Postchat is a weekly discussion on issues surrounding post-production amongst the Twitter community of which I am a part.
This week I was asked to be featured during a discussion on animation editing. I've summarised the proceedings before and tried to link questions and answers together - although at the time a lot of conversations were occurring in parallel, with diversions - and I went back a few times to questions asked earlier. For a full transcript, see this Storify.
This session was hosted by Gordon, who runs the superb Art of the Guillotine website, posting as @AotgNetwork; and Jesse, an editor on Sesame Street and part of Avid's Community Advisory Council, posting as @Dr0id.
Postchat sessions run every Wednesday evening at 6PM PST/ 9PM EST/ 2AM GMT (Thursday).
In drama, it's said that you write a film 3 times: in the script, during filming, and in the edit room.
In animation, there's less filming ("performance" being shared between the voice actors and the animators)... but the editing is constant. The bulk of the editing happens at the start with the animatic, to find the structure of the film in order to eliminate as much unnecessary animation as possible - but as additional detail is added, the edit must be revisited again and again.
The easiest way to illustrate this is to show you two simple sequences from Q Pootle 5, the preschool series I've just finished editing. Even though we used Redboard for the storyboard and the scenes were set up in 3D space with representative backgrounds, things can still change significantly. And, of course, it's still incredibly basic when compared to an animated shot.
Each video shows the animatic more or less as it went into the animation stage (albeit with notes from the producers), a playblast of the animation stage before it went to lighting, and the final version. I've included the full length of each shot from each phase, so there are black sections where there is no video to cover that part of the shot for that stage.
N.B. The animation stage shown is the trimmed version that was sent for animation approval - not the full length of each shot worked up which may have had overlapping actions or excess frames. It matches closely to the final version in terms of action, but the difference lies in the level of detail and any additional fine cutting. A useful additional stage would have been the blocking or early animation - but this wasn't available when I came to put this blog post together.
Example 1: from "Pootle's New Spaceship"
Upper left: Animatic, Lower left: Animation (playblast), Lower right: Final version (as broadcast)
Audio left: Final (as broadcast), Audio right: Temp for animatic
0:00 - Change of angle, changed early in the animation process to better view both characters
0:11 - Action changed to Ray (the bird) closing the nose cone rather than appearing, but the 'beat' of the action remains the same.
0:12 - In the animatic, I wobbled the image to indicate Pootle (green) and Stella (brown) climbing in to the spaceship. This action was eventually replaced by Ray's reaction and the sound effect.
0:23 - Engine start time decided in animation, but the false start matches timing.
0:24 - Pootle's blustering was cut down in response to animatic feedback from the producers. The shot duration changed accordingly.
0:30 - Hugely different angle, hence different duration. The new angle allowed the point of the shot to be conveyed a lot more quickly.
0:36 - Filling in the animation and letting the animator work the shot as they wished resulted in different timing for this shot, with a more tentative lift-off.
0:40 - A much more cinematic feel for this shot than depicted in the board. Lovely - and a brilliant case for collaboration and encouraging everyone to not be afraid to try things out that are different to what's already there.
0:50 - It was decided after the animatic that Pootle should feel less hesitant about the instructions he's been given, and we shouldn't draw quite so much attention to how bizarre it all seems (in case he doesn't seem in control of the vehicle - preschool audiences aren't as appreciative of mild peril as older children!)
1.01 - End of scene trimmed. The starts and ends of scenes are easy places to add or lose time when cutting to an exact duration.
Angles changing between animatic and animation is a common thing - if there's time and it's a big enough change, new boards will be drawn up to illustrate the intended shot; but often it's quicker and easier for the director to just get it worked up in layout and changed to their specification.
Example 2: from "The Cosmic Whipple"
Upper right: Animatic, Lower left: Animation (playblast), Lower right: Final version (as broadcast)
Audio left: Final (as broadcast), Audio right: Temp for animatic
0:04 - Adding the rock in the middle of the crater for Oopsy to climb up was a late addition, but added some action to the shot, and was a good opportunity for our most hyperactive character to expend some energy. Of course, this changed the framing a lot from the animatic. And the timing.
