Thanks to the Gods of Saturday Morning, several generations of kids have been raised on an exciting round of animated TV programs. No child alive is not intimately familiar with cartoons. I was, myself, largely drawn to the old Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies put out by Warner Bros. in the 1940s, and rerun on TV in the 1980s. I think the old shorts are still being run here and there on entire cable networks devoted to animation. And when I wasn't giggling at Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck, I was grooving to crappy animated programs like Transformers and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe which were both sponsored by toy companies, and features only the most rudimentary of action thrills for my sugar-saturated mind.
One of the first feature films I remember seeing in a theater was Walt Disney's Pinocchio (1940). I don't recall much of the story, but I remember Jiminy Cricket (voiced by Cliff Edwards), and I remember being utterly terrified when the island of naughty boys began to magically transform into donkeys. Are we not men?
As I grew, I refused to give up on my cartoons, and continued to watch Saturday Morning fare into high school (no, I was not a cool kid). But my interest in the form did, thankfully, become more sophisticated as the years passed. And I can now offer you, my dear and loyal readers, a scholarly look at the form, and offer what knowledge I have on the making of animated feature films. Welcome back, then, to CraveOnline's weekly Free Film School, wherein I, Witney Seibold, your humble professor-like being, will impart piece-by-piece all of my film knowledge to you, hoping to get you to grow from a casually interested film fan into a legitimate film snot who dominates conversations at parties.
Animation, as we have likely all come to realize, has actually become something of a dominant art in recent years. Computer-generated imagery, or CGI, has not only been used to create entire feature films, but is leaned upon heavily to create all manner of special effects. These days, it's likely that most of the explosions, crumbling buildings, slimy monsters, and even certain stuntpeople have been created using CGI. Indeed, the reliance on CGI to create images in live-action films has reached the point where old school genre fans begin to reminisce when practical special effects were ubiquitous and more convincing. This is a subject I already covered in the Free Film School before.
But, for much of the filmmaking process, films animated using CGI and films animated in the traditional frame-by-frame style actually cleave kind of similar. Let me take you through the steps now.
STEP ONE: Writing. Like any film, an animated film starts with a screenplay. Thanks to the animated form, just about any visuals can be realized. There is no need to worry about what's possible with a camera. If you can draw it, it can be in an animated film. The “camera” in an animated film can dip and swerve and go anywhere the director wants. In traditional cel animation, changing perspective on an entire scene can be hard; it's easier to render something like that in CGI. I'll get to “cels” in a minute.
STEP TWO: Character design. This can be done before or after the voice-recording step (see below), but a team of artists will, using traditional paints, pens inks, and paper, design the look of the character. Some characters will go through several iterations before a final look is selected by the film's director. Characters are never designed using CGI. They are always sketches first. The character designers will also come up with a character sheet for each and every character, detailing the various extreme expressions each one has. They'll have a “happy” drawing, an “angry” drawing, etc. Since hundreds of animators will end up working on the film (sometimes even being shipped to other animation studios overseas for some of the manual labor), it's important that they each know exactly how each character looks. If there are standardized character sheets, one can be assured continuity in the look of your talking rabbit, even when that look is in the hands of hundreds. Occasionally, you'll come across a cartoon that wants to rattle this standardized system, and do more original, free-hand animation (see: The Ren and Stimpy Show). When a character deviates from their model sheet, it's called “going off-model.”
Characters can only move so far in most animated films, provided the director wants them to look like they have real weight; characters should only be able to squash and stretch their faces so far, right? The term for this form of squash-and-stretch design is actually “squash-and-stretch.”
In a CGI film, often a 3-D clay model will be sculpted to give the computer animators an idea of how it will look in the 3-D space within the computer. CGI allows for the quick change of perspective on an image, so how it looks from all angles is important.
STEP THREE: Voice recording. Actors are selected for their voice talents. The entire script is then typically recorded in its entirety. For most animated feature films, actors are recorded at different times, and their lines are edited together. Some animation directors prefer the naturalness that comes with organic acting techniques, and may record all the actors in the room together, going over entire scenes. Actors stand in front of individual microphones, and usually read directly from their scripts. There is little in the way of improvising, although Robin Williams was a big exception when he played the genie in Aladdin.
