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Animator and Illustrator Mia Rico wanted to explore her interest in animation and layout under the guidance of an industry expert. Using her existing design skills and newfound knowledge, she made four amazing scenes. Check out Mia’s process, including:

  1. Magic Inspiration
  2. Thumbnails
  3. Treehouse Design
  4. Hadrosaurus Village
  5. Focal Points
  6. 3D Perspective
  7. Final Project

Hi! My name is Mia Rico and I’m an animator/illustrator from New Jersey. I currently work as a junior animator but I’ve been interested in background design for TV animation for a while now. I’ve always loved developing stories with my own unique characters and environments and I started creating backgrounds in my own time. After producing some of my own projects, I craved a more solid foundation so I decided to take Background and Layout for Animation with Jonathan Hoekstra to learn more from an industry professional.

1. Magic Inspiration

I’m usually inspired by backgrounds from studios such as Disney TVA, Cartoon Network, and Nickelodeon so I thought the whimsy of The Magic Treehouse series would work perfectly as my animated series. Especially because they were some of my favorite books growing up. As there are many books in the series, I reread the first one and used it as the backbone for my project.

It was important for me to capture the feeling of nostalgia from these books. So along with referencing real-world architecture, I also referenced some of my favorite movies and video games. I made sure to watch treehouse building videos and take screenshots of any small details I could mix in with my designs.

Due to the multiple locations that I tackled in this class, I gathered various references for each background.

2. Thumbnails

While creating my thumbnails, I wanted to focus on the vastness of this world. I always made sure to think of how the characters would move or act in the scene.

Watch Storyboard Artist Lanny Markasky discuss the functions and benefits of thumbnails.

The path to the focal point was always an important factor I kept in mind. I also mainly focused on creating wide shots So I could really showcase the details in the background. I made sure to keep my thumbnails very loose and sketchy. This was to prevent getting too caught up in cleaning them up and ultimately losing the flow of the original sketch.

Scroll to see Mia’s initial thumbnails.

After receiving Jonathan’s feedback, I realized I could have been a little tighter and more thoughtful with my general shapes and composition. Certain thumbnails felt too cramped as I didn’t give focal points enough breathing room. One mistake I kept repeating was I didn’t allow framing pieces like tree trunks to leave the frame cleanly, leaving awkward gaps around the edges of the compositions.

Scroll to see Mia’s thumbnails with Jonathan’s feedback.

3. Treehouse Design

In the “To the Treehouse” piece, I focused on designing the exterior of the treehouse and the forestry around it. Specifically for the treehouse, I came across Art Nouveau architecture in my research. With its unique winding shapes, I thought it fit perfectly. The treehouse was originally a plain shack in a tree but I imagined it more as a magical library or treetop village that would expand every time the children would come back from one of their adventures. I also aimed to bring these whimsical shapes into nature along the path to the treehouse.

Jonathan stressed the importance of the shape-language principle: big, medium, and small. Not only does this apply to compositions, but props must also take this into account. I tried to utilize it in every design choice I made.

Following this principle helps to break the monotony of similar shapes and in some areas, even helps guide the eye with cascading shapes towards the focal point. For example, I felt my first treehouse design didn’t have enough differentiating shape-language, so I pivoted to new designs when I felt more comfortable with “big, medium, small,” and ultimately chose design 2.

Enroll in Background and Layout for Animation taught by Matte Painter, Concept Artist, and Visual Development Artist Jonathan Hoekstra.

4. Hadrosaurus Village

The children in the book also stumble upon a nest of Hadrosaurus eggs, but I imagined it as a Hadrosaurus village they walk into that they have to help save from a rampaging Tyrannosaurus rex. With the keyword “egg-hut” in mind, I gathered different inspirations for this village and even looked into my own heritage and native Filipino Nipa huts. I aimed for a more prehistoric tropical South Pacific/Southeast Asian feel as this world is separate from the children’s modern-day treehouse. I also found a lot of egg houses in modern architecture, so those helped to inform some of the design.

With my new reference, I made sure to incorporate egg and dinosaur-themed items throughout the scene, even going so far as to make the cobblestone Hadrosaurus footprint-shaped. I didn’t want to make it entirely prehistoric as I made sure to add some modern touches like a diner and fountain. This way, the characters could have some familiarity in their adventures.

My favorite part about designing backgrounds is also adding puns and hidden easter eggs. I had fun including buildings such as a “Diner-saur” and making the house number “1858” which is the year the Hadrosaurus fossil was discovered.

5. Focal Points

We were taught to focus on establishing our focal point first and then build out and create elements that would help guide the viewer towards it.

