Animating for television series has evolved a great deal over the past twenty-five years and the incorporation of digital equipment and procedures is a huge part of this evolution. Here Sylvia Edwards details the production process and how digital tools are impacting the traditional model.
CG or not CG...that is the question. Or is it? What is the place of traditional animation in a world where the rapid and ever continuing upgrades to digital mediums make equipment for animating in a 3D format more and more user friendly? The late Shamus Culhane was once taken to task by a fellow director for the following statement, "Computerized animation is going to give us films of such complexity and beauty that cel animation will become a thing of the past." He made this statement back in the '80s after visiting a digital facility and seeing the possibilities of what CG could do. Shamus Culhane was a man with prophetic abilities. A little over ten years later, his statement rings even truer today. Animating for television series has evolved a great deal over the past twenty-five years and the incorporation of digital equipment and procedures is a huge part of that evolution. The number of animation stages that fall into the digital realm continues to grow.
In the not so distant past, traditional animation meant that the pre-production and production elements were drawn and registered on animation paper, transferred to cels and colored by hand with liquid paint. The material was shot, frame by frame, with an animation camera onto 35mm film. The animation process today is impacted by the digital world in such a way that one feels that a new definition is required of what "traditional" animation is. This article will provide a brief overview of traditional animation for series television as it was, as it is currently produced and for CGI series production.
The animation production process at a traditional or a CGI animation studio covers some stages that are exactly the same, some that are similar and some that differ a great deal. While the stages to be discussed are distinct steps in the animation process, a number of them overlap each other. These stages fall under the overall categories of: pre-production, production and post production. The folks interviewed came from traditional and "CG only" backgrounds. All had experience working on high end, high quality animated series. Creative Capers was founded in 1988 as a traditional facility and 7 years ago moved into the CG realm. They've produced several interactive games for Disney and other clients. Currently, they're producing Sitting Ducks, a CG series for Universal. Mainframe Entertainment was set up as a CG studio and has been in the business for 8 years. They've produced several CG series including Reboot, War Planets and Weirdos. They're currently producing Action Man for Fox and two videos for the Cartoon Network. Nickelodeon Animation currently produces several traditionally animated series, among them Dora the Explorer and Oswald the Octopus for Nick Jr. in New York. They're also producing a CG pilot called Jimmy Neutron, which will support a theatrical release. Sony Animation produces traditional shows such as Jackie Chan Adventures and Men In Black: The Series and CG shows such as Max Steel and Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles.
Pre-production originally involved the generation of all the material needed to create a blueprint of the episode that various departments within the studio would use in completing the various stages of the process. This included all designs and key color material for the episode, voice recording of the dialogue, creating a storyboard and drawing the production layouts of each scene. The director met with the layout supervisor and crew. Once layouts were complete, the director prepared the exposure sheets for the animators, working out all timing of the episode so that once production started, time wasn't wasted working on scenes that had been cut from the picture. Pre-production covered everything up through the start of animation. These days, in traditional animation, pre-production serves the same purpose. Only now, the blueprint is created for the overseas studio to reference. A typical schedule for pre-production is 12 weeks.
Initial Designs and Storyboarding
Once the outline and/or script is final and approved, the pre-production process begins. The outline or script is distributed to the designers, storyboard artists, director and support staff. The director meets with the producer and the artistic staff in order to determine which designs will require rough designs immediately for the storyboard artist to use. These designs would include any new characters, specialized props, new background layouts and main or recurring characters if they are in new costumes or have a different "look" than they usually do (examples would be the main characters dressed as astronauts, or the main characters in flashback to when they were babies). The same is true of any main background designs that have a different look than usual (an example of this would be the main character's bedroom done in Salvador Dali's style). While a main model pack has already been distributed, any important new designs are given to the storyboard artist as early as possible, in order to facilitate completion of the storyboard with appropriate artwork. Designs for the episode will continue to be worked on while the storyboard is in progress, with final designs completed after the storyboard has been completed, approved and rough timing done (so that final design work is focused on scenes that remain in the picture, not those that have been cut). Using the script and later the storyboard, the production assistant or coordinator generates a list of characters, props, efx and backgrounds that are included in the episode. They also track the completion and approval of the designs for each episode and collect all artwork to prepare for overseas shipment. A schedule for completing a storyboard varies according to the length of the episode. A short (7-11 minutes) is typically done in 5 weeks (3 weeks rough storyboard, notes received on storyboard pitch, 2 week for revisions and clean-up). For a longer format, the storyboard duties will be shared by 2 or 3 artists. The schedule is typically 6 weeks, rough to clean-up.
