Sunday, December 28, 2008

"So You Want To Be an Animator"

You love cartoons, you love art, you want to express yourself, and you want to tell stories... You can! Animation is a magical instrument of expression, invented and evolved within the 20th century, looks like living its high times today with the new advancements in technology.

I’m an animation and illustration artist. Graduated from Savannah College of Art and Design in 2004, worked in New York studios for about 4 years, and continuing my career in Istanbul since 2008. I love all kinds of animation, and making movies in general. I’m particularly into character driven stories. Finding out what you really want to do as a job, is really half of the job. The rest is just research and training - which you’ll have the rest of your life to spend on. It took me until around age 22 to figure out that I want to make character driven animated films. It’s never late to learn what you want, and talent is nothing compared to determination

There is a great variety of positions in the film industry, many media to choose from, and infinite styles to work within. An art related background is always better, but not really necessary. You don’t have to be able to draw really good to become an animator, especially today; but being able to express thoughts by drawing in a simple way is something that anyone can learn - and should! I’ll try to talk about popular forms of animation, the jobs associated with them, and how to get into it.

Traditional (Classical) Animation:
The roots of this historically most popular form of animation goes till the beginning of 20th century. Newspaper cartoonist Winsor McCay created "Gertie the Dinosaur" in 1914 over a bet.

Although it wasn’t the first animated film, it was the first project to develop some key techniques of animation that are still used today, and was the first animation with a character that had an appealing personality(*). Gertie paved the way for Disney studio, and pointed the direction that hand-drawn animation would follow for decades to come.

In a traditionally animated cartoon each frame is drawn by hand. Movies in USA run 24 frames per second, so 24 pictures needed to be drawn to create the 'persistence of vision'. Because animation requires an intense level of labor, high production costs, and lots of time, animating with 12 frames per second is widely used by lower budget projects. In 12fps films, each drawn frame is duplicated to reach the 24fps running speed. Going below 12fps usually creates jerky motion, where it gets less pleasing to look at and harder to understand for the viewer.

Later TV animation (limited animation that is) used this cheaper method for the series. In college, I heard once that some episodes of The Flintstones were animated on 6fps at the time! In traditional animation backgrounds are drawn once, character animation is drawn on paper over the backgrounds; the animation is then transferred to cels (a clear sheet of plastic) by inking or photocopying, to be colored by other artists.

For the past few decades computers moved into many areas of production, and eliminated the painstaking coloring process primarily. Today almost no one uses cels, and animation is transferred (scanned, photographed) to digital platform to be painted by a software.

Older techniques like multi-plane backgrounds are also handled within the computer software. In traditional animation the variety of job positions are roughly as follows: Director, Storyboard Artist, Animators, In-betweeners, Inkers, Colorists, Production Designer, Layout and Background Artists.

This form of animation is the one that requires the greatest fine arts skills. People who want to do traditional animation should improve their skills in one of these areas: Drawing, Tracing, Painting, Design. Although it dominated the market for a century, classical animation projects are getting harder to find these days.

With the help of computer technology drawing skills are not really necessary, the job positions are varied much more, and the visual outcome is more fulfilling when two production times are compared. No need to mention that computers generate much of the job after setting up the parameters right; such as lighting, coloring, effects, in-betweening (tweening/morphing) and etc...

Stop Motion Animation:
In stop motion animation objects are physically manipulated to create the illusion of movement. Each small movement is photographed individually to create the animation when played as a sequence.

Clay models containing a skeletal structure inside (wires/armatures) are one of the most popular puppet types for stop motion animation; a technique referred to as claymation.

The term stop motion contains a wide range of styles and media such as: Cut-out animation (pieces of cut and painted paper are moved to deform the shapes), Pixilation (each small human movement is photographed individually, instead of being recorded real time), Pinscreen animation (a flat board with equidistant pins sticking out of holes, pins are moved in and out to create shapes on the board), Strata-cut animation (uses similar materials with claymation) and etc... Wikipedia did`t, but I’d add Sand animation to that list too. Where shapes from sand on a backlit or frontlit screen is moved around, and photographed.

