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2D Computer Animation Workshop: Let's Get Started

Every month, we'll cover a different aspect of using your computer as a tool to help you in the cel animation process...

Quick! Name the first three examples of computers used in animation that you can think of! I'll bet you came up something like ReBoot, Toy Story, and maybe the wildebeest stampede from The Lion King.

You wouldn't be wrong to think of those, or something else from the 3D computer animation realm. But computers are making significant inroads into the realm of 2D animation production. As you probably already know, most feature animated films made in this decade have been inked, painted, and composited with a little help from our digital friends. Theyve also helped with effects, camera moves, multiplane effects, and more. Even people who dont follow the animation scene all that closely are vaguely aware that cel animation is often done with computers.

And yet when many animatorsbe they professionals, students, or neophytes who want to learn the craftthink of creating cel animation on their own, theyre often unaware of how computers can help them. Of course, there is some validity to this line of thinking; the systems that the big studios use are generally comprised of expensive software running on expensive hardware, well out of the price range of most individuals. However, there are lower-cost alternatives. Using off-the-shelf software and hardware, anyone can make use of digital tools for some or all of the animation process; your limits are largely defined by what you can afford or have access to.

Finding those limits is where this column comes in. Every month, I'll cover a different aspect of using your computer as a tool to help you in the animation process. Most of the time, this will mean looking at how to do some or all of the steps of traditional cel animation techniques using the box on your desk. In some other cases, we won't be going near actual animation at all, instead dealing with the other tasks related to animation: organizational methods, practical considerations for computer hardware and software, and so on.

Think of this column as more of a workshop, where I'll be presenting a wide variety of information, from which you can pick and choose as you please. And, like any good workshop, I'd like for this to be less of a sermon and more of a dialogue. If you've got a question, comment, or suggestion, by all means let me know.

There are a few things you'll need to have before we can start on our merry way.

1. A computer. Note that I didn't say what kind. Although most of my examples will be from a Windows 98 viewpoint, thats only because I have a PC on my desk. It shouldnt matter, though: this series of columns is all about general principles, which should carry over onto just about any platform. Just to offer some perspective: Im still a huge Amiga fan, and until recently I used to shuttle images back and forth between my venerable Amiga 3000 and my PC, using the tools that best suited my needs. In fact, if you have the opportunity to use two different kinds of computers, do so. Youll find your toolbox can expand significantly.

By the same token, I'm going to try to cover related gadgets and software as generically as possible. Ill actually be using products such as Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Premiere, or a Sony Digital Mavica, but again this is largely based on convenience. You might just as easily use a different product, depending on the particular feature I'm explaining. The important thing is the principle.

2. Hard disk space. And lots of it. Just as a single frame in an animated film is made up of many cels, one final digital image might be made up of several images. Also, consider that each frame probably had a rough image, an inked image, a colored image, and so on. Oh, and lets not forget those animation tests.You should really set aside about one gigabyte of free hard disk space, if you can spare it. If you have removable storagea Zip or Jaz drive, for examplethats even better: you can easily offload files you dont need to work on directly.

3. Memory. As much as you can spare. Youre working with graphics, and lots of them. Nuff said.

4. An animation disc, or at least a pegbar. Yes, I know this is a column about creating cel animation digitally. But the drawings themselves are still done the old-fashioned way. (If youre one of the few who can draw directly on screen with a mouse or graphics tablet, I salute you. Youre also exempt from this requirement.)

Next time around, well start by creating an exposure sheet using your favorite spreadsheet program. After all, as flexible as computers are, nothing beats good planning. See you next time.

Emru Townsend writes about animation and cinema at every opportunity. He resides at, and you can visit his website at