All animation projects start with an idea. The animation production process then takes these ideas and integrates them into a cohesive story. Bridging the gap between ideas and storytelling is no easy task, however: that’s where concept artists come into the picture to transform ideas and scripts into engaging visuals.
But what goes on in the process, exactly? That’s what we set out to figure out in this article.
What’s A Concept Artist
A concept artist creates designs and illustrations to bring visual direction to animated characters and environments.
Take the series Avatar: The Last Airbender, for example. The concept artist would create detailed sketches, paintings, and digital illustrations to convey the look and feel of the series: what do the main characters look like? How is each nation represented? What about the fauna and flora? And so on. You can see on the right what Appa the sky bison looked like at the concept stage and later in production on the left:
Why Is It Important In Animation
During pre-production, concept art showcases the project's potential, visually communicating its creative direction to investors and other stakeholders to increase their confidence in the project, leading to better financial support and a smoother production process.
A concept artist establishes the visual direction of an animation project by translating ideas into visual concepts that set the aesthetic of the project. It helps the production team visualize and plan the entire project more effectively, allowing for early identification of potential design issues, inconsistencies, or challenges, which can be addressed and resolved before entering the costly production phase. Through multiple iterations and feedback loops, the concept artist can fine-tune designs and make necessary adjustments before committing resources to production. This helps avoid costly changes or rework later on. For example, if a character's design is not well thought out, it may result in difficulties during rigging or animation, leading to delays and increased expenses.
Later, detailed concept art serves as a reference throughout the entire asset creation pipeline: it provides clear visual guidelines for modelers and animators, reducing the guesswork and potential mistakes during pre-production and production.
Who Is Involved
While concept artists are responsible for translating ideas into visuals, they aren’t acting alone.
The art director oversees the process to ensure the artwork aligns with the project's overall vision. The production designers help define the overall aesthetic by making decisions on color palettes, lighting, and composition.
At the end of pre-production, storyboard artists work alongside concept artists to visualize the story and its progression. They create sequential panels that depict key moments, camera angles, and shot compositions. These storyboards help the production team and director visualize and plan the narrative flow, pacing, and overall structure of the project for the production phase.
The Concept Artist’s Process
First, the concept artist needs to understand the project's needs and objectives to gather research and design inspiration.
- Project brief - The project brief serves as a roadmap for the concept artist, ensuring their designs are in line with the project's vision and requirements. It contains outline goals, requirements, and other key information on the overall vision.
- Script - After getting the overview from the project brief, concept artists can extract key elements from the script―story, characters, environments, mood, and visual style.
- Conduct research - The research phase consists in gathering inspiration related to the project’s themes, settings, and artistic references. This is done by exploring various sources from books, movies, artwork, and real-world references.
The research phase is the occasion to develop a visual library to inform the concept art designs.
The ideation process begins by creating thumbnail sketches that facilitate rapid exploration and experimentation of ideas through quick, small-scale drawings:
- Explore different compositions, poses, and variations of characters, environments, or props.
- Use small-scale drawings to quickly gather feedback.
- Capture the essence and basic elements of the designs.
Because imagination is limitless, thumbnail sketches help concept artists quickly narrow down and validate concepts before further developing them. This is especially important when there are tens of characters and environments to animate in an episode, each with their own distinct design.
Rough sketches refine initial ideas by capturing the main design elements, proportions, and details of characters, environments, and other animated objects, as well as solidifying initial concepts by adding visual coherence.
They are important to get right as they provide a strong foundation for the rest of the conception phase, but you don’t want to spend too much time working on details―it’s not the production phase after all.
Detailed Concept Art
Detailed concept art including refined linework, shading, and color, showcasing characters' appearances, expressions, outfits, and other important details can be requested to guide the production phase and avoid guesswork.
Detailed concept art should not be confused with storyboarding, another key part of the pre-production phase, that focuses on character movement and scene flow. As such, detailed concept art is key to depicting the mood, lighting, and key features of environments, for example. But for characters, storyboarding is also essential to convey expressions and poses.
Collaboration with the Production Team
After approval, concept artists can sometimes collaborate with storyboard artists, modelers, and animators to help translate visual designs into animation. Things like:
- Provide additional support and clarification on design elements and intentions.
- Work closely with the production team to address any technical or creative challenges that may arise during the implementation phase.
- Maintain effective communication and coordination to keep the art style consistent throughout the production process.
Concept development is part of pre-production, but it doesn’t mean the requirements cannot evolve or that the visual designs are clear enough to model. Good communication with concept artists is key to keep the project on the rails!
Concept artists make the first step to bring life to characters, environments, and narratives, shaping the captivating experiences that define an animation project. Through a meticulous process of research, sketching, and refining, concept artists provide a clear visual roadmap for the production team.
Collaboration is a big part of a concept artist’s work. You need to work with a variety of experts, exchange feedback, and apply resulting changes. A tool like Kitsu saves considerable time by streamlining task and asset management.
If you are a concept artist, an animation student, or someone who simply enjoys learning about the animation industry and its workflow, we invite you to join our Discord community. Here, you can connect with fellow artists, share your work, and learn from others in the industry.