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How a Traditional Animation Process Helps Freelancers

“While traditional animation may be waiting in the wings now, its artistic impact and merit are nothing to ignore.”

Beth Nipper

A traditional animation process is the oldest known process for creating animations. It was first used in the 17th century by the Venetian inventor Giovanni Fontana who popularized the method that became the dominant process by which animations were created until the end of the 20th century.

Traditional became less popular after that because of the introduction of digital animation, which brought with it the ability to create animations at a much faster pace at a far lower cost. The disadvantages of a traditional animation process encouraged animators to embrace digital animation due to its convenience, its time-saving capabilities, and the popularization thereof. 

Despite the decline in its popularity, traditional or hand-drawn animation remains a popular animation process used by animators around the world. Walt Disney Studios used a  traditional animation process up until 2009 with the release of their feature film “Princess and the Frog.” 

Not only that, but TV animation studios like Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network still use a traditional animation process for a variety of their series.

It’s important to understand that while there are some disadvantages to using a traditional animation process, especially when comparing it to the convenience of digital animation, it is still a valuable animation process that should not be overlooked.

For freelancers, a traditional animation process can be incorporated into their animation process to better the engagement between their animation clients and animations. Traditional animation also has a certain charm that just can’t be created with digital animation techniques.

In this blog, we go over what a traditional animation process is, what the advantages and disadvantages are, and how this animation process can benefit you if you’re a freelance animator.

What is Traditional Animation?

a traditional animation process using cel animation

Image by Kristen McCormick via The Frame

Traditional animation, also known as cel animation or hand-drawn animation, is an animation technique where each frame of the film is drawn by hand. This was the dominant form of animation used in cinema until the end of the 20th century, when digital animation was introduced.

The traditional animation process works by drawing characters, layout, and backgrounds on paper. Each element has to be drawn again and again, and this means that each drawing in the animation will be slightly different than the one before it and the one following it, creating the illusion of movement when everything is put onto film.

After all of the drawings are complete, they are fed into plastic cells, filled with paint in the desired colors, and are then photographed one by one in an animated sequence on a painted background image. 

Cells are important for traditional animation processes since it removes the need to draw every element in the film on one single layer of paper. By using cells, each element has its own layer and can be animated separately.

With today's technology, this traditional animation process of using cels to color animation drawings is a bit outdated. The process is made easier by being able to scan the drawings and color them digitally using computer software.

Contemporary animation has largely become a hybrid of traditional and digital techniques and processes. This is most prominent in 2D animation, which works with vector graphics as it is an extremely versatile medium making it a popular choice for many animators. 

2D animation allows animators to play with the height and width of characters and backgrounds to artificially create depth. This means that the focus is placed more on the story and the characters as opposed to fancy graphics available with 3D animation.  Modern computer software has helped take the process into another metaphorical dimension.

There are also many different traditional animation processes other than hand-drawn animations. Some animators use plasticine to create animated pieces of characters or backgrounds. This is known as claymation, and it uses the technique of stop-motion animation.

Other forms of traditional animation include flipbook animation and cut-out animation, which is one of the oldest forms of traditional animation.

The Steps in a Traditional Animation Process

a traditional animation process is one that you can trust says the cat

GIF by Eledraws via Giphy 

The production pipeline for traditional animation processes works in much the same way as any other animation technique. There are three main steps, namely, pre-production, the production phase, and post-production. 

It is a simple linear progression, and the steps in the process need to be done in order. If not, animators would need to retrace their steps, and this could cost them valuable time and risk the animation not being completed on time.

It’s important to remember that there is no definitive guide for a production pipeline and every studio and freelancer handles every process in their own way. You should also keep in mind that the production process depends on the medium being used. 

The steps used for the traditional animation process are very different and more drawn out than those used for digital animation. This is because traditional animation typically has many more steps involved in creating animations, starting with hand drawing every frame.

If you want to check out how to create an efficient animation production pipeline, check out our blog, which gives a comprehensive guide on creating a good production pipeline. 

An Example of an Animation Pipeline or Process

Most production pipelines start with producing a series of storyboards to map out what the animation will look like. These storyboards are then synced with pre-recorded voice-overs to ensure that the audio and visuals of the animation line up and so the animators know when to give characters certain expressions and movements.  

Model sheets are then created by character animators to make sure there is consistency in terms of appearance and movement across the board. This is an important step as there is often more than one animator involved in a project, and everyone has a different style of animation.

