Ins and Outs – An Abridged Guide to the Animation Pipeline

Animation has long been an inspiring and unique medium of storytelling. It has been an entertainment mainstay for over 100 years and now has reached the point where independent creators can make high-quality animations from their own homes and post them online.

Breathing life into a work of art can seem like a tall order for those just starting. However, many over the years have categorized and simplified many of the more complex processes into an easy-to-follow checklist called The Animation Pipeline.

Finding your story – Early Concept and Script

The first and foremost step in creating your own animation is always the story. This can comprise anything from a few ideas written down to a full script and treatment or anywhere in between, but it is important in larger productions to refine this idea into something you and the rest of your team can work with.

Inspiration for the plotline can come from a variety of sources. We at InBetween417 have a post regarding that very subject if you’re in the market for some ideas. Many have focused on stories they are already passionate about and have created fan animations, and many have created wholly original concepts.

One of the two animations I’ve been working on, and the primary subject of this article, is an animation conceived as an homage to the 2012 gaming scene. It’s a parody of games like Call of Duty and Halo, but it primarily serves as a lighthearted jab regarding gaming culture.

Most of the plot is structured through back-and-forth discussions with fellow animation student Brody Daniels and myself.

Conceptualizing Your Ideas – Storyboarding and Character Design

The next big step is to put your thoughts on paper and give your idea some artistic structure, primarily through Storyboarding and Concept Art.

Storyboarding mostly serves as a visual outline of how you want your animation to look, what camera angles you want to utilize, and how long each shot should (roughly) last.

Storyboards can still be adjusted at this stage, so if you (or your production lead) don’t like a particular shot, you can continually improve upon it.

As you can see, most of my early concept shots are a little too wide and relatively rough in their earliest forms, so Brody and I spent some time discussing different changes with our professor and receiving feedback on these early shots.

The important thing is that there’s somewhat of a plotline at work, and the ideas are mostly down on paper with transparent areas for improvement.

The first clear area of improvement is that we wanted to emphasize more the poor soul here shattering both of his legs.

Notice how I left some notes on the bottom half of those shots. These are mostly notes for sound design, but the space can also serve as a visual timesheet, showing how long each shot should ideally last.

I also changed the camera angle to provide a clear shot of both legs crumpling on impact and a reaction shot for this character in red.

On another note, this character now appears to be something other than a stick figure.

This early pre-production stage also provides a very opportune time to examine the look and feel of these characters. Both have also had their own set of adjustments over time to improve the look and feel of the animation.

I had drawn up some proper Halo-inspired character designs for the gameplay section of this animated short and some early weapon objects for each character. I’ve also included some minor color palettes and faces for this particular set of characters.

I also wanted to include a small life segment, including that of your typical whiny 12-year-old in the Xbox Live lobby calling you every bad word he can imagine while hiding in the corner. Again, it’s a bit basic, but it is essential to get the subject across when building off a particular idea.

I’ve also had Brody create some environments based on our early storyboards.

This particular sequence principally serves as an establishing shot at the start of the short to set the tone for things. We took a few notes of inspiration from old Call of Duty maps while still making sure to put our spin on things.

Ultimately, the main takeaway is building upon your concepts and pushing your idea to its natural conclusion. From here, we can start to put these concept drawings, quite literally, into motion.

Getting Technical – Animatics, Pencil Tests, and Animation

So we have most of the pieces in place, so now we need to put them together.

The Animatic is essentially your storyboards set to early sound design and timing. Similar to how we had rough versions of storyboards to create and expand upon, the animatic serves as an initial animation test primarily to see where adjustments can be made.

The link is a test to see where this animation can be taken. It’s the culmination of our early work, but there is still plenty to do to bring the animation to life properly.

The frames outlined in the storyboard can be described as ‘keyframes,’ essentially the primary poses we’d want the audience to see. As such, they’re given more emphasis. But it’s not animation if it’s just the key poses.

This brings us to the ‘extreme’ poses. Those shots are interlaid throughout and on top of our storyboards. They outline the entire reach of our various poses to make each movement feel more dynamic.

Breakdowns more or less streamline the key and extreme poses. They primarily act as the go-between to make the actual movement seem more fluid. An animator can add as many or as few as they wish to move seem slower or faster.

These three together provide the most straightforward possible process for what is referred to as “pose-to-pose” animation, which moves from one position to another with many intermediate ” in-between” poses.

This is one of the main techniques animators utilize when creating movement, which depends on timing and the length of a specific movement.

To combine this concept with the animatic idea, I’ve prepared a pencil test for that specific portion where that poor soul from earlier shatters his legs.

It looks relatively fluid, but again, it needs more refinement and could honestly use cleaning up regarding line quality. But the movement is there, and the crucial elements are presented somewhat thoroughly.

In 3D Animation, this is also done in the form of Pre-Visualisations and Passes. These are essentially test shots for camera work and how each model moves. I’ve also prepared a Pre-Visualisation of my other final project to demonstrate that portion.

There are no actual poses, and it is rather bland in terms of shot lineup, but it is a test of how the movement will look throughout the process of animating this brief lightsaber duel. It’s all about testing to see if things will work and putting them to practice.

Finishing Touches – Checking and Composing

Once the poses are all lined up, technical work comes primarily from here. Coloring, Lighting, Shading, and rendering everything to ensure the animation comes out perfectly and with as few complications as possible.

Animation, on the whole, is a process of creation and refinement – Putting together a concept, testing to make sure the picture in your mind lines up with the picture on screen, and changing things up until things are as close to perfect as possible.

Once finals come around and both projects are complete, both animations will be posted onto the InBetween417 Forum for peer review. This article serves as a progress report and proof of understanding.

I hope to see everyone’s work as well!

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