Lighting in animation: a dive into the hand-drawn

Since the first animated film rolled onto our screens in the early 1900s, animation quickly became an integral part of our viewing pleasure—evolving from jumpy stick figures in Fantasmagorie to high-detailed motion pictures like Toy Story 4, with lighting and cinematography playing a key part in its evolution. 

Lighting in animation has become an art form in itself, not bound by physics or reality in the same way traditional filmmaking is. Although the basis of the lighting derives predominantly from traditional filmmaking, it offers complete stylistic freedom with where and how the lights are used, enhancing the cinematography of animatic films and TV shows. 

Unfortunately, animation has always been restricted by technology and budget. While technology today is advancing at a more rapid pace, this was not always the case—especially when it comes to 2D animation. 

Fantasmagorie Stick figure drawings

A hand-drawn masterpiece

Traditionally, 2D animations were hand-drawn, frame-by-frame, and then put together to create a moving image. It’s for this reason that 2D animation doesn’t share the same lighting and shading techniques as 3D animation—you can’t light 2D in the same way you can with 3D. Instead, 2D animations focus on silhouettes and composition.  

Take this early example of one of Disney’s first animations, Steamboat Willie. There is no light or shade seen in the animation, and none of the characters are lit either. This is because the characters were drawn on cels, and then superimposed onto a fixed background. The background image does appear to offer some variation in the light and shade, but this is likely due to it being filmed over a form of tonal variation board and not necessarily deliberate. 

Later on, it became standard practice to use painted backgrounds for 2D animations, intricately painted with the finest details—the beloved children’s classic Bambi is a good example of this. 

Its background is beautifully and cinematically painted. It has strong lighting queues and uses color to emphasize mood or direct the viewers’ attention. But, none of the animal characters in the film are lit. Instead, if any of them are in the light, they are painted lighter—or darker if they are in shadows. While this attempts to give the illusion that they are being lit, it consequently means that all the cinematography of the film is driven by the painted background, and not by any form of light. 

Jumping forward to the Fleischer brothers’ Superman cartoons, it’s clear that there is specific usage of light and shadow in their animation, with shadows being painted on when certain light is used. While it may seem crude to some, the Superman cartoons were some of the first animations to add this sense of light and shadow to their characters. 

What's more, the animations were heavily influenced by the period in which they’re set, with the Superman character almost being a Film Noir version of himself. These Noir elements are interlaced with science fiction and art deco—which was a popular style in the 1940s—to create visually beautiful cartoons in both tone and mood. 

The use of moody pools of light, silhouetted figures and shadows all derived from Film Noir and add to more serious undertones of the animation. This is contrasted with the deep color palette the animations use, instead of opting for the more traditional black and white that is frequently used in Film Noir. It created a new, more serious side to Superman which is miles away from the live-action Superman of the 1950s/60s. 

Even today, directors and cinematographers take influence from these cartoons, which considering not only the time, but the lack of budget the Fleischer brothers’ had, is somewhat incredible. 

But getting to the finished masterpiece didn’t come without its complications. 

Each character within the cartoon had a shadow, which meant that not only did the characters themselves have to be animated, but their shadows did as well. This doubled the work of the animators and, in turn, doubled the production cost, making it overall more expensive than any other animations being made at that time.

Production cost, alongside schedule and technological advancements, play a big role with what is feasible when making a 2D animation. Often, the budget didn’t allow for the amount of precision seen within Superman. Instead, lighting artists were limited to the technology they had at the time, and couldn’t snap things into place like they can today, meaning they had to use other techniques in order to perfect their shots. But, this then meant there was less time to spend on the cinematography and final overall look of a 2D animation. 

More than 2-Dimensional

Even today, the complications of budget and schedule are still prevalent when it comes to creating 2D animations. While the animation industry has come a long way technologically speaking, creating 2D animations still takes a long time to perfect and budgets don’t allow for extended schedules. Even with Klaus—a modern 2D film that follows the origin of Santa Claus—the team were working up to the wire.  

For Klaus, a 2D style of animation was chosen as the old-fashioned style added to the authenticity of the film and the story. But, the way it was created differed greatly to traditional 2D animation, the creative team using AI driven tools, alongside added 3D elements to help them produce and light the film and its characters.

The new program KLaS (Klaus Light and Shadow)—which was specifically created for the animation—tracked the movements of the characters, so any light or shadows would move with them. Afterwards, the artists would refine these by hand, and add in any smaller creative details to the characters. This added more depth to the character which would not have been possible in classic 2D animations like Bambi. 

This was further amplified by the use of 3D elements for the scenic layouts and specific objects within the film. These made the characters stand out from the background, so they didn’t end up looking like the background had been painted on behind them—this also being the reason that many people argue the film is 3D.

With 2D, finding the balance between budget, creative desires and commercial realities has always been a fine art. However, it’s clear from modern 2D animations like Klaus, that carefully crafted style and use of cinematography pay off in the end and create visually beautiful animations that add to the overall emotion of the viewers and fully immerses them into the animated world. It also allows audiences to imagine what early 2D animations could have looked like if they had the same technology, but the styles and the way these were produced in the early years was a reaction to cost, technique and time.

Spider-Man running on buildings

Living in a 3D world 

3D lighting and cinematography differ greatly from 2D animation. This is mainly due to bigger budgets and a larger amount of resources which are available for 3D animators. Plus, 3D animation opens its doors to a whole host of different styles and artwork, all of which require alternate lighting and production processes. 

Animation created with CG techniques most often results in the very familiar styles of studios like Pixar, which leans heavily on the cinematography principles discussed in our previous article. Through advancements in modern rendering engines and specialized technologies, computer animation can also result in what have previously been viewed as 2D styles. 

