Episode 281 — David Tanaka
Episode 281 — David Tanaka
A native Californian, David Tanaka attended the University of California at Berkeley where in 1989 he earned his bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts with an emphasis in Film Theory. Upon graduating, he worked for post-production facilities throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, quickly gaining experience through corporate advertising and industrial documentary assignments.
In 1990, he joined Industrial Light & Magic, Lucas Digital Ltd., and served as a Senior Visual Effects Editor for fifteen years. His credits include Jurassic Park, Forrest Gump and Star Wars. In 2005, he accepted a Staff Post-Production Editor position for Pixar Animation Studios, handling trailer, international and marketing post-production pipeline matters on Cars, Ratatouille, WALL•E, Up, Toy Story 3, Cars 2 and Brave.
In 2007, David was elected to the board of the Visual Effects Society’s Northern California Section. In 2011 he was elected as Sectional Chairman and sincerely looks forward to the social and professional opportunities the Visual Effects Society provides for his fellow colleagues in the entertainment industry.
Father of two (Mitchell, age 13, and Benjamin, age 10), he loves sharing the craft of film production, editing and visual effects with his family in the form of personal video projects and online challenges. Over the past few years, they have won international acclaim for internet competitions sponsored by Dreamworks Entertainment, Paramount Pictures and the Pepsi Corporation. All in the name of fun, David enjoys exposing his sons to not only the rewards, but also the hard work associated with his craft, while they together explore the ever-evolving frontier of multimedia.
In addition to the Visual Effects Society, David is also an honorary member of Swords to Plowshares: A Veterans’ Rights Organization for his psa producing contributions.
In this Podcast, Allan interviews David about his career, his experience working for both ILM and Pixar; as well as the importance of building a personal brand and relationships as a VFX artist and / or freelancer.
David Tanaka on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm2086413/
David Tanaka on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/david-h-tanaka-42202b1
David Tanaka’s VES Profile: https://www.visualeffectssociety.com/member/david-tanaka/
37th Mill Valley Film Festival Trailer Directed by David Tanaka: https://vimeo.com/105238078
[04:01] David Tanaka Introduces Himself
[08:37] David Talks About What Launched His Career in VFX
[23:04] The Importance of Strategy in Building a Career
[33:07] David Talks About His First Full-Time Job: ILM
[49:46] David’s Journey to Pixar
[56:01] The Soft and Hard Skills of a Freelancer
[1:01:42] Adapting to Change
[1:07:57] The Future of Virtual Production
[1:23:50] The Value of Relationships
EPISODE 281 — DAVID TANAKA
This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 281! I’m sitting down with David Tanaka who’s been both at Pixar and ILM for well over a decade. He’s contributed to films like Forrest Gump, WALL•E, Toy Story 3, Brave and so many other amazing projects. We get into a lot. I’m excited for this one!
David’s got a massive past of setting a goal to work at ILM — and then going to work at ILM. He was there for 15 years before he moved to Pixar. His story is so inspiring, including when he decided to move on from one company to another. This is a really insightful Episode!
If you can, please share this Episode with others or leave a comment on iTunes.
Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
[01:20] Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was you didn’t get the job? Over the past 20 years of working for studios like ILM, Blur Studio, Ubisoft, I’ve built hundreds of teams and hired hundreds of artists — and reviewed thousands of reels! That’s why I decided to write The Ultimate Demo Reel Guide from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. You can get this book for free right now at www.allanmckay.com/myreel!
[1:26:47] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. I’ve put together a website. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! This is a chance for you to put in your level of experience, your discipline, your location — and it will give you an accurate idea what you and everyone else in your discipline should be charging. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com!
INTERVIEW WITH DAVID TANAKA
[04:01] Allan: Thank you, David, for taking the time to chat! Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?
David: My name is David Tanaka. I reside in the San Francisco Bay area. For a long time, I’ve been a VFX professional. I worked at ILM for 15 years. Even though it’s been a long time, it goes by [fast]. You think of your years in terms of the movies you’ve worked on. I worked at ILM as a VFX Editor. I worked my way up. Then across the pond, there was Pixar Animation Studios. I then went on to Pixar as a staff editor specializing in special projects: trailers, theme park attractions, sizzle reels. I worked there for 10 years. For the last 5+ years, I’ve decided to go freelance in terms of post-production. I’m thinking of it in terms of expanding my experiences. Freelance editing offers other opportunities, including live action, concert venue (which is an off-shoot from my experience at Pixar, like Pixar in Concert which was a celebration of all the Pixar movies played symphonically in a live concert hall). The easy term would be to call them video mashups. The video component came first which was fun because I found myself in a position of remixing or recomposing the music to fit the visuals for a live event. That’s been my experience for the last 25-30 years.
