Traditional animation, also referred to as classical animation, cel animation, or hand-drawn animation, is the oldest and historically the most popular form of animation. In a traditionally-animated cartoon, each frame is drawn by hand.
The traditional animation process
Traditionally-animated productions, just like other forms of animation, usually begin life as a storyboard, which is a script of sorts written with images as well as words, similar to a giant comic strip. The images allow the animation team to plan the flow of the plot and the composition of the imagery. The storyboard artists will have regular meetings with the director, and may have to redraw or “re-board” a sequence many times before it meets final approval.
Before true animation begins, a preliminary soundtrack or “scratch track” is recorded, so that the animation may be more precisely synchronized to the soundtrack. Given the slow, methodical manner in which traditional animation is produced, it is almost always easier to synchronize animation to a pre-existing soundtrack than it is to synchronize a soundtrack to pre-existing animation. A completed cartoon soundtrack will feature music, sound effects, and dialogue performed by voice actors. However, the scratch track used during animation typically contains just the voices, any vocal songs that the characters must sing along to, and temporary musical score tracks; the final score and sound effects are added in post-production.
In the case of most pre-1930 sound animated cartoons, the sound was post-synched; that is, the sound track was recorded after the film elements were finished by watching the film and performing the dialogue, music, and sound effects required. Some studios, most notably Fleischer Studios, continued to post-synch their cartoons later, which allowed for the presence of the “muttered ad-libs” present in many Popeye the Sailor and Betty Boop cartoons. Although virtually all American animation is now pre-synched (and has been since the 1930s), nearly all Japanese animation (anime) is post-synched.
Often, an animatic or story reel is made after the soundtrack is created, but before full animation begins. An animatic typically consists of pictures of the storyboard synchronized with the soundtrack. This allows the animators and directors to work out any script and timing issues that may exist with the current storyboard. The storyboard and soundtrack are amended if necessary, and a new animatic may be created and reviewed with the director until the storyboard is perfected. Editing the film at the animatic stage prevents the animation of scenes that would be edited out of the film; as traditional animation is a very expensive and time-consuming process, creating scenes that will eventually be edited out of the completed cartoon is strictly avoided.
In the mid 1970’s these were known as Videomatics and used primarily for test commercial projects.
Design and timing
Once the animatic has been approved, it and the storyboards are sent to the design departments. Character designers prepare model sheets for all important characters and props in the film. These model sheets will show how a character or object looks from a variety of angles with a variety of poses and expressions, so that all artists working on the project can deliver consistent work. Sometimes, small statues known as maquettes may be produced, so that an animator can see what a character looks like in three dimensions. At the same time, the background stylists will do similar work for the settings and locations in the project, and the art directors and color stylists will determine the art style and color schemes to be used.
While design is going on, the timing director (who in many cases will be the main director) takes the animatic and analyzes exactly what poses, drawings, and lip movements will be needed on what frames. An exposure sheet (or X-sheet for short) is created; this is a printed table that breaks down the action, dialogue, and sound frame-by-frame as a guide for the animators. If a film is based more strongly in music, a bar sheet may be prepared in addition to or instead of an X-sheet. Bar sheets show the relationship between the on-screen action, the dialogue, and the actual musical notation used in the score.
Layout begins after the designs are completed and approved by the director. The layout process is the same as the blocking out of shots by a cinematographer on a live-action film. It is here that the background layout artists determine the camera angles, camera paths, lighting, and shading of the scene. Character layout artists will determine the major poses for the characters in the scene, and will make a drawing to indicate each pose. For short films, character layouts are often the responsibility of the director.
The layout drawings are spliced into the animatic, using the X-sheet as a guide. Once the animatic is made up of all layout drawings, it is called a Leica reel. The term originates from the Disney Studio in the 1930s, from the frame format used by Leica cameras.
Once the Leica reel is finally approved by the director, animation begins.
In the traditional animation process, animators will begin by drawing sequences of animation on sheets of paper perforated to fit the peg bars in their desks, often using colored pencils, one picture or “frame” at a time. A key animator or lead animator will draw the key drawings (“key” in the sense of “important”) in a scene, using the character layouts as a guide. The key animator draws enough of the frames to get across the major points of the action; in a sequence of a character jumping across a gap, the key animator may draw a frame of the character as he is about to leap, two or more frames as the character is flying through the air, and the frame for the character landing on the other side of the gap.
