Acclaimed editor and lead creative editor for Renegade Animation, Michael D’Ambrosio has over 20 years of experience in the animation industry, featuring a long list of notable works including Sesame Street Play to Learn, Tom and Jerry – Cowboy Up!, Tom and Jerry In New York, and Tom and Jerry on HBOMAX.
The most recent Tom and Jerry that he has worked on, Tom and Jerry – Cowboy Up! Was released this year and follows the dynamic duo to the Wild West where they work together to save a ranch from an evil villain.
We recently spoke with Michael about his career as an editor and lead creative editor, working on classic shows such as Sesame Street, his inspirations, and his experiences editing for multiple projects.
PH: Hi Michael! Can you share your production background with our readers? What led you to a career in editing?
Michael D’Ambrosio: As a kid one of my most favorite places to visit was the universal studio backlot tour. There was something so exciting about seeing all the sets, picture cars, and just behind the scenes in general. I knew at that point I wanted to be involved in filmmaking at some level. I always gravitated towards editing even in school. I actually majored in radio TV and film and in all my film groups I generally volunteered to edit. I enjoyed camera work, and technical directing, but editing was more in my wheelhouse.
I did my fair share of production assistant work and really felt that post production was more my thing. Landed a job in the audio video department at an advertising agency here in Los Angeles cutting internal videos, corporate level stuff. Back then I was cutting on 3/4-inch tape to 3/4-inch tape with that old AG750 Panasonic controller. Oh, and the old Sony RM-450. Google them, you’ll think, old people! Soon thereafter there was a strange company called Avid and that’s where I was introduced to nonlinear editing. I guess I’m giving my age away a little bit. I’m not that old! I was lucky enough to move onto a big special effects studio called Rhythm and Hues. I cut commercials there for well over eight years. All the spots I worked on had a large amount of 2D effects and CG. I mean there was a reason why the clients came to Rhythm and Hues. I then moved on to Renegade Animation where I’ve been ever since. Cutting mostly episodic animation and a few features.
PH: Who are some of your biggest influences?
Michael D’Ambrosio: I can remember as a wee lad my father taking me to see Star Wars. I think that’s where the seed was sown for my fascination with special effects and why I ended up working at a visual effects studio. Also, 2001 a space odyssey. It wasn’t until later in life I could fully appreciate this film. My is still is standard: The Godfather, I mean how much more praise can you heap upon that film? There’s an amazingly effective montage in JFK that still sticks in my mind. The entire film for that matter. Give credit where credit is due, I believe that film was edited by Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia. Raging Bull, and The French Connection. Also, I love films with high art value like Brazil, so I guess Terry Gilliam would be one.
PH: As an editor, what do you think are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned along the way?
Michael D’Ambrosio: Get up and stretch! I’m kidding! Well not really. It’s a sedentary job so make sure to get up and move around a little bit. But I digress. We’ll probably talk about this more later, but collaboration is the most important thing. Having a good sense of what the director is looking for and a good relationship with the director is key. A big part of your job is to make the director comfortable in that room. Don’t be negative, always be looking for a solution. Once you have established this relationship you’ve gained the trust of the director.
They will oftentimes ask you directly what you think and what you think the solution might be. This is where you hit your collaborative stride. Working together to make a scene successful and consequently the entire project. Remember when cutting a scene, it’s not just about making that one scene work; it’s how it fits into the overall piece and flow of the entire show. Also, don’t be afraid to experiment. I can’t tell you how many times I’m thinking this won’t work and then you try it and surprise! It does the work! It ends up working better than the previous three or four edits you had just done. Try it and watch it. Is the only way you’ll ever find out.
As I alluded to earlier, I cut commercials for several years. There is a little bit of a difference when cutting commercials because you’re also dealing with the agency so there are many more voices in the room. So, I found much of this job was to have patience and attempt to address everyone’s concerns which can become challenging at times. Sometimes the requests are contradictory and that’s where the creativity comes in. You can address their note indirectly while still addressing their concern. But to be honest I most definitely prefer the one-on-one collaboration with the director. It really is gratifying when you’re molding the story, fixing narrative issues, collaboratively making the animation work.
On more of a nuts-and-bolts level. Make sure to organize your bins and footage so you can work quickly. This is tremendously important to help with your speed and efficiency and it makes you look good in front of the director! Come up with a strategy for each project with your AE. Spend the time up front to organize. It will save you so much time when you’re cutting. When I was cutting live action commercials, I would like to run through all the raw footage at least twice. The first time just watching the footage. And absorbing it. The second time through making notes and adding markers. With animation I do something very similar. After the initial assembly comes back from the animation house, I like to watch it down once without stopping. The second time I put markers with notes into the timeline before I start to cut. Oh yeah one more tip don’t eat something too gassy at lunch. There I said it, but it’s true!