Traditional animators then step in to draw sequences of animation, frame by frame, on transparent pieces of paper. This is a very time-consuming process as each frame has to match the voiceovers exactly.

These drawings are then transferred to cells, and the photography process begins using special animated cameras, after which the final film is sent for development and processing.

Here is an outline of all of the steps involved in a traditional animation process :

  • Pre-Production Stage
  1. Scripting and Screenplay
  2. Storyboarding
  3. Conceptualization
  4. Character and Asset Design
  5. Animatic reel
  • Production Stage
  1. Asset Production
  2. Audio Substitution
  3. Hand-Drawn and Digital Animation
  4. Special Effects
  • Post-Production Stage
  1. Ink and Paint
  2. Composting and Rendering
  3. Final Edits
  4. Export

Again, keep in mind that these steps are not definitive, and this outline is just an example of a typical production pipeline for a traditional animation process. Check out our blog for an in-depth overview of all of the processes involved in a traditional animation production pipeline!

Potential Downsides to Traditional Animation Processes

While there are many benefits to using traditional animation, there are also some downsides, and it's important to consider these before deciding to incorporate traditional animation processes into your freelance animation business. 

  • Traditional Animation Takes a Long Time
Patience is required for a traditional animation process

GIF via Giphy

That being said, perhaps the biggest downside to a traditional animation process is the time it takes to create. Traditional animation takes more time compared to computer animation, which uses animation software to speed up the process.

The first thing to keep in mind when considering using a traditional animation process is that it takes an extraordinary amount of time to complete. The time it takes to draw out each frame and to do it correctly so as to avoid unerasable mistakes is huge. 

Traditional animators spend a backbreaking amount of time designing every change in the character for every frame of a second.

This is especially true if you were to use a purely traditional approach in your animation process. In a traditional animation process, animators have to draw individual frames for each scene. The number of drawings and the photography time required in completing a production consumes schedules and can result in delays. 

For a traditional animation process to be a viable option for your freelance business, you would need a large team of animators. Even then, each person works at their own speed, and this makes it difficult to stick to deadlines.

This also defeats the purpose of being a freelance animator, which has the appeal of working alone and on your own time. Alternatively, if you work alone, you should have a tight work schedule and make sure that you don’t take on too much or risk falling behind on your projects. 

  • Fixing Mistakes Is Difficult
an animator realizing they made a mistake in the traditional animation process

GIF by GIPHY Studios Originals via Giphy

Apart from the time it takes to complete a traditional animation, fixing mistakes can also prove difficult. Making a mistake when using traditional animation can be detrimental to your production time as it requires you to repeat the whole drawing instead of being able to delete and correct the mistake on your computer. 

When errors do occur, traditional animators need to repeat the whole drawing to match what has already been done instead of deleting and correcting one mistake. The repetition of work can become tiresome and time-consuming and potentially lead to burnout. 

To avoid this, you have to make sure that you have impeccable attention to detail or have the skills to incorporate those tiny mistakes into the drawings.

  • Traditional Animation is Less Dynamic
traditional animation can be very static

GIF by pinotti via Giphy

Traditional animation can also feel less dynamic because it is created in a 2D space. That being said, this forms part of the appeal of traditional animation processes as there is no need for fancy special effects and incredibly dynamic movements. The classic and traditional feeling created by using a traditional animation process is what gives it its charm. 

  • Traditional Animation is Expensive
an animator looking at the bill of production after using a traditional animation process

GIF by FOX TV via Giphy

The cost of production for working with traditional animators is also much higher than that of digital animation. This is because of the many tools involved in the production of traditional animation. Traditional animators require several tools and equipment per production. 

The tools involved in the traditional animation process include drawing tools, tracing tools, and photographic equipment. These tools are also specialized, and the cost for each adds up to become quite a lot when compared to the price of digital animation software.

Not to mention the large crew of traditional animators that is required to draw the characters, draw backgrounds and shoot photos of the final images, which all drive the production expenses higher.

In contrast, digital animators just need to use computer software, and this removes the need for many extra tools used in a traditional animation process.

The Benefits of a Traditional Animation Process for Freelancers

Even though there are several downsides to a traditional animation process, there are still many more benefits, especially for freelancers.

