Animation begins with imagination. The heart and soul of animation are the characters whose stories we follow.
The process of making an animated movie starts in the development stage, where writers craft the basic narrative, or storyline. Art Directors begin to draw pictures of the settings, or environments, and character designers explore what a character might look like. Once the basic story is set, storyboard artists begin an exciting process where they literally draw every scene and “shot” in the movie. This is a very creative period, where the storyboard artists try out many different ways to play a scene. As storyboard scenes are completed, voice talent records dialog that can be played with the simple drawings. These early voice recordings are called “scratch tracks,” and they serve as a guide for the animation team before the actual voice cast is set later in production.
As scenes are completed, they are edited into sequences and those sequences, when put together with other sequences, form story reels. The story reel gives everyone the opportunity to see and hear the movie before formal animation begins. The story reel becomes the basis for all of the work that follows. This is one of the great advantages in animation. You get a good idea from this story reel of what scenes work well and which ones need more work or do not work at all.
The next phase of production is look development, where all of the details of the characters and the sets are defined. From here (during this phase) character models, including the detailed animation “rigs” or controls that the animators need to make the character move, are created. Voice talent is cast to play the various characters. These vocal tracks are generally recorded before animation begins so that the animators can animate to the exact words that are actually spoken and with just the right inflection. So that the animators know where to place the characters and how the scene will be played, layout artists work like cinematographers to determine where the “camera” will be and what action will play in front of it. After layout, the animators really go to work. The animators create the performance of the characters. Using their imagination and inspired by the vocal talents, the animators bring the characters to life in motion on the screen.
From there, artists create digital wire-frame models of the characters. Digital Character Animators initially work with these rudimentary, low-resolution wire-frame images to create the character’s movements.
When live-action background plates are filmed during principal photography, computer animators and the VFX team are on the set throughout this process, taking detailed measurements and lighting references from all angles. The data gathered is then downloaded into the computers so that the digital characters can be properly lit to match their live-action environment.
After animation is complete, the image on the screen is still simple. The performance is all there but details such as hair, cloth and effects need to be added. The same is true for environments, which are plain and have no shading or texture. To achieve the finished look, the shot goes into color, lighting and compositing. This is the final stage of image production where all of the elements created along the way are brought together in a “composite” and then lit so that what the audience sees is exactly what the filmmaker intended. Just as the story reel was a primitive assembly of the movie, each final shot is cut together by editors to make the finished movie. As the animated movie draws to completion, sound effects and music are added. Credits with the names of all of the people who played a role in making the film are added and now the movie is ready for audiences to enjoy.