Production design for drawn animation

The colloquial term used by animators to distinguish drawn animators from puppet or 3-D is to call the first “flatties” and the second “lumpies. We are dealing here with the “flatties”

(Taylor, 2002, p.22).

Drawn animation can be described as the creation of a flat plane of images which when played in a sequence creates an illusion of motion. Drawn animation separates into three different production techniques:
1)   Frame by frame recording through a stop-motion camera. This technique is used for hand-drawn, painted on glass, cutout, and sand-animation.
2)   Direct drawing or scratching on film roll, which requires a film camera.
3)   Computer animation, where the traditional paper and pencil/ celluloid and ink are swapped with computer graphic software which allows one to create two-dimensional graphics and arrange them in a playable sequence.


‘Because you are drawing for the camera, your drawings must be in the same shape and proportion as the film rate’

(Taylor, 2002, p.23).

Most common aspect ratios:

  • 1.25:1 (5:4) – Early television recordings.
  • 1.33:1 (4:3) – Traditional television programs.
  • 1.375:1 – Approved as the Academy standard in 1932 ( Introduced to fit action with the new possibilities for adding soundtracks.
  • 1.41:1 –   A4 paper size.
  • 1.43:1 – IMAX motion picture film format
  • 1.5:1 (3:2) – Classic 35mm still photographic film.
  • 1.6:1 (8:5) – Common computer screen ratio.
  • 1.6180:1 (16.18:10) – The golden ratio ().
  • 1.6667:1 (5:3) – Super 16mm film, also a common European widescreen standard.
  • 1.77:1 (16:9) – HD video, DVD and television standard (
  • 1.85:1 – Recently previous cinema standard. Commonly used in the US.
  • 2.35:1 (21:9) – A current widescreen cinema standard used for theatrical releases.

Today, the 16:9 aspect ratio seems to be the most common for feature films, but I assume it will advance in the near future. In 2002, Taylor (2002) specified that animations tend to be produced in 4:3 aspect ratio, but if we look at recent films such as How to Train Your Dragon (2010, dir. Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders), Ernest and Celestine (2012, dir. Stephanie Aubier, Vincent Patar & Benjamin Renner) or Big Hero 6 (2014, dir. Don Hall & Chris Williams), we can witness a clear transition not only from 4:3, but even from 16:9 into 21:9.


Image source. How To Train Your Dragon, 21:9 aspect ratio

Image source. How To Train Your Dragon, 21:9 aspect ratio

Image source. Ernest & Celestine, 1.85:1 aspect ratio (a bit bigger than 16:9/1.77:1)

Image source. Ernest & Celestine, 1.85:1 aspect ratio (a bit bigger than 16:9/1.77:1)

Big Hero 6

Image source. Big Hero 6, 21:9 screen ratio.


An early concept for my story is a good example in which the camera was not taken into consideration. As you see, once fitted into the different screen ratios, most of the content and ‘feeling’ of the artwork disappears.

Early concept of Lumi and Plant

4 by 3

Concept painting cut to a 4:3 screen ratio

16 by 9

Concept painting cut to a 16:9 screen ratio

Concept painting cut to a 21:9 screen ratio


To plan one’s size of image field and position of field in relation to the camera’s center, a field key can be worked out. The field key exists once a camera with a set ratio has been mounted over a horizontally placed surface. The size the field key covers can be altered by moving the camera up or down (or zooming).

For hand-drawn, painted-on-glass, drawn-in-sand, or cutout animation, the production designer creates environments in layouts, and is more commonly referred to as a layout artist or Head of Layout. The layout artist receives copies of scenes presented through storyboards, containing scenic elements for action purposes, and composes these into detailed layout drawings of the background scenery, which will be the basis for both the background painters and the animators. The layout artist must draw characters in their correct sizes onto a copy or trace of the layout to avoid confusion for all the various departments receiving the layout. I.e., the characters have to be shown through the various points of perspective, like when a character is running down a hallway, it should be shown in a starting position and an end position (Taylor, 2002, p.42).

Image source. Layout with character movements for The Secret of Nihm.

Image source. Layout with character movements for The Secret of Nihm (1982, dir. Don Bluth).

Image source. Layout with character movements for My Neighboor Totoro (1988, dir. Hayao Miyazaki).

Image source. Layout with character movements for My Neighboor Totoro (1988, dir. Hayao Miyazaki).

The above layout for My Neighboor Totoro shows two characters in their separate perspective positions within a two-dimensional surface. The perspective creates an illusion of depth, but must be planned with great care. If something goes wrong, the illusion is lost. I think this technique is one of the things that facinate me the most about hand-drawn animation. Although there is a certain play on perspective in CGI films, I don’t think you get an as broad playground as you do in hand-drawn productions. I recently came across the works of M. C. Esher, which completely embarked in my memory. His works are literally puzzels within themselves. If I ever get the chance to work on a hand-drawn production, or get around to create one myself, Escher’s techniques are definately valuable sources of inspiration.

