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What is an Animation Pipeline?

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Few like to think of animation as a product to be processed like oil or an automobile. But given the amount of work required to animate a feature film, a good workflow is essential to keep the process moving and ensure that the end result is of high quality. Learn more about the animation pipeline from start to finish.


Andrea Miloro, Co-President of Fox Animation, says the pipeline starts with an idea for a story, which can come from any number of places. Sometimes the studio buys a pitch or script from a writer, sometimes an idea is inspired by a magazine article or an idea can come from somebody in-house. The process for turning an idea into a story can take many different forms. Sometimes, a complete screenplay is written and developed the same way a script for a live-action film would be. An idea also can involve a lot of back and forth between writers, directors, producers and concept artists seeking an idea that works in animation that only later is nailed down into a screenplay format.

Feature animation is a marathon, whereas live-action films tend to be a sprint.

The creative idea goes through a lengthy development process that creates a lot of conceptual artwork. It then runs through a 3D visual development team before being laid down on storyboards. “We try to build an environment and we put the character in it. That way, we know what we have for the look of a picture,” Miloro says.

Bruce Seifert, who was production manager for DreamWorks Animation’s Over the Hedge and associate producer on How to Train Your Dragon, says the actual animation process starts with modeling, surfacing, and rigging or character TD. “We look for riggers with great programming skills as well as a great eye for how things move and the anatomy of how real animals and people are constructed and how their joints work.”

Trailer for How to Train Your Dragon © DreamWorks Animation

Simultaneously, the layout department blocks out the basics of each shot. “This is where you start looking at your environments, placing your characters, figuring where your camera is going to be and telling your story,” Miloro says.

Both studios divide features into sequences. Seifert says there are about 30 sequences in a DreamWorks feature, each made up of about 48 shots. “We do our best to put entire sequences into the pipeline for greater efficiency,” he says.

With the film laid out and the characters rigged up, character animators work out the specifics of posture, expression, and action – often using reference of themselves or the voice actor to find just the right nuance. “(Character animators) must have great acting ability, as well as a keen eye for the way different people and animals move,” Seifert says. “They also need to be great comedians, with an impeccable sense of timing and how to land a joke.”

Animation support is a good way to get a foot in the door and start working on pipeline with other animators.

The final steps in the pipeline add polish and assemble the final elements. Effects groups handle clothes, hair, fur, smoke, dust, water, and other elements, many of which would be considered visual effects on a live-action film. Lighting and final wrap it up, combining all the elements created so far – including 2D elements like matte paintings for backgrounds – into the final render of each frame.

It takes a long time for a film to move through the pipeline, but the workload in animation is easier to pace than it is in visual effects. “Feature animation is a marathon, whereas live-action films tend to be a sprint,” says Seifert. Miloro says Sony tries to balance out the workload into 45- to 50-hour work weeks, with Saturday shifts required only when necessary.

For entry-level animators, Miloro says animation support is a good way to get a foot in the door and start working on pipeline with other animators. There remain, however, a limited number of animation jobs at any one time. Technical jobs such as shader writers, EFX animators/developers and character riggers are among the harder jobs for studios to fill and therefore those skills are the most in demand.

Many studios use a lot of proprietary programs that animators have to learn on the job, making a basic understanding of animation mechanics more important than knowing specific programs. “Somebody who’s really willing to jump in and be part of the team is key when you’re first starting out,” says Miloro.

Want to learn more about the animation pipeline? Read Bobby Beck’s post via Artella!


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