Voice recording for the episodes can occur at different points, depending upon how the production is set up. If the show is "dialogue" driven, the voice recording will probably be done from the script. The result of the recording session is more or less a radio play of the voice actors' performances for the storyboard artist to use along with the script as reference. If a show is driven more by visual gags, or if the creative producer prefers recording from the storyboard, the voice recording sessions will occur once the storyboard is complete (with dialogue indicated on the storyboard) and approved. In this case, the storyboard artist completes the storyboard based on the outline or script. The voice director uses the storyboard as reference in guiding the actors' perfomances. Both scenarios require that a "recording script" be typed up that includes only the dialogue of the actors. Each line of dialogue should be line numbered on the script for the dialogue editor's reference later. During the recording session, all the takes of dialogue by each actor are tracked and the preferred takes are circled. These preferred takes are then assembled and dubbed onto DAT and 1/4" audio cassettes as the Edited Master Recording (EMR). If an 8 frame "pause" has been added between each line of dialogue, it is sometimes called a Normal Pause (NP) tape. Both the EMR and the NP tape serve the same functions: for shows recorded from scripts, the tape is a reference for the storyboard artist. This tape is also used by the episode's director to do the initial timing (slugging or animatic) of the show. The same editor who assembles the EMR or NP tape, also generates a line-lengths version of the recording script. Using a copy of the "circled takes" script from the recording session, the editor indicates the length of the selected dialogue in feet and frames. The line-lengths script along with the EMR or NP tape will be used by the director to time the show and prepare it for track reading. The schedule for voice recording is generally 2 weeks. Week one is for casting auditions (non-recurring roles) and the following week for the actual recording session.
Once the episode has been voice recorded and the storyboard completed, the process of timing the show begins. Using the EMR or NP tape, the line-lengths script and the as-recorded storyboard, the episode's director chooses one of two pathways. In the traditional method the director will "slug" the storyboard using the EMR/NP tape and the information on the line-lengths script regarding the length of the dialogue. Veteran producer Larry Huber states, "To slug a storyboard is to indicate time 'place holders' or pauses between the lines of dialogue. This leaves space for character action. The director will also cut or add scenes to the storyboard. The slugged storyboard will include timing notes for all action and dialogue written on the bottom of the storyboard." This information is transferred later to the exposure sheets. The second method for the director to produce this timing element is to produce an animatic of the storyboard. The storyboard panels are scanned into a computer and digitally assembled into a rough version of the episode. Using the line-lengths script information, the episode's director works with the animatic operator to edit the show to length. Once the animatic is final and approved, the animatic operator outputs an Edited Dialogue List (EDL) and a DAT of the new edited dialogue (now referred to as Animatic Dialogue) is created. This version of the dialogue track will be used for track reading. Both methods prepare the episode for track reading and sheet timing, the next step in the process of timing the picture. Traditional slugging of the storyboard typically takes about one week. The animatic process takes a week and a half to two weeks.
