This month, with the theme being mentorship, I decided to interview my biggest mentor in film sound, James Morioka. James has worked on films such as 21 and 22 Jump Street, Fury, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Hotel Transylvania 2 and 3.
DS: This month our theme is mentorship, but before we get started with that, can you tell us a little about how you got started in your career and how you became a sound editor? What was your first movie?
JM: When I first decided to make it in the film business, a friend of mine gave me a book by Anthony Robbins. The first thing I learned was that I had to take action! Sitting around, watching a lot movies, and hoping that something will fall my way somehow wasn’t going to make my dreams come true – it takes work to make work. I made a list of places to call or visit – probably around seven pages worth – and crossed one after another until I landed a job in the mailroom for Merv Griffin’s Wheel Of Fortune. Not long after, I went off to become a P.A., grip, script copier, script analyst, literary agent assistant and other various film-related positions before realizing I wanted to be in editorial. They got food in the kitchen, one location to work from, and I get to work directly with the director to help put together the story frame by frame.
After several shows in picture editorial, I joined the Editor’s Guild. I didn’t have any union contacts in picture but I had one contact in sound. Boom! I’ve crossed over and stayed in sound land ever since. (Let me remind people that there are a lot more sound positions per film than being in picture). My first sound credit: Street Fighter.
DS: Did you have any mentors in your career? Can you talk a little about them or the process of being mentored? What was your experience like?
JM: The first person who has given me shot as a picture apprentice was Stephanie Flack, the 1st Assistant on Menace II Society. Stephanie also happened to be the union Sound Editor I mentioned earlier, who has gotten me into sound editorial. Now, there are people who can always get you a job, but Stephanie really mentored me by having me organize everything in the cutting room. Anyone should be able to walk into your room or take over your reel and not be confused as to say “What the * is going on here?” When you’re cutting sound effects or dialogue, it’s the same thing. It’s got to be organized in a way a re-recording mixer could follow your train of thought and mix your tracks easily into their proper groups. Organization skills, people, work on it.
Two other mentors I’d like to mention are John Dunn and Howell Gibbens, both creative madmen whom I followed in their shadows. John is like Martin Scorsese. He’s very vibrant, quick and emotional. His character translates into his cutting style. So you say his sound effects carries quite a punch! John’s pretty much old school…meaning, he likes to find the right sounds from the library rather than use the latest plug-ins. On the other hand, Howell is more the progressive thinker, always jumping onto the latest software or techniques. I’m still trying to get to their cutting level. I learned a lot just by being there as things were created… or destroyed!
DS: Can you elaborate on those relationships? Was it always a student/teacher relationship or was there a point where you began to see them as peers?
JM: With both John and Howell, I was their 1st Assistant, so I got to spend a lot of time with them. They came up with the work plan and I was the one who had to maintain it – you could say I was holding up the ladder for everyone. If that ladder starts to wobble and fall apart, I was the guy who had to some how patch things up and keep the whole team climbing to the top. That’s a lot of responsibility and a whole lot of pressure. They made sure I wasn’t going to leave them to hold someone else’s ladder, by giving me a pretty good salary. I never had to ask.
With each passing year, post sound is becoming more computer-based with the latest software revisions and with slicker plug-ins. My mentors weren’t always working as much as I was, so eventually I got more technically skilled than them. However, I will always see Stephanie, John and Howell as my mentors.
DS: Was there anything specific that they did to teach you?
JM: What I learned from all of them is that aesthetics count: everything should look simple and easy, with a little bit of prettiness. That doesn’t mean that things are complex, wild and/or loud. Like in designing a sound effect or organizing a desk, things might look clean and simple, but everything is precisely laid out with a purpose. You just don’t gather (slap) things together and make someone else figure it out. But, having said that, my mentors have said stuff like, “Let do this, this and this. Simple, right?” And I say, “Sure,” and my brain would say, “How in the hell am I going to do that?” I’d have to make their plan much more simple and much more clear, and not ugly, for the other team members to follow. In this way, my mentors also, indirectly, brought out my communication skills. Make every simple, clean, and friendly-looking and you’ll do all right.
DS: How did you decide that you wanted to mentor someone? Or what makes you want to be a mentor?
JM: Never said I did, hah! It’s just that if you ask, you’ll receive. Trouble is most apprentices don’t know what to ask. If they hang out long enough with me while I’m working, they’ll be mentored – I have a big mouth.
DS: What do you look for in someone if you’re considering mentoring them?
JM: A notepad, they got to have a notepad. I watched many of my co-workers yap it up with the new kid happily nodding back. Entertaining, isn’t it? If the new kid isn’t writing down what to do and how to do it, time’s wasted.
DS: Is there anything that you want to avoid doing if you’re trying to find a mentor?
JM: Well, you can’t avoid being slow or doing mistakes, so… try to avoid being late or being too distracted playing with your smart phone. Also, if you keep talking about yourself, who is the one learning here?
DS: Do you find that most people who get into film sound are mentored into it or do some people teach themselves?
JM: Both. First off, like a video game, you got to spend hours cleaning up dialogue or creating sound effects on your own time. That’s how you build up skill and speed. Also you got to build up your confidence, that you can produce something great, so that during the mix, when your Sound Supervisor or Director yells at you to make this sound effect for this visual thing, you don’t crack under pressure.
I saw a top fish-cutter in Japan on YouTube say, “If you love something you’ll learn it yourself. Others are taught.”
Second, you got to learn film structure from “the real world,” not books – on how the old timers play their game. Your way, sorry, would be considered “amateur.” Basically, it’s best to work on your own short and try to be professional about it – meaning, do your amazing sounding thing, but in their recognizable format – and that format – that game – has to be learned from someone who’s already advanced in it.
DS: So let’s talk about styles of mentorship. Sometimes it can be in person, but in my experience, it’s also been a lot of phone calls, texts, and emails because of busy schedules and even the distance of living in another city. Is there a preferred method of mentoring someone?
JM: I believe it’s best to be in the same room. Fight-the-battle-together-kind-of-thing. Sadly though, even 1st Assistant Editors can’t be around the Editors anymore to learn the craft. The digital age made everyone stay in their own rooms to stare at their own computer monitors. But, hey, if they aren’t paying you and you got permission to hang out, jump in that fox hole, learn something, and even earn some stripes helping out.
DS: Can school programs sometimes be a substitute for having a mentor?
JM: Not really. However, it would be great if the student would learn all one can about the software, like Pro Tools, in school. All the tech stuff. Then, I wouldn’t have to start from there.
DS: Can you talk about other ways of learning? Books? Learning on the job? Experimentation? YouTube?
JM: I mentioned before, it’s best to work on your own short. Learn the software – by any means necessary – and as you progress on the short, cut faster! Don’t be too embarrassed or too proud to show your work to a working professional and get feedback at some point. If you don’t, you’ll probably always be “amateur.” Nothing wrong with that, but the pay…
DS: I think that’s about it, is there anything else that you would like to add?
JM: Do your research. IMDb everyone. That’s a wrap.