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Disney VFX Animator Revives the Nostalgic Magic of Hand-drawn Animation with Cartoon Animator

This article is featured on Creative Bloq
Declan Walsh – Hand-drawn VFX Animator

About Declan Walsh

Hey there, I’m Declan Walsh. Let me take you back to my first-ever interview in the animation industry. When they asked about my experience, I must have frozen like a deer caught in headlights! My previous gig involved packing TV cases on a factory floor, but I had a feeling that wasn’t exactly what they were seeking. So, I decided to approach it differently… I leaned in, looked the interviewer straight in the eyes, and declared, “If I can’t nail this job in three months, I’ll give myself the boot!” That momentous occasion took place 25 years ago, and I’m proud to share that I’ve since amassed a wealth of experience working on classic movies, games, and various other projects. 

However, here’s the thing… I’m still learning! In this industry, learning never stops. My latest escapade brings me to Cartoon Animator (CTA), where I got to collaborate with Reallusion to showcase its features. The thing I absolutely adore about CTA is its inclusive approach that embraces artists of all skill levels. It allows me to keep honing my traditional animation skills, even in the face of the latest industry advancements. And let me tell you, their community is incredibly supportive — just like any top-notch animation studio would be!

A Glimpse into A 90s Animation Studio

Amidst the cubicles, the faint sounds of muffled music seep from headphones. Two nearby animators are engaged in conversation with their attention focused on a shot sequence. They rewind the VHS tape back to the beginning, eagerly watching as the animation came to life. Rewinding, playing again, and scrutinizing every movement with their trained eyes. They kept a keen eye for any imperfections, any slight pops in motion that lacked follow-through. And when it worked, a smile spread across their faces. This was a routine part of my daily life for many years, and I cherished every single second of it.

During those times, animation was entirely hand-drawn and traditional animators were adept at rolling the paper quickly to assess the timing of their rough animations. Then, they would take it to the video by carefully placing each drawing on the animation disc, ensuring the lighting was just right, so the blue foundational drawings are clearly visible.

In those days, cameras weren’t particularly advanced. Each frame had to be captured on video before you could witness your animation. I relished the anticipation that accompanied this process.

But what I loved, even more, was the soundscape of an animation studio — pencils roughly scratching as artists brought the next scene to life, the rhythmic flipping of crisp paper, and the tactile sensation of the pages gliding through my fingertips. It instantly transports me back to a time when animators from Los Angeles, Brazil, Canada, the Philippines, and all corners of the globe converged to create the next classic animated feature for the silver screen! I vividly recall being told two things:

“You’re only as good as your last scene.”

“Whatever you put out into the world, remains there for all time; there’s no going back.”

In those days, the creation of animation was an immense undertaking! It required the collaboration of over 350 individuals, including story writers, storyboard artists, color design teams, character animators, background professionals, special effects artists, and many more. They seamlessly worked together within a vast studio equipped with colossal cameras!

Fast-forward to The World of Animation Today

The year is 2023 and animation has changed drastically! With the rapid advancement of computers and software like Cartoon Animator (CTA) and Photoshop, our ability to draw, color, and animate directly on-screen has revolutionized the game. Gone are the days of traditional methods; now, we can wield an entire studio’s worth of tools and resources on a single laptop. A vast library of characters, backgrounds, effects, and built-in animations awaits, limited only by the boundaries of our own imagination. It’s a breathtaking reality I could never have envisioned.

Yet, I’ll confess, there are moments when I yearn for the tactile sensation of flipping through paper with my fingertips. As I write this, my collection of old animation discs adorns the walls, gazing down upon me. If those discs could speak, I imagine they would share tales of a remarkable journey and murmur, “Hell of a ride, kid…” before succumbing to slumber, lost in dreams of bygone glory. Meanwhile, I press forward into the current era and adapt, wielding my XP-PEN tablet in pursuit of artistic expression and preserving the age-old tradition of 2D animation.

At its core, the process of animation remains unchanged: crafting a compelling story, storyboarding, creating color keys, and more. The difference lies in the abundance of tools now at our disposal, and it’s truly awe-inspiring! In CTA, an entire studio lies within reach, with an array of tools readily available at our fingertips.

The Art of Storyboarding

Let’s dive into the topic of storyboards! But before we delve into it, let me make one thing clear: you don’t have to be a skilled artist to create one. Stick figures or written descriptions in panels will suffice.

What truly matters is focusing on the camera angles and ensuring they capture the motion of the piece in the best possible way. Consider the character’s trajectory and how it aligns with the connected scenes. Express your thoughts on the page, freeing them from the confines of your mind. I assure you, your animations will flow more smoothly once you accomplish this.

Achieving the right timing can be challenging, so here’s a handy tip: grab your phone and time yourself acting out the character’s movements. For instance, if you’re timing a character’s breathing and you know the timeline operates at 30 frames per second, you can measure your own breath — two seconds for inhale and two for exhale — for the first board. Consequently, your first keyframe would be at frame 60, and the second at frame 120. Repeat this process for each panel, so you have a rough idea of timing before you start. 

I also recommend recording yourself performing the scene so that you can utilize it as a reference for your 2D character animation. CTA is very flexible and allows you to do this easily. 

My Choice of 2D Animation Software

Now, let’s talk about the tools available to us. I must admit, the abundance of tools in Cartoon Animator is simply mind-boggling — it’s a veritable playground for individuals like myself!

