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Animation Layout: Overlay (OL) And Overlay/Underlay (OL/UL)

Author Mike S. Fowler explores and defines overlay and overlay/underlay in this excerpt from his new book all about animation background layout, which includes many illustrated examples and exercises.

A layout overlay is the top level of non-animated artwork, designed to create depth. Specifically, an overlay is the element that must be separated from the background and placed at the very top of the artwork pile, to allow a character to move freely on stage. The diagram below illustrates a background level, animated character level and the overlay of a tree.

An overlay/underlay is a level of non-animated artwork, designed to assist in creating depth. An overlay/underlay is planned separation of more elements from the background, as required by the animation in the scene, than an overlay.

Some studios describe an UL as any layout artwork under the animation, and OL as the layout art on top of the animation.


Field Guide Level Sketch (left). Layout Level Separation: BG, ANIM1, OL/UL, ANIM2 and OL.

Held Cels (HC)

Held cels are separate elements, which at some point in time, will be animated. Objects and characters that are required to remain stationary for a period of time before moving, during a scene or sequence of scenes, are labeled as a Held Cel. Props such as a chair, a door, a car, a glass and a cookie often move.

Unlike an overlay or overlay/underlay, a held cel is ordinarily not part of the background location design. It may be drawn on to a location design for reference and size relationship, but will always be depicted on a Prop Sheet.

In this example of one storyboard panel, a character is sitting at a desk with objects on the table. Although I have not shown the next storyboard scene, the objects on the desk will move.


This is a typical layout breakdown drawing of levels. Note the use of labels for props and character (left). On the right is the same breakdown, transferred to individual sheets of paper. They are still in the rough stages of drawing and will be re-drawn to a cleaned state.

Background (BG)

The animation layout background is the environment in which a character will live, act, and interact with other elements. It is always the bottom layer of the artwork when used; some scenes do not require a BG if utilizing a bottom layer of animation. The complexity of the BG drawing can range from a highly rendered, realistic city street to a simple color card. A color card is a background of a single or a blend of colors, with no definite form.

To create a layout background, all of the information previously presented on composition, fielding, character placement, staging, perspective, perspective grids, field guides, television cut off, and for some studios, tonal values, are required.

In place of showing a completed background, the example below represents a level separation of a background, an overlay, an overlay/underlay and an animation drawing.

Note: Here is a planning list to consider when creating a layout background.

  • Do the elements create a focal point?
  • Will the background overpower the characters or will it be harmonious with the characters?
  • Do the elements of the background flow off the page or create visualpatterns?
  • Are there a strong foreground, mid-ground and distant elements that blend well together?

Match Lines (ML) Verses Level Separation

Before the arguments are placed forward on match lines verses level separation, the question, What is a match line? must be answered.

Match lines are two identically placed lines, one on the background element and one at the exact spot on the animation. The purpose was to allow an animated character or object move behind a background element, without the animation interfering with that element.

Not so long ago, when all animation was shot on animations cels, there was a physical limit as to how many could be stacked on to one another. The more levels there were, the darker the animation became. To solve this problem, a red match line was used as a stopping point for the animation, such as the example of the person behind a desk, while keeping the desk on the background level. The more complex the shape and match line was, the more difficult it was to animate to that line.

Below is the same desk from the held cel page. Compare the differences and similarities of each method.

MatchlLines are drawn in red on both the background element and on the animation pose. At the end of the match line a ML was labeled for clarity, but it is rarely used today.

Special Effects Animation: (SFX)

For most people, special effects animation or SFX is just the fire, the blast, or the splash of water under a character's foot. Actually the special effect animation also covers rivers, snow, a branch breaking off a tree and even a bus driving down a street.

Most studios consider SFX animation as any object that is not a character. For other studios, SFX animation is only the fire, the rain or a dust cloud.

I originally had many examples of SFX for this section, but I found, even while teaching, that giving a sample does not always mean they will be looked at.

