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Paper: There's More To It Than You Think

When it comes to defining what is and is not a 'true' animation paper, opinion varies. I might add that this variety of opinion ...

With all the talk and hype concerning the latest digital technologies emerging to 'revolutionize' animation, we may be overlooking the most important component of the entire process - the paper we draw on. More specifically, the animation paper we draw on. When it comes to defining what is and is not a `true' animation paper, opinion varies. I might add that this variety of opinion is matched only by the number of people surveyed! Over the past three and a half years I have made it my mission to learn exactly what it takes to make a great animation paper. Now I am going to share my enlightenment with you. Before I begin, I want to thank the numerous artists who have helped me along this journey. Without their input the quest for this grail would likely have eluded me. A High Wire Balancing Act How `heavy' will the sheet be? What type of surface treatments will it have? Will the sheet be `rough' or `smooth?' How will it erase? How will it accept pencil lines? Will it smudge? How translucent is the sheet? What color will it be? How well will it stand up to rough handling? These, and many more questions, are important to answer when talking about a `true' animation paper. Each of these characteristics will mean something different to each artist. For example, the drawing style of animators has a `looser' feel to the drawing which may lend itself to a different set of surface treatments for their paper. A clean-up artist may want a sheet that produces a `tight,' dark line that does not smudge easily. Translucency and `toughness' may be important to inbetweeners who have to `flip' or roll the sheets of paper extensively. And so it goes on... Dispelling Myths About Paper The first myth I want to dispel is the one that says, "Paper is paper. What's the big deal?" To the contrary, paper is not just paper, especially when it comes to animation! The raw materials, the techniques and the secrets behind making paper are as guarded to the paper makers as would be the story for the next animated blockbuster! Paper makers have reputations built upon their processes and products and ruthlessly protect the integrity of these processes and products. The skill of the paper maker can be likened to that of any master craftsman whose wisdom and vision separate the inferior from the superior product. Much of my education about paper making has been bestowed upon me by some of the top paper makers in the United States and I have grown truly to appreciate their craft. Paper making is not an exact science and I am always in awe of a paper maker's ability to reproduce a standard product literally `from scratch' time after time. The second myth I would like to dispel is that, `Any paper will work for animation, just as long as you can see through it.' To the `uncultured' pencil of the masses, this theory may be true but to the trained and refined pencil of the professional animator, layout artist, inbetweener, effects artist or clean-up artist, these words could not be further from the truth. In fact, I have had conversations with artists who have been able to detect the slightest nuances between different papers. It is just this type of discerning taste that made me believe that `just any paper' would not be good enough for animation and that an ideal set of characteristics could be combined to produce a great animation paper.

Setting On My Journey

I am sure a lot of you have drawn on different kinds of paper and have found one or more characteristics about each paper pleasing but others may have been less than ideal. Having done this you may have wondered why someone couldn't combine all of the great features of the papers you'd tried while eliminating the undesirable ones. Well, you're not alone and it has been tried with varying degrees of success. Many different types of "animation papers" exist in the market today and are used by amateurs, independents and professionals across the world. But are they really what they claim to be?

Apart from the skill of the paper maker and the discerning tastes of artists, what really constitutes a good animation paper? Let's talk about what characteristics set one paper apart from another and how each of these relate specifically to animation.

Before we begin, the one concept that you must understand to appreciate fully what constitutes a good quality paper is that `cause and affect' really comes into play when you set out to tailor the desirable characteristics of a paper. Unfortunately, every `ideal' characteristic cannot be included in the paper simply because each of the major characteristics affect one another in some way. Generally, this affect happens to be the opposite of the one desired and some sacrifices must ultimately be made to find the best possible paper.

