By Christian Gazal.

Christian Gazal's editing credits include both "Happy Feet" movies, the live action comedy "The Little Death", the documentaries "Sherpa" and "Mountain" and, most recently, the live action animation hybrid "Peter Rabbit".

What was the process for editing "Peter Rabbit"?

"Peter Rabbit" is a hybrid live action animation film, and these kinds of movies draw on processes from animation and live action, both in equal measure. For example, initially we did "story reel process" that we started about ten months out from shooting. Essentially the Director, Will Gluck, working with Head of Story, Kelly Baigent, myself, and a story team that Animal Logic had brought together, developed the story visually and narratively. We would cut scenes together as storyboards drawn by the story
team. They are people who draw characters and angles. They're often charged with adding gags and ideas, and - through Will's filter - so much of what's in the movie, came from the talent of those individuals who have so much experience in realising scenes and adding value.

We would use the voices of the actors that had been cast, and when they hadn't been cast or were not available, we would be using scratch - a lot of the scratch voices were done internally just for speed. The whole idea of the story reel process is about creative momentum - as soon as you can see something put together, you can adjust it and change it and make it better. We just sort of worked hard and fast and as quickly as we could to try and piece together the film so we could assess individual scenes and see how the story was working. That's the classic story reel animation process, but instead of turning the scenes into production - a classic animation production would go down the visual effects route - we were actually going to shoot these scenes.

We had two units shooting - the main unit Will was directing, and then there was a plate unit that Kelly Baigent was directing. While Will covered most of the material with all the actors, Kelly would then shoot around him, picking up the rabbits' point of view. And whilst Will was creating by far the most material, Kelly's material was super important because the rabbits' point of view is, by and large, the predominant point of view in the film.

Once the shoot started and a large volume of material was generated, second Editor, Jonathan Tappin, joined the team. When we got rushes in we would, as quickly as we could, make an assessment as to whether we thought we had the material we needed to move on. When there's two units shooting you need to be super on top of things and we needed to make sure they had collectively shot enough coverage in the scene to make it work. You had to use your imagination because the plates didn't have any rabbits in them. We'd often ask for pickups, and the guys were great, they managed to pick up just about everything that we needed.

The next problem we faced was how to cut a scene together, Kelly suggested a process called 'overdrawing' whereby the storyboard artists start drawing the characters over the live action plates that have been selected by editorial. So either myself or Jonathan would do a first pass on the scene and then we'd get the story guys in to draw the rabbits into the scene, so we ended up with kind of like a 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit?'-looking image where an animated drawing was done over a live action plate. And that enabled us to get the rabbits and the rabbits' voices into the scenes and see how they interacted with the live action characters and work out the edit of the scene that way.

(Overdrawing image from "Peter Rabbit" courtesy of Animal Logic.)

On set they used these scale models of the rabbits so we could understand and see the scale. Every time they did a shot, they would shoot reference of that scale so that when the guys came in to draw them, they didn't get the scale completely wrong and then tie us in a knot when it came to putting the real 3D rabbit into those scenes. There was some detailed information that came with each shot about its focal length and stuff like that which is often super-important so the visual effects guys can ensure that the rabbit will look right when it's cut into those scenes. As we were putting things together the visual effects guys, led by Will Reichelt the Visual Effects Supervisor, would often ask us to change our plates because we hadn't necessarily understood the scale correctly or we had got the focus wrong, or there was some very good reason why it wouldn't look right. And that's not mainly for technical reasons, these are very creative choices that impact theintegration of the rabbits into the live action world, and Animal Logic have an enormous amount of skill in that field.

The iteration of the story continued after the shoot and hence this overdrawing process, as well as voice records continued as we started to refine the film. Will Gluck was always adding jokes and improving the story. We would rewrite and re-record the cast voices and then we'd recut the voices and then recut the scenes. We would always be looking for ways to make the humans and the rabbits interact in a convincing way, so it was constantly reworking the live action material and then redrawing the rabbits to bring the film into a more elegant sort of experience.

Once the edit is developed enough with the live action material, and the overdraws are in, the scene is okayed to go into production. You have to track the plates and the movement and the camera precisely, It would then go into a layout process where we would place the real live 3D characters in the scene – not as easy as it sounds, the animal characters always ended up looking smaller than we expected and that messed with our cutting patterns so we were constantly reselecting material.

How does the Editor-Director-Animator relationship work?

We would then move into animation, and Rob Coleman, Animation Director, and his team along with Animation Supervisor Simon Pickard would then start to animate those scenes. The key to making that process as smooth as possible is a really, really strong relationship between editorial and animation. Rob and I would meet almost daily in order to talk over any problems. If he needed longer to do something, we would give him more time in the edit. And so, there was this whole added element where animation was then contributing to the overall timing, the tempo of the movie because they're the ones that have to get the character to express a certain emotion or move a character from A to B. Also, Will Gluck was coming up with all these ideas and trying to improve and make the movie funnier. We're recutting the scene and sending it back down to the animators. The quicker you can make that process, the better your film's going to be because people are responding to ideas when they are fresh, and it also reduces confusion. You need to keep that creative momentum going so, A, there's no uncertainty about what's happening and what people are doing and, B, people are getting the overall benefit of seeing the film changing for the better all the time. I can't express enough the importance of that for the film.

