VFX Los Angeles

Creating an Environment for a Short Animation Movie

When staging your own cel, stop motion, or computer-generated animation movies, it is a good idea to design backgrounds and environments for your characters to move and behave in.

Cel animation backgrounds operate like backdrops in stage play productions, while modelmaking assists backgrounds for stop motion animation. For cel or stop motion scenarios, you can rely on your own ability to draw and paint. Computer-generated backgrounds are sculpted on mathematically-calculated grids with the aid of animation software.

The animated character you have created dwells in a world that you create. The environment is the background or landscape where your character “lives” during the movie. More importantly, the location is a constantly evolving feature of your animation that gives the sense of movement and change that are central to your character’s journey.

Planning the Environment for a Short Animation

When you are developing your storyboard, think about the environment for each scene. Think about location detail and how to color it. Develop a sense of visual language to make full use of “stage sets,” backdrops, and props to form the setting in which the story evolves. As you expand your notes from the early storyboard sequence of sketches, use adjectives to describe this environment, including its mood.

Examples of environment adjectives for a short animation sequence:

Light: Shiny, dull, dark, bright, overhead, up-lighting, down-lighting, reflection

Spatial: near, far, back, forward, close-up, long-shot, left-field, mid-field, right-field, up, down, diagonal, vertical, horizontal, slant, straight

Mood: stormy, brooding, shadowy, shady, sunny, fading, heavy, light

The color palette you choose, and the degree of light saturation, can be used to express the emotional state of the character. Perspective is also an important tool in storytelling.

Build Perspective into a Background for your Animation Movie

Make a simple start with a blank sheet of paper:

Sketch a vertical line one third in from the left or right of your paper, from the top to about one third above the bottom of the page.

Sketch a straight line from the nearest bottom corner to meet the bottom of the vertical line.

Sketch another from the furthest bottom corner to meet the other two lines OR sketch a line from the meeting point of those two lines that run parallel to the bottom edge of the paper.

Your lines suggest the inside of a room or box. Turn the page around and the perspective alters; your lines suggest a structure or tree or, with a bit of shading, suggest a ceiling within a room. 

You can use a similar technique to set up sketching a street or a hill. Either way, you appear to have a stage set or a room with greater or smaller space for props. More importantly, you have perspective, a sense of depth and height, a particular space against and within which your character moves.

The Visual Effects of Avatar

Some of the best animations do not add a great deal of detail to such a background, using lighting, direct and indirect illumination, color saturation or camera angle coupled with character positioning to indicate change or movement.

Staging a Stop Motion Animation Scene

Use a cardboard box as a “stage” where the angles of the box will serve as the lines suggested above. Make painted backdrops to slide into place for scenery. Make models of objects and buildings to set your scene. 

Example of the plasticine snow scene pictured below (click on picture to enlarge it):

This has a clay model house (or part house) and modeling clay trees, real twigs, a clay lamp, a (usable) bench and plasticine snow.

All are set on a contoured base, possibly modeled from glued and coated-over, crumpled newspaper.

Claymation puppet-like characters are posed on the bench between the lamp post and the building.

The background is very plain, yet dark enough to reinforce the sense of time and night through the sky. This perspective is suggested by shade variation rather than detail painted on scenery “flats.”

A great deal of the story is conveyed by the light behind the windows as part of the house, and the bright bulb embedded with electrics within the street lamp, and the fire. Overall, this scene conveys a strong sense of texture while concentrating on any idea of movement in the characters.

Take a look at the environment and scene-setting process at Aardman Animations’ stop motion feature film, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005).

Terrain and Landscape Creation for Computer Animations

Create a terrain. First, generate the contours of the land. You can model this on a photograph of a real place and tweak the details to suit your character’s story. So a castle, cottage or tower can be in its real location, in a science fictional location, in a stylized abstract setting, or under the sea. This environment will be used in successive scenes. 

Computer animation creation generates:

Backgrounds and sets

Architectural detail

Modeling buildings and interiors as well as landscapes such as lakes or mountains

include details such as street furniture (lamp, bench, bus stop, etc) tree, rock, etc.

Remember that in 3D animation software, repeating and keeping stock scenes use up considerable amounts of computer memory, so develop a work-around if you can. Use textures and matte colorings to avoid too detailed a geometry in your scenery (geometry is what the computer renders your details to). Keep the details to a minimum. Digitally, you need to combine some computer modeling with superimposed masks or drawings.

Creating Detail with Digital Cameras and Animation Software

Masks can be created from photographs. So you digitally manipulate the photograph of a tree until it becomes a digital tree that you color and incorporate into your environment. This tree can be reproduced at will in a variety of sizes. You can position the trees on the scenario so that they give the impression of depth and landscape features (such as uphill, downhill) and perspective (near or far).

Animation movies offer great opportunities to create new, imaginary worlds. Even a story set on your own street can make your world appear strange and exciting. This may be from your choice of perspective, color palette, or from rendering it virtual with digital camera technology and animation software. Simple software is available, but industry-standard software and camerawork will be learned in film school.