Scene from a animated movie I directed called The Yellow Balloon

What Is The Biggest Difference Between Directing A Live-Action Film And An Animated Film?

Scene from a animated movie I directed called The Yellow Balloon
Scene from a animated movie I directed called The Yellow Balloon

Have you seen the latest Pixar movie and have gotten inspired as a director to try your hand at directing an animated movie? Before I directed animation I was concerned because I had only directed live action movies.  Do you have that concern, too?

Well, directing animation has a number of similar qualities to directing live action movies. You, as the director, are still crafting the story on all levels… visual, audio, placement of scenes and editing style, color choices, wardrobe, casting… Except now you are doing it in a virtual reality versus a physical one. This gives you tremendous freedom because you are not limited by physical reality for your directing choices. (You want the characters levitating the entire time, you got it!) But it also is a little different than directing live-action movies and it is good to know a few differences in directing a live-action film vs. an animated film before you start.

NO Set

The biggest difference you will notice as a director is that there is no set as there is in a live action film.  

During pre-production, the producer organizes everyone involved, specifically the cast and crew, to be at specific locations, and also prepares everything they will need for a long shoot day including Craft Service (snacks), meals, equipment, call sheets so that everyone knows where they are going, and confirms that all departments have what they need in order to complete the shoot day successfully.

Directing an animated movie feels a little less focused than that.  

What I mean by that is when you are on a film set, you have the entire crew and cast that is on set present and focused on completing the upcoming scene and everyone feels connected by the physical closeness of being on set and the collective intention of finishing the work at hand.

An animated film can be completed by people all over the world, all working at different stages of the animated movie, and often the communication between parties is held together by the producers and director, which is vital to keeping the movie feeling like a cohesive whole.

On smaller animated movies, perhaps with just an animator, video editor, and audio editor, there is a possibility that the communication is much tighter, but again, they all are likely working on different parts of the movie at different times.

This is referred to on animated movies as a “Pipeline” because the work moves from one place in the process down the “pipe” to the next stage in the process, and you will see each clip and each scene and eventually the entire movie come together within this pipeline.

What this means for you as the director is that you will be monitoring this pipeline in order to make sure you are getting the movie that you want and that everything is cohesive and makes sense. 

A lot of attention must be put on how the clips come together because in live action it is only from scene to scene that continuity must be held, but in animation, there could be huge variation shot-to-shot of a number of different characteristics of the shots including, animation style and character acting style, details in the environment, “camera” angle (which is really the perspective one is viewing the animation), and other numerous aspects that one does not have to think about when directing live action.

The nice thing is that “getting in your day” as a crew must do on a live set, does not feel as pressured most of the time when doing animation. You are not going to “lose the location” because the location is on your computer (or your animator’s computer) so you can go revisit a scene that you want to make changes to.

However, reanimating a scene can be enormously time-consuming, so that brings up the topic of having precise storyboards and animatics.

StoryBoards and Animatics

If you have taken my directing class, you know that I am somewhat indifferent on making storyboards for live action movies.  Unless you have a shot that is outrageously unusual and hard for your crew to visualize, there is no reason to draw out every medium shot or close up for your movie.  They are common and you just have to say you want that type of shot for the scene and will make adjustments to how the close-up is created when you are directing it on set.

The thing about animation is that the animator must create what they think you want as the director, and if they are not completely clear on that, it can be done in a way that you completely do not expect, even though it might be completely in line with the verbal instructions you gave.

It is much better, then, to have very precise storyboards to show the position of the characters or important objects in the scene.  In major animated pictures, this is a huge step of planning out the movie because clear storyboards can save an animation team the time of having to animate scenes.  It is not just the acting that must be reanimated in an animated movie but also the set. And then the camera angles must match on all of this and bringing the whole thing together when change is made could start the animation team as square one, which is expensive and frustrating for your team.

So be sure to have detailed and clear storyboards if you are directing an animated movie. If you are not good at drawing, you can have someone in your animation team draw up the storyboards.

Almost all of the digital animators I know are really great at drawing, and if this is so with your animator you will get fantastic storyboards from them.

You need to make sure that you know what every moment of the movie will look like on paper before you even open up the computer.

When you and your team are satisfied with the storyboards, the animator or animators will create Animatics from the storyboards.  Animatics are the sketches of the storyboards conveyed with basic animation and put together as a “rough cut” movie with no sound or with placeholder sound of the lines being simply read over the shots.

Often they are black and white and just involve the rough placement of the characters and significant objects in each scene and how they move in the space.

This is not the time to get into detailed animation because, again, that is very time consuming and is for the later stages of the pipeline.

You will find as a director that an animatic will help you get a sense how the storyboards fit together to make a comprehensive movie.

If you are going to make giant changes to the animated movie this is just about the last time to do it.  The animation team has not devoted too much time to the animatic and will be ok if you completely scrap an idea.  

As a director, you still have a lot of flexibility to change the things that are not working in the animation and hopefully, the changes you need to make will jump out at you as you watch the animatic.

Usually, they do.

Before you leave this stage, it is a good idea to get a solid voiceover of the characters’ voice acting that will be the locked down final use voice over for the movie.  

Again, this will ensure that the animation won’t have to change simply because an actor decided to make a shorter pause between lines or say the line in a different way.

Directing Actors vs. Animation Choices

Oftentimes on animated movies, the animator is the actor to a certain degree.  Animators study movement of people and characters in the same way that actors do, and must be very adept and aware of how the character is revealing their emotional world and their thoughts and feelings.

As a director in a live action movie, you will watch the actors perform a scene on set while it is being shot, and if you are not satisfied with the performance you will instruct the actor to make adjustments and redo the scene.

When directing an animated movie, you will be watching the specific movements of the animated character come together in a more and more detailed way.

For example, let’s say an actor is about to open a jewelry box that is in front of them on a dresser in a live action movie.

The actor might open it tenderly or in a rush or with great sadness or with great joy, depending on the circumstances surrounding the scene.

If you as the director do not think the actor conveyed the sadness associated with what the character thinks is in the jewelry box, you can send them back to first-position and have them redo that shot.

In animation, you would see the shot with the basic movements and facial expression of the animated character.  You could then tell the animator to make adjustments (like quiver the lip of the character a bit to show a little sadness or maybe give a bit of hesitation before the character places the hand on the box to give time to take a deep breath).

All of these details take a lot of time to animate (and reanimate) so the animator is going to check in with you as they progress through making the animation more and more specific to try to avoid having to reanimate the details of the animation.

And as the director, it is your responsibility to see the direction the animator is going with the shot or scene and make adjustments as they “act out” the scene through the animated character.

I mentioned earlier that the voiceover of the actors is also a detail that usually/hopefully comes in before the animators start production.

So you, as the director, will find yourself directing the actors’ voiceover for the scenes before any animation has started (again, hopefully, this will happen).  

Your responsibility is to get the performance you need from the voices. This can sometimes be harder than getting the live, on-camera performance from the actor because all of the emotion must be encapsulated in the way the actor says the line.

And you have to be able to visualize the animated character saying that line as it is presented by the voice actor.  


Directing live action movies and animated movies requires similar skills, but is very different in how it is experienced as the director.

While you must still know how an actor’s movements convey the necessary sentiment to the audience, you will be instructing the animator to show those movements through the animated character’s animation. The pace might feel a bit slower to you and the prep-time before the production phase will probably feel much more detail oriented and drawn out, but if you prepare well and have a strong detailed vision that you convey well to your animation team, you will find the move from directing live-action movies to animated movies an easy one.


pro video camcorder

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