What We Learn From Animators About Prototyping

In animation, much like in software, everything that we see on the screen needs to be artificially created. In other words, as opposed to live action film, where the camera captures massive amounts of extra detail because it is part of the physical world, animators must create the ground the characters are walking on, the sky, and everything in between.

The production process of animation can be excruciatingly slow even in modern, computer generated productions. 'Snow white', Disney's first full length feature film took 4 years to produce (1934-37) and ended up costing nearly S1.5 million, a significant sum for a feature film back in 1937. In fact, a list compiled by Forbs, of 25 most expensive films until 2006, adjusted for inflation, lists one full-animation film and many with heavy use of special effects which is a form of animation.

In a recent interview with Terry Gross, Pete Docter described the creative process of the animators team behind the Pixar movie 'UP' ($175M), a process that in many respects is very similar to the process established by animators in the early days of animation at the dawn of the 20th century.
For example, the team created a story reel which Docter, the movie's co-director, described as a "comic book version of the movie". The idea is to build the visual sequence of the movie using rough 'keyframes' - drawings that define the start and end points of a sequence. Team members record the dialogs and add these to the visual roll. In the case of 'Up' the team used immediately available resources such as Docter's daughter who's recording ended up in the released movie.

Animation, has always been slow and expensive to produce because it is labor and technology intensive. Thus the story reel provides the stakeholders and the production team with a good idea of the narrative flow from start to end - before production begins. Gaps and flows can be identified and the script, character models and animation properties can be modified accordingly.

One second of animation, at 24 frames per second takes 12 to 24 unique images. According to an article published in January 1938 in Popular Mechanics Monthly, over 1.5 million drawings were created for Snow White. Fast forward 70 years and production of computer generated animation is still as demanding, and prototyping before actual production is critical.

So in addition to the story reel animators also use a technique called pencil testing. The pencil test helps evaluate the animation quality within a scene. The animators shoot a scene using key frames and in-betweens (the sequence of drawings the connect 2 keyframes), review the result to identify flows in the animation - jerkiness, action that goes too fast or too slow, etc. - and make the necessary changes. Once pencil sketches were approved the production moved on to retrace in ink those rough pencil outlines, yielding high quality drawings, and these were in turn traced on clear acetate cels and painted. A long process indeed.
Another technique that was an absolute must in the day of hand made drawing animation, was 'flipping'. The animator, hunched over his animation table would quickly flip through a stack of drawings - sometimes as little s six or twelve, to get a sense of the flow within a sequence. This was very helpful during the process of creating the in-between drawings.

The similarity between animation prototyping techniques and user interface and user experience design are interesting:
  1. The story reel is like a complete interactive prototype, the one that let's us step through tasks an interactions from login to logoff - check for overall consistency of interaction patterns and usability. Identify gaps in requirements and patterns. It is seeing the forest and also the trees and is important on a project level.
  2. The pencil test is is like testing a single ui widget or screen - is it working according to business requirements? does it comply with our established interaction and visual design patterns? If not, iterate until approved. This is like seeing the tree but not the forest, and is useful on a work-stream level.
  3. Flipping, the quick testing of interaction flow within a ui widget, for example, a dynamic panel in Axure. This is useful on a team member, UXA level.