To illustrate, I recently created an animation featuring a character breathing under a blanket. To achieve the desired effect, I utilized the Free Form Deformation (FFD) editor. This powerful tool allowed me to manipulate and deform the blanket as the character breathed, enhancing the realism of the scene. By keyframing the transformations on the timeline, I seamlessly brought the prop and character to life.

Furthermore, Cartoon Animator offers a range of presets that greatly aid in the animation process. For instance, I made use of the squash and stretch presets, making slight adjustments to tailor them precisely to my needs. These presets provided a solid foundation upon which I could build the desired results. Additionally, in a particular moment of my animation, bubbles needed to appear on the screen, and once again, the FFD editor proved instrumental in achieving the desired effect.

One thing I truly appreciate is infusing subtle movements into my scenes, as it adds a captivating level of vitality. I meticulously identify areas where I can introduce motion, always ensuring it complements the focus and main action without overshadowing them. It could be something as simple as floating bubbles, twinkling stars around the character’s head, or gentle ripples on the water. These subtle touches breathe life into the animation, making the scenes more immersive and captivating.

Create Animated GIFs & Sequence Image Animation

 In one of my scenes, I depict a character seated on a massive lantern, gazing at the Moon character literally sitting in the water. It presented a perfect opportunity to add a candle flame, subtly enhancing the scene’s atmosphere. However, I wanted to ensure the candle flame didn’t overpower the main focus on the characters in the scene.

Thankfully, Cartoon Animator (CTA) now supports the import of GIF and APNG motions. In previous versions, when these files were dragged onto the stage, they remained static as individual graphics.

It’s worth noting that GIF files have a limited color palette, supporting up to 256 colors, while APNG files can accommodate millions of colors. For my specific purpose, I opted for a GIF format as the flame would be positioned behind a soft glow, ensuring it wouldn’t dominate the scene.

Importing a file with sequence images directly into CTA doesn’t grant access to its individual frames within the software. However, if you need to manipulate the GIF, such as erasing a color background, removing, or adding frames, here’s how you can do it:

1. Bring your GIF into Photoshop.

2. Photoshop will separate the images into layers, allowing you to view the individual frames. You can then edit them as needed.

3. Group the images into a folder within Photoshop; it doesn’t matter what you name the folder at this stage.

4. Place that folder inside another folder and label it “Sequence.”

5. Import the modified GIF into CTA and open the sprite editor. Now, all the frames will be displayed there for further adjustments and animation.

Real-time Editing with PSD Editors & Illustrator

In the scene featuring the Moon sitting in the water, I wanted to incorporate ripples around the character’s body and feet. Since the character’s feet remained stationary, I separated them into their own element. Within CTA, I disabled the character’s feet and animated the ripples around them in Photoshop. This approach allowed me to layer the ripples effortlessly, achieving the desired effect. I anticipated that some adjustments might be necessary after completing the animation. It could be a matter of aligning elements properly or tweaking the timing. The thought of repeatedly switching between CTA and Photoshop, setting up frames in the sprite editor each time, seemed like a daunting task. However, this recent update offers a more streamlined workflow.

Within CTA, I utilized the “create in PSD editor” feature by opening the file at the top right corner. This functionality also works with SVG files, extending the flexibility. By locating and selecting the PSD file, CTA seamlessly launched Photoshop while establishing a link between the two programs. Any adjustments made in Photoshop now automatically update in CTA. I can fluidly switch back and forth, working on the animation and making necessary edits without the need to repeatedly set up the frames. This real-time production flow process with synchronized updates significantly enhances efficiency, whether using Photoshop for PSD files or Illustrator for SVG files.

Pro Tip: When transferring sprites from the sprite editor to the timeline, utilize the arrow keys for swift navigation between images, making for a faster process.

Animating Spring Bones on 2D Characters

In the initial scene where the Moon tumbles out of bed, I had already animated the bedclothes cascading away. As the scene progressed, the Moon falls past the camera and through the clouds. Always eager to infuse motion into my scenes, I swiftly set up spring bones on the cloth held in the character’s hand. Once he was in motion, the spring bones automatically handled the realistic flailing of the cloth during his descent. Spring bones are a remarkable feature that adds secondary motion to characters or props. With their pre-set options and precise adjustment controls, achieving the desired effect is effortless.

Now, a final note. Personally, I haven’t utilized the camera feature in CTA extensively, although it is an exceptional tool. In this particular project, I embraced its capabilities, and I must say, it truly enhances the overall outcome. If you, like me, have underutilized this feature, I highly recommend taking the time to familiarize yourself with it. The camera feature can elevate the storytelling and presentation of your animations to new heights.

The process of creating animations has become incredibly accessible, especially with CTA providing us with a vast library of characters, backgrounds, and props. Additionally, I have curated over 200 hand-animated special effects available in the store, each containing 3 to 5 unique animations. Feel free to explore DexArt for these remarkable resources.

With a solid workflow in place, anything is achievable, from simple animations to the most intricate and elaborate scenes. So, go ahead and unleash your creativity. It’s time to create and bring your visions to life — just as I have done!

Know more:

2D Animation Software for Cartoon Maker | Cartoon Animator

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The original article was written by Declan Walsh and featured on Creative Bloq.

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