Ins and Outs – An Abridged Guide to the Animation Pipeline

Animation has long been an inspiring and unique medium of storytelling, and has been an entertainment mainstay for over 100 years, and now has reached the point where independent creators can make high quality animation from their own homes and post them online. The process of breathing life into a work of art can seem like a tall order for those just starting out, but 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 always comes down to the story. This can comprise of 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 primarily conceived as a sort of homage to the 2012 gaming scene. It’s somewhat a parody of games like Call of Duty and Halo, but it mostly serves as a lighthearted jab regarding gaming culture at that time. Most of the plot being structured through back and forth discussion with fellow animation student Brody Daniels and myself.

Conceptualizing Your Ideas – Storyboarding and Character Design

The next big step is putting your thoughts on paper and giving your idea some artistic structure, primarily by way of 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 always improve upon it.

Early Thumbnails

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 there’s somewhat of a plotline at work, and the ideas are mostly down on paper with clear areas to improve upon.

Storyboard Roughs

First clear area of improvement: We wanted more emphasis on this 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 be encompassed to serve as a visual timesheet, showing how long each shot should ideally last.

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

On another note – This character now appears as something other than a stick figure.

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

Character Design Sheet

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

Character Design Sheet

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, a little bit basic but important to get the subject across when building off of the particular idea.

Just as well, I’ve also had Brody draw up some environments based off of our early storyboards

Environment Background

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

Ultimately, the main takeaway is building upon your concepts and pushing your idea to it’s 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 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 provided serves as essentially a test to see where this animation can be taken. It’s the culmination of all of our early work, but there is still plenty to do to properly bring the animation to life.

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

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

Breakdowns more or less streamline the key and extreme poses. They mostly 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 make a movement seem slower or faster respectively.

These three put together provide the simplest possible process for what is referred to as “Pose to Pose” animation. Animation from one position to another with a lot of intermediate “In Between” poses. This is one of the main techniques animators utilize when creating movement dependent on timing and how long a specific movement is supposed to last.

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

Looks relatively fluid, but again, it needs more refinement and could honestly use cleaning up in terms of 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. Essentially test shots for camera work and how each model moves. To demonstrate that portion, I’ve also prepared a Pre Visualisation of my other final project.

No actual poses and 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, from here comes primarily technical work. Coloring, Lighting, Shading, and of course 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.

Both animations will be posted onto the InBetween417 Forum for peer review once Finals come around and both projects are complete. This article both serves more or less as a progress report as well as proof of understanding.

I hope to see everyone’s work as well!

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