Cameraless Direct Animation: A Paper-Based Approach

I came up with this exercise when I was working through the 1979 edition of Kit Laybourne’s The Animation Book and wanted to experiment with cameraless drawn-on- and scratch-on-film animation but had no analog film and no access to a projector. The result? A cheap and easy approach to teaching cameraless direct animation for the post-celluloid era.


  • Inkjet or laserjet printer
  • US Letter or A4 copier paper
  • Pencils, pens, markers, crayons, or other drawing tools
  • Scanner
  • Imaging software (e.g. Photoshop or a free, open-source alternative, like the GNU Image Manipulation Program)
  • Any video editor capable of importing still images and playing them back as image sequences (e.g. iMovie, Premiere, FCP, kdenlive, or smartphone apps like Fingerlab’s iMotion or Cateater’s Stop Motion Studio)


Print the project PDF three times (scaled to fit on A4 or US Letter paper) to represent 24 frames – or one second – of sound speed motion picture film. The exercise here is to approximate the practice of “drawn-on-film” camera-less animation made by scratching, drawing or painting directly onto exposed film or clear leader, and to experience first-hand the happy accidents that can occur when you set out to animate without the luxury (or limitation, depending on your perspective) of being able to register your drawings (as with digital onion skinning, or punched animation paper aligned with a peg bar).

For this exercise, work quickly and think as little as possible. Stay abstract. Improvise. Draw or paint vertically down the columns to create sequential patterns. Imagine the frame as a small window opening up to a larger cinematic space, and draw shapes or colors moving into and out of view. Once you’ve drawn something for all 24 frames, go back to the first frame and do a second pass, adding another layer of visual elements. Consider drawing one or more “events” that occur across the bridge from drawing 24 back to drawing 1 (as in the brown vertical squiggly line in the sample project, which appears in drawing 22), making your work loopable.

Look over your drawings and come up with a title. Shoot your drawings with a smartphone (iPhone + iMotion for iOS works well) or in Dragonframe (this may require a macro lens), or scan the pages at at least 800 dpi (using the same settings for each page), then crop every drawing just within its black border. If scanning, save the drawings individually as a series of sequentially numbered PNG files (ie. [title_of_my_film]_001.png, [title_of_my_film]_002.png, etc.). Use your NLE of choice to compile the image sequence into a video. Alternately, you might choose to do without a video file and instead assemble your frames into what I can only hope will be the mind-blowing animated GIF that finally breaks Tumblr.

Faux Scratch-On-Film & Other Variations

I’ve also had success printing the PDF onto thick, US Letter or A4 card stock and then cutting out the frames with a craft knife to create a template. Hold this template over any media too thick (or too fragile) to feed through a printer or copier. To approximate scratch-on-film animation (in which drawings are scratched directly onto black leader with a needle or other sharp tool), tape your card stock template to a piece of black or gray scratchboard and use it as a stencil to draw the framelines with a fine line permanent pen (sample scratchboard project coming soon!). Remove the template, cut your drawings into the scratchboard using a needle, craft knife, or razor blade, then scan and assemble your animation.

You could also use your template to draw framelines onto heavy-stock watercolor paper (Arches is best), plywood panel, newsprint (which is too delicate for most inkjet printers) or even a cement block. Textured media will add an additional, fluctuating background to your animation; experimenting with this is fertile ground for developing your own unusual visual effects.

gif version of "Scribbles in Orbit" animation

Sample Project: “Scribbles In Orbit”

All three pages of animation frames
Here’s a sample project I drew in marker and pen, and shot on on 3s (meaning that — given a rate of 24 fps — each drawing lasts for 3 frames). You’ll notice I gave it a name — “Scribbles In Orbit” (.mov) — because I like to follow directions.

Recommended Viewing

For further inspiration, watch the following cameraless direct-animated films by Len Lye, Norman McLaren, Stan Brakhage and Jennifer West.

Len Lye: “A Colour Box” (1935)

Though his early work clearly builds on the innovations of 1920s German abstract film practitioners (most notably: Ruttman, Eggerling, Richter & Fischinger), New Zealand’s Len Lye originated the particular method of drawing and painting directly onto film. Lye’s gorgeous “A Colour Box” is a controversial yet deeply influential short (dismissed by the Third Reich as capital D “Degenerate Art!” upon its Venice Film Festival premiere) and a classic example of cameraless direct animation. For more on Lye — and the release of “A Colour Box” and its impact — read Luke Smythe’s essay, The Vital Body of Cinema.


Norman McLaren: “Boogie-Doodle” (1940)

Norman McLaren drew the images in his NFB-distributed abstract animated short, “Boogie-Doodle”, directly onto celluloid. This project was heavily influenced by the earlier drawn-on-film works of Len Lye, and is only one example of the many, many direct animated films in McLaren’s broad filmography.

Stan Brakhage: “Mothlight” (1963)

Stan Brakhage made “Mothlight” by attaching moth wings to a strip of clear leader using splicing tape, and in doing so he successfully combined cameraless direct animation with the Dada-originated practice of assemblage. Think of “Mothlight” as Jean Dubuffet’s butterfly collages in 4D.

Jennifer West: “Jam Licking and Sledgehammer Film” (2008)

West is a Los Angeles-based artist whose films’ titles often reveal how they were made. In this case, she and a team of recruits spread jam onto clear 70mm leader, then licked and/or sledge-hammered it off, resulting in sugar high and the creation of an entirely new subgenre of cameraless direct animation: the jam film (or, if you prefer, kino preserves). “Jam Licking…” is the spaced-out cover of MBV’s Loveless set into motion. Dig those spooky red and magenta clouds!

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