Making the move from illustration to animation

The move from illustration to animation is a logical one. Improvements in software - integration, usability, cost - mean the transition is easier than ever before. And it pays to be adaptable. The ability to offer both services makes you a doubly attractive proposition to potential clients, and gives you greater creative control over your work.

The shift from static to moving image, however, isn't necessarily as simple as it appears. While the respective disciplines share many of the same skills and tools - the same DNA if you will - they remain distinct. An accomplished illustrator isn't certain to make a comparably skilled animator. Stills, however good, are difficult to augment in such a way as to become captivating moving images.

Logical progression

But many illustrators have successfully made the switch - so how did they go about translating a piece of illustration into a credible animation? And, more importantly, how can you?

"I suppose it is a logical progression for us," says Becky Bolton, who works collaboratively with Louise Chappell as Good Wives and Warriors. "Our work is pretty complex and layered, so adding movement really gives it a new and exciting dimension."

The duo's intricate, abstract illustrations have found clients in Absolut Vodka, Adidas and Swatch - and now they're making the move into animation.

Working with Swatch

It was their project with Swatch, the world's largest watch company, that first brought the pair to animation. As part of the project they created backdrops for a collection by fashion designer Manish Arora that were animated for MTV.

"The animation really fitted the drawing style, and we loved seeing all the elements come to life," Bolton explains. "Most recently we had some drawings animated for some online adverts, and for a music video.

"It was pretty simple: our shapes, some patterns shooting out from the singer, a few little bird illustrations flying around - that sort of thing."

The pair have been asked to exhibit at a show in Copenhagen. They plan to make a sculptural piece and project animations of their drawings onto each of its sides, which they'll create themselves, employing fairly simple techniques at first, but becoming more ambitious as they hone their skills.

Both Bolton and Chappell see their animations as maintaining the abstract quality of their illustrations; as moving pictures rather than a structured narrative. "We liked the idea of a person moving through our hand-drawn world," Chappell says. "With animation you can be whimsical and fantastical, which really appeals."

Importance of timing

This runs contrary to the ethos of one experienced animator. "In making the shift into animation," says Dylan White, "the crucial skills for an illustrator to develop are design and timing."

White is both an animation director and an illustrator, working with clients like the BBC, record label Rough Trade and Aardman Animations. He, too, responds to a brief by letting his imagination run wild. But in his work, narrative is king.

"Some of the best motion graphics are pure bubblegum," he asserts. "But in my own work, storytelling is key. Even if it's just scraps or fragments of ideas, I start by writing."

White stresses the importance of a good, coherent storyline, but says animators don't necessarily need to be scriptwriters. He recently teamed up with Tim Telling, a writer whose scripting credits include work for the BBC and Channel 4.

Together they created the brilliant short film Yowie And The Magpie, the story of a supernatural monster from aboriginal folklore, which was nominated for the prestigious McLaren Animation award at Edinburgh International Film Festival. Something illustrators must learn for themselves, White insists, is how to exercise restraint.

Surface detail

"When designing a still image," he says, "it's fun to work it up with lots of surface detail. If an illustrator works this way for print, they can have a similar tendency to pack a lot of information into each frame when designing for animation, which can be quite hard to read. In motion, there's a natural limit to how much information the human eye can absorb. Well-designed animation can steer the eye to certain places, hinting at greater detail without needing to lay it on so thick. Less is often more."

White trained as a 2D cel animator, and maintains quite a traditional approach to his work. He finds working on his computer counterproductive at the ideas stage, so he sticks to sketches and thumbnail storyboards.

From here, it's on to After Effects to block out the timing, which he combines with Flash for the animation itself. The Animation mode in Photoshop is becoming increasingly popular with animators, but White feels it lacks functionality, particularly in terms of exporting to, and integrating with, other software.

"After Effects is much more stable and versatile than Flash and Photoshop," he reasons, "but the drawing tools are pretty terrible, so my workflow is often a combination of all three."

Practice makes perfect

The technical aspects of animation can be developed with practice. What's crucial, White says, is to maintain your individuality and be unaffected by your contemporaries.