In the beginning, it’s likely that stop motion was used more for the special effects scenes of a movie, rather than being the primary technique of the film itself. Creation of fictional or prehistorical characters to be superimposed over live action footage, such as the early King Kong and dinosaurs, were the most popular uses of the technique; however, soon the medium took on itself and formed one of the most popular types of animation till today.

A few general problems in stop motion animation are creating motion blur for a fluid movement on screen during fast moves, strobing issues, gravity, and effects animation like smoke - water - snow and etc. As each type of animation, stop motion has its advantages and disadvantages over its rivals. A good lit scene can have a photorealistic quality, which would be extremely difficult and inconvenient to create in traditional animation.

However, in traditional animation the animator can deform the subject in any way on paper to fulfill basic animation principals, like, squash and stretch. Another thing to tackle when doing stop motion is that the use of key frames is almost impossible; the animation needs to be shot in a sequential manner, which requires extra planning. The job positions for stop motion films are roughly as follows: Director, Storyboard Artist, Sculptors, Dressers, Animators, Set Builders, Cameraman, Production Designer...

Computer Animation (CGI):
CGI refers to the general term computer generated imagery, which contains the sub topic computer animation. The use of 2D computer animation in movies goes back until 1973’s Westworld, and computers made a solid appearance using 3D (wireframe) graphics in the 1982 movie Tron. Computer animation in essence, is the digital successor of stop motion animation, and frame-by-frame animation of 2D illustrations (*).

The difference between 2D and 3D computer animation is that in 2D, images are created on a virtual plane represented by the (x,y) axes of the Cartesian coordinate system; where in 3D, images are created in a virtual space represented by the (x,y,z) axes of the Cartesian coordinate system. In 2D, (x-horizontal) and (y-vertical) values are used to determine the position of a point (vertex) on the virtual plane; and the points form the flat shapes eventually, much like connecting the dots. In 3D, (z) axis is added to the equation to determine the depth value in the virtual space; and points form the volumetric shapes eventually.

Visual representation of 3D objects/characters (models) on the computer screen is constructed by the edges that connect the points (vertexes), and neighboring edges form the faces known as polygons to create the surface area of the shape. This underlying structure of a model is known as a mesh or a wireframe.

Computer animation is the most successful to replicate real world physics so far. For that, creating 3D animation on the computer is much like shooting a live action movie: You have a virtual space where you can start building your sets.

Characters and other objects are modeled much like sculpting virtual clay, starting from basic shapes and detailing towards the target shape progressively. A skeletal system is built inside, and bound to moving objects and characters with a method known as rigging. Controllers added to the moving parts of the rig, so that the animators will only deal with them instead of manipulating the actual skeletal structure.

In organic models these rigs look very much like the creature’s skeleton in real life. Virtual cameras and different types of light sources that imitate their real life counterparts are introduced to the set. Bare models are dressed with a technique known as texturing, in order to define their color, material, and surface qualities. There is a linear timeline representing each frame of the film, and models are posed with key frames and breakdowns on the timeline.

Computer then generates the images in between those keyed-poses of the object or character. Lights and cameras can be animated as well; and dynamic calculations can be used to imitate natural phenomena like snow, rain, smoke, eruptions and other types of natural/artificial effects. A strong understanding of physics, art, and computers is essential to good quality computer animation. In no other medium so far, science and art have been so closely intergated with each other.

It may take several years to grasp control over the technique, but it presents limitless opportunities for visual production as a result. Since the first feature length CG movie, Pixar`s Toy Story (1995), many animation studios around the world shifted their production towards computer animation. CGI is likely to dominate the market for years to come, although other types of medium are likely to survive by enthusiasts.

People who want work in computer animation projects should improve their skills in one of these areas: Animating, Modeling, Lighting, Texturing, Rigging, Programming, Drawing, Painting, and Design. The job positions in this field are roughly: Director, Storyboard Artist, Animators, Modelers, Texturers, Lighters, Riggers, Technical Directors, Character Designers, Compositors, Production Designer...

