Animation: What You're Getting Yourself Into

In this day and age it is obvious that three-dimensional CGI (Computer Graphics Interface) animation is close to--if not already--reigning supreme over all other cartooning media. But what about those classic two-dimensional pencil and ink films most of us grew up with? It seems that, even though there are still quite a few wildly popular hand-drawn cartoons on television, the process in full is still very much a mystery to most people.

If you have ever wondered how extensive, intensive and time-consuming it was for the Disney to produce high-quality work for movies like Beauty and the Beast; you're going to get a good, albeit brief look into what it took and still takes to make these formerly stagnant characters come alive.

With popular styles like anime cel-shading taking the Internet by storm, there is a more common awareness to the conventional cartooning process then there ever was. You're probably sensing a "but" coming, and you're right! But terms like "exposure sheet" and "leica reel" would probably result in you looking at a person with a puzzled look on his or her face if you were to ask what those things were.

The most little-known processes in creating an animated cartoon are actually some of the most crucial. So sit back, relax and enjoy some informative insight.

Step 1: Script

Yes, believe it. Animation studios have always had their own respective and dedicated story departments. They pretty much had to, as science has proven that it is indeed rare for animators themselves to pull good gag ideas out of the blue. So the story-men (up until the point of there being women in the mix) would gather in a room, which wasn't very generous in size and reeked of cigar smoke and whisky.

It was in these cramped quarters that the writing team would brainstorm ideas and basically throw them at one another. This would continue until there was complete agreement on the plot of the cartoon.

Once the script was typed up, finalized and given the seal of approval, the second step of the pre-production process would commence: storyboarding.

Step 2: Storyboarding

Don't let those Matrix concept pieces fool you; most storyboard drawings aren't even close to being immaculate works of art. On the contrary, actually; the comic-strip like plans are very often quickly done as rough sketches. The idea here is not to emulate Michelangelo; it is to get on paper the script in the form of images. As long as the animators, layout artists and other production crews can decipher it, it's mission is accomplished.

In addition to what is to be drawn by the rough animators, dialogue for voice actors and instructions for the camera operators are also drafted down in the storyboarding session.

Once completed, it becomes a lot more apparent to each team what their role for the project is.

Step 3: Animatic

An animatic (formerly known as a leica reel) is essentially a filmed progressive sequence of images, which have been significantly elaborated from the storyboard. What it also accomplishes, in addition to describing the story in greater visual detail, is a better feel of character movement and camera pans.

Step 4: Layout

Layout in the industry is another way of saying background; well, not quite. There's a complexity involved for the people in this department, just like in any other.

Not only do these talented painters have to sketch up what many people would say is a static background; they are truly creating the environments the characters will inhabit. And not only behind Fluff the Cat or Betsy the Kleptomaniac, but also objects in the foreground and across the room or forest. Every tree and flower that surrounds the character or characters must be painstakingly placed in what will be the final draft. Even with the storyboard before it, elements change during making the film; the placement of a tulip a stump or even Fluff or Betsy will be scaled up exactly.

Ultimately, it is the layout artist's job to give off a better illusion of the characters actually being in the drawn surroundings.

And last but absolutely not least: It is also generally expected of this department to utilize cinematographic methods and techniques for what will be the final placement of characters and objects against the background, and also their movement within the environment.

Step 5: Exposure Sheet

Ready to animate? Not so fast! Chances are that, if the characters will be moving, they will be speaking as well. So it would make perfect sense that Betsy's or Fluff's mouths would lip-sync to the words recorded by the voice actors.

This is where the exposure sheet comes in; it is to calculate a character's mouth movement and amount of frames each syllable requires. Of course, the timing and frame amount relies heavily on the speed of the syllable in question and how fast the character talks.

Step 6: Animation

While the layout artists clean up the pencil backgrounds and the voice recordings are done, people responsible for the initial frame-by-frame sketches to bring Betsy and Fluff to life are ready to work. Some would think that Betsy's animator does every frame of her pony-tail or Fluff's his cheeks. If that were true, longer films would never get finished. What is done in studios like Disney is that the main animator does the extreme poses, and assistants--called in-betweeners--draw frames in between.

Step 7: Color

This is self-explanatory; whilst a grueling task in itself, it doesn't take too much to describe. Once the line-art is cleaned up and traced onto celluloid sheets (where the infamous "cel" term stems from, although it has been replaced with acetate) steady-handed colorists give the final luster to the characters.

Once the backgrounds are finalized, each cel is placed on the background one-by-one and shot under a camera. The clear plastic is important as once against the layout the only thing visible are what's been painted.

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