Editing an animatic

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.

Animatics are also sometimes used in live-action films, in the same way as directors will storyboard certain sequences, and they may be the stage used prior to previz for VFX work on large action films.

The main difference between editing animation and editing drama is that in animation, most of the edit occurs before the visuals are complete. In drama, we'll take the best performances as a base for the decisions on which shots to use where. In animation, the physical character hasn't yet been animated, so it's much more about telling the story from the best possible angles for what's actually happening - whilst that's also the ideal in drama, it's unlikely that all angles will have been played in the exact same way, and there will be many different reasons for using a certain shot in a certain place.

An example animatic for the Gorillaz "Clint Eastwood" video is below - whilst the audio is from a single source (the music track), and there is some mouth animation already in progress, it's a fair representation of what an an animatic based on storyboards will typically look like.

These notes are based on my current personal workflow for the series I'm currently editing - which is a set of 52 x 11 minute CG animated episodes for CBeebies, aimed at children aged 2-5 years old. I work for the animation studio, who work with an independent production company. The turnaround is very rapid at all stages, and the options to experiment are more limited than the experience you'd have with a feature film (for example).

Nonetheless, I'm finding the job very rewarding. I've also found that working with animation has inspired me to learn a lot more about the other roles in filmmaking. I've taken some acting lessons, and I'm currently taking a screenwriting class. Because of the relative length of time to do anything in animation, and the positioning within production of the animatic stage, there's a lot more thinking has to go into each and every edit. Until the shots are fully animated, there's a percentage of guesswork going in to how well the shots are going to fit together - and by that stage it can be too late to actually change anything about it.

This blog entry focuses on the creative stages of animatic creation. I currently use Final Cut Pro 7 for animatics, and Avid for finishing - but I'm not going to go into the other programmes which are used across the production. At least, not at this point in time.


1. Audio

I receive an 'edit' from the sound company who do the voice records, which contains the takes selected during the record by the director and producers. Sometimes more than one take will be in place if they've selected two to decide from later. I also get the entire set of audio takes and a marked up script to show which takes cover which lines.

All lines and reactions (e.g. laughs) are recorded separately to each other, so it makes sense to go through them all with the script in hand, and overlay where necessary/ where it feels right. I'll make a choice where there are choices to be made, and mark where I think another take may serve us better - either for story reasons, matching to a certain emotion, or because the intention of the line is lost in performance (this may be for a number of reasons - regional accent coming through, end of the word has been lost, following line is being cut so the sentence needs to not raise in pitch at the end, the projection or tone no longer matches the context ... things can sound very different in a studio when you're watching the actor do their lines to when you're using the same recording for a character) we're very careful with the takes we use as the show is for a pre-school audience, and absolute clarity is a must. Sometimes I'll mark a line for pick-up at this stage, or record a temp version for the time being. For the time being, I keep almost everything from the recording on the timeline for easy switching later - I use a muted track in FCP7 to 'store' the subclips not in use.

Some elements (such as laughs, or generic other sounds of confusion/ thinking/ amusement) can be borrowed from other episode recordings if they aren't present here, and either recorded later or left in if they're not too distinctive. I have a "walla" library for this purpose, organised by character and episode recording.

I create gaps for scene breaks, and where action and/or reaction takes place, and try to get a natural flow to the dialogue on its own - which may be present in the recording if all actors were present, or may take a bit more work. Often I'll add an edit without creating a gap where there's a 'thought' change in the dialogue, to make it easier to trim the audio whilst keeping sync with picture later.


2. Storyboards and Sound Effects

Storyboards (or 'boards') essentially show you the staging of the scene - which characters are involved, how they move relative to each other and the frame (and perhaps the background, depending on the level of detail), which props are used and where/ how, and usually which lines of dialogue are intended to go with which images. Movement is frequently implied with arrows or quiver lines, in order to both lend action to the still image and provide visual information about what is actually happening, and each shot can be made up of several images/ boards - enough to adequately convey the intention of the shot. Too many images are both time-consuming to draw/ edit in, and can cause confusion if they don't match up closely enough.

Using my previous audio edit and the storyboard notes as a guide to timings, I add the boards to the timeline. I make some basic editing judgements, usually based on shot selection - when to cut in from a wide, which close-up I want to take first, and which information to reveal at which point. Again, if I don't use a shot or setup then I'll put it into a mute timeline with the thumbnail displayed, so that I can easily access it later if I change my mind. If the relevant board doesn't exist yet, or if I want to alter the shot size or framing, I can usually use existing elements to make a rough approximation of the image that I want. Usually this means using boards from multiple different shots, flopping (rotating an image 180 degrees around its y/ vertical axis, often referred to as 'flipping' which actually involves the rotation around the x/ horizontal axis), resizing, cropping, using colour mattes, and making rough composites. It's for this reason that I generally prefer to use Final Cut Pro for my animatic work. Avid's Animatte is superb for the detailled work that's sometimes necessary for later stages, but while it's all still very rough FCP wins out on the speed with which elements can be combined and manipulated.

