Discover the importance of background design and painting in animation and what a background artist does
If you’re an animated film fan, you probably remember the iconic opening scene of Disney classic The Lion King. The animals of the African Savannah begin to move as the sun rises. Each appears in a different and exuberant scene as they all start heading towards Pride Rock, to meet our hero: Simba.
These scenes (some static, others animated) are good examples of background design. From the start of the film to the end of the narration, each one helps establish the universe and tone. The procession of gnus, the jungle where Timon and Pumba live, the home of the hyenas… Every detail is designed and constructed to arouse different emotions in the viewer.
What’s the role of background design?
In animation, background design—which includes both the drawing and painting of the background—sets the stage and atmosphere for a scene, and for everything in that setting. The houses on a street, the trees and plants in a forest, the arrangement of things in a room, and even the lights in a square…
A background designer’s work guides the viewer’s gaze towards what’s important, beyond the contents of the scene and its dialogue. These artists define and apply the colors, shapes, and lights that set the tone of the fictional universe. They often work in fields like film, TV, and video games.
Whether it’s a city, a tropical island, or a fantasy realm, background art brings new worlds to life by creating a space in which characters can move and interact naturally and believably.
Good background design is not a bonus, it’s an essential part of an animation project because it adds scale, light, color, and texture to a scene—while also defining the atmosphere. A background designer can paint snowy mountains that sparkle in the sun or give the same scene a much darker, more sinister tone by adding long shadows descending from the peaks.
What skills does a background designer need?
A background designer’s main skills are: to build, color, illuminate, and illustrate settings. Their work creates subtextual visual information for viewers so they can immerse themselves in the narrative and enjoy a multi-sensory experience.
Background artists work from the animation storyboard, which they use to create detailed backgrounds that convey the feelings and emotions defined by the script and direction. In addition to color, shape, and light, they consider texture, movement, contrast, lines, and the rule of thirds.
Sometimes, several scenes use the same background, meaning multiple versions are created so they can be adjusted for the final cut. The background designer also focuses on the way in which objects in the foreground and background interact, to ensure that everything is harmonious.
In some cases, a background artist may work in partnership with a layout artist, who creates fully rendered black and white versions of the final backgrounds from the storyboards for every scene in the film. In such cases, the background designer becomes the background painter and uses digital or analog techniques to add color to the layout artist’s designs. This often happens at the major studios, due to the volume of work and tight production schedules
In short, a background designer needs the following skills:
– Advanced illustration skills to allow them to create a variety of styles.
– Extreme attention to detail.
– Mastery of color theory and its related concepts.
– Mastery of light, shape, and texture.
– Understanding of 3D composition, proportion, and stage design.
– Creativity to create and experiment.
– The ability to turn abstract concepts into images and settings.
The most common pro packages used in digital background painting are :
– Adobe Photoshop to edit static and 2D images.
– Blender, 3DS Max, Maya, Mudbox, ZBrush, Substance Designer, and Quixel for 3D modelling, sculpting, and painting.
– TVPaint and ToonBoom Harmony for 2D animation.