Animation cutters shape films from start to finish

Live-action editors will tell you theirs is the one of the most misunderstood jobs in Hollywood, but that’s nothing compared to the image problem facing their counterparts in CG animation.

The impression is that we just cut the heads and tails off and hook it all together, and there’s your movie,” says Bob Fisher, who cut “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.”

The truth, he says, would actually make his live-action colleagues jealous. “As an animation editor, you start out with a complete blank slate, not like a live-action editor, where you work with dailies and performances by actors,” he explains.

In animation, rather than supplying the “last rewrite,” editors almost always come on at the very beginning of a project and can be intimately involved with a film for three years or more.

They work closely with the story team to shape the plot, create characters and determine the look and style of the film, providing input at stages few live-action cutters even see — which explains why “Toy Story” editor Lee Unkrich was a logical choice to direct the third movie (a promotion all but inconceivable in the live-action world).

Using a written script as their template, story artists produce panels for individual sequences, which the editor then pairs with scratch recordings (temp tracks of the dialogue using available voices) to find the approximate pace of a scene and identify what needs to be changed.

With animation, because there are so many opportunities along the way to make changes and make things better, there is often a tendency to take a sequence and completely revise it,” says Harry Hitner, who has been editing for 25 years, the last five of which he’s spent working in animation at Blue Sky, where he cut “Ice Age” No. 2 and No. 3.

It’s so time-consuming and expensive to animate a shot that you want to be pretty darn sure you have the right angle.”

If something isn’t working (a moment that might get more laughs in a two-shot, for example), the editor will go back to the story artist and ask for a fresh set of drawings. He might even suggest a far more radical change, as in the Jell-O mold scenes from “Cloudy.” Originally pitched as a romantic interlude between the lead characters, who sit down on a log and admire the sight, it became a full-blown setpiece thanks to Fisher’s idea that the couple go inside the giant dessert gelatin and conduct their tete-a-tete there.

Once the directors have signed off on the edited story reels, work advances to the camera and layout phase, where a new set of pros translate the storyboards to 3D environments, necessitating further adjustments to the evolving cut. The voice cast also comes in at this stage to perform the dialogue.

They do their lines wild, as opposed to having the actors in the same room and playing off of each other and pacing the scene,” says “Up” editor Kevin Nolting, who must then create a performance from the 20 or more takes of any given line. Since the audio isn’t wed to a visual image, it’s not uncommon for animation editors to “touch” every line in a scene, combining words (or even syllables) from different takes.

It wouldn’t surprise me if you looked at a scene and every line had some kind of cut in it,” Nolting says. “All of our performances are Frankensteined together.”

Because animating and final rendering are the most resource-intensive stage, the editing is more or less locked down by that point. Even late in the day, however, editors can help change the tone of a scene — as Fisher learned during the climax of “Cloudy.”

Boy, if we had a joke here, if we had something to keep this from being quite so intense,” he remembers thinking. And because Steve (the monkey) is always pulling on people’s moustaches, they inserted a bit with him trying to yank the cameraman’s moustache midaction in a scene. “It’s a visual joke, and it’s something that can be done. It’s all a matter of time and money.”

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