Instead, I asked my animation students to fill nine boxes with examples of special effects animation from watching: 1. television cartoons, 2. classically animated feature films, 3. computer animated feature films and 4. any other special effect that you would like to animate. Try it yourself.

Character Placement and Poses

Everything that you have read about staging, fielding, horizon lines, patterns and more, is what layout character placement and poses is about.

fowler06_FACE1M.jpgfowler07_POLE1M.jpgComposition Ensure that the character has leading space and room to act (top left) by placing the character to one side of the field, usually their back. Also, consider the eye direction that the character is looking.

Tangential Growth Objects behind or in front of a character (top right) appear to grow out of the character. Lines of two objects converge to become one line.

fowler08_SC2M.jpgfowler09_STG1M.jpgHook-ups and Match Cuts Make sure that the characters placed in one scene match the placement when cutting to a new angle of the next scene (bottom left). There are various definitions for each of these terms: A Match Cut is cutting to a character in the exact same pose only different angle. A Hook-Up is cutting from one scene to the next with a character in motion.

Perspective Grids Ensure that all characters are securely drawn on a perspective grid. The layout poses are guides, and even the final animation key drawings. If the characters appear to float in the air, the solution is to draw a light perspective grid on the layout pose sheet and then draw the characters feet on the grid (bottom right).

Artwork Clean Up

Cleaning up your rough blue layout drawing to a crisp black pencil line is not as difficult as people think. Commonly I hear from students: I can't draw because my hand is sore, The line is too shaky and The lines are smudged and I don't know why.

Relax. Do a series of warm-up drawings of circles and lines, (all the same size and various sizes), to get your arm and hand ready to draw. When you do start to clean up the layout, draw by using your whole arm, not just from the wrist. Sharpen your pencil often. Think before, during and after you have drawn a line; if you make a mistake, stop and restart the line. With your thumb and finger, rotate the pencil as you draw. If the show requires a tapered or thick'n'thin line, lift you pencil as you complete the line. CONNECT and CLOSE all lines for the digital paint department. This stops the paint filling the wrong areas.

If you want to know how to clean up properly, my advice to anyone is to practice. Clean up sketches, doodles, props, locations; small and large, as long as you just practice.

fowler1011_stylized_01.jpg Here are two examples of a stylized realistic environment. Each layout was originally designed for a multiplane setting; having more than one level within the drawing. They are combined for ease of readability.


Animation Background Layout: From Student to Professional by Mike S. Fowler. Caistor Center, Ontario, Canada: Fowler Cartooning Ink, 2002. 168 pages. ISBN: 0-9731602-0-9. $35.00. Buy it online at Mikes Website.

Mike S. Fowler has a passion for art and animation. His animation abilities as a supervisor, layout artist, poser, storyboard artist and fun pack designer are showcased in numerous shows. Credits include: Bob and Margaret, Neds Newt, Hoze Houndz, Elliot the Moose, Little Bear, Eckhart, Maggie and the Ferocious Beast, Rainbow Fish, Anthony Ant, Franklin, Redwall, Ace Ventura and Blazing Dragons, to name a few.

In addition to being a published political and panel cartoonist, graphic artist and classical animation graduate from Sheridan College, Mike has supervised various Flash Web series, promotional bumpers for major television shows and segments of an educational Flash-HTML based University learning program for U.S. and Canadian markets.

Mike has developed, from concept through to production, several critically acclaimed montage/demonstration films, artists showcase books and educational promotional material.

Fowlers educational background covers Graphic and Advertising Design at Conestoga College, a diploma in Classical Animation from Sheridan College, Management and Human Relations at Conestoga and Sheridan Colleges, and a Certificate in Adult Education from the University of New Brunswick. As the lead animation college instructor, he teaches animation, layout, storyboard, Flash and computer graphics.

With the release of his first book, Animation Background Layout: From Student to Professional, Mike adds being a published author to his list of achievements. Read more about Mike.