How TV Animation Works


Evolution of TV Image Gallery The extended "cast" of "King of the Hill," a strikingly realistic animated sitcom. Learn more with TV evolution pictures.
Photo courtesy Fox Broadcasting Company

Sitcom star Hank Hill has a lot in common with other TV personalities. His face and voice are well known, he has a loyal fan following, and he occasionally shows up on magazine covers. But unlike other sitcom stars, Hank doesn't require a luxury dressing room, imported bottled water or even air to breathe. Like Fred Flintstone and Homer Simpson before him, Hank is entirely two-dimensional -- an animated cartoon character.

Hank's show "King of the Hill" is part of a general artistic revolution that has shaken up TV animation over the past 15 years. The sophisticated humor and themes on shows like "King of the Hill," "The Simpsons," and "Family Guy" have demonstrated that animation isn't just for kids, or just for Saturday mornings.

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As we'll see, these shows are fairly sophisticated from a production standpoint as well. It takes a lot of hard work getting each episode from idea to broadcast. In this article, we'll check in with some of the talented people behind "King of the Hill" to find out how animated TV shows get made.

The Big Picture

The extended "cast" of "Family Guy," a popular realistic animated sitcom.
The extended "cast" of "Family Guy," a popular realistic animated sitcom.
Photo courtesy Fox Broadcasting Company

The production process for a live action TV show is fairly straightforward. Writers come up with a script, actors perform the script in front of a few cameras and a studio audience, the footage is edited, and the show is ready for broadcast. (This is a simplification, but that's the production process in a nutshell).

Producing an animated television program is a far more laborious process, involving dozens of people working hundreds of hours. In traditional animation, still the standard for animated TV shows, every single frame of an animated show must be drawn by hand. The 20 or so minutes of actual footage that make up a typical half-hour program consists of around 30,000 separate frames.

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Typically, a half-hour animated program is the product of a nine-month journey, involving eight major steps:

  • writing the script
  • the table read
  • recording voices and editing the soundtrack
  • creating the storyboard
  • creating the animatic
  • creating the color
  • editing the color
  • adding sound effects and music

In the next few sections, we'll look at each step in the process.

Writing the Script

In a live-action show, it would be prohibitively expensive to create all the robots, aliens and spaceships of "Futurama"
In a live-action show, it would be prohibitively expensive to create all the robots, aliens and spaceships of "Futurama"
Photo courtesy Fox Broadcasting Company

A new season of "King of the Hill" generally kicks off with the team of writers gathering to pitch story ideas. After a lot of collective brainstorming, the team narrows down the possibilities to a final list of stories. The producers then assign each story to specific writer or writing team.

After a writer has prepared a story outline, a few other writers will gather to discuss the story, identify any problems, and brainstorm new jokes.

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Unlike writers for live action shows, writers for animated shows don't have to worry much about practical production issues. Dave Krinsky, Executive Producer for "King of the Hill" explains "because you don't have to worry about sets, you can have many locations, so you don't really have to worry too much about the reality of [physical production] when you're writing your scripts." Basically, if a writer can imagine in, it can go in an animated show.

Krinsky also enjoys animation because you can do things with the characters you wouldn't be able to successfully do with real actors. "We've found that there's a slight distance with animation you don't have with real actors," Krinsky explains. That distance allows them to get away with more, such as an early episode of 'King of the Hill' where Hank Hill was dealing with constipation. "With a cartoon, you can get away with a little more," Krinsky continues, "We can show a lot of naked butts, which, other than 'NYPD Blue,' a lot of shows can't get away with."

Krinsky doesn't see many disadvantages to writing for animation, but he acknowledges there are some tradeoffs. "There's a definite delayed gratification [to animation], whereas on live TV you get to hear the audience laughing, and you get the feedback right away." The lack of immediate audience response leads the writers and producers to rely on their own comedic instincts to guide them through the process, which necessitates many revisions along the way.

Table Read

KING OF THE HILL.(L-R:) Creator and exec. producer Mike Judge as Hank Hill, Brittany Murphy as LuAnne and exec. producer Dave Krinsky during a table read.
KING OF THE HILL.(L-R:) Creator and exec. producer Mike Judge as Hank Hill, Brittany Murphy as LuAnne and exec. producer Dave Krinsky during a table read.
Photo courtesy Fox Broadcasting Company

When the writer or writing team is finished with the script, it's time for the table read. At the table read, the entire cast of actors, all of the show's writers, and anyone else in the office that isn't busy gather in a room and act out the script.

The table read is very important, because it lets the writers finally hear how their words sound when spoken out loud. The writers and producers play close attention to the audience's reaction and take notes on what works and what doesn't. In the case of "King of the Hill," the writers and producers are especially concerned with what gets a good laugh and what doesn't.

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After the table read, the writers gather to discuss any problems and explore ways to improve the script. Collectively, the writers and producers create a final version of the script, and pass it on to the recording stage.

Recording and Editing the Soundtrack

"The Simpsons" guest stars Elvis Costello, Tom Petty, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Lenny Kravitz and Brian Setzer.
"The Simpsons" guest stars Elvis Costello, Tom Petty, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Lenny Kravitz and Brian Setzer.
Photo courtesy Fox Broadcasting Company

Once the script has been finalized, it's time to record the actors' voices. In order to eliminate any extraneous noise, the actors all record their voices in a recording studio. The exact process varies depending on the producer's preferences. Some shows record every actor separately, recording each line with a variety of tones and inflections. Some prefer to record the actors working together, in the same way classic radio shows were produced.