0:08 - Blink and you'll miss it: a minor trim to the final at a late stage. A massage of an earlier trim.
0:13 - Shot extended for new action.
0:20 - There were several shots boarded for this short section of varying duration, but I ended up resizing them in the animatic and merging them at that stage. This accounts for the variation in line thickness and framing.
0:24 - Dead space cleaned up in the fine cut
Often, I would adapt a storyboard to use in an animatic, if it had an element I wanted. This could mean re-sizing, or using a part of a board to replace a part of another board to clarify timing. This often meant a note was added for animatic approval - but I kept my timeline organised to show that it was all part of the same shot, and the metadata reflected that. Sometimes an animatic would end up being the best approximation of the framing from the available boards - I'd put priority on the composition in terms of whether it was a 2-shot, wide, close-up etc.
For additional information on the stages noted above, please refer to my previous blog posts on editing animation:
Part 1: Editing an Animatic
Part 2: Editing Animation
Part 3: Editing Animation (the final stages)
Part 1: Editing an Animatic
Part 2: Editing Animation
If you've read the previous parts of this series, this is the part which has the least 'editing' involved - and also the stage where most of the raw materials for the action are together and now fully staged and animated - basically the part where for drama, the editor would start.
However, because we don't have multiple readings from multiple angles and very little in the way of handles, the creative job's basically over. However, there's still work to be done - and elements to be added which will affect the optimal cut point of any two shots.
DISCLAIMER: as with the previous posts, I'm referring heavily to the workflow and conventions employed on my most recent work on the series Q Pootle 5, so as to allow a little more detail in certain areas rather than staying vague. Each job will always have a different set of requirements and focus points.
1. Lighting, FX, Compositing
(I'm collating these parts together (and skipping others entirely) because of their influence on the edit, rather than an attempt to gloss over them!)
This is where the final image gets put together. Up until now, the edit has been put together with playblasts: lower quality, polygonal representations of the assets - lacking a lot of detail in the way of textures, lighting, occasionally background assets, and non-pivotal effects. Where the detail is key to the story or the composition of the shot, the effect may be temped in; or a render with more detail output.
2. Picture Lock
(This stage is placed here for television series work with its tighter schedule and set run-time; in features it may well be later.)
Working with renders which include all of the final elements, we can now lock picture. Being able to see exactly what's going to be in frame (and when it enters/ leaves) is a pretty important element when fine-tuning an edit!
On Q Pootle 5, for example, we had a lot of shots in which space ships would be flying out of frame - but because of their design, they each had trails from the boosters. These trails, largely based on flame and gas and smoke elements, were not included in the animation playblasts; and if it was necessary for a character in their ship to clear the frame before the cut, it was usually necessary for their ship's trail to also leave.
On Pootle, I would typically trim an episode to approximately the pace that felt right... and then see how close it was to the 10 minutes runtime that we needed. Some episodes were a lot closer than others. By the time the episode's director and the series director came in to do the lock, I would ideally have a version of the episode which ran to the exact duration. Sometimes we'd stay with that version, mostly we'd discuss a few trims - always with the concept of having to add back in any frames which were taken off (and vice versa).
I wrote in the animatic section about liking to have an extra 15 seconds at that stage. During the animation process; extra movements will be added on, removed, walks extended or shortened, visual humour added... the upshot of which is that episodes can end up between about 90 seconds under or over the runtime after the first edit pass. Some would underrun, and need parts re-lengthened (it helps to remember where the major trims were), and some were over length and need either a second pass or a lengthy discussion about which lines and sections we could stand to lose.
In drama, what goes into the camera usually represents the physical reality of the scene fairly well. There are continuity errors and all sorts of things that get documented in the 'goofs' on IMDb, but typically any given shot makes sense.
In animation and VFX, there are a huge number of things that can go wrong... and once your mind's trained to spot them, it's difficult to let go. Here are some of the things we like to look for:
- missing character - the character just isn't there at all.
- missing shadows - from one or all characters/ objects.
- missing/ inconsistent objects and props - an object is missing from one or more shots.
