Career Achievement Honoree Leon Ortiz-Gil

Looking back on the illustrious career of Leon Ortiz-Gil, ACE, the logline could simply read: ‘Hollywood’s hometown boy makes good in post-production.’ The three-time Eddie Award nominee started editing in his teens and knew early on that he wanted to be in the entertainment biz. Over 40 years later, his repertoire includes memorable TV shows like Kojak, Matlock, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Magnum, P.I., 24, Airwolf, the original Battlestar Galactica, and no less than four shows from the popular Law & Order franchise. Now, his peers are honoring him not just for his impressive body of work and commitment to ACE, but for his charm and attitude that have made him a levelheaded craftsman in the editing bay.

Ortiz-Gil started out working for his stepfather, Chris Jenkyns, at his commercial company, JSE. The company mainly did animated commercials. Ortiz-Gil grew up with the company and began working for them as a driver in his teens. Soon after, he segued to being an apprentice editor. He recalls, “Because it was animation, they had me reading tracks. This meant putting a mag track over a synchronizer with a sound head. You would get these paper sheets and you would write down the letters as people spoke. So, you’d get an A, an R and an O, and you would write it down as to where it was on the tracks. They used these sheets to do the animation and animate their mouths so they would be in sync. It was a tedious job, but I was a young kid who wanted to learn and I loved it.

“In those days, the little film companies had their own director, which was my stepfather, and editor, who was Dick Elliott. He taught me how to assist and a little later on how to edit. It was very basic.” Ortiz-Gil continues, “I learned everything from the bottom. I didn’t go to film school. I studied theater arts at Los Angeles City College.”

At 19, he went on to a bigger commercial house, John Urie & Associates. “They would let the young guys work on commercials that were free-form. No script, but a narration track and beautiful scenery. They were usually beer commercials and the like,” he recalls.

He even encountered his first true celebrity. “I got to meet the original Colonel Sanders. He was a southern gentleman. There was no Hollywood in him. He came to the studios dressed as The Colonel in that white suit.”

After serving as an assistant for six months, Ortiz-Gil moved up to editor for a year and a half before heading off to a place that would become somewhat of second home for him.

Ortiz-Gil imported his short-form editing game to the world of TV trailers at 21, when he began working for Universal under the aegis of Chuck Silvers who ran the post trailer department.
It wasn’t long before the opportunity arose to enter long-form.

One of the producers of the show, Night Gallery, a Twilight Zone-esque drama with Rod Serling, wanted him to cut some episodes of the show. At the time, there was an 8-year rule for editors: four years as an apprentice, four years as an assistant, before you could move up to full-fledged editor. However, there was a minority program to boost diversity at the studios. The government came in and said if there was a minority capable of moving up, the studio could not hold them back. As a Latino, Ortiz-Gil fit the bill and was allowed to cut his first show. After cutting a couple of episodes, he returned to feature main titles until Kojak came knocking at the door. From that point on, Ortiz-Gil rarely hungered for work.

One major note about Ortiz-Gil’s career is that he’s had a few blessings in disguise that helped propel him forward. In the late ‘70s, the industry was convulsing with joy over the runaway success of Star Wars. TV wanted to tap into that wave and one of those attempts was Battlestar Galactica. “It was a three-hour pilot,” he says. “Nobody wanted to do that show because they knew it would be really tough and it had an aggressive deadline. It went first to their top editors and they all turned it down. It eventually went to Robert Kimble, ACE, who I’d worked with on Kojak, and he came to me after failing to recruit other more seasoned editors.

“I was thrilled to do it. It was state of the art. We used ILM [Industrial Light & Magic]. It was a very tough show – seven days a week for nine months. Eventually we had to hire another editor, Larry Strong.”

The hard work and long hours didn’t go unnoticed, though. Ortiz-Gil earned his first Eddie nomination for the pilot, which he shared with Kimble and Strong. Perhaps even more significant was his introduction to future frequent collaborator Don Bellisario.

