Back at the start of 2020, I got to work on a pretty special project. One that would end up as the very last 'normal' job I did before the pandemic.
Studio Yotta were animating a 90 second sequence for an Animaniacs episode in which the art style changes and turns into an anime fight scene. My job: paint all the backgrounds!
The total background count was 50 and I did both the layout and background paint. The time available was around five weeks – a very tight deadline for that amount of backgrounds. I would need to be fairly resourceful with my use of time, but there were a few elements that made it much more possible.
- Half the backgrounds were abstract backgrounds such as zip pans and splash cards that would on average be much faster to draw.
- All the backgrounds took place in the same location, so much less time will be needed for designing key backgrounds.
- The backgrounds can be broken down into different elements such as clouds, ground plane, piles of bunnies, mountains etc. This leaves a lot of potential to build a library of reusable elements and create step by step formulas for how to paint different elements quickly and consistently.
Before I'm ready to start pumping out backgrounds, I have some preparation to do. Provided to me were two style frames acting as a rough indication of the art style and colour palette to aim for.
Looking at both the style frames and at reference I had gathered, including of anime zip pans/splash cards, I made a list of different sorts of effects I’d want to find suitable Photoshop brushes to match. I then went through brushes I already had, made a shortlist of which brushes could match my criteria and eventually ended up with the set of brushes I'd use.
I ended up with around 15 brushes I liked. If I was working with other background artists, I'd invest a bit more time cutting the total number of brushes down a lot. This is so that it would be simpler and faster for other artists to replicate the style. But since it was only me and I don't have time, I'll just remember which brushes I used for what.
(A few of the brushes used for painting the abstract backgrounds)
About a week and a half after starting I'd finished the first background. I put a lot of extra care into this one, since decisions about how elements such as the clouds, sky and ground are painted will affect how efficiently I paint the rest of the backgrounds.
I typically worked on batches of several layouts at a time or several background paints at a time in order to work more efficiently. For layouts this let me look at backgrounds in context of a sequence, and do my thinking and problem solving for several backgrounds at once. During paint I save time by switching through multiple backgrounds and repeating the same steps to paint something such as clouds for example.
I prioritized less generic backgrounds that were unlikely to be able to be built from reuse and left backgrounds that I'm more likely to be able to drop in reusable elements until later.
At around the three week point I'd built up a large enough reusable library of things like clouds, mountains, ground planes, bunny piles etc. that things began to snowball and I was able to finish off loads of new backgrounds in a week. After finishing all the backgrounds, now I just need to wait until I can see the final thing!
(All the clouds in my cloud reuse library)
Apart from being a real fun job, Animaniacs was a super valuable experience. I gained experience in learning where to allocate time with a tight schedule and practiced establishing and putting into practice an art style for backgrounds. I dived much deeper into painting abstract zip pans and splash cards than I'd done on any other project and discovered a few tricks I've used on many other things since. Plus I got to see my name in the credits of an Animaniacs episode - a surprisingly emotional moment when I saw a screenshot!
If you enjoyed this article, I also wrote one about the time I did a couple of backgrounds for Rick and Morty.
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