Animation has been through a revolution these past 40 years. The way animation was produced by Disney 60 years ago has drastically changed. We are still watching with enchantment the classics of Mickey Mouse, Felix the Cat, Popeye or Betty Boop, but at the exception of few studios mainly in Japan, computers are now the indispensable tool to animation professionals. Arguably, this revolution started in the mid 1980's. Pixar was created late 1970's as a division of LucasFilm, until its incorporation in 1986 with capital from Steve Job, and was certainly a big trigger for this revolution. The Pixar we know today is the brainchild of genius Animator John Lasseter, Technology wizard Ed Catmull and visionary investor Steve Job. Following their vision, Pixar developed a new animation process, based on computer generated images giving birth to 3D animation.
The beginnings of Pixar were somewhat chaotic, the vision was there but the return on investment was not. It is only in 1995 with the release of Pixar first feature animation "Toy Story" that success materialized. Since then, Pixar is the only studio capable of producing success after success such as Toy Story, Monster, Inc. Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, etc. Disney was the distributor of Pixar movies but the relationship between then Disney CEO M. Eisner and S. Job was turbulent. The original contract gave most of the revenues to Disney and Job fought it. Eventually, with a new management at Disney, negotiation resumed, and Disney acquired Pixar for close to $8 billion in 2006.
Producing 3D animation follows a similar process to live movies: Pre-prod, Prod, and Post-prod.
It is the establishment of a plan, also called the "Animation Production Pipeline." It is the business plan of your animation defining the budget, the scope of the project and the teams bringing the animation to life. The plan needs to be accurate in budget and timing and starts with a story, very much like live movies. The success of Pixar is not only based on 3D animation, but also on compelling stories with lots of emotions. Then comes the "Storyboarding" with the story shaped in sequences and scenes, drawn and assembled to give a first draft of what the story will look like. Animators will contribute but at the end, the Director will make all decisions based on the original vision and selected options from the boards. Once the storyboards are agreed upon, the first editing step plays an important role in creating animatic works out of the boards. This is where characters are interacting with the environment in which they evolve. Dialogues and sound FX are added for the first time to give a general idea of the direction taken. From these animatics, the Director will fine-tune the edits creating the platform on which the animation will take shape. The next step is the "Visual Development." This is the equivalent of the "Production Design" for movies. Visual Development will bring colors, background and props to life, giving the Director a more accurate visual estimate of what final animation will look like. Before starting production, comes the "Previs." It is the step of creating 3D generated images out of a computer that gather all the aspects mentioned above.
The production can now begin with the modeling, transferring 2D images into 3D models. The surfacing artists will create the colors and textures defined by the Visual Development. The "Riggers" are creating the body motions i.e., the limbs articulation animators will use. The animation preparation then starts with the assembly of the work from all departments into the 3D realm. Animators will take ownership of their characters and work with their computer to bring them to life using the rigs created by the Riggers. Sometimes, a step named "Crowds" comes into play. It is the action of giving realistic expressions to a crowd such as in "A Bug's Life". Simulation of the characters is happening with hair styles, costumes, attitude, general expressions, etc. Let's not forget the visual effects, as in animation all actions triggering reactions and collaterals need to be created. Unlike in a live movie where jumping in a pool will create a splash, the splash in animation will be generated through the visual effects artist. Another department is "Matte Painting". Artists from this department will create all backgrounds where the characters will live, ie., sand on a beach, water around a boat, clouds in the sky, lighting tones with day sequences vs. night, etc. Of course, with all those details and technical processes, issues will creep into the production stage, to which the Technical Director will have to find solutions.
At this stage, a multitude of adjustments will give the animation its final look. Compositing will adjust the colors, the light and depth between characters and background.
Sound design and music will be synchronized at this stage. Composing for animation is a lot of fun, but as Philippe Falliex Music Partner’s Artistic Director will tell you; it is serious business. Synchronization is key. Another editorial phase takes place taking in consideration the Compositing just done.
Color Grading is often the final stage of a 3D animation, checking the consistency of colors and tones throughout the film. A well-produced 3D animation is moving you to another universe you simply believe in. It is a lot of work done with passion, dedication, and perfectionism, which is also why it can appeal to audiences of all ages.