Theory: CGI Animators Should Think Like ARTISTS

W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village

You probably have never heard of William Lee Hankey, but he was a pioneer in the field of illustrated books at the turn of the century. Hankey was one of the first illustrators to paint to suit the newly invented four color offset printing process. He would paint loose and wet, and would press fabrics into the washes to create textures. This book, "The Deserted Village" was one of the first big successes using these techniques. It led to a boom in illustrated books during the teens and twenties, which we have documented in our posts on Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac and Gustaf Tenggren. (See the link to the Illustration Exhibit at the bottom of this post for examples of their work.) Hankey was an expert in printing technology. But that wasn’t all. He was first and foremost, an artist.

As I was scanning this book, something came up that I need to address. I hope you’ll bear with me as I take a little time out to rattle your cage and remind you of something very important.


W. Lee Hankey Deserted VillageW. Lee Hankey Deserted VillageThe other day, I happened across a thread in an internet forum for CGI animators. The thread was titled, "Why aren’t animators artists?" The title made me do a double take. I was surprised to find people debating a question that to me seems patently ridiculous. I take it for granted that people realize that animation is an artform with close ties to the traditional arts of drawing, painting and sculpture. It’s always a shock to find that there are people working in the field who don’t see the link.

I started to wonder whether the readers of this blog understand the intent behind the material that we post here. We’re not just presenting "pretty pictures" to inspire in some sort of vague manner. We intend for this material to be used and applied to everyday work. We don’t get a lot of feedback from this website. Other animation blogs get hundreds of comments on each post, but we rarely get any comments at all. I don’t know why that is. But I certainly hope it isn’t because people are taking a passive attitude to the resources all of us at Animation Resources are working so hard to provide.

Normally, I let the artwork create its own context, but today, I specifically want to address CGI animators to remind them that this site is NOT strictly for 2D animators. CGI animators can learn as much from this stuff as the guys with the pencils. I’m going to pick a few examples and show you what I mean. It’s time to start thinking like an artist!


W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village

In 1909, this book was a technological marvel. It used brand new printing processes to bring color and life to the text blocks that had dominated book design for centuries. It can show us how to do the same today using modern storytelling technology if we look closely. For instance…


Too often, artists and animators mistake detail for quality. Rendering out every leaf on every tree, every pore on every inch of skin, every single blade of grass or shock of fur may be an entertaining exercise for retentive types, but all that detail is nothing more than gilding the lilly- distracting from the main point of the design.

Notice how Hankey focuses your attention on the important parts of the composition by rendering those out, while leaving unimportant background information very loose. The choice of colors clearly defines light and shadow, and the carefully balanced values hold the background together as a frame for the subject of the image. Click on these to see them larger and you’ll be surprised to see just how loose the rendering is on the girl’s dress and the background foliage.

W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village


Too many CGI features are set in environments that are completely out of scale to the characters. Rooms are the size of convention halls and gardens are as big as football fields. Everything is wide open, with very little variety to the depth or contrasting perspectives of the structures. Camera angles on wide shots are staged from 20 feet in the air, much higher than a real human perspective. This makes everything look like model railroad sets instead of like real environments.

The way to lay out a background is through skillful composition and a range of different sizes of forms. Look at how Hankey creates a zig-zag perspective on the first image, layers of contrasting shapes and textures on the second, and divides the last example to frame three separate simultaneous actions beautifully.

W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village


Check out these amazingly expressive tableaux by Hankey. Each one defines the personality and situation of each individual character in relation to all the other characters, while directing the eye cleverly through the image from one main focal point to the next. Notice how the characters are grouped to reflect their relationships to each other.

Just try to find a grouping like this in current animation! Characters are almost always staged obliquely, lined up like a chorus line or in perfect half circles in front of the camera- sitcom style. If you search through the films of great directors like Chaplin, Hitchcock or Welles, you’ll never find flat setups. The dynamics of group relationships are never revealed in what the characters say- it’s always in how they are arranged visually.

W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village


John Kricfalusi recently discussed how important unique color harmonies are to animation in his blog, All Kinds Of Stuff. He makes the point that colors "straight out of the tube"- lime green, purple, orange, etc.- are not nearly effective as hues with non-mathematical mixes of colors… colors that don’t have names.

For instance, what color would you call the street in this first example? Pure colors are best used in small areas to create interest and direct the eye, like with the sea green door on the house in the second one. Sometimes the best color harmonies involve muted colors to create a mood, as in the third example here. The colors tell you exactly what is going on in the scene. In fact, each of the three characters is surrounded by an unique set of colors that reflects his or her attitude.

