Pixar’s latest effort, Ratatouille, is bound to bring fun to the summer movie screens. Written and directed by Brad Bird (The Incredibles, The Iron Giant, The Simpsons), Ratatouille tells the tale of Remy, a rat who risks his life in a French restaurant because of his love of food and desire to become a chef. His opportunity comes in the form of a young boy who discovers and partners with Remy. It’s up to the two of them to avoid the insane head chef, win the girl’s affection for the boy, and, of course, create the finest ratatouille in France. The Ratatouille characters are brought to life by the vocal talents of an all-star cast, including Patton Oswalt, Ian Holm, Brian Dennehy, Peter O’Toole, Brad Garrett, Janeane Garofalo and John Ratzenberger, just to name a few.
Most articles about animated features are told from the point of view of the director or animators, but being an editor myself, I thought it would be fun to see what role an editor plays in modern computer animation. I was fortunate to catch up with Darren Holmes, A.C.E. on his way out the door for a well-deserved vacation. Holmes has been cutting animated features for ten years, including a stint at the Disney Feature Animation division in Orlando, Florida. Before his departure for the west coast, Holmes edited Lilo & Stitch, one of Disney’s last feature projects at the Orlando facility. Holmes also edited Bird’s feature directorial debut, The Iron Giant.
It Starts With A Concept
It quickly became apparent to me that an editor on an animated feature is much like an editor on documentaries – working actively to develop and shape the story from the beginning. Darren Holmes explained it this way, “I really enjoy working in animation. Unlike a live action movie, you are still developing the script while you are in the editing phase. As you start working with the earliest storyboards, you begin to see which characters really carry the main story points and other characters that might be extra. You can do things like combine the lines of two or more characters into a single character, so you aren’t locked into the scripted continuity as you are in live action.” A typical film starts with a finished script, but animation starts with a story concept. Story artists develop drawn storyboards that become the starting point for production and editing.
Darren continued, “When I get the storyboards, I’ll record scratch dialogue for the early versions of the script. We’ll grab anyone from around the shop here at Pixar and use them as stand-ins for the final voices. In fact, this becomes a sort of casting session, because the people are chosen for who might sound right for the characters as we imagine them. Often, the director likes a person’s voice so well, that they stay as the final voice. On Ratatouille, two of the characters are voiced by Pixar staffers who were chosen from the initial scratch recordings. The storyboards are designed in Photoshop and delivered to me electronically. My first version then combines the scratch recordings, which are edited into a dialogue track, with the added visuals from the storyboards. At this early stage, you start to see whether other dialogue or visuals, shots and even scenes need to be added.” Generally, an animated feature is built up completely from the script, this scratch audio and storyboards before a studio will commit to full production. In the case of Ratatouille, Pixar vice president John Lasseter had enough faith in Bird’s ideas to give the go-ahead at a much looser stage in the game.
Holmes pointed out that on Ratatouille the next phase became very formative. “After the storyboards are edited, you move to the layout phase. This is where the scenes and ‘sets’ are designed in almost a CAD-style 3D format. You literally have rough props and simplified stand-ins for the animated characters. During layout, you start to look at the film cinematically, thinking about cuts, camera angles, tracking shots and so on. Brad had many new ideas that came out of the layout phase, which made the story even better. As an editor, I had a lot of input during layout, which is really different from a live action film. This is in essence, like being involved in the photography. The angles you choose determine what the animators will animate. If a character is only seen from the waist up, the other part of the body doesn’t get animated. Since our hero was a rat, we had to cheat some of the real-world physics in order to get the angles that we needed. Technically, some of these shots would be from below the level of the floor. You generally don’t screen the layout, because it is so basic and really just another version of the storyboards. In our case, so many new ideas had developed that the layout represented more of the action than the original storyboards.”