First, we were given the task of establishing a focal point in a scene with an existing style. I chose to mimic the style of Klaus with the book series Avalon: Web of Magic. I made the focal point the portrait of the man and two tigers, since this is a point in the story where the characters walk into the manor for the first time and are introduced to the portrait of the supposed owner. Along with items and paths guiding the eye to the portrait, I made sure the lighting also pointed towards it.

For the Treehouse piece, I first created a general path where I wanted the characters to travel. Then, I populated the surrounding areas with elements that would either frame or lead the eye to the focal point. Branches and background mountains cascade towards the treehouse while trunks frame both sides of the treehouse.

For the Dino Village, I originally struggled with whether I wanted the village sign or fountain to be my focal point. After receiving feedback, my instructor suggested prioritizing the village sign due to the contrast between its dark shape and the light background behind it. I then decided to make the fountain shoot water up, leading the eye towards the sign.

In the Treehouse Nook, I made the focal point the floating acorn orb and then supported this by centralizing it. I also utilized scene lighting by pointing sun rays from the window toward the acorn.

Trying to focus on improving your focal points? Explore CGMA’s Composition for Concept Art and Illustration taught by Freelance Concept Artist/Illustrator Axel Sauerwald and Art Director/Concept Artist Mauricio Abril.

6. 3D Perspective

With all of my pieces, I utilized 3D software, specifically Unity, to quickly help tighten my general perspective. I still made sure to double-check perspective afterward to fix the software’s flaws, especially when it came to the details I didn’t include in the model.

This was the first time I used Unity for background design. I’m more familiar with other 3D programs for this process. But I found that Unity was surprisingly helpful with the real-time lighting to establish lighting early on.

Scroll to see Mia’s 3D scenes.

7. Final Project

While there were still revisions for me to make to my pieces after the class, I was very proud of the work I created and had a lot of fun. I have made revisions to most of my pieces, taking into account the feedback I received from Jonathan.

In the Avalon piece, I changed my focal point to the characters looking up at the portrait. Jonathan suggested this and mentioned that characters will always be the focal point.

For the exterior of the Treehouse, I flipped the piece as it reads better from left to right.

I adjusted lighting in the Dino Village to pool around the fountain and lead the eye to the sign.

Lastly, I ended up changing the magical acorn in the Treehouse nook to Merlin’s floating head as Jonathan suggested that would be more interesting and eye-catching. So I then decided to make this the area where the children would take books from the library to be transported to the next world and where Merlin would communicate with them.

For my next steps, I would like to revisit my first piece, the exterior of the treehouse, and match it to the style of the Dino Village and Treehouse Nook. Eventually, I would like to color all of these and continue creating backgrounds for this story to populate my portfolio.

Final Thoughts

  • I chose to take this course because of my growing interest in background design. I wanted to challenge myself in a new avenue. I’ll take this new knowledge and apply it to my career. I was actually able to design a background for a project in my current job, so it was exciting to utilize my newfound knowledge in a professional setting.
  • Jonathan Hoekstra is very insightful about the industry given the number of years he’s worked in it. I learned many helpful tricks that I never heard of when in school. Not only does he teach you important art principles, but he also provides general portfolio and industry advice. I was incredibly grateful for all of the notes he provided and was eager for every one of them as I knew they’d only help make me a better artist.
  • While I learned a lot of helpful ideas and tricks in this class, the most impactful philosophy for background and layout animation I learned in this class was to base all of my design choices on supporting the focal point. Whether that be through lighting, proportion, composition, color, or shape-language, a background’s purpose is always to support the focal point. Establishing that early on in the thumbnailing phase is the most important part and each step after that should have the focal point in mind.
  • I would definitely recommend this course. Starting out, I did not expect the amount of information and experience I would gain from taking this class. I am now armed with the knowledge of what it takes to be a background artist in entertainment.

LEARN MORE

CGMA provides comprehensive instruction for Art, Games, and VFX industries in a variety of courses for a range of students, from 2D and 3D artists looking to supplement their college studies to industry professionals looking to stay up to date on emerging trends and techniques in the field.

RELATED LINKS

Check out more of Mia’s work on her Instagram or her website!

Watch Storyboard Artist Lanny Markasky discuss the functions and benefits of thumbnails.

Enroll in Background and Layout for Animation taught by Matte Painter, Concept Artist, and Visual Development Artist Jonathan Hoekstra.

Trying to focus on improving your focal points? Explore CGMA’s Composition for Concept Art and Illustration taught by Freelance Concept Artist/Illustrator Axel Sauerwald and Art Director/Concept Artist Mauricio Abril.