By Bobbie O'Steen
The accomplishments of an editor can be both mysterious and underappreciated, and nowhere is this more evident than among the editors at Pixar Studios. I discovered their special role in the animation process when I visited Ken Schretzmann at Pixar shortly after he won an Eddie for Best Edited Feature Film in Animation for Toy Story 3. He then became the focus of my panel at EditFest NY; and after all our discussions I now realize how fully Pixar uses the editor’s talents, one of many brilliant strategies that has led to the studio’s extraordinary success.
Pixar began with John Lasseter, the visionary animator and chief creative officer of the studio, who started out at Cal Arts—the brainchild of Walt Disney—where he met other animators whose spirit of enthusiasm and collaboration would later set the tone for Pixar. Soon Lasseter had, he said, “Disney blood running through my veins,” discovering how to create thinking, feeling characters and compelling stories. Like Disney, he was always pushing the boundaries of technology. Disney, and later Lasseter, also developed this idea of “plussing it,” which involved motivating people to always do more than they imagined they were capable of.
After Pixar Studios was founded and Lasseter’s team created the first CGI-animated shorts, Lasseter would realize his dream of directing Toy Story, the first computer-animated feature film. He hired editor Lee Unkrich, telling him that he didn’t want it to be cut like a cartoon, but instead like a live action film. Unkrich said he soon realized that his role as an editor “for animation is much more participatory than editing for live action… Because you’re involved at such an early phase, you get the opportunity to really help shape not just the structure of the movie, but its tone and pacing.” Pixar spent four years completing Toy Story, and was able to keep the bar high, due to the film’s unprecedented triumph.
Three years after Toy Story was released, Ken Schretzmann joined the fold. He had worked on television and features and had assisted editor Jim Stewart, who was now at Pixar working on Monsters, Inc. Stewart needed a co-editor to help him get ready for a screening. Schretzmann told the audience at EditFest that what struck him initially about Pixar was that it “felt like a dot-com company combined with a movie studio.” He recalled, “There was a screening room with ratty couches and people would bring their cereal in and watch cartoons. And everybody had a scooter.” When he started cutting storyboards he “just really took to it, maybe because of my interest in animation. It was fun and different.”
Months later, Schretzmann would experience the powerful work ethic and dedication underlying all that fun. After much of Toy Story 2 had already been animated, Lasseter decided that the story wasn’t satisfying so he shut down production and, in front of the entire crew, pitched his idea for reworking the movie from beginning to end; and after he got through, Schretzmann said, “Everyone knew exactly what movie we were going to make.” All those working at Pixar were thrown into finishing the film with a virtually impossible schedule, and he soon realized that these people would give everything they had for a film. In addition, he discovered that the creatives ran the studio, that it was director-driven. He had also been used to being one-on-one with the director, but for the first review of his cut he experienced a group of people behind him taking notes. He ultimately realized that everyone critiques each other’s work, that there’s a whole culture of honesty and openness.
Schretzmann was initially hired for a month but ended up staying for 12 years, working on Monsters, Inc. as a second editor and then went on to edit Cars and Toy Story 3, which averages four years per film. When I asked him, ‘What took you so long?’ he responded, “It’s kind of a backwards process. You edit first then they shoot the film later. It’s a long haul and for about the first two years we’re in the story process.” After the script is completed, the story artists sketch out cartoon-like boards, which they act out for the writer, director and editor, who can give notes and ask for such things as different angles and other lines. Then the editor starts editing boards with scratch dialogue, which is recorded by any staff member they can grab. At EditFest he showed us a series of edited boards from Toy Story 3 where Buzz Lightyear is trying to escape and demonstrated how he had to repeat and adjust certain boards to stretch out the action, pre-visualizing the real time it would take Buzz to get across the room, as well as pace it out according to the rhythm of the dialogue.
Later, when the scenes are approved, the actors are hired to record the production dialogue. They might improvise, the script might change or scenes might be re-boarded, so the editor is constantly creating Band Aids to make it work. This storyboard process is where they discover, what Schretzmann calls, the “DNA for the scene.” He questions every single beat, considers what the characters are thinking and what he is trying to accomplish in each scene. Then, he said, “When I get into the later stages I know exactly what I’m aiming for.”