The Foundation

When it comes to the `meat and potatoes' of paper, the basic recipe of what goes into the paper's construction determines a number of different tendencies for the sheet. Is the paper made from all virgin material or does it contain a component of recycled material? What is the ratio of hardwood and softwood pulps in the paper? Are there any fillers in the sheet and what purpose do they serve? Depending upon what you are trying to achieve, the raw material mix is a critical consideration. The pulp mixture could be considered the `foundation' of the paper and what happens to the sheet after this could be considered the `framing and finishing' touches to the final structure. Since every sound building is built upon a strong foundation, let's inspect the foundation a little closer to see if we can find any cracks. Although recycling is the `in-thing', it's not when it comes to making specialty papers designed for an application such as animation. Before you lose your faith in me for not protecting nature let me explain myself. I believe in recycling but recycled paper has characteristics that do not lend themselves well for use as an animation paper. Recycled pulp is made up of numerous different types of recovered paper products. Despite being processed back to a raw pulp, certain characteristics of the original products will remain consistent in the new end product. This is one of the reasons that certain recycled papers have such aesthetic appeal and value. Unfortunately, this random inconsistency is not desirable in animation paper. Consistency in both body formation and surface finishing are essentials when high quality line work is the desired end result. Further, with a lot of artwork going to scanning these days, a uniform appearance is key in allowing the scanner to pick up good lines with minimal `background noise' from inconsistencies in the body of the sheet. People on the technology side who scan will relate to what I am saying. Another important `recipe decision' is the ratio of hardwood and softwood in the paper. What's the difference? That depends on what you're trying to achieve. Anybody who owns furniture made from oak or maple will appreciate how heavy it is and how well it resists scratches and dents. On the other hand anybody who owns pine furniture knows that it is lighter and dents easily. Hardwoods have a denser molecular structure than softwoods and this heavier density yields strikingly different characteristics from softwoods. Hardwood fibers are short and compact whereas softwood fibers are longer and looser. Taking the density comparison forward, hardwood fibers are more opaque than the less dense softwood fibers. The opacity or how `translucent' the sheet is can also be determined by a number of factors. For the most part though, the translucency of the sheet is determined by the pulp mixture. Therefore, a paper with a higher content of hardwood will be more opaque, or less translucent, than a paper made with a higher content of softwood. Fillers, depending upon what they are, can also influence the translucency of a paper. Basis weight, caliper thickness and color also play a role in determining a paper's opacity. Obviously, the thicker the sheet, the less translucent it will be relative to its makeup. Other Factors The ratio of hardwood and softwood in the paper also impacts the surface texture of the sheet. When papers are manufactured they are rolled, dried and `calendered' or pressed to a specified thickness at the tail end of the manufacturing process. As hardwood fibers are shorter in length than softwood fibers, fewer of the fibers protrude from the surface of the finished sheet. In a similar way the longer softwood fibers, can protrude from the smooth finished surface of paper. The higher the softwood content, the more obstructions are present on the surface of the sheet. These obstructions can lead to excessive black `spotting' that occurs in the path of a pencil line drawn on the sheet. Again, this may not strike anyone as important but users in animation from creative to technical require a consistent sheet in terms of performance. Spotty, inconsistent line work could cause slowdowns for each user in the process. Adjusting the ratio of woods used in designing the sheet can minimize these naturally occurring inconsistencies.

Color is an important consideration for both the artist and technologies used to commit the `cleaned-up' drawings to the digital information used by an increasing number of studios for completing their films. From the artist's point of view, color is a major issue when you consider the amount of time they look `into the sheet' throughout the day - eye strain. A softer white or ivory tinted sheet lessens the effects of eye strain when compared to a stark, cold, white sheet. On the other hand, from technology's point of view, a cleaner and whiter sheet allows a greater contrast between the line work and the paper thus making the `cleaning up' process of scanned drawings easier. As the actual line becomes a digital image, graphite is replaced with pixels. When the drawings are scanned a certain amount of gray scale may be reduced to remove unwanted `noise' or smudging from the new digitized drawing. This reduction in gray scale could remove just enough pixels to open the lines that form the corners and intersections of the original drawings. These open `polygons' can cause the digital ink and painters untold grief by not allowing easy flood filling of color. Basis Weight, in pounds or grams, is the industry standard for measuring the weight classification of paper. Technically, it is determined by taking 500 sheets of the paper measuring 17 x 22 inches and weighing it on a certified scale. If you take standard 20 lb bond paper as an example, the 20 lb description is the basis weight of the paper: 500 sheets of this paper measuring 17 x 22 inches weigh 20 lbs. The basis weight, in turn, plays a determining factor in the `caliper thickness' or, how `heavy' the sheet is to the touch. As the basis weight increases so does the `heaviness' of the paper.

The Surface

After we've built the `foundation' for the sheet - that is we have found the ideal mix of pulp and filler components, decided upon the basis weight, sheet thickness and color - it becomes time to `furnish' or finish the surface of the paper. Surface texture, or `roughness,' is possibly the most important factor to consider when it comes to finishing the paper for animation. There is however one problem that must be overcome if the paper is to become a success as an animation paper. How rough is `too rough' and how smooth is `too smooth?' This is probably the most difficult aspect of the paper to construct. The reason for this difficulty lies with the different end users of the paper. Layout and storyboard artists, along with animators and inbetweeners, may prefer a `rougher' sheet to complement their style. Clean-up and effects artists may prefer a `smoother' sheet that produces darker, richer line work with minimal smudging. The challenge becomes finding the perfect compromise between smoothness and roughness. The erasability of the sheet is another important factor. Animation is an intense process requiring a great deal of durability from the paper. Multiple erasures are commonplace. The paper must not only be able to erase `cleanly,' it must endure excessive erasing and still be able to `hold a line' as well as it did when the drawing was first started. Erasability is the sum of numerous factors but the furnishing of the sheet is critical. `Re-pegging' of drawings is also quite common. The original registration is often torn off the drawing and the drawing re-pegged. This makes how well the paper tears in a straight line an important consideration. How well a paper tears is a characteristic determined not only by the `foundation,' but also by the quality of the manufacturing process used by the paper maker. Is It Archival and Acid Free? We have all heard the words `acid free' or `archival' when it comes to art materials or picture framing materials. Should an animation paper be archival? That depends... Basically, paper is made from wood and fillers. Wood has naturally occurring chemical properties which, in some cases, lead to natural degradation of paper products. Lignin is one such chemical property. Other chemicals enter the sheet through the manufacturing process. Sulfur and chlorine are two such chemicals that can lead to degradation of the paper. During the manufacturing process other chemicals in the form of liquid solutions or dry fillers can be added to eliminate the presence of these and other unwanted substances in the paper. Certain solutions can be added to eliminate chemicals within the sheet while other products can be added to not only eliminate the internal chemicals but also to act as a shield or barrier against attack from external chemicals. The former creates what is commonly called `acid free' while the latter creates what is known as `archival' paper. The primary difference between the two is the expected longevity of the sheet. Acid free papers can have spans of up to 40 or 50 years before they begin to degrade while archival papers can have life expectancies reaching up to 150 to 200 years!

