Layout and Composition for Animation [NOOK Book]


This essential, hands-on guide is filled with examples of what a composition should look like and example of poorly designed layouts. Spot potential problems before they cost time and money, and adapt creative solutions for your own projects with this invaluable resource for beginner and intermediate artists.  With Beauty and the Beast examples and Simpson character layouts, readers will learn how to develop character layout and background layout as well as strengthen composition  styles ...

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Layout and Composition for Animation

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This essential, hands-on guide is filled with examples of what a composition should look like and example of poorly designed layouts. Spot potential problems before they cost time and money, and adapt creative solutions for your own projects with this invaluable resource for beginner and intermediate artists.  With Beauty and the Beast examples and Simpson character layouts, readers will learn how to develop character layout and background layout as well as strengthen composition  styles with a creative toolset of trick shot examples and inspirational case studies. A companion website will include further technique based tools, finalized layout and composition examples and tutorials for further artistic skill development.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Ed Ghertner is a highly regarded master craftsman in the animation industry. This book is packed with ideas that cover the art of visual story telling. It would be a helpful tool for any animator, layout artist or filmmaker. Mark Kirkland — Three-time Emmy Award-winning Director of The Simpsons
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781136129896
  • Publisher: Taylor & Francis
  • Publication date: 11/12/2012
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 216
  • File size: 25 MB
  • Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

Meet the Author

Ed is a renowned Layout Artist and Character Layout Artist who has spent over thirty years in film and animation. He has worked at Disney Studios and Disney TV. He has worked on some of the great Disney classics including "The Fox and the Hound", "Beauty and the Beast", "The Lion King", and the "Huntchback of Notre Dame" and "Mulan." In addition to working with Disney, Ed has worked on the "Curious George" and The Simpsons. Ed is an active member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Academy of television Arts and Sciences, Creative Talent Network.

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Read an Excerpt

Layout and Composition for Animation

By Ed Ghertner

Focal Press

Copyright © 2010 ELSEVIER INC.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-240-81442-1

Chapter One

Story Tools

This chapter gives you some insights about how to manage the thought process behind supporting a story artistically. It discusses how to break down a script into its major action or plot points and then pair those with technical and the storytelling needs in your artwork and show why it's important to research, research, research!

Scene Sequence

A scene is made up of visuals that tell a specific piece of a story. It is an element, which along with other scenes in an orderly progression become a sequence. Multiple sequences make up the entire picture or show.

In example 1, the script would read, "Bill walks across the street away from camera, stops by a car, reaches into his pocket and suddenly remembers that he left his keys in the restaurant." The following examples show a series of storyboard panels that represent one scene.

Alternatively, the scene could be done with cuts inserted (example 2), which would change the final pace of the final product by making multiple scenes. In animation, these multiple scenes form a sequence, and a series of sequences strung together form a movie.

Script Breakdown

First, read the script! Read the whole thing, not just the scene at hand. While this might seem an obvious step, you'd be surprised how often this is not done. It's important to have a comprehensive view of the entire story so your work remains consistent throughout.

After you've read the script, break it down. Storyboard artists will do this for story and action, but layout will not necessarily follow that breakdown exactly. As a practical matter, if you're working as a freelancer, you'll certainly want to answer these questions about the artwork so you can provide an accurate quote. If you're on staff, you'll need to know this so you can estimate the amount of time art production will take. You'll want to take a view of the entire story so your work remains consistent throughout. I draw quick thumbnails in the margins of the script so I have a rough count of how many and how challenging each layout might be.

Script Breakdown

should include:

Scene Number

Helps you keep track of where in the script a particular layout will be located.

Scene Description

What happens and what is the point of the scene? How can your artwork best push forward the beats in the scene?

What character is the lead in the scene?

Placement of the lead character in the composition will either strengthen or weaken the story being told.

Time of Day

Values can affect how busy a scene or composition is. It can also create large clear spaces for characters to work within or against.

Day: Shadows important?

Night: Lighting important?


Path of action for character

A path of action or clearing for the characters or objects to move will define where and how much detail is put into each background. A path of action can be implemented in a still shot by leaving some "air" around the character. If the field is too tight the character seems trapped and unable to move. Trapping a character this way might send the wrong message about the scene.

Camera move (subjective or objective?)

Ninety-percent of the time camera only moves because a lead character moves off-screen. Because of this, camera should never lead the action unless called for.

For instance, handheld camera moves work as an effect, not a constant! If your character is woozy or confused, you might use this effect, but you wouldn't want to abuse the technique. Use it only to tell a significant part of the story. Otherwise, it just distracts from the overall action and (to me) becomes an annoying point of view. The camera should never lead the action. Leave that to the characters and their emotional connection to the audience. There are exceptions to this rule and usually occur as establishing shots or when a director wants to show a local. Another instance would be when the camera moves off the characters and up to the sky as a scene cut or dissolve device.

