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How Four Animated Oscar Contenders Made the Cut for Disney, Laika and Illumination

The editors for "Zootopia," "Moana," "Kubo and the Two Strings" and "Sing" discuss cutting animation strategies.

“Zootopia”

Animation

Editing animated features is very different from live-action.

Not only does it take several years of iterative fine-tuning, but the major studios (Pixar, Disney, DreamWorks, Illumination, Blue Sky and Sony) also like to discover the movie and workshop it through story reels.  And, with “Zootopia,” “Moana,” “Kubo and the Two Strings” and “Sing,” there were a host of editorial challenges in dealing with prejudice among predators and pray, saving a Polynesian island and restoring its culture, a Japanese boy discovering his samurai heritage and putting on a talent contest and saving a theater.

“Zootopia”

Disney’s zeitgeist-grabbing frontrunner actually hit a narrative snag until the filmmakers flipped protagonists from Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), the hustling fox, to Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), the hopeful cop. “These films are really organic and it gets to a point where the film tells you what it wants to be,” editor Fabienne Rawley told IndieWire. “And when Judy became the main character, everything fell into place more easily.

READ MORE: How the Body-Switching ‘Your Name’ Became an Animated Oscar Contender

One of the hardest scenes occurred when Judy returns to her apartment after Nick insulted her. “It was initially a very sad scene and we felt empathetic towards Judy,” Rawley said. “It was very hard to transition out of it into a scene where you want to be excited for her. So we looked at the scene and changed the tone completely by making it comedic, having her listen to one sad song after another on the radio and making fun of her sadness.”

A more challenging moment happened when Nick confronts Judy when her hidden prejudice comes forth: “It’s such a delicate subject and you want to be compassionate to both characters, and you want the audience to feel sad that this fantastic relationship is breaking apart,” Rawley added.

Moana

“Moana”

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

“Moana”

Disney’s other contender, which introduces a badass Polynesian heroine, had trouble finding tension between Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) and her demigod sidekick, Maui (Dwayne Johnson). “In one version, Maui was so unlikable that we thought this girl should just kick him off the boat,” editor Jeff Draheim (“Frozen”) told IndieWire.

“In another, she was so annoying that you wanted Maui to throw her off the boat. And part of what helped us is that we found scratch actors early on that brought the humor to Maui and the youthful energy to Moana,” he continued.

Another challenge was when Moana confronts the lava monster, Te Kā. “It was hard keeping the tension going but also having this moment between our protagonist and our villain mean something in an emotional way,” Draheim added. “Tapping into the emotion throughout was important, and it helped having John Lasseter come in once every week or two to make sure every scene was driven by what Moana was going through.”

“Kubo and the Two Strings”

“Kubo and the Two Strings”

Laika’s stop-motion Japanese fantasy definitely had its character challenges, but hey didn’t just involve the eponymous samurai hero.

“It was a real high-wire act to get tone right, particularly Monkey (Charlize Theron),” editor Chris Murrie told IndieWire. “She’s the heart of the film and there’s a lot of hidden aspects to her character. It was tough to get the performance just right, balancing it so that she can be stern, tough and sort of emotionally cold but not to the degree that the audience just rejects her. You want to be there with Kubo fighting for her love and when it’s earned, you feel satiated.”

Although there was plenty of thrilling action to cut (with the giant Skeleton and the exotic Moon Beast, among others), Murrie got the most pleasure working on such tender scenes as the one on the beach early on between Kubo and his mother.

“I love quiet character moments,” Murrie said. “They’re a lot more challenging because they’re so still. All the weight has to be carried by the vocal and facial performance. You have to take bigger risks. You have to trust the storyboards more, the voice acting more. There’s more discovery.”

“Sing”

“Sing”

With Illumination’s big, sprawling musical extravaganza about a talent contest, there were several contestants and impresario Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) to contend with narratively. Fortunately, live-action writer-director Garth Jennings honed a solid script for three years and the musical and dramatic beats were spread out nicely.

READ MORE: How They Animated ‘Sing’ With a Live-Action Vibe Like ‘The Commitments’ — Video

“We achieved something pretty well-balanced,” editor Gregory Perler told IndieWire. “It was easy to lose sight of Buster a couple of times but when you choose to emphasize one person, everyone else gets slighted a little bit. The temptation in animation is that every scene starts and every scene ends. It’s a hard thing to argue against, but Garth made my job as an editor easier by starting a scene as late as possible and getting out as early as possible.”

Even so, the third act got changed for the better, making it a larger finale than just winning the talent contest. “Garth and [producer] Chris Meledandri came up with this other idea. And that had to do with difficult seeds that were going to be sewn during the hand-off from act two to act three. And they were right — it was very moving,” Perler said.

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