W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village


Life doesn’t always happen at high noon on a Summer day. Neither should the action of an animated film. Disney knew this. Check out "Lady and the Tramp". The dramatic scenes with the rat approaching the baby’s crib are heightened by the deep shadows of night. The "Bella Note" sequence depicts an entirely different kind of night. The climactic action at the end takes place on a stormy night. Think about how the changing light of the times of day can add impact to your scenes, just like the light depicted in these illustrations by Hankey.

W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village


The most obvious power of animation to entertain is its ability to caricature life, yet amazingly, observation is exactly what is lacking in character design in current CGI movies. Every day, a million great personalities are all around you who have never been seen in animation- just go to your local coffee shop or shopping mall with your sketchbook. You won’t be able to get all the great characters down on paper fast enough.

So why do we get the same old stereotypical cool dude, smartass sidekick, long-suffering parents, goofy fat kid, and "independent minded pretty girl who doesn’t know how pretty she really is" in every doggone movie? I keep hearing people say that story is the most important thing in animation. Well, that’s a lie. Personality is at the core of all great animation. Don’t plug and play with iconic characters and architypes. OPEN YOUR EYES AND OBSERVE! SHOW THE AUDIENCE SOMETHING REAL!

W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village


This is CGI animation’s cardinal sin. Gestures and body positions NEVER reflect a character’s unique personality. Every character scrunches their mouth to one side and looks upwards when they think- they all lower their eyebrows and narrow their eyes the exact same way when they’re angry- they all throw their hip to one side and lean their head when they’re petulant…

This is "formula acting". If we were talking about the performance of a human actor instead of a grizzly bear or raccoon, it would be called "BAD acting". Formulas don’t tell you anything about the character, yet entire movies are performed by rote. Don’t believe me? Take any of the recent CGI movies, whether they involve animals invading backyards or escaping zoos, rodents in European restaurants, superhero terrapins or prehistoric sloths- and count the number of times the characters deliver dialogue with that meaningless, stock- hands out to the side, palms up, up and down movement on every accent- sort of gesture. What the heck does that gesture mean? It’s just water treading because the animator is too lazy to think of a gesture that actually expresses something.

Now look at the last image in this group- the one with the fella sitting next to the girl. Even his feet tell you what he’s thinking! Every pose in an animated film should be that expressive. There’s no excuse for stock poses or actions.

W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village

An animator isn’t just moving a complex polygon through space- an animator creates a performance from a succession of still poses. That’s the job of an artist and anyone doing that sort of work needs to THINK like an artist. As you browse through this the rest of the images in this post, if you just "look at the pretty pictures" without thinking about what makes them work, you might as well be off shopping or playing video games. This website is a tremendous resource, but it won’t help you if you expect it to work passively by osmosis.

Print the stuff in this blog out. Put it in binders. Analyze it. Categorize the concepts. Make notes. Talk about your ideas with your fellow artists. Apply these ideas to your work.

Here are a few more illustrations from this great book. Can you see the principles we discussed above in these images? What other ideas do they give you?

W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village

Stephen Worth
Animation Resources


This posting is part of a series of articles comprising an online exhibit entitled Theory.


This posting is part of a series of articles comprising an online exhibit spotlighting Illustration.

29 Responses to “Theory: CGI Animators Should Think Like ARTISTS”

  1. anthropochick says:

    Hmm, so I think the bit about posing and blocking is a point well-taken- but the rest of the piece makes me wonder if you’re familiar with the nuts & bolts of CGI animation.

    For one thing, the biggest difference between CGI & traditional animation is the division of labor. Especially in the large productions that you referred to.

    Character designers work with Modelers, who turn 2D to 3D and present what is basically a computer puppet to the Animators- who are responsible for moving the computer-modeled character around.

    If you look at the credits in a CGI film, you’ll see that there are specialists whose only job is to render props, control the ‘camera,’ manipulate the lighting, or add the detail (“gilding the lily” as you put it).

    Each bit is technically very complex- thus I can see why you’d come across a thread like you did. Perhaps the point was that CGI animators aren’t SEEN as artists, as they manipulate a model but are not the ones to design it.

    Perhaps it is the Art Directors that you really have a problem with? In any case, it would be lovely if every technical specialist was also a trained artist, but I’m not sure if this is always the case. Maybe it is- but they don’t get a chance to be acknowledged as such?

    Anyway- I have loads of respect for traditional animators. I just think there might be some apples to oranges comparisons going on.