Point of View (POV)

Submissive: Down shot

Anger: Upshot with slight rotation (dutch angle)

Leader: Upshot

Lost/Hiding: Character small in field or fearful large in foreground and crowded to one side or the other.

Psychotic: Tilted or dutch angles


All have an effect on the visual look, and the physics and physical actions of the characters.

• Rainy

• Cloudy

• Sunny

• Underwater

• Outer Space

• Smoky

• Foggy

• Dusty


Happy: Long shots with lots of air (space) around the characters

Sad: Downshot with space above characters

Bored: Static, symmetrical

Excited/Chase: Chaotic, usually strong camera moves

Claustrophobic: Tight shots, closeup

Color and Technique Required

Could be ...

• Monochromatic/Noir

• Graphic/Flat/Paint by numbers

• Realistic/Fully rendered

• Airbrush/Soft-mixed/Blended

• Backlight, high-contrast color



• How long is the scene?

• Is the action: Fast, slow, sporadic?

• Do you have to match speed or position of a previous scene?

Size of Layout

Sometimes you'll know right away what size to use, but sometimes, if a scene is complex (for instance it contains a long travel shot) you'll need to create layouts that will encompass a lot of action at once.

Object Specifics


• What set pieces are relevant and necessary to the action described in the script?

• Which are layout objects?

• Which are held objects to be drawn by animators rather than by a layout artist?


The workbook process is part of how layout artists support the cinematic portion of the animation process. While an expert storyboard artist usually knows perspective and camera, not every storyboard artist does, and often they tend to concentrate mostly on acting in the scene. When this is true, the Layout Artist can be asked to create a workbook based on the storyboard. A workbook consists of compose shots and usually shows camera moves and positions so each scene can be properly envisioned by animators and layout artists alike.

A workbook solidifies all the latest information (animation direction, character design, layout) into one drawing. The Art Director is then able to use the workbook and design the lighting direction and rough out color comps in a thumbnail process. Workbook is used in both computer graphics and traditional animation.

In many of the workbooks I've created I'll place the design in the workbook so there is no confusion about what the sets look like. The layout artist will read the script and make notes as to the character of the set to be designed. The creative story telling will be done here. Will the house be a haunted Victorian? A ranch style? A brownstone?

One of the best things about being a layout artist is the opportunity to add to the story with your work. Always feel free to draw examples of your ideas and show them to your co-artists, animators, directors, and supervisors. It's always appreciated and you'd be amazed how many good ideas get added into a picture by doing this.

I'm All Thumbs

Some artists get lost in detail without a strong shape to hang the details on. The most important guideline in Layout is to always start with a thumbnail or small quick sketch mainly focusing on shapes and not detail. This allows the layout artist to see the story as a whole first and will help with overall continuity as work on the picture progresses. If an artist becomes too invested in particular details of design at the very first, it becomes difficult to make the changes that will inevitably be required. It's better to remain fluid and not get bogged down.

Make a list, check it twice ...

To avoid getting lost in detail, a suggestion I give when I'm lecturing is to create a list of style examples or words that will trigger your attention to look twice or more at the foundation of your design. Pin the checklist up near your workspace so you can see it. In my experience there are times when I'll be working away and will suddenly feel my creative flow fading. When that happens, I'll check my list to see if I just need a break, or if I've designed myself away from the original concepts included in the list and am just kind of lost.

The checklist should be of your own making to make you feel comfortable with critiquing your own work, rather than a list that has come from a higher authority. Nobody likes to be critiqued but that is part of the process. Instead of turning in an incorrect piece of artwork, or one that just might have a few mistakes, make a list. Use a few seconds in every hour of drawing time to check it so you can feel confident that you did your best to meet the design criteria for the scene. This really does cut down on the number of times a director or art director rejects your work and will help win you a reputation for being consistent.

Detailing/Drawing Through

Once the initial thumbnails are done and you begin designing, it's important, again, to not get bogged down in detail without strong shapes supporting everything beneath.

When designing a layout, think of shapes and volume just as an animator would. For instance, when roughing a tree, draw through the shape; show the direction of the turn of the tree with your line work. Show the curvature of the earth.

It works the same as drawing a character. First, the basic shape is drawn, and then clothing and hair are added. It would just be weird to start with hair and clothing first, right? It would be nearly impossible to draw the character on model that way. The same principles exist in layout. Draw the basic shapes and then add foliage, buildings, roads, etc.


Sometimes, layout artists work with other artists and directors in development.

Or, perhaps you'll create your own project or work as a production designer or art director. In these cases, you'll need to participate in the creation of the story, including ideas about story, style, and where the production will be completed.


A case study ...

The Lake

Let's suppose that all that is known is that a story involves two children at a lake. No one has imagined the specific location of the lake, only just that it needs to be a lake.

In a case like this, like cinematographers for live action productions, layout artists research locations so they have various examples on hand for consideration.

This kind of research can be very helpful to a story that hasn't quite gelled yet. It can spur new ideas from other team members and move the development of a project forward because the story and characters, at their roots, are all based in where the story takes place.

