5 Things You (Probably) Don't Know About Animated Movies

by AnomalousArtist

Animated films, both the "character" and "creature F/X" variety, are more popular today than ever...but what do you really know about how they're made?

As of this writing I've been working in the animation business for over 20 years. I have worked at small shops and big corporations like Disney and DreamWorks. I've worked on "traditional" or "hand-drawn" features, low-budget commercials and huge-budgeted, Oscar-winning special effects spectaculars. It's been a rewarding, challenging and, I think, unique journey that has garnered me a lot of success and has garnered my friends and family a lot of...confusion!

In this article I will attempt to shed some light on the complex, ever-evolving world of "animation" and share some of the things I know about the industry that are not common, or often misunderstood.

To clarify, and to keep things simple (an article, "What Is Animation?" would be book length!) I'm limiting my discussion to the kind of animation I have been primarily involved in, that is, professional animated feature films where there are:

1) images created by drawing single frames of action, shot on film and projected so they appear to be moving and

2) images created on a computer, rendered one frame at a time and played back so they appear to be moving.

There are endless details as to differences in animation techniques, styles and levels of complexity; I'm assuming my reader has a general understanding of how animation works and concentrating here on the business of commercial animation as a job I have worked in: bigger budgeted films that you might see at your local theater.

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1) It takes a LOT of people to make an animated film

When I worked at Disney in the 90s there were hundreds of artists working on the films we produced.  There was a full staff in Burbank, one in Florida and one in France as well.  Nearly 20 years later when I worked on "Life Of Pi" at Rhythm And Hues we had a full studio staff in Los Angeles and two studios India. There was, technically, only one main character and a couple of lesser characters to animate and the film still required a lot of people to make it happen.

To further break it down, when I was at Disney we were expected to do roughly one drawing per hour.  Consider this:

  • one second of Beauty and Beast dancing in a ballroom is 24 frames

  • 24 frames in animation language could mean anywhere from 12-24 drawings, let's average it to 20, so if there were 2 characters that means there were 40 drawings

  • so it would take one artist roughly 40 hours, or a full workweek, to draw one second of Beauty and Beast dancing

  • if there are 4,800 seconds in an 80 minute movie and even ¾ of the movie is "fully animated" (meaning, per second,  there may be a dozen characters that need to be animated or just one or sometimes none) that means around 288,000 drawings/hours are required, and I'm not going to figure any further than that because the number is too ridiculous to even conceive of!

The point is that it takes a lot more people than the average viewer can begin to fathom to create even one second of animation: I've only mentioned the artists who draw the actual characters you see on the screen and have neglected to mention the people who created the backgrounds, the people who designed the characters or colored them or storyboarded their rough actions and on and on. 

It's a testament to the enduring popularity of cartoons that I don't think most people really can imagine how nearly impossible it is that these films can even be made!

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2) It takes a lot of TIME to make an animated film

I've only hinted above at the time constraints that happen on a typical production.  On just about any average-to-big-budget film in Hollywood, animated or not, the time spent on actually producing the "entertainment product" is dwarfed by how much time was spent PLANNING it.  The time from the green lighting (or "approval") of the original idea to the day the film officially begins production can be months...years. 

Just to bring up a rather extreme example, Walt Disney had always wanted to keep his project "Fantasia," from 1940, evolving.  A sequel was finally planned to come out in the 90s but didn't hit theaters until 2000.  While the new film was not in the planning stages actively all that time it definitely took many years to see the light of day, and is now not really remembered much at all. 

A person who wants to work in the animation industry has to get used to being...patient!  Things move very, very sloooowly and the results of the work can take a long time to be revealed.  Many times I worked on a film for a year or more only to have it come out and flop, just like that!  All that work, gone in one disappointing opening weekend! 

The animation business is not for the faint of heart!  As one seasoned veteran warned me when I first started out: "Don't be too concerned with the end product; enjoy the time you work on the film, because that's what matters."  I think that might be applicable to "life" too, of course!


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3) Animated films are made by committee

This is one of the most popular misconceptions I run across when I talk to people about what I do, or have done.  Many is the time I've had someone approach me and say, "I have this great idea for an animated film," assuming that because I work in the business I have some inside connections to the script departments.  Similarly I've had people express a desire to direct or do voice work on the films I've worked on.

I feel bad sometimes but must be brutally honest when I respond to them that it's very, very difficult to get into doing jobs like that on animated films! 

Consider how much time I've mentioned these films take to make, and how many people must be employed...that is...PAID for their specialized services.  Producers acquiring money to pay for these films pour a lot of cash into the projects and in return expect a lot of cash to come BACK, and can't afford to risk ANYTHING. They want to be sure they've eliminated any variables and can be as sure as possible their investment will pay off.