    • Hand drawn animation, stop motion and clay animation all had huge technical hurdles to overcome at first. Many early examples were stiff, generic and lacked artistry because the people who made them were focused on the nuts and bolts of operating camera stands, building rotoscopes and working out the systems of registration. As time went by, the process was streamlined and optimized for the creative control of artists, and filmmakers like the Fleischer brothers, George Pal, Willis OBrien and Walt Disney were able to take the unwieldily production line with all its technical complexity and start making films that went far beyond the creative constraints of simply aping live action. They did all this between about 1925 and 1937 when Snow White was released.

      In order for CGI animation to reach the heights of Pinocchio and Fantasia, the technical issues need to be dealt with in a way that allows filmmakers and artists to control the way scenes are set up and staged, the way the colors and lighting are handled, the way the look of the film is designed, and the way the characters perform. Animation has the power to exaggerate and caricature reality. It can organize imagery into any sort of pleasing composition that an artist can conceive of. And it can tell stories purely visually through expressive pantomime acting. These are the things that make animation unique. CGI is no different. It has the potential to be a powerful creative medium. But it won’t become that until artists are given the power to use the technique effectively. An art director can’t do it all by himself. It takes creativity from everyone on the team and a director with vision and the ability to bring that vision to the screen.

    • Jason says:

      No matter if a robot does the work the fundamental principle still need to be observed.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kevin Cross, Stephen Worth. Stephen Worth said: THEORY: CGI Animators Should Think Like ARTISTS: You probably have never heard of William Lee Hankey, but he was… […]

  3. Noel says:

    Hey i totally love your blog ..i don’t comment much but keep it coming, your information is very helpful i loved the blog on Willy Pogany. Thank you for the efforts :)

  4. Nat says:

    Thank you :) The undergrad animation course Im currently undertaking needs a heavy dose of this sort of theory instead of place filling theory subjects that have little relevance to what we are trying to achieve through our artforms.

    • Any school you go to will only give you a fraction of the skills you need to be a professional animator. It’s up to the student to create his own program of self study to fill in the gaps. Better to realize that early instead of after graduation. It’s hard to work eight hours a day and study too. In school it’s a lot easier.

  5. Kirk says:

    I really enjoy this site, Stephen, and most full comment columns are filled with bally-hoo and frivolity more often than not. Perhaps your posts are thoughtful enough to give pause. I delight in your artist profiles and obscurities.

    As a painter, this work reminds me of Courbet’s pallette and his exquisite surfaces. Early Millet, perhaps, and Degas as he moved from his protegial Neo-Classical roots and began to discover Impressionism. Turn of the century illustrators recieved so much from mid-century French painting. Just beautiful.

    The criteria for animation is so iron-clad in the industry, the thinking so dogmatic, that often I believe animators are artisans oftentimes, than artists. But this is all empty semantics. What’s an artist? Thems that makes? CGI? — a fun way to make puppetoons move phenominally well. But whenever I see it, I feel as though I’m pushing in the rigid plastic face of a toy baby, and it’s staring at me vacantly.

    • Interestingly enough, Kirk, George Pal’s Puppetoons have all of the stylistic appeal, caricature, exaggerated deformation and rhythmic movement that CGI often lacks. And Pal did it with rigid puppets carved out of wood animated straight ahead with a much more limited palette of possible motions than a CGI rig. I don’t know why CGI looks to films like Sleeping Beauty and live action instead of looking to puppets. They can be amazingly expressive if designed and manipulated well.

  6. anthropochick says:

    Truth. Though I think they are getting there. I would have liked some examples of films or shorts that you thought were making strides in the right direction.

    Some studios are obviously better at it than others. It’s a lot like TV animated series- some are innovative, and some seem to be cranked out for a specific demographic.

    In the article, I noted the offhand comment about videogames – I’d personally be interested to hear your thoughts on how CGI work is faring in videogames versus in films.

    Perhaps a look at ‘Epic Mickey’ (Wii) or one of the ‘Kingdom Hearts’? I love that they are instilling interest & bringing attention back to traditional animation and its history.

    Cheers for the response!

    • The only CGI character that I can think of that is caricatured, observed and has a specific personality is Edna in The Incredibles. She walks, gestures, strikes poses and has facial expressions that convey a specific personality, not just an archetype or symbolic personality. It’s strange because animation used to be full of specific characters… Bugs Bunny, Captain Hook, Br’er Bear, etc. Now it’s all generic boy hero, generic dad, archetypal plucky princess, etc. I want to love CGI, but the mechanics of rendering fur, fire and water realistically overpower the “cartoon candy” and fantasy that an animated film should have. Why animate it if the goal is to make it look real?

