Storytelling in Motion: Animation Pipeline

People often look at animation as a wholly technical and mechanical process. Simply matching movements to reality, ensuring that it looks fluid and realistic. Though it’s frequently forgotten simply how much storytelling we get from the movements, poses, and actions of the characters. 

How we view them, how they move, and are shown to us, these things define characters before they can speak. Just like in character creation, taking something from concept to a realized model, so much goes into the visual style. All of it in service of showing the audience what they’re seeing instead of just telling. 

 Storytelling Stage 

We start in the storytelling stage or the layout stage. This takes place often without any major references or takes to work from. It uses almost exclusively the script itself to determine character’s actions, motivations, and what needs to be conveyed to the audience.  

Initially, it’s just laying out the silhouettes of each character in place for the story you’re trying to tell. Here it’s tuned for potential camera angles and initial poses, notes are taken for future lighting and colouring. After the core layout is settled, work begins on poses. It’s important to understand that ‘pose’ is used in a loose sense. Meaning any core pose and shape of an action. This could be sitting, standing, walking, running, grabbing something, any physical action.  

This stage involves a lot of iterations as the animators involved try to dial in exactly what each character will be doing and how they’ll look in action. Our animators are doing this in search of the best physical vehicle for the story beats involved. Many of the same elements are sought after in character creation. 

The poses here are usually determined by the number of actions a character takes. So, if a character stands up from a chair and turns their head, you have three poses. Sitting, standing, and head turned. The in-between doesn’t have to be determined here, the link is assumed and shown through rough sketches. 


Reference Stage 

This stage involves getting actors to act out the scene. This is a process of discovery, trying to play the character and figure out exactly how they’d move. And its intention is half-mechanical, half-creative. Our animators are looking for the most realistic movements, trying to get the best reference for certain actions. The little things define big actions and that’s what they’re trying to pin down. 

But it’s also seeking out the nuances of each character. The little mannerisms and unique movements that might separate a character from the rest of the cast.  

Several takes are done, all for reference, and one is chosen specifically to be the main point of reference. After this, all the shots are put in sequence and we begin to dial in the story itself. The person in charge, the director of animation for example, is looking for the right combination. What speed works best for certain actions, changing timings to try and tell the best story possible. 


Blocking Stage 

This is technically a continuation of the reference stage, it would be the next step once the reference is locked in.  

In a smaller project, the work up to this point would be handed to the person in charge, who delegates shots to a team of animators. However, in a bigger project there’s an extra step before delegation of shots. 

Instead, the sequence is sent to a group of senior animators for ‘blocking’. Here is where the poses are refined. There must be a lot of care in this stage as the poses must be refined to be both physical accurate but also ensure that the story is preserved. It’s a delicate balance that our seasoned animators walk with each project. The poses here are still just the core ones, but here we’re looking for interesting and dynamic poses. That show character at once.  


Spline Stage 

Once that’s locked in, a team of animators will fill out and finish the shot. Linking the poses and ensuring that the movements in-between the storytelling poses are anatomically correct. The term that our teams often use is “gravity momentum”, something that is heavily determined by actions before and decides the actions that follow. 

Many things can be changed, but momentum is a fixed scale. Should a pose be tweaked, twenty or thirty frames on either side of it will need tweaking as well. Changing things at each stage has an escalating impact. For example, changing a pose in the storytelling stage might take an hour to implement. Changing a pose in the reference and blocking stage, a day. Changing a pose in the spline stage, we’re looking at one to three days. 

Therefore, it’s important for these teams to lock in and cement core character ideas for their animation. But equally, change can lead to a better final product, and so our team leads remain flexible. 


Polishing Stage 

The last step doesn’t officially have an end. We often say that polishing is never finished. It only ends when the deadline arrives. It is iteration upon iteration, tweak upon tweak, until the deadline is met. At this step, between spline and polishing, most changes won’t be noticed by anyone other than a professional character animator. 

Finally, the animation is handed off to the next department. For lighting, colouring, and everything else to turn the shot into a completed piece of art. 


Storytelling Poses

We’ve mentioned this a lot throughout the article, with emphasis on the pose carrying the story itself. Telling us of the character and what is happening. 

Our artists define these poses by what they show and how they feel. Things we get from an immediate glance. The actions they define can be small or large, but it’s often the details of each pose that really bring it to life. The devil in the details, as they say, the minutiae and minimalism that bring a character to life.  

The animation team say that the actions themselves are important and that’s what the poses ultimately are. They are a change on screen, telling the audience something significant, making us aware of a new element. 


We have a range of services besides animation, such as FX, and Compositing. As part of Magic Media we have the combined bandwidth to tackle any project, at any size, in house. Instead of using multiple studios, you can come to your one stop shop, and we can offer a range of services to ensure your project is a success. Get in contact today and let’s create magic!