PH: You have extensive experience in both episodic television and feature films Animated shows. How are they different? What do you have to do differently when working on both of those types of projects?
Michael D’Ambrosio: Well, the first thing that comes to mind is scheduling. Episodic’s run at a much faster pace than do feature films. But conversely features tend to have many more revisions. Oftentimes there just isn’t enough time in episodic television. You’ve got to get it right on the first attempt or at least try to. Which of course very rarely happens so there’s always a challenge to find creative solutions that both address the issues and in the most efficient manner. Whereas features allow you to really rethink and readdress. Virtually every single feature film I worked on seems to run out of time at the end. There’re always those last few weeks or really months of a mad rush. I found that the basic nuts and bolts of editing aren’t very much different between features and episodics. It still comes down to storytelling, getting the pacing right. Make sure that you’re communicating what you want to communicate with the audience.
PH: How are storytelling and creative collaboration with other team members the key to your success?
Michael D’Ambrosio: In production there’s always a myriad of issues. We have a close-knit group at Renegade Animation. During the multiple seasons of Tom and Jerry I had the luxury of being able to discuss things directly with the head writer. Often it was to adjust and fix any problematic areas of the storyboards. Working with the storyboard artists. During the animatic phase this is also critical for storytelling. Again, another very important link in the chain. Getting to work with the art director and addressing any issues with a particular shot or background is always part of the process. The technical director and compositors are a major portion of the job. Every single project that I’ve ever worked on it’s always been extremely important to work directly with the technical directors/ compositors to work out all sorts of issues. It’s analogous to working with the storyboard artists in the animatic phase. Oh, and one other relationship that’s important is the one you have with your post production supervisor. Scheduling in episodic television is always a concern and oftentimes quite daunting. So, working out scheduling issues is vitally important as well. You know I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the team at Warner Brothers Animation. I’d have to say that the showrunner/ Production Manager at WBA Jay Bastian really let us do our job and trusted us to deliver quality animation and a quality show. The whole team over there deserves credit.
PH: As a follow-up, what roles do each of the different team members play in bringing a creative vision to life?
Michael D’Ambrosio: Well, let’s take them one by one. Getting to work with the head writer is a little bit rare but again an advantage to having such a small close-knit group at Renegade. Whenever gags weren’t linking together, we often needed the writer to rewrite a portion of the story so that I can make the edit work. We’d like to say it’s missing connective tissue when gags won’t necessarily lining up to each other. The art director can help in the editorial process with screen direction for instance. If there’s an issue I can’t fix in the editorial room, I would rely on the art director to revise the background art to fix that screen direction problem. Another one that sometimes pops up is the character color can be too similar to what’s happening in the background. The character literally looks like they start to disappear in the shot. In both cases I can generally mock up the fix to the shot and give it to the art director’s reference, but sometimes it’s best to just go to their desk and point it out.
As I was mentioning before, the technical director/compositors are critical to the retake process. When there are issues in the animation that I can’t solve in the edit room I rely on them to dive into the original file and fix the issue. This can be a wide-ranging set of issues that they have to deal with. So I do my best to give them some sort of reference to make their lives easier. Pro tip, make good friends with your technical director! So I saved maybe the most important for last. Let’s not forget the storyboard artists. Basically, the architect of the show. This is very similar to the relationship I have with the technical directors. In the animatic phase there’s always issues that arise and things that I can’t necessarily fix. So those need to go back to a storyboard artist to revise the panels to make the story work. But do whatever I can to avoid a revision on the storyboard but sometimes it’s unavoidable and providing the storyboard revisionist reference out of my cut.
PH: Projects you’ve worked on such as Tom and Jerry and Sesame Street literally paved the way for so many other shows. How has animation changed since then?
Michael D’Ambrosio: Well, in the case of Tom and Jerry, I see it in reverse. So many others paved the way for us. My hope is that we were able to honor the history of these characters. There’ve been so many different incarnations of the characters over the 80 some odd years that they’ve been in existence. So many different styles, but it was our intention to pay homage to the animation style of the late 40s and early 50’s MGM – Hanna Barbera version. Which by coincidence was my favorite period of the cartoon. Our goal was to bring a very high-level quality of animation, good storytelling, and the old-style slapstick comedy back.