Is having an acid free or archival paper important to animation? I believe it is for at least two reasons. First, the true art form of animation is the drawing. The drawings are valuable both for financial reasons to the studios and collectors, but also for the historical preservation of today's `digital,' cel-less films and as a reference tool from which future animators can learn.

There is no question that in today's burgeoning collector marketplace, animation has become one of the hottest collectibles available. Original animation drawings can fetch thousands of dollars through private sales and public auctions. Studios are discovering the market value of the artwork used to produce their films and want to preserve its integrity as a commodity.

Disney Feature Animation has taken extensive steps to preserve the animation, backgrounds, layouts and cels from past features. The Animation Research Library catalogues and stores, by film and by scene, the available animation from Disney's rich history of animated films. The work is made available to current Disney staffers to aid in the development of today's films and is occasionally put on display for the benefit of the animation community and the public at large. Disney has expressed a desire to incorporate archival features into their animation paper to ensure that future generations of both artists and historians will be able to benefit from the work of today's artists just as these artists have been able to benefit from the delicate lessons of the likes of Frank and Ollie.

An Expert's Opinion

As I draw this article to a close I would like to provide thoughts and feelings from one of your peers Marty Korth, Lead Key at Warner Bros. Feature Animation, previously with Disney Feature Animation. "In traditional animation, with all the technology that is available and that we rely on to help us create animated movies it still comes down to just two things; a piece of paper and a pencil," he says.

"If the tools that we use are less than ideal, we are held back from being able to attain our goal. Our goal is that our work will be transformed from mere drawings into actual living, breathing, real cartoon characters; hopefully as real as any living being or creature. Therefore, not just any paper will do. Each department in animation has its own special demands and requirements expected from the paper. As a clean-up artist or assistant animator, it is our drawings that the audience sees on the screen. Of course, we work directly with the animators and it is their rough drawings that determine the timing, acting, staging and storytelling. Our drawings must accurately reflect the animators' work and must be precise and beautiful to watch. The qualities that we require from our paper are:


"We flip several drawings at a time, back and forth to sync them together and to follow the flow of action. Also, the paper must hold up to being erased and still be able to accept a clean pencil line.


"We frequently use a light placed below the drawings to see several drawings simultaneously. For our purposes we want to see through each drawing to the one below but not to the degree of tracing paper. The paper must have a limited degree of opacity.


"The color of the paper is important. It must not be harsh and `cold,' but `friendly,' off-white, warm and conducive to working with the artists, not against them.


"The way the paper accepts the graphite is for the artist probably the most important and personal issue. It's hard enough to do the drawing in the first place but if the actual experience of drawing becomes an experience of frustration, the artist can become demoralized and the difficulty of his or her job is compounded.


"Our goal is to create an appealing drawing. We need the paper to cooperate with us towards that end."

The feelings that Marty discusses are, as I have found, fairly universal among artists in the industry.

When you start to consider all of these different conditions and preferences the existence of an `ideal' animation paper may seem improbable. True, it can be difficult to find an ideal `off the shelf' paper whose characteristics fit all of these unique requirements. However, the marketplace does contain papers that have been painstakingly designed with the input of professional artists from each of the disciplines unique to animation. If you're still not convinced that an `animation paper' has something special to offer, try some and see for yourself what a difference it can make to your craft. As Marty said, "As in all professions, the best results require the best tools." Perhaps trying or switching to a professional grade of animation paper can be the step that elevates your work to the next level.

Steven Hagel is the Sales and Marketing Manager for Chromacolour International Limited. He was directly responsible for the development and introduction of Chromacolour's ProGrade and ProGrade `Plus' lines of Animation Paper. Steven was recently awarded the `E Award' for Quality Enhancement by Venture Magazine in Canada for the development of the animation papers in addition to other products Chromacolour has introduced into the animation marketplace over the last five years.