How to get started with hand-drawn animation — Part I

A day in the animated life

“Juggling.” № 68 of 100.

When I was starting to explore hand-drawn animation, I found zero write-ups on how to even begin, what tools to use, what to expect. I hope this write-up contributes to filling the vacuum, however minorly.

First

There are a lot of animated gifs in this post. Please note that some may take a few seconds to load.

Second: this was turning out to be a super long post, so I broke them up into two. Part I covers the first six topics, listed below:

  1. Diving in
    How I began
  2. 100 Days of Super Short
    Why I began
  3. Output
    What I made
  4. The tools
    What I made them with
  5. Rough Animator
    A focus on the primary animation and drawing app
  6. Recording, editing, and sourcing sound
    Where I obtained royalty-free audio and how I integrated them into animations

In Part II, I’ll talk about:

  1. Process and format
    The basic work flow, resolution, fps, etc.
  2. Faves
    My favorite animations out of the 100
  3. Inspiration
    Where I got my ideas
  4. Applications & styles
    Examples of great animation out in the wild
  5. What I learned
    General and technical notes
  6. Next up
    Where I’ll go from here

1. Diving in

From April 3 to July 13th of 2018, I participated in the fifth annual 100 day project by doing #100DaysofSuperShort. I wanted to document the process for myself as well as for those who’re curious about exploring hand-drawn animation.

The 100 day project is “a free, global art project that anyone can participate in.” You choose something to make for 100 days, announce it on Instagram with the appropriate tags, then post daily until the days are up.

It’s an easy way to engage with other artists every day, and for hitting personal goals with a lot of community support. Last time I did this was a few years ago for #100DaysofStorylines (you can browse through them chronologically on storylines.rocks) and it was just as edifying and illuminating, though for different reasons.

2. 100 Days of Super Short…

In 2016 I leveraged the project to break from creative paralysis. This year, I took it as an opportunity to learn something new.

“Launch.” № 27 of 100. View with sound on Instagram.

I wanted to animate for a larger project, but had been dragging my feet because I had no idea where to even begin. The 100 days provided an excuse to just do it. I would learn the basics of animating by hand and develop some muscle along the way.

I knew next to nothing about “cel animation,” a traditional form of the art where each frame is drawn by hand. “Cel” is short for “celluloid,” a transparent sheet upon which artists painted the frames. I wanted to emulate this digitally.

A late night.

I had a lot of trepidation in the beginning. I wondered if I was setting myself up for failure. Animation is notorious for requiring painstaking attention to detail and taking an extraordinary amount of time to produce. How would I, a complete beginner, create one every single day, with most of my hours already gone to a day job?

I dove in without much more forethought lest I chicken out, promising myself that I’d keep it simple and install boundaries to make the project manageable.

The goal was, after all, to learn, not to be be perfect.

3. Output

By Friday the 13th of July I had produced about 100 animations.

A selection from the 100 animations produced for the project.

Out of the 100 I drew and animated, 5 composed a progression:

The Queen sets sail. №s 41–45

18 were based on Ithaca, a storyboard I created years ago:

Animations based on Ithaca.

About 30 had sound:

Animations with audio are marked “Sound on” in the original posts. View with audio accompaniment in Instagram.

4 were politically-themed.

“Bankrupt.” № 86 of 100. An example of a politically-themed animation.

4 made use of walk cycles.

“The path.” № 74 of 100. An example that required a walk cycle (as lax a rendering as it is here).

1 explored lip-sync:

“No.” № 80 of 100. An example with lip-sync without sound.

4. The tools

I drew and animated exclusively on the iPad Pro with the Apple Pencil, using an app called Rough Animator. I chose this medium because I didn’t own a pen display, I love drawing with the Pencil, and portability was a bonus.

I used Audacity and Premiere Pro as needed for sound editing and final compositing, respectively.


I wanted an all-in-one drawing + animation iPad app that had a gentle learning curve. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any precedents to help me get started. Figuring out what tools to use and putting a basic process in place was probably the most stressful part of the experience. I hope that these posts contribute to filling the vacuum.

