Generally when people think of animation studios, they tend to refer to everyone who works there as an “Animator.” However, especially in larger studios, only a fraction of the workforce holds the title “Animator,” as there are many departments doing their part to help bring the vision to the big screen, such as Character Effects, Lighting, Story, Editorial and Modeling. In this article, lets take a closer look at my current home department, Layout, and look at what they do to help bring the vision to life.
Layout: Bringing It All Together
So what is layout, anyway? The most straight forward answer is exactly as the name suggests; they lay-out the movie. More specifically, Layout takes all the upstream assets such as backgrounds and props from art department, characters from character designers, storyboards from story department, and they put them together and lay them out according to what the sequence and shots call for, according to the script and storyboard.
Laying out the shot, incorporating all these elements together, inherently means composing everything appropriately, as well as planning out camera moves and ground planes for animation, with guidance coming from the storyboards. This essentially makes Layout the cinematographers of the movie. Layout artists in traditional animation will draw each background with a suggestion of lens and focal length, depending on what the story beat calls for, just as a live action production would. In CG Animation it is even more literal, as the virtual space uses virtual camera rigs with focal lengths, aperture and shutter speeds.
In CG pipeline at large animation studios, Layout is often split into two departments: Rough and Final Layout. Rough Layout, also referred to as previsualization, tend to focus on entire sequences, vs Final Layout, who tends to work on individual shots. As mentioned before, layout artists act as the cinematographers for the movie, which effectively makes the Head of Layout the Director of Photography for the animated film. The Head of Layout will go through a process not unlike a live action D.P. This includes working with the Director to establish a cinematic language for the movie, planning out how sequences will be shot to help support the tone of the story or environment, and even creating a lens kit for the production, and technical aspects like cinemascope vs widescreen.
Previz artists will then work with the Head of Layout and Director to help take the work that was done in story department, and visualize an entire sequence using rough sets and characters, as well as staging rough animation blocking and even creating rough lighting rigs, all to help create what is essentially a low-resolution version of the final look of the movie. Once that look is established, the rough layout version of the film acts as a visual guideline for downstream departments such as Animation, Lighting, Effects, and of course Final Layout.
The Final Layout artists pick up right where Rough Layout leaves off. It’s their job to go into the sequences previz has completed, swap out all the rough temporary assets with final assets (including characters, sets, props), make sure the cameras are properly broken out into individual shots, and then send these shots to Animators to start their work (This process is often named “Anim Prep”). Simultaneously, other Final Layout artists may be working with the Art Department to do Set Dressing in a sequence, which consists of adding set details and filling out backgrounds, and sometimes will do individual shot dressing if elements need to be cheated in or out of shot.
Once Animation has finished their work, Final Layout goes back into these completed sequences, and does a camera finaling pass (“Final Camera”), which is akin to what camera operators do on a live action set. Shot artists will animate the camera to bring detail and realism to the camerawork in the shots, in accordance with the cinematic language as established by the Head of Layout. This may consist of adding reactionary camera adjusts to follow animation acting, adding camera shake for camera impacts caused by explosions, wind, or heavy motion, or just adding ambient motion to help prevent static or “dead” shots.
Finally, another important aspect of doing Final Camera on a sequence is helping the flow of shots through eye-tracking. This means tracking the point of interest in each shot and making sure that the viewers eye remains in the same spot over the cut, to help the sequence flow more naturally when observed. For example, if a shot has a character prominently placed in the right third of the frame at the end of a cut, the next shot should pick up with the point of interest in the same section of the frame. Final Layout keeps an eye on this and adjusts cameras to facilitate this flow. Below is a video loosely demonstrating this process, where the red dot represents the viewers eye between shots.
Due to the iterative nature of animated films, shots, and sometimes entire sequences, will come back to the Layout department for changes. These changes can be as large as redoing a whole sequence to facilitate major structural changes in the story, or as small as extending camera moves or creating insert shots to accommodate changes made in editorial. Also, Layout will keep an eye on things like continuity and managing locations, sets, and even character extras and costume changes as production continues on into lighting & effects. In many ways, this makes Layout the central hub of the production process!
And so, that concludes a closer look at the Layout department of an animated production. For every great piece of animation acting you see performed by a great animator, there is a great layout artist making sure it’s being shot appropriately and beautifully. Though just imagine, there is also a great effects artist making sure the rain looks amazing, there is a great lighting artist creating that dramatic mood lighting, an awesome surfacing artist doing those fantastic textures and surfaces, modelers and riggers manifesting the objects and characters in the frame, character effects artists making the hair look wet and the clothes drape and flow correctly, and the list goes on. So, the next time you see an animated film, you’ll understand how there are more than just “Animators” creating the big picture!
(Originally published on A Stack Of Drawings.)