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Expert Tips on Boosting Your Creative Editing Skills

July 30, 2020
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  • 13 min

Can a video editor work in animation? What is creative editing and how is it different from a typical visual narrative? Is it possible to start one’s video editing career without having to spend months in an assistant’s role? We’ve taken a chance to speak to a real expert from the industry to find out.

Meet Scott Winlaw, a director and an editor with over 20 years of experience in high-end projects of a national and international scale. Aside from conventional editing for television and documentary production, Scott had been involved in numerous animation projects – including the recent Netflix feature “The Willoughbys”. What does a video editor do in animation, you might wonder. Turns out you don’t have to be an animator to work on cartoons – and that’s another twist that your career might take if you choose to become a video editor. While working on another animation feature (which is “Addam’s Family 2” – and we’re all looking forward to watching it!), Scott also teaches creative editing at Vancouver Film School.

Read on to find out how animation movies are made, which exercises can help you become more creative in your editing, and what it actually takes to be a good video editor.

So you’re working in animation editing now. What kind of workflow does it involve, and how different it is from live editing?

Basically the process on animated films is that you create your entire movie using storyboards, before you even consider animating anything. When you’re starting a production, you initially have a very small team. One or two Directors, a writer, 2-3 Editors, and 4 to 8 storyboards artists that literally draw every scene in the movie, in simple black and white sketches. While the Editorial team puts it all together by pacing out the storyboards, adding scratch dialogue, sound effects, and music. What’s the reason for this? The main purpose of this storyboard process is to test your story, and plan out how you want to stage and shoot your movie before you spend millions of dollars making it into a film.

Another key factor as to why animation studios use this process is cost. On animated films, there are literally hundreds of people being hired onto these movies. So the last thing you want to do as a producer is hire hundreds of people to work on something, and pay all those people really well, only to find out that your story isn’t very good. That’s not a great business model. Instead with a team as small as 10 people or less, you can work your story into proper shape before you spend any real money. That’s often why Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks movies have stories that are really quite solid – because they spend a lot of time working the story.

This first part of the process, called an ‘animatic’, is where you create your entire movie in storyboards. Once the animatic is complete, your core creative team watches it so they can get an idea of what’s working in the story, and what’s not. As well, you’ll see what jokes are landing, or falling flat, what scenes are slowing the movie down, or are redundant…and you find out which characters the audience likes or dislikes.

After this internal screening, the Director gives his notes and then works with the writer to rewrite scenes, works with the storyboard team on board revisions, and Editorial to work the story in edit until he/she is ready to do a screening in front of Producers and Executives. Based on the feedback you get back from producers and executives, the revision process starts all over again as you address the studio’s notes. Often this process will happen two to three times, with each new animatic taking about six months until the story is solid enough to move into production, being layout, animation, lighting and FX.

So – as an editor, what exactly do you do in animation?

So as mentioned the storyboard artists draw each storyboard based on what’s in the script, and when the Director is happy with how the scene turned out in boards, they pass them over to Editorial to start building the animatic. We bring the boards into the Avid and Premiere and pace them out as we would with any live action scene, and then use ‘scratch’ dialogue, sound effects and music to make it feel as much as a finished movie. Usually we get everyone in the office to record the dialogue, or ‘scratch’ – storyboard artists, maybe the receptionist, or animators, I’ve often played characters as well, as it’s all temp. Sometimes the studio will hire professional cartoon actors, who are usually quite good, and way cheaper than hiring well known Hollywood actors… as once again it’s all about keeping the initial costs down.

How did you initially get into editing?

I teach Creative Editing part time at Vancouver Film School, so this a question I often get from my students. There’s really only two ways to get into editing. One is, you start off as an assistant and assist for an editor or team of editors. Or you go straight into editing. But in order to that, you need to have a decent demo reel with projects you’ve worked on. I didn’t really want to assist, as I was more creative than technical, and I wanted to do my own thing. I put an ad in the paper advertising myself as a Director, and eventually teamed up with an Indie label that had $3000 and a band that needed a video. I wrote the script, hired the crew, and shot my first video on 16mm film and managed to get it onto MuchMusic, which was Canada’s version of MTV. After that, I started applying for funding in Canada to do more music videos. And eventually after a ton of applications, the funding started to come in and  I started directing and editing music videos, which were all shot on film by professional DOP’s so my reel was starting to look fairly impressive.

I tried getting more work directing commercials, but was having a tough time landing any… so I started applying for Editing jobs. I got my first official job in editing at CBC, at a show called “Zed”. It was a one hour Arts & Culture variety show featuring bands from around the world who would perform in our studio, and then myself and the other Editors would cut them, and then we were also making short documentaries about various Canadian artists, filmmakers, dancers etc.…That’s how I got my start. From there I moved on to factual, lifestyle, and documentary series for channels such as History, Discovery, National Geographic etc.