- incorrect layering - a background object appears closer to the camera than a foreground object, overlapping and/or obscuring it.
- objects hovering or intersecting - because shots are usually animated at a lower resolution, the curved edges of all elements can be approximated, making it difficult or impossible to spot before the shot is rendered.
- depth of field - should match for all elements, and fit into the general tone of the scene
- focus pulls - notes on timings given, with visual reference where possible to indicate the important elements.
- distractions - anything which takes the eye to the wrong place in frame which has suddenly appeared in the full details of the shot. I've asked on several occasions for certain things to be made dimmer (or removed) so as to keep the action clear.
A particular favourite of mine, and one especially telling of the animation process, is where an object appears to have come from nowhere - or only appeared at the start of a shot. Dust or vapour trails which originate at the point where the shot started, footprints made by characters walking through a shot, but none to get them to their starting point. Things which aren't necessarily animated because they're not part of the action of the shot - but need to have some additional animation for the vfx elements to work, and for the shot to be real.
Sometimes we could fix things in the Avid. A rogue shadow appearing on the wrong side of a solid door could be fixed with a quick animatte effect so long as we had a frame where it looked right. A few times we re-timed two separate elements when they didn't intersect. And a lot of the time we resized an image up to a certain scale, or added a small 2D zoom with basic keyframes.
4. Sound and Music
As soon as we get the picture locked down, copies are sent to our sound post company and the composer. Updates with the fixes follow.
Our sound post company for Q Pootle 5 were Tamborine Productions, who removed all of the temp sound that we used during the edit and replaced it with their own library and foley - as well as building up all of the sounds for each environment, spaceship, and props. I sent them notes on any client feedback we'd had on temp sound that may be relevant, plus anything else that we'd explored and had thoughts on (the episode with the pogo sticks 'springs' to mind). Whilst not all visual fixes would be done in time for the mix, the production manager and I would ensure we had all of the 'sound relevant' fixes done - anything where timing of effects was vital to appear in the correct place.
A lot of the episodes had musical elements to them - and any songs or band arrangements which had characters singing or playing instruments had music provided ahead of time. At other times, temp music was used to get the right feeling for a sequence and help it to gel together. I'd typically provide our composer, David Schweitzer, with a QuickTime with all of the music; and another QuickTime with no music at all apart from singing with matching burnt in timecode. He could then send the final music to Tamborine.
At the mix, a lot of things could change. Our series director made a point of being at the mix so that he could give the go-ahead or not on some issues which may need fresh animation but could enhance the episode overall. We'd then get the stereo, m&e, and 5.1 mixes sent over when everything was finished.
For us, this is where the titles, end credits, and finalising took place. Most of our colour grading (timing) would happen in-house, but changes could be made at the online. Any shots which had moves added in the Avid could be re-done with the producers in the room.
The episode could then be exported in the various formats required for delivery, with all technical checks.
It happened! It worked! And.... the channel put their own logo over a corner of the screen. Looks like we didn't need to dim that tree after all.
Among the people I know from the National Film and Television School is Helen Piercy - with whom I have previously worked on an animated sonnet by Shakespeare voiced by Alan Rickman, and various school projects.
Helen is currently doing a lot of work with children and young adults in the form of animation workshops across the UK, and as a result was approached last year to write a book/ kit to help children make their own animations.
This book has now been released, and it's fantastic. I have a copy in my edit suite, and it's a big hit with the animators (and others) at the studio. The age guide is ages 8+, but there have already been reviews from much younger children starting to make their own films using the book and kit as a guide.
The kit includes several sets, characters, and props - plus a "director's handbook" which gives an introduction to animation and different styles, as well as hints and tips on making your own films. Find out more at the webpage on Helen's site, or by watching the trailer below:
I'm currently reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon on my Kindle for the half hour or so I spend each way on the underground to and from work. I'd put it off for quite a while (in fact, I think I have the paperback somewhere), but I'm glad I've finally gotten around to it.
I just had to share this excerpt*, which shows a wonderful set of ideas in the creation of a comic book super hero and the setting up of backstory and motivation to make the character feel more real. The importance of this process cannot be understated if you're looking to create something truly special, and I think that the way it's been written as a discussion amongst friends (in themselves working through the setup to the core of the story) is wonderful.
