Advice for becoming a VFX Editor: Michael Cheung

Meet Michael

Michael, as a computer-whizz, decided to take the ‘sensible route’ and get a degree in Computer Science. However, it was at university, after joining the film society, that he found his true calling. Growing up on the classics (Star Wars, Back to the Future, Jaws, Indiana Jones), Michael was destined for combining his technical computers skills with his love of film. Since starting his career, he’s worked on films such as Rogue One, World War Z and The Danish Girl.

What does your role as a VFX editor entail?

“This can vary quite dramatically from film to film, which is part and parcel of working in a creative industry with very creative people. Generally, I bridge the gap between the Editor and VFX department to help achieve the best possible VFX. Most shows these days have hundreds of VFX shots, in addition to the shots that come and go throughout the post-production process – most of these shots will need temping, which is the process of creating a temporary comp in the Avid. They will also need tracking in the cut as it changes and reviewing as new versions of each shot are submitted from VFX vendors.”

What would a typical day look like for you?

“Depending on the stage of the production, this can vary quite a bit in a similar way to how your day may vary if you are building a house. You might be at the point when the designs are being made or you might be at the point where the foundations are being poured or you might be at the stage when furnishing the house – with VFX on a big show, the VFX department are involved at the very beginning and at the very end. 

My typical day during post-production might look like:- Arrive at work with one coffee down. Probably make another coffee to have at my desk. Boot up my computers and prepare for the day. There’s a good chance we would have received submissions from a VFX vendor overnight so I’d be kicking off things that be run in the background. I’d then be catching up on emails of questions being asked by VFX Dept / Editor / Vendor.

As a VFX Editor, you really are in the middle of everything VFX. I’ll usually write out my to-do list at this point which is always on pen and paper  – I’ve tried computerised to-do lists but there’s nothing quite list crossing off something on paper! Typical things I’ll be writing on the list would be things like: import batch X, export sequence Y, turnover shots: X,Y,Z , temp up sequence Z.

My to-do list can sometimes go on for pages – which I think is the point when you need a calm head. At this point of the day maybe the VFX supervisor would want to take a look at the submissions cut into the movie. So hopefully I would have found time to import them and cut them in and we can start to go through them and review them. Sometimes I won’t have time and I’ll be cutting them into the movie as we go – which is quite a high-pressure part of the job.

The Supervisor might then decide not to send through to the editor some shots as they want to address notes first. I’d then prep the shots in the cut to send through to the editor and we might then have a review with the Editor and Director.

This can all vary from film to film depending on how everyone likes to work. The afternoon is usually the time when reviews with VFX vendors usually happen which can take up a lot of time. Then the evening is typically a little quieter – so you have a chance to do the work you’ve been distracted from for the whole day, like temping, turnovers, exporting.”

Have you always had a passion for film?

“Yes, although, it wasn’t the career path I started on; more on that later. My earliest film-related memories are when I used to get VHS tapes of martial arts movies – like old classic Jackie Chan films, looking back they were perhaps not that appropriate for a 6-year-old! I have two older brothers who’d be the ones first to expose me to all the classics of the time, the things like Star Wars, Back to the Future, Jaws, Indiana Jones – things that I still hold very closely. I remember going to the cinema to watch the original Jurassic Park and being blown away by the realism of everything. I was under 10 years old at the time and you get totally drawn into the magic of it all. “

What inspired you to get into the film industry?

“As a youngster, I had absolutely no idea how a film was made. You just put the cassette in the player and hit play right? Or DVD, or stream or whatever. You are transported to another world for two hours where there’s nothing but a story unfolding in front of you. As soon as I started to pull at the thread and think about what actually goes on in making a film, it drove me into a process of discovery – which hasn’t really stopped and probably never will. I found myself really wanting to be a part of creating this illusion and storytelling.”

How did your career start out?

“In a nutshell, I was always pretty handy with computers and like so many people a “sensible” career was always a preferred option. So I went to university to study computer science. Whilst there, I joined the filmmaking society which connected me with like-minded people and my final year project was film-related too. So the signs were there that I was heading in that direction. Incidentally, there was a tutor at university that once laughed at me when I told him I wanted to go into the film industry. Sometimes you need someone to say to you that you can’t do something in order to give you the drive to prove them wrong. After a year or two of working as a software developer, I went to the London Film Academy in Fulham, which is when things got a little more serious.”

Was there a particular client/job/film that was the catalyst for your career?

“I think working on my first feature, Col Spector’s “Honeymooner”, was a catalyst in the sense that I felt we were actually making a real movie. I’d learnt a lot at film school but nothing really prepares you for the carnage of a real film set. I started as a runner on the show and after demonstrating editorial desires ended up assisting on it. At the time, the Red Cam was relatively new and so figuring the workflow out for all that was an experience in itself! On the back of that I managed to land a job as a runner in the VFX department on X-Men: First Class – then things really started to happen.”

What was the most memorable film that you have worked on?

“I think it has to be Star Wars: Rogue One. The history of Lucasfilm and the Star Wars franchise is so incredible that it really was a dream come true. I never thought I’d be tempted in by Darth Vader’s light sabre at any stage in my career! The team were amazing too and I’ve made lots of friends for life on that show. I also had the chance to stay at George Lucas’ ranch in San Francisco during the final stages of the film which was incredible too.”

What genres have you worked in mostly?

“All sorts… Sci-Fi, Zombie, Thriller, Drama, Period, Action. Everything needs VFX these days!”

Could you tell us a bit about your latest project?

“The film I’m currently working on is a thriller called Serenity written and directed by Steven Knight. It’s a smaller budget film than what I’m typically used to, but it’s a great script and I’m working with a lovely editor Laura Jennings. I don’t want to say anything more about the film itself as I don’t want to get into trouble!”

What advice would you give to someone starting out as a VFX editor in the film industry?

“Well, if you are starting out in the industry then you are likely to be starting as a runner in the editorial department or the VFX department. It’s key that you retain a good attitude and willingness to learn. It’s what will take you from one job to the next. Learn the software, learn to be technical. Be OK with dark rooms for long periods of time!”

What is it that you love about your job? (if you love it, of course!)

“It’s a great combination of creativity and technical process, which probably suits my personality. It’s often good to do these interviews as it reminds you why you are doing what you do.”

What’s your favourite memory/role from your career so far?

“I’ve had plenty of moments when I’ve had to pinch myself about being in certain rooms with certain people, but for me, it really is about working with great people and watching films morph into what you see on the screen.”

What tips do you have for young filmmakers starting out?

“Think about the story. We’re living in a world right now where there is no shortage of content of varying degrees of quality. Spend your time getting a script right and then shoot it and don’t give up!”

Who is your role model in the film industry?

“I think it’s important to have a range of people you respect in the industry usually for different reasons, so for me there isn’t a single person I’d like to emulate but instead I want to learn from everyone I work with.”

If you could tell yourself one thing about your career to your younger self what would it be?

“Think about work-life balance and how to make it work for you. The film industry is not very forgiving, as a youngster you won’t mind that, but as you get older it will take its toll.”

Do YOU want to be a VFX editor?

If you’re interested in pursuing a career in VFX, you can apply for our SetReady course as an editor!

You’ll have the chance to edit your own short film, as well as meeting like-minded film buffs and industry professionals (such as Gareth Edwards, the director of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story).

So, what are you waiting for?

Want to be part of something special?

Start your career

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