How does Traditional Animation work ?

Traditional animation is an animation technique that consists to give the illusion of movement by projetting a series of drawings in front of our eyes.

Traditional animation is back
True that !

The scrolling of a series of images, one by one and at a precise rate, will generate the illusion of movement thanks to the persistence of vision.

Generally 12 frames per second, this rate can vary depending on the fluidity needs and the quality expected.

It’s good to know that with 8 frames/sec, we can have a less fluid animation, but save a huge production time, because we will just have to produce 8 drawings instead of 12.

This ultimately saves a lot of time and a lot money!

Working on « 2 » or on « 1 », what does it mean?

If we start on the basis of 12 frames per second, we say that we work on “2”. Because concretely, the exposure time of each image on the “film” (in digital, we would say about 2 frames) takes 2 images instead of one.

So, as a second in a movie is usually at a 24 frames/sec rate, we can imagine that each drawing will scroll 2 times in front of our eyes. And thus give a production rate of 12 frames/sec wich is typical of the classic cartoon style. (with digital formats and depending on the geographical area, the frame/sec rate can vary a lot).

In general, we work on “1”, so at a 24 frames/sec rate when we have a very fast Timing and Spacing that is very wide. (So we have to produce 24 drawings per second and therefore, it gives us 2 times more work!).

Animating on “1” is more reserved for specific moments of action in which for example a character such as a horse runs very fast or makes a very big jump.

All the movements like the tail and the mane will be much more fluid if animated on “1”. And the jump’s animation will not be jerky because of the Spacing (too much distance between each drawing which gives the sense that the images scroll without fluidity ).

Animation on one
Animation on “1”

By the way, how do we animate?

This is where the 2D animator comes into play!

Beyond his work as an actor which is to get into the skin of the character or even to animate objects or visual effects, the 2D animator, after having studied the Storyboard (or animatic) of the shot, will determine the Timing and Spacing he wants to give to the action.

After that, he will begin to pose the main action of the shot on which he works by breaking it frame by frame.

He will then begin by drawing the Extremes. Drawings that are the main poses in which the character (or whatever it is) go through the greatest change of position. Like for instance between the first and the last image of the shot.

Between these Key poses, he will after that draw Breakdowns. These are images that allow him to further decompose the movement and go from one extreme to the other.

Finally, he will add the Intervals between each poses to give it fluidity to the animation.

Animation Extremes Breakdown and Intervalles

After having fun to scribble, what’s happening?

Now that the drawing phase is finished, let our 2D animator have fun working on other amazing shots. While the drawings – which are usually sketches made with graphite pencil on paper sheets – pass through the hands of those who clean them. This will give them their final quality before they will be filmed 1 by 1.

The cleaning process is usually to retrace the outline of the main feature of each drawing, by hand.

Then, the drawings are given to another team in charge of the colorization.

And finally, reffering to the exposure sheet, someone will have the pleasure to film each image one by one and turn all these nice drawings into an amazing video!

Remember that each drawing will be exposed 1 or 2 times on the film depending on how the animator have decomposed the action to give it the best possible fluidity of movement.

Drawing on sheets of paper with a drawing desktop doesn’t exist anymore! Today, they all have graphic tablets and computers… what happened?

Well, before… cartoon was exclusively a traditional animation technique.

That means we rolled up our sleeves, and we did everything by hand! Like a real craftsman, yes!

The work was 100% hand-made and the pioneers of 2D animation could be proud of them as they produced animated nuggets without any sophisticated hardware!

They drew on sheets of paper with simple graphite pencils and their talent and imagination did the rest! Same goes for cleaners and colorizers, who used brushes and painted on cellulos to obtain a finished product.

The production process was long and tedious but it was also so satisfying!

Traditional animator
A Traditional Animator who used to work with pencil on paper.

Then, to speed up and reduce the production costs of a cartoon, technology came with some major advances. The arrival of scanners made it possible to scan hand-drawn pictures and even permitted to clean and colorize by computer.

Then, the arrival of animation softwares and the power of computers allowed to create hand-drawn animation, but entirely digitized! Hence the entry of cartoon in the era of Digital Animation. We also talk about tradigital animation and digital animator for those who work with these tools.

Nowadays, you can simply draw directly in a software using a graphic pen tablet such as a Cintiq. The drawings do no more need to be scanned to become digitized, they are already saved on a hard disk from the beginning!

This also simplify the cleaning and colorization phases, because often, everything is done in the same software. The exchange of files between the different people of the same team is greatly facilitated.

No need to store thousands of drawings on shelves while waiting to use them anymore, now you can store an entire movie on a simple USB key!

Digital animation on Cintiq
Digital Animation from today on a pen tablet, like a Cintiq

Now we have animators drawing with computers, but some of them are able to move them… without hands! Being an animator, does it also mean being a magician?

Kind of, actually because being able to generate content that will create dreams, wonders and emotions among thousands of viewres, it’s a bit of magic!

But seriously, technology having evolved greatly, the animation field has reached the point where computer-assisted animation could be generated entirely by computer!

I’m not talking about 3D or softwares that can create hyper-realistic visual effects. But in 2D animation, tweened animation has come to the fore.

The goal being as always to optimize animation production techniques. So, we have reached the point where we can create 2 key poses and let the computer calculate the rest between those 2 images.

It’s crazy, isn’t it? Well, I’ll get a coffee while the software calculates the remaining 75% of my animation …

And no, it’s not that simple! Luckily for those who still love the traditional look of 2D animation! This hand-made job will be always so much more satisfying than using this cold machine with super-powered technology.

A machine will never have the discernment and creativity that the brain and the human eye have!

But I saw Terminator movie, do machines one day will have control over animation and will animate without us?

Without a person to tell it how and what to do, the computer will never create anything interesting. Moreover, it will never be able to appreciate the magic and the emotion of an hand-made animation!

There is indeed softwares such as Adobe Character Animator that can animate a 2D character in real time. All thanks to a system that captures movements and facial expressions.

This concept can work well for live TV shows, but probably not for animated TV series or animated film production.

So I think that 2D animation still has a bright future ahead. And the machines, even if they take control of the planet one day. They will never be able to realize and transcribe the beauty of a 2D animated film…

Terminator animation meme


I am a professional 2D and 3D animator who worked for years on Animated TV Series and Video Games. (see complete profil description on the sidebar of the Blog). Have fun!

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