[06:33] Allan: I want to talk about that later. Did you actually get to attend the [Pixar in Concert event]?
David: Absolutely! The fun thing about it was that it was a grassroots project that I and two fellow producers came up with. We pitched it to Pete Docter who was the Director of Inside Out and Monsters, Inc. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Pete came from a musical family. His mother teaches music and they grew up around music. He just lit up and said, “I’m going to take it to John!” Of course, he meant John Lasseter. It pyramided up the steps. John immediately said, “That’s a great idea!” That’s the best part about Pixar: that they [entertain] fresh ideas. You can kind of feel it in their movies. They have fresh original storytelling. When we pitched our idea, I think it resonated with that freshness. It’s still performing today and we premiered it in 2012. I’m really proud of it!
[08:37] Allan: Yeah, I bet! To back paddle a bit, did you always picture yourself being in the creative industry?
David: I teach editing at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. I give lectures and so forth. I always tell my students I’d be completely lying if I didn’t say that Star Wars had a huge influence on me and my wanting to get into that industry. In 1977, I was 11. I saw it maybe 2-3 months after it was this phenomenon. My aunt took me to see it in Hawaii. I’m sitting in this audience with other kids that have seen the film already. You hear this story from a lot of VFX professionals but that opening shot just knocked my socks off. I was convinced that the movie was made for just one person: Me! I always think about this as an editor: If you can make someone who’s sitting in a chair tilt their head as they’re looking at the screen — you know you’re in a theatre but you can’t help but tilt your head — they got me!
[10:47] Allan: It reminds me when id Software made DOOM. People were trying to look around the corner because they got completely immersed.
David: It’s almost like realtime gaming or VR before these two things ever existed. Having now gone into editing, I hear that from a lot of editors about crossing that threshold where someone wants to look behind that door that’s cracked open.
[11:42] Allan: Were you born in California?
David: Yup. I was born in the San Francisco Bay area. At first when this movie came out called Star Wars, I was really curious about how they made it. Back then, there was no Cinefex or DVD extras, no internet. There was one fan magazine that they rushed out. I read somewhere in the magazine that George Lucas was from California and that he was moving to Marin County to set up his studio. And that was the big shock breakthrough for me: It had nothing to do with Hollywood at all! I was reading the magazine in the East Bay and I looked out the window at the Bay. He was going to make another movie close to where I was, so it seemed like a possibility someday.
[13:42] Allan: I love that! I do appreciate that a lot of us get that obsession. For me, it was making video games for this company called Activision. Having something close to home gives you a target. For you to be so inspired by the film, is that what helped you set your targets?
David: Invariably yes. Practically, I initially fought it. My family is a middle class family. I got into UC, Berkeley and to UCLA. I wanted to go study Mass Communications and my plan was after a year or two to try and do a lateral move into their film program. My dad said, “That’s a great plan, but I can’t afford it! You have a wonderful offer at Berkeley.” I was very disappointed but I understood the reality of the situation. I was never a great student. I was a B-grade student and got by okay. So I went to Cal Berkeley and tried to do something practical. So, let’s do pre-med. My main interest in it was to affect people. The film making component, which I had compartmentalized, would just never go away. I found myself on weekends picking up a camcorder and filming short films on the side. I would be sitting in biochemistry, making sketches of my storyboards. Inevitably, the science grade [dipped down]. Fortunately, Cal Berkeley at least had a humanities track and film theory. You could study about film but you didn’t get any hands-on experience. I had no desire to do that, but that was the only way I could get close to it. And I knew it would count for some of my requirements. Low and behold, I excelled at it. My parents saw my science grades and my film grades and they said, “We have no idea what you’re going to do with this degree, but at least, you will finish college with good grades.” So by default, I did the film program.
