Animation making "HOWTO" :)

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Which are the steps used by animation professionals to create a cartoon? Answering this question isn't very easy if you don't happen to know someone that actually works in the animation industry.

Here I've written a quick and probably not entirely complete/exact write down on how usually the studios work when creating an animation film or a TV series. These steps are common in Classical (hand-drawn) animation, while computer animation often uses a somewhat different (simpler) approach, especially using low-end programs like Macromedia's Flash or Crater's CTP.

The "steps" that follows are common for a feature length production:

  1. A draft of the story is written/revised and finally approved for production.

  2. The story is expanded into a screenplay.

  3. The characters appearance is decided, and preliminary characters model sheets are drawn.

  4. Voice actors scripts are derived from the screenplay, and musical scores and eventually songs are written. The semi-final soundtrack of the film is recorded.

  5. A storyboard is drawn from the screenplay: it allows the director(s) to have an idea of how the various takes will look, and to estimate the length of the movie/episodes, the number of drawings, etc.

  6. (optional) Using various techniques (decoupage, low frame-rate and/or simple animation) a movieboard is derived from the storyboard. The semi-final version of the soundtrack with voice actors, scores and songs is added to the movieboard so that directors can use it to plan the actual drawing and animation work that follows.

  7. A very specialized artist or group creates the "layouts" for the various takes. This is a very important step, because it creates the basis on which all subsequent drawing and animation work is done: every layout is a sketch of a single take that shows, with the right relative proportions, all the scenery elements, all the characters' significant position on the scenery, and so on. It's useful for example to be sure that a door is tall enough for a character to enter in a house... ;-) Every element in the layout (the background, every scenery element, every character position) is drawn on a different sheet of transparent paper (acetate or the like).

  8. The work is split between the various people/studios that works on the project. Background artists draw and paint the backgrounds. Meanwhile:

    1. The rough (not cleaned up) drawings for every key frame are drawn.

    2. The rough key frames are checked in a process called "line test": this consists in creating a test animation (using a computer or video equipment) to be sure the animation is smooth.

    3. When the results of line tests are ok (for the director or the main animator in charge for the character) the rough drawings are cleaned up (polished, so to speak) to remove hidden lines, guide lines, dirt, small imperfections, etc.

    4. The work is sent back to the director (assuming he's not "local").

    5. (optional) If all is well and you have lots of money ;) the key-frame animation is added to the movieboard. If you didn't create a movieboard, here you start to assemble a "pencil test" version of the film, adding the still uncolored final animations.

    6. The key-frame animation is sent to the people that will do the inbetweening. When they finish the work, all the drawings are sent back to the director that do a final check (and usually cries a lot if low cost animators/inbetweeners are used ;) and eventually declares the animation final: after this, the coloring can start.

  9. While the works on the various takes is going on, the main studio and the director wait, usually adding the uncolored animations to the movieboard if they have one, and then sending the animation to the people that will ink&paint them. This whole process can be really troublesome if special effect and/or CG images are used (that very ugly 'this-is-computer-this-is-not' effect you see in many TV shows and even feature films).

  10. At this point production time and budget are usually well over ^_^; If you have some time and money left, you can try to do something to correct all the imperfections and errors you can spot. Usually here you can NOT go back and redraw something, only editing is allowed.

Well, all this is for Very High Budget Productions: for TV shows you HAVE to skip many of the steps above. Which ones you skips depends on you, on the skills of your team, on production times and on tools available. As an example, Japanese animation studios usually have good animators, very few inbetweeners, and are near Korean and Philippines' studios, so they can choose to "risk" on the inbetweeners costs. An Italian studio on the other hand have less experienced animators, is expected to use more inbetweenings but is very far from the low cost Asian studios, so a lot of careful planning and "production control" is absolutely unavoidable (lest you wish to end up as the makers of a still to be released Italian film that found themselves with half of their inbetweenings completely wrong 2 month before the release date).

Where do computers step in, in this production chain? The answer is "where you want": if you have appropriate software almost every step above can benefit from some "automation". Obviously, if the automation is wrong productivity decreases instead of increasing.

AniToolBox tries to automate not only the animation and coloring processes, but also the closed, forced collaboration that is unavoidable in steps 8 to 9, where most of the money is spent. We plan to do this implementing a software module that allows you to have an "electronic layout management": this allows you to:

  • distribute, monitor and collect the work of the various team using the internet
  • improved control over the work of the teams
  • more flexibility in how you use the results of your and their work
  • move reusability of backgrounds, animations, color schemesand so on (very useful for serial productions)

Obviously, today all this is only Science Fiction, but I think the basis of this work are rather solid.

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