Sean Lenihan on Editing Animated Films

Sean Lenihan tells David Jefferson what is involved in preparing a sound- track and combining it with pictures to give a polished result.

“The sound track is one of the most important things in an animated film,” says Sean Lenihan, a freelance film editor who heads his own London based post-production company. “The majority of animated film productions start with the sound-track, because if there is lip-sync animation, or a music track, you have to determine the length and position of each sound before the animation can begin.”

Sean Lenihan Editing do not make animated films themselves, they provide an editing service for those who do. Their involvement ranges from hiring out the cutting rooms for the client to view their production, to providing an editing service for sound and picture from the planning stage through to the married print or video show copy.

When sound tracks first arrive at Lemhan’s company they tend to be in the form of loosely recorded sequences. Often the recording studio find it beneficial to record artists indivdually, especially if the artist is going to do more than one voice, as it is sometimes difficult for them to change voices mid-stream. It is also advantagous to record all the sequences for one character before going on to another. These are edited together by Lenihan to make a composite track.

Sean Lenihan.

This is followed by a phonetic or lip-sync break down. The track is analysed to determine syllables which the animator can use for synchronisation. “There may be two frames of ‘5’, two frames of ‘E’ and so on. The track is broken down exactly as the character speaks. Obviously it doesn’t have to be a person speaking, we have had all kinds of talking objects including boxes and cars.”

Sometimes companies have an idea they need to sell to the client or sponsor, so, a storyboard is filmed and edited together to show how the finished product could look. This ‘animatic’ may be on film or video depending on the needs of the client. “If the production company shoot on film, we edit it and invite the client to view it as a double-head in the cutting room. Then it can be transferred to video so that the production company may sell the concept to their client. If everyone is happy with the animatic it can be used as a working pattern for the film.”
The production company may ask Lenihan to lay tracks for the animatic to convey an impression of the final sound track. He can record sound effects, produce special sound effects with a synthesizer and add reverb and/or echo using ¼ inch tape machines. “It does not have to be a natural sound. With an animated film you start with nothing and you build up a sound track. The complexity of the film determines how many tracks you eventually require. Some films might simply feature the voice, some might have both voice and music tracks, others may be filled with a profusion of special effects – cascading sounds that go on and on.”

Longer productions, such as entertainment shorts or even a feature, may use the animatic as a basis for the timings of the whole film. When line tests are made of the animation they are cut into the animatic to take the place of the animatic sequences, thus it is transformed from a series of stills to animated film with the timing and soundtrack remaining unchanged. When each colour scene is completed it takes the place of the respective line test sequence. At the end of the day they have lots of bits in the trims bin and one completed film. “Some
people like to keep copies but generally you don’t expect to end up with three versions; the animatic, the line test and a final film, the idea is to end up with one film. A lot depends on the complexity of the production. A thirty-second commercial would probably be shot in one go, whereas if it was a half-hour special it would be shot in sections spread over many months.”

Once the animatic has been approved, Lenihan’s company will follow the production through in stages. The animation goes into production and the next time they see it is when the production company bring in the line tests to have the sound synched up. In the case of a thirty-second commercial it could be three or four weeks later. “After the animation is done you can see points where sound could be used to heighten certain actions. We are often asked to add sound effects to the guide track before the production company show the line test to their client.”

When the line test stage has been approved it is traced, painted and shot in colour. The production does not always end up on film. “Many times we are supplied with elements of films which we take into the video studio to optically unite. Although it can be very expensive to do opticals on film there are certain things which can be easily achieved on video, for example: travelling matte.”

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