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Angelina dancing on the stage

Understanding Animation

Some of the following stages apply to most productions, regardless of the technique being used to create the animation. However, not all of them apply to every type of animation. This list is as chronological as possible but once production has started, many of the stages overlap and can continue throughout the schedule.

The process for producing animation has the following stages:

  1. Idea, brief, treatment, script, production planning.
  2. Concept Design
  3. Storyboarding
  4. Production Design and Visual Development
  5. Recording the Dialogue
  6. Building the Models, Rigging
  7. Layouts and Animatics
  8. Animation
  9. Final Backgrounds and Colouring
  10. Lighting and Compositing
  11. Post Production
Idea, brief, treatment, script, production planning.

This is the pre-production phase. First, have your idea or get commissioned with a brief. Then produce a written treatment to sell the project, write a script, do an outline budget, pitch the concept and - get a go-ahead (aka The Green Light). Now you can finalise the budget and schedule and start putting your crew together.

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Concept Design

Concept Design will often start during the pre-production phase. This is the first stage of design, doing preliminary work to illustrate both the narrative and possible visual treatment of the project, a time to experiment with characterisation and style.

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A storyboard showing Angelina and friends dancing

The Director will work closely with the Storyboard Artist(s) to visualise the script and tell the story. The Storyboard illustrates the narrative, composes the shots, demonstrates action, indicates camera moves and maintains continuity. The storyboard will be revised and updated to reflect changes to the script or comments from Director, Producer or Client. The more defined the final storyboard, the smoother the rest of the production process should be. Storyboard panels may be shot and edited to a preliminary guide track (see Recording the Dialogue below) which can be called a story reel or animatic. This can become a working reel into which layouts and line tests can be cut as they are completed.

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Production Design and Visual Development

The Production Designer and/or Art Director will develop the style of the production and produce the final designs for both characters and environments. For 2D, model sheets and turnarounds of characters together with key backgrounds will be produced; for Stop Frame, characters and sets will be designed; for CG, designs for characters, environments and special effects will be produced. Much of the design at this stage will be drawn, regardless of the final animation technique, but that will depend on the working practice of the Designer and/or Art Director. Depending on the size of the production, they may be working with a team of artists.

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Recording the Dialogue

The Producer and Director will cast the voices and the Director will supervise the recording session, usually attended by the Editor. Often, all the actors will be assembled and the script recorded in one or more sessions. However, producers work in various ways and there can be many good reasons for recording all the actors individually and assembling the dialogue track afterwards. A dialogue track is edited before animation starts and, if it involves character lip synch, those voices will be pre-recorded to a final production standard. If possible, actors like to see a storyboard and designs of the character whose voice they are providing and it can be very helpful to their performance. Voice over guide tracks will be needed for timing but can be rough recordings which will be replaced at a later stage. If it is necessary to animate to a song or music track, it is important for the composer to provide an accurate demo.

The Editor will assemble the selected takes and produce a soundtrack to length for approval by the Director before the track breakdown is done.

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Building the Models, Rigging

A set mould for stop motion feature Engie Benjy.

From the approved designs, Modellers will translate the drawings and start building the CG models of characters and environments. Before these models can be animated, Riggers will create a moving skeleton or structure to provide working parts and joints that will allow the animator to move the model.

In Stop Frame, the Model Making Department will use the approved designs to build models, puppets and sets. They will collaborate with the director and consult the storyboard to establish how much movement each character will need in order to provide models and parts which will work for the animators.

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Layouts and Animatics

A layout showing Angelina and her friends assuming their dance poses

The first pass at timing is done with the story reel or animatic; in Stop Frame this is likely to become the working reel and there will be no layouts.

Layout in 2D or CG are different processes but, in both techniques, the purpose of layouts is to stage every scene and camera set up. Layouts are produced based on the storyboard and previously approved design material to provide scene planning, camera movements, visual information about character action and backgrounds. This is a very key process which can involve and affect the later work of many departments. The completed layouts will be shot and either assembled into a layout reel or dropped into a storyboard reel. On larger CG projects there will often be two phases of layout, Rough and Final.

In 2D computer animation such as Flash and Cel Action, Layout can be a partly administrative function, assembling all the necessary reference and adapting the storyboard for the animators.

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Animation starts when there are approved layouts (if applicable), designs or models, voice track and timings for the Animator to work with. The Director or Animation Director will assign scenes to Animators who produce the images which, when recorded in sequence, create the illusion of movement. Depending on the project and technique, there can be a single Animator working alone or a large team in which there may be a range of talents and skills from lead animator down to junior assistant. The Director approves the animation or, on a larger project, this may be done by the Animation Director or Supervisor. As scenes are approved, they are cut into the working reel/layout reel so they can be viewed in context before moving on to the next stage. In most cases, Effects Animation will be done after the main animation is complete.

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Final Backgrounds and Colouring

A colour background showing the stage on which the characters will be placed

In 2D, the final colour backgrounds can be produced from the approved layouts onwards. They reflect the production designs and are supervised by the Art Director. In Stop Frame, the sets will have been built before animation can start. In CG, the basic environments are built by modellers before the animation starts but Set Dressing and Lighting are done at a later stage.

In 2D, paper animation is usually scanned and sometimes cleaned up within the computer before being coloured digitally using one of several software packages. Depending on the style involved, some animation is still produced as artwork that is coloured by hand.

In CG the colouring of character and environment models will be enhanced by Effects and Lighting.

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Lighting and Compositing

Big Fish and little fish laughing

Lighting is a very crucial stage in the creative process of CG, dictating the final colour and atmosphere of each shot. Compositing can apply to all techniques of animation and is the point at which various visual elements including animation, backgrounds and effects are combined into the final image.

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Post Production

During the post production phase music will be recorded, sound effects added and the soundtrack finalised. The digital picture is combined with the completed soundtrack as an Edit Master and can then be output either at broadcast standard or onto film, depending on the delivery requirements.

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