Fortunately, Lucasfilm was just across the Bay. There is this model maker Ease Owyeung at ILM and one day he was giving a lecture for one of the clubs on campus. He presented a slide show. They had a lot of miniatures of the Temple of Doom. Everyone was enthralled by what he was talking about and asking, “How did you do this or that?” I raised my hand and asked, “How do you get into ILM?” Specifically, I didn’t want to be arrogant so I asked if there was an internship program. He said there kind of was [one] and I should just contact them. I raised my hand again and asked, “How do you contact them?” This is pre-internet. He mimicked opening the book. He set it up for a joke but he meant it. I was the only one that opened the Yellow Pages and called ILM and said, “I just saw this presentation.” Turns out the receptionist that picked up the phone was a Cal Berkeley alumna who was in one of my classes. She said, “They don’t have an internship program but I’m trying to start one.” Little by little, there was some little carrot of an inspiration along the way.
[20:12] Allan: That’s such a valid point that there was that one thing nagging you. It’s qualifying you toward your passion. You were asking a practical question and then actually going and doing what that person recommended. It’s all these little things that lead you down the path of success.
David: We’d have filmmakers as guests (or even hearing celebrities talk on television), my pet peeve answer was, “I guess I was just lucky.” What I found out in terms of trying to elevate, first you have to get your foot in the door. The other part of the answer is that you have to put yourself into those lucky situations. Go to your local film festival, stay for the Q&A afterward, introduce yourself to the filmmaker. You and I were talking before this interview and we know a lot of people we didn’t know we knew. It’s a small industry and world, especially now with social media.
[22:35] Allan: I completely agree! These days, I see the world being so small, you could be on the other side of it in 12 hours. The internet made it connected that way.
David: Especially in the industry that we’re in: gaming, animation and visual effects. Especially, now with the shelter-in-place, it’s even more so.
[23:04] Allan: How important do you think it is to have a strategy for your career? I interviewed Mark Toia who was a DP but is not directing films. I asked him what separates those who make it from those who don’t. And he mentioned that some people are lazy. Some of us do talk ourselves off the ledge. How important do you think it is to recognize opportunities everywhere?
David: It’s funny because everyone is in this industry for different reasons. I was sucked in because of the filmmaking craft. I wanted to touch it, paint a model. Some people are in it because it’s a famous business. You just have to be true to yourself. I never considered myself good at strategy, no matter how hard I tried. If I look back at my career right now, what always rang true was being honest with myself. You have the added benefit of being excited about it and you want to succeed. I tell you, the last 2-3 decades I’ve been in this business it’s come down to whom you meet and what their personal opinion of you is. And it’s always weird about where the contacts come from. I had a freelance edit account that lasted for 2 years, it was a corporate account. It came from a friend who was a production coordinator at ILM. Now, she recruits freelance artists. I know it’s a simplistic answer but it’s about being kind to the little mouse on the side of the road that later on plucks the splinter out of your palm. That has always worked for me! I critique a lot of reels for my students [which are] usually a series of frames. What I’m seeing that is missing is their personality. There has to be something else that stands out. Put yourself in there, interacting with others. Or add an intro at the beginning, from an interview you did. It’s much harder for me to deny having a connection to a particular candidate.
[27:30] Allan: That’s such a valuable point! I’ve been teaching this course on Building a Personal Brand. I was talking to Emmanuel Shiu (www.allanmckay.com/258) about how he landed his job and it was because he was nerding out with the Production Designer about his passion for cars. It was like, “I like this person. I can see myself spending long hours with him during production.”
David: Yeah, that’s important! You want to be surrounded by people you feel comfortable with, especially during these long hours. When I started at ILM, there was a euphoria that you got in. I started as a production assistant on the movie Hook. I was euphoric but also terrified. Now, you’re surrounded by all these people you revere. For me to talk shop [with them], I almost didn’t feel worthy. Are you going to talk about compositing techniques on Back to the Future? I think not!
But what I found was that component. You’re working crazy hours and everyone is concentrating on delivering their effects. The last thing you want to do is small talk about compositing lines and pixel resolutions. The funny thing is that as much as I hated the Film Theory major, that suddenly became really helpful at ILM. Now I was talking about film as art. Now, I was talking about films from the 40s, 50s, 60s! Suddenly, I’m striking up a conversation with people I never thought I’d have a connection with. All those people didn’t come from visual effects companies. ILM was the one! It was kind of like what Weta did later for Lord of the Rings. You’d have matte painting artists that did oil paintings. You’d have model makers but their thing was being freelance sculpture artists. Suddenly, we were talking about the craft but from a different perspective. Once you get to know the person as a person, in addition to their competence, you want to [hire] that guy!
