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Why Animators Need An Animation Layout

ben marvazi 2020

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“It is critical to understand the story and emotion of the sequence before placing cameras into the scene. Without this, a camera is only a spectator in the scene, not a storyteller."

Arem Kim, Layout Artist, Pixar

The animation layout process involves conceptualizing environments in which character animation and special effects occur, founded on an animated video's story and according to the film's animation style.

Layout animators position 3D objects to appear as if moving during the animation layout phase in the animation production pipeline, including detailing backdrops for character animators and background artists to develop further.

So, should animators use an animation layout? An animation layout helps animators decide what and how to display the scenes viewers see on the screen, and this is why animators need an animation layout. Understand more about an animation layout by reading further.

This blog comprehensively details the secret behind a fantastic animation layout and the benefits of an animation layout in the pipeline and prescribes tips to sound animation layout design.

What Is The Secret To An Amazing Animation Layout

in between animations are incorporated into animation layouts

GIF by AnimeNewsNetwork via Pinterest

In a sense, 3D layout animators appoint virtual cameras for each shot in an animation, i.e., the point of view, depth, scale, angle, and movement. A 2D layout animator has similar responsibilities but with flat characters in a balanced environment.

Animators define the animation layout by drawing the backgrounds in traditional 2D and computer-generate it in a digital space with a virtual camera in 3D animation. Stop motion, where physical cameras record the animation, does not require an animation layout.

An animation layout interprets storyboards and animatics and installs the look and feel of the animated sequence, helping animators determine the technical and stylistic attributes of the animation.

From the storyboards, the animators work with the video's virtual photography style to smoothen the rough versions of the animation and figure out the character's timing and placement at key points within shots, known as blocking.

During the animation layout phase, animators propose rough versions of the lighting and produce the shots, maintaining the consistency of elements within the frame.

Layout animators frame the animation assets and action through conventional screen language, e.g., close-up, mid-shot, wide-shot, to portray the animated story compellingly.

What Are The Skills Of A Professional Layout Animator

skills of a professional animator can be improved with an animation layout

Image by Eventive

Setting an animation layout does not often involve direct animation; however, layout animators are proficient in the sense of scale and the ability to realize the proportions of settings, objects, and characters to create believable scenes. Other proficiencies include:

  • Translating storyboard drawings and animatics into shots
  • Environment blocking and devising backgrounds that reinforce the portrayal of the story
  • Establishing the camera direction of a scene
  • Experimenting with camera angles and determining the scene perspective
  • Understanding anatomy, environments, and landscapes
  • Being aware of the history of animation and filmmaking
  • Assuring visual and technical quality, style, and continuity throughout the animation
  • Crafting proxy assets and loading pieces and characters into the shot
  • Positioning the characters in key poses to define movements and actions

To represent a realistic animation layout, animators are natural experts in:

  • Art: Animators have an inherent grasp of drawing, a knack for composition, and a creative eye for movement and scene setup to best convey mood and plot.
  • Photography: Layout animators understand lighting and camera techniques and how to use them to simulate emotions and tell a story through a shot.
  • Communication: Animators designing the animation layout work with the animation team to pick up ideas and effectively and efficiently share work with other animators.
  • Analyzing animated videos, feature films, and media: Layout animators are passionate about animation and the industry.
  • Organization: Animators work within the production timeline, manage files and fulfill deadlines.

Designing an animation layout is demanding, and animators need familiarity with different subjects like cinematography, lighting, blocking, acting, and animation to implement imagination in scene imagery.

Below are notable points for those still asking, should animators use an animation layout?

  • The animation layout permits the director to modify the composition of each shot.
  • As the project progresses through the production pipeline, the animation layout develops from rough animation takes and gradually replaces them with the finals.
  • The layout development process will continue until the animation layout becomes the new reference for the rest of the production.
  • An animation layout can adjust intricate camera movements that a 2D animatic and storyboard cannot portray.
  • With an animation layout, other functions in the production phase of the pipeline can start their work sooner than animators adding the final props to the environments.
animation layouts can help an animation production pipeline

Image by Prof. Phani Tetali via DSource

The animation team can prepare multiple versions of each scene, starting with the storyboard and animatic in collaboration with the director and editorial team when putting the final storyline together.

Generally, a 2D animatic is often cheatable concerning character scale, distance, and perspective, but fudging these properties in a 3D layout is near impossible; this is why animators need an animation layout.

A layout animator in computer-aided animation is akin to a cinematographer in live-action. After receiving work from pre-production, layout animators begin constructing the animation layout with proxy models and creating shots in a 3D environment.

An animation studio benefits from an animation layout roughly animating the character and giving the character animators a starting point from which they can finalize the characters' movements and expressions.

The character animation is quite simple and temporary; after replacing the rough characters and environments with the final approved assets and providing the set dressing, the camera moves the layout animator implements usually make it to the final rendition.

How To Make Good Use Of An Animation Layout

an animation layout can be utilized in any kind of animation

Image via Heritage Auction

An animation layout is a prominent component of the animation production process, and the design of animation layouts may involve implementing the design elements below.

Text can include titles, headings, and paragraphs, and the layout should be easy to read.

Images and other visual elements, such as illustrations, support the text elements in an animation layout to communicate specific messages and engage the audience through emotion.

Lines are attractive when used appropriately, for example, to divide sections and add emphasis to text in animation layouts.

Shapes add personality to an animation layout.

White spaces between animation layout sections prevent overwhelming the audience when viewing an overly detailed animation scene.

