Jay Wade Edwards | 07.02.2014
Ideally we (indie film makers) would make our living on our film making. When that doesn’t happen, what’s the day job? For me, it’s making a meatball talk.
I fell in love with editing in college and quickly decided that’s what I wanted to do for a living. I started my career at Turner Broadcasting in Atlanta doing promos, commercials, and the occasional documentary. Cartoon Network was one of the few places doing original production and I naturally gravitated toward that. My first project was an episode of Space Ghost Coast to Coast (Carrot Top was the guest). That lead to working for Adult Swim, where I edited for 12 years.
I’ve since edited for the biggest animation company in the world (Disney) and probably the smallest-budgeted animation for broadcast anywhere (Adult Swim). People often ask: What’s it like? That must be a lot of fun! Here’s my experiences with both.
On Adult Swim animated shows (at least Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Squidbillies, both done in Atlanta), the entire crew is maybe 10 people (compared to a Disney show were dozens of people are employed, just in the story board/background/art department): Two writer/directors, two editors (working in Adobe Premiere), two or three After Effects (or Flash) animators, one character animator (for any new guest characters), one background artist, and one audio mixer. That’s it. Doing original production outside of Los Angeles or New York, we had to make-up our own production process that fit the small budgets of these shows.
The scrips for these adult swim shows are looser than most. Not that they’re not well-written, they just leave plenty of room for the voice talent to play around with the lines. And why not, when you have really talented voices? A typical scene is often a Header (INT. House – Day) and then 3 pages of dialog, no action descriptions at all. This is a challenge at times, but most of the crew has been on the show for many years, so everybody is on the same page with minimal explanations needed. Also, Adult Swim shows tend to be dialog-driven, as opposed to kid shows that are more action-oriented and visually driven.
Voice talent for each character is recorded separately, supervised by the writer/directors. Often the script is essentially re-written in the voice over session. Entire conversations are improvised. The editors will get a dozen or so reads for every line in the episode. Sometimes they match, sometimes they don’t. It’s the editor’s job to sort through the chaos and put together a show that feels natural and delivers the jokes.
There are no director or storyboard artists on these Adult Swim shows. The editor works in Premiere (formerly Final Cut Pro) using photoshop backgrounds (episodes tend to take place in the same environments) and QT movies of generic character animation to edit a rough cut of the show. The result is a fairly-detailed, moving storyboard. Excepting for a new location or guest character, no new drawings are made for new episodes. It’s all recycling. For example, Master Shake has three eye positions (neutral, surprise, and angry) and two mouths (smile and frown). Those six combinations are essentially the entirely of animation ever done for the character. In 14 seasons on the air. That’s a tribute to the quality of writing, voice acting and, ahem… editing.
Because the show is put together this way (and often the voices are done by the writer/producers), new jokes, new conversations, whole new scenes can be constructed fairly easily. Once again, the show gets re-written, this time in the edit. Often re-written several times over. In this process, the editor is a lynch-pin in how the story is told, another writer in the room.
Once the show is locked, a QT (and any new BGs, new character animations, etc) is send to the animation company, who builds the show in After Effects. Explosions, bodily fluids, and lip sync are done at this stage. Often new jokes are crafted here. The rewriting never stops. The best idea, the better joke, the weirdest gag, always wins. Even into the audio mix, jokes are added, emphasized, or tweaked.
Each of these stages– the editing, the animation/compositing, the sound mix– take a matter of weeks. The crew is small, the budgets are small, so the schedule can be more fluid. But when necessary, a show can go from recording to final mix in 6-8 weeks.
At Disney (at least in my experience at TV Animation on Gravity Falls and Wander Over Yonder), the process is very different. Scripts tend to be very detailed, with action precisely spelled out. These are kid shows to there’s considerably more action, chase scenes, and visual gags.
To illustrate the vast difference in production processes, on some shows at Disney, the voice actors are recorded and the selected takes chosen in the VO session. The selected lines are given to the directors and storyboard artist for reference during the boarding process. The editor then will get only the one read for each line of dialog in the script.
Before the editor ever starts, the story is hammered out to an exacting place. Hundreds (sometimes up to 2,000) storyboards are created for a quarter-hour show (with commercial breaks, opening and closing credits, the run-time is closer to 10 minutes). The editor’s job in this scenario is more assembly, but no less labor intensive. There’s less story-telling involved for the editor, all those decisions have already been made.
Editors that have worked in both live-action and animation often say that animation is much more difficult. With live action, the sound is at least married to the picture. If someone delivers a speech on screen, that’s one edit. With animation there’s an edit with every emotion, every gesture, that has to be timed. Also with animation, every sound — dialog, sound effects, ambiance, music– has to be selected and placed. It can be a laborious process, especially with an action-oriented show.
The extensive storyboarding and animatic editing process still allows for tweaks and changes to be made, but much less so compared to the adult swim process. Once this animatic is locked, it is sent to an animation company (usually overseas) where many, many hands go to work. The entire process here takes 6 to 9 months, from head to tail.
Both styles of production make for detailed, exacting work that requires technical skill, but also the ability to step back and execute a joke so it lands properly. I contribute my success to watching many hours of classic TV (the Dick Van Dyke Show comes to mind). I also think like a writer or a direction when I’m editing. My indie film making experience is a big part of this.
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