5 Things to Do Before You Ever Start Animating

Ever tried to start an animation from scratch without planning a single thing? I'm guessing it ended in disaster. When we get a new idea, it's tempting to dive right in and start scribbling frame after frame, but more often than not we end up wandering off the beaten path with no idea where we're going. Slowing down isn't much fun, but it'll save your project in the end. To help keep yourself in order, try following these five simple steps before you get started.

Know Your Story

Many people, especially beginners, dive into an animation with an idea, but no real story. While every story starts off with a concept, you need to really write out everything to understand what you're doing and plan ahead. You may need to make some last-minute changes to the story when you run up against constraints or problems, but that basic framework still needs to be there. Write out a narrative. Heck, write a script, complete with stage direction, notes on camera pan, zoom, and angles, etc. Plan out every detail. You'll need it later.

Know Your Characters

Don't just do one quick sketch of your characters. Do several, and not just one or two facial shots. Draw them full-body, from numerous angles. Draw them at rest; draw them moving. Draw them angry. Draw them happy. Draw the way their hands move as they're speaking. Draw the finer details of their piercings, or tattoos, or even the weird designs on their t-shirts. Render them in color. Create full character sheets. Heck, if you have inanimate objects that appear in the scene, draw them too - especially if they're moving objects such as cars, space ships, who knows what else. This will help you a lot later, during the animation process. We know what our characters look like in our heads, but we may be inconsistent in getting that down on paper when actually in the process of animating. Creating character sheets helps you formalize that, and you can use it as a reference later. You'd be surprised how far it goes in lending consistency and regularity to your animations. Not only that, but it helps you render your characters in as few lines as possible to cut out excess work.

Plan Your Scenes

Unless you're animating a one-scene short, you'll have several different scenes in your animation. Take a look at your story or script. Mark where one scene ends and the next begins, then sit down and concretely identify the requirements of each scene. How many characters will be in each, what backgrounds you'll need, what kind of music or voiceovers you'll require. Create a storyboard detailing scene action, camera action, effects, colors, etc. Make the words of your story / script into images with clear directions. This will form the framework guiding you throughout the process. It's basically visual instructions to yourself.

Map Out Your Timing

Proper timing is essential to animation. Not everything moves at the same speed; running X distance won't require the same number of frames as walking X distance. If you animate a cheetah leaping but just pick X number of arbitrary frames to fill in between your keyframes, you may leave your cheetah floating slowly through the air, or plummeting at deadly speeds. Not only that, but not all motion continues for the same speed; sometimes there's an ease in and ease out, such as the wind-up for a baseball pitch. You'll also be working with time constraints, likely; how long do you want your animation to be? What can be cut that isn't essential, to fit into those time constraints? Knowing this will help you create dope sheets mapping out the frames you'll need to draw.

Create a Workflow and a Project Plan

Steps 1-4 should have helped you form a clear idea of what work you need to do for your animation, and in what stages. Write that down. Decide in what order you'll complete each stage of your project and your methodology. Stick to that; practice a little discipline. Set yourself a timeline, especially if you're working on a deadline for someone else. Work out how much time you'll need for each part, within realistic expectations, and then break down how you'll allot that time over X number of days.

Following these guidelines won't make you a perfect animator, but they'll help keep you on track and help you establish a professional working process.