Published on: 13 January 2015 in Longform

What is an animation director?

Reading time: 22 minutes and 36 seconds

Rebecca Manley, Directors UK board member and Chair of the Animation Group, writes for us about the often misunderstood role of the animation director:

Introduction

This article has been born out of a collective raising of the eyebrow accompanied by a quizzical look. I have been working as a director in the world of animation for just over ten years now, primarily in short films and commercials. I find that, even in creative circles, the role of an animation director is not widely understood. Why do we need them? ‘Animation' can cover any number of productions including feature films, television series, cartoons, commercials, music videos, and video games. But from my experience it is not common knowledge that there is a key figure at the helm of each of these productions, namely the director, whose role is fundamentally the same as that of his/her live action counterpart.

Ask someone to name an animation director and they tend to be far less fluent. I'd hazard if you pushed for one you'd get Walt Disney

"Most people can name their favourite (live action) directors. Ask anyone with the slightest cinematic interest and they can reel off the names of a dozen or so from blockbuster moguls to art-house auteurs.  Ask someone to name an animation director and they tend to be far less fluent. I'd hazard if you pushed for one you'd get Walt Disney. When you consider that animation is a huge part of our entertainment and visual culture, and with so many of the largest grossing movies of all time being animated, this is pretty surprising."

Christopher O'Reilly, Nexus Co-Founder

What is an animation director?

I posed this question to a group of well respected, high-flying directors and producers working in the animation industry both nationally and internationally. And I have found that the discussion is multi-layered, often complex and invariably volatile. Has the changing landscape in film, interactive media and entertainment removed the distinction between directors and animation directors entirely?

 

My aim for this article, is to define the difference between a director at the helm of an animated piece, an animation director working on, for example, a feature film and an animator. By doing so, I hope to go some way towards elevating our common profile in the public consciousness.

 

…if animation directors are not feeling recognised…then I think it can only be that animation as a medium, although much loved and utilised, is just not held in the same regard as live action. Ok yes, often ad agencies or industry press refer to label 'animation directors' as 'animators' and drop the 'director', but anyone who has worked with a good animation director, would tell you they…fulfil the role of director in the truest sense.

Sam Hope, Exec. producer, Picasso Pictures.

Animation director, Director of animation, Animator…Eh?

I think that most people could describe a live-action director's job fairly easily. So it is strange that the animation process and production hierarchy are shrouded in mystery. Perhaps this is because animation has a certain magical aura. Exposure to animation, for most of us, begins at a very early age watching cartoons on children's television. We all have our favourites and there's always that special programme that has the nostalgic power to bring a tear to our eyes (for me it's Oliver Postgate's Bagpuss). The main appeal and wonder of animation lies in the limitless possibilities it affords for creativity.

Perhaps as a direct result of this, there seems to be a perception that animation happens magically. Far from it. You start with a clean slate. Then, as a director, faced with an empty set, page or virtual space you must envision, and then oversee, the creation of all that is to inhabit the final picture from the tiniest spec of dust to the most terrifying of dragons.

The beauty of animation lies in its lack of creative boundaries - there's no theme too obtuse, no story too unreal, no design too hard, no set too ambitious…Anything is well and truly possible.

Katerina Athanasopoulou, animation artist and director.

I spoke to my brother Ben, a writer and father of two, on the subject and his outside perspective was interesting. "I don’t think that film directors are inherently glamorous. I think that people value directors of films for adults more highly than directors of films for children. This has lead to them being given higher status and celebrity. It just so happens that films for children are often animated. Could your average punter tell you who directed any of the Muppet movies, for example, or the Harry Potter films? Films for adults are perceived (by adults) as more important than films for children. I would say most people would see animation as low art for kids… Children aren’t sophisticated enough to understand that their favourite cartoons were directed by someone, but the characters in their favourite shows are as famous and glamorous to them. So I think animation directors suffer from the fact that their work is usually consumed by an audience either too young to know of their existence or too old to take it seriously."

"Unlike their live-action counterparts, directors of animated film have never really grabbed the lime light. Really its been the studios like Disney, Aardman or Pixar. that have become the household names. This has undoubtedly helped confound the very definition of what an animation director is…The first confusion is between the role of director and the animator. They are not the same. While director's sometimes double up in this role they are not synonymous.  Many animation directors began as Woody Allen like figures who multi-tasked all the creative roles in their film. But this is not the way the industry pans out.  All the roles in the animation process are in fact increasingly specialised with sometimes hundreds of skilled artists involved... not just animators responsible for the performance, but designers and VFX specialists. All these artists need a single creative vision.  And that comes from the director.

