In Setting the Scene: The Art and Evolution of Animation Layout, author Fraser McLean introduces the originating elements that built up today’s background design for animation.
Compared with the more easily identifiable lone figure of the live-action production designer supervising the construction of a complicated set, or the live-action camera operator poised at the tripod with one eye pressed to the viewfinder, even the head of an Animation Layout Department would be hard to imagine or depict in any one role or in any single identifiable pose. (MacLean, 2011:23)
In the very beginning of layout design, characters and scenic elements would be layered as actual cutouts. By the 1920s, with characters being traced onto separacte cels as well as with advancement in film technology, background layouts could include greater details and tonal values. In good animation, it is not enough for characters to move. Every aspect of what is seen on screen has to have a sense of life to it, for it to produce a convincing world.
When Eadweard Muybridge photographed his subjects, he blocked out the natural environment in order for their figures to be easier to study. Windsor McCay’s early animations, although masterworks, moved around on a blank canvas. ‘Gertie the Dinosaur’ (McCay, 1914) was set in a world, rather than a blank limbo. The dinosaur, Gertie, moved in a landscape designed in perspective and depth, intending to make her existence more believable to the audience. The landscape was rendered on rice paper frame by frame. McCay used underlying crosshairs, mainly used by illustrators and printmakers at the time, to pinpoint important static elements.
By tracing and painting characters onto separate sheets of transparent celluloid, McCay was able to render both foreground and background with a high level of detail. By separating the dynamic from the static, animation production opened up for a more detailed design of the fictional world. At the time, few followed his technique as it required a larger budget.
In the 1930s, ‘story sketches’ of planned action were used to determine how many backgrounds would have to be created to accommodate the action. If possible, individual backgrounds would be used in multiple scenes to diminish the workload.