      Not that hand drawn features are much better lately. They suffer from the same formulaic approach. I am building this archive in the hopes that it will inspire the next generation of animators to do better than anything in the past.

      I’m afraid I don’t know much about video games. I just dont have the time it takes to develop the hand/eye coordination, and you don’t get much of a feel for the graphics and gameplay if you lose right away. I’m also afraid I’m not a fan of retro cartoons. They always seem at best a pale imitation of old cartoons. At worst, they’re callous ripoffs of something that deserves respect, not exploitation. Mickey Mouse was relevant to audiences in 1936 and Bugs Bunny was perfectly attuned to 1946, but in 2011, we need our own cartoon characters, not our grandparent’s. I would rather see old techniques and new characters and stories rather than the other way around. The powerful artistic principles that went into making the golden age classics coupled with modern relevant stories and observed personalities would be a killer combination.

      It’s a lot easier to teach a student to use Flash and Maya than it is to teach them creative skills and how to think like an artist. Hopefully, the archive serves as a signpost to help students in a program of self study in that direction as a supplement to what they get in college.

      • Demetre says:

        We need artists with vision not more technicians.

      • Mark Borok says:

        I thought Mother Gothel in “Tangled” had a unique personality and way of acting. She really stood out from the other characters (although I don’t recall any of the characters in that film being painful to watch). It was more subtle than broad caricature, but I think we can focus too much on broad, cartoony acting and design.

  7. anthropochick says:

    I can understand that – videogames are a hobby that takes time! Not everyone is interested. [Confession: my research interests in grad school center on videogame studios and other digital artists.]

    I completely agree about not exploiting classic animation, or simply doing a terrible ripoff job. However that’s why I really think you would at least enjoy the concepts behind Epic Mickey.

    They took pains to dig into the Disney archive and bring back characters like Oswald the lucky rabbit. The special edition of the game also came with a DVD of several digitally-remastered Mickey shorts from the 1930s.

    Actually, your archive is the first thing I thought of when I cracked open the box! I’d wondered if the staff consulted or contributed somehow.

    If you have the time, here is a short (less than 4 minutes) behind-the-scenes video that gives a nice overview of Epic Mickey:

  8. Peter Bangs says:

    I was interested in the point that you get very little in the way of comments when sites like cartoon brew can have comments on articles that go into the hundreds. I can only speak for myself in this but as an artist, not an animator, virtually everything I read on this site requires deeper consideration and thought after reading so I often don’t return to an article to coment, I’m busy trying to put what I’ve found into practice in many cases. Many of the other sites I visit don’t offer the kind of depth I find here and so it’s easier to offer a comment on a post that only raises one or two points. Don’t feel discouraged by the lack of comments, draw comfort from the fact you often provide so much food for thought that people are to busy thinking and absorbing to comment.

  9. Kirk says:

    Oh, I agree with you about Pal’s Puppetoons. I don’t mean to say CGI does them one better. What they do in 3D is pretty phenomenal, but it is strange all the anthropoids in these films follow this kind of plush-toy design, down to the plastic-like surface, as if the sculptural and the cartoonish together have no other recourse than this type.

  10. vm says:

    yeah, but let’s not forget that 3D (if that is what you mostly have in mind when you say CGI) has major appeal problems. if you make something simple and un-detailed it will most probably look sterile and potentially just plain awful.

    with paintings and 2D in general, you can achieve appeal with just a few brushes.

    that being said, I would like to see more visual diversity coming out of 3D.

    oh, last thing, let’s not forget 3D is also, still, really technical and forces people to think more like engineers rather than artists. this is another major drawback of 3D as an art medium. so hat’s off to the very few people who managed to pull this off and create simple, appealing 3D. (according to some, there isn’t even such a thing as “appealing 3D” though.. :P )

    • I don’t think CGI is intrinsically any more technical and less artistic than any other media. George Pal was able to infuse 3D with spontaneous life And loads of appeal back in the 1930s, and puppet animation involves incredible technical challenges. The reason CGI isn’t as expressive yet is entirely because of the attitude taken in the making of the films. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent on water droplets, ocean waves, rippling fur, flickering flames and flying cameras while character acting is reduced to a few stock poses and one stock walk cycle is used for each character throughout the film. If the same attention was put on the creative aspects as is lavished on the technical ones, CGI films would have matched and surpassed other types of animation by now.

  11. Kirk says:

    I don’t know, there is something very characteristic of the digitally animated 3D image, a very specific visual quality, which makes the whole thing boil down to aesthetics, in the largest sense – esse est percepii-! Who doesn’t prefer film over video? Why did HB look better on my old family B/W 12 inch tv, than in restored high def, where suddenly all I see are dirty plates, cel shadows, and the unvarnished cheapness of it all?!