Christopher O'Reilly, co-founder, Nexus productions.

Nexus director Jim Le Fevre agrees: "I suspect the problem that we, as animation directors, face…(is)…that people see it as a 'lesser' way of making films than live action even though the skill sets that animation directors have encompass those of live action directors as well as a heap load more skills in craft and artistry."

This is a good point, especially as most people think immediately of children's programme's or films when the term animation is mentioned. Unfortunately, even though the animation world has expanded so much now that the children's market is probably just a small sector of over all animation-related production and turnover, the general perception of the medium has remained the same.

So what does a director working in animation do exactly?

A director working in animation can often be heavily involved in every stage of the production process. Sometimes, often depending on the budget, they carry out many of the roles themselves from initial script development and writing, storyboarding, creating the animatic*, casting the voice talent, designing/art directing, directing the animators, working with the composer and sound design team, to compositing and the final grade.

being an animation director is very much a multi-discipline role

As Strange Beast's Andy Martin and Trunk's directing duo Alasdair Brotherston and Jock Mooney explain:

Andy: "My role as an animation director changes subtly from job to job but it always involves taking control of the overall look and feel of the animation. On lower budget jobs this usually takes the form of designing and animating everything myself. On larger budget jobs I have the luxury of other people who are experts in their field helping me put together the animation. They could be model makers, illustrators, additional animators, compositors, musicians and/or SFX people. My role then becomes less hands on and more to do with communicating and approving the work that is created. Keeping an eye on the bigger picture and steering the animation in the direction I want it to go. Making sure I achieve that look and feel I initially intended at the start of the project."

Alasdair: "At the point I am in my career, being an animation director is very much a multi-discipline role, never more so than when I am working on music video projects. It encompasses, in my experience, a very wide set of skills. The primary reason for this is down to budget: unless you are fortunate enough to be in command of a large budget, then during a production you can often find yourself in the role of storyboard artist, designer, animator, editor or compositor. You can be expected to dabble in some or all of these technical disciplines as well as trying to maintain the distance necessary to make the correct creative decisions for the whole project. In short, it can be a bit of a nightmare, albeit a rewarding one!"

 

Jock: "When it comes down to animated music videos, I think an animation director - excuse the pun - needs to be animated. He or she must have a sense of timing, and of flow, as well as a strong sense of what makes something 'click' in terms of teaming animation with an audio track. Ironically, I have directed some live action projects, as I'm sure a fair few 'animation directors' have, or, indeed, numerous projects that combine both live action and animated elements. An animation director is essentially someone with a fair few strings to their bow. Or someone who has access to a lot of other bows, and knows what to do with them."

With such control over every aspect of a production, it is not surprising that directors of animated productions can sometimes be viewed as megalomaniacs! But they are often introverted, rather quiet individuals with extreme focus and dedication.

 

Founder of Not to Scale, Dan O'Rourke describes the director working in animation: "(The animation director is)…often the closest thing to a fine artist that you may come across in the film world. As such they can be modest, sensitive souls, who retain a strong focus and drive to excel at their chosen craft and in developing their own individual aesthetic. They often strive to retain an innate appreciation of the magic of creation, and the ultimate act of creation, that lies within animating the hitherto inanimate. This makes the ‘animation director’ a curious pleasure to work with. They are often both left and right brain individuals, able to organise themselves to meticulously plan ahead through animatics and pre-visualisations or to operate complicated software. All this whilst retaining the more fluid and spontaneous skills of physical creation be it through drawing, illustration, stop-frame manipulation or animating using a computer.

Director? Animation director? Director of animation?

"Confusingly sometimes on large animated features or series, there is a credit for a 'director of animation' or an 'animation director'. This is not the same as the director. This role is responsible for co-ordinating the creative expertise of the animators, but still reports to the director." Christopher O'Reilly, co-founder Nexus.

