Animation Thumbnails Aren’t Optional

Animation takes time. A lot of time. More time than many sane people might dedicate to the production of a few seconds of something moving across a screen. Why, then, do so many young animators gamble when it comes to producing great animation?

When you don’t do thumbnails before starting any given animated shot, that’s what you’re doing: Gambling all that time you’re going to spend. You hope it will turn out well, but you can’t know. That said, spending an hour at the start trying things out in thumbnail form instantly boosts your chances of a terrific end result.

Thumbnailing isn’t complicated. Perhaps because of that, too many animators these days believe they can skip it. I myself was one of them, once upon a time! In my early days as an animator, I scoffed at thumbnailing (and storyboarding), choosing instead to dive right in. Only later did I realize a very important lesson in not only animation, but life:

“More Work Now = Less Work Later”

I often remind myself of this mantra when I have the urge to skip over an essential bit of prep work. Planning is essential, though, as discussed here. Great animation doesn’t just happen by jumping in. Patrick Smith notes “Every hour spent planning will save you twice that time animating.”

Honestly, I’d even say it can save MORE than twice the amount of time. It’s that beneficial.

A few Tom Bancroft thumbnails from his work on Mulan.
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A few Tom Bancroft thumbnails from his work on Mulan.

Step One is Always Thinking

The first step to animating is thinking. I had a professor once who listed the first 10 steps to animating, and they were all “thinking.” Since animation is a visual medium, why wouldn’t you think visually? That’s exactly what a thumbnail is: A quick, visual thought. It allows you to get a pose or emotion onto the page and out of your head so that you can fill your brain space with a new thought and not lose track of the first one.

But 3D Though…

In years past, animators were also excellent draftsmen, so to do thumbnails was no sweat. Now there are 3D animators who claim they “don’t know how to draw.” I’d argue that 3D animation is where thumbnailing is MOST important. Before you ever touch a model, you should understand your keys. Drawing a rough pose will always be more flexible than what the model may allow. START with the rough sketch, then fit the model to the perfect pose you find while thumbnailing.

Thumbnails from animator BJ Crawford
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Thumbnails from animator BJ Crawford

No matter what type of animation you’re doing, it’s a huge time investment. Take out some insurance on that huge investment and start the project with thumbnails. Not only will they make certain you’re heading in the right direction, but you’ll be able to think through many different ideas instead of falling into a creative slump, like so many artists tend to do. Creativity in your work is sometimes more important than anything else!

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Sabina K

I really agree with this article. Thumbnails help you get the feeling of the character out of your head and onto paper. They’re a great starting point, they’re like a sketch.


Love this one, good job. Thumbnails are life in terms of animation. Everyone should be doing them for every every every every project and shot.


I’m working on a new project, but I’m struggling with originality and perspective in my thumbnails. Any way that I can get better at that?


Keep doing it. 🙂 Keep drawing, practice drawing, practice drawing quickly.