STEP FOUR: The storyboard. Storyboards are used for practically all films. A storyboard is essentially the film's script laid out in a hand-drawn, epically long comic strip. Every camera angle and edit is ultimately selected during the storyboarding process. These are especially important for animated films, as the storyboard drawings will stand as direct models for the ultimate final drawing. In most live-action films, the storyboard can be as simple as a rough sketch, giving crewmen and cameramen a rough idea of what the scene is going to look like. In some making-of documentaries on your DVDs, you may have seen the film's director standing at a wall of papers, rearranging them. This is the storyboarding process in action.
STEP FIVE: The animatic. An animatic is the word used for the first sort of rough cut of the animated film. Once the final storyboard has been proposed, animators will then photograph (or scan) them, a voice track will be laid down, and the director will be able to see just how the final film may look. There is not much proper frame-by-frame animation in the animatic, but it does give a sense of timing, how jokes or action may flow within a scene. Since animation is such a labor-heavy process, and redoing certain scenes is much more complicated than simply turning on a camera, it's important to keep close tabs on what's being done so you don’t have to make big changes later. The animatic is a glimpse at the final product.
STEP SIX: The timing sheet. This is a piece of hard work that few people give any thought to, but it's vital to all kinds of animation. The timing sheet is essentially a long-form list of how long the voice recording takes. Each individual word and sound is timed out to the split second by a group of hard working sound people. The timing sheet is then given to animators so they can time out footfalls, lip-synch, and movement to exactly match the already-recorded voice track.
STEP SEVEN: The actual animation. In a traditionally-animated film, it's here that the drawing actually begins. The film is completed using regular old pencils and paper, and stacked into a huge, huge pile of drawings. To streamline the process, different characters are traditionally given to different teams of animators; you may notice in the credits of an animated film how each character is given a list of designers and animators. Usually the lead animators will draw key frames throughout a scene, and the interim frames will be filled in by hard-working in-betweeners (so-called because they fill in the movement “in between” the key frames). Remember, film runs through a projector at 24 frames per second, so that's a lot of filling in.
In a CGI film, it's likely that the rendering process has already begun, and computer animators have been working on digitizing the characters. The animating, then, will consist of matching the timing sheet with a series of pre-programmed movements. Once all the bugs are worked out, and the movements are selected, the characters are all overlaid with a selected background, and, over the course of many weeks, textures and lighting effects are added to the digital image.
STEP EIGHT: The pencil test. Pencil tests are not used in CGI films, as the animation is all done without paper. In a traditionally animated film, though, the entire film will be completed using pencil and paper, and then each drawing will be photographed in the proper sequence. The result is a fully-voiced and fully-animated film with no color, few backgrounds, and no music. If the pencil test passes muster, it's on to the cel animation process.
STEP NINE: Ink and paint. This is where the cels come in. A cel is a clear sheet of celluloid plastic that one lays on top of the finished pencil drawings, and the carefully traces with ink. The cels must be perfect, as they are what's going to end up in the final film. Once the cels are inked, they are painted by a team of colorists. Many animated films these days scan the pencil test, and use computers to digitally ink and paint them. For the longest time, The Simpsons refused to move into digital ink-and-paint, preferring the look and heft of the old chemical paints.
If you were one of the unlucky souls who wandered into a Warner Bros. Studio Store in the mid 1990s, you may have noticed the completed animation cels on display in the back. Framed production stills from an old Warner Bros. cartoon short. Actual production animation cels are typically hard-to-find collector's items, and can sell for hundreds of dollars. Back in the 1930s, it was typical for animation cels to be washed off and reused to save money. If you happen to have an actual animation cel from, say, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, keep it. It's probably worth thousands.
STEP TEN: While the other steps are being completed, an entire team of painters will be working on the backgrounds. Since the scenes have all been selected, a talented bunch of artists can now design the spaces where the action will take place. Character animation is typically handled by entirely different teams as the background animation. In a traditionally animated film, the background used to be individually hand-painted. Watch the Disney animated film Lady and the Tramp sometime, and pay special attention to the backgrounds; that was the last feature film to have all-original, hand-painted backgrounds with no re-use. In a CGI film, a separate team will work on rendering interiors and rooms, usually static images that will not need to be animated in themselves.