At this stage I'll also add necessary sound effects - any sounds which motivate action, or are needed to help the animatic convey the story convincingly. They'll be replaced later on by the sound designers, once the picture's locked - but they're useful as a storytelling guide and especially to gauge the timings of non-verbal actions and scene transitions. I use online sound libraries extensively - a good knowledge of trans-atlantic equivalent words is useful, and being able to match the sound you want to the type of action which may produce it is a useful skill (one of my most-used temporary sounds in this series is described as a purse being emptied - despite the absence of a handbag on screen at the time, or indeed any bags at all to date).

With both the boards and the sound effects, less can often be more. You need enough to tell your story in an unambiguous way, but not so many that the viewer doesn't have time to fill in the gaps with where the animation will be. A flawed sound effect can be jarring and cause distraction to the point where someone suggests that the shot or scene isn't working, whilst a good sound effect can be essential as a motivation for the cut which would otherwise be absent.

Using temporary music at the animatic stage can be a mixed blessing. With montage sequences it can certainly help to sell the scene, and it will be necessary to add music at scenes where it's part of the story - which the composer will either provide before animation starts, or match later. But the use of music can hide underlying issues with a scene's logic and/or emotion, as people react to music on a much deeper level than film. Famous or thematic music can trigger memories (frequently used as a shortcut to telling a story, and should be avoided where possible - especially while still sorting out story issues), and a perfect temp track will sometimes be very difficult for producers to let go of - and make the composer's job very difficult.


3. Board Timings

Whilst in my previous edit pass I've roughly overlaid the boards in the approximately right places, I now go through and lengthen/ shorten the images to get them in the right lengths and in proportion to each other. The timings depend on many things:

  • 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.

I split and matte a lot of boards in this stage too, if I want a character's reaction precisely timed during a key scene. I also add in extra sounds where it would help the board to explain what's going on, or to justify the length of a shot or a cut point. The animators can then use these timings as a guide, and/or adjust them according to the natural timing they find for each individual action.


4. Scenes and Story

It's important throughout the process to maintain an awareness of the relative positioning and timing of story elements, but I like to make an extra pass for it - it's especially easy in animation to get bogged down in the individual shots, their framing and timing, and the edit points - but it doesn't do to forget that they're all in fact there to serve the overall function of the story!

Sometimes scenes need to be added - if there's a story element missing that will confuse an audience, or if the episode's coming up short on time. Sometimes they'll be removed or shortened - if they're distracting from the overall flow of the narrative or we're spending too much time away from the main event and risk the audience losing interest. More than anything, I enjoy swapping scenes around to ensure that the focus is correctly positioned.

Deciding what needs to be removed, added, or moved - and to/ from where in the story is the skill. I like to check what's happening at the half-way point in the timeline as a rough guide - and how that corresponds to the significant story events in terms of action and emotion.

I try to aim for a little over the end length of the programme - a lot of shots will lengthen during the animation process, but similarly some will become shorter as actions can play out faster than it seemed they would in the boards. It also gives a little room to trim before the picture lock, once all animations and effects and backgrounds are in and smoothed, and we finally have the full shots. It's important to not go too far over the final length of the programme, as each second of animation will take an animator a certain number of hours in their day to do.

A wonderful thing about working in animation is that most of the creative editorial work is done in what's essentially pre-production. Script issues can therefore be flagged early on, before there are any voice records, and pick-ups can be added and animated to later. We frequently record temporary voices if they're needed urgently for animation (which are later ADR-ed and replaced in my timeline), and with any luck things aren't slowed down too much once the problem has been identified and a solution found.


5. Feedback

Feedback comes back on the animatic from the producers and series director. It's common to end up with requests for new storyboards in addition to the ones that have already been requested. Sometimes a line reading won't sit quite right with everyone, and requests for the alternative versions from the voice record are made. Sometimes lines, or parts of scenes which have been cut, are requested to be re-inserted. These points are then debated, replies are made by the director, and we amend the cut accordingly.


6. Animation prep

Information about each shot then goes out to the animators, with audio exports. I work up a 'dopesheet' which has a shot number, thumbnail image from the storyboard, shot duration in frames, and other information relevant to our workflow. This then goes to the episode's director, who assigns each shot to an animator, and uses the sheet to give notes and feedback. We store each sheet on our network, and if I make a new audio export or need to request extra frames to be added to a shot, then I add my notes on to that too with my initials.

After the animatic stage, we have animation (broken down into layout, blocking, and anim), lighting and comp, picture lock, and finishing - some of which I shall cover in later blog entries, when I will hopefully have examples of my own work to share.