“My guy flies,” said Davy O’Dowd. “That I know.”
Joe shot a look at Sammy, who clapped a hand to his forehead.
“Oy,” he said.
“He flies, huh?”
“Something wrong with that? Frank says this is all about wishful figments.”
“Wishful figments. You know, like it’s all what some little kid wishes he could do. Like for you, hey, you don’t want to have a gimpy leg no more. So, boom, you give your guy a magic key and he can walk.”
“Huh.” Sammy had not chosen to look at the process of character creation in quite so stark a manner. He wondered what other wishes he might have subsumed unknowingly into the character of lame Tom Mayflower.
“I always wished I could fly,” Davy said. “I guess a lot of guys must have wished that.”
“It’s a common fantasy, yeah.” “It seems to me that makes it something you can’t have too many of,” Jerry Glovsky put in.
“All right, then, so he can fly.” Sammy looked at Joe. “Joe?”
Joe glanced up briefly from his work. “Why.”
“Why?” Sammy nodded. “Why can he fly? Why does he want to? And how come he uses his power of flight to fight crime? Why doesn’t he just become the world’s best second-story man?”
Davy rolled his eyes. “What is this, comic book catechism? I don’t know.”
“Take one thing at a time. How does he do it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Stop saying you don’t know.”
“He has big wings.”
“Think of something else. A rocket pack? Antigravity boots? An autogyro hat? Mythological powers of the winds? Interstellar dust? Blood transfusion from a bee? Hydrogen in his veins?”
“Slow down, slow down,” Davy said. “Jesus, Sam.”
“I’m good at this shit. Are you scared?”
“Just embarrassed for you.” “Take a number. Okay, it’s a fluid. An antigravity fluid in his veins, he has this little machine he wears on his chest that pumps the stuff into him.”
“Yeah, he needs the stuff to stay alive, see? The flying part is just a, like an unexpected side benefit. He’s a scientist. A doctor. He was working on some kind of, say, artificial blood. For the battlefield, you know. Synth-O-Blood, it’s called. Maybe it’s, shit, I don’t know, maybe it’s made out of ground-up iron meteorites from outer space. Because blood is iron-based. Whatever. But then some criminal types, no, some enemy spies, they break into his laboratory and try to steal it. When he won’t let them, they shoot him and his girl and leave them for dead. It’s too late for the girl, okay, how sad, but our guy manages to get himself hooked up to this pump thing just before he dies. I mean, he does die, medically speaking, but this stuff, this liquid meteorite, it brings him back from the very brink. And when he comes to—”
“He can fly!” Davy looked happily around the room.
“He can fly, and he goes after the spies that killed his girl, and now he can really do what he always wanted to, which was help the forces of democracy and peace. But he can never forget that he has a weakness, that without his Synth-O-Blood pump, he’s a dead man. He can never stop being … being …” Sammy snapped his fingers, searching for a name.
“Almost Dead Flying Guy,” suggested Jerry.
“Blood Man,” said Julie.
“The Swift,” Marty Gold said. “Fastest bird in the world.”
“I draw really nice wings,” said Davy O’Dowd. “Nice and feathery.”
“Oh, all right, damn it,” Sammy said. “They can just be there for show. We’ll call him the Swift.”
“I like it.”
“He can never stop being the Swift,” Sammy said. “Not for one goddamned minute of the day.” He stopped and rubbed his mouth with the back of his hand. His throat was sore and his lips were dry and he felt as if he had been talking for a week. Jerry, Marty, and Davy all looked at one another, and then Jerry got down from his stool and went into his bedroom. When he came out, he was carrying an old Remington typewriter.
“When you’re done with Davy’s, do mine,” he said.
*represents a tiny percentage of the book, reproduced with the intent of educational purpose and discussion.
As in the previous post, the following notes relate to my specific experiences - mainly as editor on a 52 x 11 minute animation series. Review stages and timings vary significantly for features and other forms, and in my experience by project too.
