The Differences Between Making An Animation Film And A Graphic Novel

animation film or graphic novel
animation film or graphic novel

By Farhan Q

Filmmaker and writer

Animation & Graphic Novels

Hi everyone my name is Farhan, I’m a filmmaker and writer from London.

I’ve been making animation both long form and short form for film and video games. I’ve worked as the lead artists for film and games companies including The Moving Picture Company (Harry Potter 3, 4, Alien vs Predator and Batman), Double Negative (Harry Potter 5), Aardman Animation (Pirates!), Splash Damage (Brink), Codemasters (Operation Flashpoint 2) and Lionhead (Fable). My IMDB page is here.

animation film or graphic novel

I did the crowd simulation on the CG bats in ‘Batman Begins’, I was lucky enough to do the series of shots where Bruce Wayne discovers his calling to become Batman. It was my shot that was chosen as the poster for ‘Batman Begins’, consideration for a VFX Oscar.

People ask me ‘what’s been the most fun project out of them all’ – the answer is working at Aardman on Pirates!, this movie was so much fun as the VFX and CG teams were fully embedded into the film production. It really was the most amazing place to work, we were nestled right into the stop motion animation sets, there were huge pirate ships, maquettes of the characters, green screens everywhere.

animtion film or graphics novel

A picture of the VFX artists on sets, couldn’t have hoped to have worked with such an awesome team – this picture gives you an idea of the scale of the sets.

animtion film or graphic novel

Working with the director Peter Lord was an amazing experience, I learnt so much from him and he was always willing to listen to some of my more hare-brained ideas.

I wrote my first book on Amazon shortly afterwards, called ‘VFX and CG Survival Guide for Producers and Filmmakers’ and which is a hands on guide on the production process especially written for the unique perspective of Producers and Filmmakers.

animation film or graphic novel
animation film or graphic novel

VFX & CG Survival Guide for Producers and Filmmakers has received numerous plaudits and 5 star reviews on Amazon.

animation film or graphic novel

I managed to hit the number 1 spot on Amazon under every relevant category for this book, even managing to outsell the hugely respected ‘Animators Survival Guide’.

I’ve also made independent film and animation where I’ve gone through playing every conceivable role in the pipeline, from writer to producer, from setting up render farms to pressing DVDs (yes, you remember DVDs they were a ‘thing’ once).

animation film or graphic novel
animation or graphic novel

From concept art to costing out a project I pretty much did everything on my first animated short ‘Digitopia: Discover Me.

The graphic novel

Fairly recently I embarked on publishing my first graphic novel – called ‘Digitopia’, in this post I’ll talk you through the creative, technical and production process of bringing a graphic novel to life and specifically the differences between making an animation and making a graphic novel.

So it was back in 2009 in fact that I wrote the original story of Digitopia as a screenplay. I spent around two years putting it together with a producer friend of mine named James. We had worked up the screenplay to its eight draft. Workshopped it, tweaked and polished it.

We had a tight synopsis and were ready to go for funding and then BANG!

The credit crunch kicked in, the economy fell into turmoil and all the funding bodies that we were approaching closed their funding channels – no more Film London, Arts Council, Film Boards up and down the country had their funding cut, so there was little to go around for the filmmakers to make their projects. Upset as we were about this, one feels a bit churlish to gripe about it when hospitals are closing up and down the country – you just have to get on with it and find ‘another way’.

Finding ‘another way’ is the best part of the journey

I’ve always hated filling out application forms, but it did mean we lost around eight months of prep time as we were preparing to approach all these companies. Though the prep work was not completely lost as we could reuse a lot of the collateral that we had built up.

I’ve always been the type of person who prefers making ‘stuff’ to filling out forms so this prompted me to do what it was that I wanted to do all along and that was to make the film. What we decided to was to take one scene from the movie and make that scene as a standalone film – an animated film at that.

So we kicked off a process to find a team of artists to help make the movie.

The finished project turned out really well, I had initially pitched this as a group project in my Animation Masters course at university – it didn’t get picked but a few years later I made the whole movie myself (except for the 2D GUI and sound) and learnt so much from it.

Spending time on your art vs technical vs production tasks

When making a movie many people can overlook the production work involved in making a movie or graphic novel – if I had to break up the process into how time is allocated I would say

  • About 25% of it is creative,
  • 50% technical actual work and
  • The remaining 25% of it is all related to the admin, scheduling and management of the production process.

Why is this 25% so significant? Well for starters it’s the 25% that is never accounted for when you set out on this process. It’s this 25% that keeps you working late at night and forces you up early in the morning to work, because if you either don’t play the role of the producer or have someone to specifically play it for you the whole production process will slow down and either stall or go off course.

Does the production process from an animated film differ from that of a graphic novel team?

So yes, conceivably, especially when I started out on this journey my impression was that a comic book has fewer moving parts than an animation. And it’s true, there are fewer elements, but the elements that are there come into much sharper focus. It’s like the evolution in computer graphics, just yesterday I was at VR world and they were showing some render engines that did near real time point cloud rendering in 4K (I think there was half a second delay as the camera tumbled around the scene). I thought wow, imagine if I had that a few years back when I was rendering out massive scale city visualisations. Well yes it definitely would have been faster to render out in real time and see the results but then the expectations would exponentially increase too and that’s the point with comic books having fewer moving parts.

Yes, there’s fewer items in the pipeline, but the expectation levels on those elements becomes that much higher and we can start to get really picky about the quality of the element.