    Sometimes I really find the digitally rendered environments in the Dreamworks/Pixar etc. movies hideous. Like having no taste for macrome! But no, macrome will exceed all other crafts!

  12. Demetre says:

    I used to visit this site daily but it never seemed to be updated. I’m glad someone is back on the helm.

  13. John Mann says:

    Hello Artists!,

    I’m a professional film/animation/effects/design/art directing/director/producer/artist of 23 years. You can see my work if my website gets published here.

    I ran the ARt Dept at Boss Film studios in the early 90s, when they went from old school effects into computers, for two and a half years. After that i worked at Cinesite Hollywood for a year doing the same, animation direction and design, while running the shop. Most of my career has been inside just about every kind of studio Hollywood has to offer and have storyboarded and animatic’d scads of every kind of production.

    When i was starting out working with the “technicians” that were coming into the Art field i was discouraged. I saw that they weren’t artists first, but technicians first. This has not changed and has continued further. I saw this immediately. When i approached the head producer i was ripped a new one for recommending the training of artists into the technology instead of the training of technology engineers into art, which was my actual job, helping technicians to be “artistic”. I was told i was a trouble maker.

    REvenge of the nerds, indeed. In truth the computer gives the ability to make things look “real” easier than before. This is the driving influence of it all. It looks real, so they forgive the artistry. Your comments here in this article are salient and it seems to be on this course now and it’s probably not gonna stop.

    Eventually, perhaps, there will be a better balance between technology and artistry, but don’t hold your breath. The tech dorks that come out of all the schools, after learning some software, whom are literally begging to work for low pay, will be the darlings of the producers who, right or wrong, need to look at bottom line. Period. It’s producers loving the little kids that will work all night long for low pay that drive it all. Drink the cool-aid or get out. That, along with the penchant in America to kill Unions recently will probably continue unless we all wake up.

    That being said, i like Pixar still. Great stories and a great bunch of artists. They seem to be the best from where i stand. Everyone else is just trying to squeeze art out of tech dorks. Not easy.

    Also, the Globalist agenda to send all your jobs to India and China will help kill the ARt as well. Please bring back the jobs, and bring the boys back home. Enough war thank you.

    Huge respect, Long live Art, and from Krakow, Poland, Peace.


  14. Jim says:

    Hey Steve, I love this site and have the upmost respect for the Archive.

    However, I must come to the CG animator’s defense her.

    I’m a CG animator, a proud graduate of the Animation Mentor online school and I’m also “gasp* an ARTIST. I honestly could care less about the technical crap that goes in CG, fur, rendering, etc. I just want to animate and give a performance. Many of the CG animators I know feel the same.

    CG animators are stereotyped as “tech nerds and not artists” which is complete bull. That’s all that idea is: a stereotype. And an outdated one at that.

  15. Mckay Boxberger says:

    This entire post has been a true eye-opener for me since I’ve been reading John Ks’ blog. When I was scrolling down this page looking at these images I was thinking about the artistic principles that lay underneath the paintings. Each one gave me great joy! But when I scrolled down to the last image I realized it was the end of the post, and I honestly felt sad afterwords because it was all… :(
    Thank you for posting this! I can never thank you enough! I will defiantly apply everything I learn on this site!

  16. Mark Davidson says:

    Very interesting article, but mis applied as I see it. The creators of the Content; Model makers, Texture Artists, Character Design, Set design, Storyboard, Etc. – that is where one can truly shine as an ‘Artist’. An Animator has an equally important but different challenge. An Animator does not need to think like an Artist but as an Actor instead. Almost every facet of a CGI shot or complete film is decided BEFORE it hits the Animators hands. It is at that point where an Animator – thinking like an Actor can really shine. I will admit the that the parts about poses and placement are quite important to the Animator – but the key points are usually under the control of the Lead Artis or Director. It’s the Animators ability to emote that is crucial. IMHO. Thanks

    Mark Davidson,
    Complete Amature

  17. Andrew says:

    I’m an illustrator and comic book artist and I love visiting this blog. It has given me a lot to think about and has improved my work. Please keep posting!

  18. Linda Lee Nelson says:

    I just want to say a big THANK YOU for a great website, wonderful articles, and terrific resources. I’m a fine artist and your site is chock full of helpful information and perspective.

    :-) You are greatly appreciated!

  19. joe says:

    Like Linda said above, a big thank you. It has thrown light on some of the finer aspects of art and how to keep the people engrossed. I am not an illustrator nor an animator but I can appreciate one when I see a good one :-)

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