More to the above elements are the essential components of an animation layout; these are

  1. Cinematography, blocking, and staging
  2. Animation and video editing
  3. Modeling and background or asset design
  4. Acting, movement, and choreography
  5. Storytelling and communication
  6. Problem-solving

The Reward Of Using An Animation Layout In The Pipeline

the production pipeline can be more efficient using an animation layout

Image by Cartoon Concept Design via Pinterest

The production pipeline involves animation tools, people, resources, and machines performing critical functions to produce exciting 3D animated videos, models, and video games.

Fortunately, the animation pipeline keeps an animation project on track and within budget while maintaining quality standards. An animation layout adds to that by creating accurate designs so that there are no animation errors further down the pipeline.

The purpose of the animation production pipeline is to improve:

  1. Time management. A production pipeline allows studios and animators to manage the time during each step and prepare contingency plans while the animation is ongoing.
  1. Budget usage. The production pipeline serves as a blueprint for spending the budget wisely while video production is ongoing.
  1. Team organization. The animation pipeline ensures that the entire animation team is on the same page throughout production to be as efficient and productive as possible.
  1. Structure and standardization. The pipeline guarantees that each animation is clear and of quality and boosts productivity and morale.

Establishing an animation layout contributes significantly to the pipeline, notable from its influence in the pre and post-production stages and its central role during the production stage of the animation pipeline. Emphasis is on the latter for this blog.

3D Layout Designing

To further realize "why should animators use an animation layout?" understand that this function is responsible for creating an atmosphere and environment animation characters can freely move and interact.

Although there are several animation roles in a production pipeline, the pivotal roles in the animation layout process are the storyboard, layout, and background animators.

Storyboard animators complete drawn panels in line with the animation's style and prepare thorough "blueprints" to direct the later phases of the video production.

Background animators complete the work of the storyboard animator, installing the scenery correctly from all angles for where the action occurs so that nothing visually distracts viewers from the scene's focal point.

Upon completing the storyboard and background designs, layout animators refine them and determine the depth and perspective, making the animation's background fit seamlessly within the story.

The layout animator translates the objects and environments into a 3D digital space once their designs are final. During this phase, the models take the form of low-resolution polygons.

3D Modeling

Once the animation layout is complete, the video production moves to the modeling stage, which involves creating 3D models to replace the low-resolution polygons found in the animation layout.

Animators take the design data, including drawings and sculptures, and use them to create models for all of the characters, backgrounds, and props found in a scene.

3D Texturing

This position is responsible for applying lifelike textures to the gray meshes created in the modeling phase to make the models more authentic. Texturing unwraps the 3D mesh into a 2D map to assign colors and physical properties.

animation layouts can help create realistic 3D textures

Image by Dream Farm Studios


Rigging creates a bone structure for the models so that an animator can freely animate how they move and interact with objects. Most, if not all, models can be rigged to be animated and do not need to be human models.


The pipeline moves to animate the models once rigging the models is complete. The animator operates the model's bones by moving their position and rotating and scaling them to imitate different poses and movements.

The animator will then save those positions on the timeline by keyframing the bones at precise points during the animation to ensure smooth and seamless movement of the models.


The production pipeline visual effects focus on animating the minute details that other animators did not move during the animation stage.

For this step, animators turn to physics-based systems to generate the textures and motions of the elements and set parameters such as gravity or air movement that computer programs take into account when simulating movement.


Lighting can enhance an animation layout by depicting the mood of the shot, time of day, and location. A lighting animator can make the set and models look genuine by applying a mix of lighting techniques.


The last activity of the production stage of the pipeline merges all the elements done during this stage, including rendering the layout, models, textures, animations, and others into a still 2D image or frame.

Once the renders are complete, the production process moves to the post-production stage, where animators add the final touches to the scenes.

Excellent Examples Of Using An Animation Layout

The animation layout seems plain initially but develops into a cinematic masterpiece as it moves through the production pipeline. Below are some examples of animation layouts in familiar animated movies.

  • Up

Color, geometry, and the play of light across a simpler interior combine in this poignant color script panel to reinforce the sense of claustrophobia and isolation that Carl Fredricksen feels following his wife's, Ellie, death in Pixar's "Up" movie, directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson.

Pixar movie, UP, used animation layouts for their pre production

Image via Alex Toons

  • Surf’s Up

By bathing the snowscape in mist and moonlight and allowing the ice buildings to glow like Chinese lanterns, the animators could make all the essential detail legible in this nocturnal scene in Sony Pictures' "Surf's Up," directed by Ash Brannon and Chris Buck.

surfs up uses animation layouts for their environmental design

Image via Alex Toons

  • Monsters vs Aliens

By placing the camera lens at sea level, there is an emphasis on the gigantic scale of the attacking robot in the lower shot. Raising the viewpoint for the wider shot reduces the Gold Gate Bridge to the scale of a toy in DreamWorks "Monsters vs. Aliens," directed by Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon.

big animations like Monsters vs Aliens use animation layouts for large sequences

Image via Alex Toons

Is Animation Layout Important To An Animator

Creating animated videos is a time-consuming process involving many members of an animation team in an animation studio. Layout animators create animation layouts that are significant to the production pipeline.

The significant role of an animation layout expands from storyboarding through compositing, ensuring continuity throughout the video. Behind the scenes lies the secret that animated videos would not reach the intended audiences without an animation layout.

A layout animator develops animatic drawings into detailed backdrops for character animators and background painters to further work on; this is why animators need an animation layout.

The Business of Animation free masterclass is available for animators to learn how to start an animation studio and join the animation accelerator program to start and grow a successful freelance animation career.

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