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An Expert’s View: Different approaches to layout design: Which is the right choice for you?

Throughout the years, DeeDee Animation Studio has had the opportunities to work with many partners from various countries around the world, including the USA, Japan, Thailand, India, and so on. On those occasions, layout design has been the source of some misunderstandings between DeeDee and our partners.

Studios from different countries seem to have different understandings when it comes to designing layouts, with totally different standards & processes. This has led to some miscommunication and errors during the cross-border cooperation. For this reason, we discussed with some international colleagues and friends on social media about their takes on this issue and finally reached a clear and satisfactory answer.

Introduction to layout design

First, we will start the definition of layout from former Disney and Warner Bros’ artists:

Layout is a background design drawing in an animated movie. It’s supposed to be simply done with line arts, grayscale, or sometimes colors, accompanied by a few character drawings that roughly show movements, positions, proportions, and compositions of the characters in a scene, as well as indications of the camera movements.

Different approaches to layout design - Introduction to layout design

From the DeeDee experts' perspective and experience, a layout design needs to have all the details of the background design. It is especially important to identify the perspective, the props in the scene, and the camera/frame positions throughout the scene.

The background art has to be drawn way outside the field that the camera frame can capture to allow for cropping and adjustments. With the character drawings, what matters the most is the character’s positions at the beginning and the end of the scene, as well as the proportion of the character compared to the background objects. Layout drawings do not require a detailed or precise character drawing. Sometimes, this could just be a sketch, without clean lines or shading.

Sometimes, the character drawing in layout design is just as simple as placing a character design in the scene, or the character drawings from the storyboard (if the drawing is clear enough).

Different approaches to layout design - Introduction to layout design
Different approaches to layout design - Introduction to layout design
Different approaches to layout design - Introduction to layout design

Two different approaches to layout design

However, from DeeDee's experience, we have collaborated with partners who would provide layouts with detailed and precise character drawings, with full shadings included. In some cases, all the key frames in the scene are included, thus essentially skipping the key framing phase of the animation process altogether.

Layouts like this can often be confusing because normally, the animators will redraw the character drawings later. The difference between these drawings and the ones in the layout will depend on the animators' creativity & the director’s changes in each case. Thus, a layout with such detailed character drawings seems to be an unnecessary waste of time & money because they are going to be redrawn for better acting.

It also seems to be quite a heavy requirement for the layout artists to deal with both the background & character drawings. That is like a layout artist doing 50% of the film, taking away the animator’s job, limiting and depriving them of their creative rights.

Different approaches to layout design - Two different approaches to layout design
Different approaches to layout design - Two different approaches to layout design

In our discussions and surveys with experts in the international animation industry, we have discovered that there is indeed a difference of understanding when it comes to layout design for 2D animation. It is the difference between a traditional, indie production house, with in-house artists and a larger studio that often outsources artists or other to do some of the menial work. It is also the difference in mindset between the East and the West.

We can categorize 2 types of layouts for 2D animation: ones that include detailed character drawings and limit the animator's creativity, and ones that only have simple character drawings to allow for acting freedom from the animators.

Different approaches to layout design - Two different approaches to layout design
Different approaches to layout design - Two different approaches to layout design

The first approach is often used by Japanese anime studios or television animation studios in the US and the West. They often have to send their animation to other countries to outsource the menial processes. According to the artists in Japan and the US, detailed key frames & character drawings that are on model with shadings are a part of the studios’ quality control method when outsourcing.

Besides, this method also helps shorten the working time of foreign animators, because it minimizes errors that can occur in the testing and constant revisions In that way, the animator's work now only includes in-between & ink and paint, which usually don’t require high level drawing skills or creativity(in the TV series).

Different approaches to layout design - Two different approaches to layout design
Different approaches to layout design - Two different approaches to layout design

The second approach, which seems to be more "sloppy", is the method that Disney preferred with their films. It is the standard method that is taught to animators in the US. This method separates the work of the background artists and animators. The character drawings in the layout only provide some directions in terms of positions and proportions.

In this case, drawing the key frames on model, with shadings, and enough poses to perform the acting is the animator's duty & based on the directions of the director and the storyboard. In addition, if the animation is carried out with cut-out techniques and 2D rigs in software like Moho, Toonboom, the layout does not need to include too detailed character drawings

Different approaches to layout design - Two different approaches to layout design
Different approaches to layout design - Two different approaches to layout design
Different approaches to layout design - Two different approaches to layout design

Conclusion

Overall, with each 2D animated project, the layout processing will be different, depending on the case's requirements and each studio’s mindset. If a studio does a series with a smaller budget, a dense work schedule, urgent requirements, and regular outsource demands, then controlling the quality from the very first stages with the first approach is the optimal choice. If you are an independent studio with in-house animators and want to allow animators to be creative, experiment, and develop, you go for the second approach.

You can find out more about layout design and the two approaches to drawing layout in DeeDee Animation Studio's upcoming webinar: Layout design in animation: Different approaches