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How a TV commercial is made

This page will show you how I made a TV commercial for "Fortum", a large company in Finland. This commercial has been shown only on Finnish television. It is one in a continuing series - as I write this, I have just finished the 7th in the series...

The client and the ad agency decided they wanted the "classic", hand-drawn style for this campaign. That meant I would have to make lots and lots of drawings!

Nowadays, the classic "cels", formerly the basis of most hand-drawn animation, are used no more... (There were about 7000 cels, however, in my first animated movie, "The Kidnapping", of which I tell more elsewhere on my www-pages.)

Cels are (were) acetate sheets upon which the animation's outlines are traced, and the areas filled in on the reverse side with acrylic or poster paints. Since almost all new TV commercials are produced on videotape (even though original live action may be shot on film), the animation must also be in electronic form to be integrated with the rest of the production.

This, however, has not at all changed the process of drawing the animation! It is still as tedious as before, even though the use of computers does facilitate some parts of the process. But the actual creative work, i.e. creating the movement, is still done as it was done in the 1920's, when Felix the Cat was mute and Mickey Mouse & friends were in black & white only...

Here are the stages involved in making a typical all-animated TV commercial:

First, a storyboard is prepared, usually by an AD (art director) at an advertising agency. In this case, this was done by Unto Jäsberg at the SEK&GREY agency in Helsinki.

Then the dialogue is recorded. It is necessary to have the dialogue available before the animation begins, so that the drawings will synchronize to the sound - more about this later...

Next, I animated the action with very rough lines, and tested the movement by shooting the "ruffs" into my computer, where I can synchronize them with the sound track using the ANIMAC program.

For this 20-second commercial, I made around 400 ruffs. It is no coincidence, by the way, that the snail looks a bit like my little worm, Albert. I suggested to the client that I'd use tha same basic form for the snail, since a larger head gives you more area for expression... Just a plain slug would be rather uninteresting, right?

Timing the drawings is very important, especially if there is dialogue involved. The sound track is broken up and every uttered syllable and letter is marked on an "exposure sheet", or "x-sheet", listing every single frame in the production. In this way, the mouth movements of the characters can be accurately drawn. Here, the dialogue is written in the last column, and the drawings of the character speaking is in the leftmost column, next to the frame numbers.

Each row equals one frame of video. (In Europe, we use 25 frames per second, in the US & Canada, there are 30, but animation may be produced at 24 frames per second in either area, and converted to the appropriate video rate later.) Each column of numbers is a "level" of animation, i.e. either a character, object or background, in this case a snail, a seal and the moving background.

Here are the 3 levels I used in this commercial, as "cleanup" drawings:

A "cleanup" is made by tracing the "ruffs" with a steady hand, taking care that the motion is smooth, the lines don't jiggle, and that the drawing also "looks good". Here, these 3 levels will all be superimposed into one frame in the next step...

The final, composited frame, assembled and colored with an electronic stylus on a computer, is one of the 250 finished drawings I produced for this commercial. As you can see, the coloring looks a bit irregular, and in fact, that was the idea - the coloring of the characters flickers a bit, just as if they were colored with watercolors, crayons and magic markers, and the background has the texture of watercolor paper. This gives the finished animation the "old-fashioned, hand-made" look we were striving for.

Why 250 drawings, and not 480, 500 or 600? Well, there were no superfast movements here, so I animated the whole thing on "twos", i.e. each drawing is shown for two consecutive video frames. And at 25 fps, 250 drawings will thus be 20 seconds of finished video. If there had been really fast movements, or panning backgrounds, I would have had to "shoot on ones", i.e. make one drawing for each and every frame. Double the work! Whew!

After the animation was all finished and the 250 drawings were burned onto a CD-ROM and delivered to the client, there was still more work left to do: the sound effects recording and mixing, and the final editing of the animation and superimposed titles onto videotape. Not until then was the commercial ready for the airwaves...