Disney’s Animation Techniques

There are many techniques to creating animated films but they are separated into three basic categories. These categories are called traditional animation, stop-motion and computer generated imagery (CGI). Within each of these are subcategories. Each process uses a different type of medium to create the illusion of movement and a flowing plot.

Hand drawn animation, also known as Classic or Cale animation, is exactly how it sounds. Each picture is hand drawn, every little movement is a new picture. This process only dominated the animation world until the computer animation had begun. Cel is the celluloid sheet, or a transparent sheet that the animators drew or painted on. Although it was effective it had some major issues including being flammable and the occasional misalignment. There are a few other types of techniques categorized under the traditional animation but they are considered short cuts on low budget films. In the 1990s Disney Studios had officially changed to animating via the computer, which also helped cut costs.

Stop motion is the process of physically manipulating an object to look like they appear to move on their own, through taking photos of each slight movement. The photos are then put together in a series to look like the objects move. It is similar to a flip book but makes a film. At 24 pictures per a second our eyes can hold the images long enough for it to appear realistic. Tim Burton is famous for misuse of stop motion in his animated films. The cut out technique produces animation by using flat characters, props and background. The silhouette process is similar to the cut out process. Essentially it is the same method but the characters will be silhouetted. There is the puppet techniques and clay animation technique where one uses puppets and the other uses clay figures.

Computer generated imagery is the most recent and most popular to date. Most, if not all the images, including slight movements, are done on the computer. The animation can be done in 2D or 3D; it is similar to the hand drawings but done on the computer. Lastly the xerography process is like photocopying. It eliminates the hard in stage by printing the drawings directly to the cels. There are two basic techniques used, which are 2D and 3D. 2D is generally created by bitmap graphics, or a similar program, that generate flatness to the work. In 3D each object is modeled and manipulated to feel like they belong in our world but on the computer. The 3D technique became popular when “Toy Story” came out in 1995. No matter which process is used, Disney follows this basic organized process to create their wonderful films.

Walt Disney was a great boss but did not follow a rigid procedure according to Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson in their book “The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation.” They go on to explain the basic way Disney’s animated movies are created/ It begins with a stylist who comes in and draws a few things to give inspiration and ideas for plots. Their responsibility was to “create a way of visualizing the whole concept so that it would be attractive and fresh and establish integrity of design for both characters and locales” (191). Then the story man comes along, otherwise known as a writer, who has a basic script but meets with everyone to throw around ideas and concepts. He creates a basic story line using a story board. The storyboard is a visual of the basic script, no dialogue just emotion, relationship and location in sketches. These were done by the story sketch artist. Next up id the director who is more like Disney’s assistant. The responsibility of the director entails organizing the ideas of films, almost like an assistant, so that Walt Disney was in peace to think and work creatively. Sometimes the director had to make executive decisions. One of the most important tasks was to cast the voices. Although the crew new the basics of their characters and the storyline, they refused to fully develop their characters until they had the right actor and actress for the part. This could be a long process because they wanted very specific characteristics to help make the character come alive. Once they found the perfect voice they would record the lines so that the animators could get to their experimental sketches. Before the animators could hear the recording more had to be done. The assistant director, whose responsibility was to trouble shoot problems, record keep and help the cutter, and the cutter who keeps, marks and stores the sound and pictures. Together they sync the sounds with images. For a short while Disney had a “Character Model Department,” who inspired new characters, some of them even created sculptures for the animators to work off of. The department however disbanded by World War II. Story reel is the sequenced sketches on film for the director to watch. If the director does not lie it he goes back to the layout man and his animators. The layout man’s responsibility is for the appearance of the movie. “He works with the director on the staging and dramatization, building ideas of the story sketch man. He designs the backgrounds, suggests the pattern of action for the animator, indicates camera positions for the most effective shoot and cutting that will tell the story in the most entertaining way” (212). Experimental animation is when the animators create a variety of sketches to show the character’s personality based off the voice recordings and the approved story reel. All this is done by the supervising animator. The supervising animator mainly oversaw the animator’s work and will do anything to help them move the production along. The animator’s have the best and yet one of the hardest jobs. They are responsible for the spectacular story, layout, painting and styling and make it come together to captivate the audience and bring the magic to life. They finish their scenes using “the handout” which consists of the tape record, exposure sheet, and final storyboard, layout of size position and movement and scene description. As they work they use the pose test to make sure that their characters were the right size and had a fluid movement through the camera scene. When the animator’s believe they are finished with their scenes, the assistant animator looks over the work and cleans it up. Then they watch the work reel, which means the film correct sequence of scenes to show the fluidity. Once that reel is approved and makes sense without the use of sounds then the music, voices and sound effects are matched exactly to the cels of the film. This is so that when the film is played back the sounds go along with what is seen. It is harder than it sounds but that is a simple explanation of how Walt Disney Studios produced their animation films using the traditional process.

Although it may seem even easier using a computer to generate animated films, it uses a similar procedure as a traditional animation and just as much talent. They start with a storyboard to play around with ideas. Pixar Studios uses the storyboard more as a blueprint to achieve their animation goals. Their sketches for this phase is revised a number of times before it is completed. The second phases called modeling, where objects, sets and characters are made 3 dimensionally on the computer using the Pixar software “Marionette.” They also use “Marionette” to reproduce movements and behaviors for their characters. This is where it is different from the traditional hand drawn process. Animators get the main poses and actions and then the software is able to fill in the between shots so the character moves fluidly. The fourth step is shading in colors and textures using shading programs. The animators use shading carefully to make the appearances look very realistic. Next animators add lighting to the animation that simulates stage lighting using a program called “Digital Lighting.” The final step uses the “RenderMan” software to “compute every pixel of the image from the model, animation, shading and lighting information … and uses Pixar’s patented motion blur” to create and copy DVDs. It seems like it would tae no time compared to the traditional process however the “RenderMan” software can take up to 20 hours for execution.

If you are interested in learning more about Disney, the process and how all the films connect, please give me a follow and you can get my boo The Disney Pixar Connection on November 20th, 2020 which is available now for pre order on Amazon.

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