While animated movies and TV shows can be made in several different ways, they all follow a series of steps in order to make the most efficient use of time and resources.
The 2D animation pipeline is made up of three parts: pre-production, production, and post-production. If you’re hoping to launch a career in this field, you need to understand what’s involved in each stage and how they relate to each other.
In this post, we’re focusing on puppet animation, since that’s what the vast majority of entry-level jobs in the industry are about. Keep reading to see how the 2D animation process typically unfolds.
table of contents
- The Pitch
- The Script
- Concept Art
- Dialogue Recording
- Character, Prop, and Background Design
- The Animatic
Pre-production is about taking an idea for a show and developing a plan to bring it to life. While some of these steps can be done in a different order or at the same time, this is how things generally go.
Every animated movie or TV show starts out as an idea in someone’s head. In order to get it made, the person with the idea needs to sell their vision to a studio.
“The pitch is the show in a nutshell. You need to be able to describe what it’s about in just one or two lines,” says animator Gabriel Choquette. He has worked on numerous productions, including The Lion Guard, Jake and the Never Land Pirates, and Wander Over Yonder. “For instance, House was sold as a show about a doctor who hates patients. Dexter was pitched as a show about a serial killer who kills serial killers. Sometimes the title itself is the pitch. When I say Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, you know exactly what the show is about.”
If the studio believes in the concept and the characters and gives the go-ahead, the next step is to write a script.
The script is what drives every animation project. It outlines not only the action and the dialogue, but also the environment, the props, and the sound effects. It describes what the viewer is going to see and hear.
A script will undergo many revisions and rewrites as it’s being developed during pre-production. Once a final version is approved, the rest of the departments can get to work.
The design team studies the script and begins drawing initial sketches to illustrate what the show could look like. They assemble a collection of images, colours, and design concepts (i.e. a mood board) to establish a look for the project. The point is define a visual style that supports the story.
A mood board that showcases the kind of background colours to be used for scenes involving villains (Source: Animator Island)
In North America, it’s standard practice to have voice actors record the dialogue from the script before any animation work takes place. That way, the animators can analyze the audio and create the mouth shapes to match.
For movies, the voice actors are often filmed while they record their lines. Animators frequently use the footage as inspiration when designing the characters’ movements and expressions. There are plenty of examples of Disney characters who look like the people who voice them.
The storyboard is a visual representation of what happens in the script. It’s a series of rough sketches that show the key moments in the story. The storyboard might also include notes on camera placement, lighting, and character staging, though at this point in pre-production nothing is too refined or polished yet.
“Everything that needs to happen to push the story forward will be drawn,” explains Gabriel. “So for example, if a character steps on a thumbtack and hurts their foot, you’re going to see the character walk into the room. You’re going to see the thumbtack close up, and you’re going to see the character step on it. But you’re not going to see all the drawings in between that because they’re not really important. The point is to draw the key moments so that whoever is looking at the boards will understand what’s going on, even if there’s no sound or dialogue.”
This storyboard shows the key moments as the character hurts their foot on a thumbtack. Courtesy of Gabriel Choquette
The storyboard can be done at the same time as the dialogue recording and the character design, though some studios prefer to do the storyboard after those other steps.
Character, Prop, and Background Design
This step in the production pipeline is about defining the appearance of each element: characters, props, and backgrounds. Designers produce what’s called a model sheet to show the animators how each element appears from various angles. This helps maintain a consistent look in every scene, particularly when more than one animator will be working on the same character.
“The model sheet has the front view, the three-quarter view, the side view, the three-quarter back view, and the back view of the characters, who are just basically just standing up straight,” says Gabriel. “It’s like they’re on a skewer and you are just rotating the skewer on the spot.”
As you can see from the image below, the model sheet can also illustrate how the main characters compare in terms of size.
A model sheet for the character of Goofy (Source: Traditional Animation)
An animatic is basically a video version of the storyboard. The storyboard images are stitched together with dialogue, music, and sound effects so that the team can get a better sense of the movements, timing, and flow.
Creating an animatic is an excellent way to see which scenes work and which don’t before investing huge amounts of time and money in the production phase. Because an animatic is a better simulation of the finished show, it’s much easier to visualize how things are going to work.
Check out the video below for an example of an animatic from Rick and Morty.
The production stage is where the animation really takes shape. Again, some of these tasks could be done in tandem or in different order, depending on the studio’s setup.
The layout department takes the panels from the storyboard and translates them into actual shots. They consider camera angles, perspective, and composition, and determine the staging (i.e., where the characters physically fit in the frame of each scene).
The layout team isn’t concerned about colour or textures. Instead, they focus on drawing the crisp lines of the background in grayscale, noting the start and end poses of characters, and marking safe areas and camera positions.