[31:06] Allan: Yeah, it’s about building bonds over commonalities. It’s critical to build that connection. I moved to Vancouver years ago, I started reading about things you could start small talks with people. I would go to a bar and strike up conversations with bartenders about the aging process, etc. You’re friendly and chatting with them. That’s essentially how you penetrate another circle.
David: And look at where we are right now! We have a major animation and VFX company. Because of COVID-19, we’ve been forced to set up online procedures. You have to trust every artist that has to work from their own homes. There is this human component in the trust that trickles down. Whom are you going to trust?
[33:07] Allan: I feel bad for people starting a new job at a studio [these days]. There is so much going on! I’d love to fast forward a bit. You got to work on so many amazing films. One of the first films you were tied to was Jurassic Park. What was it like to be at ILM at that time? I’ve spoken to Ben Snow who’s started on Star Trek, but there weren’t necessarily those pinnacle times (www.allanmckay.com/101).
David: Yes, I feel very fortunate! When I started, I was a production assistant on Hook which was directed by Steven Spielberg. That film got mixed reviews. It got a lukewarm reception and it did okay at the box-office. There is the usual barometer and then there is a Steven Spielberg barometer. That was my first credit so I was over the moon! Steven inspired me to get into this business. There was this feeling that his streak has ended. Then there was this talk about his picking up a film about making dinosaurs. There was a big excitement and there was also trepidation, like, “I want the Jaws Steven Spielberg, not the Hook Steven Spielberg.” There was also the component of computer graphics. I was the department coordinator for the Editorial Department. One of those things was to manage the screening rooms, and that the rushes got in on time. I would have these tv monitors. There were two buildings that could do screenings: the D screening room and C screening room. And I was constantly looking at them like stocks, making sure productions were going in and out.
I remember looking up at the screen and seeing projected just the thigh area of the T-Rex. And it was moving as if it did have a leg. It was bouncing against a rock surface. The whole point of that shot was to simulate flesh. I kept staring at it and I couldn’t figure out how it was done. Computer graphics were already making its mark but only in a chrome, shiny sort of way. Jurassic Park just busted it open: Now you can make realistic, organic living creatures. The great thing about it was, “Oh, my God! They made real dinosaurs.” But no one knew what real dinosaurs really looked or behaved like. It was a nice psychological test. Not unlike Toy Story! It’s about toys, round objects. That was quite the renaissance. I feel quite fortunate I was there. Then you follow it up with Forrest Gump. All those films were perfect representation of flesh and bone computer graphics, feature animated computer graphics and digital manipulation (with Forrest Gump).
Did I see that coming? No! But to be there at that time, I was gravitating toward transferring to the Editorial Department. My interest came from making Super 8 movies. I always found editing to be the one craft that really fascinated me. I remember being in the 8th grade and locking myself up in a room with all of this Super 8 footage that took time to process. I had a hand cranked Moviola and I would just turn off the lights and go at it. For me, it totally made sense. It wasn’t just a career move.
[39:50] Allan: You’re getting closer and closer to your goal. You started moving into being an assistant editor at that point. What was it like to see the payoff?
David: It’s a great question because it’s something that you, as a professional, are always asking yourself. If you’re at ILM, you’re at the dream studio. Now it comes down to the day in / day out. How much are you enjoying the job? Are you progressing? I always mention that it took 8 years to become a Senior VFX Editor. Like any job, you’re constantly weighing the pluses and minuses. It’s all about doing it and slightly pushing yourself. Frankly, that led me to Pixar Animation Studios. I fell in love with the craft of editing. There was this documentary called How to Film the Impossible, on PBS. It came out after The Temple of Doom. One of the segments breaks down the shot from The Return of the Jedi called SP 19. It’s a trap shot. There were some crazy number of filmed elements. And the VFX editor had to bypack all the visual elements which meant taking all the pieces of film and slap them on top of each other on Moviola and see how they moved together.