Image source. 'Waterfall' by M. C. Escher.

Image source. ‘Waterfall’ by M. C. Escher.


In the early days of animation, animators would avoid background elements in their cartoons, as these had to be hand-copied onto each and every drawing (Taylor, 2002). Emile Cohl’s works, for example, were created within an empty space (Locke, 1992). Windsor McCay and Otto Messmer were among the first to incorporate background elements, once they figured out a way to draw character movement onto transparent paper over the still backgrounds. These backgrounds remained black and white. When Walt Disney introduced colour cartoons, an obvious contrast occurred between the richly textured background layouts and the two-dimensional inked characters. Many abandoned naturalistic scenic design in the 1950’s and 1960’s because of this conflict, and turned to the abstract. In the late 1960’s, technology allowed for textured cel paintings, which gave a return to a more naturalistic scenery (Taylor, 2002, p.46).

Emile Cohl’s Fantasmargorie (1908) only presents elements which are crucial to the story. The audience is shown a cinema screen and chairs which explain what the characters are doing and where they are, but there is no indication of other elements of their space. Creatively enough, the animator seem to have worked around this limitation by presenting a space that would normally be blacked out.

Windsor McCay’s Gertie (1914, Gertie the Dinosaur) is shown in her ‘natural environment’, seemingly a predecessor to The Flintstones (1960-1966, dir. William Hannah & Joseph Barbara) and The Land Before Time (1988, dir. Don Bluth). Gertie’s environment is white with black outlines, an opposite of Cohl’s design. To me, at present day, it appears as a layout drawing ready to be sent for colouring. -But it doesn’t really need it, the forms in themselves are outstanding and beautiful in their simplicities.

Image source. The Flintstones (1960-1966).

Image source. Background and character from The Flintstones (1960-1966).

Image source.

Image source. Background and characters from The Land Before Time (1988).

I have a friend who is a very passionate artist, presumably more passionate than I could ever be. One thing that brings her down a lot is the idea of everything having been done before. This conversation is often visited between us, and her view-point always seems to startle me. With such a thing limiting you, how can you ever create something new? I suppose I have settled. To me, it does not matter whether someone else came up with something similar before me, as I think this is unavoidable. We build on what we know, and no one person in this world will likely create an identical interpretation of something. So, in a way, any work of art is an original idea, based on another original idea. I think it all depends on how you look at it. Walt Stanchfield, who’s two volumes of mindblowing lectures were released in 2009, suggested that no one will see something in the same way, thus, your work will always stand out if you want it to.


Colouring for animation is developed by the Art Director during early visual development. The beatboard, where each image presents a whole storyboard sequence, is coloured into a colour script. This colour script provides the background painter with directions for colour selections.

Image source. Colour script for Pixar's Finding Nemo (dir. ,2001)

Image source. Colour script for Pixar’s Finding Nemo (2003, dir. Andrew Stanton & Lee Unkrich)


The Frog (dir. Lucinda Clutterbuck, 1995) is a cutout animation where the background elements are assembled through separate cutouts and arranged into a full composition. This approach allows the background to match the cutout character.

The Secret of Nimh (dir. Don Bluth, 1982) presents the traditional style commonly used in large-scale animation production (Disney, Jetlag, Bluth…). Backlighting and overlayed levels creates a convincing environment. Characters are inked onto celluloid paper.

Image source. The Secret of Nihm.

Image source. Cel painting on background for The Secret of Nihm.

For a deeper spatial feeling, background elements can be spread onto different sheets, or layers, and attached onto separate frames on a multi-plane camera setup. Here, the focus shifts from the different layers, creating an illusion of motion. Layers can also move separately, thus allowing for restricted camera movement. In example, a more realistic illusion of depth may be achieved by moving the foreground and background in different speeds. Traditionally, one would have a background painting, layered with a middle ground. Characters are placed between the middle ground and a layer of foreground elements. The Walt Disney Animation Studios invented the multi-plane camera, and tested it out for the first time in 1937 for their short, The Old Mill (dir. Wilfred Jackson). The video below shows a compilation of Disney’s use of the multi-plane camera throughout the years.

In the sake of simplicity, a high level of spatial feeling can be achieved through adjusting the horizon line. Placed high on the screen, the horizon line creates the feeling of a low-angle camera . Placed low on the screen, it conveys a bird’s eye view (Locke, 1992).

A stationary background is static, and does not allow for camera moves. A panning background allows the camera to move, and may introduce an illusion of change through perspective trickery. The choice between the static and the dynamic all depends on the type of action one is attempting to achieve. Dramatic action might call for a panning background, while a toned down pace requires a static background (Locke, 1992).

One of the early sequences of Richard Williams’ version of A Christmas Carol (1971) presents a fantastic example of dynamic background design. The clip from [00:48-01:18] in the film gives the illusion of a rotating camera, whereas the camera is actually just panning down a two-dimensional drawing, sometimes moving in or out. The short film was awarded an Academy Award in 1971, for Best Animated Short.