How to Make Animated Cartoons on the Computer

Almost anyone who grew up watching cartoons has wanted to make a cartoon themselves at some point. In the modern age, people growing up around computers and other digital devices tend to retain their childlike creative urges even later in life. This is because with the aid of digital equipment like computers, people of any age have all the creative power they could ever want, at their fingertips.

Digital equipment changed the game for animation. Let’s look for a moment at how animation used to have to be done. A sketch artist would make a storyboard, made up of “key frames”. These frames showed each significant different angle or major pose of characters and objects in the cartoon. Then entire teams of talented artists would sketch all of the frames between the key frames. Then, another team would take each of these sketches, and paint a colored cell based off of it. Following this, a team of photo-implementers would use special equipment to place the cells over backdrops, one at a time, and photograph the result, to put on film.

At 24 frames per second, a theatrical short cartoon, the original format for cartoons, took thousands of frames done one at a time in this process. It was time consuming and very expensive!

Computers have changed this, with software to scan sketches, ink and paint frames, and assemble them directly into a timeline of animation. Mistakes can be corrected without having to redraw a frame, and any errors in positioning don’t have to waste film.

All this rigmarole is all well and good, but let’s take a look at how to make cartoon animations on the computer. There are many choices for how to accomplish this. This time, we’re going to use a vector animation program called Adobe Illustrator, and Adobe Premiere to assemble the animations. This is an alternative to a similar process accomplished by Flash, but tends to be better if your cartoon’s not meant to be an interactive flash applet.

First, storyboard your key frames, just like the old pros. And then, use a notebook to sketch out the frames between each key frame, from the bottom up. This will take a while, so be patient and precise. Once you have your full frames of animation sketched, it’s time to scan them. Be sure to scan them all at the same DPI and color settings! It’s smart to use a naming scheme so you can sort them in the order you need.

Now, open Adobe Illustrator. The following steps should be done repeatedly for each of your frames. This is an alternative to a Photoshop painting and inking technique, and is quite a bit faster, due to not having to treat the image’s pixels to get them off of the paper.

Go to file, and create a blank document. Drag the frame you’re ready to paint and color onto the document surface. Click on the layers button to the left, and create a new layer above it. Lock the image layer. Now, go over to the pen tool, and select it. To make a line, click on where you want the line to start, and then click where you wish it to end. A bisecting line will appear across the end, which dragging on will bend and shape the curved line. Let go for the line to stick. Click on the middle of the bisecting line, before continuing the lines from there, to prevent the tool from becoming unruly. This is the task that most people don’t know to do, which results in so many people believing pen tools in art programs are impossible.

Use the paint fill tool to color the regions as you see fit. Delete the image layer, and go to File, and select Export, to save the cell as a transparent PNG. Save your inked and painted cells in another directory, being sure to preserve the naming theme.

Once your animation frames exist, close Illustrator. Now, load Adobe Premiere. Select New Project, and tell it to keep the standard 48khz frequency. Let’s keep it simple here! Now, this layout looks somewhat similar to flash, with a timeline consisting of various tracks. Under the project tab, drag your painted frames into the area. It will import them for you. Now, drag them into the video track in the order you like.

You can make a frame that focuses on the screen longer by dragging the sliders of the width of a frame from side to side. It’s the slider that surrounds each frame, not the one that moves the preview around. Just play around with the sliders until you’re used to each one. It’s easy to get the hang of.

You can add backgrounds underneath them, by putting tracks beneath your animation frames, and put audio above it in another track by importing recordings, too. It’s really easy, isn’t it?

Once you have this all set up the way you like, just go to File, select Export, and name the video whatever you want. Just leave the settings be for now, unless it’s meant to play on a television. If it’s for TV, then consider where your audience is. If they’re anywhere besides the USA, then choose PAL for the video settings. If they’re in the USA, choose NTSC. These are color coding settings, which vary by region. It’s easy to remember this way: In America, it’s Never The Same Color, or NTSC.

This method, like any traditional frame-by-frame animation technique, this requires some time and patience. It’s hard work, but it pays off in how fluid and classic the animation looks. If time is of the essence, and you don’t have the patience for it, then a more streamlined method like inverse kinematics (skeletal) animation may be more up your alley. But, inverse kinematics just can’t accomplish that fluid animation like this technique.