Here’s a typical process flow for animation.

animation film or graphic novel

For a graphic novel the process is a lot simpler and linear looking like this:

animation fim or graphic novel

So you can see between the two there is quite a big difference in terms of how you would build the two out.

There is less complexity in designing a comic book, there are fewer moving parts and therefore less potential for things to break. The assets from one part of the system to the next can be passed on a lot easier and are smaller in size so there are fewer issues with storage and file transfers happened in under a minute.

In terms of the total size of storage you would need, you could do the whole project in under a couple of Gigabytes – whereas in an animation I would need separate folders for each element to be stored. The animation software I use most is Maya, which does a very nice job of organising your folder structure for you.

animation film or graphic novel

This is a typical folder structure for a 3D scene, each of these folders could easily run into a few Gb each – and this is for one single shot, you’re likely to have anywhere from dozens of these to hundreds of these.

So that’s the animation side of it, then there are next three stages which you need to introduce.

compositing side (that’s where you stick things together, add post production effects, colour correcting and all sorts of other wonderful things) music and sound editing where you piece everything together in a nice narrative.

The people, software and storage for each of these is a separate blog post in itself. Suffice it to say you don’t have these elements in a comic book or graphic novel.

How does an animation team differ from a graphic novel team?

So in terms of personnel, you don’t nearly need as many people in a comic book project. In fact Team Digitopia: The Graphic Novel is a core team of three of us. Whereas at the end of the credit list of Digitopia: Discover Me and Nitro Dust – there are some three dozen names.

Does having a smaller team make life easier?

Yes!

I won’t lie, the fewer people and the fewer dependencies there are the easier the job of producing one of these things is.

What I find the main difference between producing a film and a graphic novel is that with the graphic novel most of our time is spent talking about the story and the art. Whereas on a film most of our time is spent talking about the technical challenges and pipeline. Given the choice I’d rather spend my time talking about character arcs and panel/shot composition, which is how liberating I find working on the comic book.

Speaking of the team – how is it you put a team together

So for my animation projects I had a lot of industry contacts and experience which helped me a lot. Honestly I think if you don’t have any industry contacts and experience it will be very difficult to make an animated short – I mean it was hard enough with the contacts and experience.

But essentially I used for the animation I used LinkedIn groups to find the team. At first it seemed that this was the best place to start looking for a team to work with, but however the quality of the people who claimed to be able to do a particular task was varied. When you use these channels to find a team don’t be surprised to hear back from people who ‘don’t know what rigging was, but were willing to work hard and learn’ and would be animators who’ll link you to a YouTube video of a sphere translating from one side of a plane to another (not even rotating, just translating itself).

Now the difficulty now is to wade through all the applications to find out who is able to do the job with some degree of competence and uses whichever software you decide to work on – there are so many out there, while you could conceivably switch between them you will be adding another layer of complexity where things ‘will’ (not ‘can’ but ‘will’) fail when you transfer assets between software, not to mention a whole lot more pain and headaches to your life.

Whereas when I put together the team for Digitopia: The Graphic Novel I used a different approach – it was a few years later, and the battle scars from Digitopia: Discover Me taught me some valuable lessons.

I meticuolously researched the level and competency of people in different groups. I knew which group was made up of people who are hobbyists and have an interest in graphic novels and I knew which groups were made up of people who were serious about their crafts. I designed a web page which gave all the details of the project and at the end had a HTML form for them to fill out with the information that I needed.

animation film or graphic novel

 I wrote a comprehensive blog post on my blog which made sure that the artists applying knew what they are getting themselves into

Using this format I went to specific groups where I felt I’d get the best results from, there were two main groups, one a private Facebook group where you need to request permission to join (with the threat of being immediately thrown out if you spammed the group) and from Reddit who have a comic book collab sub-Reddit.

At first I posted in the groups pitching it as a free project. I did get some response, but it was all abuse about wasting the groups time and how I’d not get any serious artist willing to take on the role for free. They were right.

But with all things in life, it’s a learning curve, so I changed my approach and saved some money, and reposted stating that it would be paid. Suffice it to say the response was much better I got so many artists applying through my blog that I had to put a note at the top of the blog post saying that due to the sheer number of responses I can’t accept any more applications.

Again the quality levels varied, but on the whole the average quality level was a lot higher, when I targeted specific groups.

If you are going for it, be prepared to make mistakes and people to point out those mistakes to you, but don’t let it put you off. I’ve made so many mistakes in my projects, but they still have all come to fruition. During that time I’ve learnt so much, I’ve learnt things that couldn’t be taught at school. I’ve made so many friends along the way and there are now so many doors open to me – in fact just yesterday (from writing this) I met with the Head of Creative for a major film company talking about Digitopia: The Graphic Novel and the possibility of converting that into a motion comic and potentially an animated feature for his production company. None of this would be happening now, if I was afraid of failing and making mistakes – you shouldn’t let the fear of failure, getting it wrong stop you from pursuing your projects either – you’ll have a great journey if you embrace it.

I’m going to be writing a couple more articles taking you through the lessons I’m learning and the mistakes that I’m making as I make ‘Digitopia: The Graphic Novel’ in the upcoming months.

To learn more about the project and keep up to date with the ‘Digitopia: The Graphic Novel’ come and visit me at my website digitopiafilm.com, you’ll find a handy newsletter sign up form where you can stay in touch.

I’m also very active on Twitter