This interview, published in December 2015 was to help inspire people potentially interested in pursuing film and video editing courses via the portal site hotcourses.com.
Judith Allen - the animation editor
- By Jane McGuire
‘Editing is just as much about shaping the entire film as the moments within it. Editing is prioritising.’ As I sit down to interview Judith Allen, a film and television editor who specialises in animation, it doesn’t take me long to realise she is truly an expert. Graduating from the National Film and Television school, Judith went on to work as VFX (visual effects) editor for the world renowned Aardman Animations, working on the Oscar nominated stop motion feature ‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists’. Now working at Blue-Zoo, Judith has been the editing brains behind several successful projects. Keen to find out more about her journey into the world of editing, I was thrilled when Judith agreed to share her story, advice and highlights with Hotcourses. If you’ve ever watched Wallace and Gromit and wondered just how they do it, or dreamt of working as an editor, read on.
So Judith, how did you get here, have you always dreamt of working in the film and television industry?
I was always a fan of film and television, but I never really considered it as a career before I joined the student television society at Imperial College, where I was studying Aeronautical Engineering. Editing was one of those things that nobody else really liked to do and I quickly found I loved. With connections made there, I had several part-time jobs in editing whilst I was still studying, which helped me find work afterwards. At one of my jobs I came across a prospectus for the National Film and Television School, where I got some official training in the skills of editing, across fiction, documentary and animation, working with fellow students studying their own crafts.
How did things progress from there, what led you into animation?
I was hired at Aardman on the film ‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists’ by the VFX producer who had done the production course at the NFTS some years prior to my time there. He knew what the editing course involved and what my experience was. Updating the timelines for the pre visualisation of the shots (a stage between storyboards and filming of the stop motion animation, in which a computer generated representation of the scene helps us to visualise where in the set the characters will stand, where the cameras will go etc) meant that I was involved in numerous reviews with directors, cinematographers and heads of department. I learnt a lot from just being in the room during their discussions.
Having a company like Aardman on the CV opened a lot of doors for me and I spent a little time working at Framestone on several pitches before going on to work at Blue-Zoo as the editor on a pre-school animation series. I’ve now been with Blue-Zoo on several projects and also like to keep up my skills in live action editing, with a number of short films that I’ve been doing in my spare time.
Sounds very busy! What would you say then is the most difficult part of your job?
Unlike live action, where an editor works on footage which has already been shot and acted, in animation, editing starts when we have a voice record and storyboards. These are put together and timed out in an ‘animatic’, which is a representation of what the final animation should be, but it’s very rough. I’m limited by what the board artist provides and what I can resize and repurpose from that, and sometimes clients find it difficult to view the animatic and understand how the finished product will look. I’ve actually written a blog post to try and explain the difference between the three key animation stages.
On the other hand, what is the best part?
Being so involved in the storytelling and characterisation, and being there from the start to the end when the finished product is there and looks great. In animation there’s an incredible freedom to shuffle scenes around, start and end them at different points than scripted, not being forced to rely on physical performance when making decisions - but with that, you’re also not guided by an actor’s performance and have to work from voice and create the connections between characters. It’s an entirely different paradigm to live action editing, and yet swapping between them enriches both forms. These days editing is less frequently being seen as purely within the realm of post production on certain films.
Good answer! What has been the proudest moment of your career so far then?
Working at Aardman, in itself, was pretty significant for me. As an editor, it’s often rare to go to the set where filming is happening. As an animation editor, there often isn’t a set - it’s all based in the computer. So working at Aardman for 16 months where they were filming in the studio just downstairs from the VFX offices and all the crew were based in the same building throughout at more or less the same time was fantastic.
In your opinion, what is the hardest thing to get the hang of when it comes to video editing?
Timing. The various rhythms of film are a big deal - not just those you hear, but those you see too and how they intermingle. When to go fast and when to go slow. It comes much more naturally to some than others, but it can certainly be learned through practise and feedback.
Leading on from timing, comedy is inherent in life. Even Shakespearean histories and tragedies have comedic moments to lighten the mood. Use the gaps between dialogue and reactions (even if, in animation, they aren’t yet there). Seek out those potentially comedic moments, play to characters’ individual strengths and weaknesses. You can always easily remove them if it feels wrong later.
There’s also a tendency to see editing as being the agony of moving the in point of a shot backwards and forwards one frame at a time and people can get bogged down in that. Editing is just as much about shaping the entire film as the moments within it. Editing is prioritising. Prioritising which character should be seen at which moment, and what that tells us about their intentions. Prioritising the most important moment in a scene and removing or diminishing anything which can detract from that. Prioritising the overall structure of the story and/or journey of the character.
That’s such a brilliant answer! My next question is how much influence does the director have on the final cut?
It’s a very collaborative process and some directors work differently to others. Some want to be there the entire time, others are happy to pop in every so often to see how things are going and pass on notes. Disagreement on some points is inevitable and healthy - a film with only one possible perspective is going to end up being quite boring. Debate and putting forward my own views is part of the job, but ultimately the film is the director’s responsibility. It’s my job to help them feel like they’re getting the best out of the edit.
How long does the editing process typically take?
There are so many variables. A 90-120 minute feature animation is typically three to five years in editorial, because the editor works at all stages and all stages are much more finely polished and discussed amongst a great many more people. An animation series will largely depend on how many animators you have working and what speed they’re working at.
What advice would you give someone hoping to follow in your footsteps?
Network. Talk to other editors, but also directors and producers and anyone else who will discuss what they do with you. Also know your tech - what’s out there and what the options are. Never let yourself be held back on a creative decision because you don’t understand how to achieve something.
Watch films and television, for you must understand storytelling. Read the scripts of films already out there and see how that translated on to the screen. Read scripts of things which haven’t been made yet for people looking for feedback. Listen to music that you can use as temp on your edits (or just play in the background to set a certain mood). Read books, watch plays - engage your mind in the problems and experiences of others. Learn acting theory, take an evening class. See how characters are researched and developed and apply that to how you treat them in the edit.
My last piece of advice is to remember a job isn’t a job until the funding is in place.
Amazing! Thanks so much Judith!
If Judith has inspired you to learn more about film editing, why not have a go for yourself and sign up for a course? With plenty of different options available, we’re sure we will have something to suit you. Happy editing!