It’s all about how to edit within a shot, and that really blew me away. I always thought editing was cutting one thing after another. But how do you do it within a shot? I was intrigued with the process and low and behold my boss turned out to be Bill Kimberlin. Talk about getting the dream job! But having done it for 15 years, I noticed there is a ceiling to it. And VFX editing, you’re creatively contributing to how shots are put together, but your creativity just goes so far. Which is why I decided to go to Pixar Animation Studios. Those are the two big companies in the Bay Area. By the time I got to Pixar, not only did it have the respect. There was a lot of transference between the two studios. I was approached to do this editing job for trailers, for international releases. And my first thought was, “This scares me.” This is when I knew it was time to go. I didn’t like that it scared me. It scared me for all the right reasons: I’m comfortable where I am, I’ve done it a gazillion times for 15 years at ILM, just leave me alone in my tiny room, I’m safe and protected. But my conscience was saying, “If you’re scared about it, that’s ridiculous!” That’s when I left, in 2005, after we finished Revenge of the Sith and I went to Pixar. We were wrapping up Cars at that time.
[45:45] Allan: One last question I’ll ask about ILM is about getting to work on the film that inspired you to go down this path?
David: It was for the 20th anniversary of Star Wars. When George Lucas proposed that he wanted to improve some of the shots and he was inspired by the technology he invested in, at ILM. Jurassic Park showed that you could do realistic creatures. Forrest Gump showed that you could do very interesting composites with a lot of control. Then you also had a lot of digital matte painting with artists that were doing it through Photoshop and After Effects. He tied it into the 20th Anniversary Release. I can only speak on behalf of the editorial department: No one wanted to have anything to do with it. We did this already and it was hard. That was my big break, to go from a Junior Editor to an Editor, was to take that on. I would spend days at Skywalker Ranching sifting through old elements. Great! Sign me up! There are some controversial things in the Special Edition, but there are a lot of things we take for granted today. There were hundreds of composites that were redone.
[48:26] Allan: I watched it as a kid growing up, and I watched it on VHS. The Special Edition was more exciting!
David: And in the older model, where you didn’t quite get the saturation or the exposure just right, you could see matte boxes. We went back and cleaned it up, we scanned all the material and recomposited it. I would spend days, weeks going through star fields on a cell animation sheet and running it through the Moviola until the dots lined up, to make sure it was exactly the same. Was it a drudgery? Not at all! It was a dream come true!
[49:46] Allan: You’ve already said this, but I want to point out your knowing when you got to that plateau and shifting to Pixar. Also, what was the interview experience like? I remember Gini Santos (www.allanmckay.com/173) talking about how she got interviewed by Steve Jobs. What was your experience like?
David: When you get into these various studios, there is something to be said about culture. You see the footage of people riding around on scooters or having paper planes contests. And it is all that! But it’s all that if the work gets done. For example, there was a swimming pool at Pixar for people to use during free break. I never used it! I always felt like there is something to do or the last thing I’d want my boss to do — is see me use a swimming pool. In terms of the switchover, the main commonality was the sincere human interaction and working for the same goal. It’s a little different on an animated movie because the schedule is so much bigger. A Pixar movie takes 4-6 years to make. We used to joke that we worked at a breakneck glacial pace. It always felt like you were running as quickly as you could and yet it took 4-6 years! The major difference between ILM and Pixar is that ILM is more service oriented and they answer to each studio in terms of visual effects sequences, whereas Pixar is a studio. In a sense, there was a little more of a sense of a long term camaraderie whereas with ILM, there is a bit of a different pressure.
[53:14] Allan: Obviously, you’ve worked at two very big studios. What was it like to navigate there? In freelance, you get to decide what you want to work on and with which clients.
David: What I signed up for — I received in terms of trailer editing versus visual effects editing. It’s way too different! I went to Pixar not strategically when we were wrapping up Cars. That is also when Disney acquired Pixar, as opposed to just working with them. There was a focus that both Disney and Pixar are represented equally. I think it’s still like that. You’re answering to two companies. Working on trailers, there was so much more creativity but there were also a lot more hoops to jump through. You never get to own the cut. It was challenging in ways I didn’t expect in terms of how the creativity was shared or the type of collaboration. Having worked there for 10 years, it wasn’t an experience I expected. But 10 years later, I felt like I could go solo.
[56:01] Allan: Can you elaborate a little bit about in what ways it sharpened your skills? Was it about working with vendors or the communication? How did it strengthen you?
