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3 Different Ways to Start Your Next Animation

The foundation you build at the start of any animation (or art project, or project in GENERAL) can be the deciding factor between a fantastic final piece or something that falls flat. Today we’ll give you three possible methods for the early goings, and explain exactly how each one can propel everything that comes after it towards greatness. Which will you choose?

Starting Point #1: Thumbnailing
Amazing thumbnails by Glen Keane
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Why It Works:

For many animators, nothing is more important than thumbnailing. Thumbnails allow you to get your ideas down visually as quickly as possible, without worrying about models or “wasting time” should you decide to toss the entire bunch into the bin and start over. Thumbnailing is like taking notes, just in pictures. You’re not writing every word, only the bits and pieces that remind you of the most important ideas and thoughts.

How to Do It:

With thumbnails it’s all about speed and feeling. If you start a pose and it isn’t working, move to a blank part of the page and start over. Still not working? There’s more blank page just around the corner. Then, once you’ve managed the emotion you’re shooting for, try a few more using a totally different acting choice. Maybe try it from a totally different angle as well. What would the scene look like OPPOSITE of your intended goal? It doesn’t hurt to explore all these options because it takes next to no time at all.

Let’s take a sound clip from an old 11 Second Club competition.

“I was adorable once… and now, look at me!”

There are a lot of options to play with here, so let’s jump right into some thumbnails:

Some examples of animation thumbnails
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As you can see, things are kept very rough and just general feeling and movement are sketched out. Using this method you can pick and choose from a variety of options you came up with yourself! It’s quick, easy, and is a perfect starting point for developing your next animation.

When It Goes Wrong:

One of the downsides to thumbnails can be if you aren’t experienced with drawing. Drawing is a great skill for any animator to have (2D, 3D, Stop Motion, etc.) so it pays for you to develop it. Initially it can be frustrating, though, because you can get a great idea in your head and just not quite be able to translate it onto paper. Keep loose and rough, and remember this doesn’t need to be anywhere NEAR perfect. It needs to harness the emotion you’re displaying and even if it looks like chicken scratch it will still be helpful to use as you go forward.

Another potential pitfall is if you’re too GOOD at drawing! It can be very easy to fall into the trap of making your thumbnails pretty works of art. Don’t! They are supposed to be rough, so resist the urge to add details or shading. The more work you put into it, the harder it becomes to toss the idea out if it isn’t working. So keep it simple, short, and don’t be afraid to crumple it up and try again!

Starting Point #2: Reference
Reference for Animation
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Why It Works:

Thanks to technology, a near infinite amount of reference is at our fingertips any moment of any day. We can surf the web for ideas, or shoot video reference of ourselves and see it played back instantly. There is so much variety that we can come across things we never would have come up with on our own, but end up working very well.

How to Do It:

Your favorite search engine is a perfect place to begin. Click the image option and type the main emotion or thought you’re looking for. Then, once you have a nice collection of ideas, head over to the thesaurus and see what synonyms for your target word might be. Do a search there as well! Now is the time for quantity. Get a lot of options, and THEN start taking them away. Don’t edit yourself at the start, you never know where you’ll end up.

If you’re shooting video of yourself, shoot a LOT OF VIDEO. Do not be content with one performance, or two, or even five. Shoot shoot shoot. Try different acting choices. FEEL the emotions and lines you’re acting out. Watch what you’ve filmed, then re-shoot. Then do it again. I can’t stress enough how many attempts you should make. Sometimes it isn’t until the 30th attempt that you start to finally get somewhere. Never settle for one of your first options, but build on the parts you like and take out the bits you don’t!

Going back to the 11 Second Club clip…

“I was adorable once… and now, look at me!”

