Flixist Film School: Animation 101


So far on Flixist Film School, we’ve learned about editing basics, how to write an ending, DIY filmmaking, and art direction. That’s a fair bit of knowledge! Today, we’re going to take it even further with an introduction to the glorious world of animation. While major animated features may steal the spotlight with grandiose musical numbers and zany antics, the main idea is to convey a story in the way that real life simply can’t. Animation can take you to completely new worlds and show emotions in a manner that only drawings and sculpture can. Also, people get bonked on the head with pianos and stuff and it’s funny.

Join me after the jump to learn a little about animation and methods that you can use to create something of your own.

betty boop

The basic concept of animation has been around pretty much forever: using pictures and figures to tell a story in a way that people can’t. Of course, the technology to make pictures move on their own didn’t come around right away. People all over the world discovered their own methods of animation, from 2D drawings to stop-motion, and the process has a long, fascinating history that we’re not going to get into right now. Flixist Film School is about practical application, damn it! When has history ever taught us anything?

A good way to break down the process of animation is to look at a flipbook. You take a bunch of slightly different images, put them next to each other, and flip the pages rapidly, and the pictures appear to move. The problem with flipbooks, however, is that they suck. Unless you’re some sort of wizard, you can never make the pages flip quite right, so the images either go by too quickly or skip a few frames. So how do you visually break down the process without using a stupid flipbook? Why, you check out a zoetrope, of course. Originally, a zoetrope was a 19th century device that spun pictures around a light source. Looking through a small cutout, the pictures appeared to be a continuous moving image. It has all the benefits of a flipbook with none of that pesky exercise! Now that we’re in the future, we have cooler options. Studio Ghibli has a 3D zoetrope in the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo. Figures in multiple positions are placed on a spinning wheel, and when strobe lights are added, they appear to be moving. Pixar created a similar zoetrope for Toy Story that is currently on display at Disney’s California Adventure.

You might recall that film is generally shown at 24 frames per second (fps), and doing otherwise is a major cause of contention. Can you imagine creating 24 unique frames for one second of animation? That would take forever! Luckily, because of the way our eyes perceive movement, you can utilize a method called “shooting on twos,” a fancy way of saying “using each frame twice like a lazy bastard.” This means that those 24 frames you shot will actually give you two full seconds of animation! Using 12 fps with live-action people would look pretty awful, but animated figures look lovely and smooth. If you have a very slow or intentionally jerky movement, you could also shoot on threes or fours, but even your average Joe will be able to tell you’re cutting corners there. Another way to save some time is to create a loop. If you want your character to walk across the screen, you don’t have to animate every step. Simply animate each leg and then reuse the frames. Every animation uses loops at some point or another to give the movement a more uniform look, but it’s important not to overuse them lest your work just look lazy.

Everyone’s familiar with the concept of a storyboard. A collection of images shows the basic progression of the story by portraying the most important images. If you look at the storyboard of a cartoon and put it in motion, it looks like a really bare-bones version of the final product. You can think of key frames as the upgraded version of a storyboard: they are the frames you spend the most time on and use to convey the action. These are the meat and potatoes of your animation.

Of course, your work isn’t composed entirely of key frames. Something has to go between them to smooth out the character’s actions. You know how sometimes you’ll pause an animated film on a whim and you’ll catch Esmerelda making a totally derpy face? That is called an in-between, or a tween frame. Tweens are most often used for a single frame during movements that are too quick to shoot in twos. Because they’re shown faster than the naked eye can see, they’re often exaggerated to make a smoother transition between the two key frames.

kate rothermel is beautifulTweens inspire the best in us.

All this newfound knowledge of frames is useless if you don’t know how to properly shoot them. No matter how brilliant your subject matter or how smooth your movements, everything will be useless if you don’t use the correct techniques. One of the most important aspects of animation is the same as regular video: lighting. You might not think much of it when you’re working, and staring at one frame at a time during editing won’t make it readily apparent, but inconsistent lighting is painfully obvious when everything’s moving. You want a light source that doesn’t flicker, doesn’t move, and doesn’t cast unwanted shadows. Lighting a full-sized shot can be a pain in the ass, but the plus side of animating is that everything is (usually) on a much smaller scale. A regular desk lamp can do the trick perfectly well, and you can carry it in one hand: perfect for last-minute adjustments.

