I sometimes call my animation classes “Ideas in Motion”. That phrase Is a summary of the big idea of my courses, that they will always be about teaching my students how to turn their own ideas into animations. While we do run through tutorial assignments when I introduce programs, my focus is on supporting students as they develop their own ideas into stories in animated form.

I have often been asked by other teachers what programs are necessary to run a program. I think its possible to run a really good program with open source, no cost software. However I also know, that for students who are headed for animation as a profession, there is an advantage to using the programs that have a wider user base.

You won’t see much copy and paste type of animation software in my list. I believe any student can create their own images and animations. As a teacher you have to change your expectations of the quality of those images, supporting students with positive feedback no matter what their level of drawing. Just as a teacher of English as a second language must start with whatever level of language the student has, a teacher of visual storytelling must begin with the skills they have and build from there.

Where To Start

Start by showing students examples of animations with visuals that are striking, characters that are appealing and stories that are captivating.

Show them shorts from the National Film Board of Canada website Canada has a long history of animation artistry as well as research into the science and technology of animation. Check out the artistry of Norman McLaren, the twisted humor of Cordell Barker and
Richard Condie, the human drama of Chris Landreth’s Ryan.

You can’t beat Aardmann Animation for stop motion artistry combined with well honed film making skill. Their web site is terrific as well, but requires the Flash Player.

Truly a wildly successful commercial company PIXAR is also wildly successful at making great movies, that just happen to be animated.

Beginning to Animate

I show students the purpose and form of a storyboard. These won’t be professional story boards but an introduction to the form. I compare the story board to a comic strip or comic book page, that uses images to provide a summary of the events. I review story concepts such as beginning, middle and end, rising action, protagonists and antagonists, and introduce elements of cinematography such as zooms, pans, depth of field, focal point. I also introduce the12 principles of Animation.

Just how deeply you want to explore the storyboard form and the theoretical aspects of storytelling and cinematography is up to you, and should largely depend on the age group of your students. I have found that some instruction in these areas is important though.

Open Source Software

Pencil – This is a great open source beta which has an excellent feature set: bitmap and vector images, layers, and follows traditional frame based drawing techniques of pencil drawings followed by cleanup drawing in ink and color.

Google Sketch Up – Free basic 3D graphic creation. It’s design more for architectural or engineering sketches, but its a simple introductory tool.

Blender – Advanced, almost professional 3D software, with lots of
features wrapped in a very bad interface. Best feature is a game engine and player. Worst feature – the least user friendly interface in any 3D program I have tried. Most things you want to do are accessed by keyboard shortcuts.


FLASH – Flash has now become much more than an animation program. The latest version Flash CS4 has added some seriously cool tools for animation, such as a joint based system for rigging, 3D transforms and faster and better controls for motion tweening. This won’t mean much if you are just getting into animation but trust me it’s a great upgrade.

TOONBOOM STUDIO – ToonBoom has a variety of programs for animation


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