The film editor's role in creating an animated film can seem mysterious to live-action editors. For those accustomed to beginning their editorial work primarily in post production, taking the footage shot in production, and cutting it into a well-structured and paced story, the process of animation can seem upside down. Live-action films shoot first and edit later—in animation, you begin to edit first, then "shoot" later.
To unravel the mystery, we'll explore an editor's role in animation throughout the production process, hearing from the experienced animated film editors themselves.
The Stages of Animated Film Editing
For live-action film, an editor may very well be involved in pre-production discussions and planning. Some editors may even come to the live set to observe the production process and make sure they have the coverage they need for post production. But the actual tasks assigned to the live-action editor fall squarely in the post-production phase of the project. For animation, the editor is up and running at full speed in pre-production, and they have important tasks throughout the entire workflow.
Editor Edie Ichioka, who has worked on films including Toy Story 2 and The Boxtrolls, summarized the process: "In animation, the editor is creating and recreating a blueprint to align with the director's vision. It starts with storyboards and scratch dialogue, and moves on to previsualization, layout, final dialogue, animation, music, lighting, composite shots, score, and the final mix and grading. Each step informs the next and often loops back for revision."
Storyboards and Animatics
A live-action production has what might be a familiar process: actors gather on set, a camera points their way, and multiple takes are shot. The choices of which shots to use are made later, in post production. However, taking this approach with animation would be prohibitively expensive. Before deploying animators, modelers, and riggers, the director needs to plan what shots they are going to use. Speaking on Avid's Making the Cut series, Ichioka explained, "Since animation is such a labor-intensive and expensive process, you want to make sure you have exactly what you want to shoot all laid out for animation."
Animation editors create an animatic cut, which combines storyboards with scratch dialogue, sound effects, and music to explore what the eventual structure of the story might be. As Jeff Draheim, editor for Frozen 2, described on The Rough Cut podcast, "The very first step is once they have an approved script, the board artist will go off, and they'll take a sequence and board it out . . . They send it down to editorial. I'll spend a few days just working on this sequence, I'll start timing it out. And if it has dialogue, a lot of times what we'll do is record scratch actors, because we don't want to bring real actors in this early. And I'll even do another iteration where I'm now adding in the sound effects. When I'm done, we have a music editor on staff, and I'll give it to him, and we'll sit down and look at the sequence together and talk about what kind of temp music to put under it."
Through this process, the editor creates a "first cut" of the film, even though no animation has been created yet. On The Rough Cut with Spies in Disguise editors Christopher Campbell and Randy Trager, Campbell explained, "Storyboarding is where we solidify the movie. That's where things really get locked down editorially in terms of the storytelling of the movie. I would have to say that is the star process. And also one of the more gratifying, from an editorial standpoint."
Working off of the animatic cut, editors will then move to previz. At this stage, they work with layout artists and visual designers to create the gateway for the animation to come. They bring the storyboard art into a 3D computer environment, where they incorporate elements like backgrounds, props, character mock-ups, and color palettes to flesh out the world and give the animators a road map for their work.
"Once we have a sequence that's completely approved through layout, then it's issued to the animators, and then they'll start working their magic," Draheim says.
This is where the "shoot" happens. With the foundation laid down in pre-production, the animators get to work. Based on the animatic cut and previz work, they then create all of the individual animation shots—it's these shots that will be delivered back to the editor. Though they aren't putting actors in front of a camera, they still create the "footage" that will be cut together to create the final story.
Once the animators have created the "shots," editors can put all of the pieces together. This may be the phase that feels the most similar to a live-action edit, laying out material that has been shot by others into a final sequence. However, there are some particular quirks that live-action editors may not come across.
The question becomes whether the shots created in animation match the timing the editor planned in pre-production. Draheim says, "As I start getting all of that footage back, I will find out the animator added 24 frames to this shot, or they took off eight frames from this shot."
This is where things can get a bit sticky—animation is the most labor-intensive, and therefore expensive, phase of the process. Sarah Reimers (Brave, Finding Dory) put it this way on Making the Cut: "Because animation is so expensive, they really discourage, if you can, going in and doing too much fine-tuning of the cut after everything has been finally rendered. Anything that's going to lead to rerendering a shot, it better be worth it."
This stage of the process highlights the incredible importance of the editor's work in pre-production. All of that preparation prior to animation defines how the story will flow. It is far easier to make decisions that change pacing and timing at that point than after the fact.
It's All Storytelling
While it's true that the film editor's role in creating an animated film can be very different from that of a live-action editor, at the end of the day the goal is the same: create a good story.
"It's all story," Ichioka says. "Live action and animation use the same currency, they just spend it differently. In live action you spend it up front, but in animation you keep spending it for a prolonged period of time." And for the editors immersed in this world, it can be incredibly satisfying.
As Trager puts it, "The amount of different creative muscles you get to use throughout the process is a lot of fun. It's never boring, and there's always something new to work on or with or through."