Understanding animation and how it all comes together

10 / 07 / 19


For many years now, we have been developing our animation skills. We are incredibly fortunate to have some great talent working with us in this area, and our experience is growing all the time. With all the things we've learned, we recognise that people who don't do animation might not understand just how intricate the process can be.

Fundamentally, animation is art. It's drawing and it's design. It's both separate from, but close to, traditional filmmaking and depends heavily on many of the same structures (such as narrative, direction, sound design, lighting, editing, etc).

Once we have a narrative in place, we start by illustrating our ideas and considering how to represent the story and it's characters. Unlike a typical video production, however, we are not bound by the limitations of real life. We have a truly blank canvas. Thematically, logistically and artistically. Imagination and sensibility are what bring this style of filmmaking to life, and this is why animation is one of the best mediums to evoke charm, warmth and humour. The freedom awards the filmmaker options to explore. Everything from the surreal to shocking and the awe-inspiring to the bizarre.

There are many different types of animation and we have worked to become proficient in delivering all of them. Here's a summary of each, and it makes sense to start at the beginning.

Traditional Animation

You will be most familiar with what is called 'traditional', 'classic' or '2D' animation. Whether that is through early exposure to cartoons or the world of Disney, you've seen it a lot. It’s handmade, illustrated and works in a similar way to a flip-book.

With this style, the story is the first thing and it has to be strong. This is why many of the famous Disney features are based on fairytales, legends and other classics. This provides the best platform for the technical and artistic development. It seems obvious, but the detail in those stories greatly influences the pencil of the artist. This material is what we use as the basis of our character design.

Sound design is just as important as the visuals. Everything good about a traditional animation is a result of a perfect marriage between what we see and what we hear. Not just the funny, shocking or dramatic sound effects or music, but the performances of the voice artists. This is what breathes life into the characters, lifting them off the page and onto the screen. Dialogue is usually recorded prior to animation, for the simple reason that a vocal performance will give an artist a far better indication for how expressive the character needs to be at a given moment. The other components of the sound design usually come after the animation. The main reason being that if you need to record a stack of boxes falling, for example, you need to see what those boxes look like to produce the most accurate sound. Are they wooden? Cardboard? Large boxes sound different to smaller ones...so how big do they look? How high are they falling from? Are they falling onto a hard floor or soft surface? It's all based on visual cues.

The animation process is fairly easy to understand, and many of us have experimented with a flip book at some point in our lives. You know how it works: Incremental drawings of characters or other moving parts are created, each slightly more progressive than the last. When they're shown in quick succession, they appear to move, acting in the same way as an individual frame on a film reel. Therefore, the individual images have to be composited this way - onto a reel - to be projected in the cinema.

Once the basic animation is tested and approved, it's 'cleaned up'. In order to introduce backgrounds and depth to the scene, as well as ensuring continuity, separate images must be created and 'layered' before principal photography. This works for practical reasons too, because a background might not change for an entire shot - so rather than draw the same background frame after frame, one drawing as a background layer does the trick.

To achieve this, final imagery is created on clear celluloid sheets, which can be layered to create the complete shot.
The scenes are then photographed and composited to a reel which creates the first cut of the film. Music and sound effects are added in post-production.

Most 'traditional' style 2D animations still rely on these principles, but the methods and techniques involved have changed. Indeed, many are produced exclusively on computers - from initial concept illustration all the way through to final editing. It's easier in some ways. Despite this, though, the 'frame-by-frame' approach still requires a level of patience and energy which can only result in charming, beautifully bespoke pictures that we associate with the traditional style. Imperfections, textures and other subtleties of this technique define what we love about the look. Wherever charm and humanity are the prerequisites, traditional animation stands the test of time.

Digital 2D Animation

As the tools and technology we use in filmmaking evolve, so too does the output. Digital 2D animation makes use of what we refer to as vector graphics, which are digitised images and pictures created using computer software. This can be drawn in a traditional way at the design phase - but the final image lives on the computer.

Many of the cartoons and animations on television in the last three decades have been made in this way and are designed, animated and produced with software. The once physical celluloid layers are now virtual layers within the computer they're made in. Digital techniques are also widely used for informative videos and corporate clients as it is particularly useful for getting complex information across in an engaging, efficient and consistent way. This is often described as 'motion graphics', which we will discuss later. You can see an example of where we have used vector graphics for animation here.

Digital 2D animation is less labour intensive than traditional animation. With the frame-by-frame method, 12 unique images or 'frames' are required every second to replicate smooth character motion. In digital, however, only one unique image is required. That image can then be moved or manipulated - like a puppet - according to the direction required by using specialist software. This is great for episodic content and explains why the type of content you'd see on Cartoon Network, for example, is usually produced this way.

The Digital approach also has a typical look. A look which lends itself to vibrant, 'cleaner' designs, with bold colours, crisp lines and complex patterns or textures. In recent times, however, we have seen digital design play an increasing homage to the traditional aesthetic. Digital designs are regularly made to look hand drawn. Textures, lower frame rates and imperfections feature more heavily today in the digital format than they first did. Combining the charm and idiosyncrasy of the old with the fluidity, speed and capabilities of the new represents a compliment of options for the 2D animator.