Lacking a primer, I experimented with a variety of different iPad apps mentioned in online articles:

  1. Animatic
  2. Animation Desk
  3. Animation Creator HD
  4. Procreate + After Effects
  5. even Photoshop.

I went with Animatic at the outset because it felt most in line with the ethos of the project: “animatic” is industry vernacular meaning “animated storyboard,” or “preliminary version of a movie.” It’s essentially a series of sketches, destined for refinement.

My animations archive in Animatic.

Animatic is free to try out and only $2.99 to buy, pretty bare-bones, and perfect for beginners looking to play around.

It provides a way to add, edit, browse, and reorder frames; a small set of crude brushes with invariable stroke widths; a minimal color palette per brush type; the ability to repeat frames; and basic onion-skinning (ability to reference adjacent frames from the current one).

I appreciated their quirky “undo” feature which applied locally to each frame. Undo history was also persistent: you could access it even after closing the app and returning to it later. This came in handy quite a few times.

Animatic UI.

It allows you to go up to 24fps, but seems to render highly compressed output at variable, versus constant, frame rate (more on this later).

Rendering the animation.

I ran with it for almost half of the series, but it ultimately proved a little too limiting even for the 100 day exercises.

First of all, it doesn’t provide good palm-rejection, so I had to purchase an illustrator’s glove (these are great for small hands!).

I ran into bigger problems when my animations began to run longer. Animatic crashed continuously when I was drawing Birdie after I crossed the 50 frame mark. I needed help from the folks at Inkboard to get going again. They were generous with their time and even gave me access to beta builds, working with me closely to get to the bottom of the bug. They eventually fixed it, and I believe they’re now working on a bunch of other improvements which I’m looking forward to seeing.

It was still incredibly frustrating at the time and threw a kink into my already tight schedule. That day, I shared this animation instead:

“Fuuuu.” №4 of 100.

I was beginning to realize that Animatic was not the right tool for this project. It’s not intended for animating anything other than the shortest and simplest of sequences, nor is it designed to house large archives. It’s for sketching out quick, disposable ideas, then moving over to Creative Cloud for finalization.

So I switched to Rough Animator—which I discovered by accident through another artist on Instagram—and finished out the project with that (for about 60% of the final output).

5. Rough Animator

Rough Animator is an app that seems popular with some pros but apparently doesn’t get a lot of press. It’s totally worth the measly $4.99 license fee.

The UI isn’t much to look at, but it proved to be a superbly-designed product with layers, pressure-sensitive brushes, and the ability to create cycles from multiple frames. It’s fast: I experienced little to no lag when navigating through the UI. You can also zoom in on your illustrations, scrub through the frames, make and move selections, copy and paste entire layers. And it was still simple enough for a beginner like me.

Rough Animator UI.

6. Recording, editing, sourcing sound

For sound recording and editing, I used an open-source tool called Audacity on my Macbook Pro.

Much like Rough Animator, it’s not the most slick-looking, but it’s free and can do things like change the tempo of a clip without shifting pitch (Premiere Pro can do this too but I preferred to edit sound separately before compositing). When used in conjunction with SoundFlower, Audacity also allows you to re-route audio inputs so you can record high-quality clips directly from sounds played on your machine.

Audacity, with SoundFlower integration.

For sound-sourcing, FreeSound.org and the library of Kevin MacLeod were useful for finding royalty-free audio clips and foleys (industry lingo for “sound effects”).

If I needed to string clips together, add audio, key out color, or choose a different starting frame for Instagram, Premiere Pro helped me to pull it all together.

Adobe Premiere Pro for effects and final production.

To be continued

In a few days I’ll share A day in the animated life, Part II. This concluding post will cover:

  1. Process and format
    The basic work flow, resolution, fps, etc.
  2. Faves
    My favorite animations out of the 100
  3. Inspiration
    Where I got my ideas
  4. Applications & styles
    Examples of great animation out in the wild
  5. What I learned
    General and technical notes
  6. Next up
    Where I’ll go from here

In the mean time

You can stay on top of what I’m making by subscribing to my newsletter. It goes out only 2 to 4 times a year and is chock-full of stories, design, art, and eclectic resources.

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Always

I look forward to using animation in client and collaborative work. My developing artist’s portfolio is here: coleenbaik.com/art

I appreciate critique from professional peers and am interested in receiving mentorship in exchange for apprenticeship or design work.

Hit me up.

Thanks for reading!

Next: A day in the animated life, Part II