Timing is important for the animators drawing these frames; each frame must match exactly what is going on in the soundtrack at the moment the frame will appear, or else the discrepancy between sound and visual will be distracting to the audience. For example, in high-budget productions, extensive effort is given in making sure a speaking character’s mouth matches in shape the sound that character’s actor is producing as he or she speaks. (Try making “ah,” “ooh” and “ee” sounds out loud, and note how your mouth will subconsciously form a different shape for each sound; good animators must pay attention to such seemingly trivial things).
As they are working on a scene, a key animator will usually prepare a pencil test of the scene. A pencil test is a preliminary version of the final animated scene; the pencil drawings are quickly photographed or scanned and synced with the necessary soundtracks. This allows the animation to be reviewed and improved upon before passing the work on to his assistant animators, who will go add details and some of the missing frames in the scene. The work of the assistant animators is reviewed, pencil-tested, and corrected until the lead animator is ready to meet with the director and have his scene sweatboxed, or reviewed by the director, producer, and other key creative team members. Similar to the storyboarding stage, an animator may be required to re-do a scene many times before the director will approve it.
In high-budget animated productions, often each major character will have an animator or group of animators solely dedicated to drawing that character. The group will be made up of one supervising animator, a small group of key animators, and a larger group of assistant animators. For scenes where two characters interact, the key animators for both characters will decide which character is “leading” the scene, and that character will be drawn first. The second character will be animated to react to and support the actions of the “leading” character.
Once the key animation is approved, the lead animator forwards the scene on to the clean-up department, made up of the clean-up animators and the inbetweeners. The clean-up animators take the lead and assistant animators’ drawings and trace them onto a new sheet of paper, taking care in including all of the details present on the original model sheets, so that it appears that one person animated the entire film. The inbetweeners will draw in whatever frames are still missing in between the other animators’ drawings. This procedure is called tweening. The resulting drawings are again pencil-tested and sweatboxed until they meet approval.
At each stage during pencil animation, approved artwork is spliced into the Leica reel.
This process is the same for both character animation and special effects animation, which on most high-budget productions are done in separate departments. Effects animators animate anything that moves and is not a character, including props, vehicles, machinery and phenomena such as fire, rain, and explosions. Sometimes, instead of drawings, a number of special processes are used to produce special effects in animated films; rain, for example, has been created in Disney films since the late-1930s by filming slow-motion footage of water in front of a black background, with the resulting film superimposed over the animation.
While the animation is being done, the background artists will paint the sets over which the action of each animated sequence will take place. These backgrounds are generally done in gouache or acrylic paint, although some animated productions have used backgrounds done in watercolor, oil paint, or even crayon. Background artists follow very closely the work of the background layout artists and color stylists (which is usually compiled into a workbook for their use), so that the resulting backgrounds are harmonious in tone with the character designs.
Traditional ink-and-paint and camera
Once the clean-ups and in between drawings for a sequence are completed, they are prepared for photography, a process known as ink-and-paint. Each drawing is then transferred from paper to a thin, clear sheet of plastic called a cel, so called because they were once made out of celluloid (acetate is now used). The outline of the drawing is inked or photocopied onto the cel, and gouache or a similar type of paint is used on the reverse sides of the cels to add colors in the appropriate shades. In many cases, characters will have more than one color scheme assigned to them; the usage of each one depends upon the mood and lighting of each scene. The transparent quality of the cel allows for each character or object in a frame to be animated on different cels, as the cel of one character can be seen underneath the cel of another; and the opaque background will be seen beneath all of the cels.
A camera used for shooting traditional animation. See also Aerial image.
When an entire sequence has been transferred to cels, the photography process begins. Each cel involved in a frame of a sequence is laid on top of each other, with the background at the bottom of the stack. A piece of glass is lowered onto the artwork in order to flatten any irregularities, and the composite image is then photographed by a special animation camera, also called rostrum camera. The cels are removed, and the process repeats for the next frame until each frame in the sequence has been photographed. Each cel has registration holes, small holes along the top or bottom edge of the cel, which allow the cel to be placed on corresponding peg bars before the camera to ensure that each cel aligns with the one before it; if the cells are not aligned in such a manner, the animation, when played at full speed, will appear “jittery.” Sometimes, frames may need to be photographed more than once, in order to implement superimpositions and other camera effects. Pans are created by either moving the camera, cels, or backgrounds one step at a time over a succession of frames.
As the scenes come out of final photography, they are spliced into the Leica reel, taking the place of the pencil animation. Once every sequence in the production has been photographed, the final film is sent for development and processing, while the final music and sound effects are added to the soundtrack. Again, editing is generally not done in animation, but if it is required it is done at this time, before the final print of the film is ready for duplication or broadcast.