The essence of every motion is transformation. In animation, transformation refers to three different actions of a shape: Move, rotate, and scale. More complex animation will include complex deformations of the shape and its parts. In animated movies the production revolves (or at least it should) around the animation. Backgrounds, lighting, color, texture; even sound is usually there to support the animation.

This fact was understood better in the early days, when artists were dealing with drawings or puppets. Introduction of computers blurred the line between visual effects for movies, motion graphics, and animation for cartoons. Hyper level of realism it provides for perspective, color, light, texture, dynamics; and interactions of these within the scene over time can be a tricky eye-candy, as well as being spectacular imagery.

Footage that have pleasing CG imagery, but poor animation quality may have the power to impress the audience at first look; though, in comparison, films that have simpler visual quality but better animation are more likely to become timeless pieces (this is more a personal point of view than a proven fact). And of course, story is the most important thing in every film.

The question is, what makes good animation? What makes it captivating and memorable? Personality... But what is that personality really, how is it achieved? Well, pioneers Frank and Ollie already explained that... I`d recommend every cartoon lover to read the bible of animation: "The Illusion of Life - Disney Animation" by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, if they really are in love with the art form, and want to reach higher grounds in the field...

Research on computer animation also bred the Motion Capture technology, where the movement of an actor -wearing a special suit with sensors attached- is recorded; this motion data is then transferred to the character in the computer. Where this may create very realistic motion quicker than actually animating the character, it may kill the means of expression which is essential to the art form (in a spoof video at YouTube with the title CalArts Producers` Show Intro - 2007, pioneers of animation mocks this situation perfectly:

A similar technique known as rotoscoping is used in traditional animation -sometimes to reduce the intense labor of animating- by drawing over prints of live action footage. However, it never managed to replace the primary technique for cartoons. Motion capture and rotoscoping can be the best way to approach some particular projects; especially when imitating real life situations, and incorporating characters that are not really there into live action footage (think of Peter Jackson’s King Kong). But this usually falls under the category visual effects.

Overuse of these techniques, especially in cartoons, may sometimes help reduce production costs, but can never fill in the place of animation. Because the essence of good/expressive animation is also the shapes, as well as timing and spacing; and the magic of animation is in its power to show us what we can not see in real life. To be able to capture that, research, testing and improvisation is a must...

Various techniques of animation can be combined to create unique effects. This experimental approach is quite popular between independent artists and in short films especially. CGI may have great visual quality in result, but other techniques certainly have their own value and charm coming form their hand-made nature.

Plus, one can always make a better judgment by also considering how the artist reaches an outcome, rather than solely looking at the outcome. It’s easier for a beginner artist to concentrate self-improvement in a particular area of the production, such as, the animation, or the modeling, or the backgrounds, or etc. Especially in computer animation, artists can be eager to learn multi disciplines, since it is possible for one person alone to create a production quality film.

These artists can find jobs under the title generalists, work independently as freelancers, as well as concentrating in a particular area more than the others in order to find jobs. The tools, the softwares, the styles to choose from can be really difficult and confusing. But let me assure that one doesn’t need to know everything, or all of the software packages. A lot of successful artists learn only what they feel comfortable with, and push their skills towards that direction to create stunning work.

There is no one way to reach a goal in animation, especially in computer animation, but infinite ways! The trick is to work and research hard, to discover your own methods, to create your own solutions for problems, and to try perfecting these rather than putting your hands on everything.

Talent is controversial, persistence is essential, and hard work always pays in the end...

(*) is used extensively as a resource for this article.

Jeff Treves (


  1. You have a very informative article here... It's really amazing how animation has changed over the years and it would certainly be interesting how it would evolve in the years to come...

  2. Wow! What a well written article. Jeff has a excellent understanding of art-of-the-future. I find it relevant to the music culture of the last 500 years. With out uncoventional artist like Jeff the future of Media and art in general looks very dark.


What's on your mind creative genius? Abstrakt Designs wants to know.


recent articles