Animated Word

Presenting an in-depth look at the current state of Animation

The Unsung Heroes of the Business

It is said on the Atlantis: The Lost Empire DVD commentary that much of the work in animation goes towards making things that the audience is not supposed to notice. What does that mean? Since everything has to be made in animation from scratch, there is a lot more effort levied towards departments that it is somewhat simpler to deal with in live-action filmmaking.

Everyone knows about voice acting, even if people are still dim enough to think that the voices follow the animation, not precede it. People know writers and directors, and we see the product of the character animators the entire time. But I find there are four professions that are unique to animation that never get their proper due from anyone. (Sound designers do have much more to do in animation, since like everyone else they have to invent everything, but sound is unsung everywhere.)

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Going through the process of animation chronologically, we must begin with the storyboarding process. Now, recently, it has become quite vogue for live-action directors to storyboard their movies; Spielberg does it all the time. But they don't do it for the same reasons; their storyboards are meant to help them frame their movies. In animation, storyboarding does start the three-step process of "animation cinematography" (the other two steps will be covered here), but the more important use of the storyboards involve......the story.

Often, storyboards precede even a script. They are a crucial storytelling tool for animation, because animation is so inherently freed from the constraints of physics and anatomy. Thus, it is necessary to proceed in crafting the story from a visual standpoint. Certainly the writers are on hand to aid in the dialogue construction, but the storyboards allow for the exactness of the physical gags; moreso, they help the filmmakers keep an eye on what the audience will see while they basically write the movie. This is an amazingly important job in animation, and yet perennially ignored.

Next, we have the layout crew. These guys are the closest we have to animation's cinematographers, although they work from the bases set by the storyboard artists, and the lighting (a cinematographer's worry) is an issue for the background artists. The layout artists are probably the most forgotten members of animation, because it works mostly as a bridge between the storyboards and the animators.

Their job is to construct exactly the composition of each shot, and when a "camera move" is involved, the direction of the move and the change in angle and dimension on the characters. Since the characters must be drawn into their worlds, and each character is animated by a separate crew of animators (although some animators do have to do another character when his or her character is in considerable contact with another), these layout drawings are key for keeping the character animator's drawings in line with the world around them and consistent with the "camera". Can you imagine trying to animate Basil in the Big Ben gear sequence in The Great Mouse Detective without having a sense of where the "camera" would be and how fast or slow it would move? Layout essentially makes believable character animation possible in the first place.

Our third stop would be the background artists and painters, who create the worlds around the characters. True, some of these backgrounds are more computer-animated these days, like the vines on which Tarzan "surfs", but there is still a great deal of hand-drawn artistry to this area of animation. For instance, the distanced shot of Kuzco and Pacha in the restaurant in The Emperor's New Groove is well-explained by the shot's background artist. She notes how she has placed the light and the brighter colors focused more towards the semi-central table where the characters sit. This is important, she says, to keep the viewer's eye focused towards where the action is occurring. Are you ever going to notice this focusing of your eye? No, and that's why it works.

Interestingly enough, for a sequence in which an animated movie is granting a few minutes purely for the background animators, see The Three Caballeros. It's not a brilliant film by any means, but it is intriguing (if not engaging) to see this one scene midway through the film where everything seems to stop dead for a slow song about Baia, and all we're watching is various slow pans over beautifully painted backgrounds.

Of course, the backgrounds can also function for stylistic choices, like the watercolor backgrounds of Lilo & Stitch. And that brings me to my final unsung profession in animation: the effects animators. These are the guys who animate anything that isn't a character. Here, we have the ultimate you're-not-supposed-to-notice-us job, because these guys are meant solely to bring believability to the world around the characters by making these worlds interact back with them.

The effects animators can work stylistically, like the animation of the smoke in Mulan. But, more importantly, they are meant to cover the film's butt on its realism. Would you believe Ariel and company were underwater throughout The Little Mermaid if they didn't make bubbles each time they moved? You see, you'd never notice it because you are trained to gloss over these details when you watch it. But when it's off, you'll spot it immediately. If the gold didn't sparkle in Spirited Away, then you wouldn't think it's gold. But it does, and you do.

This time, I am expressing no opinions about films beyond my opinion that these men and women who do these jobs are criminally ignored. Each part plays a very crucial role in animation, just as much as the voices or the animators do. The next time you watch an animated film, keep an eye on what is moving besides the character. See how well the character changes dimension with the world around him. Ponder why a funny scene was so well-timed, and consider whether it was due to a storyboard artist's sense of comic timing. Look at the world around the character, not just the character itself. You'll gain a much deeper appreciation for the art that goes into animation.

A critique by Alex Weitzman
First Published on Nov 13, 2003

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