Animation: Calabash draws on traditional techniques
Issue: January 1, 2016

Animation: Calabash draws on traditional techniques

CHICAGO – Given the technology driving today’s 3D animated content, some might be surprised by how much traditional hand-drawn techniques still remain an integral part of the process. At least it is for the artists at Calabash (, the Chicago-based animation studio known for its prowess in both the latest 3D animation techniques, as well as traditional 2D styles, such as cel, stop motion and motion graphics.

“For us, our artists’ creative vision often pushes the technology beyond what the software engineers and programmers might have envisioned,” says Sean Henry, Calabash executive producer. “CG has revolutionized the industry in amazing ways, but computer animation still has some inherent drawbacks. It takes experience and effort to imbue CG with the warmth and personality that has always come more naturally with traditional media."
That’s why for Henry and Calabash creative director Wayne Brejcha, it’s important that their 3D animation team have a strong understanding of traditional animation styles. Having that understanding of animation’s core underpinnings has proven an essential must-have for everyone on the studio’s creative team.

2D In A 3D World

So how exactly does 2D animation influence Calabash’s 3D work? Typically, following initial storyboards and animatics, a first draft of character blocking and animation is done in CG. But once the layouts have been established, Calabash will often use traditional drawn animation for its first stage of character animation. This may seem counter-intuitive to some, since 3D computer animation can be a wonderfully efficient alternative to the tedious, frame-by-frame drawing processes that define traditional cel animation, but Henry notes that a hand-drawn pass of rough animation is especially helpful on projects with short schedules, particularly if original CG characters need to be created.

“The usual tradeoff with CG is the time involved in creating the sophisticated CG character rigs, which must be done before animation can begin,” Henry explains. “We’ve found that our 2D animators can start creating the character animation with drawings while the CG artists work in concert creating the models. With the rough 2D animation as a template, the CG character animation process goes more smoothly and quickly. This kind of multitasking has helped us shorten production schedules by weeks.”

Adds Brejcha, "A 2D template can also help us figure out basic staging, timing, and acting, and it pushes the CG to be more dynamic and expressive, because the CG animators are following reference that may push the character rig beyond the automatic or easily achievable. This way we can create animation that is as expressive as drawn animation, but with the dimension and textural complexity that CG provides.”

A good example of how clients benefit from Calabash’s understanding of traditional animation techniques is found on a recent project for Spin Master Digibirds toys, which required a quick turnaround.

The spot required 3D animation of several bird characters that were unlike anything they had done in the past. Without a readily available CG model, and faced with a tight deadline, Calabash tapped veteran animator Eric Meister to create drawn animation of the bird characters. The drawn animation then served as both a template for the CG, as well as an early preview for the client, which helped facilitate the aggressive production schedule.

“The client was able to get an early feel for what we had in mind for the animation, and our CG animators were able to use it as well," Brejcha says. “The CG animators can bring the 2D animation directly into their animation program and match the 3D character to the drawings. The CG animators have to interpret that drawn animation, and it can always be revised as necessary. But having the 2D reference gives them a huge leg up.”

Up On The Roof

Another technique that Calabash uses often is to videotape themselves acting out character movements on their office rooftop deck. For the Calabash team, live action reference has proven extremely helpful with animating movement of characters in both 2D and 3D, particularly when they helped turn Lucky Charms’ Lucky the Leprechaun character from a 2D character into 3D. 

Brejcha notes that studying the resulting movement helped retain a similar feel in Lucky’s physical acting and facial expressions that they had established with the 2D animation.

"Live action reference can inform all of the animators working on the characters, for both the 2D rough animation and in the polished-to-perfection 3D," Brejcha says. "It can show you performance nuances or physics you don't think of at the computer or drawing board.”

Henry adds, “The combination of traditional and cutting-edge animation techniques has been vital to our creative process throughout our 30-year history. Each of us has a love for the medium of animation and the history behind it. The tradition of drawn animation has always involved a playful element of discovery and invention. "We bring that same sense of wonder to our 3D work as we continue to find new and better ways to be creative.”