Digital ink and paint
It should be noted that the actual “traditional” ink-and-paint process is no longer in use by any major animated productions at present. The current process, termed “digital ink and paint,” is the same as traditional ink and paint until after the animation drawings are completed; instead of being transferred to cels, the animators’ drawings are scanned into a computer, where they are colored and processed using one or more of a variety of software packages. The resulting drawings are composited in the computer over their respective backgrounds, which have also been scanned into the computer (if not digitally painted), and the computer outputs the final film by either exporting a digital video file, using a video cassette recorder, or printing to film using a high-resolution output device. Use of computers allows for easier exchange of artwork between departments, studios, and even countries and continents (in most low-budget animated productions, the bulk of the animation is actually done by animators working in other countries, including Korea, Japan, Singapore, and India).
The last major feature film to use traditional ink and paint was Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke (1997); the last animated series to do so was Ed, Edd n Eddy. Minor productions such as Hair High (2004) by Bill Plympton have used traditional cels long after the introduction of digital techniques. Digital ink and paint has been in use at Walt Disney Feature Animation since 1989, where it was used for the final rainbow shot in The Little Mermaid. All subsequent Disney animated features were digitally inked-and-painted, using Disney’s proprietary CAPS (Computer Animation Production System) technology, developed primarily by one-time partner Pixar (the last Disney feature using CAPS was Home on the Range). Most other studios use one of a number of other high-end software packages such as Toonz or Toon Boom Studio, Animo, US Animation and even consumer-level applications such as Macromedia Flash.
Computers and video cameras
Computers and video cameras in traditional cel animation can also be used as tools without affecting the film directly, assisting the animators in their work and making the whole process faster and easier. Doing the layouts on a computer is much more effective than doing it the old original way. And video cameras gives the opportunity to see a “sneak preview” of the scenes and how they will look when finished, enabling the animators to correct and improve them without having to complete them first. This can be considered a digital form of pencil testing.
The cel & limited animation
The cel is an important innovation to traditional animation, as it allows some parts of each frame to be repeated from frame to frame, thus saving labor. A simple example would be a scene with two characters on screen, one of which is talking and the other standing silently. Since the latter character is not moving, it can be displayed in this scene using only one drawing, on one cel, while multiple drawings on multiple cels will be used to animate the speaking character.
For a more complex example, consider, a sequence in which a girl sets a plate upon a table. The table will stay still for the entire sequence, so it can be drawn as part of the background. The plate can be drawn along with the character as the character places it on the table. However, after the plate is on the table, the plate will no longer move, although the girl will continue to move as she draws her arm away from the plate. In this example, after the girl puts the plate down, the plate can then be drawn on a separate cel from the girl. Further frames will feature new cels of the girl, but the plate does not have to be redrawn as it is not moving; the same cel of the plate can be used in each remaining frame that it is still upon the table. The cel paints were actually manufactured in shaded versions of each color to compensate for the extra layer of cel added between the image and the camera, in this example the still plate would be painted slightly brighter to compensate for being moved one layer down.
In very early cartoons made before the use of the cel, such as Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), the entire frame, including the background and all characters and items, were drawn on a single sheet of paper, then photographed. Everything had to be redrawn for each frame containing movements. This led to a “jittery” appearance; imagine seeing a sequence of drawings of a mountain, each one slightly different from the one proceeding it. The pre-cel animation was later improved by using techniques like the slash method invented by Raoul Barre; the background and the animated objects were drawn on separate papers. A frame was made by removing all the blank parts of the papers where the objects were drawn before being placed on top of the backgrounds and finally photographed. The cel animation process was invented by Earl Hurd and John Bray in 1915.
In lower-budget productions, this “shortcut” is used in a greater capacity. For example, in a scene in which a man is sitting in a chair and talking, the chair and the body of the man may be the same in every frame; only his head is redrawn, or perhaps even his head stays the same while only his mouth moves. This is known as limited animation. The process was popularized in theatrical cartoons by UPA and used in most television animation, especially that of Hanna-Barbera. The end result does not look very lifelike, but is inexpensive to produce, and therefore allows cartoons to be made on small television budgets.
Creating animation loops or animation cycles is a labor-saving technique for animating repetitive motions, such as a character walking or a breeze blowing through the trees. In the case of walking, the character is animated taking a step with their right foot, then a step with their left foot. The loop is created so that, when the sequence repeats, the motion is seamless. However, since an animation loop essentially uses the same bit of animation over and over again, they are easily detected and can in fact become distracting to an audience. In general, they are used only sparingly by productions with moderate or high budgets.