Everything back in early days was hand drawn, hand painted, and cut on moviolas. Most animation production today is desktop. Whether it’s CG or a more traditional flat style of animation. Which in some ways makes life a lot easier. I mean there was no undo button. Oftentimes if a mistake was made it was an entire redo. But being on a desktop brings its own set of challenges. It’s a huge challenge to make the animation feel like it did back in the 50s. Flash, or what’s now known as Animate now, makes things very efficient, but in order to have good animation you still need to be drawing. Even though you have rigs built like a CGI it’s not exactly the same. You can’t anticipate every single pose that is needed and therefore the animator still needs to draw inside this digital realm. You take your rigs and do what’s called a tween. But the animation can end up looking too fluid and like the characters are swimming. It just doesn’t look good. So, the good flash animators have their fundamentals based in traditional animation. I believe that’s even true with CG animators but it’s especially true when it comes to animating in Flash/Animate and Harmony.
You know it’s funny, in the case of Sesame Street. I don’t believe they have done very much animation in the past. Specifically with their characters. It’s always been live action puppeteers. Well Muppets! So, this is kind of a new uncharted sea for Sesame Workshop. I think there’s been a learning curve for them, and I hope we’ve done a good job of shepherding them through the process. The show is coming out cute! I think it’s going to be very well received. It’ll bring a whole other avenue to Sesame Street. See what I did there?
PH: How did you develop those at the time? What did pre-production look like?
Michael D’Ambrosio: You know, oftentimes I was much too busy still finishing up other seasons to be involved in any pre-production. There were times where we would do pilots and then I would be involved. Working on pilots can be a lot of fun crafting something brand new. Figuring out what the style of the show should be. You learn a lot and get to try new things. Hardboiled Eggheads was a pilot for Amazon, which was a no go. I worked on a special called Book of Dragons, the Flash Segments, for DreamWorks Animation. I think the plan was to eventually become a series but unfortunately it never happened.
PH: As the years go by, technology enhances. Which leads me to your knowledge of CGI, traditional animation, Flash animation, and 2d compositing. How have these abilities enhanced your role as an editor and creative?
Michael D’Ambrosio: Well oddly having a background in special effects and 2D compositing ends up lending itself well when editing the Flash animation. Due to the fact that most flash animation is a flat and graphic style. Inevitably animation comes back and we’re not necessarily happy with it. Luckily for this style of animation I’m able to make some changes in the edit room. For example, changing a timing in a shot where you’re holding one character pose longer than other characters pose on the screen and then having to compose that in order to make that work. Often you may have a character entering or exiting a scene too slowly. again I could use a time warp and so long as I get the cadence correctly the shop will play and there will be no need for it to go back to a technical director or animator. All those techniques come from a background in special effects. Fixed it in the editing room.
PH: What excites you the most about the future of the industry?
Michael D’Ambrosio: Me retiring on some tropical exotic island and a living long healthy life afterwards, oh wait you were asking about the industry. I think I’ve been fortunate to have worked during a really booming period of television animation. There’s such a wide range of shows and an amazing quantity of shows. I think this is all due to the fact that streaming services have taken over and each one has animation as part of their service. Things have been quite busy in the industry and my hope for the future is that that continues. I think streaming has also changed how everyone thinks about how to present a show.
Episodes may not need to be in chronologically after you establish the first few shows. This may allow you to do more backstory episodes that are an offshoot of the overall season arc. Parallel storylines that follow a different character’s perspective and that the audience could watch at any point they want and not have it affect the overall timeline. I think moving forward on a technological basis, things will continue to integrate better. More fluid ways of moving media and data back and forth across different platforms. At least that’s my hope.
PH: Is there another skill set you’re eager to learn?
Michael D’Ambrosio: I get to do color grading on animation which is a bit unusual, but I think we found a unique pipeline to make these shows look fantastic. I worked on a couple of seasons of a show called Space Racers. A CG show, produced in conjunction with NASA, that I think greatly benefited from doing a color grade pass. It’s an entirely different skill set but one that I enjoy quite a bit. One that lets me delve into a different area of post-production and I get to expand my skill set.
PH: What is one of the biggest lessons you’ve been able to learn in your career thus far?
Michael D’Ambrosio: Stay as far away from animation as you can. Get a real job! I am kidding of course. I would say be humble but be confident. Many lessons! Have gratitude that we are some very lucky people to be working in this industry. Kind of a life lesson too. I think everybody working in animation is fortunate to be making a living making cartoons. Understand what Sound Design needs, what the composer needs from you and work that into your workflow. Set up your timeline so that it’s formatted in a way that will let you export media in an organized way. Both picture and sound. This will make you a hero to everyone else on the post team. Oh, and always check your exports!
PH: Can you share any upcoming projects you’re taking on?
Michael D’Ambrosio: There are a few things in development. What’s right around the corner. We have a major motion picture that we are working on with Sony. I can’t disclose any details about it at this point, but it will be a traditionally animated project and we are very much looking forward to it. We’re super excited about it and so is the main character. Little inside joke there.