Approaches to animation

Animation magically brings drawing and illustrations to life through telling stories through the use of moving image and sound and over a period of time. It is based on the principle that by presenting a series of slightly altered images quickly enough the brain will be fooled into thinking the movement is continuous. 

“The creators of magic lantern shows chose scenes from myths and legends, and above all from their enactment in romances in the theatre, and from other performance arts (pantomime, ballet, opera), because the affinity between apparitions and projections was so patently close.” 

Marina Warner 2006 quoted in Illustration 2 coursebook

But it is very slow to work with. The tools that animators use change and develop but the principles remain broadly the same – slow down a moving image to its individual frames or a point in time, draw frame by frame and then speed it up again and you have animation. (Illustration 2 Coursebook !! insert ref.)

Character development

Given that animation is largely a narrative form, there to tell stories, inform or entertain, a lot rests on the acting ability of your animated characters. Like real actors they need to express emotion, move and interact with one another convincingly. To do this successfully you need to be able to develop a character fully, both in terms of how the character looks in different positions and situations, but also in how they move and react. In short, you need to be able to bring them to life.

Action Techniques

In cinema each frame of film captures a millisecond of action through a static photograph which when presented back fast enough appears to be moving continuously.

Animation borrows a lot of technology and approaches to using it from other moving image areas such as film and television:

  • Panning and zooming within a single frame
  • cutting from one shot to another between frames

Analog animation

Analog animation constructs action frame by frame by:

  • readjusting models (claymation or live action animation) or
  • re-drawing images (cell animation), or simply through the quick flipping of the pages of a flick-book.

Athanasius Kircher began experimenting with magic lantern slides and projections in Rome during the 1640s. The Victorian zoetrope – a spinning series of images that appears to be moving when seen through a fixed viewing point. 


Flick-books offer the opportunity to create a very simple animation over a limited number of frames.

Flat or cell animation

A lot of animations are flat images brought to life by the use of moving image. The images  themselves represent visual depth through how they’re drawn, or utilise forms of flat puppetry on a surface.

Flat or cell animation is created on a rostrum where a camera and lights, in a fixed position, photographs each frame. Cell animation uses plastic cells to build up different layers to make the process quicker. The movements of a character change while the background remains static.

In other forms of flat animation, the whole image is redrawn in each cell. 

The beauty of flat animation is often the play between the appearance of movement and the knowledge that it’s also flat – it’s that magic suspension of disbelief that perhaps makes animation such an endearing form for children. 

Hand-drawn animation techniques

William Kentridge

Puppetry, claymation and model-making

Another popular approach to animation is through the use of models, in particular the plasticine models of claymation. These are hand-made models, usually with a movable fixed structure or armitage underneath a soft surface, that are manually moved bit by bit and photographed. This form of three-dimensional animation means that the movement of the camera and the use of light can also be creative choices in how the animation is created. Animators like Jan Svankmajer have taken this approach back into film by using real actors, objects and locations in their work.

The television programmes The Muppets and Spitting Image were both made with live action puppets, yet feel closer to the world of animation than a regular television programme. Peter Fluck and Roger Law, the makers of Spitting Image, initially used their spitting image characters as static illustrations. 

Shadow puppet traditions of Indonesia, China and Nepal also make use of a flat translucent surface in which shadows are cast, making it conceptually similar to the idea of the screen of cinema.

Digital animation

In digital animation the computer calculates the points between two different movements and presents them as a continuous action.

Animated gifs

Sequential frames that can be produced in Photoshop.

Flash animation

Flash-based animation has more in common with cell animation and because of its relatively small file sizes is commonly used to create moving image work for the internet. It uses layers and the computer fills in points between frames in a process called tweening. Animations can be looped and interactively controlled in various ways through using Action script or Java script.

CGI (computer-generated imagery)

Using 3D animation software like Cinema 4D: a Lite version of which comes with Adobe After effects, Maya and 3DMax.

Combining techniques

  • Different technologies may be combined:  
    • The Aardman animations of Wallace and Gromit are classic claymation animations, but they occasionally make use of cell animation or CGI wizardry.
    • experimental use of drawing directly onto film as a way of creating animations, especially 8 or 16mm film.
    • digital tracing of live video footage or its treatment through filters, similar to those of Photoshop.