Ryan Larkin‘s 1969 Academy Award nominated National Film Board of Canada short Walking makes creative use of loops. In addition, a promotional music video featuring the Soul Coughing song “Circles” poked fun at animation loops as they are often seen in The Flintstones, in which Fred and Barney, supposedly walking in a house, wonder why they keep passing the same table and vase over and over again.
The multiplane camera is a tool used to add depth to scenes in 2D animated movies, called the multiplane effect. This visual phenomena is also called the parallax process. The art are placed on different layers of glass plates; in this way, realistic backgrounds and foregrounds can be made. The panorama views in Pinocchio are a well known example on how impressive it can appear. Different versions of the camera have been made through time, but the best known and most famous is the one used by the Walt Disney Studio. Another one, called a tabletop, was made by Fleischer Studios. Miniature sets made of paper cutouts were placed in front of the camera, and the cels between them, creating visually realistic scenes. Others who made their own multiplane camera include Ub Iwerks and Don Bluth. Today it is no longer needed as computers can give the same results.
Originally the cels were inked by hand by first laying them over the artists drawings, and then the inkers traced the outlines of the artwork onto the cels, using different colors. With the invention of xerography (below), hand inking was no longer needed, and this was reflected by the animation’s visual style.
Applied to animation by Ub Iwerks, the electrostatic copying technique called xerography allowed the drawings to be copied directly onto the cels, leaving only the coloring to the inkers. This saved time and money, and it also made it possible to put in more details and to control the size of the xeroxed objects and characters (this replaced the little known, and seldom used, photographic lines technique at Disney, used to reduce the size of animation when needed). At first it resulted in a more sketchy look, but the method was improved later. Instead of using black lines only, cels with lines in different colors were also possible, using colored toner powder.
The xerographic method was first used by Disney in the short film Goliath II, while the first feature using this process was One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961). The graphic style of this film was strongly influenced by the process. Some hand inking was still used together with xerography in this and subsequent films when distinct colored lines were needed. Later, colored toners became available, and several distinct line colors could be used, even simultaneously. For instance, in The Rescuers the characters outlines are gray. White and blue toners were used for special effects, such as snow and water.
The APT process
Invented by David W. Spencer (aka Dave Spencer) for the movie The Black Cauldron, the APT (Animation Photo Transfer) process was a new breakthrough in how to transfer the animators’ art onto cels. Compared to Xerography, it looked visually better. Basically, the process was a modification of a repro-photographic process; the artists’ work were photographed on high-contrast “litho” film, and the image on the resulting negative was then transferred to a cel covered with a layer of light sensitive dye by making a “sandwich” of the negative and the cel and expose the negative to light. The layer of dye was sandwiched between the other two elements and exposed to the light through the transparent areas of the negative. Because it was actually divided into thinner layers of dye, each in a different color and sensitive to a specific wavelength of light, it was exposed to the relevant wavelengths one at the time. The light caused it to harden and fuse to the surface of the cel, and chemicals were then used to remove the unexposed portion, leaving the drawings in a variety of colors (photo emulsion). Small and delicate details were still inked by hand if needed. Spencer received a Technical award from the Motion Picture Academy for developing this process.
A cel with inanimate objects made to make the impression of a foreground when laid on top of a ready frame. This creates the illusion of depth, but not as much as a multiplane camera would. A special version of cel overlay is called line overlay, made to complete the background instead of making the foreground, and was invented to deal with the sketchy appearance of xeroxed drawings. The background was first painted as shapes and figures in flat colors, containing rather few details. Next a cel with detailed black lines was laid directly over it, each line drawn to add more information to the underlaying shape or figure, giving the background the complexity it needed. In this way the visual style of the background will match the visual style of the xeroxed parts of the animation. As the xerographic process evolved, line overlay was left behind.
Computers and traditional animation
Though the process described above is the traditional animation process, painting cels is becoming increasingly rare as the computer moves into the animation studio, and the outline drawings are as mentioned in most cases scanned into the computer and filled with digital paint instead of transferred to cels and then colored by hand. The drawings are composited in a computer program on many transparent “layers” much the same way as they are with cels, and made into a sequence of images which may then be transferred onto film or converted to a digital video format. It has even become possible for animators to draw directly into a computer using a graphics tablet or a similar device, where the outline drawings are done in a similar manner as they would be on paper. The development of such paperless 2D animation, or “tablet animation”, is likely to replace the traditional pencil and paper not too far into the future, as mentioned in this article, just as cels and traditional paint was replaced when digital ink and paint was fully introduced in the 90’s. Some of the advantages are the possibility and potential of controlling the size of the drawings while working on them, drawing directly on a multiplane background and eliminating the need of photographing line tests and scanning.