On a big production, there is often a person whose role comes somewhere in-between the over all director and the animation team. Nexus directors Felix Massie and Johnny Kelly explain:

The animation director is "…someone who has more to do with the animation as a craft, and acts almost as an animation supervisor. So, for example, they might tell animators how a performance can be enhanced. Like Glen Keane's eventual role in Tangled." Felix Massie

 

"In the areas in which I work - advertising and short film - my understanding of an 'animation director' is simply a director who works in animation…In the context of feature films 'animation director' means something entirely different - someone in charge of briefing and overseeing teams of animators working across various scenes, reporting to the (overall) director." Johnny Kelly

You can’t place a camera in front of a puppet, shout action and watch the magic unfold…Unfortunately animation doesn’t work like that. Every single event, object or character in every single frame of every animation production has to be planned, researched, designed and crafted by numerous different groups of incredibly specialised, talented people. This process is repeated and repeated for each and every frame you see. The person who orchestrates all of this insanity is the animation director.

Mark Waring, director.

Mark Waring is a director currently working with Passion, London. With the resurgence, over the last ten years, of the stop-frame format in feature film production, he took a position as a lead animator on Tim Burton’s stop-frame film ‘Corpse Bride’. This role subsequently lead to him being hired as animation supervisor on both Wes Anderson’s ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’ and Tim Burton’s most recent stop-frame feature ‘Frankenweenie’: "On a series or commercial the animation director will usually be where the buck stops, eventually signing off a shot as approved when they are happy. In the case of working with an overall director like with Tim Burton or Wes Anderson on a feature film, the role of the animation director is slightly different. Although a lot of the same directorial work will be covered, as on any other production, on a feature the animation director is the eyes and ears on the floor for the overall director. The director has the universal vision and usually has been the one working on the story and involved in the boarding stages to create the template for the film. It is the role of the animation director to implement this vision - they put into practice the wishes of the director. The (overall) directors are usually very busy people and aren’t always available to be on the floor on a day to day basis. Once everything has been initially set up, the director can often take a back seat and leave the day to day running of the production in the hands of the animation director. Regular check-ins and updates are prepared, but it is the animation director who keeps the ship running and moving forward on a daily basis. While the role is essentially working within a pre-prepared template, like for example being given a blueprint and then being told to build the house, it's far from 'paint–by-numbers'. Despite sounding quite rigid in structure, there is still a large amount of creativity involved, as every day problem solving and major decisions on how things are done fall fully and squarely on the animation director’s shoulders. He or she must make sure that the level of quality is both reached and maintained."

 

Joris van Hulzen is a Bafta award winning animation director, who has worked on TV series projects like 'The Amazing World of Gumball' and 'Peppa Pig'. He has been a professional animator since 1993 and ten years ago changed roles, becoming an animation director. Since then he has worked on over forty five hours of broadcast animated television: "The animation director works under the guidance of the director, making creative choices, problem solving and overseeing the work of the individual animators to create a convincing performance from the characters. Not every project uses an animation director, but on large scale projects the scope of the work means the job of directing the animators needs to be delegated. On 'The Amazing World of Gumball' all of the 2D animation crew; twelve animators in London and twenty four clean-up artists in Germany, work on scenes with [the character] Gumball in it. They are all very different artists, with creative strengths and weaknesses. Yet when the work is finished, nobody should be distracted and see that so many people acted the part of Gumball. Part of the job of animation director is to 'cast' the right animator for any given shot and then to ensure that all those scenes look like they came from one artist, some animators are brilliant at subtle acting but not at broad action scenes and vice versa. It's my job to get the best possible performance out of my crew as a group and create character portraits that are of high quality and consistent across all the scenes. The animation director's job is invisible. I've done a good job when the animation successfully communicates the ideas of the director and looks simple, unfluctuating and effortless."

Where does the animator fit into all of this?

On 'pure' animation productions, the animators are your main actors. As an animation director you guide them in exactly the same way as a live action director would her cast. And like actors, individual animators can be better at interpreting different characters, personalities or emotions. Freelance director Suzanne Deakin agrees: "I believe in ʻcastingʼ animators wherever possible, like actors, they can breathe and own a character, taking it further and making it more complete than I could do on my own."

The animator looks to the director for an overview of the character just as an actor would look to a live action director for guidance. And similarly an animator often brings something unexpected or amazing to the role, something that the director never considered. In short, as a director, it is a real joy to work with a talented animator. They bring your vision to life.

