What Animates the Animators: Insights from the Pros

Hernan Hendrick Gonzales

Hernan Hendrick Gonzales

October 27, 2023

What is the first animated film you remember watching? For most of us, this question sends a heavy hit of nostalgia, of hand-drawn frames, of iconic sequences that remain etched in memory. From Mickey Mouse to The Super Mario Bros., the techniques of animation have changed, the magic, not so much.

Animation is storytelling at its most whimsical and enchanting. With every successive technological advancement, animators have pushed the envelope for what’s possible in creative storytelling. The Philippines has a vibrant, dynamic animation industry, and for several years now, has been an outsourcing partner-of-choice to global production companies. So when I was invited by a former colleague, Mr. Carmichael Hirang, Professor of Animation Technology at the College of Saint Benilde, Manila, to attend a lecture on the ‘Challenges of Visualizing a Story,’ I accepted immediately and enthusiastically.

The College of Saint Benilde
The College of Saint Benilde (

Animation is for all ages. And all family members.

Some of Philippines’ finest young student animators were given a simple brief: to create a one-minute animatic about their pet using either Adobe Premiere or After Effects. And with aplomb and flair, these students delivered! There was a cat reacting to her human’s transformation into a zombie (!!!) and a human imagining his pet dog as a pet dragon, in a D&D-real world mash-up.

family member
Students presenting their animatics
family member

After the impressive and (highly enjoyable) show-and-tell, the floor was open for discussion on the students’ four main pain points as animators:

where to begin

Challenge a blank canvas: Where to begin

What is the jumping-off point?
  • It all begins with the story.
  • Followed by the script. Once you know how the narrative will unfold, the easier it will be to visualize it.

shoot your shot

Bring a story to life: Shoot your shot

How do I select the correct shots or angles?
  • Create thumbnails of different shots and angles and select the one that tells the story the best
  • Conduct trial shows. If the audience ‘gets it’ at the first glance, the shot works
  • If they ask questions, rethink your approach
  • Stay inspired. Watch as many movies, read as many books, look at as much artwork as you can. Visit galleries, museums, YouTube, the Internet.

Timing is Everything

Capture Lightning in a Bottle: Timing is Everything

How long should each shot last?
  • The minimum number of seconds for “reading time” for both action and text is 2 seconds
  • If the recall or ‘main storypoint’ is immediately understood, you have nailed the length of the shot. Extend it only if you intend to tell more.

Know your tools

Know your tools: The right software makes the right craftsman

Why do I not get the desired effect despite working with familiar tools and software?
  • Use tools that serve your main storypoint or sequence
  • “No amount of fancy effects or animation or design or rendering is going to cover up a bad storypoint.” - Deane Taylor, Animation Production Designer
  • “Know and understand the tools and what they are for. The rest will follow.” - Carmichael Hirang, 3D Animation Guru

Addressing the AI-lephant in the Room

Students presenting their animatics
Students presenting their animatics

Fresh off the heels of the presentations, we delved into a stimulating discussion on ‘Artificial Intelligence in Art, Animation, Visual Effects and the Impact in Future Animation and Multi-media Pipelines’. Fielding questions from the students, Mr Hirang and I attempted to shine a candid light on the hot button issue of animators being devalued by AI, the need for adaptation, and role of AI alongside human creativity.
The inquisitive minds raised three pivotal concerns:

AI in animation: Friend or Foe?

How can I maintain a career in animation when AI “takes over?”
  • It is a cause for concern, but standard applications like Adobe have fought obsolescence
  • Even with the advent of AR workflows in 3D modeling and animation, most user interfaces are largely familiar, with slow transformation
  • Automation relies on active user participation
  • Despite AI-generated or augmented art, creative professionals remain in charge of prompts

AI in animation

The creator's role: Embracing change

How do I adapt to the altered marketplace?
  • Continual learning and skill enhancement are vital to stay relevant
  • Keep in mind your creative and professional goals
  • Never forget the basics: Composition, balance, storytelling, anatomy (if applicable), perspective
  • Study and learn from industry experts, colleagues, and mentors by subscribing, following, or buying their content
  • Build your network by attending conventions, joining communities

Embracing change

A changing landscape: The artist persists

With AI becoming all the rage, will there even be a need for artists in the future?
  • AI is a new tool, much like past industry advancements such as digital ink and paint in the late ‘90s were improvements on hand-painted cel animation and compositing software such as After Effects, which, in turn, had replaced the bulky animation camera
  • Myth: The entire animation in the opening sequence of Marvel's "Secret Invasion" was created using AI
  • Fact: The characters were hand-drawn and designed by Marvel comics/animation artists

The artist persists
animation journey
An old-school animation camera on display in the school hallway

Navigating the animation journey

While AI is undebatably a game-changing tool, it works best when applied to upscaling animation rather than replacing it. It represents a remarkable leap in creative technology, but it still takes a creative professional to craft the creative piece. To stay ahead in this ever-evolving world of animation, remember the basics and keep those software updates coming, just like you do with your smartphone.

Stay creative, stay curious, and stay in the driver's seat of your animation adventure!