Sunday, January 16, 2011


Background painting for Pochahontas, Walt Disney Feature Animation.

Do you think animation is a bastard branch of the arts––not real cinema, not real art? Do you think it’s great fun to work in animation? Do you think people who animate are crazy? Here are some interesting facts about some of the specialized talents and plain hard work involved in this very complex art, that may change your mind.
    First, most animated films have a script written by a Hollywood screen writer. This script is used by Hollywood stars to record the voices of the animated characters before the animation begins. Then it's translated into little pictures by uniquely talented storyboard
artists to make a visual blueprint of the film for easy reference. Storyboard artists are good at drawing emotion, creating mood, indicating camera moves and angles and they can often pitch an idea by playing all the parts and explaining the technical bits.  Storyboarding, conceived by Walt Disney for the short film Steamboat Willie in 1927, is invaluable for showing producers and crew how the film will look and has become part of live-action feature film-making. It’s a shame the public never gets to see a storyboard pitcher in action. 
    Using storyboard sketches, highly specialized layout artists then make bigger and more precise drawings of the backgrounds, the rooms, furniture, houses, streets, buildings and landscapes where the characters will enact the story.

The layout is then passed on to the background department where artists paint or color the layout drawing. Background art is often long, or odd-shaped, to accommodate pans and other camera movements. 

       Background art painted by Disney artist Gustaf Tenggren for Pinocchio.

    At the same time, characters are being developed and designed, their hairstyles, wardrobe, personalities and motivations carefully researched. An animator gets a copy of the storyboard and the layout, so s/he can see how the scene fits into the film and where the character(s) must move and on screen and what size they should be in relation to the furniture.  Since a pencil line can't act, neither can a nurb or a spline, it’s the animator who has to do the acting for the character. Animators take acting classes so their characters will behave believably. They choose the body language, the way the limbs, clothes and hair will move, as well as the expressions and mouth movements that must match the previously recorded dialogue. 

    Animation is the most complex part of an animated film, involving art, sound, physics, kinetics, dance, volume, perspective, wardrobe, coiffure, makeup, acting, arcane animation rules and deadlines: daily, weekly and the ultimate deadline, the film’s release date which can’t be changed. And, since there’s still a lot of work to do after animation: coloring the individual frames, photographing them against the backgrounds, editing, music, getting the film to theatres, distributing posters, commercials, merchandising, the animators always bear the brunt of the pressure to finish on time because the writers, designers, directors and producers have already taken up so much time refining the script and designs before animation can even start.
    All these departments require many artists, which means that for six months during crunch time, volatile artists are under a great deal of pressure and stress, resulting not only in art, but
pranks, tears, tension, jealousy, conflict, exhaustion and drama.
Excellent protagonists in a perfect environment for fiction, don’t you think?

 Warner Bos. background for a Roadrunner cartoon.


DOT said...

I have worked with many animators in my time and view good animation as very high art. That said, I agree with you that they are all crazy. Like still-life photographers, they never see daylight and are frighteningly obsessive about detail. Bram Stoker, were he alive today, would be animator I am sure.

Nora Lumiere said...

Bram Stoker, animator? I can see that. After all, Tim Burton was an animator.
Actually, I'd like to see a gracefully animated feature of Dracula––lots of good stuff to design there. Tim Burton could do a good Dracula too, with Johnny Depp as a touchingly pathetic count.