Now that the picture has been cut to length, the director moves on to finalizing the timing information for the overseas studio. The line lengths script, conformed storyboard, dialogue track and blank exposure sheets are forwarded for track reading. The track reader receives either the slugged storyboard or a storyboard that has been conformed to the animatic dialogue track. If slugging was done, the EMR is still the main source of dialogue and the track reader will first need to edit this dialogue to the slugged storyboard instructions. The DAT of the EMR is transferred to 35mm magnetic tape (MAG), then "slugs" of 35mm film are edited into the MAG track where there is no dialogue. The result of this process will be an audio track that is edited to length. If an animatic was done, the new Animatic Dialogue tape outputted by the animatic operator is transferred directly to 35mm MAG. No film slugs need to be edited into the MAG because during the animatic process, the audio has already been edited to length. Once this process is completed, the track reader listens to the audio track and transcribes the dialogue onto the exposure sheets, leaving appropriate space where there is no dialogue. Exposure sheets are 11" X 17" sheets of paper that are pre-printed with a grid and masthead. The masthead usually denotes the name of the overall series and has blank spaces to include information such as production number, scene number and footage count per page. Each horizontal line on the grid of the exposure sheet represents one frame of film. The vertical lines create divisions to be used for dialogue, camera directions, cel levels of animation and other information that the overseas production crew will need. When the track reader returns the sheets, the director writes directions for the animators. These instructions describe the type, rate and speed of character actions and mouth shapes for dialogue, movement of props and special effects and all camera instructions scene by scene. Once the sheets are completed, a pre-production checker and the director have a final review of the sheets and storyboard of the episode to catch any footage errors, lip-assignment omissions, etc. on the sheets. Any adjustments needed are made and the checker creates lead sheets (a list, scene by scene, briefly describing the action and indicating a footage count of the episode). The show is shipped overseas for layout, animation, color and camera. Transfer and track reading takes approximately 2 days. Sheet timing is usually scheduled for two weeks. Pre-production checking typically takes one week for a half-hour show.
Final Designs and Color
While the episode is going through the timing process, final designs and keying for color are being completed by other departments. The slugged storyboard or final animatic board is reviewed by the design artists and the director and final designs are determined. The final character, props, effects and key background layout references are collected, logged and labeled. A list of all designs is generated for each episode. This list is included when the material for the show is shipped overseas. Background layouts typically take one to one and a half weeks, depending on the number of layouts required for the episode. 10 to 15 background layouts is a typical amount. Character, prop and efx designs are typically scheduled for one week. Again, the nature of the episode determines how much time is actually needed. Shows in a series that are background or design heavy can take up to two weeks to complete.
Once the background layouts for the episode are completed, the director goes through them and chooses the ones that need to be painted as key color reference for the overseas studio. Six to 12 keys will typically require painting. These backgrounds may be painted traditionally or digitally. Key backgrounds become color reference, too for the color key artist to use in color styling the characters, props and efx. For color key, the final model pack drawings are copied, cleaned-up and pasted onto masthead sheets either by hand or by scanning in the drawings and pasting them up digitally. The color stylist works with the director to determine which models require keying. Any new characters, props or fx need to be keyed, as well as any changes to stock designs that effect color, such as the main characters in a night palette. The color stylist also completes color lead sheets (a scene by scene description of color elements in each scene) for overseas reference. Completed color material is copied before shipment overseas. A few copies are kept on file for home studio reference. The original material and several copies are shipped to the overseas studio to use as color reference in the background and ink and paint departments as well as layout and animation departments. Background painting is typically scheduled for two weeks. Color Key is typically scheduled for one week. Background painting and Color Key can require more time if the episode has a large number of designs to key, or if the episode requires several color palettes for the same designs.
Nickelodeon Animation had several series that started out as traditional ink and paint for color key and production. "Hey Arnold!, Cat Dog, Angry Beavers and SpongeBob all made second or third season changes into digital ink and paint," says VP and general manager, Mark Taylor. "This made an impact on the post costs later." Former SpongeBob line producer Donna Castricone concurs, "The shift to digital ink and paint allowed us to reduce the amount of time spent in telecine sessions in post, so the costs were impacted significantly."
Copies are also made of all black and white pre-production material being shipped overseas. This is for reference should questions arise, but also as a precaution against anything unforeseen happening to the material during shipment or if it gets lost at the receiving studio.
Pre-production for CGI"Currently, CGI is like the wild west days of animation. There are so many trying to get involved and so many options to choose from," says Sue Shakespeare, president of Creative Capers Entertainment. CGI is in a constant state of growth and change as hardware and software becomes more and more animation friendly.
