The world of animated movies has opened doors to limitless types of stories. It’s limitlessness, however, comes at the cost of labor. The innumerable moving parts of an animated movie production are all overseen by a director. While it can sound like an overwhelming task, directing an animated movie can be broken down more simply. In this article, we’ll dive into how to direct an animated movie, the stages of creating an animated movie and the director’s role throughout production.

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How to direct an animated movie

1. Workshop the story

The foundation for any film, not just animation, is the story. The story is the heart and soul of a film and determines every choice a director makes. 

Directors are the purveyors of the story. They must ensure that the story and screenplay is a solid enough foundation that the rest of the film can stem from. Lessons from the Screenplay breaks down the process of how director and writer Pete Docter workshopped the story of Inside Out.

Inside Out  •  How to direct an animated movie

It is extremely important that the plot, along with strong character arcs and story elements, are workshopped until the story is as strong as possible. This must be done before continuing on to any other phase of production. A director must have a clear vision and understanding of the film’s story and its themes before moving on to storyboarding it.

How to make an animated film

2. Storyboarding

Once the script has reached a final draft, it is broken down into scenes. These scenes are storyboarded and drawn out into panels. The storyboards are rough sketches of the scenes of the film.

Learning how to storyboard is a specialized art but it doesn't require you to be an artíste — as long as the story comes through, stick figures will suffice. That being said, you may also want to hire a storyboard artist.

Look at this storyboard from AladdinYou can see the building blocks of animation and how each panel connects to tell a story. We brought a few storyboard examples into StudioBinder’s storyboarding software to look at the initial visuals of Aladdin.

How to direct an animated movie  •  Look at Aladdin Storyboard

This allows the director to visualize the sequences of the story. It also allows other creatives to pitch ideas. During this process, the director determines what's working in the story and what isn't. Appropriate changes are then made.

Here is a video of what the storyboarding and collaborative process is like in creating Monsters University

How to make animation movie  •  Pitching

This phase is extremely collaborative, but the director has the final say. This leaves a lot of responsibility to the director who is taking in suggestions and making changes that best serve the story of the film.

Once your storyboards are drawn, they can be imported into software like StudioBinder's storyboard creator where they can be shared with collaborators.

How to make animation movie

3. Editing and animatics

Once the storyboards are complete, they are then cut together into an animatic. The animatic cut is the rough blueprint of the film. It may include sketches, voiceover, temp music, and sound effects.

The director works closely with the editorial team to determine pacing, dialogue, and ensure the story beats are landing. The animatic is typically presented to the director and executives to be workshopped again. Here is an example of an animatic from The Simpsons production team. 

Simpsons Animatic  •  Animation film making

During this phase, the director is critical of how the film unfolds. Story beats, dialogue, and structure are all subject to change by the director. There is often a second rewrite of the script based on problems discovered when reviewing the animatic.

How to make animation movie

4. Casting and voice recording

Once the animatic and script are officially complete, the director casts voice actors for individual characters. The casting process is critical and can heavily influence the final product of a film. 

Once the actors are cast, they are brought in to record the final dialogue over the animatic. 

 Zootopia: How to make an animated film

Typically, the voice acting is recorded prior to animation so that characters' facial expressions can be animated to the voice performances. But Hayao Miyazaki, director and co-founder of Studio Ghibli, famously animates prior to voice recording. This decision has created a distinct style in his work.

Animation film making

5. Visual development

Once the dialogue is recorded, the visuals of the film are developed. This is where the visual style and aesthetic of the film really take form. Concept artists create environments, character looks, props and color palettes. This helps flesh out a cohesive idea of the film’s world.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is famous for its comic book aesthetic. It’s creative visuals are part of what makes it one of the best animated movies of all time. This visual development took plenty of thought and experimentation before artists arrived at the unique, final look.

Animation film making  •  Making the Spider-Verse

From this video, you can see how much attention to detail a director must have. Filling out buildings, buses, and cities all create a cohesive world that the story takes place in. 

How to direct an animated movie

6. Pre-Visualization

During pre-visualization, or previs, artists use the script, storyboards, drawing, and voice recordings to create the film in a 3-dimensional environment for the first time. This is the ground work that is laid leading into animation. And it is the last opportunity to fine tune the visuals including blocking and staging, and camera movements.

Despicable Me 2  •  How to make an animated film

Directors bounce ideas back and forth between artists during this phase. Like the rest of production, they must ensure that the first 3-dimensional creations of the film are in the right direction.

If artists create animations during previs that are to scale, they can often be taken directly into production and animation. Rigorous work during pre-visualization can really jump start the animation process. It is important that the director is hands-on at this point.

How to direct an animated movie

7. Production and animation

The more labor intensive stage of directing an animated movie is production and animation. There are various aspects being animated during this phase such as characters, crowds, set dressing, and character effects.

It’s important for a director to know the strengths of his team and be able to delegate tasks accordingly. Some artists are better at realistic character animation while some are better at creating environments and settings.

During this stage, artists present their animations to the director. Directors must be critical and provide constructive feedback that drives production forward. Here is an example of this process in the production of Moana.

Moana: Animation film making

Directors also work closely with cinematographers to create cinematic elements through animation. Lighting, camera movement, and depth of field are all being adapted into the animated medium. Klaus created a 3-dimensional look for its 2-D film through lighting techniques.

Netflix's 'Klaus'  •  Animation film making

Directors must make sure that the visual development of a film not only makes the movie look cinematic, but ensure that it serves the film’s story as well. 

How to direct an animated movie

8. Compositing

One all of the materials of a film have been animated, they are brought into the compositing stage. Think of this as post-production in which animated materials for various sources are assembled and polished to create the final frames of a film. Compositing is meant to make the shots and scenes of a film appear seamless. 

Angry Birds cartoon movie production

Final rendered frames are filled out with lighting, depth of field, and other atmospheric elements. This is the first time the director sees the assembly of animated pieces together. They will give feedback that could include adding, removing, or changing visual elements based on their creative judgement. This is where a good shot can become great and cinematic.

Cartoon movie production

9. Music and sound design

Once all scenes are composited the final edit must be locked in. This means that no other major changes can be made to the visual sequence of the film. After the edit is locked, sound designers and foley artists get to work creating sound effects of the film.

Check out our video on Pixar’s WALL-E to see how important sound design can be to storytelling without dialogue. 

Pixar WALL-E Storytelling  •  Subscribe on YouTube

In addition to sound design, the score of the film is also created at this point. The director collaborates heavily with the composer of the film to direct the mood through music. The director also gives feedback and direction on the sound design to ensure it contributes to telling the story.

How to create an animated film

10. Color Grading 

Color grading is the final stage of production. Everything must be locked in prior to this point. Color grading can really bring a film to life with vibrancy. Directors also must ensure that the colors and palette are used to strengthen the story and overall tone of the film. 

Color grading  •  How to create an animated film

Color grading during the animation process can differ from live-action films because of how much control colorists have. The worlds of animated films are typically much more colorful and vibrant and thus need clear direction.

Directing an animated movie can seem overwhelming, but it has also allowed directors to have more creative control than ever before. The ability to control every aspect of a film is unique to animation. From shapes and color to dialogue and sound design, animated films have given some of the most creative directors the medium to tell incredible stories.


The Best Animated Movies of All Time

One of the best ways to learn how to direct an animated movie is to learn from your favorite animated movie directors. And the best way to learn from these directors is to study their work. We’ve compiled a list of the best animated movies of all time for your viewing pleasure.

Up Next: Animated Movies Hall of Fame →
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