Why do we find animation so memorable? Animation is a video art form that captivates us from our earliest memories. It caters to an innate appetite for visually pleasing stories within us all. A modern revision of ancient tableau; illustrations sketch out the bones of a tale and our imagination fleshes out the rest. Animation is also perhaps more aptly compared to the antiquarian art form of puppetry, moving models given voice to tell their tale. I recognise the wonder on my daughter’s face as she stands watching a blockbuster Hollywood animation. It’s one that I correlate within my adult life with my own expression on first seeing Vietnamese water puppetry. Accompanied by a visible and magnificent orchestra the puppets played out scene after scene of melodrama and farcical comedy that, while surreal, was lent an impressive pathos and drama by the indelible presence of incredible human skill beyond the stage curtain. And that for me is what maintains the sense of wonder of animation in adulthood. More than the unnaturally vivid palette, the rich music, the anticipation of the unexpected, the truly original story telling for me is the appreciation of the skilled craftspeople executing an awe-inspiring craft.
Animation – Technical and Artistic
An animation whether a feature film, commercial or a promotional video sees a great deal of technical skill meet artistic skill to create a piece of work that could not exist without both. This can be a great source of wonder, particularly with a VFX sequence, as we watch and consider “how did they do that?” With live-action film we can more easily reckon how moments are achieved. How did that car flip over? Presumably they flipped the car over. How did that kung-fu fighter jump on to that tree? Wirework. How did she time that wry smile so perfectly? She’s a skilled actress who embodied a character within a moment and let her subsequent impulses deliver a performance. Or more likely someone shouted a cue for her to do that smile, then repeatedly told her “bigger” or “smaller” or “split the difference” until one looked ok and they cut it in later. Either way it’s easily reasoned if you set your mind to it and this reasoning can allow for some loss of the magic of film. With animation there are so many forms and techniques that create films, in their entirety, from nothing that the magic of the execution remains strong for those of the audience who are not animators.
There is also a purity to animation. The limitless capabilities for an animation company to tell a story means that the imagined and the realised can very easily be in harmony in a way that the limitations of live-action filming can sometimes stifle or at least compromise. The character you write does not need to be played by an actor who looks quite a lot like what you imagined. It is the very character that you imagined, right down to the tiniest detail. The shot that you envisioned reaches the screen, changed only by your whims and decisions, not by how well your location scout or DoP or colourist executed it. Animation is a medium in which control is concentrated.
One animator, or animation team, can be artistically and technically responsible for every movement of every character. Every object and every camera move in the entire animation is by design. Not just how and when they move but what they are and what they look like to begin with. Not only is that wry smile perfectly timed but the whole character was entirely created by the same person/people who timed that smile. They also timed the pulling away of the train that she was smiling out of. And designed the train itself. They designed and gave motion to every other person on that train and the trees passing by through the far window. Guess who designed the camera move that frames a man who looks back at her pleadingly as the train pulls away? They created him and his pleading look as well.
Animation Agency Vs Live Action
In live-action this scene would be the work of actors, production designers, wardrobe supervisors, makeup artists, directors, assistant directors, DoPs, camera assistants, lighting technicians and countless other people. All of these creative and technical roles can be concentrated to a small team or one individual and their animation technique. Naturally this brings a wealth of creative and technical control that ensures a definitive and recognisable style throughout the film. In my mind this must be part of the enduring allure of animation. Animations are necessarily more likely to be an entirely stylised work of art with a signature look and feel than live-action pieces are. Art cannot be wrong, it either resonates with an audience or it does not. Arguably, the more concentrated and focused the execution of the art is, the more it will resonate when it does find its audience. That resonance between artist and audience is where magic lives.
There are many forms of animation, and each has different principles, skills and techniques that are applied to create truly magical video. Each technique is an art form of its own with innumerable styles and applications in the world of marketing and commercials.
Traditional Hand – Drawn Animation (2D Cel)
There is a certain charm to traditional hand drawn 2d animation. The static backgrounds, the stuttering movement and the looping of talking mouths are features that drag me back to childhood and transfix me to this day. While it may seem a laborious process to hand-draw and colour each frame, that process obviously has fewer restrictions as to what one can create. You don’t need a team of people pulling together the necessary elements and technical specifications to capture your story. You just need a pencil. This is the true charm of 2d hand-drawn animation, it is absolutely an skill that lends itself to the auteur.