It was one of these series, where I met a producer who asked me if I had ever considered working in animation, as he was heading up an Animation Studio in Vancouver. I knew nothing about animation at all, but it was a feature… and I wanted to work on features, so I took the job. It was my first job as an assistant, working under an LA Editor, who was the lead.

So did you learn to shoot as well?

I’ve done directing. As mentioned, I started out in music videos, but I’ve done some directing in television, shot a couple of pilots, done a few shorts and mini documentaries, and directed a travel/food series.

Would you say it’s important for an editor to have those skills too?

It’s definitely good to know how films are constructed and how film language generally works. Like when there’s a camera pushing in, there’s a reason why it’s pushing in, it’s not just arbitrary. There are certain rules you need to know as well when you’re cutting a scene. In animation, I find having directing experience is really important – because often you are collaborating with storyboard artists, or the layout department about shot choices, so knowing what you need to make the scene work visually Is vital to the process.

How would you define creative editing, and how different is it from usual editing?

I started my career doing creative editing. Basically, it’s all about style. The kind of editing you see in Trailers, in Music Videos, or sports…  like the style of editing I did at the Sochi Olympics. When I started doing the documentary series, that was mostly about the narrative, the story… the style was important, but not nearly as important as the story. As the story keeps people watching, it draws them in, engages the viewer.

When I’m teaching creative editing at VFS however, a lot of it is about style, but also how to create things like mood, or tone. For example, in one of my classes I give my students a horror movie like “IT” and get them to change it into a comedy using sound design, music, and shot choices, and style. It teaches how easy it is to manipulate things – such as the mood and tone, just by editing. Drama to horror, horror to comedy, and so on. It’s manipulation and style verses just telling a story.

What are other exercises that you use to teach people creativity?

Another class I teach is about how to edit an action scene. We watch a number of action scenes in well known Hollywood films, and I break them down, as per what the editor was doing any why.
I then give my students a couple of action scenes to cut themselves – one is really well shot and choreographed, and the other one is not shot well at all. Typically, as an editor, you will come across both types or productions. Ones where the Director really knows what he/she is doing, and others where they are hoping you can help them, as they more or less just shot coverage, as they weren’t sure how to direct the action. So, you need to be able to deal with both of those scenarios. One of the main things I teach in this is class isn’t necessarily about style however, it’s that when you cut an action scene, the viewer ultimately needs to be able to tell what’s happening. It needs to make sense. A film is a series of pictures put together, and those pictures are telling a story, and need to be crafted in a way by the editor so that you can tell what is happening without dialogue.

I also dig into a few stylistic things like jump-cuts, repeating action, and speed ramping, etc. and then let them give it a go on their own action scene. And then I review their cuts and give them notes, like a Director or Producer would in the industry.

What do you recommend your students to watch to get inspired?

I’m really influenced by stylistic films. Director’s like Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Darren Aronofsky, Guy Richie, PT Anderson, Fincher, Danny Boyle, Gaspar Noe, the Coen Brothers, etc. etc.

I often show my students clips from “City of god”, it’s a Brazilian film – I love the style of it, it was shot and edited very stylistically. It’s very visceral and raw. I also teach a class in how to cut storyboards, and my students often don’t understand why they’d need to study animation when they want to make live action films. I tell them – look at “Fury road”, the director George Miller worked with a graphic designer for like a year and a half on storyboarding out the entire movie in visuals, before he even wrote one word of dialogue. Pre-visualization of what you want to create is so important, all of the big studios use storyboards to plan out their scenes, even all the DC and Marvel movies that are so popular, so they are still very relevant. They say when you’re making your first film – don’t use any dialogue, just make a silent movie. It forces you to use the medium of pictures to tell a story.

What was the most interesting project for you? Which one was the most challenging?

Editing can definitely be a challenging and demanding job in general. Remember the Olympics? All of the late nights, especially heading towards the deadline. Unfortunately, it just comes with the territory that you have to be able put up with long hours in order to hit deadlines. That’s just the film business. I’d say the Olympics were definitely a highlight in my career, because there were so many real personal stories about struggle, and perseverance, and overcoming the odds. It was inspiring to work with some of the world’s best visuals, and to have amazing emotional narratives to string all the pretty pictures together. Other than that… comedy is really my favorite genre so working in animation has been a dream come true, as they don’t take themselves too seriously.

What makes a good editor?

I think good storytelling is the key. You have to be good at telling story, or you have to learn the craft of how to tell a good story. It’s not different than when someone is telling a great story at a pub, or around the campfire, and everyone’s listening on the edge of their seat, or laughing the whole way through. You need to do the same thing, but using the medium of film – you need to get everyone listening, and keep them entertained. Sure in editing, timing and pacing is also very important, as they often say if you notice the editing, it’s not a good thing. It’s the invisible art form. But for myself, a good story goes a long way.

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