Prime examples are Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse from Sony Pictures Animation and many anime productions produced in Japan for SVOD. Regardless of creating 2D or 3D aesthetics, the consistent use of cinematography lighting principles is guaranteed.

In this way, lighting 3D animation can be a lot like lighting a live-action set. The difference is that lighting artists have more freedom to be creative and build on a scene, not being bound by the physics of light. 

Just take the Land of the Dead from Pixar’s Coco as an example. The visual masterpiece features over 8,000,000 lights, 27 million objects and 200 million shading points. It was a technically ambitious marvel but it paid off, as the animators were able to create a magical and colorful land which wouldn’t have had the same effect or outcome if it was 2D or live-action.

Large colourful creature cashing young boy

The vastness and colors of the Land of the Dead leaves not just Miguel, but audiences, awestruck at the beauty of the fictional land. It being made up of several different light sources from candles and streetlights to lights on both the inside and outside of the buildings. The cinematography seen here is vital as it is this that gives life to the world, and more importantly, brings a joyful and bright atmosphere to the Land of the Dead. 

To achieve this, the animators used a Color Script—something used frequently in animation production—to keep track of the different colors of a scene. A color script takes a shot from each scene and allows filmmakers to map out the color, lighting and emotional beats of the plot. Usually, certain colors are used for specific characters or to create a desired mood at certain points within the story. 

Using color scripts is an important part of making animations, as it allows artists to know how the viewers are meant to be feeling and heighten these emotions. Given that an animated movie is lit by teams of talented lighting artists working in parallel across large parts of the movie vs a smaller dedicated live-action team working together at each stage. The color script facilitates the consistency and vision of the cinematography.

Large colourful building and creature

With great style, comes great responsibility

What’s more, 3D animation can also pave the way for more stylized animation, allowing for greater experimentation with the lighting and cinematography.

With Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the team wanted to give Spider-Man a new, unique look to accompany the new character. For this, they took inspiration from old-style comic books, adding 2D layered inclines on top of the 3D elements to give the film a more hand-drawn look. 

To heighten the style further, the team used comic-book techniques when lighting the film such as half-toning, which uses white dots to create color and gradients, and hatching to create shadows. Both of these techniques added further depth and definition to the characters and backgrounds, whilst also maintaining the style of the film and its application of cinematography. It’s due to these finite details that you can pause the film at any point, and it will look like a frame from a comic book.

A key element of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is its use of colors, and the emotion it bestows on the audience. Throughout the film, these slowly change, starting with more naturalistic colors, light and set to give the audience something they can relate to. They can emphasize with Miles and his day-to-day life in Brooklyn. But, as the story progresses so does the vividness of the color palette which becomes increasingly more vibrant as more superhero elements are introduced. It sees a modern take on the use of bright and bold colors seen in traditional comic books. 

In the climactic action scene, it’s an almost psychedelic moment, full of color and craziness as the audience is fully immersed into the superhero world. The color influences the journey that both Miles and the audience take throughout the film, with the cinematography being a vital part of immersing the audience. These techniques are unlike any other used in a Spider-Man animation before and is what makes it truly unique.

three different spidermen

What also makes Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse unique is its use of several different styles of animation in one movie. While it perfectly highlights the differences in animation style, lighting these characters proved technically challenging—especially when they were all in one shot. In particular, the Noir Spider-Man was the hardest to light as the team had to be clever with their use of light as it was a black and white carton, inspiration for which came from the classic Film Noir genre.

On the flip side of this is stop motion which is a completely different discipline altogether. It involves building physical models for all the characters and sets by hand, with cinematography principles applied when filming each individual frame. Leading stop motion studios like Laika rely on CG to enhance their movies with digital characters, set extensions and artificial skies. This creates an interesting blend of digital and physical cinematography techniques to deliver the team's creative vision putting studios like Laika at an interesting intersection of VFX and animation. 

Films like Kubo and the Two Strings compile puppetry, VFX and on-set techniques together. It brings another unique form of 3D animation into the mix, proving to be technically challenging in its own way. It also allows for a beautifully individual style of cinematography, the physical and the virtual working together to evoke audience reaction. 

The use of physical lights and cameras creates a style bound by physics but with the full suite of cinematography techniques available in live-action. Lens choice, framing, and use of light: intensity, color, and quality for the foundation of each frame. Then the VFX and digital aspects expand the world that couldn’t be captured with a physical camera. 

Yet, the cinematography techniques used for the filming of the puppets extend into the digital realm and can be enhanced with CG’s ability to break physics for the sake of art direction, while also honoring the path started with physical cinematography. In the opening scene of Kubo and the Two Strings, it combines all these together to hook the audience’s attention and make the first moments in the film emotionally gripping. 

Technology has expanded what is possible with stop motion animation. At the core, stop motion remains the perfect blend of live action cinematography and animation, the two techniques intertwined and crafted a single frame at a time.

Monkey reaching for sword

Animating the future 

Looking through the progression of the use of cinematography in animation, it’s interesting to see how it has been able to develop thanks to bigger budgets and technological advances. While 2D has come into its element, with filmmakers being able to produce cinematic animation that wouldn’t have been possible in early animation, 3D is branching into new styles and pushing the boundaries of cinematography and lighting. 

As technology continues to advance and artists are able to spend more time being creative, it’s clear that the future of animation will continue to bring beautifully animated worlds to our screens. With lighting and cinematography evolving alongside it and bringing new, more stylized films to audiences. 

Read other articles in this series

Part 1: The Art of Lighting

Part 3: Lighting in Video Games