Stop-motion is the frame-by-frame manipulation of physical items such as clay models and puppets. It's the practical and physical application of traditional animation principles, with objects that are moved and filmed, rather than separate images that are photographed and composited.

The popularisation of this technique might be ascribed to works of the late Ray Harryhausen, on feature films such as Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans. Stop-motion was not something new when Harryhausen arrived on the scene, but rarely had audiences seen stop-motion in colour, with such clarity. It was the prolificacy and look of Harryhausen's best work that paved the way for creative minds to fully explore the method. What was once an approach limited to monster scenes in live action pictures became a means of creating entire physical animated worlds.

Much like traditional 2D animation, stop-motion carries charm and humanity. Unlike 2D, however, stop-motion is grounded by real world physicality. The subject of the shot is a real, physical thing you can touch and behaves as such. Real shadows. Real textures. Real lighting. This means that there are far more things that can go wrong, which is both good and bad. There are more imperfections with this technique; you see character's hair jump out of place. You see smudges, indentations and fingerprints of the animator in the clay. The motion isn't quite as fluid as digital...but it doesn't matter, because you know it was made by someone. Stop motion stands alone in this regard; it's benevolent. Human.

The evocation we experience when seeing a stop motion piece is what encourages heightened feelings towards it. Demand for this kind of animation has grown and agencies like ours are capable of producing high-quality stop-motion animations for our clients. Nostalgia, sensibility and feeling are what we think of when we gravitate towards this approach.

3D Animation

Redefining how animation is done in the late 20th and early 21st century, 3D animation companies like Pixar now lead the way in creating a new gold standard for video animation. Films such as these now regularly receive Academy Award nominations, and we're seeing ever more hybridisation between 3D animation and live-action; CGI techniques have helped bridge the gap for years - and now an emphasis on photorealism in 3D animation is opening doors in the way films are being made.

3D animation is created using computers. It is where the rules of 2D digital animation are applied to 3 dimensions - meaning the behaviour of the physical environment plays a much more significant part - and has to be entirely constructed within the 3D program. This is the paradox of 3D animation; it is an exclusively artificial, imaginary and digital creation yet it prescribes to most of the same laws of physics we experience in the real world. The 3D characters might not follow these rules, of course - but everything else usually does. Trees behave like trees, shadows behave like shadows, and so on. Importantly though, you have to dictate a lot of this information. Say you want to create hair for a character, you have to not only design the way it looks but also the way it behaves. It's weight, it's flexibility, how it interacts with things it comes into physical contact with; all the things we might take for granted have to be considered. You have to think outside the box, turn that box it into a cube and create an environment for it to exist in. You have to dictate how the cube reacts to movement and objects. You have to light it. Create a camera to film it...and on and on it goes.

As described, a 3D animation includes the absolute creation of everything you see in the shot - so naturally, this takes a long time. A typical Pixar movie, for example, takes roughly 4 years to create. Of course, this is the top end of the spectrum - but it goes to show that there are no shortcuts when it comes to making high quality 3D artwork, and as such, the rewards are relative to the endeavour. If you create a world in 3D, anything in that world is possible.

Motion Graphics

The term 'motion graphics' falls under the umbrella term of 'animation', but it's tricky to define the difference. It can look the same as any 2D or 3D animation. It can also be executed using the same processes, tools and techniques. It's difficult to identify what the differences actually are, but there are differences. The main difference being the purpose.

One identifying feature is that a typical motion graphic involves or is comprised of graphic design - which is then moved and manipulated for a desired effect. They commonly feature typography, shapes, colours, and information on screen - more so than characters, performances or drama. A motion graphic is primarily an information led, made for purpose video, designed to promote something.

Motion graphics are visible almost anywhere you go, and this is because of their versatility. Indeed, you can have elements of motion graphics rolled into a wider production or broadcast; they are ubiquitous in advertising, television and internet media.

From the 6 O’Clock news to live sports coverage, you'll find something that was once designed and created by a motion graphics artist. Anything from the 'ITV' logo during the adverts to the touch-screen menus you see in McDonald's. Online, motion graphics are commonly applied to logos, brand idents and informative videos.

Motion graphics are produced through both 2D and 3D digital techniques and provide a slick, engaging and wide ranging aesthetic approach. The motion graphic can be anything from a sexier-than-powerpoint presentation tool to a full scale marketing campaign, and its effectiveness can be major. You can find an example of a typical motion graphic, produced by Reel, here.


This is the process whereby you trace (by hand or digitally) over each frame of some live action footage. This technique is often deployed to present movement and images in a thematic or visually striking way. For example, a film about Van Gogh might benefit from the approach, enabling the artist to pay homage to his signature brush work. Rotoscoping is a way of injecting many of the qualities of a traditional animated films with the accuracy and humanity of live action footage, combining art with real life. It is a marriage between the mediums.

Whatever the desired approach, all animation takes a long time to complete and all methods have pros and cons, relative to the objective. There are a lot of elements to detail and nearly all animation styles require skilled artistry and vision, from inception to final sign off. They allow the client something a little bit special and, when executed effectively, the final product is guaranteed to deliver an impactful message.