Animation Techniques for Beginners

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Animation Techniques

Walt Disney Animation Studios
JessicaSarahS/Flikr/CC BY 2.0

Animation has come very far since the cartoons of the early 20th Century. But even then, a variety of methods was being used, including cel animation and stop-motion animation. Currently, computers are frequently used to mimic those traditional animation techniques. Use this guide to get an overview of the most common animation techniques.

Jump to

  • Stop-Motion Animation
  • Cutout and Collage Animation
  • Rotoscoping
  • Cel Animation
  • 3D CGI Animation
  • Flash Animation

Photo: Gareth Simpson / Flickr

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Stop-Motion Animation

'Robot Chicken'
'Robot Chicken'. Adult Swim

Stop-motion animation (or stop-action) is the painstaking process of photographing a model, moving it a minuscule amount, then photographing it again. Finally, you string the photographs together and the tiny movements appear to be action. This form of animation is the simplest to use and is great for beginners.

For instance, Seth Green, an actor who has a love of action figures but no prior animation experience, co-created with Matthew Senreich. They employ toys, sets that are more like dioramas, dollhouse props and clay (for facial expressions) in their stop-motion videos to create some pretty hysterical skits.

Though I say this technique simple, because the concept is easy to understand and execute, that does not mean stop-motion is not time-consuming or cannot be sophisticated.

In the hands of an artist, stop-motion animation can be very realistic, stylistic and moving. Films like by Tim Burton show that stop-motion isn't a genre, but a medium that allows artists to create whatever they imagine. Each character in this film has several versions of bodies and heads in order to capture the most human movements and expressions. The sets are also created with the same attention to detail, creating a dark, beautiful world.

See also: Elf: Buddy's Musical Christmas

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Cutout and Collage Animation

'South Park'
'South Park'. Comedy Central

Simple animation used on TV is usually a combination of cutout and collage techniques. Cutout animation uses, literally, models or puppets that have been cut from drawing paper or craft paper, possibly drawn or painted on. The pieces are then arranged loosely, or connected by fasteners and then arranged. Each pose or move is captured, then the model repositioned, and shot again.

Collage animation uses basically the same process, except the pieces that are animated are cut from photos, magazines, books or clipart. Using collage can bring a variety of textures to the same frame.

is perhaps the most well-known animated TV show that uses cutout and collage animation. The characters are cutout, and occasionally collage animation is used, such as when creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker use photos of Mel Gibson or Saddam Hussein to animate characters.

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'Tom Goes to the Mayor'
'Tom Goes to the Mayor'. Adult Swim

Rotoscoping is used to capture realistic human movement by drawing over film footage of live actors. Perhaps this sounds like cheating, but adding an artist's vision to the movements of a human actor can create a unique storytelling medium that is just as stylistic as any other form of animation.

One of the most sophisticated examples of rotoscoping is the film , starring Ethan Hawke and Julia Delpy. Waking Life took the 2001 Sundance Film Festival by storm, impressing audiences and critics with not only its animation style, but director Richard Linklater's ability to tell a moving, rich story using a frenetic animation style like rotoscoping.

A much more simple example of rotoscoping is on Adult Swim. Actors are photographed performing the scenes. Then the photos are digitally processed using a graphics filter. When the rendered photos are strung together, the story is told using limited animation, no lip movements and little movement in arms and legs.

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Cel Animation

'The Brak Show'
'The Brak Show'. Adult Swim

When someone says the word "cartoon," what we see in our head is usually cel animation. Cartoons today rarely use the pure cel animation of the past, instead employing computers and digital technology to help streamline the process. Cartoons like The Simpsons and Adventure Time are made with cel animation.

A cel is a sheet of transparent cellulose acetate used as a medium for painting animation frames. It is transparent so that it can be laid over other cels and/or a painted background, then photographed. (Source: The Complete Animation Course by Chris Patmore.)

Cel animation is incredibly time consuming and requires incredible organization and attention to detail. It starts with creating a storyboard to visually communicate the story to the production team. Then an animatic is created, to see how the film's timing works. Once the story and timing is approved, the artists go to work creating backgrounds and characters that fit "the look" they're going for. At this time, the actors record their lines and animators use the vocal track to synchronize lip movements of the characters. The director then uses the sound track and animatic to work out the timing of the movement, sounds and scenes. The director puts this information on a dope sheet.

Next, the art is passed from one artist to another, beginning with rough sketches of the characters in action, ending with that action transferred to cels that have been painted.

Finally, the camera person photographs the cels with their coordination background cels. Each frame is photographed according to the dope sheet that was created at the beginning of the animation process.

Then the film is sent to a lab to become a print or a video, depending on the medium that is required. However, if digital technology is employed, much of the cleaning up, painting and photographing of frames is done with computers.

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3D CGI Animation

Dragons Riders of Berk
Dragons Riders of Berk. DreamWorks Animation/Cartoon Network

CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) is also used for 2D and stop-motion animation. But it's 3D CGI animation that has become a popular form of animation. Beginning with Pixar's Toy Story, 3D CGI animation has raised the bar for the images we see on screen.

3D CGI animation is used not only for entire films or TV series, but also for spot special effects. When filmmakers used models or stop-motion in the past, they now can use 3D CGI animation, such as in the first three Star Wars films and Spider-Man movies.

Good 3D CGI animation requires specific software programs. These programs used to be available only to studios with lots of money, but with the advance of technology, now someone can create 3D CGI animation at home.

In addition to software programs, you need to employ detailed modeling techniques, shaders and textures to create a realistic look, and build backgrounds and props. Just as much time and work is required in making 3D CGI animation as in 2D cel animation, because the more you build detail into your characters, backgrounds and props, the more believable your animation will be.

Plenty of TV cartoons are made with CGI, including DreamWorks Dragons: Riders of Berk and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

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Flash Animation

My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic
My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. The Hub / Hasbro

Flash animation is a way to create not only simple animations for websites, but also full-blown cartoons, some of which mimic cel animation very well. My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic and Metalocalypse are two examples of Flash animation that demonstrate that, although Flash creates clean graphics, an artist can still create a unique look.

Flash animation is created using Adobe Flash, or a similar software program. The animations are made using vector-based drawings. If an animator doesn't create enough frames or spend enough time on the animation, the characters' movements can be jerky.

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Want more?

David X. Cohen, 'Futurama'
David X. Cohen, 'Futurama'. Twentieth Century Fox

Educate yourself about animation at these links.

What is a pilot episode?

What is a storyboard?

What is a dope sheet?'s Animation Expert Site

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