The Chicago Reader reached out to me with a request for a short animated video to call attention to a joint fundraiser between the forty-three members of Chicago Independent Media Alliance (CIMA). Throughout the project, I used the city of Chicago as my inspiration—a city I moved to for college, a city I’ve grown to love. One of the images that struck me as quintessential was the experience of riding the L train and seeing the back porches of apartments with little windows into people’s lives. This image drove the entire video, displayed above!
My Animation Process
The Reader finished the audio recording of the script and sent it to me with a copy of the text. They mentioned that they wanted to see a lot of diversity of different people reading the news in various ways—one of the lines in the script is “CIMA members need your support to keep representing authentic, community voices, from the African-American, Latinx, Asian, LGBTQ, youth, arts, and other Chicago communities.” Using this information, I drew up a quick, rough storyboard.
The first frame depicts a young man walking to a newspaper box to pick up a copy of the Chicago Reader.
Once I had the approval from the Reader team, I had five days to complete the entire project so I had to move pretty fast! I started by Googling various elements that would be included in each shot to help with my drawing. As someone who just started drawing in September, I do a lot of hand-tracing with Illustrator’s pen tool to help make sure the proportions for everything are appropriate.
For the first frame, I looked up a young man, a newspaper box, the L (had to make it clear that it was Chicago right from the start), and some images of the “walk cycle” so I could remember the way legs move. I also created a muted color scheme to keep things consistent.
Tracing and Placing
From the reference images, I traced over certain parts of each image and put them together on one panel to see how things looked. During this process, I often use neon outline colors because it helps me differentiate the elements.
I free-hand drew a street and sidewalk (that’s easy enough) and decided it was ready to go.
I use the Illustrator paint bucket tool to turn the entire image into a digital color-by-number. Of course, it isn’t perfect, so I spent some time zooming into each pixel and perfecting the image. I smoothed the lines, edited the bezier curves, and made sure all of the lines connected without gaps. Once the image was coloring-page-perfect, I was ready to add the color.
Adding Some Color
This is the fun part! I grabbed my muted color scheme and used the eyedropper to add it to my color swatch. There is no science to this, since it was the first panel—I started dropping things until I liked the way everything looked. Of course, I had to go off the palette for a green grass color and skin tone, but I added both of those shades in other places throughout the animation to keep things clean.
Highlights and Shadows
For the final, polished look, I dropped the image into Photoshop and went over the entire thing with a small, soft brush. I used black and white for shadows and highlights, toning down this layer of dimension until it looked subtle. With such a limited color palette, adding this shading keeps the image from looking too flat.
I sent still images of each “storyboard” panel to The Reader for approval. With only two days until publishing—the drawing process took me three—it was time to animate!
On this first slide, I broke the man apart into each of his movable joints. This was a pretty rushed process, so to save myself time, I didn’t make his right arm or his head mobile. I just put his hand in his pocket.
With all of the pieces ready to go, it’s time for the easy part: Adobe After Effects. I separated each of the “panels” into different compositions and aligned each with the audio. It was really cool to see all of the moving pieces come together! Return to the top of the page to see the full video.