CGI Designs and Storyboards
3D CGI pre-production follows a similar pattern as traditional animation in creating a blueprint for all other departments within the studio to use as reference. Once an approved script is final, the design process begins. CGI differs in that the models for the show are constructed in the computer as skeletons or wire frame forms. Designers may use model sheets (animating elements drawn on paper, showing turns and expressions) as their reference material or a clay sculpture may be designed and used as reference. The model's wire frame is perceived as a 3D object. The model is tested by the designer to make sure it moves as desired. Once the model is approved by the director, it moves into the next stage of adding a surface texture to the wire frame. Texture includes skin, hair, clothing, chrome, wood-grain, etc., whatever covering is desired.
Some CGI facilities generate traditional storyboards while others go into semi-production mode and create storyboards digitally using stock set-ups. George Maistri, who set up the CG series South Park and is now producing Karen & Kirby for Kid's WB! states, "As the storyboards are completed and the animatic created, we set up the characters in the scene and take a still. This gives a layout of the scene to begin animating from." Mainframe Entertainment, for 8 years has produced several CG television series, including Reboot, War Planets and more recently, Action Man for Fox. They're also producing two videos for Cartoon Network. Kim Dent-Wilder, Mainframe's director of animation, says that they regularly use digital set-ups rather than complete storyboarding: "It really depends on the needs of the particular episode. Every show is different. We'll sometimes do set-ups on the AVID using a combination of elements pulled from the show's library and adding digital storyboard set-ups only for those scenes that require them. If needed, we also do any shooting of motion capture during this time."
While the process of setting up the cast, props and efx for a new series takes a long time (4 to 6 months) the payoff is worth it. Sue Shakespeare of Creative Capers stresses that this step is critical, "Slowing down here and getting it right will expedite the entire process." Once the characters, props and efx are established, 3D CGI pre-production can take as little as 5 to 6 weeks per episode. However, if this stage is rushed, the entire schedule is sorely impacted by delays caused by problems arising out of design flaws that surface once animation begins.
The production stage in traditional animation took the shows from animation, assist, color and through camera. Larry Huber, television animation producer, states, "The biggest advantage was having everyone you needed to communicate with right at hand. If you were a layout artist with a question regarding a character's start and end poses, or you were an animator and had an idea that differed from the storyboard, but you thought would be funnier, your director was right there on the premises." The show was handed out (the pre-production elements given to the various departments that needed them for reference.) The director had handout meetings with the animation supervisor and the crew. Animators completed their assigned sequences and made notes on the exposure sheets. Animation assistants followed up on the animated scenes as they were approved. The cleaned-up animation went to the color department where each scene's cels were painted. Once through final checking, scenes were forwarded to the camera department.
For most traditionally animated television series today, the actual animation production takes place at an overseas studio. The production category for "traditional" animation covers the pre-production stage of layout (sometimes called character layout or production layout.) The production stages covered are animation, animation assist or in-betweening, background paint, ink and paint (usually digital these days) and camera (or rendering and compositing with digitally painted shows.)
Once overseas, the storyboard and lead sheets are sent out for translation into the language of the overseas studio's country. The pre-production package material is reviewed by the episode's animation director and various department heads at a hand out meeting for the episode. The animation director for the episode goes through the storyboard with the animators and assigns sequences for layout. Layouts are completed for each scene. During layout, the action for each scene is broken down into its basic components. All characters, background elements and any props or efx in the scene are included. The animator draws the rough key poses and the rough background on animation paper. All elements within the scene are registered to the background. As the layouts are complete, and the final background designs are added, the director goes through the scenes and approves the animator's work moving forward with animation. The animator then animates the scenes using the exposure sheets as reference for timing. The animator also adds any pertinent animation notes to the sheets for color and shooting reference down the line. Once scenes of the rough animation are approved, animation assistants finalize animation before it moves on for color.
