The Animation Production Workflow Process

Regardless of the type of animation you are contemplating, its complexity, audience, deadline, or budget, the same general workflow takes place and the same eight steps apply..
1. Pitching the project
2. Contracting and billing
3. Storyboard
4. Objects, scenes, and characters
5. Motions
6. Testing
7. Rendering
8. Getting paid

Keep in mind that not all steps are required for every project and that, unless you are a studio owner, you may not be required to execute all the steps in your specific job category

Pitching the Animation Project

Many clients and some bosses have no idea what goes into the process of animation. Worse, many well-heeled decision makers have gross misunderstandings of what an animator can and cannot do.

Knowing your limitations is one of the most difficult pieces of knowledge to acquire as a professional. In addition to limitations, good communications establish a common understanding between client and animator. When a client says, “I want a cute lion,” what she pictures in her mind might be totally different from what you imagine. Often, the client may not have anything pictorial in mind, just something “cute.” Your job as a communicator should be to establish what, in pictorial terms, the client considers cute. Draw a few faces. “Do big round eyes mean cute?” you ask her, as you draw a lion face with big doe eyes. She frowns and says, “No, that’s not quite it.” So you try square eyes, add big lashes with a pair of Ben Franklin glasses, and see how she reacts. This is all part of the communications process.

Pitching the project therefore begins with the establishment of a common understanding with the client. This understanding consists of creating a link between the client’s needs and what you are capable of creating. For instance, if a client wants to make the logo of her product well known to preschoolers, you can propose a Saturday morning cartoon animation that captivates attention and then transforms into the logo. Such a solution would be an animation concept.

Contracting and Billing for Animation Project

It is sometimes difficult to draw the line between the free or speculative (i.e. “on spec”) work an animator must do to obtain a contract and the paid work that comes after the contract is in force. Often an animator or animation firm will venture up to the animation concept stage and no further before locking the client down to an agreement. Other times the animator will proceed to a storyboard stage and then a contract is signed.

Once you decide how much work you will do on spec, it is time to create a contract for your client that will determine what you will do and how much you will get paid. Animation contracts are somewhat unique in that they must carefully describe an end product, which is to some extent indescribable. You can, for instance, include a storyboard, sketches, and specifications of length and format, but animations change as they are created. You must be careful to create a contract that allows you the necessary flexibility to create, yet that constricts both parties into a defined limit of duties and payments.

Duties are usually expressed as a list of particular assets, which the animator creates according to a schedule of measurable events, or milestones. It is customary to receive a first partial payment from the client, in advance of work commencement, upon signing the contract.

Animation Storyboarding

The storyboard is the blueprint for the animation. Any animator should lock down as many creative aspects of the project as possible in a storyboard before venturing to the computer. The storyboard contains drawings, measuring at least 3 by 4 inches (7.5 by 10 centimeters) with accompanying text. The text describes the animation, any sound effects or music, and any dialog or narration.

Within the animation studio, the storyboard serves to organize the creative aspects of the production. It establishes the level of detail required, the list of objects required in each scene, and the degree of texturing, effects, and other complexities that will be needed. Outside the studio, the animator uses the storyboard as a means of presenting his or her ideas to a client before initiating the expensive process of computer design.

Objects, Scenes, and Characters

All the work you do on a computer animation program takes place in the graphical user interface (GUI, pronounced “gooey”) of the program. Although each animation program has a different GUI, over the years, as animation programs have matured, they have, like automobiles, tended to agree on some common design elements.
The most common element is the concept of cameras’ viewports or points of view (POVs) through which the program “looks” as it composes the images you direct. Furthermore, each POV is directed at a three-dimensional representation of space in which you may place objects that appear in your animation. Obviously, this concept arises from the cinematic arts. Many film concepts and terminology are employed in animation software.
A backdrop is an economical way of creating scene details, which require little time and computer power.

Geography may be introduced to your scene to create the vastness of space (by adding planets and stars) or the hills and rivers of a quaint country homestead. More complex than a backdrop, geographical elements might include textures (rock or grass), clouds (do they move?), trees (is the wind blowing the branches?) and bodies of water (how deep, how clear?).

Props are objects placed in the scene that will interact with characters. A set element, which is acted upon by an object or character in the animation, is a prop. Props need more detail and features than simple geographic elements that do not move or that move according to a simple, cyclical, or random control parameter.

Lights are extremely important in animation. Theoretically, without a light in the scene, the picture would always be a black frame. In fact, when an animator does a test render and gets black, the problem is most likely a lighting failure. Computer-generated lighting closely follows the science and art of cinematic lighting. Lights may be named for their cinematic equivalent, such as a spotlight (a narrow, intense beam), a fill light (a soft, wide-angled beam) or an ambient light (no specific source but it affects the entire scene). In some software products, an object is given internal lighting (luminosity) by virtue of its surface attributes (as in LightWave) or by installing a light within the object.

Lights have attributes that can be set numerically in the programs to adjust the affect of the lights in your scene. These include brightness, color, the focal length or cone angle (the width of the light beam), the falloff or dropoff (the hardness or softness of the edge of the light), and 3-D space coordinates (X, Y, and Z increments).

Additional lighting effects borrow ideas from the movies, such as lens flares, halos, and glows. These are cinematographic devices and probably would not exist in computer animation if photography and cinema had not preceded the computer.

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Reference Sources:

  1. Animation World Network:
  2. Cartoon Brew – Technology:
  3. Befores & Afters – Visual effects and animation journalist:
  4. Bloomberg News:
  5. Insider: