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Top 4 Animated Movies to Inspire Freelance Animators

ben marvazi 2020

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If you’re a freelance animator, you know that sometimes inspiration and creativity elude the best of us. That’s usually when you need to go back and figure out why you love being an animator in the first place. 

Luckily, there are tons of top animated movies for freelances to draw inspiration from when the going gets tough. In the past, animators have overcome incredible hurdles to create groundbreaking films that changed the animation industry forever. 

In this blog post, we’ll explore the top 4 animated movies that can serve as inspiration to freelance animators. 

Top Animated Movies - “The Lion King:” Animating Lifelike Dust

“The Lion King” is one of Disney’s highest-grossing films and one of the top animated movies of all time. It’s not just because it has a great storyline, it’s because, despite largely consisting of hand-drawn animation, it looked and felt very real. 

The visuals were stunning, and it was also the first Disney film that boasted real-life-looking dust, which marked a groundbreaking moment for the animation industry. This definitely makes it one of the top animated movies to inspire freelance animators

lion king animation inspiration one of the best animated movies

Image by whatshoulducallme via Giphy

The Most Challenging Animation in The Lion King

One of the most iconic scenes in “The Lion King” is that of the wildebeest stampede. There is a lot of dust, which later clears to reveal that Mufasa is dead. It looks and feels real, and even though this scene is barely a few minutes long, it took three years to animate. 

Director Rob Minkoff and producer Don Hahn once revealed in an interview that the stampede was one of the hardest scenes to animate and that they technically had to develop a new kind of technology to make it work. I

When they first tried to animate the wildebeests, it looked pretty ridiculous and they were worried that they might never be able to get it right - and they weren’t. Not with the existing technology at the time, so they had to get creative. 

Rob Minkoff told Screen Rant in an interview how they had to think outside the box to make the scene happen, explaining that they basically had to invent the technology to animate the scene, which they ended up calling an avoidance program.

Thanks to this new invention, they could create a realistic-looking stampede.

challenging animation in the top animated movie lion king

Image via Pinterest

Next, they had to create the dust for the scene. This required the team to create special effects that were on a whole new level. It had never been done before, and they had to figure out how to do it. 

The very real-looking dust was a moment in animation history where hand-drawn animation and computer effects collided. To create the dust, they needed to make use of opacity, which was pretty new at the time. 

3d animation in lion king for animation inspiration

Image by via Giphy

The whole scene was made with the Computer Animation Production System (CAPS), which Disney and Pixar designed together. This program revolutionized the coloring process and provided animators with new, invaluable tools, which included opacity (which was largely responsible for the realistic-looking dust), as well as shading. 

Randy Fullmer, who worked as the artistic coordinator on the film, once explained exactly how they went about creating the dust. It required various teams to work together. 

First, they had to paint the dust cloud, then they integrated it into the scene and played around with different levels of opacity, and even blurred it a bit to give it different dimensions.

What Freelance Animators Can Learn From The Lion King
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help

If a client wants you to animate something that requires you to use technology that technically doesn’t exist yet, don’t hesitate to reach out to your fellow freelance animators and brainstorm a way to get it done. 

  • Think outside the box

See difficult client projects as an opportunity to think outside the box and perhaps even invent a new animation technique that doesn’t exist yet. 

  • Do your research

Jump on the internet and research some ideas on how to get a challenging project done, or take a short course that will help you develop the specific skills you need to animate what the client requires of you. 

  • Try to invent your own special effects

Just like the creative team on “The Lion King” successfully figured out how to create real-looking dust, you can also create new never-before-seen effects. 

Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and try something crazy. You might just end up with groundbreaking work and become one of the most sought-after freelance animators out there. 

Top Animated Movies - “Toy Story:” Proof that Computer Animation Was the Future

“Toy Story” was a revolutionary film and one of the top animated movies of its time. It changed animated movies forever, and there are countless films today that wouldn’t have existed if “Toy Story” hadn’t been created. 

“Toy Story,” which was released in 1995, was the first full-length computer-generated animation film in history. Before “Toy Story,” 2D hand-drawn animation was the norm and what was familiar, thanks to Walt Disney churning out classic after classic using this style of animation. 

But technology was becoming more and more advanced - and the animation industry was ready to take a gamble on it and see what happens. 

Michael Eisner, the former Disney CEO, told Fortune Magazine in 1995 that the film’s success came as a bit of a surprise, saying that he didn’t initially think that the film would turn out as well as it did. 

Steve Jobs said that the film was an incredible advancement in animation and one of the biggest since Walt Disney first released “Snow White.”

It made the animation industry sit up and take notice and realize what is possible. Suddenly, animators realized that they no longer needed to spend hours re-drawing every single frame for a film.

Computers were changing everything, so much so that Pixar went ahead and developed software specifically designed to help animators with this new style of animation. This software is the reason many top animated movies exist today.

toy story was the top 3d animation movie

Image by via Giphy

The Most Challenging Animation in Toy Story

“Toy Story’s” animation was incredible for its time, but it also lacks many details that we take for granted these days, like characters having hair that moves and behaves as it does in real life. 

In “Toy Story,” the dog’s hair had barely any detail at all, but flash forward to “Toy Story 4,” which was released in 2019, the cat in the film has fur that looks incredibly lifelike, and it’s all thanks to the 24 years of innovation that’s followed the film’s initial release.

3d animation model of a dog in toy story 3
a 3d cat in toy story 4 showing how far technology has gone for 3d animation inspiration

Images via

“Toy Story” was the first film that introduced animators to the process of rendering. According to Insider, rendering is the process of saving the computer image to the “perfect finished image or video frame, with lighting and motion effects.” 

As any animator would know, rendering is an incredibly time-consuming process, but if you think you’ve got it bad, you’ve got another thing coming.

The rendering process for “Toy Story” required animators to run 117 computers for 24 hours a day to get it done. New software, called Renderman, was developed to handle all of the footage.  

Animators also faced a lot of new challenges while creating “Toy Story,” one of which was the characters' clothing. It took an enormous amount of time and they were still trying to learn how to get good at it. 

In order to hide the not-so-perfect outfits, they sometimes wouldn’t fully light characters.

This way, the viewers wouldn’t notice the missing details. Lighting can make or break a scene and is incredibly important in top animated films and continues to be one of the elements that make these films look realistic.

Had it not been for “Toy Story,” none of the top animated movies we know and love would exist today. 

What Freelance Animators Can Learn From Toy Story
  • Grab opportunities

If there’s an opportunity to do something new and completely different from what’s ever been done before - go for it. Be the first to do it. Make history. 

Take on projects that look hard and scary - it will really make your freelance animator portfolio stand out among the rest.

  • Keep developing your skillset

“Toy Story” is proof that it’s always wise for freelance animators to expand their knowledge. Cover all your bases - getting good at animating in various styles like 3D will expand your skillset and make you more valuable and desirable to potential clients. 

  • Use your existing skillset to your advantage

If you end up doing a project for a client where you’re using a style that’s still fairly new to you, take a page from the book of “Toy Story’s” creators and play around with different elements like lighting to make your work look excellent despite it perhaps being your first try at animating something fairly challenging. 

  • Always strive for better results

Just like animators learned better ways to animate things like an animal’s fur, freelance animators should always strive to make their next project even better than their last. See every new project as an opportunity to improve on your previous work.

Top Animated Movies - “Shrek:” Animating Lifelike Characters and Environments

Shrek was a groundbreaking film for the animation industry and definitely one of the top animated movies of our time. It changed how films were made and was proof that computer-generated animation wasn’t a passing fad - it was the future. 

Animated films before Shrek had a certain look, which forever changed after the iconic film was released. It broke away from the romantic feel of Disney films and gave audiences a much more real and lifelike image, which many films adapted afterward.

Shrek was created using new animation technology that Dreamworks had acquired from Pixar at the time. The film’s raving success encouraged countless animators to dabble in new technology and shake off any doubts they might have had about leaving the old ways behind and embracing the new. 

shrek is one of the top animated movies in the 21st century

Image by via Giphy

The Most Challenging Animation in Shrek

The characters in Shrek are incredibly lifelike - something that’s always a challenge for animators. Shrek’s realism is thanks to the efforts of special effects director Andrew Adamson and storyboard artist Vicky Johnson

They were responsible for making the film look as real as possible, and they created tools known as shapers that would in the end serve as the basis for the characters’ human features.

The main characters got most of the attention - each of their faces consisted of 500 control points that enabled them to mimic small movements.

Designing their bodies was another complex and time-consuming process consisting of rendering three layers that would eventually give them an all-natural look. 

The characters’ looks are not the only thing that makes the movie tick, however, the filming process is just as important, and “Shrek’s” was a bit of a challenge.

The head of the layout team, Simon J. Smith, explained that having characters that so greatly differed in size and stature made it hard to figure out the perfect camera angles. 

They used various unique camera moves like crane shots to get the perfect angles.

3d animation inspiration from shrek for freelance animators

Image by Peacock via Giphy

A lot of effort was put into the film’s environment as well. Aron Warner, a producer on the film, explained that they wanted to create an immersive environment, where everything looked incredibly lifelike. 

And that’s exactly what they did with “Shrek.” They did various research trips to several environments to get the designs just right and even dumped a bucket of mud on one of the team members in order to get a good idea of how it behaves so they could animate Shrek’s mud shower scene properly. 

The team put in a lot of effort, and that’s definitely one of the reasons why “Shrek” is one of the top animated movies out there.

What Freelance Animators Can Learn from Shrek
  • Don’t be afraid to try new things 

Go the extra mile. Try that new program, go see how living creatures and nature behave, take notes, and incorporate it into the work you do for your clients.

  • It’s okay if the process takes a long time

Animation is a time-consuming process. Shrek took three years to make. Animation clients will understand if you need more time to complete the project when they realize you’re trying to create something exceptional.

  • More detail is always better

The more effort you put into a project, the better. Don’t skimp on details. “Shrek” is seen as a top animated movie because of its lifelike characters and environment.

You can impress animation clients with your detailed-oriented approach and lifelike animation. They will be impressed and recommend you to their friends or other companies.

  • Do whatever you need to create realistic-looking animation

Some things are harder to animate than others, and it would be wise to do some practical experiments to get some animations as perfect as possible. So if you need to dump a bucket of mud on one of your friends to get the movements just right - do it. Go that extra mile. It will show in your work.

Top Animated Movies - “The Mitchells vs. The Machines” Mixing Animation Styles to Create Something New

This film is definitely one of the top animated movies of our time. “The Mitchells vs. The Machines” is one of those films that set out to break the boundaries of animation and bring something entirely new and unique into the world. 

It made use of hybrid 2D and 3D styles and had a strong focus on outside influences: In the case of the film, it was memes.

Mixing animation styles helped the creators to introduce audiences to a new and unique visual feel unlike what they’ve experienced in previous top animated movies. Thrillist called it “one of the best-animated movies in recent history.”

The storyline is amazing, but the style of the characters and the robots are what really make this a top animated movie. The animation for the film was based on its main theme: that our humanity is intricately connected to our flaws.

the mitchells vs the machines is the perfect inspiration for freelance animators

Image by Sony Pictures Animation via Giphy

The Most Challenging Animation in The Mitchells vs. The Machines 

Keeping the film’s theme in mind, the animation team decided to use watercolor textures and organic shapes that would basically mimic that of hand-drawn illustrations. 

“The Mitchells vs. The Machines” drew a lot of inspiration from the style of animation that was used for “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” but visual effects supervisor Michael Lasker said that creating this film proved to be even more of a challenge because they didn’t have a comic book they were working from. 

They had to create everything from scratch. Even though this was a challenge, it was a good thing - it forced the team to be innovative and find new ways to do things. 

They built new tools to bring Lindsey Olivares’ watercolor art to life. This included designing visual effects, outlines, and textures. The whole trick of the animation was that it had to be “imperfect” to mimic the hand-drawn style the creators were striving for. 

The different animation styles were used to create a visual distinction between the human and robot worlds. Animators utilized the hand-drawn style for the human characters while the robots had a look generally created through the use of CGI.

Then they incorporated a cartoon look for one of the characters, Katie’s, drawings. The film boasts various animation styles, which is what makes it a top animated movie.

mixed media animation inspiration for animators

Image by via Giphy

Getting the film’s animation just right was incredibly challenging and required the collective brainpower of a big team. 

Mike Lasker, the VFX supervisor for the film, explained that, once they had the visual style of the film down to a T, the real work began. The images were broken down into various components, like brushstrokes, depth of field, and outlines, and then they had to figure out how to make it all come to life.

Once that was done, the entire production team had to be briefed on how they were going to work together to achieve the film’s unique look. 

Lasker has become accustomed to working on tough films, but now he prefers it, saying that he’s kind of become addicted to pushing boundaries and exploring what’s possible.

What Freelance Animators Can Learn from The Mitchells vs. The Machines
  • Break through that glass ceiling

Like Lasker, freelance animators can find joy in the challenges they face and use them to create something entirely new. 

  • Don’t underestimate the combined power of different animation styles

This film is unique because of the different styles it played with. Freelance animators can play around with mixed media to create eye-catching and unique projects that will draw various clients

  • Don’t be afraid to push boundaries

Mixing styles isn’t something a lot of freelance animators dip their toes into. It’s a challenging medium but can be the element that catapults your freelance animator career forward. 

  • Don’t shy away from challenges

Freelance animators have the freedom of choosing the projects they work on, so don’t shy away from something simply because you know it’s going to be very challenging.

See every challenging project as an opportunity to advance your skillset and learn new things. This is what will make you a top freelance animator in the industry.

Top Animated Movies Are the Perfect Inspiration for Freelance Animators

There are many top animated movies out there, and freelance animators can learn as much from recent films as they can from the oldest animated films. Blood, sweat, tears, and tons of perseverance go into creating these movies, even with the technological advancements we have at our disposal today. 

These films are proof that animators simply need to continue experimenting and not be afraid to try new and even outrageous things. The sky is no longer the limit. The possibilities are infinite, and these top animated movies are there for you to watch whenever you need a good dose of inspiration.

If you’re ready to up your skills and take the next step to become an incredible animator, you will love our free marketing handbook and masterclass. You can also check out our blog post on how to start an animation studio.

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