How much work and effort goes into an episode of an animated series? In a typical production, you can expect to find character and prop designers, background artists, build artists, layout artists, storyboard artists, revisionists, directors… and animators. But audiences may not realize that even among animators, these artists do not have the same role in a production pipeline.
We recently spoke with two artists, working in at the same studio in FX and character animation respectively, about an animation study they collaborated on, their roles and disciplines, as well as how character animation and effects interact.
Aidan Neeson works as a 2D FX Supervisor while Marty Broski is a Lead Animator. Together they work at Lighthouse Studios in Kilkenny. Also? They’re married! You can find their animation study embedded below, along with a transcript from our conversation which was originally broadcast from Toon Boom’s channel on Twitch.
What do your day-to-day roles look like at Lighthouse Studios?
Marty: In production, the Lead Animator interacts directly with their team. Our role would be to make sure that all the work our team produces is on-style and everyone is taken care of — that they are technically okay. If they ever have any questions about their scenes, or about the continuity of our storyboards or animatics, we are the first point of contact for them before they reach out to the supervisor or the animation director.
Aidan: My main job as a 2D FX Supervisor is to oversee the work that the team is doing. And kind-of be a bridge between the team and the directors. I interpret the information I receive — the designs and all the creative aspects of the project — and translate that to my team in terms of what they have to do. I make sure they’re getting on okay, review their work, give feedback, and help them tackle any issues they have on their work.
What was your journey to your current roles?
Aidan: We graduated from college around 2015. Work was a bit scarce at the time, so we had an internship here and there and did little bits of work, short contracts. And then…
Marty: I ended up going to Poland for an internship that was supposed to last half-a-year. Aidan visited me for a week, and the moment he stepped in, they were like, “Come work with us!” Six months turned into two years and we’ve worked in two? Three? Two-and-a-half different studios in Poland. We got a solid training in Toon Boom Harmony because Poland has a very big Toon Boom industry.
We did some shows, some pilots and a feature film. After that, it was running up to two years of us living in Poland, and we decided it is time to move on. We applied to a few studios in Ireland, and by the time, which was Christmas 2018, we moved back to our home in Ireland, and a few months later we started in Lighthouse.
Aidan: Marty actually heard back first. I was waiting a little bit longer. But during that time, we were able to continue freelancing for the studio in Poland. So we kind-of had this seamless transition between jobs, which was amazing!
Marty: They also got very lucky, because Lighthouse literally set up about two or three months before we applied there. The moment we started working there, we entered the first episode of the first series that they were making.
For the bird loop studies you collaborated on, can you tell us a bit about the character animation underneath the FX?
Marty: I mostly work in cut out — sometimes in hand drawn or a mix of both. When I come back home, I like to just work on a loop that is entirely frame by frame.
Aidan: I think that’s self-contained enough that you don’t have to think about shot direction, characters or script. It’s just something small.
Marty: It’s literally 24 frames of looping animation. Because it doesn’t need to create a story, it can serve the purpose of just being pretty. Sometimes that’s okay.
One thing I didn’t want to do was duplicate the wings. So I actually did the two wings separately. You can see it as you go frame by frame on the cleaned up project.
Aidan: You could have easily just taken that one wing and flipped it around.
Marty: Yeah, I wanted it to be organic. Although, I have to say that if I was to redo it, that there are things that I would change. That is notorious for animators. We can’t look at our own finished work.
I’ve considered changing the weight of the wings because I feel like they might feel a little bit too big to flop and bend so hard. I think I would make the range slightly smaller and also animate more on ones? It does work because these wings are very heavy. If the smear was on ones, they would feel lighter and swooshier.
With this character animation as the foundation, Aidan, what did you do?
Marty: What happened was, I was animating in my office and Aidan came in. He was like, “Oh, this is nice. It would look really good with FX.”
Aidan: Yes, as soon as I saw it, I was like, “There’s something for me to work on!” So I asked her if I could take it and put some effects on it. Of course, she said yes.
I started to think about what I wanted to do with it. When you’re looking through showreels, or people’s online portfolios, you can see that, especially in FX animation, animators take different elements, and they might do a bouncing ball that’s on fire, or it’s made of water. So I kind of went along those same lines. I wanted to set fire to this bird! I think that was the first one I did, and it was really it was a great exercise.