A bit of self-promotion here: the series I've been editing for the last year... almost to the day, Q Pootle 5, is beginning transmission on Monday 29th July.
It's on the UK channel CBeebies (various worldwide deals are in place, so hopefully not too long before it reaches other territories), at 8.15am weekdays. Further information on the CBeebies website (click the image to go there and view the opening titles and a short clip).
It's all very exciting. And quite a few of my friends both in and outside of the industry have children in the exact target age range - so I'm looking forward to getting feedback from them.
Production continues apace - I'm currently on the 45th episode animatic, with another 7 to go after that - and then the workload starts to decrease. We just delivered episodes 23-26 this week, marking the half-way point... which means that on Monday I was responding to requests from people at various stages of animatic, layout, blocking, animation, amends, lighting, and compositing for 23 different episodes. At the rate of one episode per week, there are still 26 weeks to go until the series is complete - at which point there will be 520 minutes of animation across 52 episodes, not including titles and credits.
Animation: it takes a long time.
Yesterday - Saturday 29th June, was the first ever EditFest in London. The EditFest is a day's worth of talks organised by the American Cinema Editors - and has previously been held in Los Angeles and New York.
I took some notes and made some very ropey audio recordings, and would like to share some of the quotes from the day here. Each session was 90 minutes long, so what's below is only a very very small fraction of the insights shared during the day by the guests - and doesn't at all represent the more personal discussions that attendees were able to have with the panellists between sessions and during drinks afterwards.
Overall it was an absolutely amazing day, and I hope they come back next year (as has been hinted).
DISCLAIMER - While I have tried my absolute best to preserve the context and intention of the quotes given, they may not be wholly accurate. Some words and sentences have been removed or paraphrased for clarity, interest, brevity, or because I can't make out what what was said from the recording.
Small Screen, Big Picture – Panel with Television Editors
Moderated by Gordon A. Burkell founder of Art of the Guillotine
- Frances Parker, A.C.E. (Game of Thrones, Rome)
- Kristina Hetherington (Room at the Top, Birdsong)
- Oral Norrie Ottey (Generation Kill, Game of Thrones)
- Kate Evans, A.C.E. (Buddha of Suburbia, The Shooting of Thomas Hurndall)
KH - To me, performance is through the eyes, I respond to what I feel when I'm watching it and I'll make a note of that. And then it's the overall feel of the scene. And I'll look in the script and I'll say where's the value of this scene, how am I going to shape this scene?
OO - My editing room needs a sofa, because once I look at the rushes I need to have a lie down [to think]. It's about finding the nugget. You try and get the best out of that material. It's story, story, story - and then, if you can shape the drama around the story.
On building the suspense when cutting a horror film:
KH - I tend to just follow the script. I started cutting horror films because I'd cut dialogue and period dramas for over 10 years, and I was offered a horror film after Girl With a Pearl Earring, and it seemed like it would be a change, it would be nice to cut an action movie rather than a dialogue movie. Sound is absolutely essential, but that's the sound designer's job. But it's always a lovely surprise when I see it dubbed.
On working with actors' performances:
KH - Sometimes you have to throw away what may be the most amazing part because it's just too much [emotion].
From Dailies to Delivery – Editing Features
Moderated by Mick Audsley – Harry Potter and the Goblet Fire, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
- Chris Dickens, A.C.E. (Les Miserables , Slumdog Millionaire)
- Tracy Granger, A.C.E.(Still Life, Frank)
- John Wilson, A.C.E.(Day of the Flowers, Billy Elliot)
- Eddie Hamilton, A.C.E.(X-Men: First Class, Kick Ass 2)
On the move into digital, and the impact on editing and screenings:
Are scripts important?