If a traditional show still uses a film format, the painted backgrounds and the painted animation cels are shot onto 35mm film. The positive and the negative film elements are shipped to the home studio for retakes. Retakes and show assembly during the post process will be handled with this format in mind. Today, the vast majority of traditional shows have the final color done with a 2D digital system. After final rendering and compositing, the show is outputted to a video format (Digi Beta for example) and shipped to the home studio for retakes. A typical overseas schedule is thirteen weeks. This schedule can be longer if the show is design or action heavy.
3D television animation varies in execution. Creative Capers' directors, Terry Shakespeare and David Molina go over the wire frame mesh created by the modelers to give the characters greater refinement. Sue Shakespeare comments, "It is the care taken with these subtleties that produces the highest quality animation. We want to be known for great, great character animation...the best character animation in 3D." She also says that CG tends to be more compartmentalized as far as learning to use the tools. "Creative Capers' animators (who come from a traditional animation background) specialize in using the animation tools on the computer, the designers specialize in the tools for design. The programs are so complex and this seems to work best." Creative Capers' directors meet regularly with the animators and use exposure sheets as reference tools for animation.
Mainframe does not use exposure sheets, but close communication between the director and the animators is key. Once the show has the digital, animatic storyboard completed on the AVID, and all modeling and lighting are established, the animation can begin, using the digital storyboard as a reference. Asked if motion capture was a primary element in the animation for the show, Dent-Wilder explained, "Motion capture is used at the director's discretion. When mo-cap is chosen, it's usually for a humanoid character and for actions like fight sequences that would take longer for the animator to do. In some cases the client may request motion capture." Throughout the process, the animators are in frequent contact with the directors as they work.
CG production schedules ranged from 8-10 weeks to 16 weeks, depending on the complexity of the show. "South Park," says Maistri, "was greenlit in July of '99 and began airing in September of '99. Once the models were built and approved, we could turn around shows in about 4 weeks, storyboard to final tape." The reuse factor played a part in this. "We also had about 200 various expressions to pull from in the show library. With Karen & Kirby, we're completing about 3 minutes per week with 4 animators, much faster than with traditional animation."
A show that uses 35mm film format requires equipment, processing and personnel that is experienced with elements not used by most "traditional shows" these days. Equipment would include a flatbed or a moviola, and a film splicer for negative cutting. Processes would include negative processing, best light transfers and color correction. Personnel, an editor trained to work with these elements.
Today, after animation is complete, most "traditional shows" are processed digitally by the overseas studio The overseas studio delivers a Take 1 and all retakes on a video format that can be transferred and fed directly into the digital editing system. Generally, all off-line assembly, audio synching and editing in of retakes is all done on an AVID editing system with an editor.
On receipt of the Take 1, Take 2 retakes are called. The overseas studio is given 2 weeks to complete and return the retakes. On receipt of Take 2, Take 3 retakes are called. These are given a one week turn around time, as are any other subsequent retakes.
The episode is cut to length (broadcast length) usually no later than the receipt of Take 3 retakes. Music is spotted once the show is cut to length. The director and the composer review the show and discuss the musical needs of the episode. Sfx are spotted only once all animation-related retakes are approved and dropped into the show. A music preview is held approximately one week before the audio mix. Sfx are previewed a day or two before the audio mix. At the audio mix (dubbing) session, the dialogue, music and sfx levels are adjusted and finalized and a final audio track created.
The picture for the episode is edited with sub-main (episode) titles and assembled at a video post house for final picture approval. The final picture is then "married to" the final audio track. Once approved by the director and the "powers that be," the episode is assembled, the series main title, end credits, bumpers and/or interstitials and blacks for station breaks for the half hour are laid in. Dubs of the half-hour are created and forwarded for broadcast.
A typical post production schedule is six weeks, starting with the arrival of the Take 1 through completion of the individual episode's final onlining. With shows that contain more than one episode in the half-hour, the actual delivery will depend upon the completion of the other shows to be included in the broadcast half-hour.
CG Post Production
Post at Mainframe is handled in a fashion reminiscent of the Leica reels used for feature animation. Dent-Wilder explains, "We edit as we go through production. We start with the animatic and scenes are replaced as production proceeds. Once the picture is locked, we spend approximately 3 weeks on music and sfx."
