Once all the assets are built and rigged up for animation, the animators take them and bring them to life!
VFX Animation History
There are a lot of different kinds of animation types used for visual effects, and each one has a different kind of feel. But the one thing that they have in common, in that they are usually done in post-production – or after most of the live action parts of the film were already shot.
In the early days of film, this would usually be something like stop-motion animation. Examples of this would be the very first King Kong film, or the work of Ray Harryhausen, who was responsible for the (at the time) jaw-dropping visual effects in Jason and the Argonauts, and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad among other epic movies of the 1950s and 60s. Sometimes you’ll still see this method used as a visual effect, for example in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic, but these days it’s limited to movies and shows that want to have a stylized effect.
Another method is of course hand-drawn animation, which was usually seen in kids shows like Disney’s first Mary Poppins or Warner Brothers’ The Incredible Mr. Limpett. Though the technique was used in movies geared more towards adults, too, like Disney’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit or Cool World, featuring Brad Pitt.
Back before computers, both of these methods were tough to do. The live action portions needed to be filmed and timed in such a way that the animators could keep the action realistic – but ultimately they’d have to animate and shoot the animation completely separately from the live action film. Both of these would be matted and composited on a fancy machine called an Optical Printer, which would essentially combine all the different film layers together into a single print. And this could get really complicated… According to an [article on Cartoon Brew](https://www.cartoonbrew.com/feature-film/who-framed-roger-rabbit-hits-30-a-look-back-at-ilms-astonishing-old-school-optical-vfx-158471.html) (which I’ll link to in the description), some shots in Who Framed Roger Rabbit could involve as many as thirty layers of film!
Today, most VFX animation is done on computers using an animation program.
CG Animation Workflow
The methods of CG animation in a 3D space which are used to create the complex, hyper-realistic VFX that you see today, follow a pretty standardized workflow method which helps to work out timing and find problems to be fixed along the way without losing too much time.
First, there’s *Layout* – this is where the animator places all the assets in the scene, and sets up the camera. In this phase it’s unusual to have a lot of actual animation, but generally speaking they’ll block out the key poses and positions in a logical timing.
Next is *Primary* animation, where the first pass of important action animation is done. They’ll use their knowledge of movement, weight, and physics to fill in the gaps between each keyframe that the layout provided, and adjust where necessary. At this phase, they’re not necessarily worried about details, but only what’s important to the action in the shot to tell the story and sell the performance.
Then there’s *Secondary* animation, where the animators will focus in on details like lip sync, extra jiggles on a loose piece of skin or clothing, or any extra things that will help sell the overall realism. In many cases, this is the final pass so any extra finesse that can be added will be.
This process can take weeks or months per shot depending on the complexity of the shot, and on big productions it’s not uncommon for a shot to have multiple animators working on different phases or different aspects.
Post FX Animation
Post FX animation is usually a whole different department, because the process of creating digital FX like smoke, dust, debris, fire, water, and destruction is a little bit different than animating a character. These artists will not only create the assets but run simulations and strategically place those assets so that they are realistic as possible. This means that they have to do quite a bit of research and understand the physics of any property that they’re trying to replicate.
Creating these kinds of effects is also very technical in nature, and requires a deep understanding of graphics cards, computer capabilities, and rendering – because there’s a lot of rendering that needs to get done to make an effect happen. And if the camera angle changes even by a few degrees, in many cases it means that the FX artist has to start over!