Mike Kirsch is typical of many modern filmmakers who graduate from film school with a broad range of in-depth knowledge of production through post-production and having a great appreciation for the planning process.

For the past six years he’s been the Director of Video Production at The Buddy Group in Irvine, CA where he leads a staff of five in all aspects of video production and post services, as well as in the operation of two sound stages, which he was responsible for building.  Since 2004, he has also been the primary camera operator for the North American Flying Cam team, an operation that provides filming services from the vantage point of remote controlled helicopters. Prior to that he worked for some four years with the award winning IMAX production company MacGillivray Freeman Films of Laguna Beach and for several years as a freelance camera operator, Steadicam operator, editor, producer, director and writer.

He has traveled around the world with a variety of production companies on projects in such places as Australia, Fiji, Europe, Japan, Ethiopia, and the Azores.  Shoots included working on locations such as coral reefs, sporting events, the tops of bridges (Sydney Harbor and the Brooklyn Bridge), and traveling down the headwaters of the Nile in Ethiopia. Along the way he became SCUBA certified and earned his private pilot’s license.

Clients have included Google, Epson, Shell Oil, Mattel, Reebok, Sony, Western Digital, and many more. His projects have included a diverse range of personalities from Cloris Leachman to Scarlett Johansson and Ray Harryhausen and Ray Bradbury to Harrison Ford.  He has worked on feature films including Hancock, Get Smart, Evan Almighty and Stay and has contributed camera work to dozens of commercials.

In his spare time, he is also working on a couple of documentaries.  One, The Brick People is about the immigrants who lived and worked in Simons, CA (now part of Commerce) which at one point in the 1920s was the largest brickyard in the world.  The other,  A RAD Documentary featuring interviews with the cast and crew and the BMX and Freestyle riders from the 1986 movie RAD.

Editor’s Note: Like many people I write about who don’t generally find themselves in the limelight, Mike was reluctant to have me write his story but he has exactly the qualities I look for in my subjects: he’s smart, has accomplished quite a bit, is respected by his peers, and has been on an interesting journey.  We have worked together on a number of projects including shooting several pilots for television, a number of commercials, and we’re currently working on a documentary (The Brick People).

SOCAL: Did you have an aha! moment when you knew you wanted to be “in the business?”
Mike: There was less of an “aha” moment and more of a quick, steady progression.  In high school I was acting and was convinced that that would be my career path.  I was always intrigued by most of the behind the scenes aspects including sound design, but never thought of doing it long term.  Strangely, when it came time to apply for college,  I immediately chose film school, all the while still thinking in my head that I would be an actor.  A strange choice, I know. Regardless, I wasn’t able to afford any of the schools I wanted to attend, so I ended up as a drama major at UCI.  A year later I had transferred to Chapman and had gotten into their film school, abandoning my actor goals.  The rest is what the rest is.

SOCAL: What led you to go to Chapman?   How would you rate the importance of film school to your success so far?
Mike: I remember two main influences.  First, my father (full disclosure, the webmaster of this very site and author of this article) gave me an article from the OC Register about the growing film school there.  Then I ran into a friend from High School who was just finishing her first semester there.  This must have been around December of our Freshman year.  She spoke very highly of the school.  A month or so later I went to check it out.  Since they still had rolling admissions at that time I was able to get in.  I started there the following fall.

Film school was important in that it gave me the confidence to know that I could accomplish anything with enough hard work.  The book-level information I was taught there has served as a good base for the rest of what I have learned on the job along the way.

SOCAL: How did you get your first full time job after film school with MacGillivray Freeman Films (MFF)?
Mike: I was reading scripts for a production company at Universal called Daybreak Productions.  It was boring, unfulfilling work. I knew that I wanted to do something in the field of “extreme cinematography” which I defined as aerials, IMAX or underwater.  (Along the way, I have done all three!)  From my days spent as a projectionist during college (at the Irvine Spectrum 21 Theaters), I had a phone number for the post-production supervisor at MFF.  I asked one of the producers at Daybreak to make a call on my behalf.  He said with disdain, “You know these guys are all the way down in Orange County, right?”  I said, “Yeah, that’s where I live, please call them.”  He got my foot in the door.  I called MFF every three weeks for six months.  Finally, the guy said, “Alright, alright. I still don’t have any work for you, but I’m sick of putting you off.  Come on down and I’ll introduce you to some people.”  In retrospect, I’m pretty sure he was just trying to give me someone else to annoy every three weeks. That first visit to MFF turned into a two-week gig filing trims (putting tiny pieces of film back into bigger rolls of film for the editor), which turned into a two-month gig filing trims, which finally turned into a full-time job as second assistant editor.