Further, I heard some statistic that your chances of having your screenplay turned into a movie in Hollywood are *less than winning the state lottery!* 

Animated film stories are generally handled like live-action film scripts: producers with clout or money have a series of, hopefully, money-making ideas pitched to them by the talent they've hired to do so, they then pay a staff of accomplished, proven screenwriters/storyboard artists to flesh the ideas out (going through ENDLESS variations), they then find the most recognizable talent they can afford to do the voice/acting work and then either hand it off to a local studio or, as with Disney/DreamWorks, do the production work in-house. 

As the animation is progressing the "money people" who want to keep tabs on their investment are constantly supervising it.  There is an uneasy rapport sometimes between the artists making the film and the people paying for the film to be made, but at no time is any one person creating anything on "an island."  As with commercials, every frame costs money and "counts" and they just can't take any chances!

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4) Animation is a business

In case I haven't driven the point home enough yet, animation--indeed, "entertainment" in general, is a business! An audience member gets sucked into a movie or TV series and doesn't think much about what went into the production of the thing they have just enjoyed (if the thing was done well!). 

Hollywood (or whoever produces "entertainment product") looks at movies and TV shows much as a car factory looks at the cars it designs:  is it attractive/functional enough to make people want to buy it?  Is there anything that can be done to make people want to spend MORE money on the product (like...make it 3D!!)?

There's a great push and pull here because, of course, film really is an "art," and the people who make films are the artists, most of whom are deeply devoted to their craft, but unlike other arts it is SO collaborative, and so generally expensive to produce, as I said above, risks are calculated as much as possible, moreso every year as "DIY" entertainment like viral Youtube videos become more prominent.  Hollywood is losing business to people finding things for free on-line that they once paid top dollar for, or finding entertainment in "reality," things that didn't cost money to produce, and where this trend will end remains to be seen.

For the time being, producers of animated films, and films in general, produce projects that one finds in a theater Cineplex or on TV at home with one thing in mind:  is it such a great entertainment experience that an audience will pay cash to experience it?

Life of Pi

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5) Working in animation isn't really all that "fun"

This is a tough idea to explore and I risk sounding cynical when I bring it up. 

The truth is that working in animation as a career, day in and day out for years on end, is, at the end of the day, just a "job" after all!  Again and again I've run into people who assume that because the end product of a film is so moving, thought-provoking or simply entertaining the work that went into it must have been equally full of joie de vivre.

Sometimes animation can be a wonderful job indeed, breathing life into inanimate characters, but oftentimes it is a very dull and unsatisfying process too.  I've worked for supervisors who were micro-managing, I've worked on projects that were soul-deadening, I've worked 15 hour days/7 days a week for weeks on end until I couldn't even remember what my friends and family looked like because a deadline just HAD to be met for a film no one ends up even seeing or caring about.  I've found myself unable to face sitting at my desk for even one more hour thinking about doing what I have to do to make a film that one hopes people will see (but often as not won't, or won't care much about) while others are out simply working at a job and going home every day.  Then I've worked on a project so special it changes my life while I'm involved in it, or touches lives long after I've finished my part in it.

I've been lucky; I've worked on some truly memorable and wonderful films.  Some of the worst films I worked on were the best experiences, and vice versa.  I wouldn't change a thing about the journey that I have taken to get where I am today and for the most part I stayed in the business because I had a passion for it and a level head about what it was I was involved in. 

My purpose in writing this article is to shed some light on an issue that has not often, perhaps, been approached; perhaps someone reading this will look at an animated film some day and think about how much work went into it, how many people poured themselves, their sweat and love, into each frame.  Perhaps some dreamer out there who has a misguided notion of how financially lucrative "dreams" are created in Hollywood will become a little more pragmatic and not have to face the disappointment of cold reality.

Animation is a wonderful thing and I have, and always will, love the medium...if anything I'd like to raise a toast to the people I know who continue to toil in this complicated industry around the world, people who are often unrecognized but continue to work at what they do simply because they love it so much. 

Updated: 06/04/2013, AnomalousArtist
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Tolovaj on 06/08/2013

Beautiful article on animation as business... I worked on radio and several TV stations for decades, so I already knew most of the facts you presented, but you still made some very nice points. I especially liked the one about working on animated movie and life - enjoy every day, not wait for some final result. What I find particularly fascinating in entertaining industry is technology. It is made to make life easier, cut expenses and still we need hundreds of hours for only few seconds of moving pictures, still without sound, music and all post production. I remember how we made only one 30 sec jingle in classic style with one simple mix of two songs, voice over and scotch tape. It took two hours and three men to make it. But if we had all the digital help available, we would probably spend two full days...

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