STEP ELEVEN: The soul-crushing and tedious task of photographing or scanning the whole damn movie. Yes, some poorly paid intern now has to lay down the background painting, the back cels, the front cels, and the lighting, and tirelessly photograph every single last frame of film, making sure to get every last frame correct. Thanks to years of streamlining, this doesn't take as long as it sounds, but it is tedious. If the drawings have already been scanned, and the ink-and-paint has been done digitally, you've saved yourself this step.
STEP TWELVE: You have an animated film on your hands. Have a drink. You deserve it.
There is also a process in animation called stop-motion, wherein dolls or plasticine sculptures will be manipulated in front of a camera. This is a type of animation that more closely resembles actual live-action filmmaking, in that actual doll actors need to be physically built, be given working skeletons, be given separately-built facial expressions, and entire miniature sets must be built to accommodate them. Lighting and clothing must be chosen, and the animators then set up cameras capable of shooting film one frame at a time. They will place the dolls in their sets, set up the right lights, take a single picture, move them ever so slightly, take another, and so forth until the doll has completed their movement. I love the look of stop-motion animation, and recent hits like Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Fantastic Mr. Fox and the now-classic The Nightmare Before Christmas used this technique.
There is also a technique called rotoscoping, wherein a team of animators will ink-and-paint right over actual, live-action film footage, rather than a pencil drawing. This makes for a heightened, slightly surreal look to the film. Richard Linklater's 1999 film Waking Life used this technique to great effect. Some of the older films would often film an actor or actress and rotoscope over them. Robert Zemeckis has, with mixed results over films like Beowulf and The Polar Express, pioneered the popularization of digital rotoscoping, usually just called motion-capture. Digitally, the effect is impressive, but often off-putting. When looking at an animated character, people are usually delighted at how much they resemble an actual person. But if the digital effects get too close to an actual person, people start to look at the differences instead, and they fall into what is called The Uncanny Valley, and audience become unnerved. This can work if that's the intended effect, but I think motion-capture CGI films (to offer an editorial) are too narratively ambitious to get away with it.
There are, of course, myriad techniques to completing each of these steps, some of which I will get into in future Free Film School articles. The process is so very complex and involved, though, I wouldn't want to go into too much more detail at once.
The first feature-length animated feature film was not, as Disney would have you believe, 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, although I think that was the first one produced in America. The first animated feature film was a 1926 German rarity called The Adventures of Prince Achmed, directed by Lotte Reiniger, which was based on a tale from The Arabian Nights. America has long been the dominant country to produce animation, although Japan has had more animation studios for longer, and produce dozens and dozens of animated feature films every year. Animated films from Japan, adopting the French name of anime, have, even since the mid-1980s, become a popular force of geek entertainment in the U.S. Anime, however, is so vast and varied, it too needs its own lesson in the Free Film School.
I hope this lesson sheds some light on your favorite cartoons. Perhaps now you'll think of the voice actors in the booth, the animators at their desks, the actual hard work, timing and sheer force of will that went into every second of your favorite animated film.
Animated films, it is often said, have a stigma attached to them these days, as they are commonly a medium for kid-friendly fare. It's rare that a serious animated film for adults is released, and even then, only obsessives and arrested adolescents like myself tend to take up their defense. However kid-friendly the film may be, though, animation is still capable of communicating the most profound of ideas, the most complex of stories, and some of the most gorgeous of visuals.
HOMEWORK FOR THE WEEK: Of course, watch an animated film. Any one will do, however good or bad. If you need a recommendation, go for Brad Bird's 1999 film The Iron Giant. How are the characters designed? How do they relate to the backgrounds? Were computers used? How were they used? Watch a CGI animated feature. Toy Story was the first, so start there. What are the differences between a recent CGI feature and a recent cel-animated feature? Watch an older animated film. Take in as many Warner Bros. cartoon shorts as you can (I recommend the ones made by Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett, so start with Duck Amuck). Try making your own cartoon. You may not have a camera rig or cels or a sophisticated enough computer, but actually try making a flipbook in the corner of a sketchbook (and not in a textbook, like you did in school). How long does it take? How sophisticated can you make it? If you know computers, try to make a cartoon using the program Flash (a rudimentary animation program used for manipulating flat images). How hard was that?