David: I signed up for this job as a Special Projects Editor. There is the movie editing, but anything related to trailers or special marketing reels, or any off-shoots, those were the things I took on. In many regards, the staffing was smaller so you took on more by yourself. Inevitably what that did was it not only strengthened me as an editor but also as a production supervisor. Having gone through that for almost 10 years, it gave me the confidence to go forward on my own. If you’re an independent editor, by default you’re an independent editor / motion graphics artist / producer / and a post supervisor. And it has everything to do with crediting my confidence to that studio.
[58:04] Allan: I’d love to chat about what you’re doing now. But my last question is about the special project at Pixar, The Pixar in Concert. Were there any aha moments you didn’t expect?
David: The two main takeaways are: speaking up and intentionally trying to stand out. I went through two studios and the last thing I wanted to do is find myself pigeonholed. Pixar in Concert taught me to speak up but you have to do it the right way. I mentioned knocking on John Lasseter’s door with this crazy idea. The other thing that just wouldn’t go away is my interest in narrative filmmaking. Artistic filmmaking doesn’t really float my boat. The purpose for me is to share whatever I can contribute to an audience. Not unlike when making short films in college, it was the same experience with Pixar in Concert, except you’re dealing with a bigger company. The executives loved the idea and it gave me some notoriety. You’re going to interact with directors. When you take orchestral music they’ve created and presented it in a new light, you’re front and center. It was a great exercise in owning what you produced. And that for sure led me to say, “I’m going to try this solo!’.
[1:01:42] Allan: What was that experience like? I’ve only had maybe 2-3 staff jobs. I’ve missed out on The Matrix because I had to do a freelance job. And it was that one experience of being uncomfortable. Was there any resistance you were experiencing?
David: At first, yes! I did build this successful concert that’s considered to be part of Disney Music Publishing. I did leave that company with that in my backpacker. Whenever Pixar would come out with a movie, Dreamworks Animation would come out with one as well. So in a funny way, I got done with Pixar in Concert, and Dreamworks wanted to do the same thing. I got a call about that. Suddenly, I became a concert story editor. In 2016, they wanted to do the anniversary of Star Trek in concert. I suddenly had these opportunities. I was qualified to do them, and I was a big Star Trek fan. Another thing I wanted to mention too is you mentioned the uneasiness of it. It’s not just my personal experience, but what we’re all going through. One thing that made it all practical and feasible is the democratization of the hardware. You don’t have to work at a studio now. It forces you to make the investment in yourself and suddenly, you’re really portable. On top of that, over the course of working at ILM and Pixar, we had several things happen in the industry:
- Back in 1990, ILM was the talk of the town and in a way the only game in town. From that came, boutique shops, garage shops. Budgets for visual effects were now split between one big hitter company and smaller companies (doing smaller shots).
- You then had broadband. Not only can we have boutique shops, but they don’t have to be domestically related anymore. Suddenly, you had shops in China, Singapore, Vancouver, India. You had union and stage contracts that had computer graphics contracts being different. There were circumstances of where the work was being done have changed. You were seeing fellow colleagues leave the San Francisco Bay Area to go to Canada and other places.
Inevitably, that definitely shapes your decision making. It’s also where the market is going. I definitely can pick and choose and be my own service freelance operation. Another thing you realize is that ILM and Pixar are also navigating the waters. For example, with COVID-19, Pixar’s last two movies are going to be streaming. Fortunately, Disney came up with Disney+ and their hit of The Mandalorian. Suddenly, this is the thing that dictates how things are done right now. You have to flow with the circumstances.
[1:07:57] Allan: You’re absolutely right! The last time I was at ILM, we were having a discussion on whether to incorporate Nuke into their pipeline because it was out of the box. It was a rude awakening for them because they saw other studios being able to compete with what they were doing but at a smaller cost. You go to a micro level, and artists are able to do that. Now, we can go virtual. It’s more of a question of how we’re able to go forward with [virtual production]. What are your thoughts on that? What has your experience been like?
David: Coming from the editing world, we’re stereotyped as locking ourselves into a room and getting the cut done. To a large extent, that’s really true. The other interesting thing is what a veteran artist at ILM has told me. When he was starting to see the companies change and the industry change to have less of an overhead, he thought about how we started. You can get so wrapped up into the evolution of it. But it all started with people contracting together and getting the work done; and then through that success, they could have more stability. Now, because of the technological changes and profit margins, it’s becoming more contracted. You’re going to have that dance between those two ends of the spectrum. I see that with my affiliation with the VES Society it’s all about how do we keep that communication going? Because I had our remote Zoom, I was talking to someone over the phone and all three of us thought it would be so much easier if we could just see each other over Zoom. I catch myself doing that a lot now. I don’t it’s different that it’s a minus — it’s just different.
