“What makes a good animation?” is a question that has been asked by many people, from those who are new to the art form to those who have been creating animations for years. But what makes an animation great? Some might say it's the story, others might say the animation itself is key. While there isn't necessarily one answer to this question, some things certainly make an animation more effective and engaging than others.
To understand what makes a good animation, it’s important to understand the process. The animation process is a complicated and time-consuming undertaking requiring artistic talent and technical skill. Let’s take a look at each step with examples from some of the best animations.
Character by Melt Creative x Lumen & Forge
The Animation Process
Step 1: Research
All good stories begin with an idea. While some ideas are truly unique, others require a lot of research to make an impactful (and accurate) animation. Research is especially important when producing animations for clients, where their vision will be brought to life. Need-to-know information includes a description of the storyline or concept, mood boards, historical accuracy, tone, goals of the animation, intended audience, and more.
One obvious need for research is when the animation is based on a true story. Many will remember the heartwarming and courageous animated story of Balto, the Siberian Husky that brought a life-saving vaccine to a rural community in Alaska. The 1995 film by Simon Wells was adapted from the historic “Great Race of Mercy” in 1925, where twenty mushers and dogs, including the famous Balto, battled the brutal winter for a 5-day journey to bring the diphtheria vaccine to the isolated Alaskan town. Countless lives were saved thanks to the valiant efforts, especially from Balto, who was said that, despite his inexperience, he led the team through gruesome conditions on his own.
Balto the dog and Balto the animation from the 1995 film
Step 2: Script
Once the research is complete and the animators or clients feel confident, it’s time to start scripting. Think of the script as the foundation for an animation where the creativity and visuals will stem from. All of the important aspects of the project, scenes, and character details are noted in an easily understandable way. It also will denote the music score, changing scenes, and sound effects. For a smaller animation, it may not be necessary to have a script - especially if it’s made by one single animator. However, to really sell the project to a director, studio, or client, the script is the best way to do so.
One script for an animation that turned overcomplicated scene ideas into a consumable format is Phil Lord’s and Rodney Rothman’s “Into the Spider-Verse.” The script shows how to convey ideas that may read unclearly on the page. For an animation that includes voiceovers, montages, thought bubbles, three-panel split screens, and more, it is a perfect example of screenwriting technique and format.
Into the Spider-Verse Script (Sony Pictures Entertainment)
Step 3: Storyboarding
When you think of the animation process, you likely think of storyboarding. Storyboarding is the process of visually creating the script with a series of sketches, drawings, photos, rough sketches, computer-generated visuals, and even doodles! Good storyboards are what pave the way for good animations. Each sequence is broken down into panels, just like a comic book. It works as a way to identify the frames, shots, and angles needed for the project. In film, some directors will storyboard every single scene, whereas others will only make one for more complex sequences.
For animation, storyboards are integral to the process. They are what craft the mood, character development, and pacing of the piece. One of the best examples of excellent storyboarding is in Disney’s WALL-E. Ronnie Del Carmen, the storyboard writer, was nominated for an Annie Award for Storyboarding in an Animated Feature Production. Creating a storyboard for WALL-E was no easy feat, as the beloved character spoke through hand signals, facial expressions, and body language. This required immense details for positions, acting, and poses. WALL-E was created with a whopping 125,000 storyboard drawings, whereas the typical Pixar animation used between 50,000-75,000.
Step 4: Art Direction
Now some may think that the best animations have the best styling and art direction, where creativity really begins to shine. The elements in the art direction phase include the design of every character, color palette, typography, keyframes, and more. It includes detailed backgrounds and world-building, really creating the mood and tone of the piece. Adjustments are easy in this stage, rather than at the end (we’re looking at you, Sonic Movie).
One of the greatest examples of styling in animation comes from Tim Burton. Burton’s style is so distinct that it has its own name: “Burtonesque.” The exaggerated features, long fuzzy hair, baggy eyes, gangly limbs, and pale skin are instantly recognizable in both his animation and live-action films. But the “esque” transcends the characters; it is ingrained in the lighting, colors, and design, making Burton one of the most notable filmmakers in history.
