An Inside Look At The Job Of An Animator
In past workshops that I have conducted, students have asked what the job of an animator is actually like. What is the environment like? What do you actually do, and how do you do it?
The Physical Environment
Animation studios are usually pretty cool and funky places to work. Most studio owners are also animators and artists along with the people that work there and sometimes prefer moody surroundings.
Studios are sometimes dim with lights casting pools of light and shadow around furniture and workstations. Movie posters and production stills of completed projects are usually hanging on the wall.
Some studios that I’ve worked in are renovated warehouses built with beautiful thick wooden support beams and large windows that let in lots of natural light to support the plants and even large trees that you will find in some studios.
You’ll often find skewed placement of the desks and other furniture to keep the studio from feeling like an office, making the environment more interesting.
There are some studios that set up workstations on long tables in a row. Animators sit shoulder to shoulder. In my opinion this is a very uncomfortable way to work and I will shy away from work environments like that if I have a choice.
Of course all studios are different. Most are pleasant environments to work in and the people are usually helpful and supportive.
Animation studios employ some of the most diversely talented people in the world.
Often, the animator sitting next to you isn’t just a professional animator they are also talented musicians, photographers, painters, comedians and actors. You always meet interesting and multi-talented people in the animation environment.
People share their talents and knowledge. In every studio I have worked in, I have met someone that has taught me something or given me knowledge that changed my work and sometimes my life for the better.
It would be unfair to point out all the positives and none of the negatives. As with any workplace, there is always people who have a habbit of complaining and spreading negative vibes. Although I’ve experienced this in the industry it is less common in creative industries as people are often more open minded.
In an industry filled with like minded artistic individuals, ethnic backgrounds and genders are respected and equally treated. Perhaps more than in other industries. For some reason the animation industry has really been a male dominated industry. If there is a distinct reason for this I don’t know why, but today’s industry is seeing a huge influx of women in animation departments which is absolutely wonderful.
There is so much that can be said about this so I’ll try to keep it as concise as possible.
Character animators are responsible for all character body and face performance and actions, animating props, and sometimes fx and camera (if working in 3D). I won’t cover the entire production pipeline here, but just the tasks of the two departments that lead up to animation and the task of the animators.
In animation production there is usually a lipsync department and a layout department. Lipsync and layout usually happen before the scenes/shots are passed onto animation.
The lipsync department just animates the characters mouths moving to the spoken dialogue. The shots are then passed to layout. The layout artists will then place the camera, characters and props and animate basic camera moves and character position changes. Layout will also import the audio into the file.
Right after layout is completed the animation department can begin working on the shots. When I open up a scene file to begin work, if I play the animation you only see the mouths moving, and characters are generally still.
Before we begin animation we watch the lieca (or animatic) so we know what the episode is about and get a feel for the pacing of the show. It also gives us a chance to see how our assigned section of the show fits in to the whole story.
Time to start animating – As mentioned above, we get our scenes from the layout department with characters placed and camera roughed in.
We work from a hand drawn storyboard to help us with the staging, framing and composition of the scene, we sometimes also use it as a guide for character posing. The storyboards also give us a ‘feel’ for the acting. A good storyboard artist will convey the acting with loose energetic drawing, strong character poses and telling facial expressions for animators to draw inspiration from.
From here I start blocking in rough posing and timing for all the characters and then later refine animation making sure all animation principles are being employed appropriately and in an appealing way – at the same time paying attention to the staging and framing, making sure that there aren’t any large areas of dead space in camera frame, also looking at negative spaces making sure that the camera composition and character posing has appeal, isn’t cluttered and is reads clearly.
We work our way through each scene – first blocking out the rough action, then refining our work with software animation editors. I often play the animation to check it, continually making adjustments and playing it again, often playing particular sections that I am trying to polish until I’m happy with it.
Posing and timing is the foundation of good character animation – They are the two most important animation principles that help to convey physics/weight and what the character is thinking and feeling (the acting) – that’s why we usually start with poses and timing….make sure that’s working well and then refine from there.
The general order of animation is Lip sync, then layout, then animators do the body animation and facial animation last.
Most studios will have launch meetings before they begin a new project with all animators, lead animators, supervisors, and directors present. This is just an orientation and a chance for the director to make comments on particular sections of the episode/film and for everyone else to ask questions and express any artistic or technical concerns.
Often during production the director will hold daily meetings, sometimes weekly meetings to watch what has been animated so far and give direction, retake notes to the animators as the production is coming together.
Equipment – Hardware/Software
Most studios now have dual screen work stations. This allows you more screen space for the various items that an animator will often have open at one time.
These items usually include:
- Software interface where you do your animation
- Digital storyboard, usually in the form of a PDF.
- Internet browser, animators will often get reference from the internet. YouTube is fantastic for that.
- Product management tool. All studios have some sort of web system or piece of software that helps keep track of all project elements and tracks the progress of all shots/scenes and episodes in production.
Everyone uses their screen space differently. For example, I like to animated with the software interface up on the left screen and have my animation editors, storyboard and management tool on the right screen. I keep the browser minimized for when I need it.
Many studios owners, and large conglomerate media companies that produce animation like to keep with the tradition of animation studios being a fun place to work. After all, we are making cartoons!
Some studios even bring in beer and pizza on occasion! Gotta love that…many studios have screening rooms (sort of a mini theater) and will sometimes have a movie showing in the afternoon. I’ve been at studios that will allow group video game play on Friday afternoons (along with beverages).
As great as it is to take part in these activities at work, they’re only permitted as long as quotas are met or on track with the schedule. Almost all studios will throw a wrap party at the end of a production (or season). All the wrap parties I’ve attended were either at the studio or in a pub. Usually all production staff are there lamenting of the challenges and lessons the project brought, and of course there’s always food, drinks and good times.