This text offers an analysis and discussion of the practical process of animating representational vehicles in traditional 2D-, Stop-Motion and CG animation by examining three case studies. It is argued that animating the locomotion of representational vehicles predominantly evolves in tandem with the developments of technology (Johnston 2020). What interests the author in particular about this, is the role of the background sets in the animation process. It is hoped that this text opens up the discussion from a technology and process standpoint, and acknowledges further study is warranted into related spatial, temporal and repetition philosophies.

As we see in the Wacky Races (1968, Hanna and Barbera), in traditional 2D animation, the portrayal of a vehicle travelling is usually a locked-off camera shot of the vehicle positioned centre-screen as a looping background scrolls behind it, creating the illusion of lateral movement. This background cycling technique for animating vehicle locomotion is likely in response to the filming of traditional 2D animation using an animation stand. An animation stand consists of a camera fixed onto a column pointing down on the “compound” with pegbars and platen that holds  the artwork in place and enables registration to film accurately for every single frame. This arrangement supported the vertical trucking camera’s up and down movements to capture the whole or parts of the artwork aligned to a field guide (Laybourne 1998). It would be unviable to  make horizontal pans using this animation stand setup  since it would require a more labour – and space – intensive physical lateral movement of the camera in relation to the artwork.

Different to Cholodenko’s (1991) “endowing with life” of a vehicle by animating the turning wheels, a bob of the suspension and the inertia of stop, starting. The resulting process of animating vehicle locomotion was instead to “endow with movement”, which was achieved by not animating the vehicle itself, but instead animating the background. It could be argued that it is actually a Stop-Motion technique in Torre’s (2019) definition of “manipulated” animation used in a predominantly “replacement” animation form. The process of filming Stop-Motion animation developed the technique of animating vehicles further through cinematography. The Wrong Trousers (1993, Nick Park) used a long exposure of the camera to capture a frame of animation while simultaneously moving the camera on the physical set. The train and camera were attached to a central rig that was moved along a six-metre-long track to create the horizontal truck shots that follow the characters of Feathers McGraw and Gromit on the train. The camera shutter was opened in a two second exposure as the train was pushed ten centimetres along. This effectively captured the real-time movement of the train and resulted in shots with a blurred background (and some foreground objects too) (see figure 1). The puppets and train were posed in their positions in front of the camera during these long exposures so that they remained sharply in focus (Lane 2004) and static, because it was the rig that the train and camera were attached to that was actually being animated to move across the set.

Figure 1. The Wrong Trousers (1993, Nick Park).

CG animation borrows techniques from the technological developments of both live action film production and traditional animated filmmaking. In regard to the process of constructing digital sets and props in CG animation, Lasseter and Daly (1995) state that Toy Story (1995, John Lasseter) contains “a truly contiguous chase, in real time. That has never been seen before”. A combination of the complete 360 degree contiguous digital set and the six degrees of freedom of the virtual camera results in incredibly varied cinematography in the chase sequence, given that CG removes the constraints of working in two dimensions and the boundaries of a physical stop-motion set. The Toy Story chase sequence is shot from multiple camera angles including the often-used wide angle profile view ubiquitous in traditional 2D animation, and comparable to the central rig that the train and camera were attached to in The Wrong Trousers. In analysing the shots, it can be inferred that there are cameras attached to the remote-controlled car with a three-quarter view, as well as  cameras attached to the front and back of the car. These different views of vehicle locomotion are similar to live action films and add to the drama, pace and storytelling of the film. Examples of other cinematography techniques used, but not often previously seen in animation, include the truck in and Dutch tilt of the three-quarter attached camera and the long shot from the lorry followed by a zoomed in view through the binocular toy’s point of view. The nature of CG animation also allows some physically difficult shots, such as the camera moving through objects like tyres and characters, and travelling underneath cars. 3D space is also emphasised in the view from inside the character Andy’s car, where we can see the parallax of the trees on the set. The contiguous nature of CG sets that Lasseter and Daly speak of allows for reuse and/or continuity in filmmaking. Continuity results in temporal and spatial realism as in  the case of Toy Story. But there is also a comparison to be made with the reuse of 2D animation looping background  as it is being interpreted from the bird’s eye view of the set in the rocket sequence, which reveals that we may be seeing the reuse of the ground, house and tree models (and their textures) which are possibly offset in their rotation and position in order to depict variation.

To summarize, the practical process of animating representational vehicles in these case studies is entwined with the progression of technological developments. Regarding the role of background sets, it can be inferred that the constraints of 2D and Stop-Motion animation enabled their own creative solutions. Such as in CG animation, which emulates conventional, realist temporal and spatial filmmaking techniques but also takes the camera to some impossible real-life positions.

Cholodenko, A. and Commission, A.F. (1991) The Illusion of Life: Essays on Animation. Power Publications.

Johnston, A.R. (2020) Pulses of Abstraction: Episodes from a History of Animation. University of Minnesota Press.

Lane, A. (2004) The World of Wallace and Gromit. Boxtree.

Lasseter, J. and Daly, S. (1995) Toy Story: The Art and Making of an Animated Film. Disney Editions.

Laybourne, K. (1998) The Animation Book: A Complete Guide to Animated Filmmaking – from Flipbooks to Sound Cartoons to 3-D Animation. Three Rivers Press.

Torre, D. (2019) Animation – Process, Cognition and Actuality. Bloomsbury Academic.

Claire O’Brien is an Artist, Animator and Lecturer. She has an MA in Computer Animation from Teesside University where she is currently Lecturing in the same subject. She has also lectured at Northumbria University in the past and her research interests are in Animation, Augmented Reality (AR) and Pedagogy. She recently presented at Teesside University’s Future Facing Learning conference on using AR as a tool in Higher Education. She is a member of the Society of Animation Studies and was a DigitalCity Fellow. She is also Co-Coordinator of Animex Screen, Teesside University’s International Student Film Festival which is part of the Animex Festival.