Another thing you’ll need to be careful about is keeping your camera steady. While shaky-cam may be an interesting technique in live-action films, it is not something you want when you’re animating. It may sound obvious, but you will be spending hours and hours on the same small sections, and a slight camera movement can mess everything up. Whether you’re using a video camera or a still camera, it’s important to get a dependable camera stand and make sure it stays in place.

The last thing you’ll need regardless of your chosen animation method is a good video editing program. As Max mentioned previously, it doesn’t really matter which program you use. It’s a matter of personal preference. The only thing I’d recommend is going for professional software instead of the basic program on your computer. Animation and editing are time-consuming enough without frustrating software. Even if you’re just stringing along a series of images without any intricate post-production work, it will be a lot nicer in the long run to learn the basics of Final Cut Pro instead of toughing it out on Windows Movie Maker. Your final product will likely look better and you won’t have to tear out your hair in the process.

Now that you’ve got the basics, let’s take a look at some of the different forms of animation!

2d disney

If you can draw well and in a consistent style, I hate you. Also, you would likely enjoy traditional 2D animation. While hand-drawn animation is one of the most painstaking processes out there, you have the ability to go back and change a few frames at a later date, something that isn’t really an option in most mediums. If you have the talent to draw the same picture over and over with only the slightest changes, you will luckily not need a lot more than a pencil, a hole puncher, and a ton of paper.

You can get away with a still camera or scanner for importing your pictures once they’re drawn, but you will need one additional item. A peg board is basically a board with sticks on it that holds your drawings in place. This is important because it’s a lot easier to draw the same thing when it’s in the same place. Also, drawings will flop all over the place if left to their own devices, the little rascals. This blog has a fantastic tutorial on how to make your own peg board for under five bucks. The tricky part here is where to place your camera. I have used a drawing board with a vertical bar to which you could attach the camera, but I wouldn’t recommend making one of those on your own, especially if you have heavy equipment. An easier option would be to use an angled drawing board and position the camera at a matching angle on a regular stand. It’s a lot easier to set up and there’s less chance of a horrible camera-related accident. The main problem with a regular stand, though, is that it’s easy to move on accident, but marking its position on the floor will help prevent any accidental angle changes.

Today’s 2D animators use a process called cel animation. There are multiple layers to a drawing, and each one is on a different piece of celluloid. This allows them to leave the background intact in one layer while a character moves across it in another layer. Before cel animation was a thing, the background had to be redrawn in every single frame. Even with a remarkably steady hand, it’s pretty obvious when the background changes over and over again. At this point, you may be thinking that you don’t have access to sheets of celluloid and will have to redraw your backgrounds every frame. Don’t worry: we have computers to help with that now, and you’ll be able to recreate the benefits of cel animation digitally. For now, check out the wobbly background in Windsor McCay’s 1914 short, Gertie the Dinosaur.

Gertie’s kind of a bitch.

If you like the idea of 2D animation but are more into the tracing side of things, there’s a very cool method for you if you have a lot of time on your hands. Rotoscoping is the process of filming a scene and then tracing over every frame. The technique was created by Max Fleischer (who you might know as the creator of Betty Boop) in 1915 for the character of Koko the Clown. One of the most famous examples of rotoscoping is Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Snow White’s movements were filmed ahead of time and traced frame-by-frame before being inserted into the movie. Unfortunately, since the dwarves were all animated by hand, this really only served to make her look ethereal and creepy next to their more cartoonish movements. For a more modern take on rotoscope, you can take a look at Waking Life or A Scanner Darkly.

There are a couple of ways to try out rotoscoping. There is, of course, using an actual rotoscope, which is basically a projector, and tracing over the projection. Since you probably don’t have one of those handy, you’ll have to try another route. One is to individually print every other frame of a regular video and trace over it. Another is to do the whole thing digitally, which is a lot easier to do if you have a tablet.

stop motion nightmare before christmas

So you’re interested in trying this animation thing, but you don’t have a video camera and you can’t draw. That’s okay! Stop motion is a perfect jumping-off point for the poor but enthusiastic. The absolute essentials are video editing software and a still camera, and you can use any object lying around the house as a character. This is even better if you have googly eyes on hand, but you can make do without. I guess. Sigh.