 

There are however differences in the way in which animation directors and live action directors approach directing their performers. John Dower is a director who moved from film (several shorts) and television ('Eastenders, 'Casualty’, etc.) into directing motion capture performance, animation and voice on video games. He gives us an insight into the differences for him: "…perhaps…the biggest difference between film and animation directing is that I spend my whole time, when directing film, not telling the actor what I want but guiding them so that they hopefully give it to me as spontaneously and naturally as possible. I am helping to give them the background but never spell out precisely what it is I want, for fear of making their performance result oriented and removing their incentive to make the character their own. However, when working with animators - who are the interpreters of character much as an actor is - I have learnt that a precise and detailed description of emotional, psychological and internal motivation is crucial. Often, I have worked with several animators and a 'central through line' and clear direction is essential. They then add their magic and interpretation, but there is a map we have agreed and that I have outlined as my vision for that scene, or shot or character. The fact that many animators can work on a project, each bringing different approaches and skills, means that the director has to be clear in communicating their vision and what each moment means and the effect they want to get across."

Conclusion

"When Iʼm asked what is the difference between an animation director and a live action director, I guess Iʼm mainly tempted to say ʻthere is no differenceʼ, letʼs just lose some of the job title and call them all Directors." Suzanne Deakin, freelance director.

So, a director working in animation is a leader and the creative head of the production team. They have final say on all the creative aspects of the job from design and animation through to sound and music, as well as guiding and motivating the other members of the team. This is also the role of a director working in live action or the theatre. So perhaps we should all just use the term 'director' and drop the 'animation' part. After all the role is the same and there is a lot of crossover these days, with directors making hybrid work that combines both live action and animation. This is certainly the case when it comes to director Lizzie Oxby's working practice: "I'm a hybrid filmmaker. I came to film with a background in stop-motion animation. However I now make films which involve blending live action performance into miniature sets and digital effects, to create the cinematic worlds that I imagine. Having this background in animation certainly comes with many advantages, one of which is knowing how to construct films frame by frame. This skill enables me to create precise and visually distinct work."

"At the end of the day, animation directing is very similar in essence to what I do in live action directing. It's about telling stories with pictures and sounds. It's just with animation, you get a bit more involved in each frame. Though different from live-action, it still requires bold decisions, clarity of vision and dedication to detail from the director." John Dower, director.

The main confusion seems to come from people confusing animation directors with animators. For me and many of my peers, this is the rub. Mixing up the terms “animation director” and "animator" is like confusing “director” with “actor”. I think it is extremely important for those individuals working in the industry to understand the difference. I am approached on a regular basis by clients saying that they are in need of an animator, when in fact they are in need of firstly a director and then secondly an animator. Technically speaking, an animator does not work on the pre- or post-production of a project (excepting those working in pre-viz and vfx). So they do not come up with the ideas for a piece and they do not design, plan or oversee a production. This common misconception can be extremely frustrating for both animators and directors alike because the client's expectations are often quite far removed from what is achievable within a certain budget or time frame and with regard to an individual's skill base.

A director is also, more often than not, trained as such, whether this be at college or on the job. Years are spent acquiring and honing a knowledge of storytelling and conventions for screen, visual language, etc. It is not uncommon for a director to have started out as an animator - Tim Burton, Brad Bird, John Lasseter and Nick Park for example all having taken this route. But they have all gone on to learn more about the entire process of film making rather than concentrating on the craft of animation.

And it doesn't necessarily figure that animation directors can animate. An increasing number of illustrators and designers are being signed by production companies as commercials directors these days. Whether or not these individuals know how to animate is, in some ways, irrelevant - just as a live action director does not need to be an actor. A knowledge of the craft is valuable but not essential. The director must have an overall vision and must be capable of steering a team towards the realisation of that vision.

A director tends to do the longest hours, working overtime and at weekends to fix problems and keep projects on schedule. The weight of the production is firmly on their shoulders. This is not true of the animator. Although they will no doubt have tight deadlines and heavy workloads, they are not responsible for delivering the final product.

 

I think the overriding message that has arisen from gathering opinions for this article, is that most of us directors working in animation feel that we are no different from our peers in live action and theatre. Above all we are storytellers and creators. Which is certainly the view point of Christopher O'Reilly when it comes to his roster of directors: " …I always simply refer to the talent at Nexus as 'directors' not as 'animation directors'. They are gifted storytellers who happen to use an animated medium. Furthermore the next generation of talent coming from an animation background is really breaking down the boundaries between what we consider to be live-action and what is animated. Cue the whole 'Avatar' or 'Life of Pi' debate! In truth our industry has as rich and diverse an ecosystem of directing talent as its live-action counterpart, from independent auteurs to movie moguls. And these unique voices working in animation are definitely worth celebrating."

Appendix

* animatic: A moving storyboard or map of the piece. This is the edit - animated pieces are edited prior to shooting/animation not afterwards as with live action.

Contributors (in alphabetical order):

 

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