It's a very satisfying way to use one's layout skills.

Maybe the lake is a mid-western lake with birch trees lining the shore and cattails in the water near the shore. It could have a little pier and houses peeking out from behind the trees, or;

it could be a swampy lake surrounded by moss-covered cypress trees. Some trees might be fallen down and maybe we see a small, broken-down cabin near the shore, or;

perhaps it is a glacial lake high in the snow covered mountains with very little foliage surrounding it and only a tiny little rock island in the middle where one scraggly tree and a bit of grass are holding on for dear life in the cold.



and art direction has generally already been determined before a layout artist is assigned to a production. When this is the case there are fewer conceptual thought processes to participate in. Generally you'll fit your artwork to other's concepts.

Nevertheless, you will need to research locations and understand things specific to those kinds of places so you can accurately portray the world on film. Back-story and details help the audience accept your caricature of a world, even if the world you're creating is a fantasy.

Research is a breeze these days with access to so much media: books, pictures, movies, and especially information from the Internet.

There's no excuse for not doing research!

ATLANTIS: Whitmore's Study with Aquarium Window

This rough was an idea to describe a study of a very rich man whose window to the world looks out into the Atlantic Ocean.

The research photos shown at top right are all reflected in this very detailed layout.

ATLANTIS: Whitmore's Study with Aquarium Window

These roughs represent that Mr. Whitmore's study was at the pinnacle of his mansion and had a birdcage elevator as the entrance to his study.

Photos like the ones shown at top right can serve as models for different architectural elements and objects in the room.

These designs show the whole study from two angles. When one looks at the drawings, information about the entire environment can be viewed.

THE LION KING : Sequence Mapping & Hyena's HIdeout

The drawing here is an example of how to map a sequence for action. The storyboards didn't give enough information about the general area, so I used information about Tanzania's famous Olduvai Gorge to help create the workbook for the scene.

In the reference photo shown at the top, whalebones poking up from the sand inspire a concept for the hyena's hideout at the elephant's graveyard.

THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTREDAME : Clean-up Layout & Nightime Rendering

This clean-up layout of a street in Paris shows many details; however, it could be any time of day. The reference photos shown at the right exhibit the architectural and textural details needed to create an authentic layout of 1800s Paris.

The rendering here shows that it is night time. Notice the two twilight shots in the reference material above. The difference between night and day in the reference shots is that the sky is a lighter value than at the tops of the buildings which silhouettes them. As values are applied to the rendering vertically, details become more accentuated toward the bottom. Daylight is the opposite of this. Stronger silhouettes appear at the bottom of the building rather than at the top.

Chapter Two


• Models

• Horizons & Vanishing Points

• Multiple Horizons & Vanishing Points

• Values & Vanishing Points

• Tricks

This chapter ... covers the first steps in the drawing process.

Horizons and vanishing points are the basics of all drawings. Knowing how to put things in proper perspective can keep a drawing from looking off-balance and out of skew.

Characters must move, emote, and be dynamic to appear authentic to an audience. However, this illusion of authenticity can be lessened if the world these characters live in does not seem equally dynamic and if the characters do not seem properly anchored within it.

This chapter also discusses how to use multiple horizons and vanishing points to create a more dynamic composition and a more interesting story.


After finding the horizons and vanishing points in a composition, one can place characters and objects into the drawing in a way that "seats" them properly in that space.

Placement of objects within the composition can affect scale. The common approach is to place the characters in the composition so that they match a realistic size to the other objects within, but you might like to caricature the scale of the characters larger or smaller to give a cartoon or comic feel.

Three-dimensional models can help an artist to better understand the shapes of things since this model can be seen from all angles. Similarly, character artists are provided with character sculptures, or "maquettes".

Computer animation allows for simple models of background and objects to be built in virtual space, and artists can now use these as a guide for perspective shots.

Traditional Layout Models

Here are photographs of three-dimensional layout models for some of the 2-D projects I've worked on.


Excerpted from Layout and Composition for Animation by Ed Ghertner Copyright © 2010 by ELSEVIER INC. . Excerpted by permission of Focal Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents



It's All About Storytelling: Pre-Drawing

Choosing the Correct Tools to tell the story: Viewing Process, Mood, Color, Timing, Movement/Action, Time of Day, Atmosphere.

Putting it down on Paper: Horizon and Vanishing Points, Character Placement, Placement of Objects in Space

Extreme Perspective Solutions: Multiple Horizons, Multiple Vanishing Points

Placement of Characters in a Composition: Path of Action, Placement of Characters in a Composition, Composing a Scene.

Camera: Camera Moves, Bi-Back, Multi-plane, Multi-level

Changing Perspective in a Scene: Curved Pans, Perspective Tricks

Lighting: Shadows, Reflections

Digital Layout and Composition: 2D and 3D

Frequently Used Terms and Definitions

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