#PostChat: ‘Black Box’ editor Zack Arnold

By Randi Altman

This week’s #PostChat guest was editor Zack Arnold (@BurnedEditor), whose resume is long and varied — most recently focusing on the small screen. He spent four years cutting USA Network’s Burn Notice, which ended its run last year, and he just completed Season 1 of the new series Black Box on ABC.

Arnold knew his path would lead to editing when he was just 12 years old. “I didn’t really understand that film editing was a job, but I was doing it on a daily basis. I would shoot movies with my older brother, or with friends, and I’d tell them that everything had to be shot out of sequence so I could edit everything in order later.”

This was before Final Cut and YouTube, so we are talking about two VHS players hooked up to each other. That was one driven 12-year-old! Arnold would also create soundtracks on cassette tapes and dub them onto VHS. His “hobby” continued through high school; he got so good at editing he actually made a business out of it. “I would edit and sell highlight reels for our school sports teams,” he explains. “I even produced a video for the local chamber of commerce designed to help my town bring in more business.”

KELLY REILLY, DITCH DAVEY

While a student at the University of Michigan, Arnold spent two years at what is now cablenet Comcast, cutting local commercials on an Avid Media Composer. “The night before my college graduation I got a call to interview for a job in Santa Monica as an assistant editor for a trailer company. Full disclosure: I was going to school in Michigan but put an LA address on my resume, so when they asked if I could meet for an interview on Monday, I said, ‘No problem.’ I immediately booked a flight to Los Angeles and left right after my graduation ceremony. I did the interview, got the job, and moved out to LA that week. I’ve been here ever since.”

It’s hard to deny that being an editor was exactly what Zack Arnold was meant to do for a living. And even though he loves it, he acknowledges that it’s a stressful and very time consuming job. How does he beat the stress? Exercise, like running in something called Spartan Races. “After a 13-mile obstacle course race in the hills, not being able to export a QuickTime movie properly doesn’t seem so stressful anymore,” he says. He also started his own website called Fitness In Post (@fitnessinpost) that offers tips on how to get out in the sunshine, stay fit and stay happy.

Check out this recent story he wrote for the American Cinema Editors website about balancing physical and mental health with being a successful editor.

ELIZABETH STANLEY, TYSON DRISCOLL, KELLY REILLY

So with this week’s chat rapidly approaching, postPerspective reached out to Arnold and threw some questions at him, preparing him in a sense for that non-stop race called #PostChat.

You have quite a varied resume… trailers, Web series, TV series, docs. Do you have a favorite type of project to work on?
My favorite thing to edit is probably a trailer, but my least favorite job is being a trailer editor. Version 1 of a trailer is so much fun to edit and offers so much creative freedom, however versions 2-40 are always incredibly stressful and soul crushing. That’s why I decided to get into narrative scripted material instead.

In scripted, my favorite kind of scene to cut would be a psychologically tense scene with two people sitting at a table across from each other. Very simple, but very complex in the way you can build tension through simplicity.

Do you find that working on different types of projects helps keep the creativity going for the next one?
Absolutely. I’m a big believer in cutting varied types of material because each one helps you build a new skill set. For example, I have a ton of respect for reality editors because there are so many additional creative tools and tricks they learn to make a story out of nothing, and sometimes scripted editors can become very lazy because the story is handed to them with a script and very organized dailies. I also think once you can cut a good trailer, you can pretty much cut anything.

Do you put on a different mental hat depending on the project?
As an editor I’m always approaching my work exactly the same regardless of the genre or type of medium. “What is the story?” Story is paramount to everything I do. The next big question is always, “What should my audience be feeling?” People rarely remember the details of what they watch, but the always remember what they felt. Tapping into that is key for an editor.

You worked on Burn Notice for a few seasons. What did you learn about editing for TV series while cutting that show?
Working on Burn Notice for four years really taught me how to produce amazing work in a short period of time. We received a ton of raw material and had very complex action sequences in every episode, but our schedule was incredibly tight. So it taught me how to have confidence in my first edit decision and not second-guess every single cut. If something worked, I moved forward to the next decision. It also helped me understand how to pace voiceover properly, because the show is CRAMMED with voiceover everywhere, and that’s a valuable skill to learn.

KELLY REILLY

You’ve been working on Black Box. How is that different than Burn Notice? How is it alike?
Black Box is a completely different type of show from Burn Notice. Burn Notice was an action-heavy psychological show that was really in your face. Black Box is a medical drama with soap opera elements, so the pacing and performances are completely different. The show itself was easier to edit in that there was less raw material shot every single day, and there was more time to do it.

However, Black Box was a completely different ballgame in terms of approvals because it’s an ABC Network show. That means there are a lot of people involved in the creative decisions. So in short, editor’s cuts were easy but getting to picture lock took a bit longer.

You recently directed your own documentary. Can you talk about that, and also how your editing background helped during the project?
In my “spare time,” I have spent the last seven years on a passion project documentary called Go Far: The Christopher Rush Story. It is a biographical and inspirational story of a former national poster child for the Muscular Dystrophy Association who was given a life prognosis of two years but lived until the age of 30. I knew Christopher Rush personally, and while at his funeral and hearing his amazing story, I took it upon myself to direct and produce his life story and help spread his Go Far motivational program.

Having an extensive background in editing was vital to the process because it helped me understand how to organize my story, and also how to design an inexpensive post workflow. I funded the entire film $50 donations at a time with four separate Kickstarter campaigns, so I had to pinch every penny possible without sacrificing quality. And oddly enough, the most important decision I made was having someone else edit the film. I decided I needed to focus on directing and producing and allow another professional help me cut the film so I could be fresh. This was the best decision I made in those seven years. But being a professional editor largely informed my notes and really sped up the editorial process because I could be very clear about what I wanted and how to accomplish it.

Stress Relief: Zack jumping fire.

Stress Relief: Zack jumping fire.

What system are you editing on now? How important is the system to your work?
I don’t really have a go-to system, it’s primarily based on the show I’m cutting at the time. If I have the choice to design my own workflow, I’m now completely sold on Adobe Premiere and the Creative Cloud. But my primary driver is still Avid Media Composer because that’s what all the TV shows I work on cut with. I was also a HUGE fan of Final Cut Pro 7 and used it for many years, but I haven’t been able to get into FCPX.

What advice would you offer for young editors just starting out?
Be specific in your goal. If you have an idea of the job you want to end up with, start at the bottom of that ladder. For example, if you want to cut narrative television, you might want to think twice about taking a post-production PA job for a music video company. If you’re fantastic at what you do, that’s the ladder you’ll most likely climb, except that ladder leads to the wrong place. Your goals may change and that’s totally natural. But if you have the mindset, “I’ll just take any job I can get,” you’ll end up being somewhere in five years that you hate and then you’ll have to start over.

If you could ask yourself one question during the PostChat, what would it be?
Have you met Bruce Campbell [one of the stars of Burn Notice]?  And can you get me his autograph? (Yes, and definitely NO)

What would you ask other editors?
I’m always curious to know how they balance family life and work life, and what they do to keep themselves healthy despite the long hours. I’ve been asking these questions for years, not just because of Fitness In Post.

I’d also love to know how they organize their dailies, you can always learn something new from seeing someone else’s workflow.

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