SOCAL: In the four or so years you were with MFF, you were given a lot of responsibility.  Tell us how your career advanced there.
Mike: After spending a year as second assistant editor, the guy who was running the day-to-day operations of the camera department left for another job.  I put my hand up and was cheap labor, so they let me and another guy (who had been working the front desk) take over the camera department.  We were both in way over our heads, but for some reason it worked out.  A year later the other guy left the company, and then it was just me running the day-to-day. 

I would have meetings with the DP, who would provide me with information about upcoming shoots.  It was then my responsibility to prep and maintain all gear.  I shot all the lens and camera steady tests. I worked with the guys who had originally built the cameras to keep them running.  I was also responsible for all international shipping and carnets.  Eventually I started going out on location, too.  In the field I did almost every job from time to time – loader, 2nd AC, 1st AC, camera operator, audio engineer, camera mount specialist, camera repair specialist, you name it!

SOCAL: You traveled the world with MFF.  What were some of the highlights
Mike: Ethiopia was definitely a highlight.  Went there to shoot the Nile for Mysteries of Egypt.  Spent three weeks exploring Addis Ababa and Bahir Dar and rafting on the Blue Nile.  There was also one trip where I circumnavigated the globe.  In five or six weeks I went from LA > NY >  Frankfurt > Brussels > Singapore > Sydney > Brisbane > Auckland > Monterey > Home.

SOCAL: At one point you decided to work freelance.  What led to that decision and what kind of work did you do?
Mike: I had been full time at MFF for 3 or 4 years and had hit a glass ceiling.  Plus, it was a hard job – there’s no such thing as a 10-hour day on an Imax field shoot.  I hated to leave and there are times I wish I could go back, but I was ready to try other things.  I had bought a VX1000 and a knockoff Steadicam rig and was learning how to use it.  I pretty quickly picked up a lot of camera and editing work for some local OC producers, including Tore Dietrich’s High Impact Television, who I continue to work with today.  Around that time I also started working with Flying Cam.

SOCAL: What led you to The Buddy Group?  What is DotLot?
Mike: A few years into my post-MFF freelance career, a friend of mine started The Buddy Group (TBG), a digital agency that he intended would place a heavy emphasis on web video.  Since I had been working as both a camera operator and an editor, I had the capability to both shoot and finish videos.  The Buddy Group initially hired me as a freelancer to make some kiosk DVDs.  Over the next six months they called me in for an increasing amount of video work.  By the time I ended up accepting a full time position I had already been a de facto full time employee for quite a while.

After about a year, we branded our video department as DotLot™, the production backlot for all your dot com needs.  It had a nice ring to it, and has helped to set us apart in the digital space as having a truly integrated focus on video production for brands and audience engagement.

SOCAL: In your commercial work with TBG, please describe one or more projects that were particularly challenging and/or rewarding and/or innovative.  
Mike: Mattel asked TBG to create an interactive experience for Hot Wheels that would live on YouTube.  We developed a plan to shoot a stop-motion race animation that would be presented in a choose-your-own-adventure style through the use of annotations on YouTube.  The finished animation took a month to shoot and three weeks to post.  We built three sets in interlocking sections that were pulled on dolly track under three cameras, two inches at a time.  By shooting with three cameras, we were able to edit each race as though it had been shot from multiple angles.  The completed adventure was wildly popular and has amassed well over one million views on YouTube alone. You can see it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vPGhqQ9vZPM Don't forget to choose your racer and play the game.

In general, The Buddy Group has tried to push the limits of what’s considered “web video”.  Over the past six years we have shot cars, models and fashion; hung stuntmen from the ceiling of our studio; traveled with magazine photographers internationally to capture video interviews with talent and a whole lot more.  Our mantra has been to “start with the end in mind” – to think about how your content will be distributed before you create it.  This philosophy has enabled us to conceive and produce videos that would never have been considered suitable “web” fare even five years ago.

SOCAL: Tell us about other interests, goals, etc.
Mike: I’ve really come to enjoy the documentary format as a storytelling device.  I’m currently directing two documentaries and over the next few years I’m interested to see where documentaries will take me.  Outside of filmmaking, I’m a private pilot.  It’s an expensive hobby, but it’s a rewarding challenge, too.  I plan to get my commercial license so that I can instruct, which I think would be a lot of fun.  I also have a lengthy Netflix queue that I would love to get through someday.

SOCAL: It is well known that only a small percentage of graduates of film school earn a full time living ‘in the business.’  What advice do you have for someone entering the ‘business’ today?
Mike:    The best advice I could offer to someone entering the field today is to keep your mind open to the many possibilities that are available to you.  Be willing to try anything.  When I was in film school, I was sure that I wanted to work as a feature film cinematographer, and I knew that I had no interest in directing.  Here I am, fifteen years later, working as a full-time director and having worked in seemingly every type of position except feature-film cinematographer.  And loving every minute of it.  Go figure.

Editor's Note:  During the summer of 2013, Mike started to accept freelance assignments.

You can see some of his work at  Cinematek Creative

Thursday, July 18, 2024