Arts and Entertainment

The development of 3D animated films

Animated films have evolved dramatically through the years.
<a href="" target="_self">Jessica Sheng</a>

Jessica Sheng

August 7, 2022
3D animation has gone through many stages to get to where it is today. Clay animation was the first form of 3D animation to exist, using stop motion technology with clay pieces as models.

While rudimentary, clay animation can be created to be buttery smooth and as immersive as any other 2D animated film. It was the only form of 3D animation to exist until technology took over. Once computing software was powerful enough, CGI was developed and sprinkled into live action films as an embellishment. As this technology became more refined, the limits of CGI got pushed and gradually became more deeply integrated into the film industry. Eventually, people started making films completely out of CGI. 

The first 3D animated film, “Toy Story,”  was released in 1995. “Toy Story” revolutionized the animation industry with its complete 3D graphics reliance. From then on, CGI became an irreplaceable staple in the realm of filmmaking. Fast forward to 2009, techniques became increasingly advanced and accomplished what was once thought to be impossible. “Avatar” exemplifies mastery of motion capture and CGI techniques, allowing the team to completely alter the actors’ appearances. While the audience only sees the spectacularity and the CGI techniques these films flaunt, the amount of work that goes into creating them typically stays unseen.

Pre-planning the production becomes more important than ever to create a fully 3D animated film. VFX can be an extraordinarily expensive tool, and if inadequately planned, it will result in budget waste from unused scenes. With an adequate pre-planning schedule, the production team can go into modeling, animating, and shooting out their scenes.

After that, the film goes into post-production, where music and sound effects are added to the final cut. The making of these films requires multiple different departments to work together and communicate with each other extensively to be successful.


According to Dream Farm Studios, the pre-production stages involve planning out the entire story of the film. This is the stage where storyboards are drawn, the script is fleshed out and animatics are made. In my experience, storyboarding can be a particularly fun process. While everything ultimately has to be approved by the director, the artist gets to have some creative freedom in envisioning how different scenes of the story play out. 

I took my first storyboarding class this year, and it helped me appreciate how important camera placement is. There is a multitude of different shots and transitions that artists can play around with, and each one of these shots/transitions can drastically affect the mood of the scene.

The fundamental teachings in storyboarding address the camera placement so the artist doesn’t confuse the audience with awkward scene changes. As the main purpose of storyboarding is to visualize scenes and figure out object layout, the actual drawings themselves can be loose and messy to provide a general guide to object placements. 

Once the storyboard is all fleshed out, the team can finally bring their drawings to life by making animatics. While animatics are animated scenes, they are not the same as a final animation. Their main purpose is to figure out the timing of different scenes in the storyboard and how the story flows without including all the details that would be in the final scene.

Additionally, storyboards are not limited to two dimensions. As a 3D artist, I typically like to block out where everything is in my environment before adding details. This allows me to gain a better sense of the overall spatial positioning without getting distracted by small components. After all this pre-planning, the film can finally go into production.



This is the stage where all the 3D objects are modeled and animated. The artists work with the concept art and designs given to them and create 3D models based on these drawings. However, translation from a 2D sketch into a 3D counterpart includes an array of technicalities. 

One technical limitation that I need to be actively aware of when making models is the polygon count. Since 3D meshes can be a heavy process on computers, I must put effort into optimizing the 3D meshes by reducing the number of vertices.

To make up for that lack of detail, texture mapping is the main technique used. This allows me to fake detail by applying an image without actually altering the mesh.

I can then either take pre-made texture maps or make my own textures through texture baking, which is a process where a high-resolution mesh and its low-resolution counterpart are created. These two meshes can then be combined by turning the high-res mesh into a texture map to be applied to the low-res one. With this technique, I can eliminate the problem of having too many vertices on a model while also keeping it detailed. 

Mesh of my 3D Model. (Photo courtesy of Jessica Sheng)

The second most common limitation applies to mainly models that will be animated. These types of models must follow more rigid guidelines compared to other 3D models; otherwise, there is a greater chance for deformities to occur when animated.

Once the mesh is all cleaned up, the artists can then rig the model. Rigging can be thought of as applying a skeletal structure to the actual, more complicated mesh.

When animating, the artists will technically be animating the skeletal structure in place of the model, and the movements of the skeleton get translated onto the mesh. While seemingly simple enough, there is an extremely steep learning curve for rigging. 

Knowing that, I started my rigging journey with low poly models. This made it easier to prevent the mesh from breaking and deforming. Once I felt I understood the basics enough, I went on to practice hand rigs with a moderate polygon count.

I encountered a number of difficulties with this project. The mesh would not deform the right way with some parts of the skeleton affected too much of the hand — if the finger bent too much the mesh would break, the movements felt unnatural whenever I tried testing the rig and I had to redo the rig multiple times to make it the slightest bit functional.

Rigging was much harder than it seemed. I still have a long way to go before I can make anything of quality, but the most impressive rigs will allow for animation of the most minute detail, such as the contraction of the iris. Rigging is all about helping animators do their jobs with ease.

Once all the animations are done, visual effects can be added. Some people may confuse 3D animation for VFX, but there is a key difference between these two departments.

VFX focuses on creating simulations that follow (typically) real-world physics. A VFX artist will be in charge of elements such as the spectacular explosion of fireworks or the rolling waters of a stream. Additionally, VFX artists will also work on simulating a character’s hair and clothes — anything that cannot be animated using skeletal animation.

With the addition of VFX, all that’s left to do is lighting and rendering the scenes before the film goes into post-production.

VFX of a dragon. (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.)

Post Production

One major element artists work on in this stage is compositing. When the scenes are rendered, they are rendered in different layers, rather than all at once. This allows the production team to make any changes they need without rendering every single part of that scene all over again.

Compositing is the process of combining these separate layers into one cohesive scene. Now, voice actors can voice the characters, music and sound effects can be added, and the production team can edit and color correct the film. With this last milestone completed, the film is finally ready to be publicized.

The making of a film is a complicated process; from pre-development to post-production, artists from a variety of departments have to work together to piece a film together. Nowadays, the ever-advancing technology is growing faster than ever, allowing new possibilities for filmmaking techniques. As long as technology continues progressing, the future of 3D animation will stay strong.