There is a wise way of making animated films and a not-so-wise way. The latter option is to have no plan at all. That approach would be to jump in when the animation bug grabs you, just keep on drawing as you go, then hopefully arriving at a satisfactory finish at some stage. The odds in favor of achieving that however are extremely low statistically! The smarter way to do it is to accept a proven production process that has evolved slowly as animation's 100-year history has evolved. This method is to plan and structure everything from beginning to end before a single animation drawing is started. The odds on that system succeeding are infinitely higher, as long as the enthusiasm to continue to the end remains strong. We will therefore spend a moment here exploring that process, as it will give a deeper insight into the achievements of the past, as well as aid you greatly if you too plan to make an animated film of your own in the future.

Disney "Lightboxes" ~ animators not included!

The greats of the past slowly evolved a solid production process though much trial and error - and even despite the great changes in digital animation technology today there is still great value in adopting that same system. The whole thing is well documented in my book "How To Make Animated Films".

For now however let us explain the main stages of approach that worked just fine for decades now. These are - "script", "storyboard", "character designs", "concept art", "guide audio track", "animatic", "layouts", "pencil animation", "clean-up animation", "ink & paint", "background art", "filming or scanning", "compositing", "rendering", "final audio record", "Foley/effects record" and "final dub". The full details of each of these stages is well described in the book but suffice it to say, there is probably more to animated filmmaking that your ever suspected! Following such a process is always advised however as not to do so invites huge risks of failure!

"Storyboarding" begins the filmic visual process.

With "Endangered Species" I pretty much did follow these basics. If it had been a professional studio production - that is with adequate budget, schedule and distribution assets to work with - I could have focused on it even more structually that I did. But all I had was myself, my beginner students and an improvised summer break schedule to work with. Consequently, instead of embracing a regular ‘script’ and ‘storyboard’ stage up front, I pretty much carried the whole of that part of the process in my head. This is very much NOT to be advised for the first-time (or second, or third) filmmaker. But over a number of decades - that is, over 200 productions later - I felt I had developed a reliable instinct and discipline towards the production process. So unless something untoward happened to me, the early stages of the production pretty much proceeded on a "wing and a prayer" basis. I did very quickly create an "animatic" of the entire film however. This is effectively a filmed storyboard of the entire film, timed out to a guide soundtrack. This was immediately adopted as the production's "bible" - meaning that is showed every scene set-up, with each one timed to the correct length, enabling the whole production team to see exactly what was required from a "big picture" perspective. Without that, it would be pretty much impossible for an inexperienced team to work in unison on such a production. 

[sample animatic section]

Once the animatic was in place I put on my director's cap on and objectively viewed - and reviewed - the entire thing over and over again. This allowed me to better assess it for its strengths and weaknesses. I also showed it to others in the production team for their independent feedback too - adjusting things accordingly when and as required, until it pretty much became the film structure (sans animation) that you have already seen.

Remember that for 99% of the time it is always wise in sharing your vision with others before you go ahead with the full production. Your friends and work colleagues may well have a similar view to you, but there's always something that can be changed - or someone who has a slightly different twist to what you're thinking. Something like this can often take your idea to the next, more valuable, level. Sometimes their opinions, although well meant, will undermine what you visualize. However, as director you have to take responsibility for the final decision-making, so it does help to listen to all opinions. Remember too that unless you're making your film for simply yourself alone, it will ultimately be seen by a very varied and diverse audience. So it is often valuable to have varied and diverse opinions about what you're intending to do up front.

(Note: One piece of advice I suggest to you here is to not rely so much of family members to do this. In most circumstances they will not wish to hurt your feelings, or they will most likely not have enough production experience to know what is good and what is not. So they're most likely to tell you what you want to hear, rather than what you need to hear. Consequently, the opinion of work colleagues, or complete strangers, is a far better route for honest feedback here!)

Ultimately, if you really want to make the best possible film you can, you simply have to be courageous enough to face the honesty of feedback at this really important conceptual stage, otherwise you could be in for a great deal of hurt later. You don't want to spend days, weeks, months or even years working on a production, only to find it misses the mark with your intended audience! Ultimately though you will hopefully arrive at a finely-tuned animatic version of your idea, which finally works well enough for it to go forward to the full animation production stage. This is where the real hard work begins!

In a really well oiled and financed film, "production folders" will be made up at this stage. A production folder is a wrap-around devise that contains all the layout drawings, sketches and other necessary written instructions that the animator needs to follow when animating each scene. The production folder will also contain information for other departments on the production, which give them special information that maybe the director, or animator, has in mind. So, in knowing how complex "Endangered Species" was going to be for such an untested student team, I made sure that I created production folders for every scene in the film before I did anything else.

On a professional level production folders are usually pre-printed, carboard folders designed for the job. But in the "stone soup" situation we were in with "Endangered Species", I merely photocopied 11" x 17" paper sheets - 80 in all - folded them in half and used them as the formal wrap-around production folders for each scene. This was a cheap 'n cheerful approach it's true. But it was perfectly adequate for keeping everything in order and ensuring that everyone on the team would be, quite literally, on the same page!

(Note: Production folder information - invariably located on the outside of the folder - should break down the details of each scene, establishing the precise length of each scene, in seconds and frames, as well as any other information that the team will need to know about what it required.)

I created my own "Production Folder" for "Endangered Species".

The remainder of the "Endangered Species" process pretty much conformed to the established production stages listed above. I did additionally create an "Excel-based" spreadsheet to record progress as we went along. This proved as an effective production tool. As each part of each scene was worked on and completed, it was recorded on the spreadsheet. It is actually quite satisfying to be able to check off each stage upon completion as, if nothing else, this provides a valuable visual indication of progress - in the sense that you can immediately see at any time during the production what has been completed and what is still to go.

[progress chart]

This concludes a very simple overview of what really goes into the production of an animated film. However, as little as we have covered here, I think it underlines to the reader that ANY finished animated film has a mountain of other, unseen work behind it! Perhaps this realization alone will significantly add to your understanding of what was really going on behind the scenes in the creations of some quite amazing filmmakers in animation's past?

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