Though traditional animation is now commonly done with computers, it is important to differentiate computer-assisted traditional animation from 3D computer animation, such as Toy Story and ReBoot. However, often traditional animation and 3D computer animation will be used together, as in Don Bluth‘s Titan A.E. and Disney‘s Tarzan and Treasure Planet. DreamWorks executive Jeffrey Katzenberg coined the term “tradigital animation” to describe films produced by his studio which incorporated elements of traditional and computer animation equally, such as Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas.
Interestingly, many modern video games such as Viewtiful Joe, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and others use “cel-shading” animation filters to make their full 3D animation appear as though it were drawn in a traditional cel style. This technique has recently also been used in the animated movie Appleseed, and was integrated with cel animation in the FOX animated series Futurama.
Rotoscoping is a method of traditional animation invented by Max Fleischer in 1915, in which animation is “traced” over actual film footage of actors and scenery. Traditionally, the live action will be printed out frame by frame and registered. Another piece of paper is then placed over the live action printouts and the action is traced frame by frame using a lightbox. The end result still looks hand drawn but the motion will be remarkably lifelike. Waking Life is a full-length, rotoscoped animated movie, as is American Pop by Ralph Bakshi. The popular music video for A-ha‘s song “Take On Me” also featured rotoscoped animation, along with live action. In most cases, rotoscoping is mainly used as a guide to aid the animation of realistically rendered human beings, as in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty, Pocahontas, and Anastasia.
A method that is related to conventional rotoscoping was later invented. If the movie was supposed to contain inanimate objects like a car or a boat, a small live action model of the object(s) was built and painted white, while the edges of the model were painted with thin black lines. In the next stage the object was filmed like it was supposed to move in the animated scene, either by moving the model or filming it while the camera was sweeping over or around it, or using a combination of both. The film frames were then printed on paper, showing a model made up of the painted black lines. After the artists had added details to the object not present in the live action version of the model, it was xeroxed onto cels. (A notable example is Cruella’s car in One Hundred and One Dalmatians.) The process of transferring 3D objects to cels was greatly improved when computer graphics advanced enough to allow the creation of three dimensional computer generated objects (wire frame models) that could be manipulated in any way the animators wanted, and then print the outlines on paper before being copied onto cels using Xerography or the APT process. Even if the use of cels has been left by the majority of animators, computer animated objects in traditional animation has come to stay.
Related to rotoscoping are the methods of vectorizing live-action footage, in order to achieve a very graphical look, like in Richard Linklater‘s film A Scanner Darkly; and motion-capturing actor’s movements to use the data in 3D-animation, like in Robert Zemeckis‘s “Polar Express“.
Similar to the computer animation and traditional animation hybrids described above, occasionally a production will marry both live-action and animated footage. The live-action parts of these productions are usually filmed first, the actors pretending that they are interacting with the animated characters, props, or scenery; animation will then be added into the footage later to make it appear as if it has always been there. Like rotoscoping, this method is rarely used, but when it is, it can be done to terrific effect, immersing the audience in a fantasy world where humans and cartoons co-exist. Early examples include the silent Out of the Inkwell (begun in 1919) cartoons by Max Fleischer and Walt Disney‘s Alice Comedies (begun in 1923). Live-action and animation were later combined to successful effect in features such as The Three Caballeros (1945), Anchors Aweigh (1945), Song of the South (1946), Mary Poppins (1964), Heavy Traffic (1973), Pete’s Dragon (1977), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), and Space Jam (1996). Other significant live-action hybrids include the music video for Paula Abdul‘s hit song “Opposites Attract” and numerous television commercials, including those for cereals such as Honey Nut Cheerios, Trix, and Rice Krispies.
Special effects animation
- See also: Special effect#Special effects animation
Besides traditional animated characters, objects and backgrounds, many other techniques are used to create special elements such as smoke, lightning and “magic”, and to give the animation in general a distinct visual appearance.
Notable examples can be found in movies such as Fantasia, The Little Mermaid and The Secret of NIMH. Today the special effects are mostly done with computers, but earlier they had to be done by hand. To produce these effects, the animators used different techniques, such as drybrush, airbrush, charcoal, grease pencil, backlit animation or, during shooting, the cameraman used multiple exposures with diffusing screens, filters or gels. For instance, the Nutcracker Suite segment in Fantasia has a fairy sequence where stippled cels are used, creating a soft pastel look.