As long as you keep tight communication with the key people, then the director can feel free to express anything he wants at any particular time or place and that would then propagate out. The last thing you want is the director having to give the same notes several times because it's just an out-and-out waste of time. So the tighter the communication between, say, Rob Coleman, Kelly Baigent, myself and Will Reichelt, the visual effects supervisor, the quicker Will's vision is going to get on the screen and the faster the film's going to keep improving.

I can’t stress enough the value of good Assistant Editors, as far as being able to understand the importance of these broad principles, but also having the ability to apply them in what is a fast moving, technically tricky, information dependent environment with a huge dollop of uncertainty added for good measure. The team brought together by Supriya Naidu-James, and later led by Kaz Rassoulzadegan, were critical in making all this work. They had the experience of live action but also the mental flexibility to deal with animation.

(Image courtesy of Animal Logic.)

You’ve edited animation, live action drama and documentary, do they require completely different approaches?

I've edited lots of different types of movies. Whenever I go into a movie, I go, "OK, what's this? Can I do it? Do I like and understand what the filmmakers are trying to achieve?" Once I get on board, I start figuring out ways to help them because really what you're doing as an Editor, one of the major things, is you're a kind of facilitator. Yeah, sure, it's a super-creative job, but you are kind of trying to find a way to get the film made and get the film in a position where it has the best chances possible. And once you approach it that way, you will naturally fall into a process which gets it done.

The big distinction between live action drama and animation is the live action drama process is essentially a subtractive one. You've been presented with all this material and then our process is finding the film within that material. Whereas the big distinction on an animation is you've started with a blank slate and you're building from that blank slate into a fully realised film. I think a lot of people don't realise you need to have a broader base of skills to be able to edit an animation than you do have a drama. A lot of people may disagree with that but that's my experience, at least. I would say documentary sits closer to the animation process because documentaries really, really benefit from that long gestation period in edit. You find so much of what the film ends up being in the edit, much more than you do in a drama.

Also, mentally you have much less certainty when you embark on a documentary and an animation because the slate is more blank and the tools (the story telling conventions) are wider. You have to be able to deal with that uncertainty and be able to help craft the movie and manage that path to getting a decent film out of the idea that has been presented to you. The storytelling techniques are pretty much the same. I think you need to try and understand the way that stories work the best you can, and just keep trying to learn that through your entire career.

What interests me most is what is the magic behind this whole medium. Capra described itas a kind of wizardry - how does it and why does it work? It's kind of magic in a way, the way you can make people feel. That's part of what enables you to jump from one thing to the next, I just keep wanting to try to figure what makes that kind of film work, and why is that so appealing. When you really do dig down into it, it's often the same thing that's attracting them to a super wide-release animation as it is to a more niche documentary, whether it be the desire to know what happens next, or the experience feeling the emotion of someone's journey.

I've always tried to hold out and tried to do different things. Once I'd done one animation and then I did another animation straight after that, I decided, no, I didn't want to do another one because I wanted to have a crack at some other things, and so I kind of deliberately tried to push myself into different areas. It can be hard because the bigger films, they're much more rewarding financially than smaller films and documentaries. And you've got to be prepared to do that, don't get sucked in by that bigger pay cheque. It's easier said than done. I'm lucky enough to be, probably, in better circumstances than most and, to be honest, that's a lot of the reason why I have the flexibility to be able to do different things. If you do want to do different things, I think you've got to try and find a way that you can have the flexibility. If you get stuck in a niche and you're worried you're not going to be able to do something else, I think you've got to take some risks again.

A lot of Editors have trouble moving between genres. How have you managed it?

​My take on it is if you've managed to have some success in one area, you'll more than likely have success in another because of what I was saying before - a lot of principles at play are the same. It's just a question of persevering and trying to convince people that you can help them get a good result from their project. Jennifer Peedom, the director of 'Sherpa', she was able to see that, thank goodness. I think I had a couple of dramas and two big animations as far as features that I'd edited at that point, and the animations go for three, four years, so you might be working for ten years and you've got two films on your CV. Hopefully you can find filmmakers like Jen and Josh Lawson with the vision to see how you can contribute. I've been lucky to work with some very, very smart people, and probably the secret to my ability to be able to jump around a little bit is they've been able to see beyond the paper CV and talk to me and see how it could work. And it's more credit to them than it is to me.

Christian Gazal and Alison Myers

eNews #86, June 2018