5 Things to Do Before You Start Animating

Preparation is the key to successful animations

Teenager drawing on a pad while listening to music

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Ever tried to start an animation from scratch without any planning? If you have, it probably ended in disaster. When animators get an idea, they're tempted to dive right in and start scribbling frame after frame by hand or in animation software. More often than not, the project ends up wandering off the beaten path with no idea where it's going. Slowing down isn't much fun, but it'll save your projects in the end. Try following these five steps before you start your next animation, and you'll see the difference preparation makes in your projects.

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 write out everything to understand where the animation is headed. You may need to make last-minute changes to the story when you run up against constraints or problems, but that basic framework is still there. Write a narrative or a script, complete with stage direction, notes on camera pan, zoom, and angles. Plan every detail. You'll need your plan 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 several angles. Draw them at rest. Draw them moving. Draw them angry and draw them happy. Draw the way their hands move as they're speaking. Draw the finer details of their piercings or tattoos, or the weird designs on their T-shirts. Render them in color. Create full character sheets.

If you have inanimate objects that appear in the scene, draw them too — especially if they're moving objects such as cars or spaceships. This helps you a lot later during the animation process. Creating character sheets helps you formalize this process, and you can use them as a reference later. You'd be surprised how far they go in lending consistency and regularity to your animations. Not only that, but they also help 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 identify the requirements of each scene — how many characters are in each, what backgrounds you need, and the kind of music or voice-overs you require.

Create a storyboard detailing scene action, camera action, effects, and colors. Make the words of your story or script into images with clear directions. Creating visual instructions for yourself forms the framework guiding you throughout the animation process.

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 pick X number of arbitrary frames to fill in between your keyframes, you may leave your cheetah floating slowly through the air or hurtling at deadly speeds. Not only that, but not all motion continues at the same speed.

Sometimes there's an ease in and ease out, such as the wind-up for a baseball pitch. You'll also likely be working with time constraints. How long do you want your animation to be? What can be cut to fit into those time constraints? Knowing these things helps you create dope sheets mapping out the frames you need to draw.

Create a Workflow and a Project Plan

By now, you probably have a clear idea of the work you need to do for your animation. Write that information down. Decide the order you'll complete each stage of the project and your methodology. Practice a little discipline and stick to your plan. Set a timeline, especially if you're working on a deadline for someone else. Work out how much time you need for each part within realistic expectations, and then break down how you'll allow that time over X number of days.

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

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