In any case, it is not necessary to have the entire cast present at the initial recording session. Some actors may be away on other jobs, or unavailable for other reasons. If that is the case, they can record their lines at a later date, and the new tracks can be inserted into the final recording.

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After the actors record their dialogue, it's time to start putting together the show's audio track. "Editing the soundtrack is about a two week process," says Kenny Micka, Co-Producer of King of the Hill. "We'll take the parts that are recorded from the actors, assemble them, choose alternate takes, and cut it down to our target length of nineteen minutes and thirty seconds. We try to get the performances to cut together to satisfy the writers and producers, and then we send it on to Film Roman, our animation house."

Storyboards and Artwork

Homer has to always look the same, no matter who draws him.
Homer has to always look the same, no matter who draws him.
Photo courtesy Fox Broadcasting Company

The storyboard is the first step in adding art to the words in the script.

A storyboard is made up of pages of paper with space for the director to plan out how the episode will be animated. A typical storyboard consists of a boxed-in area containing a loose sketch of the action, with character lines and camera directions written under the image. "Even though storyboards look bland on paper, they really mean a lot," says Micka. "They're a backbone of the show."

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For animation, a storyboard must be heavily detailed. "Storyboards provide a lot of information," Micka says. "They provide the different camera angles and shots, and most importantly, we get a sense of timing and character performance."

The director begins sketching ideas for the storyboard upon receiving the final record script, and starts drawing the final boards when he receives the soundtrack.

Once the producers approve the rough storyboard, the lead animators can begin creating the key drawings for the episodes. These artists don't fully animate the action, but instead draw the significant moments of every shot in a scene, as well as all the necessary backgrounds (interior rooms, street scenes, etc.) for the episode.

In order to maintain a consistent look for each character, the animators refer to character model sheets -- collections of drawings showing how each character should look. The character model sheets illustrate each character's body proportions, specify each character's size relative to other characters and show each character in a variety of poses, from multiple angles. This is a crucial tool for making animated characters function like real actors. Without this guide, one animator might draw a character differently from another animator, and the character would seem to change size and appearance throughout the show.

The Animatic and the Color

After the producers approve the completed storyboard, it's time to create an animatic. An animatic is a very roughly animated draft, sometimes called a "pencil test." It is almost like a moving storyboard. The animators take the pencil-drawn key drawings and photograph them so that they have a representation of what the final product will look like. Because it isn't fully animated, characters have jerky movements, and their mouths don't always match their voices. The producers use the animatic to make sure the performances and comedic timing really work. This is also the last chance the producers have to make major changes to the direction of the story. After this, any big changes will be a costly and time-consuming proposition.

After the animatic is completed, and all changes have been made, the American animators send their key drawings off to an animation studio in Korea. American TV producers hire Korean firms today because the Korean animation industry has relatively low operation costs and access to a large supply of highly trained artists.

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In Korea, the first order of business is "in-betweening." Let's say Hank Hill is flipping a hamburger on his propane grill. The American animators provide several key frames of this action. The first frame would be a drawing of Hank with a spatula under the burger. The next frame would be Hank's arm raised a little bit and the burger in the air. The next frame would have the burger land back on the grill. The Korean animators start out by animating every frame in between each key frame, so that once animated, we see smooth motion.

After the in-betweening stage, it's time for the ink and paint stage. The animators trace every frame in ink onto clear acetate transparencies and then paint in the color. As computer technology advances, more shows are doing ink and paint digitally.

When the ink and paint stage is completed, each transparency is laid over the appropriate background image and photographed to create a frame. The developed film is sent back to the United States for the next leg of the process. The finished product is called the color.

Editing

Even with a fully-animated product in hand, the show isn't necessarily finished. There may be mistakes in the color that necessitate retakes, or the producers might be unsatisfied with a joke or a scene.

Animating retakes can be costly, so the editors have found editing tricks to achieve the desired results. "With some creative editing, we can make a lot of changes," says Kenny Micka. "We can repurpose animation to have characters say new lines, or we can use shots from other episodes. We've actually built entire scenes from various shots from different shows. You can't do that in live action."

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This is one of the reasons characters in animated shows usually wear the same outfit week to week. With this consistency, it's easier to borrow animation from other scenes and other episodes.

The Soundtrack and Score

When the picture is "locked," the producers hand the show to the sound department, and the sound engineers cleans up the vocal tracks and adds sound effects. For most shows, the sound effects do a lot to determine the tone of a show. "'The Simpsons' is more cartoonish, which is reflected in its exaggerated sound effects," notes Micka, "Where 'King of the Hill' is more of a realistic show, and you hear stuff in the background like birds chirping, dogs barking, lawnmowers running."

"Music can make a great impact on a show's tone, as well," Micka adds. "The tone of 'King of the Hill' is often best served often by an acoustic guitar, although we have used full scale orchestras when it fit the story."

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After the sound department assembles all the sounds, they mix the tracks to the appropriate level. It's important to makes sure a character's voice isn't covered by the background music, or that a sound effect isn't unnaturally loud.

After nine months of work, the episode is finally finished. The production company delivers a high definition master tape of the episode to the network, and the network broadcasts it over cable, satellite, and the airwaves. By that time, many more episodes have entered the pipeline and are moving along at various points in the production process.

For more information about various forms of animation, check out the links on the next page.

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