The Production Process of Animation

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Animation is the art of creating motion pictures by recording a series of still images. These images can be created by drawings, objects, or even by people photographed in various positions of incremental movement. But when these many still images are played back, they combine to create an illusion of smooth, unbroken movement.

The term "animation" usually implies creations on video, film, computers, or motion toys (such as flipbooks). However, animated works under ten minutes long that are humorous in nature are referred to as "cartoons."

The Production Process

Different animators use different types of media in their creations. Some animators use conventional flat materials such as drawings, paintings, or paper cut-outs. Other animators use the more contemporary technique of using three-dimensional objects such as clay, puppets, household objects, or people.

Animation is a very tedious process no matter what the technique, because of the brutal fact that there must be twenty-four frames for each second of the film. (That's about 172,800 frames in an average two-hour movie--a lot of work!) This is simply due to the speed of the film. To keep from having to spend all that time for each and every frame, animators often use the time-saving practice of filming the action "on twos" or "on threes". This means that the animator actually uses one image for two or three frames of film in a row, rather than using each image only once.

However, that's only a part of the animator's job. Before he even actually gets to the animation part, he has to figure out the exact timing details of the film. The animator must take the original idea and think out the concept in terms of individual actions. This means that the animator has to decide exactly what action the characters in a scene are going to make, how long the action will take, and how many frames need to be shot to complete the action. Therefore, it is essential for the animator to have the ability to think in terms of incremental movement.

The pre-production work is quite extensive, even beyond what I've already covered, because where live-action filmmakers might improvise on the set, the animation has to be completely timed prior to filming. A storyboard of the concept (sketching the main events of a story in comic-strip format) must be made to guide the animators, and the dialogue track has to be timed to make sure that the character movements are "in sync" with the dialogue. Commercial animators usually work with many people, such as character designers, model sculptors, sketch artists, background artists, colorists, and other professionals. Independent animators, however, take all of these roles upon themselves.

Techniques In Depth

Animated Drawings

Using drawings as a medium for animation is the most common and well-known technique. The animator first creates a series of rough sketches to be filmed in a "pencil test". This helps the animator determine whether the desired motion has been achieved. When the pencil test creates the movement desired, the images are refined by removing the excess lines. Most animators then have the cleaned-up images traced onto acetate cels (sheets of celluloid), by a person known as an inker, or (in commercial studios) by a photocopy process. A painter will then apply vinyl paint colors to the back of each cel.
Puppet Animation

This type of animation, which originates in Eastern Europe and Asia, is created by using three-dimensional figures. The figures are filmed with a stop-action camera, which allows the animators to photograph one frame at a time. Animators move the figures incrementally for each frame, creating the illusion of motion. A slight variation of this technique uses plasticine figures instead of puppets. This is known as clay animation, which mainly developed in America.

This unique style of animation uses people or other live subjects. The subjects are filmed with a stop-action camera in various fixed poses. This is used to make the subjects move in an unnatural or somewhat surreal fashion. This type of animation has been adapted to be used with computers as portions of certain movies. A good example of this is in the movie The Matrix, in which timed cameras would be placed around a person in motion. This allowed swift movements to be slowed down, making the action look supernatural.
Pinscreen Animation

Developed in France, pinscreen animation is a very unusual and rarely used form of this art. Animators using this technique would use a pinscreen, which is a large upright frame containing a white plate. The white plate is perforated by millions of pins or nails, and rollers are used to push the pins inward or outward. Lit from one side with a single spotlight, the pins create a pattern of shadows that are filmed.
Computer Animation

Computers are mainly used in combination with other animation techniques to automate the more tedious, less creative tasks such as shading and coloring. For many years, computers were often shunned by many studios and independent animators, who prided themselves on handmade craftmanship. However, computers are gaining greater acceptance in modern animation, due greatly to recent projects (such as the motion picture Toy Story in 1995) that showcase this as a seperate animation technique instead of a shortcut. In fact, as in other types of animation, computer animators benefit greatly from drawing skills and the understanding of incremental movement and timing.

*more to come*

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