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Breaking Down the Animation Pipeline: From Concept to Screen

Breaking Down the Animation Pipeline: From Concept to Screen

These days, animation is used across a wide range of industries to entertain, inform and communicate. From movies and video games to education, architecture and beyond, there is a growing demand for skilled and knowledgeable animators to turn ideas into reality on the screen.

If you have your sights set on a career in animation, then you should understand the process that carries an animation from concept into finished product. This is known as the animation pipeline, which comprises a series of key steps and processes.

Concept Art in Animation

One essential idea to understand in the 3D animation pipeline is concept art, which refers to a basic visual representation of what the finished product of an animation will look like.

Importance of Concept Art

While concept art may technically be simple and rudimentary in animation, it serves a critical purpose in helping animation teams and other designers visualize what the end product will look like. In many ways, concept art can be used to communicate the tone of the completed animation while also serving as a sort of visual blueprint for the rest of the project. All of this can help optimize the success of the animation project, plus keep team members (including other animators) on the same page before the bulk of the work begins.

Process of Creating Concept Art

So, what exactly does the process of creating concept art look like in the animation world? The exact steps and procedures used can vary from one animator and even one team to the next, depending on the tools and resources they have at their disposal.

Still, the basic process of creating concept art typically begins with a fair amount of research into the project’s overarching theme and style. This may include making important decisions about the kinds of colors and distinct design choices that may be used moving forward.

From there, concept artists in animation will begin sketching and creating thumbnails or other basic designs to develop a better feel for the overall look and style of the animation. Over time, detail is added, and other elements or animation techniques may be combined to establish concept art for the entire project.

Storyboarding for Animation

Another notable process in animation is storyboarding, which usually consists of a series of sketches or thumbnails that portray the entire animation narrative from beginning to end.

Role of Storyboarding

Storyboarding is crucial in animation because it carries designers, animators and other team members chronologically through the entire storyline. In this sense, a storyboard can ensure everybody understands the entire plot of the animation in addition to the features and scenes that will be used to execute it.

During the storyboarding process, animators and other professionals can make changes and refine the plot as needed while collaborating and looking at the project as a whole. This is an ideal time to address potential plot holes, ensure the project will stay on-budget and keep the entire animation as organized as possible.

Steps in Storyboarding

What does the process of storyboarding for animation look like, anyway? Again, this may vary slightly depending on the animation team based on the resources and tools they have available as well as established practices. Still, most storyboard creation processes follow similar basic steps that may include:

  • Starting with a basic idea and creating a story around it.
  • Drawing out specific scenes one frame at a time, with descriptions for movements and dialogue.
  • Presenting storyboard drafts to team members, collaborating and making changes as needed.

The Animation Production Pipeline

This brings us to the overarching idea of the animation production pipeline, which may also be called the animation workflow. This pipeline refers to the combination of hardware, software and people required to turn an animation idea into a functioning final product.

Production pipelines are used in every type of animation, ranging from the creation commercials and video games to television shows and full-feature films. These pipelines are used in hand-drawn animation, 2D animation, 3D animation and beyond.

Overview of the Production Pipeline

The production pipeline is generally broken up into three key stages that include pre-production, production and post-production.

Pre-Production Stage

The pre-production stage embodies everything that happens before formal production begins. This can include determining the budget and team members assigned to the project along with figuring out general timelines and deadlines.

During pre-production, much of the focus is on generating ideas, creating stories and writing scripts. In addition, concept art is a central part of the pre-production stage and is often the last step before the project moves into the production stage.

Production Stage

Once an animation enters the production stage, it is time to basically transform all the ideas from pre-production into reality. This is done through a series of steps and techniques that may include creating a 3D layout, modeling and texturing. During this part of the process, lighting and visual effects or other special effects may also be added by different members of the production team. As you can imagine, this is a critical part of the process—and animators must work diligently to ensure the animation follows the original storyboard and plans.

Post-Production Stage

Finally, animations enter the post-production stage once production is completed. In simplest terms, post-production refers to the last step of the animation process where finishing touches are added and final tweaks are made to ensure the final product is polished. This stage might include animation compositing, color correction and adding final visual effects as necessary.

Rigging in Animation

Rigging is another core animation concept to understand, which is a very technical process that all animators (and aspiring animators) need to learn about in detail.

Understanding Rigging

Rigging in animation refers to the creation of a character’s basic frame or skeleton. With rigging, the overall look and structural design or movements of a character can be determined using specialized programs and models. Character rigging is especially essential in animation because it allows everybody to see how different characters will look, move and essentially come to life.

Rigging Process

As you can probably imagine, many steps are involved in the rigging of an animation character. First, a 3D model is usually created that includes a skeleton of the character itself. From there, movements and controls must be created to determine and demonstrate how different parts of the character’s body will move. Once final tweaks and changes are made, animation software can be used to digitize the model.

Animation Production

Let’s return to the animation production process for just a moment as we explore the crucial concepts of scene animation and the addition of visual effects (also known as VFX in animation).

Animating the Scenes

Following the storyboard from pre-production, individual scenes from the project can be animated by designers, animators and programmers. Animation itself is carried out using any number of software programs, with some of the most commonly used animation software including Blender, Adobe Animate and Powtoon. When animating scenes, key frames are typically broken down and animated individually until they are blended together to create the finished product.

Adding Visual Effects

The specific process of adding visual effects to an animation will depend on the animation software being used. However, numerous techniques are commonly leveraged to add VFX in animation, including the traditional application of “green screens” to seamlessly add effects in post-production. Nowadays, animation software is used more than ever to add digital enhancements and other practical effects that enhance production value.


Even after the production process is complete, there may still be a lot of work to do to polish an animation and ensure it looks its best for viewers. Arguably, post-production is just as important as the pre-production and production stages of a project—with some key steps including editing, compositing and final rendering.

Editing and Compositing

Another vital aspect of post-production in any type of animation is editing and compositing, which may entail trimming and/or splicing scenes together to create a cohesive product. More specifically, animation compositing involves bringing two or more elements of an animation together to create a single element. For example, this might include blending one background with another background or even imposing text over an existing image.

Compositing in animation can be a quick and straightforward process or rather complex. Ultimately, this comes down to how various elements are used in production and how much work is involved in blending them together. Regardless, animators need to understand how to bring animation elements together using software and other methods in their work.

Final Rendering

One of the most critical pieces during post-production of an animation is known as final rendering. When this occurs, all the different layers of each scene that were      separated in previous work are combined      into one cohesive layer to look as polished and seamless as possible. This means working with many different shadows, foregrounds, backgrounds and layers to unite everything in a way that looks real and believable.

It can be helpful to think about final rendering as the “polishing” process performed after all edits and other changes are made. It is usually the absolute last step of the production process and, depending on the complexity of the production, can be quite time-consuming for animators. Still, it is an essential skill for all animators to apply in their work.

Advance Your Animation Knowledge With a Formal Degree

Clearly, a great deal goes into the animation process—and experienced animators must learn to leverage the right animation tools, rigging techniques and animation editing software to streamline the animation workflow.

Looking to sharpen your animation skills with a formal degree program? Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design is proud to offer a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Animation that is available both on-campus and online to suit your unique needs. Both of these programs highlight key concepts and skills that range from texture mapping and character design to storyboarding, modeling and more to support your learning and growth as an animator.

Interested in learning more about our animation program or any of the other programs offered at Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design? Request more information by dropping us a line today or begin your online application.


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