Animation is Hard. This is What Doing It Alone Looks Like

By: Matt Connor

How long does it take to create an episode of The Simpsons, the long-running animated sitcom on the FOX network? A week? Four days? 24 hours? No, it’s longer than that. A month? Six weeks? Three months?

It’s longer still. Try nine months. If a staff member on the show were to become pregnant on the day that she decided to pitch an episode to the showrunners, it is entirely plausible–likely, even–that her child will be born before her episode is finished. This is not the exception. Rather, this is the norm. Most animated shows you can name, be it The Simpsons, Family Guy, American Dad, Steven Universe, Adventure Time, or Bob’s Burgers, take anywhere between six to twelve months to animate for just a single 22-minute episode. An 11-minute show–usually found in children’s programming–can sometimes do it in three months.

There are shows such as South Park, which can do it in six days or less (just look at their infamous 2016 election episode, “Oh Jeez”, an episode which was completely re-written and re-animated in less than 24 hours after then-candidate Donald Trump’s surprise upset win in real life). South Park is famously one of the only animated shows on TV which produces an episode the same week it airs. Most animation is not like this.

These shows all one big thing in common–their animation teams are huge. Now, I’m an animator, but I don’t work on any of these teams. I don’t direct any of these teams. None of the work I do is for a show or a corporation. Everything I do is independent. A passion project. I, of course, animate most of it by myself. THAT is a challenge.

Film runs at 24 frames per second. 2D animation is typically done at 12 frames per second. In traditional animation, every frame of a given movement needs to be redrawn to maintain fluidity. In television, often the “key frames”, which are the major poses a character assumes, are drawn by one animator, and the shot is then handed over to a lower animator on the chain to draw the “breakdowns”, those being the frames that come between the major poses. Sometimes to process ends with this animator, but often that shot will be sent to a third animator for additional “inbetweens”, which are every other frame. Finally, the shot is sent to a colorist to be… well, colored. Sometimes another guy does mouth movement as well.

On a show like The Simpsons, there’s an entire overseas department for doing all of the work that isn’t done by the key frame artist. I don’t have that luxury. Every part of the process that I just mentioned is done by me.

Now don’t get me wrong–it’s VERY fun, and VERY satisfying. But it’s VERY time consuming, especially when a finished, colored, shaded frame looks like this:

And a new picture like this has to get made twelve times in a second! Cartooning is a craft of passion, because in a lot of cases, the only reward is the thing you made. Animators don’t get paid very much, especially not independent animators, but oftentimes, the idea that they’ve created something–by themselves–that could rival what’s on TV is rewarding enough.

Where does this process start? Well, like most traditional film, it starts in a writer’s room.

This part is relatively self explanatory. If you know anything about movies, I’m sure you know that movies have dialogue. Typically a finished script for a half-hour animated show is somewhere between 20 and 35 pages, depending on the pacing of the jokes and the actions being described. In this example, the script is 33 pages long.

Next, voices have to be recorded for the animators (me) to animate to. Basic sound is often produced before the animation, to avoid having to reanimate shots later on if a line isn’t delivered exactly as imagined. In this case, I actually voice both of the characters, which is nice, because I can do most of the work myself AND I already know how I want the dialogue to be delivered. A major production doesn’t usually have this luxury.

After the voices are recorded they’re arranged into a soundscape–basically an audio version of the script, with all of the voices edited, trimmed, and timed out precisely to fit a predetermined runtime. Most animation is done digitally now, and although many studios use different software packages for different tasks, I actually do most of the visual work in the same program. The audio is imported into Adobe Animate, in which the storyboards are drawn. Depending on the production, the storyboard can range from very detailed, with camera movements and dialogue drawn in, which they usually are in studio productions:

To very basic scrawls which get only the most basic points across, which is usually the case in my own productions:

Once the storyboard gets approved (or, in my case, once I’m happy with it), it moves into the animation phase, which is the longest part. I used to use Adobe Animate almost exclusively for my projects. Nowadays, however, I like to obsess over the little details, so I spend a lot of time moving between a few programs: Adobe Animate, Toon Boom Harmony, and a less popular program called Cacani, which speeds up some of the process by allowing me to generate rough inbetweens using computers and AI technology. The result is the cleaned, colorless frames seen a few pictures above. The final coloring is done in Animate.

Most of my backgrounds are painted in a program called Clip Studio Paint. I like the look of older cartoons with oil painted backgrounds, so I try to emulate that style.

Some of them are CGI. Those are done in Blender.

Back in Animate, I use the background to figure out what the lighting should look like, and shade the characters accordingly–this is done on a separate layer from the coloring, and oftentimes beforehand. The end result is a finished frame which looks like this:

For bigger projects, there’s a few extra post-production steps, but this was a really small project–one which was done in a ludicrously short amount of time using very limited animation. So, at this point, it’s ready to be shown to the world!
Most of my projects follow this process, and many of them are stylistically unique from each other. “Swole Foods” is the result of hours of hard work and trying to make myself laugh, and you can watch some of it here and here (viewer discretion advised).

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