Watch: How Do You Actually Edit an Animated Movie?

A new video essay shows that on an animated film, the editor's job is much more involved than you might think.

At first blush, it might seem like an animation editor's job is counterintuitive. After all, everything is planned to a tee in advance: storyboards inform the animators, who then animate clips that are edited in the order they are written. Why does an animated film even need an editor? 

In fact, as a new video from the Royal Ocean Film Society details, when it comes to animation, we should throw out all of our preconceived notions about editing—the process involves far more than what we expect from an editor.

During an animated production, the editor is brought on years before anything is actually filmed—sometimes, even before the director. And the editor's job is among the most critical to an animated movie's life. As Ken Schretzmann, editor of Toy Story 3 and Cars, says: "On live action, you shoot first and edit later. In animation, you edit first and then shoot it later." 

It's the editor's job to piece ever-evolving story ideas into animatics. 

In animation, the editor has a hand in writing the film from day one. Development is an iterative, collaborative process that begins with a group contributing to "story goals," or rough ideas about the movie. Animators then turn those ideas into storyboards; when there are enough storyboards, a rough draft is assembled. 

Pete Docter, Oscar-winning director of Inside Out, calls this a story reel. "The first attempt usually doesn’t quite work," he admits in the video. "It’s like showing a first cut, except we can say, 'Let’s go back and shoot the movie again.'"

It's the editor's job to piece these ever-evolving story ideas into animatics. As Andrew Weisblum, editor of Fantastic Mr. Fox, says, "The whole movie can be rewritten." And on Fantastic Mr. Fox, every single scene was rewritten entirely—at least twice over.

Unlike in live-action editing, which can be a reactive process, animation editors exercise much control over the film, from start to finish. But, as the video notes, there is a downside: after scenes are locked, they are very difficult to recut.

"Why don't we just get it right the first time?" says Docter. "The problem is, we know we're going to be wrong. And if we don't allow ourselves to be wrong, we're never going to do anything new. Making mistakes is an essential part of our process."

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Wow! So much of it. Thanks for sharing this here.

January 14, 2017 at 11:58AM

Dibyendu Joardar
Director of Photography

Hi, thank you for that.

Just a 2 cent,
I will share something in regards to that, for my CG animation film I had created storyboards that were very rough-like and lacking many breakdown 'shots' of each 'main scenes' (just like to give me an idea of what is going on in that scene, not do the whole scene, shot per shot, but just like ok in this scene 'something happens in such location', done (very crude and no breakdown in multiple shots). I wanted to break it down/'to lock it down' in drawing to know how the scene would look like unfolding in several shots...but I thought (time lacking) that is not important for now, what is is 'general crude draft storyboard 'outline'' the quickest possible, you could even do 'stick figures' if you wanted and mix-it with writing on top of the drawings; it looks like a 3-year old's drawing (and a mess) but as long as you get the 'shot info' there, it's all that matters; don't waste too much time on storyboard (if making an 3D CGI animation film, if making a 2D drawing animation film, you can put in more time if you like; almost 100% lock down the shots if doing 2D...not doing 3D animation) I will explain why :
When came time to actually create the film, I thought to myself ok so I need to make a full-storyboard with lots of details and detailed inbetween 'shots' showing the action unfold, shot per shot. This would have taken 2-6 months if drawn realistically (depeding on your drawing capabilities and desire to put-in key details to help you out when your make your film), but then I thought no...I am making a 3D CGI film, there-in lies the difference, I can make a 'Pre-viz' (Pre-Visualization) straight right-away; a Pre-viz is like a rough cut version as a 3D animation of your film, it's crude looking (with low polygon charaters and low polygon set locations, it's like crude looking 'film set' just to accelerate the process and 'animate' your shots faster and get an early 'rough cut' of your entire film (so you can work on those camera angles/placement/movements/character interactions/animations..).
The reason I say that you can skip the storyboard alltogether and make an animation film straight from a written film script text, is that when you make your film you realize many things you could never foresee while making a story-board, things that happen during your camera placement (cinematographying), for example, some shots that you 'draw' in storyboard may not work at all when done in the 3D environment or have to be strongly modified (the essence of that storyboard drawing is 'kept' but seriously modified in 3D previz cut, so lots of time wasted if you are an indie-budget CGI feature like I am with no crew...). For example, I had ideas of big 'sweeping' camera movements, but in 3D previz I realized space was missing on the 3D virtual set and I could never do these movements (camera going outside volume), there were other things that I could not do or now, I could do/just found out; it saved me a lot of time and helped my realize I would have wasted time drawing this as a high-detail storyboard (when I would of not even used them/not been possible anyway; it then defeats the purpose of storyboarding (if you have a big budget production you are lucky, if not you are not so lucky like in an no-budget indie feature with 0 crew, you need to skip this to work on your film instead so it happens 'one day' rather than way so late because you spend so much time on every step : way too long, your full-feature 3D animation film will Never concretize).
Later on, you can still edit your film in editing software; but there will be much less editing going on; because you locked down (to your satisfaction) +75% of the film already has a final version; so whatever is rendered finally looks exactly like your 'final ''edited'' master cut'.

So to sum, go straight to 3D previz if making a 3D CGI animation film, don't waste too much time on storyboarding if you want to accelerate the whole process. You can make an entire 3D animation film out of a script text, straight away in pre-viz (and look as good as any film-based on storyboard, you just skip that part), that is massive time saver. It will look exactly like you want it (like you had in your head, and from the film script used as guide (ex: just write what the camera/character do, write down any detail in writing in script..and translate that in previz - edit your shots there of your 'virtual camera' in the keyframe/timeline right away as you do one shot at at time. Your film will 'materialize' as a 3D previz rought-cut (render the previz or view it/record in the viewport in entirety for 90 minutes), then later you can come back remove all the low-rez assets with the final ones, and make final adjustments to camera angles or 'sweeten' animation of characters/camera movements to increase 'drama' and shot impact/interest). Also, while making your previz, I Strongly Advise to have a Cinematography book with you, and consult it all along, use it to decide/'place' your 3D virtual camera shots and think how your virtual camera should go/do/move/angle etc (you will discover that certain things can or cannot be done (without losing quality), exactly there in previz) will multiply the quality of your film('s cinematography). When making a 3D CGI animation as an indie no-budget film you must accelerate - everything, it will take an eternity otherwise (rendering is Very Long, and everything else, animation films take forever to make); every step you can skip (without losing the essence of the film you had in mind) the more power to concretizing your film quicker. Just a 3(D) cents.

January 15, 2017 at 7:24AM


Interesting comments and process, thank you for sharing! I personally don't work in 3D, I'm only in 2D, so it's hard to imagine not storyboarding to get concepts down-- but you did mention that you roughly sketched the bigger picture ideas, which is what I would expect at the very least :-) My storyboards also look like a child drawing with their non-dominant hand but they have certainly worked!

January 19, 2017 at 1:16PM


Very interesting, and I have found that is just what's great about animation. I am working on a feature animation and while I sometimes storyboard to help get my ideas out, they are not super detailed, and much is derived or driven by the script. when I have my elements in place, then I can play around with camera angles, timings and even insert other ideas that come to me as I work. (as I also wrote the script) so it is very freeing, and rather a lot of fun. Please take a look at my film's website: I don't tons of content in there as I'm busy... animating! Great post, thanks!

January 19, 2017 at 1:09PM, Edited January 19, 1:09PM

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