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Concept to Creation: Basic Tips

Mark Simon begins his series of twelve excerpts from his new book Producing Independent 2D Character Animation: Making and Selling a Short Film, with some helpful tricks of the trade. Includes a QuickTime movie clip.

If you have the QuickTime plug-in, you can view a clip by simply clicking the image.

All images are from Producing Independent 2D Character Animation: Making and Selling a Short Film by Mark Simon. Reprinted with permission.

This is the first in a series of 12 adaptations from Mark Simon's new book Producing Independent 2D Character Animation: Making and Selling a Short Film. This book is a full-color concept-to-pitch guide that teaches animators, students and small studios the art and business of producing short, cel animation films. Animation producer Mark Simon has detailed the process in an accessible how-to manner using his award-winning series, Timmy's Lessons In Nature, as a guide. This 432-page book features over 600 full-color images, interviews and a CD-ROM containing sample animation, animatics and sample softwares described in the text.

Everyone learns or discovers some trick to help them in production. Some tricks are simple, and others are a bit more complex, but they all help us do our work. Following is a sample of decades of experience from many animators around the world.

Drawing Tools

For fine lines and small drawings, mechanical pencils maintain a fine line and don't need sharpening.

When pencils get short, use an extender. They can be found at many art stores. The Koh-I-Noor Pencil Lengthener is sold at and many art supply stores. Any extender will extend the life of your pencils.

Install a switch on your animation stand that allows you to switch between your top light and your back light quickly.

Keep toys around for reference. Workout Barbie flexes just like a human and is much better reference for poses than the old Woody art store figures.

Tools of the Trade (clockwise from top left): Pencil extenders; a three-way switch which allows quick switching between top and bottom lights; reference figures of Workout Theresa (Barbie's friend) and the classic "Woody" poseable; and peg bars.


Start with short projects ranging from a few seconds to one minute long and complete them. Don't try animating 5 to 10 minutes for your first few samples you may never get them done. Short and complete is good.

Life drawing. Life drawing. Life drawing.

Use the top peg bar if you don't want your hand to lay on the bottom screws and bottom pegs while you're drawing. Use the bottom peg bar if you prefer to flip multiple sheets to see the motion, while animating.

Allow yourself to think about a scene for a while before you start animating. Spend a little time thinking about the action, the motivation, the humor, the follow-throughs and anything else that will enhance the scene.

A great way to animate smoke is to use charcoal on white, use multiply on the image (a command that removes white in most compositing programs; it's also automatic in most ink and paint programs), change the line color to white, and then take it out of focus. Below is an animated sample of this process.

Smoke animated with black charcoal; the line color is changed to white then blurred for the effect.

Animation Drawings

Don't color in the shadows on the final clean-up art, even with blue. The shading will show up in the scans.

Use a red pencil for shadow lines. They will still scan black, but then they can also be used as a reference by the digital ink and paint crew to indicate which lines are the shadow lines.

Use peg hole reinforcements, much like binder paper hole reinforcements, but sized and shaped to fit over peg-bar pegs, when the paper holes start to get loose.


Ink And Paint

Paint with one color through an entire scene, then pick another color and go through the scene again. This is much faster than painting every color on every frame as you go because you don't have to change colors and tools as often.

Every object in your drawings needs to have its own palette position, even if many of them are the same RGB (red, green, blue the color channels used in computers) value. If you ever need to change the color of an object, you will only need to change that single RGB value of that palette position, and the object will be automatically updated in your ink and paint software. For example, if you use the same palette position for white socks and for the whites of eyes, and then you want to change the color of the socks to red, you would either end up with red eyes too, or you would have to repaint all the socks in the entire scene.

When scanning charcoal or pastel drawn cels, use a mounted peg bar on your scanner. Do not use an autofeed or ADF (automatic document feeder) because the rollers on the autofeed will smear the art.

Removing audio noise using Cool Edit Pro. Grab a selection from the audio that should be silent, get the noise reduction profile from the selection, and then apply that profile to the entire file. Any background noise in that profile will be removed.


When you are using an inexpensive microphone, use two windshields on it to cut down on excessive noise and pops.

Digitally remove all background noise from your recordings so that all the audio elements will edit together better. Casting and recording really funny voices can inspire better animation. Videotape recording sessions to get motion references from the voice actors. Actors tend to move a lot when doing their sessions, and their expressions and movements can be very helpful and inspiring.

When an actor has a stuffy nose, honey and lemon in warm water helps break up the phlegm.

For many more tricks including other topics such as storyboards, computers, backgrounds, rotoscoping and organization, check out Producing Independent 2D Character Animation, published by Focal Press. It can be bought at any bookstore or online.

Producing Independent 2D Character Animation: Making and Selling a Short Film by Mark Simon. Burlington, Massachusetts: Focal Press, 2003. 432 pages. ISBN: 0-240-80513-5.

Mark Simon founded and owns A&S Animation, Inc., an award-winning cel animation house in Florida, which develops and produces character animation for commercials, TV, training videos and the Web. He also owns Animatics & Storyboards, Inc., the largest storyboard house in the southern United States, which has provided work on over 1,200 productions. Mark's accomplishments include owning an award-winning advertising firm, being a syndicated cartoonist, production designer of film, TV and animations, and writing entertainment industry books and lecturing on both animation and storyboards. Having won over 30 animation awards for his efforts, Mark has directed Timmy's Lessons In Nature (which he sold as a TV series), My Wife Is Pregnant, numerous commercials, training videos and television series special effects. Read more about A&S Animation and the author.