3D animation: Pixar short film analysis and animation pipeline

1. Paper-man


In 2012, Disney/Pixar released a short-animation alongside their latest feature back then, Wreck-it Ralph, called Paper-man which garnered a-lot of attention and came away with the Annie award for best short-film, and in 2013, won the Oscar in that category.

It’s significance was also because it successfully blended 2D and 3D animation together to create something rarely seen in animation.

Research from: The making of Paperman and the future of Disney animation


Animation process

  1. Disney CG animators animated the characters and objects the same way they would animate any other CG animated feature, by using 3D models and polygons in programmes such as Maya and using techniques such as kinematics and inverse kinematics.
  2. Computers then render the CG animation in a very cel-shaded fashion, without any line-drawings or line-art, just the fills for each character and moving object
  3. For each character and drawing, the line-art is drawn over each CG animated frame, inside the custom software that Disney created for these types of animation. The line-artists would do this for each character’s key frame, in effect ‘sticking’ the line-drawings onto the CG animated models.
  4. The artists then have to go through the frames and tweak and adjust any in-organic looking in-between key frames that they come across, as the line-art is not as smooth and natural as the CG kinematics,  which is the most time-consuming task in this process.
  5. During the compositing process, the paper-like texture of the animation is added to each frame sequence using a motion vector render technique, so the texture fits in with the sequences.
  6. The shading process for the characters begins by breaking the model down into topological cylinders and then computing each tangent from the polygons into cross-sections based on the perspective of the camera. Then each silhouette is extended along the normals, and this process is repeated for each topological cylinder. Motion vectors are then added for each vertex, and then rendered for 3D space and for each pixel.

2. Piper

Pixar released Piper in 2016 alongside its latest feature film, Finding Dory and it gained significant acclaim because it successfully utilised the latest animation technology that Pixar had created.

Research from: Indiewire: How innovative Pixar short ‘Piper’ got sculpted


  1. Wildlife study: Before beginning the animation process, the crew went out and studied and drew Sand-pipers, Plovers and Sanderlings, visiting places such as the Californian coast and an aviary at the Monterey Bay aquarium in order to get a better sense of how these birds and, more specifically, their feathers move and achieve more believable movement in the animation.
  2. Camera type: The director, Alan Barillaro, chose to set the lenses for the animation to a ‘faux lens’ to give the short the aesthetic of a nature documentary, while adding zooms and moments of full focus apart from the shallow depth of field throughout a majority of the short to give the short an added feeling of realism. This CG macro-photography was used to achieve a unique-looking bird’s eye view.
  3. Animation technique: Alan Barillaro wanted him and the rest of the animators to control every aspect of movement, from the waves and sand to ,especially, the sandpipers’ feathers, rather than letting a computer programme simulate the movement. However, the current technology at Pixar couldn’t achieve this, so Barillaro wanted to create the animation to test his new technology that allowed this sort of control.  This latest animation technology gave the animators a greater degree of control over the aspects of the animation by treating the sea-waves and sand like characters in their own right, controlling the timing, shaping, the edge of the wave and the bubbles, which were a mix of character animation an effects. The bird had up to 7 million individual feathers, therefore regional controls and visual direction had to be used. This allowed the character to be expressive without using more humanoid traits such as hand-gestures or speech.

Dream-works animation pipeline

Research from: Dreamworks animation pipeline video

animation BTS.jpg

This should give additional insight as to how Dreamworks and pixar and other 3D animation companies create their films.

  1. Ideas: The first thing that the animators come up with is an idea for potential stories. Taking inspiration from children’s stories, comic-books, while some ideas are completely original. These final ideas are then translated into script drafts and sketches, both being put through the editorial department to turn into storyboards for visualisation. This department continues working on the film throughout the process.
  2. Art: The art department use pencils and paper or digital tools to create the concept art for the film and establish, visually, how the film is going to look. The art is then approved by the production designer and art director, then it is all shown to the director to see if he/she approves of how the film is going to look.
  3. Modelling: Modelling is where the characters are built from the 2-D images to 3-dimensions. This begins with a wire-frame of the character and then the modeller sculpts around the wire-frame to create what the character will look like in 3-D.
  4. Rigging: Riggers take the 3D character models and add the skeleton/puppet rig underneath the model’s surface, so it is ready for animating. This includes the joints, “muscle” and “fat”, to make sure that the animators have enough control over how the character moves,
  5. Surface artists: Surface artists give the environments, objects and character models different textures, lighting and effects, to make sure they look believable. For example if they had to add to a model of a glass tube, they would add reflections, lights and smoothness.
  6. Rough layout: This takes place between pre-production and production. The 3D assets are brought into this department, and then they are put into a 3D space, where, using a virtual camera, they will lay out the different cinematography and placements of objects, so the director can see how it is going to look while the assets are animated onscreen. This includes using motion-capture technology to get a basic idea of how and where the characters are going to move.
  7. Final layout: Also called “Anim-prep”, the final layout is where the basic geometry and models are replaced with the finalised versions in a master shot. Character models are placed in a starting position in the scene, and then the scene is ready for the animators to start moving the character models. After the scene is finished animating, the Layout department will perform “set-dressing” where some of the aspects of the set are cleaned-up to look more refined. They will then create a “stereo-pass” where the camera stereo is placed for the left and right eye, so the audience knows where to look in the shot first.
  8. Animation: Animators begin to move the character in the environment using the already prepared puppet and rig. The puppets are controlled by over 3000 control-points, to give each character realistic movement. However, before this begins, the animators collect references from real-life, from online and from previously shot reference clips in the studio.
  9. Crowds: The crowds department is in charge of animating the “extras” of the film. If there are too many character models on-screen, it becomes the crowd department’s responsibility to ensure that each crowd model moves convincingly. This is achieved through creating a selection if automatic animations that apply to the scene that the crowd is in, then those can be applied to each model in the crowd, to create the illusion that this is a group of individually animated models.
  10. Character Effects: This department focuses on the different movements on the character, besides the movements that the character itself is doing. For example, rippling clothes, water effects and hair blowing in the wind. This ensures that the character looks as though it is genuinely interacting with the environment, and is part of the environment.
  11. Effects: The effects department add the larger effects such as explosions, creating fire and smoke, and environmental damage, but they also add the smaller effects to make the film appear more realistic, such as footprints, snow effects and leaves rustling.
  12. Matte painting: This department is in charge of finalising the vistas and scenery, adding effects such as stars, mist and adding the different models that would appear outside of the frame of the camera. This gives realism to the scenes and adds immersive-ness.
  13. Lighting: At the lighting department, lights and shadows are added to the shots using compositing software to blend the lights in with the models and environments as they are moving.
  14. Image final-ing: This is where any clips, smudges or any other inconsistencies in the animation gets cleaned up, to achieve the final look of the shots.
  15. Sound design: While the animation process is continuing, a composer creates the soundtrack for the film to bring across the film’s story. This is edited with audio levels, equalization and special treatments on dialogue, to create the final sound mix for the film. The final film is then released to the public.



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