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Considering the Process of Animation

by Pell Osborn

Detail from a modification exercise used at MotionArt to brainstorm logo designs


In the year 2012, Animation, the youngest of art forms, celebrates its 106th year as a viable medium. The first publicly projected animation was J. Stuart Blackton’s “Humorous Phases of Funny Faces,” which premiered in April, 1906.

And today, in 2012, as ever, animators —  visual engineers — constantly consider the time-consuming process of producing animation.

How it’s done, when it’s done, and for whom it’s done are all major concerns for the animator. “Animation is such a cumbersome process…” observed Derek Lamb, late Head of English Animation at the National Film Board of Canada. Seeking to lighten, accelerate and unencumber that process is as inherent to the medium as movement itself. Animation is an insanely time-consuming art form. Animators spend as much time solving problems as they spend producing the actual animated imagery.

Animators face big questions basic to animation, whether it’s hand-made or computer-assisted. Here are some of them:

1. How to describe, with few elements, the most intriguing compound movements possible.

2. How to make animation that’s “compelling to watch,” as award-winning animator Richard Williams remarks.

3. How to make (and how to make them practical to produce!) experiments, explorations and expansions of line, shape, color and form in movement.

4. How to make animation sequences so intriguing to watch that they actually improve with repeated viewing.

5. How to open the art form to constructive experimentation, without vast investments in equipment, personnel, real estate, distribution and capital.

6. In short, how do we find the simplest way to make the greatest impact?

The German multimedia artist Rolf Kluenter observes, “Digital Media give us new ways to simulate everything, but they don’t solve anything. It’s still up to the artist how best to clarify and convince with the new media.”

Animators may not like it, but they have to embrace limits. To get a project done in scope and on time, we find shortcuts, reuse artwork, recycle sequences and recycle sequences within sequences.

In the words of architect Norman Foster, sometimes “…it’s a case of the constraints finally becoming the inspiration…so that the possibilities of a building lie in its limitations.” One might say the same thing about building an animation, whether we’re building it with flipbooks or stop-motion or with a vast renderfarm of hundreds of networked CPU’s (Central Processing Units).

The biggest part of starting the process is finding out what we need to animate, so we can work well, produce great visuals, and get the work done in the allotted time. That brings out the visual engineer in every animator.

“Animation is not just that ‘cartoon medium.’ We have worlds to conquer here!” — attributed to Walt Disney. (Amen.) Aye, verily! So, work the process soberly, with focus, make some magic, and remember to have fun!