PostChat: Laika’s Christopher Murrie

By Randi Altman

Last week on #PostChat, the weekly Wednesday night Twitter conversation about editing and post, Laika’s Christopher Murrie, ACE, was the guest while host Jesse Averna (@Dr0id) led the conversation.

Murrie (@XopherMonster) has been editing animated fare since 1999 while with Will Vinton Studios, which later became Laika Studios. This animation studio, based about 15 miles outside of Portland, produces short films and features… from scratch. Their most recent offering is the hybrid CG animated feature Boxtrolls, based on the novel “Here Be Monsters.”

Murrie consulted on Boxtrolls, acting as another set of eyes. He served as editor on the studio’s other feature offerings ParaNorman and CoralineParaNorman was the first
stop-motion movie to use a 3D color printer to create replacement faces for its puppets. Coraline was a stop-motion film photographed in stereo 3D.  In a sense, Laika is embracing both the history of animation and its future.

Coraline

Editing animated features has always interested me, so I reached out to Murrie.

You are known for editing animated projects. Did you know when you started editing this would be your path?
Animation ended up being my focus in part due to geography. Will Vinton Studios, the precursor to Laika, was doing the most high-profile national work when I moved to Oregon. I just wanted to edit. I was just looking for opportunities to get industry experience and anything at all that I could cut.

My first job as an assistant editor ended up being on M&M commercials and NFL promos. I was hooked on animation right away. I learned the craft working in animation as a result.

Can you talk about the differences of editing animated projects as opposed to live action? 
Fundamentally, I don’t see much difference. In terms of story, principles of visual storytelling, pacing, I don’t think the medium matters much. The differences are more in workflow. Live-action cutting is a reductive process, like sculpting from a stone — you start with a volume of material that you reduce to a finished form. Animation is an additive process, like painting. You begin with a blank canvas and build up an image by adding material.

Live action, naturally, offers more reactive type options — like finding unexpected moments in a performance that inspire new approaches. However, there is always that chance that the coverage may not cut as nicely as you’d like, angles you wish they’d covered, continuity mistakes, etc.

The bulk of animation editing takes place in the storyboard phase. You have as much coverage as you have artists to draw it. As a result, we are free to stage scenes however we’d like. We can reinvent and refine shots repeatedly until the whole scene is designed exactly how we want it shot. If I need a special trick shot, or a tweak to a composition, a camera move, all I need to do is order the storyboards and plug them in. That is a huge upside to the animation process. Unfortunately, those moments of spontaneity that happen in live action aren’t part of the equation outside of the production audio recordings.

But, again, at the end of the day, storytelling works or fails for the same reasons regardless of whether the film is CG, live-action, stop-motion or traditional cel animation. Those are the parts of the craft that really appear on screen. Audiences don’t care about workflow.

How closely are you working with the animators and director on animated projects? 
The relationship with the director is very close. We typically spend about six months doing a first assembly of story reels. That is when the first bones of the film are built and designed. That is an intensive amount of work done with the director, building the scenes, tweaking the coverage, experimenting with structure and pace.

Once we get that first pass completed, we start to hone each sequence methodically to prepare it for production. Over the next six months of cutting, we will begin shooting sequences that are locked while we continue to work towards a second full assembly, this one being the approved version of each scene. Generally, there is another year of shooting once we lock our final sequence. Through all of this, editorial is the hub for the whole process.

Animators are launched on each shot in the edit suite with the director. We get to work directly with the animators to ensure that the shots will play the way we want, and work out how to deal with things like action hook-ups. Stop-motion animation is a pretty small community. Most of the animators I work with, I have known for years. It helps a lot to have the opportunity to build a rapport with the animators over several pictures.

Coraline

If you could give three tips to young editors or those who are looking to start editing animated projects, what would they be?
Learn story, inside and out. Editing is about storytelling before anything else. Animation editing isn’t about finding the story in the footage: it’s about designing the footage you want to tell your story.

Know how to work with sound. Audio is a tremendously important part of cutting story reels. When I screen a full assembly of an animatic, I want it to feel like a film on its own. It should deliver all of the humor, tension, and excitement of the finished product, and sound does a lot to bring the storyboards alive.

Know how to be economical in your coverage, but without sacrificing scope. In stop motion at least, there is a tightrope to walk between budget and schedule that requires efficient use of sets. It means keeping an awareness of how set ups will impact the production floor. Every second of shot footage counts. Know when you need to pull out all the stops and get epic, and when you should stick to simple “same as shots” simplicity.

Can you talk about some of your recent projects?
I consulted on The Boxtrolls for a few months, helping them with a “fresh eyes” pass. Sometimes it helps to have someone come in and look at things cold. They can see the options to clarify or streamline that can be difficult to assess when you have been so close to a project for so long. Since then I have been cutting a different project for about a year that I am contractually prevented from discussing.

What is the most challenging part of what you do, and why?
I think the most challenging aspect to animation is the length of time you spend on each picture. When you are on a show for three straight years, it can get difficult to remain objective all of the time. There is that danger that you might be tempted to cut that joke because you are just tired of it, rather than it didn’t work the first 500 times you saw it last year. That being said, it is pretty great when you find yourself laughing at some gag, or feeling your muscles tense during an action scene that you have seen every day for years on end.

What are you most proud of?
Honestly, one of my proudest moments was wrapping the final mix for Coraline at Skywalker Sound. It was my first feature, and I had just completed a three-plus year journey that ended at a place connected to the first film I can recall seeing in the cinema at five years old.

In a moment I could feel the connection from sitting in the theater with my father, completely thrilled by the experience of seeing Star Wars, to standing in the mix theater at Skywalker toasting my first finished film.

What tools do you use during your process?
I’ve been exclusively an Avid editor for my whole career. They are really the best platform for sharing a project at the scale I work at. I have three assistants and a visual effects editor with whom I share and work with on the same project. I also use the Artist Mix to record automation for mixing and to have physical buttons for activating/soloing/muting. I work with super skinny tracks in the timeline so I don’t like having to hit those tiny boxes with the mouse.

I used a Command 8 on ParaNorman and Coraline, but it has a huge footprint. The Artist Mix is just eight faders and a small bank of buttons — very easy to incorporate onto my desk without it taking the space over.

So how was PostChat? Quite an adrenaline rush, right?
It was fun. I’m pretty new to Twitter so character limit was tough to construct answers for. Just as I think I was getting the hang of it, the hour was up.

Why do you feel it’s important to share your craft with like-minded pros, like the ones that take part in PostChat?
I like hearing about other editors workflows or the quirks of their particular medium. It can be a nice way to break you out of your habits and perhaps discover a new approach to a task, or method. The r/editors subreddit is a pretty interesting place to interact with other editors as well.

Check out the transcript from the chat, thanks to @EditorLiam! Enjoy: https://storify.com/EditorLiam/postchat-animation-editor-xophermonster

 

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