"It's become almost too easy to be influenced stylistically by our peers," he says. "I'm making a real effort to cut down on it.

"If we all look at Vimeo and Motionographer all the time I worry things get a bit inward. The best inspiration seems to come from beyond your own discipline. As with illustration, play to your strengths."

Narrative approach

Simon Spilsbury's work has attracted the attention of everyone from the Guardian and The Times to Nike and Virgin - not to mention the judges for the D&AD Yellow Pencil and Association of Illustrators Images awards. He describes himself as "primarily an exponent of line", but has worked on numerous animation projects. Because his work has a narrative feel, he hasn't made a conscious effort to develop scriptwriting skills or felt the need to collaborate with a screenwriter.

"I don't really develop an illustration into an animation," explains Spilsbury. "It's one and the same thing. I always thought my work should move. I draw very spontaneously and very fast, and when you film that process it virtually moves anyway."

While he doesn't consider himself a "great storyteller" per se, Spilsbury does believe that this particular skill can prove crucial when it comes to animating. "You do have to have a bit of an understanding to turn dry matter into a narrative - especially for commercial stuff, adverts and so on, where you have to be very concise," he reflects. "Timing is crucial - that's where the animator comes into his own."

It's also important to work with the right people. Too often, Spilsbury says, illustrators team up with incompatible animators. He's collaborated with freelance animator Simon Deshon - a partnership that suits them both. "Having Simon in the studio full-time has definitely moved me," he says. "My drawings lend themselves to his movement, and vice-versa."

But overall, Spilsbury believes the move from illustration to animation has never been more achievable: "As technology becomes more advanced, the whole process becomes more doable. Rarely is the budget big enough to enable you to become indulgent - which suits me, as my line is quite lo-fi. So the turnaround times these days are very quick.

"The Puppet tool in After Effects easily replaces stop-frame and rostrum, and any difficulties that arise generally stem from me being fussy as to whether that genuinely replicates 25fps."

Quality control

Richard Barnett agrees that it's never been easier to make a static image move, but thinks quality control is now the issue. "You would have thought that if you can draw, you should be able to make it move," he suggests. "And you can. But it's doing it well that's important."

Barnett is managing director and producer at the award-winning animation studio Trunk. Attracting clients such as the Rolling Stones, the BBC, MTV and Universal, the animation production company works across film, broadcast, commercials, music videos, interactive projects and tour visuals.

Each illustrative style is suited to a particular animation technique: for complex characters, it's simpler to use digital cutouts; Flash is best for simple line drawings; After Effects for motion graphics; and finally Cinema 4D for more advanced effects. But the aspect of animation Barnett keeps returning to is movement. Matching an illustrative style with the right program is worthless without having a solid understanding of movement.

Watch how things work

"Like most of the fine art practices, watching is a key tool - studying shifting weight, how things actually move, the balance of an object or person," Barnett explains.

"Once you can make something move convincingly, and you've got the hang of the programme in which to create it, then you need to think about developing your storytelling and direction skills - that is of course depending on whether you actually want to learn to tell your own stories, or more simply, work as an animator on other people's projects.

"If it's the former, then like everything, it's best to start at the beginning. Write some simple stories, or take a simple short story and practice working it up into a storyboard. See if you can tell a story by just using a combination of images.

"Consider how each of those images contributes to your story, and how best to present that scene as if shooting on a camera. Then start taking these images into the animatic stages, timing out how long you want to stay on each shot, and considering what you want the viewer to think or feel at that particular point in the story.

"Will there be a slow build throughout the film? Is it a fast paced short-scene-length and quick-cuts kind of piece?" He smiles: "The world's your oyster, but studying storytelling and directorial techniques would be a very good start."

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Craig Stewart

Craig Stewart is a writer, SEO strategist and content marketer, and is a former editor of Creative Bloq. Craig has written about design, typography, tech and football for publications including Creative Bloq, T3, FourFourTwo and DSG, and he has written a book on motoring for Haynes. When he's not writing, you'll usually find Craig under his old car learning about DIY repairs the hard way.