Bellisario was a supervising producer and writer on Galactica and he’d also written briefly for Kojak. In addition to working on Buck Rogers and Matlock, Ortiz-Gil spent much of the ‘80s working for Belisarius Productions on shows like Magnum, P.I.; Tales of the Gold Monkey and Airwolf. It was working for Bellisario that Ortiz-Gil had arguably his most diva of moments.

He recalls Bellisario saying about a particular scene in Airwolf, “I need to see the scene where the girl dances. I’m a little worried about it and I wanna see it.” Ortiz-Gil continues, “So, I run it for him and there’s this silent pause. He says, ‘Leon, I don’t know how to tell you this but every cut is wrong.’ I look at him and steam must have been coming out of my ears. I said, ‘Okay. I don’t want to hurt your show, Don, so I quit.’ I got up and walked out. As I’m walking out, Don yells, ‘Leon! Leon! No! Come back!’ I said, ‘Look, if every cut’s wrong, you have to get another editor. So, we sat down and ran it again and he made three changes. So sometimes you have to stick up for yourself. Or if you’re way off the page, the best thing to do is quit. He was in a bad mood and wanted to take it out on somebody.”

By the time Ortiz-Gil was working on Matlock, he and the field that he loves had evolved. “I had been working long hours prior to Matlock and now I was on a show working a normal schedule, sometimes four or five hours on a given day. It was fantastic. I was married with two kids so it was exactly what I needed at that point in my life. I stayed on Matlock for nine years.”

Editing was undergoing a sea change around this time, too. Luckily, Matlock used ILM’s EditDroid. “We were one of the first to use it. I knew it was the future. Matlock was set up like a film on digital. For post, it was like running a new Ferrari. They would shoot the show very simply, a master, a couple of overs and a close-up. It was very easy to edit. To think, I used to have a callus on my thumb from smoothing out tape splices to remove the bubbles.”

When the mid ‘90s rolled around, Ortiz-Gil was already a seasoned professional on the hunt for new employment after nearly a decade on Matlock. He had his first experience working for Dick Wolf on The Wright Verdicts. He had an ‘in’ on the show thanks to his friendship with producer Arthur W. Forney whom he’d met when Forney was an assistant editor at Universal. They later worked together on Magnum, P.I. and were notorious for pulling pranks on fellow editors on the lot. They often had lunch together and developed a professional camaraderie that lasts to this day. Ortiz-Gil sees Forney as quite a success story. The one-time assistant editor is now an executive producer on various Wolf Films shows.

However, before Ortiz-Gil officially became a part of the Wolf pack, he had two very significant dalliances that added to the depth of his career. Walker, Texas Ranger was an unexpected creative surprise. It had already been on the air two years before Ortiz-Gil came on board.

“I was told twice – on Matlock and on Walker – it was going to be the end of my career and both were the exact opposite,” he exclaims. “Usually, when you go on a new show, you’re super careful and you follow all of the instructions, but on Walker I felt differently.”

Unsure about his place on the show, he felt that he had nothing to lose with flexing a little creative muscle. “I made some risky moves with effects and editing on my first show that could lift the material up a bit. The stories were visually boring. I knew adding music and some montages to what they had shot, including these long masters, would work really great when you sped them up so you can see everything. It was very rudimentary, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it needed some transitional work.

Ortiz-Gil continues, “When I showed my cut to the writers and producers on the show, there was that initial silence, like the one Don gave me back on Airwolf. Then, the writers got up and exclaimed, ‘This is not our show! This doesn’t work!’ Aaron Norris, Chuck’s brother, had come on board and he asked to speak with me privately. We went into another room. I felt like a little kid about to be scolded. Instead, Aaron says, “We need a new look for the show. And what you just showed me is our new look. I want you to be the supervising editor. I’m sending it to Chuck for approval. I want these effects.’ I ran the post department and stayed on for four years.”