[1:12:24] Allan: With anything, there is innovative disruption. I can think back to 2012 when we had a bit of a wonky time. That’s when everyone was saying the industry was unstable. Coming from Australia, to me there were so many roadblocks. So seeing people get afraid that work was going elsewhere, for me it was very exciting. With COVID-19, now everyone gets a chance to be a part of the industry. We can unify and work together. We can all have a piece of the pie.
David: It’s that whole mindset of being physically in a bubble, the industry is realizing that it has to open the doors and try new things. My hope is that it’s a win for the industry, especially domestically in terms of being recognized (as opposed to the outsourcing model). Having strings attached outside the bubble through outsource has always been talked about. There has to be a way how to respect and include the domestic market in the process, and still cut your overhead. The pandemic is steering the boat but let’s take whatever good we can get out of it.
[1:15:28] Allan: Absolutely! Everyone has a place they want to land in the machine. I always felt that previz and editorial had the advantage of being close to the source. For you, has it fed your enthusiasm? You get to work a lot more with directors and being creative, has it helped inspire you?
David: Absolutely! Two things: I remember George Lucas telling us that his hope was not that you have an editor, director and producer but that you have one box. And you can do it all in one box. The hardest thing for me when I decided to get into the industry was that I wanted to do everything. I liked producing, editing, costume design. We go into it because we like everything about it. The challenge is to choose the particular craft. The whole idea of coming full circle, it still related to that idea. The other thing I didn’t mention: If you’re going to be a freelance editor, you have to know editing, motion graphics, color grading, VFX. I do VFX producing on films that didn’t expect to have VFX in them. People are shooting things so quickly right now, they aren’t paying attention. Those things that were tough and expensive to do before are now just a desktop away. I find myself doing a lot of that as well.
[1:19:44] Allan: I watched the making of Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom of Menace. George was talking about how he liked one performance and wanted to swap it in place of another. I thought, now you’re going the extreme.
David: I agree with you. There is something to be said in terms of chemistry. A twinge goes up my back when you say that. We had blink removal because one actor was blinking too much. Another actor left his mouth open.
[1:21:15] Allan: Tapping into something you’ve mentioned earlier when we were talking at the VES Round Table. Do you think there is going to be a point where editorial and compositing comes together? Same way as previz is now often thought of in post production. Do you see a dynamic approach in the future?
David: Yeah! The editors used to wait until all the shots were done and rendered. Pixar [gave me] a great experience in terms of what post-production should be. The first thing you do is sketch something and scan it into the computer. Oftentimes when you’re working on a script, the storyboard artist is more interested in sketching the scene than writing the dialogue for it. Immediately, editors were brought into that. That’s for feature film animation. What you usually see is a lot of post-production support because things need to be fixed. I am seeing a lot of that getting turned around and involving the editor sooner. It’s like writing a script and not knowing what the ending is going to be.
[1:23:50] Allan: Knowing your vast experience, how important do you find relationships to be?
David: I joke with my colleagues: When I started in this industry, I used to say, “I don’t care who I work with. Just give me the credit!” I don’t care if I have people I can’t rely on. When I left ILM, it became, “I don’t care so much about the project. Just give me a great crew to work with!” You feel it in movies, especially with successful ones. You can tell when the team loved each other. I can’t stress enough how much collaboration is the secret sauce. Going back to Star Wars, a friend of mine (who was a model maker on it) said that the money wasn’t spent on us. The money was spent on what was on the screen. What kept that together was that they all wanted the movie to be good!
[1:25:47] Allan: I love that! This has been so great! David, where can people go to find out more about you?
[1:26:07] Allan: Again, thanks for taking the time. This has been really great!
David: Oh, a pleasure! Thank you for your time!
I hope you enjoyed this Episode. I want to thank David for taking the time to be on the Podcast — and inspire us all! If you want to help the Podcast out, please click the share button.
I will be back next week talking about setting your goals and creating your grand vision. Until next Episode —
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