7 Things Filmmakers Can Learn
From Animation

By Matthew Keen


I started my career as an animator so it is natural that I would look to other animations for inspiration. I would look back to an old cartoon such as Tom & Jerry to see how to make an action more intense or watch the way the little pigs played their instruments in ‘The Three Bops’ for reference.

Since expanding my work into film I have noticed that there are a number of lessons learnt whilst doing animation that continue to serve me well, here I hope to share them so that you too can apply them to your next film project.

1. Knowing What You Want

For this one we have to hark back to the good old days of traditional animation. Back in those days an animator didn’t have a 3D model of what they were animating, they had to see it in their mind from every angle before they put pencil to paper. This is a very important skill, if you can already see exactly what you want in your mind then not only will you be able to communicate it better but also if someone says ‘I can’t see it’, you’ll be able to say ‘Well, I can.’ Don’t just take my word for it; these are the wise words of Mr. Steven Spielberg.

2. Anything Can (And Should) Have Character

Lo-to-No Budget FilmmakingIn animation anything can have character from a teapot to a door handle and that should be the  same in your film.

When you are conceiving your characters and your story don’t forget to spare a thought for your set and prop design. In an animation you can’t just walk onto a location or buy a prop on EBay, you have to create it from a blank page. The look of everything from the tiniest ant to the tallest building must be considered and visualised according to what they are supposed to communicate to the viewer.

Everything from the look to the way things move establishes character. Pixar’s plucky little lamp Luxo is a fine example of this.

3. Planning Is Crucial

Each shot in animation takes a long time to make. To animate an entire scene and then cut it out in the edit is very unusual. But how is this kind of foresight possible? Well, before anything is animated everything is planned down to the last second. It is by far better to figure out exactly what you need in the planning stage rather than after production. Think how much better you could spend your budget if you dropped that really expensive location before you filmed it because you already knew you didn’t need it.

Storyboard as much as possible. This will give you a cheap and immediate way of working out what is working and what isn’t. You will quickly figure out any extra shots you need, which cuts are confusing and what order your scenes work best in.

Even better if you can put your storyboards on a timeline and create an animatic. This is common practice in animation and is crucial in establishing the timing and quite literally the amount of animation that needs to be done. By applying this method to your film you can figure out exactly what needs to be filmed.

4. The Importance Of Colour

Colour is associated with mood. Green communicates nature and peace where as red communicates danger, anger, fire and blood. Every single colour has to be chosen for an animation and this is an important part of the overall feel of the piece. Pixar takes this so seriously that they don’t just stop at regular storyboards, they actually go so far as to create a colour storyboard.

You should do the same, pick the colour that is most prominent in each scene and lay them all out in sequence. This will be the sequence of mood for your film. Ask yourself how does it flow? Does it fit in with the beats of the story you are trying to tell? This is a unique and insightful way to plan your film, make sure you try it out.

5. Anything is possible

With animation, if you can imagine it, you can draw it. With film it can be a little different, it is hard to muster the budget for a space station or the Colosseum. Or at least it used to be…. These days almost anything is possible thanks to easily accessible low budget visual effects.

Take Gareth Edwards’ film ‘Monsters’ an alien monster movie with blockbuster quality visual effects done by Director Gareth himself. I had the pleasure of listening to Gareth speak at a VFX event and it was inspirational to hear his story. He showed me that today you can imagine as big as you like and achieve it on a tight budget. It is certainly a frame of mind that I will be taking into my next film project which will feature several VFX shots, all of which I will be completing myself.

6. Don’t say it, show it

This is fundamental to animation and should most definitely be applied to film. Visual communication is a universal language, one that anyone can understand no matter where they are from. This makes it incredibly powerful, not to mention simple. Something as subtle as a shift in a character’s stance or the way they walk can say more than any amount of dialogue. An animator is the master of this; they know exactly how to show what a character is feeling through movement alone. Pixar’s WALL-E is an absolute master-class in this practice.

Make a point of removing some dialogue from your scene and see if you can communicate it without dialogue. If you can then I can almost guarantee it will be a much more powerful piece of film for it.

7. Create Characters The Audience Can Identify With

We all loved Wile E. Coyote. Who didn’t want to see him catch Road Runner? I know I did and I would watch that cartoon every time willing him to succeed. As a viewer I was part of his struggle, I felt his optimism as set out each new and cunning trap just as much as I felt his defeat, although my pain was softened by the fact that his failure was rather funny.

The same goes for Tom from Tom & Jerry. I so badly wanted Tom to catch Jerry and it was this connection with this goal that kept me watching. These are simple but timeless examples of characters we can identify with. As an audience we must understand and identify with the characters we are watching. Wile E. Coyote was hungry and he wanted to eat Road Runner, Tom was kind of hungry but to be honest I think it was because he found Jerry so irritating. The main thing is that as a viewer we understood it.

Make your character’s goals clear, what do they want and who or what is standing in their way of getting it?

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About The Author

Matthew Keen is a professional Animator and Director based in the English countryside just outside of London. Over the last few years Matthew has established himself as a serious up-and-coming talent within the UK creative industry. Having produced work for clients such as the BBC and Channel 4 he has also written and directed two short films that have screened at film festivals all over the world including the Cannes Film Festival.

Matthew is currently in the process of raising funds for his next film project ‘Suddenly From Sleep’. A cinematic short combining live-action with animation that follows a young farmer as he struggles with the arrival of a mysterious predator on his land.

You can get involved with his campaign at the website here


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 7 Things Filmmakers Can Learn From Animation