Here are a few of the terms searched for and some of the results:

Starting point Photo Reference
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Search terms used:

  • Adorable
  • Depressed
  • Sad
  • Aghast
  • Why
  • Forlorn
  • Incredulous
  • Giving up

When It Goes Wrong:

Reference can be a blessing, and it can also be a curse. Without much thought you can become an absolute slave to your reference and start to copy it directly instead of referring to it. Shooting reference is the most dangerous in this case, because you can begin to perform insane cartoon-like motions that no normal character or person would ever do, and then copy those directly as if that should be your final. Better is to shoot reasonable reference (you can push poses as you act, but don’t act like a loon) and then make your final choices BASED on those actions, not copying them directly. Remember: Something can always be pushed in your work, but it’s harder to take away extreme action that’s in your reference. If you’re shooting reference, don’t “act” but instead “live” as if you were the character who is in your scene.

Starting Point #3: X-sheet
Xsheet banner
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Why It Works:

Since the dawn of time (okay, well, dawn of animation) x-sheets have allowed animators to plan things out on paper before jumping into an animation. The reason it’s so helpful is because it lets you see, via charts, main beats and rhythms of whatever audio you’re planning to animate to. Some people claim x-sheets are outdated and no longer necessary, but I’ve discovered the more you use them the more helpful they become. You come across things you never notice when everything is just wave forms along a timeline.

How to Do It:

If you’ve never done an x-sheet before, it can take a while to understand how they work. This starting point is not the easiest for the uninitiated. Essentially you chart out the audio along one side and then label your timing in the boxes beside each audio cue. Some X-sheets have room for thumbnails right on the page, which is nice for combining the visual aspect and the mathematics of it all. It becomes a blueprint for your entire animation, all planned out ahead of time so you can focus not on thinking, but on making the animation the best it can be.

When It Goes Wrong:

X-sheets require a lot of back and forth until you develop a natural sense for them (and for timing animation). It’s not something that happens overnight. It can become easy to be frustrated when you’re erasing a section for the twelfth time only to find in practice that timing doesn’t work either. It’s something that’s worth sticking with, though, or at the very least trying out a few times to see if you notice something new about your workflow that could be improved. If you’d like a free X-sheet to print and use, here’s one we drew up for you to download.

[Download the Animator Island Basic X-sheet Here]

Which Method Should You Use?

Obviously each starting point has its pros and cons, and some are going to feel more natural to you than others. Plus there are more we didn’t even touch on, like improvisation, beat-boards, and brainstorming trees. In the end a combination of all these possibilities will most likely be your best bet, and the only way to discover what combination works for you is to try them all out! So if you don’t normally thumbnail, give it a shot. Never touched an X-sheet? Doesn’t hurt to try a few! The important thing is to get out there and put it all into practice.

What starting methods do you prefer? Any that you’ve tried and hated, even though people recommend it? Tell us your story in the comments below!

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Junaid Sayyed

Very helpfull tips


I will be sending my students to this posting. Thanks for this. …and always remember to KISS.
Jim page 83 RW’s ASK


I tried using an Xsheet once it was impossible lol. I am sure it would get easier but I had no idea what I was supposed to put where and it was a mess and I didn’t even end up using it.

olubunmi John

really great article…The x-sheet is the only one I’ve not tried before…and I’m wondering if modern animators still really depend on it.but truth is I want to learn how it works,its always tempting anytime I work in toon boom and I see the x-sheet window and I just ignore it.

C. Lepper

hi! , Nice writing and good explaining. Thanks.

Seymour C.

I’m not much of an Internet reader to be honest but this was great info to have. I like thumbnailing best out of those. Never been a fan of video reference myself.


I have to tell you that the part about drawing thumbnails was really inspiring. I am not a good drawer and that fit me exactly. But I will try to do some thumbnails even though I am not very good and try to get better. ^.^


Nice tips! With anything, practice makes better. As I grow older I see not only the need for practice to get better, but more so practice to maintain!
Thanks for sharing your ideas.

Alex Phan

I must tell you that it’s hard to find a good x-sheet! You almost need to create a custom one for yourself depending on the task at hand.

Christine Murphy

You have done a great job with this article and in general on Animator Island. Just wanted to let you know to keep it up.


I’m gone to try this thank you

Chloe R.

Thumbnailing is my favorite.


I do all three!

case Dawg

Excellent read.


Thank you for this I will try each of these now. 😀