For me, I find that fire tends to be a little bit chaotic to get a grasp on. It’s pretty wild, it goes all over the place, and it can be hard to keep track of. But this turned out nice, because I borrowed some aspects of other FX: the way that it breaks up is like the way I break up smoke — a lot of the time it breaks up into these long, wispy strands.
Marty: Maybe this was easier because you were constrained by the character? There’s already a premade loop and it has some form of physics to it.
Aidan: Yeah, there’s physics to it. The way that the bird is flapping, the wings informed my decisions when adding in the fire, because the bird is the source of the flames. So the fire is going to trail off of the wings, and as soon as they flap back, they’re gonna push the fire away. It was kind of constrained to what the bird is doing.
There are a ton of sparks that are coming off of the fire bird. Were these hand drawn or were they particle effects?
Aidan: They were all hand drawn! I have used Toon Boom’s particle system before and I kind of struggle with it. They’re more mathematically-oriented than I am used to, so I decided to go with hand drawn embers and sparks.
Every single spark that you see is hand drawn. I find these embers are really easy to do. They’re really just messy little marks, that — if you just add a glow to them — it makes it look really nice. I would make a little brushstroke, and then go to the next frame, and another one next frame, and just track that one ember throughout the loop. When that was finished, when it dissipated away, I went back to the start of the loop.
It’s all done straight ahead. Over time, you just build up to all of these different embers that have their own specific arcs and paths. It’s a really simple way of getting a full-looking particle effect without having to tangle with particle systems.
The thing about FX animation is there’s so many different ways of doing something. I found with a lot of people I work with, I would do something in a specific way, and they would do something a little bit more technical. It offers you so much versatility in terms of what you can do, because you can be solely hand drawn in Toon Boom or you do something much more technical.
How long did creating all these effects take you?
Aidan: I think the lightning bird was the only one I did in like two hours. It was really short and I definitely spent the least amount of time on that one. But the fire one was done over a couple of evenings, maybe two hours a night after work. So probably probably six hours, maybe eight hours.
Lightning is, I would say the best effect to do if you’re starting to learn 2D FX. Lightning is really forgiving. You could just make these squiggly shapes, one after another, and it’ll automatically look like lightning. All it needed was some lightning shapes and a glow.
I enjoyed the few frames where you see sparks connect between the wings.
Aidan: Oh, yeah! That’s something I added because there wasn’t too much else to play with. The lightning by itself was kind of missing something, so I wanted to have the wings start to spark between each other, so you can see how much energy is in this thing. It was really fun to do.
Marty: It’s a bit like a Tesla coil.
Aidan: Yeah, I almost was gonna do a purple glow with that kind of plasma ball in mind, but I kind of just steered away and went with a more classic lightning.
Do you have any advice for working with glows in 2D FX?
Aidan: Yes. It’s easy to overdo the glows. I may have done it myself here? There’s a very fine line between a tasteful glow and then just a full blown, crazy glow. I would say choose a glow that you like, and then dial it back a little bit.
What can you tell us about the Icy Bird?
Aidan: Here we can see the same technique used on the Fire Bird’s embers: These little particles in this case, rather than flying up, they’d be falling off. This one is a cold, cold bird, so we have the particles, little frosty snowflakes, and some other sparkles. We have a heavier kind of cold wind that you can see.
I would say that this Icy Bird is leaning more towards wind and smoke. The difference I guess would be in the weight. Fire being hot, naturally rises. The embers and all of the wispy shapes in the Fire Bird floats upwards, whereas this Icy Bird feels much heavier, so I wanted everything to float down to the bottom of the screen. Even if the particles are being flicked up in the air, they eventually come back down.
I do enjoy animating smoke, but the next one is my favourite.
Let’s talk about the bird you added liquid FX to. How much work went into this clip?
Marty: You can see it’s a monster by looking at the node view.
Aidan: Yeah, this one was by far my favourite. It’s actually the simplest at the core, but technically most complicated. This would be some kind of toxic slime goop bird, that would definitely fit more in the realm magic or liquids. Kind of a magical liquid, I guess? It was so much fun to do.
Marty: I think you took the most time to play with compositing.
Aidan: I did a lot of compositing on this one. I turned the bird green and then overlaid it with these purple and green gloopy shapes.