Remember everything I said about tween frames up there at the top? Yeah, scratch that. Think of every single frame you make in stop motion as a key frame. You won’t be able to go back later and recreate a single frame in a shot for a smoother transition, so you’ll want to go for the gold the first time.

wallace and gromit

When you think of stop motion, you likely think of a 3D affair like Coraline, Wallace & Gromit, or those terrible cartoons about Santa and Rudolph that I watch obsessively every Christmas with a dog on my lap. Puppets are a bit of a bother to get started, but a well-crafted puppet is a delight to work with. There are tons of different methods for puppet-making, and it all depends on how you want to work. Claymation allows for more malleable figures, but getting the material to behave can be a chore. Sturdy foam-bodied puppets are difficult to make, but they’re more durable under the stress of being posed repeatedly.

Regardless of your choice, every figure should have a skeleton, strong enough to hold the puppet in place but not so strong that it’s difficult to pose. It’s also important to consider how your character will stand up. This isn’t as much of an issue if your character is, say, a worm, but a bipedal creature will not be able to balance very well without support. You can skirt this issue by giving your puppet enormous feet, or go the more complicated route of poking holes all over your set and putting pegs on the soles of their feet. This requires a lot more pre-planning, but it looks really cool when done right.

Of course, if you like a simpler approach, you can always skip the complicated work of creating a puppet and use action figures instead. It’s like Toy Story, but you’re the one making it happen! You are like a human Pixar, all by yourself! Don’t you feel cool?

One of my favorite methods of stop motion is less popular and requires a bit more set-up, but it is absolutely gorgeous. The oldest surviving feature-length animated film is The Adventures of Prince Achmed made by German animator Lotte Reineger in 1926. It follows the basic story of Aladdin in 1001 Arabian Nights, but the story isn’t what’s impressive: it’s the technique. Lotte Reineger specialized in shadow puppets. These are little figures made of cardboard or thick paper, cut into intricate shapes, and moved around on a light box. While the background color can be changed with colored tissue paper, the figures are lit from behind, causing them to always appear in shadow. As such, any details have to be cut from the figures themselves, and a lot of care has to be taken when letting figures overlap with props. Shadow puppets are hard to try without access to a lightbox and a proper vertical camera mount, but if you do happen to get a chance, make sure to keep your backgrounds in place with a piece of tape. You’ll thank me later.

lotte reineger makes my no no parts tinglySeriously. So pretty.

Stop motion may be the easiest way to get into animation, but that isn’t to say that it’s easy. True, you only need a standard camera, and there are a lot of different ways to go about animating depending on your puppet-making skills. The downside to all that accessibility is that it’s really easy to mess it up. Slight breeze? Your shadow puppets are gone. Awkward thumb movement? Your clay figure doesn’t have a face anymore. Bump into the table? There goes your painstakingly-arranged scene. Reshooting an entire scene because you knocked over your main character at the very end really, really sucks.

While you can technically put all your images together in the editing software of your choice, if you have a Mac, I’d really recommend getting iStopMotion. It’s a really simple program to use, and it makes life a lot easier. After you shoot your frame, you will be able to see a ghost of the previous shot while you are setting up the next one. This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it can be hard to judge exactly where your characters were in the previous shot, especially if there is a lot of movement in the new one. You can even edit your video in iStopMotion if you really want, but that’s more of a pain than it’s worth.

digital shrek

So you can’t draw and the idea of moving little figures around for hours on end makes you go crazy before you even start. Fair enough! For those of us who are more comfortable with a computer than anything else, there are plenty of options out there. There’s a reason most full-length animated movies are created digitally these days: while it takes quite a bit of time to get to know the programs you’re working with, the actual animation process is a lot smoother.

The downside to digital animation is that it’s not something you can really do without getting new programs and taking the time to learn them. I would recommend getting a book on the program of your choice, sitting down with it, and doing all the little exercises it tells you to do. It may seem stupid to spend a few hours making a ball bounce realistically across a 3D plane, and nobody will be impressed when you show it off, but spending the time getting really good at the basics will make your later, cooler animations look much more professional.

Some of the hardest things to get over in stop motion or hand-drawn animation are jerky movements. In order to make things look smooth, you have to add a lot more frames. Digital animation does not have that problem. All you have to do is create the key frames, and the computer will create the tweens on its own. Of course, you now have the issue of movement that looks a little too smooth, and will have to create extra key frames in order to make it look a little more natural. Basically, you can never win.