Creative Capers completes post on its series about every other week. Sue Shakespeare states, "Using CG we have a lot less retakes. Once your models are established in the system, you're always on-model." They only use animatics for primetime shows. Once the shows are locked post is completed in about 3-4 weeks.
Comparisons of Traditional Series Production and CG
In total the production schedule for a typical, Saturday morning, traditionally animated show is approximately twelve weeks for pre-production, thirteen for overseas production and six weeks for post production. This schedule also is effected by how much "library" material the series has. A first season show has very few "library" elements to pull from and therefore in pre-production, artwork may require more time. In post, music and sfx may require more time until a small library of audio material is built up for the show. A series' ability to meet a schedule also depends on other factors. Artists, directors and other staffers get sick or injured. Equipment fails both domestically and overseas.
For a CG series the total time for pre-production through post can be very similar to traditional schedules. They can be significantly less and considerably more. Andre Clavel is a director familiar with both traditional and CG production processes: "It helps tremendously if the animators on CG projects have training in traditional animation. It streamlines communication between the director and the animator." The deciding factors would appear to include the type of animation involved and the amount of planning done at the front end. Sue Shakespeare comments, "Planning is the key to this. You can jump in, then once into it find that it's fraught with complexities way beyond what you had in mind. But plan it and the benefits are worth it. What's great about CG is that it let's us do things that we never thought feasible in 2D, traditional animation. It's so creatively stimulating."
The number of programs available is mind boggling. 3D Studio Max, Alias Wavefront, Maya, Discreet, Softimage and Aftereffects were the programs that have wide usage, with most CG studios using more than one. What was striking to me in researching CGI for this article is the number of approaches to getting a show made as compared to traditional animation, where basically studio to studio, very similar procedures for television production are the norm. The question arises as to why so many CG studios seem to use primarily 3D software, even for 2D projects. The answer seems to be related to the more aggressive advances made in 3D applications used so heavily in the advertising and logo world. Buying computer equipment and programs comes at a dear cost and choices have to be made. However, 2D programs are closing the gap quickly and the faster rending time is a definite plus.
Schedules and Budgets
An animation production schedule and budget is always a rather organic thing, each stage choreographed with the others in mind. It's always in a state of flux whether done "traditionally" or as a total CGI creation. Budgets for animated shows cover a tremendous range, varying according to the style of animation required and the complexity of the action. A series with very simple animation can cost as little as $250K per half-hour to produce. The costs go up from there to $500K and above. Asked to comment on the overall cost of animated productions, Larry Huber replied, "The primary factor in the cost per half-hour is the total number of episodes ordered for the season. Smaller orders are more expensive. When the cost of producing a show can be amortized over 26 half-hours, or even 13 half-hours, the costs are significantly reduced."
Differences between traditional and CGI were not in the amounts, but in the time spent in the various areas of production. CG spends a large portion of time in pre-production and animation production. However, the time spent developing the models and getting any bugs out of the animation before starting production is time and money well spent to get the results you desire. David Palmer, VP of marketing for Sony Pictures says, "Our traditional shows and our CG shows are very close in cost to produce. The show schedules are also about the same."
The traditional animation folks felt that production was their heaviest hit, followed closely by post. Pre-production cost least.
Is CG animation the future for TV series? Are traditional TV animation systems doomed to go the way of the dinosaur? Both extremes of thought ignore the creative core of animated filmaking. Nickelodeon's Taylor says, "Animation will never go away. It may be refined as digital applications impact it." He goes on, "CGI presents an exciting and different look. Still, the artists and their creativity are the main ingredients of animation production. Whether it's traditional or CGI, the tools used should match the creative spirit of the show."
Sylvia Edwards is a former school teacher who made a career leap into animation eight years ago. She has worked at Hanna-Barbera Cartoons, HBO Animation and Nickelodeon. Edwards has served as a production manager on a number of animated TV series, including: What a Cartoon!, Dexter's Laboratory, Cow & Chicken, Oh Yeah! Cartoons, ChalkZone and Dora the Explorer.