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Larry's Toon Institute Paintbrushes How to "Thumbnail" a Scene

Legendary Disney animator, Frank Thomas once told me, "The hardest part of animating a scene is staring at that blank piece of's frightening. The possibilities are endless".

So, as YOU stare at that blank sheet of paper, here are a few tips to help you begin your animation - whether you work with a pencil or a computer.



The most important ingredient is to have a PLAN. Don Bluth used to say, "If you fail to plan - you plan to fail".

In order to PLAN - you have to THINK. Ask yourself these kinds of questions:

  • a. What is the purpose of this scene?
  • b. What is the character doing in this scene?
  • c. How does this scene contribute to the whole piece?
  • d. What is the mood of the scene?
  • e. What are the emotions of the character?
  • f. What came before...what follows?

Ask yourself these questions and more...



Let's say we have to animate a character jumping. We start with our character...Joey... Here's a semi-rough drawing of Joey

And here's Joey's construction. Joey is a simple, one-basic-shape character. Notice his construction... the structure of the hips...note that the head overlaps the body on a "squat" type of character...



Now that we have a character for our scene, let's THINK about what he's doing in the scene... Joey, let's say...vertically challenged and, despite his height, he has to grab a golden ring (from a high position). He is focused and determined to succeed... We now have an idea of where we want to go with the character...



The next part of our "thinking" process is creating "thumbnail" drawings... Thumbnailing is "visual thinking"... this process is important for classic 2-D and computer animation.

Here are a few thumbnails from 2KJ

Working quickly, using simple shapes... "staying ruff"...sketch out the key drawings or poses. ("Keys" are the drawings at the beginning and end of every movement; or at a change of direction.)

As you sketch, be conscious of the character's LINE OF ACTION... Try to PUSH the line of action... DON'T be concerned with volumes, details or consistency...Thumbnails are "visual shorthand" strictly for the purpose of research...exploring the possibilities. After a few pages of thumbnails, you are ready to begin animating...and that blank sheet of paper isn't so intimidating! It's easier to animate a scene that has been "thumbnailed out" because you have a visual plan.

I worked out some thumbnails of Joey's jump.




  • Plan
  • Think
  • Understand your scene
  • Do thumbnails (just the keys)

TIP: Exaggerate the line of action *Look for good silhouettes in your sketches.

Once you've finished your thumbnails, move into Lesson 5, HOW TO ANIMATE.



All images copyright © Larry Lauria, 1999
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