Once More, With Less Pixelation!

What does the director of an animated movie do?


The new Pixar movie Up, about an old man who ties his house to a bunch of helium balloons, hit theaters Friday. Its director, Pete Docter, also directed the animated film Monster’s Inc. What does the director of an animated movie do, exactly?

Everything. Just like a live-action director, an animation director oversees the film’s broad vision—its style, its tone, its color palette—and tinkers with every aspect of the production process. The main difference is that animation directors have much more control. For example, although live-action directors coach actors, they don’t usually get involved in the minutiae—when you say this, look here and do this with your hand and do this with your foot. In animated films, micromanaging is the director’s job. As a result, animated features are arguably more the product of a single vision than their live-action counterparts.

The first step of an animated movie is the screenplay. Some production studios require a script before production begins. Others, like Pixar, come up with a concept first, then let the plot and characters evolve alongside the visuals. Either way, artists present the director with rough sketches of the characters, settings, and major set pieces. In computer animated films, they’ll translate these 2D images into 3D renderings early on, but these models can be manipulated and tweaked endlessly. Then, with the director’s guidance, artists will map out the storyboard, drawing a detailed picture—often more than one—for every shot in the film.

The director also has a hand in casting and recording the characters’ voices. Normally, actors record dialogue before the real animating begins—that way, animators know when and how to move the characters’ mouths. This means that the context of the scene isn’t always obvious—and it’s the director’s job to fill in the details. For example, a director might have to remind an actor that the character is cold or hungry. (Some directors, like Hayao Miyazaki, have actors dub their dialogue over the finished animation.)

Once the dialogue is recorded, the soundtrack is cut together with the entire storyboard to produce what’s called an “animatic”—a sort of audio slide show of the entire movie. (Animators used to do this manually using an analog “leica reel.” Now it’s done digitally.) The director will then assign different characters to different animators, according to their skill sets. Some are better at drawing realistic characters, others at big-eyed, cartoony characters like Betty Boop. Some specialize in faces and emotion, while others excel at movements and slapstick gestures. The director also chooses background animators—the digital equivalent of set designers.

Directors usually work with animators the way live-action directors work with actors. First they sit down with the storyboards and describe exactly what they want, down to the smallest gesticulation. Sometimes they’ll even act it out. The animator then takes a first crack at animating the segment frame by frame and shows the result to the director, who makes tweaks. The clip goes back and forth until it’s finalized—a process that can take months, depending on how elaborate the content is. (Sometimes “animation directors”—not to be confused with the director—will oversee individual scenes and serve as middlemen between the animators and the director.) Directors bring their own personal style to this process. Chuck Jones, the Looney Tunes director, was famous for being hands-on, drawing hundreds of frames himself for a single six-minute short. Others let the animators run with their own ideas. As each scene is completed, it gets slotted into the animatic slide show. This way, the director can see the film coming together scene by scene.

Once the visuals are near-final, the film is “locked”— meaning major changes are no longer permitted. At that point, the director brings in a composer and a sound-effects designer to record music and background noises, like doorbells and car horns. The sound mixer then overlays these elements onto the prerecorded dialogue. Again, the director’s job is to preserve the overall vision—to make sure every element fits together.

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Explainer thanks John Canemaker of the Tisch School of the Arts, J.J. Sedelmaier, and Chuck Sheetz of the University of California Los Angeles. * Explainer also thanks reader Diane Lauderdale for asking the question.

Correction, June 2, 2009: This article originally misidentified the university that Chuck Sheetz is affiliated with. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)