I had the pleasure of speaking to the lead creative editor for Renegade Animation and an industry with over 20 years of experience in the animation industry, Michael D’Ambrosio. Michael has experience working for both episodic television and feature films. He was also recently nominated for an Annie Award for Outstanding Achievement for Editing in a Television/Media Production for his work on Tom and Jerry in New York. In this interview, we discuss his career, creative process, his role as an animator and editor, and his experience working with Tom and Jerry. Michael also hints at some exciting upcoming projects.
Tell us a little about yourself. How did your professional journey lead you to your current role as an editor?
Well, my name is Michael D’Ambrosio. I’ve been editing for over 27 years now. Over 16 of those with Renegade Animation. It kind of hurts just saying that out loud. Oof, I’m old! But I started my work in the audio-video department at an advertising agency in Los Angeles, CA. DDB Needham to be exact. It took several years to recover from the experience. I’m kidding, I met some amazingly talented people there. After that, I was lucky enough to land a gig at Rhythm and Hues. I cut commercials for over eight years. The majority was live-action with heavy special effects and CG. Just an awesome experience. I was very fortunate to work with so many talented people. Multiple directors, art directors, and animation directors. I worked on a lot of highly visible commercials. It was there I met the owners of Renegade Animation, Darrell Van Citters and Ashley Postlewaite on a Cheetos campaign, and as they say, the rest is history. I’ve been there ever since. I’ve been very fortunate to have a high amount of stability throughout my career. Somewhat unusual in the industry. During my time at Renegade, I’ve primarily worked on episodic animation, some direct to video, and features.
When you are assigned a new project, what are the first steps in your creative process?
If there’s the time between projects, I like to get a hold of a few scripts and talk it over with the director to see if there’s a certain style and feel they are aiming towards. I tend to do some homework and watch the same reference material. Anything that the director may have brought up in the conversation style and pacing-wise. Every project is different, but you bring your experience and your tastes to the project. Because we’re a small shop I handle both the storyboard editing and the color editing, the animation editing. Some other animation studios divide that between two editors, but I find it advantageous to be able to work on the boards and color. So that means I’m also responsible for delivering the final product to online and that brings several other challenges. This is where the more technical aspect of the job comes in. Trying to figure out exactly the best workflow to deliver what the client needs. Most studios have different specs and therefore the deliverable becomes different, and oftentimes the deliverables influence how you handle all your media throughout the editorial process.
What was your experience like working on Tom and Jerry in New York?
We had done five seasons of Tom and Jerry prior to Tom and Jerry in New York. So, we had a firm grip on what the show was going to look like and feel like. It was mostly of a continuation of the previous seasons but with one big change. In the previous seasons, we would not show any of the human character’s heads. Kind of a cute gimmick but made things very difficult from a storytelling standpoint. It was always challenging when we had two humans having a conversation. You couldn’t hold screen interest for very long. The characters had to emote with body language and hand gestures. It was always a challenge not being able to show the audience facial expressions. That changed for Tom and Jerry in New York. It afforded us to set up the narrative differently and Tom and Jerry could interact more closely with the human characters. It’s a bit rare with most productions, but I was able to directly interact with the head writer Will Finn. By the way. Legend! Most of the time it was to fix specific issues with the storyboards. In the early stages of the production, the bigger narrative issues were handled between Will and Darrell. But the speed at which episodic animation moves many story issues needed to be addressed in the editing room.
How do you see your role as an editor? Do you see it as more technical, more creative, or a mix of both?
For me, I’ve always approached it as a mix of both but with a heavier emphasis on the creative side. I always found it an advantage to understand the technology and to be ahead of the curve when it comes to this industry. Honestly, the most important thing is the creative side. But working in special effects helped shape my career with both a technical and creative approach. Also, I manage the editorial department for Renegade so I need to keep up with all the technological and software changes. It’s always an advantage to understand the intricacies of the technology but you have a keen eye for timing and a keen sense of storytelling.
You have a lot of experience as an editor, how do you overcome challenges in the editing room?
I think one of the biggest factors is one must have a good relationship with the director. So much of this work is a collaboration. A molding, sculpting the project together so you rely on each other to come up with solutions for problems in the story and with the animation. Many times, we receive animation that’s not up to par. Fortunately for our graphic style, we have flexibility in the editing room to make changes with the actual animation. For instance, you can put a character on one or conversely on twos. Sometimes the characters are rush through a scene too quickly and are not given enough time to breathe and think. We like to say, “they are just hitting their marks”. So, we can hold certain poses on the character to give them more thinking time and to let the shot breathe. Sometimes it calls for cutting entire poses out of a certain action so that the animation plays cleanly. Another method is to use camera moves to add more drama or impact to a scene. In those cases, oftentimes the shot needs to go back to the animator. What I do is create a rough approximation of what we want the animation to look like. That roughed-out scene then gets sent back to the animator as a reference.
What is your favorite part about working in animation?
Bringing the characters to life and hopefully getting your audience to laugh a little bit. You know a funny little quick anecdote. The other day I was in a furniture store of all places, and I overheard a little girl talking to her mother about Tom and Jerry being her favorite cartoon. I was a bit surprised seeing how there are so many animated shows out for her age group. But it reminded me how beloved these characters are and how important they are to the fans. Now I’m not sure which version of Tom and Jerry she was her favorite, but just knowing it was her favorite cartoon was extremely gratifying. I hope we paid homage to these globally treasured characters.
What is happening next in your world?
We have a big traditionally animated feature for Sony coming up. I’m not sure if I can mention it yet, but we are all very excited about it. The feature is a bit risqué in subject matter so for Renegade it’s going to be quite a different project than we are used to. My role will be a bit different as well. We’ll oversee the animation and the timing of the animation. The story will be handled by the big studio.
Any last words of advice for aspiring editors?
Carve your own path. There’s no one way to get into the industry. It might be cliché, but try landing an internship at a post house or an animation company with an editorial. Immerse yourself in the entire process. I know you can grab a free piece of software and watch how-to YouTube videos but there’s a lot more to postproduction. Understanding conceptually what needs to happen throughout the entire post process is so important. Learning to edit is an apprenticeship so be patient. And once you arrive at becoming an editor understand that you have many people asking you to do things you may not agree with the edit but be flexible learn from it and then contribute to it. Be ready to experiment and listen to other people’s ideas, especially the directors. But always remember to contribute to what is an incredibly magical process.
Thanks for reading! To keep up with Michael, check out his IMDb.