When layout is finished, it’s time for background painting.
This stage of the animation production pipeline is all about using colours and lighting to produce the final painted backgrounds. The background painters put in texture, shading, and lighting to create the appropriate mood, depending on what’s happening in the story. For example, a kitchen will look quite different in the morning, in the afternoon, and at night because of the way the light changes.
Rigging is the process of creating digital puppets of the characters. The rigging department takes the model sheets from the designers and builds each piece of the character separately: eyes, hair, hands, legs, etc. That allows the animators to simply move the pieces around rather than having to redraw them a bunch of times.
An example of a digital puppet. Courtesy of Gabriel Choquette.
“Remember when you were in first grade, you would cut those little puppets out of cardboard and place pins in them so you could move their limbs? A digital puppet is like that but way more advanced,” explains Gabriel. “Each piece has a little pivot point, and we can move that piece around. The rigging department draws each of those pieces using animation software and then connects them together to get them ready for the animators.”
Riggers create digital puppets with pieces that can be manipulated separately. Courtesy of Gabriel Choquette.
It might surprise you to know that 3D components can be part of the 2D animation production pipeline. Remember the scene in The Lion King when all those wildebeests came down? Gabriel points out that those were actually done in 3D because there were so many of them.
“The 3D department builds anything that is too complicated to build in drawing form,” he says. “They’ll create things like the ocean, or crowds, or any vehicles that the characters might be riding in that need to rotate in 3D space.”
In this scene from Jake and the Never Land Pirates, the boat is 3D but the characters are 2D. Courtesy of Gabriel Choquette.
The scene setup people act as the bridge between all departments. They import the sound, the storyboards, the animatics, the backgrounds, and the digital puppets for every single scene and put them together in a file.
Scene setup is a key step in the production pipeline. When the animators go to do that scene, everything is there. They don’t need to waste time looking in a hundred different folders to try to find things.
This is when the animators begin creating the actual scenes. If they’re using digital puppets, they’ll spend their time moving each piece frame by frame in the animation software rather than drawing. But they still need to have a solid grasp of body mechanics and acting to make their animations look realistic and believable.
“For instance, if I raise my arm, my collarbone goes up on an angle and it also affects my shoulder and my shoulder blade,” explains Gabriel. “So if you have a digital puppet who’s lifting his arm to say hello, you need to animate that shoulder blade. Otherwise, it will look stiff and strange.”
The animators also need to scrub the audio and create the mouth shapes and expressions to go along with the dialogue.
The special effects team gets to work once the animators are finished. FX encompasses anything that moves that is not a character, like rain, fire, lasers, exploding boxes, and breaking glass. This is one area where hand-drawn animation still dominates.
Suppose you have a scene where the character jumps in the water and there’s a big splash. “If you look at a splash in slow motion, that water is constantly changing shape,” says Gabriel. “It’s usually one big shape at first, and then it breaks off into strings and pearls, and then maybe just pearls, and then it’s gone. That needs to be hand-drawn to look organic. It cannot be done by the computer because the computer will make it look too synthetic.”
A An example of a hand-drawn frame-by-frame energy effect from the show Hilda on Netflix. Courtesy of Gabriel Choquette.
Compositors have the task of assembling the various elements—backgrounds, characters, digital effects—to create a complete scene. They also play with the lighting and add blurring or shadows to enhance the animation.
For instance, if a character is walking in the daylight and then wanders into a cave, they need to look darker than they did when they were out in the open air. If they light a torch, that torch needs to have a hue around it. If a ghost suddenly appears, that ghost needs to look transparent. The compositing department handles all work like this.
“A compositor’s job is very technical. They don’t draw or paint,” says Gabriel. “Instead, they make things blurry or out of focus. They make things glow, get darker or lighter. They put all the bells and whistles on things.”
Once the compositors are done with the scene, it is rendered and given to the editor.
The post-production phase is when the show turns into the final product that audiences see on screen.
Audio editing involves adding music and sound effects and checking that the audio syncs up with the animation properly. Changes can still be made at this point. For instance, if there’s an explosion onscreen but the sound of it isn’t great, the sound editor might replace it with a better sound from their library.
This is the final step in the 2D animation pipeline. The editor will take the composited and rendered scenes and stitch them together to make the movie or TV episode. They also add the intro song and credits and package the whole thing for export and distribution.
LEARN MORE FUNDAMENTALS OF 2D ANIMATION
Being familiar with the production pipeline for animation is key, but getting hands-on training from experienced animators is also important. Herzing’s 12-month 2D animation program is designed to help you master the software and techniques you need to break into the industry. Our students also get valuable real-world experience through a six-week internship.
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