sketch animation

Sketch Animation: Bringing ideas to life from paper to screen

Sketch animation is one of those magic and mystical arts in the animation industry. Responsible for our much loved Disney and Pixar classics and the building block for any good character piece, sketch animation and the process taking it from paper to screen is really quite fascinating – starting with shape and concept, before moving on to full on wire frames. So, how exactly do you transform sketch into motion?

Early Stages Black and white sketch animation

While the process of turning sketch into a marvel of the screen can be a long and complex road, it all starts with that early idea. For animation giants like Disney, Pixar and even stop motion leaders like Aardman Animations, every animated piece starts with a basic narrative. A world and story which the characters will come to live in and the concept for how they come together.

And, whether it’s a simple doodle on the back of a napkin, a very basic sketch, or just a line of text that explains how the sketch might look, it’s this step that sets up the rest of the process and works hand in hand with the story.

“Every animated piece starts with a basic narrative”

 Scripting is another part of the process that comes quite early on in bringing that magic to life, alongside the concept for the characters. Often, writers and designers will work together to decide how their features might look, sketching out rough frames on paper or digitally, to get an essence for the character. It’s fairly normal at this stage for there to be several potential versions of the sketch. After all, there’s a lot of ways to draw a toy cowboy.

Getting the shape rightDisney sketch animation

Believe it or not, many of your favourite characters will have actually started as just a simple series of shapes. For example, take everyone’s favourite talking mouse, Mickey. At his core, he can be broken down to three circles and he’s still recognisable. Even the Sultan from Aladdin can be stripped back to a large pear shape with a circle on top. It’s this base that drives a lot of sketch style and helps keep the character clear as you move forwards.

 “It helps keep the character clear as you move forwards”

And, if your basic shapes are settled, you can start to add a little more detail to the sketch – moving onto storyboards which match the narrative. Think of these like blueprints for the movie. At this stage, artists will also receive something called a “beat outline”, which acts a road map for the character’s emotional changes that need to happen throughout the action.  Whether it’s terror, surprise or extreme excitement, each story frame needs to live and breathe the character, before being put into a reel (or animatic) which shows how it will all come together.

Sorting the Styleanimation process

Aside from making sure the character is stylishly dressed, this step is actually about adding colour, texture and tone to the characters and environments, before you even start animating those family favourites. Based on all the initial concepts and artwork, the art department progress sketch to the next stage by crafting a colourful and creative world around the characters.

“They define the mood palettes for the film”

Designing a series of sets, props, styles for buildings, surfaces, landscapes and any other accompanying elements you can shake an animated stick at, they put the pieces in place for the film’s stars. They also come up with something called a “colour script”, which defines the mood palettes for the film and the series of shades that the world will be made up of. Even down to the fiddly details of how lighting and shadows works in this world. It’s intricate stuff.

Making the Models

So, you’ve got the storyboards, the narratives, the core character shapes and even the colours sorted – now you’re into the animation (ish). Depending on your style of film, to be able to bring those sketch stars to life, you need to model them, ready for the big screen.

Pixar and Disney both have their own software they use to develop the wire frame models. By describing the shape of the objects, adding the art department’s colour and model packet and a few key informational drawings, the software can sculpt and suss out the character models – a basic skeleton, which can then be used to move them.

 “The software can sculpt and suss out the character models”

Each animation house has their own technique for making models. Some are sculpted by hand and then 3D scanned into the computer, others model these three dimensions directly into the computer and many use what’s known as “The Puppet Tool” – to map out each of the characters joints for animation.

Whatever you use to model the character, once you’ve got the basic wireframe skeleton, animators then add hinges (or ‘avars’, for the more technically minded among us) to make the character move. Remember that famous toy cowboy we talked about earlier? He’s got 100 hinges in his face alone.

Setting out the Story

Once all the scenes, props and skeletons and in, the layout crew then begins to set out a rough frame for each of how the characters should be feeling. And it’s only at this point, that the masterpiece is released to the animators. Now, we’re properly into animation. They choreograph the character frames – making them move and pulling together a story to be signed off and approved before any colour or shade gets anywhere near them.

“Making them move and pulling together a story”

If the story moves and works in a way everyone’s happy with, then a few select smart computer programs called ‘shaders’ begin to assign texture and colours to the basic blocks. They dress the clothing with minute wrinkles, give realistic skin types to characters and generally make it all look a lot more fleshed out (for want of a better word). Digital light also gives the effect of shadows, distinguishing between night and day, dark alleys and bright rooms.

Finishing Up

If you’ve made it this far through the process, then you’re nearing the end of your animated masterpiece and have almost brought sketch animation to the big screen. All the frames are then rendered and put together to make up the film – moving in a way which makes it look like seamless animation. This in itself can be a long process but by this stage, all the kinks have been thoroughly ironed out. If not, you might’ve missed a key step in the process.

“Moving in a way which makes it look like seamless animation”

And, once all the finishing touches have been made, the musical score has been added, it all matches up with the voices and sounds its meant to, you’re left with the final, digital piece! From way back when you started with a doodle on a napkin, to basic character shapes and skeletons which let you bring them to life – it’s quite a process.

While not every film will follow exactly these steps and some will have their own software, it’s interesting getting an insight into what makes our favourite characters tick. So, next time you’re watching an animated classic, see if you can spot those shapes. We’re almost certain you will.

If you’re thinking about making your own character animation or want to chat a little about how we can help bring your ideas to animated life, drop us a line.

Amy Durrant

Amy Durrant

Amy is a copywriter and all round creative type at Pebble Studios. With bundles of agency experience at Karmarama and her past life as a music, technology and design journalist, she has a love for all things creative.

Creative, Pebble Studios

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