Along the way, the real character voices are recorded – adding more to Holmes’ palette. Darren continued, “When I get the real dialogue, I can treat that as its own canvas. The actors put a lot of emotion into this and many times you’ll get unscripted, natural reactions, like a laugh. It helps to cut these into the dialogue track and create a very natural feeling, just like actors on a real set. The edited dialogue is sent to the animators, who start to act out how the characters should move and look to match this dialogue. Sometimes they’ll need a little space to get the animation to look better or they’ll need time to add an extra gesture. There’s a real back-and-forth between editorial and animation. It all makes the film that much better.”
An Eye For Continuity and Pace
You would think that a animated feature wouldn’t have continuity issues, but Darren pointed out the opposite, “We have ‘dailies’ just like in live action, except that our shots are presented far more out of sequence then live action ‘dailies’. These scenes are also animated by different teams. Sometimes a scene will deviate from the initial idea and the ‘acting’ changes slightly. Since I tend to be the person that sees all of these shots edited together, part my role is to make sure that everyone is aware of such changes so that continuity matches.” Another interim process – the simulation pass – can also affect continuity. Darren explained, “The ‘sim’ pass is where we add clothing and hair to the characters. Sometimes you discover that the emotion has changed when you see the character in a more complete form. For instance, if a character has bushy eyebrows, you realize that the emotion is hard to read because the eyes are obscured. Fixing this might require a change of lighting, hair or even the animation to get the action to read.”
Much of an editor’s cutting style has to do with establishing pace and animated features are no exception. Holmes explained how they differ, “In an animated feature you have a pretty good sense of the length early on, so there’s a lot less of massaging the whole film to get it in at a specific length. Instead, you spend more concentrated time on each scene. Typically, after the teams have gone though all of the design variations on a scene, there’s one last pass for everyone to make sure the pace and animation is right. If everyone is happy with what they see, a sequence goes for a final lighting pass.” That doesn’t mean there aren’t changes for timing and pace during the edit, though. Darren continued, “The tendency at the storyboard stage is to cut very tight, because the visuals just sort of lay there. Once you start getting the real voices and the real animation, you end up opening things back up so that scenes can breathe. The beauty of computer animation is that to some extent you can utilize time stretching techniques without the need to re-animate a shot. The computer simply re-renders the shot and generates the proper in-between frames to stretch the scene, as needed. In the old days of cell animation, this would have been very difficult and the editors played more of an assembly role. During the mix I had a laptop and Avid Xpress Pro with me at the dubbing stage, where some timing adjustments were made to the track. I could make the editorial changes on the laptop and communicate that information back to the animators, so even at this point, alterations were still possible to improve the film.”
Thanks to Pixar’s in-house Tools Department, all of these assets and versions are easily tracked. Holmes explained, “All of our cutting is done on Avid Media Composers connected to Unity shared storage. Our own software specialists have added a lot of hooks into the application and we use OMF to move information around between editorial and production. For instance, I can add notes to a locator on the timeline and that information goes back to production. If I make edit trims, production will get updates on the new length of the scene. My Avid timeline is loaded up with 24 tracks of audio and 12 tracks of video. I keep all the versions of what I’ve done on levels of the timeline, so I can refer to early cuts and stages of the process – all the way back to the storyboards.”
Ratatouille ran on a very tight schedule. Brad Bird came on board in August 2005 and had a draft of Act One of the script by December. A few of the characters were streamlined through some of the changes discussed earlier, so the first full length pass with a completed script was ready by September 2006. This meant Pixar had less than a year for full production. Darren felt this was a good collaboration with his director, Brad Bird. “This was a wonderful experience,” Darren said. “Brad grasps all the aspects of cinema – writing, camera, sound – and he’s so enthusiastic about all aspects of the process. I think that I helped a bit by passing along that information. The process of creating a feature film is like the layers of an onion. Except that instead of peeling the layers off, you are putting them back on to make the whole onion.”
Just as computer technology has changed the process of making an animated feature forever, the role of the editor has also changed. No longer an assembler of scenes, editors like Darren Holmes are instrumental in many more aspects of an animated feature film. Input to the script, camera and audio makes this one of the better examples of team effort in the film industry.
Written by Oliver Peters for Videography magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)