While purely using a traditional animation process is very time-consuming, a hybrid model can end up saving you time, as 2D animation typically takes less time to produce. Due to the advancements in software, not all animation needs to be drawn frame by frame, therefore reducing production time and, in turn, costs. 

  • Traditional Animation Makes Your Animations Better
a traditional animation process can make your animations look better

GIF by southpark via Tenor

Besides practical benefits, using traditional animation processes can also enhance your animations. This is because traditional animations are typically more story-oriented as there are no fancy visual effects to distract from the core message of the animation. 

  • Traditional Animation Captures Viewers’ Attention
seeing a traditional animation can stand out in the modern animation industry

GIF by Abitan via Giphy

2D animations also have the ability to better capture and hold the attention of viewers. Animated graphics are very eye-catching, and the movement excites the eyes and makes the content interesting to watch. 

This ability to capture a viewer’s attention so effectively also means that your freelance animation business’ search engine optimization (SEO) will go up due to the increased traffic to those animations. Search engines naturally favor videos, so those videos that create maximum traffic will be more visible online, driving more traffic to your site. 

  • Increased Communication
in an involved traditional animation process, communication can improve

GIF by TMetric via Tenor

Traditional animations also give you the ability to communicate more easily with your audience due to simplified designs. This makes communicating complex topics, such as training instructions and highly technical information, easier for viewers to understand. 

In 2D animation, there is a mix of graphics, voice-over, and text, which stimulates different areas of the brain and engages multiple senses to help the viewer process and understand information more effectively.

When a viewer experiences something memorable, the creators of this memorable experience already have the edge over the competition since they are occupying a portion of the viewer’s mind. This gives freelance animators who use a traditional animation process a big advantage because of the popularity of digital animation in films and TV shows. 

  • Traditional Animation Has a Unique Look
the unique look of traditional animation stands out

GIF by Roola via Tenor

Using a traditional animation process gives your animations a unique look that is lacking in most animations today. Use this to your advantage to create a niche within which you can work and sell your services. 

Although some may view traditional animators as outdated because they still work with pencil and paper in place of a computer, a traditional animation process still has its uses within the contemporary animation industry.

For example, a pencil-drawn image by a traditional animator often leads to a spontaneous image, full of feelings and emotions that are often difficult to convey with a computer animation program. Such graphics are vital to the early stages of a project when it's being fleshed out. 

Traditional animators can also create amazing and showstopping animations without having to look at any tutorials on how any animation software works because they don't need them. Traditional animations give less importance to design and focus more on creating masterpieces.

Using a traditional animation process can also aid in digital processes. For example, while  CGI images in digital animation can be a part of an animation business branding strategy, much of the designs are still done on paper for storyboards and early character designs. For instance, a printed brochure might require a traditional animator and not a digital animator.

  • Better Quality Animations
better quality animations can be made if done traditionally

GIF by 2chainz_official via Tenor

One of the biggest advantages of using traditional animation processes is the fact that the quality of your animations will drastically improve. Something hand-made will always be better quality than something created using a computer, and while there may be tiny imperfections in your lines and colors, it adds to the value and quality of the animation. 

The emotional and rough, hand-drawn character of traditional animations is far more valuable than the extremely polished and error-free characteristics of digital animation. Part of this quality comes from the attention to detail that is given when creating animations using a traditional animation process. 

  • Develop Essential Animator Skills
animating in a traditional animation process demands focus

GIF by realbrosofsimivalley via Tenor

Because it’s such a tedious process to redraw an entire drawing when making a mistake, many animators will learn how to pay careful attention to avoid making those potentially costly mistakes. This can enhance your skills as an animator and help you save time when creating traditional animations. 

Another big benefit of working with a traditional animation process is not being bound to the limit of software. Animation software can sometimes only do so much, and with the power completely in your hands, you can create anything you want. 

How Freelancers can use a Traditional Animation Process

While there are some downsides to using a purely traditional approach when animating, you can easily combine traditional animation processes with contemporary technology to save you time and money. A hybrid approach will almost completely eliminate all of the downsides to traditional animation processes.

However, there are also many benefits to using a purely traditional animation process. For one, you will add a lot of value to your animations because of the time and effort they take to create. Use the imperfections of traditional animations to your advantage to create something with a lot of monetary and sentimental value for your animation clients. 

If you’re looking to grow your animation skills, check out our free masterclass, download a copy of our free marketing handbook, and check out our blog on “How to Start an Animation Studio”!

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