iOS animation workflow, part 1: Doodling in Time

An old friend of mine who, like me, learned animation on impossibly expensive camera stands shooting 16mm film, reached out asking about my current workflow for making animation for Vine and Instagram. This is part one in a three-part series where I break down how I use iOS apps to make sketchbook drawings into fully realized animated micro shorts.

Though I shoot most of my professional work with Dragonframe, I still make a lot of animated micro video iPhone-only style, because:

  1. Sometimes I want to animate out in the sun (in coffeeshops, on park benches, on public transportation) instead of in a darkened studio.
  2. Self-imposed technological limitations often lead to surprising creative choices.
  3. It makes logistical sense, as this method grew out of an attempt to incorporate a time-based element into my existing sketching practice, and at a time when I didn’t own a camera.

For new animators, or illustrators interested in exploring animation, smartphones are an affordable way to begin experimenting with hand-drawn animation by stretching your existing sketching practice into a fourth dimension. Current animators, if you aren’t already using your phone, hopefully this will serve as a reminder that you’ve been carrying around a portable animation studio in your pocket.


1. One pad of design vellum

Why draw on vellum? Because it’s translucent, so you can see through 2 to 3 sheets of paper without a light board [side note: DIY lightboard tutorial coming soon –ed.]. Call it ambient-light onion skinning. I start on the last page of the vellum pad, and then work backward toward the first page, animating straight-ahead (without planning), flipping a new sheet from left to right and using my previous drawing(s) as a guide for the current frame.

I use Clearprint, because the corners don’t curl when you remove single sheets from the pad, but it’s actually easier to blend colors on the slightly cheaper brands of paper — you’ll just have to buy a piece of glass to place over it for photographing, and you’ll need to be careful about light placement to eliminate glare.

2. Graphic art markers

Why markers? Because not being able to erase frees you from worrying about perfection by forcing you to embrace accidents and mistakes. Lately I’ve been working on grayscale stuff, using Copic neutral grays and Copic multiliners to fill in smaller details, but have also used Prismacolor in the past. Don’t worry too much about the brand, to start. If you’re on a budget, go for Tombow. Shockingly, the brush tips on those don’t feather as quickly as Copics, particularly if, like me, you draw with a lot of pressure.

3. Smartphone app for Stop-Motion Animation

I’ve used Fingerlab’s iMotion HD since it first came out, and I stand by it, even though it exports 720p video on the iPhone 5 (on newer hardware, it exports 1080p). It’s got a pretty intuitive UI, and uses the constant-on mode of the iPhone’s built-in flash to light your artwork. You can also learn a lot about timing and see where to add more inbetweens by previewing at different speeds using the variable frame rate slider. When you like the way your work looks, export to the camera roll. I don’t recommend working at a rate lower than 12 fps (also known as “drawing on twos”, since, compared to the standard film speed of 24 fps, each drawing is held for two frames).

4. Smartphone app for Video Editing

I’ve tried many of these, and I stand by iMovie — with a couple caveats — despite the stigma that it isn’t a professional tool. I’ve also used Adobe Clip, but it’s terrible at combining very short video files (like the ones you’ll be working with), so I can’t recommend it.

iMovie caveat #1: All of your video files coming out of iMotion HD must be at least 0.5 seconds long — meaning 6 frames, when working at a rate of 12fps — or the iMovie app won’t be able to import them. “But what if I drew a cycle that’s only three drawings?”, you ask. Well, iMotion HD doesn’t have any frame management tools; you can’t duplicate or reorder frames. Instead, as a workaround I’d suggest shooting the entire three-drawing cycle twice. i.e.:

  • Frame 1: photograph Drawing 1
  • Frame 2: photograph Drawing 2
  • Frame 3: photograph Drawing 3
  • Frame 4: re-photograph Drawing 1
  • Frame 5: re-photograph Drawing 2
  • Frame 6: re-photograph Drawing 3

iMovie caveat #2: When duplicating clips that are less than one second long (e.g. a walk cycle or other animation cycle that you’d like to show repeatedly to extend screen time), sometimes iMovie for iOS inexplicably places one black frame between each clip. This is extremely annoying, but usually fixed by: 1) duplicating the original clip several times, and playing across the timeline until you find a few in a row that aren’t separated by black, or 2) importing the clip multiple times instead of using the ‘duplicate clip’ function.

Good luck out there, and please do post any questions you have in the comments.

Dave Merson Hess

Dave Merson Hess

Dave has worked in independent animation as a director and composer. He's taught workshops and/or developed curriculum for film-arts non-profit Aurora Picture Show, Rush Process Fest, DIY Animation Club, Zine Fest Houston, comedy incubator BETA Theater, Houston Independent School District, and the arts-in-medicine programs at Texas Children’s Hospital and MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Dave Merson Hess

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