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How to make your own cartoon Series - Part 2 - The animation process

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How to make your own cartoon Series - Part 2 - The animation process

Erik Ravaglia

Hello and welcome back! After we had a look at how Wellpark came to be in this article and we had a more in depth look at the beginning of the production process, it’s time to move forward with production. Shall we?! (if you feel lost, go have a read of the older articles mentioned above).

Final Artwork

Finally after the sketches were approved Pablo would plough through the final artwork. 
To keep up with the pace, the artwork had to follow these simple rules:
- A limited number of details on the characters.
- The characters must be drawn in a basic, frontal position, whenever possible.
- Everything must be drawn in Illustrator to allow infinite scalability.

Pablo would draw in this order: Character -> Mouth positions -> Backgrounds..and repeat.

If you are starting a similar project of your own, I’d recommend that you set up simple rules like the ones above, which would make your life a lot easier in After Effects. At this stage, after that the idea, script and sketches were approved, there was no need to get the final artwork OKed, therefore once the artwork was finished it would be sent to Skelfie to break it down directly.


Breaking down the assets and all that

This was probably the most tedious of the processes (sorry Skelf). It’s a stinky one but someone had to do it. With the way our system worked, the character’s limbs had to be broken down into 3 pieces AND if finger movements were necessary then the fingers had to be broken down into 3 pieces as well. Same treatment for the face where every single element needed to be in it’s own individual layer. AH! The fun and games…

 

After the character was broken down, hence ready to be rigged, then Skelf would move into the lip syncing process using a custom rig we built, similar to this: https://vimeo.com/70295483 (may the animation Gods bless CreativeCow BTW).

Before settling on this we tried a bunch of other more automated solutions, which didn’t really work with the scottish accent AND ended up requiring more tidying up afterwards than anything else. 

A few episodes in and he was the king of lip MOFO syncing. 

Right after the lip syncing process was over, Skelf would start breaking down the background as we wanted to go for that sweet sweet parallax effect. To achieve it, we needed the artwork to be divided in 4 to 5 parts depending on the drawings; I.E. one layer usually being the sky, a few separate ones for the clouds, a few for the buildings and then the individual details on the floor being on their separate layers.

Doing the whole process by yourself would require a bit more patience and I’m aware that it sounds like it could take you forever. Breaking down the assets takes at least a couple of hours, same for lip syncing. If you are by yourself just think small. Settle on a simpler design; a good look doesn’t necessarily require loads of details.


Rigging away

After catching up on everything else it was finally my time to give it laldy

Step one for me (or Andrew once he got on board) was rigging, God bless DuDuf for making the best plugin ever conceived in the history of After Effects (regarding character animation). This tool allows you to rig a 2D character very effectively and in a fraction of the time. Here is a wee video to give you an idea of how good it is: https://vimeo.com/92546892
Rigging was all about making sure that the limbs could move without bits sticking out hence it required a bit of artwork alteration, small details mostly, just to make sure that the movement and the artwork would work seamlessly together without having to play with Rot Morph.

There are 2 ways of rigging your character, and we used both based on different circumstances:

- Split the limbs into different parts (see Paul's harm above).
- Have one long limb, use the puppet tool and parent the points to null objects (check the Fly below).

The first solution made an awful lot of sense given that our characters were pretty much all of human appearances BUT for details like the beard, a wire, cloths and so on we used the second solution.

To have a better understanding on how 2D rigging works have a look at DuDuf tutorials on Duik. It requires a bit of time to catch up with it, but understanding the basics before jumping in head first will save you heaps of time. Like everything else in After Effects, it is 60% preparation and 40% animation, if you have a solid set up you are way ahead of the curve, IMHO.

Let’s get it on..

After having the rig ready to go it was time for us to get animating. We adopted a very simple style, which the client liked from day one. We looked at instances like South Park and Archer where movement is minimal but effective. We had to stick to our guns and make sure that the style would fit with our schedule hence South Park is a great example given that they make an episode every 6 days (great documentary BTW). After a few tests we figured out our sweet spot and we stuck with it till the end. 

The animation part is pretty straightforward: use keyframes like there is no tomorrow. Play with the easing and avoid straight movements as much as possible. Invest time on getting a few things right and the rest will follow. Granted you could spend DAYS getting a rig to work perfectly, crafting a lovely animation but when you have merely hours you have to cut corners. I understand this kills that romantic idea about how animation works. I’m sorry guys, but this was our reality with this project AND it was effective.

After the character was done, it was time to build the backgrounds. Usually they would be built into a series of layers positioned in 3D space so to obtain that parallax effect I discussed above.

One thing I realised later on during the process was that having the cuts ready in advance would save us a bit more time. No need to animate the whole body if we had a close up or only a detail shot. I used to decide these only at the end of the process as we would normally try a few things out, but actually having a clear idea from the start made the process more effective.


Almost done.

To help give all the episodes an overall look, we decided to use a set of 3 additional adjustment layers and a couple of paper textures to ease that sharp look typical of vector illustrations. We had an orange solid on 5% transparency, a black vignette at about 25% transparency and an adjustment layer with a 10 points increased saturation to bring back the colours. The paper textures were used on individual elements to avoid that dirty lens effect typical of when you slap a texture right on top of everything. These little details usually helps to improve the general look of the animation.


Delivery

After the 2.5 day process we would have one episode ready to be sent to the client. Usually feedback would hit us pretty swiftly and given that the client was on board with us since the episode was conceived, chances were, they would approve the episode without any amends. We had a couple of instances where we had to add or remove things and that’s when the time slipped away a bit, but it was never too bad. 


The End

The most impressive thing about the project was the scope of it and we made it with just 6-7 people in the timeframe we had. Looking back, we produced tons of content, squeezing every minute out of any given day. We didn’t go through any big dramas and, more importantly, we got along just fine feeling like brothers in arms during the process.

Many lessons were learned and one of the biggest ones was underestimating the number of assets. I spent days, D-A-Y-S rendering and re-rendering all the different bits needed for both our AND the client’s amends or simply for delivery. Every episode had an intro and an outro, which needed to be created and rendered every single time. Having to do the animation and keep track of all these aspects revealed to be a challenge and it was an oversight on my part. 

In the end, if you are embarking on this adventure by yourself, allow some extra time to adapt and improve your process as you go. Decide how you want your cartoon to look and scale production time up or down based on the quality you need and want to achieve. 

That’s it, this was our experience, thanks for reading this super long article. I hope you enjoyed and learned something in the process. Just remember, ultimately, If you want to make your own cartoon series, just do it. It’s worth it.