Pure Form Animation
Traditional 2D hand-drawn animation is a video production method that allows the creator to produce a film exactly how it is in their head. Without ever having to source, collate or shoot any of the actual component parts. It is a very pure form of film with no creative compromise whatsoever. As long as the hand can draw what the mind can see.
The animator will have likely been working from a storyboard with a Director. But the animator physically produces each frame by hand. There is a raw directness to that process that is very captivating. There is a sense of craftsmanship that is present in all types of animation, but it feels artisan or even folksy in hand-drawn animation. It feels like the mother language of the medium of animation. The form from which all others are derived.
Animating Each Frame By Hand
In 2D hand-drawn animation the animator draws each frame by hand. This is not quite as labour-intensive as it may seem. Each drawing is held for 2 frames. This already halves the workload in comparison to what one would imagine it to be. Another early advancement that saved aching hands across the globe was drawing animations using cels. Cels are the name of clear acetate sheets the initial hand-drawn animations are transferred to before being coloured. Another use for cels is creating physical drawn layers that can be stacked to create the composite image of the animation. This is a huge time saver. You can draw a cel background of a shot and as long as the shot is static that background never has to be re-drawn for each new frame. You could draw a cel of an outer space background. That cel can be the bottom most layer of each new frame composition until the camera angle or scene changes. All you’d have to re-draw is anything that is moving in the scene.
If you have two astronauts holding their position in mid-air while one talks to the other. All you would have to re-draw for each new frame is the moving mouth of the talker. Obviously moving facial expressions, a shooting star, gesticulations would lift the production value of the animation. But this demonstrates how layering 2D cels works to more efficiently create animations. As anyone who has taken English exams can tell you, anything that minimises hand cramp is a very welcome technological advancement.
3D Animation (CGI computer animation)
The animation form that we are all most accustomed to in contemporary cinema comes from a technological advancement that made animation not only more efficient but much more powerful in terms of what can be created. With 3D CGI animation an animator can create a digital model of a character or object and use this to create scenes digitally, rather than draw every frame.
An Animated Character
A 3D character is modelled to create a digital sculpture of the character or object. This can then be animated to create any motion without having to create the character or object again. After modelling, the animator will rig the character. This is creating a digital rig of points in its design that dictate what can be moved on the character and how it will move in relation to the other points of the rig. It is essentially a skeleton and the points are the joints.
The animator will pose the character to create a frame within the sequence. The animator can then use keyframes to move the character further along in the pose or movement and the animation software can digitally create the motion between the two points. Imagine placing a car on a road. Then move ahead in the sequence and place the car where you’d like it to be at that point, the software can digitally create the movement of the car between the two points and you have an animation of a car moving along the street, from A to B.
Different Type of Craft
This may sound like creating a 3D animation is all too easy. Particularly in comparison to hand-drawn 2D animation, but it is no lesser of a craft, just different. Consider the car that we’ve just animated to move along the street. In the example I’ve described only the image of the car has moved, wholesale, along the road. However, in reality we need a lot more to happen. To begin with the obvious, we need its wheels to spin.
So, the wheels need a rig of their own so they can be moved independently. The animator now needs to set a starting point for the wheels at the same starting point as the car. They also need to design the spinning motion of the wheels and set an end point for the motion, the same as the end point of the car. That all seems relatively straightforward (I know it doesn’t) but the computer-generated motion will only create one fluid motion between the start point and the end point. Cars don’t work like that.
Frame by Frame
Your car moves off with a little jerking motion. Depending on how kind you are to your clutch, and it gathers pace. It then decelerates smoothly to a halt. So, the animator then needs to manipulate the computer-generated motion at each frame. Aiming to create a realistic trajectory of motion rather than a smooth and constant pace. As this is already becoming a lot more complex than one might have imagined we should now consider that there may be a character driving the car, tapping their hands on the steering wheel, a traffic light goes from green to red via amber before the car stops, a bird flies by, the trees in the background shiver in the breeze and all of this might be happening as the camera passes from the side of the car and rotates around the back of it. It takes a skilled animation agency to create such a complex scene.
Drawn From Scratch
In a 2-D hand-drawn animation every composition is drawn anew. The animator can see where the bird was in the previous image and decide where to move it along to within the next image. In 3D CGI the animation is happening within the world of the animation. There is no blank page once the layers of the scene are created. Rather than drawing the next image the animator is designing characters, objects and their motion then fine tuning until the motion between frames is just right. I’m sure there are just as many achy hands as before, if not more.