Dialogue and vocalizations in general become a “huge part of my life,” said Schretzmann, because he can make a lot of cuts that are invisible. On Monsters, Inc., he had a particular challenge in making Boo, the little girl, speak only in adorable gibberish, since the monsters weren’t supposed to understand her. He ran a particular scene where she was singing and demonstrated how he had to do audio acrobatics, reversing the track, pitching it up and down and searching for bits to create a song with no identifiable words.
One misconception about Pixar is that the actors are recorded together, which is rarely the case. They also record line by line, from 20 to 50 times. As a result, the editor has to invent the rhythm and pacing of the scene, creating the illusion that the characters are in the same room together. Schretzmann ran a heartfelt scene with Woody from Toy Story 3. He then showed the Avid timeline—and added an audio pop for every cut—so we could really see the elaborate patchwork involved in piecing together a line, a word or even a breath in order to create a seamless and emotionally effective moment.
After the storyboard phase comes layout, animation and rendering. Schretzmann ran a sequence from Toy Story 3 where kids are running into a room at a daycare center and playing roughly with the toys. In the layout stage, the kids are doll-like, move rather stiffly and the sets are somewhat primitive; but the blocking of the characters and camera placement has been determined, mimicking live action with virtual cameras on virtual sets. The editor will get coverage, which is very similar to live action. The only difference is that the footage can constantly evolve and change, and the editor can ask for specific shots and camera moves. Digital cameras can also do more than live action cameras, but the editor will try to use shots that are more grounded in reality, and also not make cuts that are too tricky and outside the comfort zone of the movie-going audience.
Schretzmann then showed the daycare scene at the animation stage to reveal how the characters become believable, as their facial expressions and movements are brought to life. Once the film goes to animation, the cut is pretty much locked. The editor can ask for additional shots, for instance, ask them to push the camera in slightly more; but the animation is done for a particular set up, so if the editor wants them to move the camera too far off-axis it may ‘break’ the animation.
Finally, Schretzmann ran the completed stage of the day care scene, fully rendered, where all the hair and clothes are in dazzling detail, everything is lit and shaded and the sets are complete which, for instance, includes the children’s artwork on the walls and saliva from a boy’s mouth. But even with rendering there can be problems that only editorial might notice, like motion blur, a missing item or an arm popping out of the clothes; and even at this stage the editor can trim and lose shots or swap them out.
Even though Schretzmann’s presentation of all the stages was linear, the Pixar process is not a one-way path to completion. “At one point in the film, part of it’s in storyboard, part of it’s in layout, some of it is animated, some of it’s being rendered, while some of the scenes are being rewritten.” The level of detail and perfectionism means that there are thousands of bits of media constantly coming in and out of editorial. “You think you’re done with a cut and something comes in from another department, and you make adjustments,” he explains. “It’s like a living breathing organism. You have to stay centered and watch everything.”
Pixar even has screenings and previews where some of the movie is still in the storyboard stage. But one thing they know: if it’s playing in storyboards, it’s going to play like gangbusters when it’s animated and rendered. As far as the Rubik’s Cube nature of the job, Schretzmann says you get used to the idea of constantly “plussing it.” It can make editors a bit crazy; but it’s also exciting because, since they are working with such extraordinarily talented people, “when you hand off a shot to another department, you know it’s going to be so much better. This built-in culture of high standards makes you so much better.”
By providing a window into the Pixar world, Schretzmann revealed that the editor is truly the hub of their filmmaking team. I also discovered how much Pixar’s fascinating dualities mirror those of the editor. They’re both technicians and artists and visual virtuosos with the souls of storytellers, who are always striving to touch the heart of their audience. As Disney once said, “When planning a new picture we don’t think of grownups and we don’t think of children but just of that fine, clean unspoiled spot down deep in every one of us.” MM
Stills from Toy Story 3 courtesy of Pixar.