After Ortiz-Gil confidently weathered the technological storm that revolutionized filmmaking at the end of the 20th century to great success, it felt as if he was only getting started. The series, 24, saw him continue on this action-oriented wave that he started back on Galactica and perfected on Airwolf and Walker. The results earned him two additional Eddie nominations for his efforts.

Despite this success, the howl of Wolf Films came calling and Ortiz-Gil returned to Universal. He explains, “[Wolf Films] is a really good place for editors. Arthur has an editing background so he looks out for us. He thinks of things most people don’t think of from ideas on story to processes. I left 24 early just to be on Law & Order. We called it the mothership because it spawned so many others. I edited the very last episode on it. To work with Arthur and Dick Wolf was too great an allure for me not to leave. No ego. No games. No weird politics. It’s just about making the show better and enjoying what you do.”

Looking back on it all, he recollects, “When I started, editors wore sport coats or suits and ties. It felt a little industrial. You clocked in and out. The supervising editor would tell you what jobs you would get. The producers didn’t go to the editors; they went to the supervising editor. There was a lot of favoritism. Now, you walk in with jeans and a t-shirt or shorts and there is no supervising editor per se. We have to meet the deadlines and you find your own jobs.

“To stay in this business as long as I have, you have to be likable. You have to have people want you in,” he admits. “Equally important is your assistant. I’ve always felt that your best friend in the editing room is your assistant. They’re there to help you. If they want to be proactive, all the better. I’ll give them a couple of scenes to do and if they’re good, I’ll show it to a producer. Sometimes when I leave a show, the producers will pick my assistant to take over, which I encourage. I have the deepest respect for assistants.”

It’s true. Ortiz-Gil is well respected in the industry. ACE board member Lillian Benson, ACE, shares, “While I have had the pleasure of knowing Leon over the years, I didn’t really get to know him until we worked together on the hallway at Wolf Films. Leon is a talented artist who shares his editing knowledge with everyone. He is generous with the assistants, allowing them to practice on scenes and giving them feedback on what they’ve done. He also sets a professional example, which they can model. When he asks his editor colleagues like me, ‘How are things going?’ he’s not just paying lip service; he genuinely wants  to know. Leon is more than his illustrious resume – he is a  great, supportive person.”

Two of his former assistants can attest to how much he has meant to them personally and professionally. Ash Steele shares, “I’ve been so lucky to experience 10 years of Leon Ortiz-Gil’s friendship and mentorship. From my start as a wet-eared post PA to sharing co-editing credits on a two-hour Law & Order: Special Victims Unit/Chicago P.D. crossover event, Leon used a chunk of his career to nurture mine. He and I stuffed a ton of laughs  into those 3,000 days and l couldn’t be happier for this, Leon’s greatest career honor.”

Oscar Rene Lozoya adds, “When I was a PA learning Avid, Leon would stay after work on his own time and show me not only how to use the program, but the artistry of storytelling and pacing that goes along with editing. He is a huge inspiration and is always willing to go out of his way to help others.”

In the late ‘70s, Ortiz-Gil taught editing for two years at the Sherwood Oaks Film Academy. Back then, he felt sorry for the students because he felt they wouldn’t have a real chance to get into the business. None of them had any connections and this was before you could really film anything on your own and get it in festivals. To his surprise, at least one did. Editor Mark Goldblatt, ACE, came up to him at an ACE event shortly after it was announced that Ortiz-Gil would be receiving the Career Achievement Award.

Goldblatt shared, “I took your class back at Sherwood and it inspired me to go into film editing. I was thinking about  going into production but after that class you taught, I wanted
to go into editing.”

It’s interesting to think that Ortiz-Gil could be inspiring even under circumstances where he felt futile. In essence, that’s certainly why people like having him around. No matter what the show, the time, the technology, the person, it all comes down to how you deal with what you are given. Leon Ortiz-Gil has been giving back a lot to the entertainment industry so it’s befitting that it give him a little something back.