3D Animation Models
Another additional consideration in 3D animation is that once the 3D models are created and placed in a scene the entire 3D model remains within that scene. Even when we can only see a portion of it.
If our car is driving down the road in a profile view, we can only see the side of it. But the whole model is present. The animator must be aware of the entire model even when it is not in view. This also means that with the camera rotation I described earlier the animator would design the motion of the objects and then subsequently create the motion of the “camera” to rotate around the models which will have been present all along without being seen.
This is a direct contrast to 2D animation where the animator would have to move each object along its projected route of motion a little each frame but also draw from an incrementally new angle of perspective to create the rotation.
Animated Elements in Live Action Footage and Digital 2D
3D CGI animation can also be used to insert 3D animated elements or characters into live action footage. The lines are further blurred as digital animation can be used to create 2D animations. With similar modelling and rigging techniques to create motion as 3D CGI. Most adult cartoon comedies are digital 2D animation. The technique used to create 2D digital animation allows for the creation of computer-generated motion in the same way as the 3D CGI animation described above and also allows for hand drawn elements to be incorporated also. In the simplest terms the key difference between 2D animation and 3D is the exact difference that you would most readily expect. 3D animation purveys an image that appears to have 3 dimensions, height, width and depth whereas 2D animation has 2 dimensions, height and width.
Motion Graphics, Animated Logos, Typography
You will see animation a lot more than you think. It is used in most forms of video production. Almost every commercial, corporate, promo video you watch will have some animation. Most films will begin with a series of animations. You might not even notice that you’re watching animation but many of the same animation principles I’ve mentioned above are being put to use in some form or another in almost everything you watch – in the form of Motion Graphics.
Using the principles of designing elements – shapes or words and their movement, short animated sequences make up the moving logos that you see on screen as well as any moving text that you see.
Motion Graphics at its core is the art of animating images, shapes and text to create video. As well as creating animated logos or typography to lay over other video forms. Motion Graphics is often used to create videos wholesale. A lot of explainer videos or presentation videos are entirely motion graphics. It is a simple and clear form of animation that allows information to be visually represented in interesting, abstract and engaging ways.
Stop Motion Animation
Perhaps the most complete combination of all of the above forms of animation and the skills and techniques applied for each, is contemporary stop-motion animation. There are many forms of stop-motion animation, but the principles are largely the same. Frames are created in live action model form and captured in camera. The frames are then played back in sequence to create video.
Stop motion characters are literally and physically modelled in the same way that 3D CGI animations are, only in reality. The characters and objects are built around a skeletal structure to allow them to be moved and positioned for each frame. In much the same way rigging is digitally constructed in 3D CGI animation but once again it is a real and physical build that is placed on a real and physical set rather than digital.
The models are moved physically by hand for each frame which gives the hands-on artisan feel of the 2D hand drawn animation. Every element of the scene that is in motion must be physically moved for each frame. In the same way using cel animation with acetate layers works in 2D. However, in this instance these changes are made within the physical 3D world of the animation rather than with a blank frame each time like in 3D CGI animation.
Anything is Possible
The key difference between stop-motion animation and other forms is the reason why it is most like creating a live-action video production. The elements of the production must be physically acquired and created. Teams of producers, designers, modellers, riggers and many other crew members of wildly varying titular skills work together to design, construct and gather all of the elements of each shot and put it in front of a camera. Just like anything is possible that can be drawn with 2D animation and anything is possible that can be digitally designed in CGI animation, with stop-motion anything is possible that can be physically created, rigged and put in front of a camera.
When you combine the illustration and hands-on craftsmanship of 2D animation to create puppets and rigs, use the digital speed and computer processing power of 3D animation in post-production and the physical, in camera, live action of stop-motion then there truly is absolutely no limit to what can be created.
Having drawn back the curtain a little to allow us to have a more advantageous starting point when considering “how did they do that?” the next time you see an incredible piece of animation I feel that no magic will have been lost whatsoever. Understanding the craft of animation a little more should only stir further awe not dampen it. Gaining an understanding of the craft of animation is akin to taking a look inside a mechanical watch. A thing of simplicity with a base function that we understand so deeply as to take it for granted becomes complex and mesmerising when its workings are revealed. Truer still would be to say that animated film is an intoxicatingly impressive craft that becomes more impressive still when we see the intricate workings and loving labour that produces it.
See examples of our animated videos here