~ So, How Do You Animate?

When chatting with others about my lifelong interest in animation, I’ve often been asked, “How do you animate?” I’ve been asked this by kids and adults alike, and I always pause a second and ask myself whether or not I should answer with the long and technical version or with something short and sweet. I then remind myself of how fascinated I used to be with the mystery of it and being one who wants to encourage the next generation of animators, I usually decide to share my process.

So, I thought I’d share my process with you, as I’ve recently posted an Animated Halloween short and have begun production on an animated holiday greeting short (my fingers are crossed that it’ll be finished a few days before Christmas so I can share it here as well as with my friends and family! I predict that quite a few working weekends are in my near future).

So, how do I animate?

Pre-production Phase

For me, it all starts with an idea. In an earlier post about keeping track of ideas, I shared a few ways that I manage all of the ideas that come to me. I’ve always said that if I don’t get them written down somewhere, they’ll just keep swimming around and blocking new ideas from surfacing.

Then I work to flesh that idea out a little bit so that I have a simple story to tell. The basic conventions of a story are that it should have at least one character, a problem, and a solution. Adding events along the way to the resolution helps to create a climax and build the tone of the story. Do I want it to be funny…sad…heartfelt? In animation, one has to sometimes rely on exaggeration and/or symbolism, so widely accepted gestures of humor, sadness, or love are drawn upon.

Next is storyboarding. Yes, I know that I wrote an earlier post about how much I hate storyboarding – and I still do – but that doesn’t make the need for a storyboard less important. I build the animation from the storyboard, it becomes a “to do” list during the production phase. For my recent shorts, my storyboards have been simple, simple, simple. At this point, I develop and put myself on a production schedule and I honestly don’t have the time to draw more elaborate storyboard frames. It’s the plan that’s more important.

Sample Storyboard

I’ll then take the storyboard and “break it down.” What that means is that I’ll figure out what props, scenes, actions, music, and sound effects will be used. The idea is to develop a list of items that I’ll need to create or anticipate before ever starting to animate.


It’s in this phase that I come up with the look of the characters, as well. This phase takes a lot of concentration because I focus on each frame of the storyboard and imagine what it will look like when finished.

Production Phase

When all of the planning’s done, I recruit and record the voice talent. In my case, I use volunteers and family members who are interested in recording. Up until this point, the story has mostly been in my head or on a piece of paper as a storyboard. But, while recording folks, parts of the story start coming to life for me and I sometimes ask the person recording to say a line in a different way so that it matches the picture in my head. It’s a fun process and very empowering to direct people, I’ll just be honest about that (wink). After I have everyone’s lines recorded, I clean up the audio as much as possible and then put it to the side.

It’s then time to get started on creating, creating, creating…and creating. I refer to my scene break down, which by now has been compiled into one long list of things needing to be created and I prioritize what will take the longest to make and therefore will be the first things I make. It may be different for other folks, but for me, the longest things to make are background scenery. It’s important to think about color combinations, textures, and styles so that everything seems unified when it’s all put together.

Sample of unified colors

After creating a library of all of the individual pieces and characters (including the same character from different angles), I prioritize the frames of the storyboard. Just like a movie, an animation can be created out of sequence, so the tougher-to-animate scenes can be finished first. I just prefer it that way. In the Halloween short, the scene that I actually animated first was the mirror sequence. It was a tough one.

Screenshot of mirror scene

Then it’s time to animate. I start a new file for each sequence so that I won’t lose too much if something happens to one file. At this point, I simply hunker down for the long haul. I try to be patient with myself and the process. When I need to animate a character speaking lines, I’ll often need to listen to the same line over and over again to match the mouth movements with the sound. Animating takes patience and time, oh so much time!


Finally, the moment comes when the last frame/sequence is rendered and saved, and I have a long list of numbered files that are ready to be pieced and edited together. I use iMovie to bring the pieces together and then I add the audio track (which should match the mouth movements because I used it to animate!). I spend some time editing the sequences – some might need to be shortened and others might need transitions like fading in and out. This phase doesn’t take too long and it’s fun seeing a rough cut of the animation come together.

Screenshot of iMovie

I then add all the sound effects and music and edit a little more, if needed. After all of this work, the only thing left is to tie up some loose ends, like an introduction/title sequence and credits. I put the final touches on and viola! It’s done.

I once asked a film director how he felt each time he released a movie for the public to view on YouTube. He told me that he had a feeling of separation anxiety because by the time the public saw it, he had already spent an extraordinary amount of time with it. I’m not a film director, but I totally get that and second the motion. Though the two shorts that I’ve released so far have been viewed less than 50 times, I still felt that same separation anxiety the nights I made them live on YouTube. I had labored over them and wanted them to be well-received.

So, this is the long-winded version of how I animate.

What’s your process? How do you do what you do?


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