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How Animated Movies Are Made

What is animation? Animation is the art of brining something to life. How it's brought to life can be done any number of different ways. It can be drawn, like Mike Surrey here to the right. You can make a model of it and move it, like in "The Nightmare Before Christmas." You can put it on a computer, like Toy Story. Or you can cut out bits of paper and move the paper, like (yech) South Park (the original one anyways). You can even move whole people around, photographing them one frame at a time, so they can move without walking. All of these are different forms of animation.

How it all gets started - Pre-Production

Animated movies start much the same way normal movies do. Someone has an idea, that idea gets accepted by a bunch of studio heads, and the studio starts working on it. Ron Clements talks about how "Aladdin" got started in Aladdin: the making of an animated film:

"When we finished Mermaid, we didn't know what we were going to do next. Jeffrey [Katzenburg] offered us three projects. One was Swan Lake. Another was King of the Jungle [which later became The Lion King]. The third was Aladdin. Swan Lake seemed too much like Mermaid, which we had just finished, so it was between King of the Jungle and Aladdin. Aladdin seemed like the most fun."

So much for inspiration. The directors then go on to write out their version of story. The story is discussed and refined (Jasmin's age, for example, was switched from "15" to "indeterminate" when Jeffery Katzenburg decided that they should send out the message that it was all right to get married at age 15!). At the same time, research crews are sent out to the "location" of the film, be it Africa for The Lion King or China for Mulan, so that they'll have something to boast about on the ABC Special just before the film comes out. But seriously, the artists take pictures, make sketches and, well, enjoy themselves (this is the good part of making a movie!) and do play an important role in developing the look and feel of the film. Back at the studio, artists are making inspirational sketches (see pictures on this page) suggesting mood, setting, characters and plot for the movie. Some of these inspirational sketches may also be adapted to become story sketches later in production.

Jobs in Pre-production:

  • Inspirational artist
  • Any other artist at a studio can participate in this stage

Production and Story- The real work begins

Many films never make it past the pre-production stage. Films such as "Hiawatha" and "Chanticlere" are now fading memories in the minds of those who conceived them; they were never made into movies. However, those lucky movies that are given the go-ahead by management now go into production. Production in animation is not like production in live-action, where you just go out, shoot the picture and come home. Well, okay, it is, sort of, but it takes a lot longer. Jurassic Park was in production for about 80 or so days; the bulk of the time was done in pre and post production (the puppet dinosaurs were created in pre and the computer ones were added in post, if you must know). An animated film, however, will be in full production much longer; the shortest was The Great Mouse Detective, which took a year.


So, what's the first stage of production? The storyboards are the first things to be created. A storyboard is basically a giant bristol board, on which you can tack story sketches, which are (surprise!) sketches which illustrate the story. What these boards do is show roughly how every scene in the movie will look. It looks nothing so much like a giant comic strip, with the exception that the dialogue, instead of being included in the drawing, is separated out and put below. (Note: the movie scripts are either written at the same time or slightly before the storyboards. However, the two undergo constant revisions at the same time, so it is fair to say they go together.) The dialogue is also recorded at this time - it too will often undergo revisions. The reason the storyboards are pinned up, in case you haven't guessed, is so that they can be easily torn down, as they often are when the story changes. An entire version of Be Our Guest in "Beauty and the Beast" was scrapped when the story was not working; so were all the story sketches on that part of the boards.


Once the dialogue has been recorded, and the story sketches are finished (at least for the time being), they are combined on what is called the story reel. The story reel is a combination of the soundtrack and the story sketches. Basically, all of the sketches are filmed (or scanned into a computer) in time to the dialogue, so you end up getting a movie, that will sound almost the same as the final movie will, but instead of animation, you just have a picture that changes every few seconds. Some children's television animation stops at this point: they consist only of pictures with a sound track. In full animation, this is just the beginning.

The story reel will later become the work reel as animation is completed. Basically, as each scene is animated, the story sketches are cut out of the reel, and are replaced by the animation. Eventually, all of the story sketches disappear and are replaced by animation, which will be cleaned up and colour; then the work reel actually becomes the final movie. More on that later.

Jobs in Story:

  • Story Sketch Artist
  • Animators and layout artists may contribute ideas at this stage, and occasionally make the actual drawings.
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Top Animation Schools

The Art Institute of Pittsburgh - Online Division

Media Arts & Animation Bachelor's Degree

2D Animation Certificate program

3D Animation Certificate program

Animation Production Certificate program

Full Sail University

Bachelor's Computer Animation

Game Art

Game Design

Westwood College

Bachelor Degree - Animation

Bachelor Degree - Game Art

Bachelor Degree - Game Software Development

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