EH - I love reading scripts. I tell all my friends who are writers to send me scripts. I feel like the more scripts you read, the better you get at reading scripts. I listen to my gut feelings about scripts because I trust my instincts so strongly that I feel that if there's an issue in the script that if it's not addressed before the shoot that will bite us in the arse in the cutting room, which they always will, then I try my hardest to point them out and say "this is a big problem in the script, you should seriously consider fixing this". In terms of choosing jobs, I mean, let's be honest there's a lot of unemployed people in the industry and I don't get huge numbers of job offers. Occasionally I may happen to get a choice of two films at a certain time of the year and I'll choose one or the other. So you're lucky to be employed, and sometimes you may have a hunch that a film is only going to be average and it's a shame, but you need to pay the bills - and you engage whole-heartedly with the film in order to try and breathe as much life into it as you can. If a great script comes up, then fantastic, but they're not that frequent. I mean, how many great films do we actually see each year? Three? So the odds of working on a truly great film are pretty small.
EH - I read the script before the film, and if I'm cutting a scene where I don't know what comes before then I will read the page that comes before that. But effectively I don't read the script after the first day of the shoot. It doesn't matter what's in the script - if they haven't shot it then it can't be in the film. I actually just look at the footage and the strengths and weaknesses in the footage because that's all that matters.
On how to avoid becoming overly-familiar with the material:
CD - I suppose the environment you watch it in is key. For me it goes back to the script, if you like it then you have a connection to the material, that allows you to watch it more and carry on editing. A very physical way of doing it is take it somewhere else - watch it at home, in a screening room. I try to watch it through someone else's eyes. I try to but it's almost impossible because the minute you start getting too used to something is the minute you can't see it. When people give you notes, I try not to dismiss any notes. Some of the notes that you have a really strong reaction to, albeit negative, are the... it's a good thing. Your negative reaction may because you're far too used to the scene. I don't dismiss anything. If people are too closed to new ideas, the film is almost never a success.
An animatic is the first stage of the edit in an animation. It's the combination of the storyboards, audio (possibly with temp voice acting), and timing. It's used as the base for the animation: animators will take the shot angle, durations, certain actions, and timings as a starting point for their work on each shot.
- The right action at the right time - if there's a certain key action boarded out that should correspond with a point in the script and/or sound effect, then the timing of this relative to the surrounding dialogue should be correct.
- Reactions should be timed relative to their cause - and also given enough space to sink in!
- The first and last shot of a scene can be difficult to judge before the full programme is together, but an approximate length can be guessed at.
- An object coming closer to the viewer at a constant speed will need less duration of each board where it gets closer, mimicking the appearance of an object moving similarly when filmed.
The BAFTA Film nominations were yesterday. Unfortunately, Pirates not only failed to win - they were not even amongst the three animated features nominated in the relevant category.
However, this was more or less righted by the nomination in the 85th Academy Awards - announced earlier today. Pirates is one of five films nominated for Best Animated Feature, and one of three stop motion films within the category! So, fingers crossed for the 24th of February.
Another recently announced set of nominations that I eagerly browsed were those of the Visual Effects Society Awards - having been the previs/ VFX editor on Pirates, I was rather hoping to see a few nods in that area. Indeed, there's an Outstanding Animated Character in an Animated Feature Motion Picture - competing against Brave, Hotel Transylvania, and Wreck-It Ralph - all of which are fully CG. I personally attribute a large part of this (corrrectly or not) the seamless overlap between stop-motion and CG to a fair amount of confusion over the nature of the film and its effects. Not only amongst lay-people (although I have had to clarify on a few occasions that the water was indeed generated and yes - CG CAN do that these days), but also amongst VFX pros - for whom I answered several questions on Twitter about the production and stop motion, previs, vfx, CG animation, etc. at the time the film came out.
Pirates also has a Best Animated Feature nomination in the 40th Annie Awards, as well as Outstanding Achievement nominations in four categories: Character Animation in a Feature Production, Production Design in an Animated Feature Production, Voice Acting in an Animated Feature Production, Writing in an Animated Feature Production. So... exciting times.
Working on Pirates was an amazing experience in its own right, especially as it was the first feature I ever worked on - but it's certainly amazing and fulfilling to see it get some outside recognition too, from people who didn't actually work on it - or who don't feel they have to say nice things because they know me.
It's been almost exactly a year now since VFX finished on the film, and it's immensely gratifying to see it still making its way out there. I really hope that it continues to get the same level of love and commitment from the rest of the world as those of us involved in its production put in.