It’s always important to keep your props organized, but it is especially important when working digitally. You will have hundreds of little bits and pieces that you will be using actively, and if you don’t label them, you will be lost. Sure, when you’re just starting out, you’ll remember that Layer 3 is your character’s right hand or that Joint 6 is the knee on a spider’s center left leg, but after adding more layers or more complex skeletons, it will all be a massive jumble of nondescript file names and you will have no idea what you’re clicking on. A good rule of thumb is to label an item as soon as you’ve created it. Get into good habits early and you won’t get lost later.

label jar, label photoshop

One of the most basic digital programs out there is Flash. It’s basically MS Paint but you can make things move in it. Most browsers support Flash animations and it’s easy to get your work online. That said, I absolutely despise Flash. I hate its little digital guts. Even when it was the only digital medium I knew how to use, I wasn’t terribly fond of it, but when I went back to it after learning other programs, I was shocked at how horrible it was. To return to the earlier comparison, it’s a lot like trying to go to MS Paint once you’ve learned to use Photoshop. You know that MS Paint isn’t great, but you don’t realize how terrible it is until you’ve tried something better. It is unintuitive and horrible and I wish it had parents just so I could kill them in front of it and watch it cry. That is how much I hate Flash.

If Photoshop is the far superior version of MS Paint, Adobe After Effects is what Flash should have been. In fact, After Effects is essentially Photoshop but for animation, and if you know how to use Photoshop, it’s not too hard to pick things up in AE. It is less web-friendly than Flash, but it makes up for that one downfall by doing a stellar job at everything else. There is a clear layout, it’s easy to keep objects and layers organized, and it basically doesn’t suck. I have only used the basic features of After Effects and can do a lot. Taking the time to learn the intimate details of this program can only make things better.

If you’re interested in trying this sort of animation but can’t get your hands on a copy of After Effects, you can get a small idea of the process by animating in Photoshop. If you haven’t made an animated .gif image before, now’s a good time to try it! When in Photoshop, simply show the animation window, and you’ll be able to get started. Add a new frame, move your object, and voila! You have made a tiny animation!

how to animate in photoshop

“Enough with this 2D crap!” you say. “I want to work at Pixar!” I hear you. Don’t we all? Studios like Pixar tend to have their own 3D animation software that is not available to the public, so you aren’t going to be able to perfect your art before you show up at their doorstep begging for a job. Fear not! The studios know that you don’t have their software available, and demonstrating experience in similar programs will show a good balance and willingness to learn new software. Two of the most common 3D programs, both made by Autodesk, are Maya (used by Dreamworks, Industrial Light & Magic, The Jim Henson Company, and Sony Picture Imageworks) and 3ds Max (previously known as 3D Studio Max, and used mostly by game companies like Blizzard, Bioware, and Capcom). Both are a good jumping-off point into professional software, and they offer student trials at a discounted price.

3D modeling programs are a lot more complicated than other programs, but once you get into it, the animation process becomes a lot simpler. It’s kind of like a much more in-depth stop motion project. Your sets can be infinitely large or very, very tiny, and you can move your props around without fear of knocking the other ones over. You make puppets, but they can stand on their own and won’t fall apart. You can have as many lights as you want, in any color or impossible direction, and your camera can fly through the air or hide in a hole in the wall with little additional effort. Of course, you can also insert an incorrect value somewhere, and suddenly your character’s arm will go flying off when rotated a certain number of degrees, or your prop’s trajectory will be slightly off and disappear into the cosmos. Then again, that’s part of the fun.

The best way to take knowledge to the next level, of course, is to put it to use. Your homework is to create a ten second animation in the method of your choice. Ten seconds does not sound like a great undertaking, but trust me: it will take a lot longer than you think. If you get really into it, you’re of course free to go on longer. Usually, homework will only give you the gift of experience, but here at Flixist, we know that self-improvement is not nearly as cool as getting free stuff. Every single person who puts effort into a short animation (read: ten seconds of a still image will not count) and posts it here will win some goodies. Every single one! Think of the goodies to be had! Your homework is due by October 8th. I look forward to seeing what you come up with! Get to work, slackers.

[Header image from Don Bluth Animation]