axelrad. While still in New York, I cold-emailed him, asking if he was free to meet up for coffee. He was very kind and said he would love to, but he wasn’t in New York anymore—he was back in LA on a project. I think, like, a year later, we reconnected and he said he was just freeing up, and if I was ever in LA, I should call him up for that coffee. I said, “Coincidentally, I’m there next week!” Then I bought a ticket to LA….
At our meeting, he spelled out exactly what I should do when I moved to LA, because I was starting the drive in a couple months. He said to join the roster, then get on a union project as a PA or an intern, and get to know the team so you’re ready to join the union if/when they need to hire a little more help.
I got back to New York with my fresh new plan, got on the roster, and started driving to LA. On the way there, John emails me and says, “I’m about to start another project and we need an intern. Are you in?” “YUP. Be there in 5 days.”
What was your first union job?
While I was an intern on the film John Axelrad was cutting, he put my name out for union work to everyone he knew. It didn’t take long before John’s friend, David Bertman, reached out looking for an apprentice editor on “This is 40.” Within a couple days, I had officially joined the union as an apprentice and started my first union job on a Judd Apatow movie.
What credits or projects are you proudest of, and why?
“The Big Short.” It was an incredibly exciting movie to work on. Highly creative and collaborative. The movie was saying something and was teaching something but did it in an entertaining way.
“Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues.” I had worked in a movie theater in Wisconsin when “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” came out, and now I found myself quoting outtakes with the editor of both films, Brent White—the same outtakes I’d quoted while sweeping up popcorn at the theater. It was an honor to work with someone who had such a hand in molding my sense of humor from a young age.
“Cowboy Bebop.” The original anime is one of my favorite shows of all time. I have my corgi (mix) because of that show, and he takes his name from an episode (“Shuffle”). Being a part of the live action was a big, BIG life achievement for me. I’m so glad I was able to have a hand in its creation.
What was your biggest challenge in your job (or on a particular project) and how did you overcome/solve it?
When I was an assistant editor on “Anchorman 2…”, a scene used stock footage from a “Shark Week” episode. It had been downloaded from YouTube, and it turned out that the original for that particular piece of footage was EXTREMELY difficult to find. I watched countless hours of “Shark Week” shows, but I kept seeing pieces of the shot that were just before or just after the moment we used. But the director loved that particular part of that particular take. All the alts we offered from proper, licensable sources… well, they weren’t as good.
I ended up tracking down the original show, but the production company was defunct. The one contact I had replied to me with the name of the cinematographer, but he had no contact info. I managed to find his Vimeo account, reached out, and had him send the original tapes directly to us, hopefully without being destroyed or lost along the way.
The tape made it to the office, we captured it in high resolution, and the piece made it into the movie.
Friends don’t let friends cut in untrackable YouTube videos.
What was the most fun you’ve had at work?
Getting visual effects dailies for “Cowboy Bebop” and seeing the evolution from concept to the final of all the ships and the astral gates and everything. So COOL.
Trying to figure out which way glass would fly by reenacting the multiple-car crash in “John Wick: Chapter 2” using the Matchbox cars I had in my office.
Jobwise, what do you hope to be doing five years from now?
Working with more awesome, creative, fun people who don’t want their whole life to be work, who value free time.
What are your outside activities, hobbies, passions?
I enjoy learning Japanese, trying to grow various plants in the backyard, baking pies and breads with apples from the tree in the back. I like drinking whiskey and gins and fancy cocktails, assembling miniatures or models of things. I like cars, but I’m not necessarily a gearhead. I really like driving, so a good ride is important. I have a Tesla Model 3 and a 1976 Datsun 280z. I like hanging out with my dog, Shuffle, and playing board games and video games with my fiancé, Josh.
Favorite movie(s)? Why?
“Edge of Tomorrow” – I always say this is the best video game movie without being a video game movie. That feeling of dying over and over and having to start the level at the beginning… Brutal. It’s basically high-stakes Mario Brothers.
“High Fidelity” – Great soundtrack. Great script. Somehow makes you root for a completely unlikeable guy. Top Five of all time.
“Fight Club” – This had a huge influence on me in high school. All around solidly well done. Endlessly quotable. It feels really current, 22 years later…
“The Matrix” – Made me want to get into filmmaking in a legitimate way. There were many attempts at mimicking “bullet time” with tripods on wheels.
“Porco Rosso” – Japanese Anime – One of Studio Ghibli’s best. It’s so charming and beautiful. It’s a sea pirate/bounty hunter caper set in 1929 over the Adriatic Sea. What’s not to love?
“In the Mood for Love” – It’s a mood of a movie and I love that. There’s barely any dialogue and it’s all just dreamy stares and beautiful wallpapers and dresses. I finally grabbed the score on vinyl recently and it’s an absolute must.
Favorite TV program(s)? Why?
“Pushing Daisies” – So colorful and fun and goofy. I want to live in it.
“Succession” – Maybe the greatest TV show of all time. No, really. The way in which all these rich a-holes screw each other over left and right is such a delight to behold. Nick Britell’s opening theme song is KILLER.
“Cowboy Bebop” – It’s got the greatest score in TV history. The perfect mix of action, drama, and comedy. Noir and Western. Interesting, troubled characters. A ton of movie and music references. So much style.
“The Simpsons” – Yes, I am in the “early seasons” camp. There’s no denying that probably 15% of all the words out of my mouth are Simpsons quotes or references.
Do you have an industry mentor?
I’ve been fortunate enough to work with many people who have been mentors to me. I don’t think there’s one person I’ve worked with who hasn’t been willing to share their knowledge, give me tips and tricks, and connect me with their friends and colleagues.
What advice would you offer to someone interested in pursuing your line of work?
“Don’t give up” and “it’s never too late.” Classic advice.
My description of how I went from email to internship to apprentice sounded really simple and easy, but what I didn’t include was that when I became John’s intern, I was already 27. I had tried many routes in 3 separate cities to get to where I am now and hit a lot of walls along the way.
Conversely, the pandemic has allowed us to realize we can change our minds. You can work your whole life toward something and then, after doing it a while, realize it’s not for you. And that’s ok. Getting there is an important step, too.
Was there ever a circumstance when you had to rely on the Guild for help or assistance?
I’ve called or emailed many times for clarity on a contract or having paychecks audited. They’ve always been extremely helpful.
Is there anything you’d like to say to your fellow Guild members, some words of encouragement?
Let’s stay as motivated and as engaged as we are right now. As I write this, we’re a few weeks past having a proposed deal with the producers after such an enormous turnout for a strike authorization. It’s been nice to feel truly unified within our local, and together with the other 13 locals.
Kim Huston is on Twitter @kimhuston.
Compiled by David Bruskin.