Original Animations by Lumen & Forge artist - Unique Penn
Step 5: Voice Over
With every good story comes a great storyteller, whether in a Disney film or a business explainer video. Finding a voice for a film that emanates the mood of the animation is very important. Specially trained voice actors, even regular actors, can be hired to narrate an animated film. Notably, one of the most impactful (and fun) parts of the animation process, the narrator chosen must be able to deliver the message, tone, and meaning behind the story through the script. Narration can be the overall narrator of the animation to the voice actors playing the characters. This step is done first so that the animators can lip-sync the animations.
Morgan Freeman, known for his calming yet commanding voice, has been named the Greatest Narrator according to IMBD. Freeman awes many with his compassionate demeanor and vibrant energy while also retaining a tone of authority. Whether performing in a classic drama or an exciting animation, his voice is known for captivating audiences. His cinematic dialogue conveys warmth and reassurance, creating an atmosphere of trust which filmgoers deeply appreciate. Furthermore, Freeman's versatility has allowed him to narrate documentaries, animations, amusement park rides and video games. There seems to be no limit to what he can do with just his voice!
Recording Narration for Animation
Step 6: Illustration and Animation
Finally, the most important step of the animation process: illustrating and animating! Using specialized animation software, animation artists add movement and bring the story to life. Typically, producing 60-90 seconds of animation, it takes 8-10 weeks. However, the time required varies depending on the scene's complexity, the animation style, the dialect happening in the scene, and the animator's skill. Big-budget films can have anywhere from 40-60 animators working on a project! All of these facts are a nod to the complexity of the animation process.
Animated stop-motion films, such as the widely known "Wallace and Gromit" franchise, require a special kind of attention to detail and tremendous amounts of time to create. Wallace and Gromit are a series of Academy Award-winning, critically acclaimed British clay animation comedy production about an eccentric inventor named Wallace and his intelligent but mute dog Gromit. Despite the duo looking like plasticine puppets, creators Nick Park and Peter Lord spent countless hours crafting each puppet using foam latex rubber. Beyond that, the filmmakers behind this beloved claymation duo also constructed hundreds of sets from scratch to give audiences a one-of-a-kind look at the world that Wallace and Gromit lived in. Even more impressive is the amount of work that went into animating each movement. By carefully "tweaking" the puppets tiny bit after tiny bit, these daring designers bring their characters to life with uniquely organic movements that have captivated fans worldwide. It is truly an intricate process, so it's no surprise why creating something as iconic as Wallace and Gromit can take up to five years to make.
Stop Motion Animation Process for Wallace and Gromit
Step 7: Adding Sound Effects
Once the visuals are finished, it’s finally time for the last step in the animation process: adding the sound effects. Now the sound effects will include the narration that was recorded before, voice acting, sound effects, and music. Using the visual counterpart as an aid, the sound effects are the finishing touches to the piece.
Choosing only one best animation soundtrack is nearly impossible; however, there is one that really makes us feel something. That is, the soundtrack from the 2010 film “How to Train Your Dragon.” The soundtrack is a classic movie score that stands out for its unique instrumental textures and memorable themes. The score was composed by John Powell, who enlisted the London Symphony Orchestra to help create an auditory journey that effortlessly blends the rousing action of dragons with the quieter moments of family drama. Stylistically, Powell draws from multiple musical traditions while maintaining a cohesive musicality throughout the film. The score seamlessly shifts between moments of beauty, joy, sorrow, and suspense, making it a revelatory experience for any listener. With its highly flexible use of orchestral colors combined with its compelling story-telling arc, it's no surprise this soundtrack stands out as one of the best movie scores in recent memory.
Hand Drawn Animation
So, what makes a good animation to you?
Animation is a versatile medium capable of entertaining and informing audiences in a way that more traditional formats cannot. But what is it about animation that makes it so captivating? Is the key to an engrossing animation the emotionally resonant narrative? Or is it the characters and visuals that draw the audience into its world? At the heart of any successful animation is a story conveying themes we can all relate to. Engaging animated characters must be not only believable but also relatable. When making animation, it's important to consider how its use of visuals and sound can help tell the story, transporting viewers into its fictional world. Ultimately, a good animation has the power to make us care about its characters and root for them as if they were real people facing real struggles. It can take us on an emotional journey, encouraging us to learn from both triumphs and failures as we become involved in its narrative. So, what is it that makes great animation? To us, it’s the stories with heart and visuals that bring us closer to them.