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What is Visual Development in Animation?

by | Sep 12, 2018

Nolen Lee—freelance artist, Punching Pandas creator, and new mentor—shares what a Visual Development Artist does and what inspired him to become one after starting out as a civil engineer. Learn more about the role of concept art and how it fits into the animation pipeline.

One of my side interests outside of art is cooking. I don’t claim to be a fancy chef, but at least I can prepare more than one meal that doesn’t consist of top ramen. Sometimes when I’m cooking, I can’t help but think about how making a beef stew can feel a lot like visual development.

So, what is Visual Development?

It can go by many names: concept art, design, illustration, etc. I like to think of it as visual organization with a purpose. A VisDev artist can design anything from backgrounds to characters to props to vegetation and even furniture. But a great VisDev artist also understands how all of those elements fit together to serve the whole much like how there is a reason behind the number and types of dishes that come out in a multi-course menu.

VisDev can also apply to all levels big and small from the entire menu to a specific dish. Like a well-made salad, all of the ingredients within a well-designed painting can produce a pleasing and memorable experience.

Origamisaur by Nolen Lee

How does VisDev relate to an animator?

After all, animation is constantly moving, and most of the time a keyframe image is seen for only 1/24th of a second, right? Actually, VisDev has a direct impact on animation. There’s a reason why animation in The Simpsons looks and feels much different than the animation in a Pixar feature, and the converse would feel strange and out of place.

In video games and films, certain poses and gestures are assigned to specific characters in a feature film to not only differentiate them from each other, but they should also be broad or restrained enough to fit in with the tone of the overall project. Doing otherwise would be like adding truffle oil to a drive-thru burger or serving a Twinkie in a Michelin star restaurant. You could do it, but it would probably feel out of place.

The truth is anything visual can benefit from VisDev which can include graphic design, print, illustration, comics, architecture, animation, videogames, VR, sculptures, toys, and board games.

An example of breaking down an image into shapes. Image by Nolen Lee.

Finally, why is VisDev important?

I’m going to push the cooking analogy as far as I can. Let’s say there’s a spaghetti recipe that you really like, so you buy all the ingredients, follow every step, and the result is a tasty spaghetti. But you only know how to follow the recipe step by step, and it’s the only thing that you know how to make. What would happen if you forgot a part of the recipe? Or what if you forgot to grab the pasta and only have a squash in the fridge? Or what if you try out another spaghetti at a restaurant and want to replicate the recipe? Many of us would have trouble figuring out what to do, but a competent chef would have the knowledge and fundamentals to make a tasty dish with the ingredients available.

A competent VisDev artist is like a chef who can make a tasty dish even if they don’t have the recipe. Understanding VisDev is like using all of the Friday night leftovers in the fridge and making a Michelin-star-worthy dish.

Incredible Concept Art by Eyvind Earle for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty

Back when I was looking to switch from engineering to art, I thought I had a better shot at being an animator than a designer because I didn’t believe I had the skills to be a VisDev artist. While I was practicing my drawing, I would read and hear about design principles and concepts, but wouldn’t actively think about them as I was making my art.

Monsters and Dames by Nolen Lee

It wasn’t until much later that I decided to focus on internalizing those principles that my work began to show a marked improvement. It took many years of trial and error to reach the level that I am at now, but the times that I made the quickest improvement came through the instruction and feedback of others who have traveled the road ahead of me. Because of that improvement in my design skills, I actually became more adept as an illustrator than as an animator.

War Pandas by Nolen Lee

I will be teaching a six-week workshop starting this Fall on the principles of design where I will share with you the basics of design, how to train your eye to see design, and how to implement those basics into your art. If you’re craving for improvement in your art, consider making a reservation for the workshop at Animation Mentor. Bon appetit!

Be sure to check out our other new workshops, Intro to Digital Painting and Previsualization Basics for Animators.

Learn visual development and concept art from Nolen!

Visual Development Artists—also called Concept Artists—have a huge impact across the entire entertainment industry, from animation, to live-action films, to video games, and beyond!

Get started with the foundational skills used by any Visual Development Artist, Concept Artist, Character Designer, or Environmental Designer and explore the wide world of Visual Development.

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