There are little hand-drawn, white highlights, but because I wanted to save time, I didn’t want to animate ALL of the little highlights at the top by hand. I started with the base layer of purple smoke. It’s just a flat drawing with these gloopy shapes, and I used Toon Boom Harmony’s lighting systems to create a blue light from above and a pink light from below, which can be controlled with pegs. The same goes for the green acid, kind of bobbing around doing it’s acidy things. On top of that, I added a blur, a light at the bottom and a light at the top. That’s a really cool effect in itself.
All of that is generated, so I didn’t have to draw those other highlights. Unless I wanted to. That’s what I love about compositing in Harmony.
How much do you think about colour and lighting?
Aidan: In this scene, I didn’t think too much about colour. Because it’s kind of detached, there’s no background, there’s no external light, I was able to just kind of slap a light on top and bottom. Because everything looks cooler when it’s under-lit.
But when you’re working on a project or someone else’s scene, you do have to think a lot about lighting when you’re animating 2D FX. If your FX designs have highlights on them, then you need to be aware of where the light is coming from, so that you can place the highlights in the correct place. This one was lit from above and below. So pretty much all of the highlights are coming from there.
I first saw this study on Twitter. How do you both approach sharing your animation and finding community online?
Marty: Our first connection with the Toon Boom community was through a Facebook group that was set up five years ago. It was set up by our mentor, Mikołaj Pilchowski, and it was called ToonBoomers. The group itself was about sharing, problem solving, and helping each other out within Harmony, and that escalated into a larger forum. It’s a funny story because we got to know a lot of people there that we currently work with. And from that we have moved on to Twitter and Discord.
Aidan: There’s also the Toon Boom Discord. You can get fast responses there. It’s such a great place to go for learning and development. Having those groups has been incredibly helpful, to have a place where you can go and submit your work and get some feedback. Or even if you have a problem with the software, you can just type a post and minutes later you have someone respond, who has the answer to your problem.
Marty: Yeah. Or you have five different answers to one problem, which is great. Because there’s not one way of doing things, there’s never just one solution.
The community is really great. I have never experienced so many people who wanted to share their knowledge, not being secretive about animating, rigging or compositing. There are so many tutorials on YouTube…
That there’s definitely a lot that I have learned through random strangers on the internet. Like just straight-up DMing people, asking them, “How did you do this?”
How does character animation influence the choices that you make with 2D FX?
Aidan: A lot of the time, character animation and FX animation are not combined, but they’re very closely related, and the character animation informs what I do as an FX animator. Depending on the scene, you might have FX that are almost tied to the character, or are on the character themselves. In this case, you would work very closely with the character animation.
I think in cases like that, it’s good for the FX artists and the character animator to be in contact. It’s not always necessary, but if there’s any issues or any questions about the acting, the FX, or vice-versa, it’s helpful to get into contact with each other.
Other times, when the FX are a little bit more detached — if there’s no character in the scene, and there’s like an explosion in the distance — that’s where you can go a little bit more crazy.
From the other side, what do you need to keep in mind when you know that FX will be applied to your character animation?
Marty: If you will have FX on character animation, a lot of that will already be indicated in the storyboards or in the animatic, so you already have an idea of what it’s going to look like. But if the characters are directly interacting with the FX, you need to, as a character animator, make space for those FX.
So what we would do, in a lot of cases, is put a placeholder in the scene for the given effect. This way, the character can actually interact with something. So we have an idea, we have an understanding of how it’s going to look, which also makes it a lot easier for the FX animator to go in later — because they know where the animation has placeholders.
Aidan: I think it’s really good for the character animator to get in the mindset of what the FX artist might be doing. A lot of times you can get you can be animating your scene and not be thinking about anyone else. Having that placeholder is a really great way of dipping your toes into the next department. It can help improve the acting as well.
Marty: Because character animators also need to react to the FX. In the pipeline, character animation is always first, so we do have to look forward, into the future. Planning and communication is important in a studio.
Interested in seeing more from Aidan Neeson and Marty Broski? Be sure to follow Aidan on Twitter and Marty on Instagram. You can also watch our full livestream recording on YouTube. Want to animate in Ireland? Lighthouse Studios is currently hiring for multiple 2D productions.