Animation, Illustration and Writing – Part 2: Planning

By Sarah Lynne Reul

(This is part two of a three-part series – part one focused on Iterations, and part three is on Observation.)

When starting a new project, sometimes I feel I have a split nature – half of me wants to succumb to infinite procrastination, imagining how great my creation could be without referencing reality…. while the other half wants to dive in recklessly, racing to a haphazard finish.   But before I do anything, I try to take a deep breath and tell myself that both of these urges come from a good place – taking time to think is quite important, and jumping right in can be a great way to overcome “fear of the blank page”.  By setting up a good plan, I can trick myself into being productive by indulging in both elements at the same time.

Animator J.K. Riki summed it up really well in his article Animation Thumbnails Aren’t Optional:   

More Work Now = Less Work Later

Careful planning is required to create really good solid animation (and, I think, picture books). When working on my three-minute thesis film for my MFA degree in 2D Animation, I used detailed spreadsheets to plan out which stages to execute in order to move from sketchy beginnings to a fully animated, colored film. The process ended up taking me 190 working days over 14 months (over 1,500 hours), and having those spreadsheets (along with storyboard and animatic and other iterations) were key to being able to move from one task to the next, to eventually reach the end of the project.

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 11.10.02 PM
Gantt chart showing breakdown of timeframe plan for production elements
Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 11.14.10 PM
One of my many spreadsheets – this one is for scenes to fix; includes “target” column to rate overall importance of the scene to the story (A, B, C) and color coding to show which scenes to attack next – orange = most pressing, blue = effects work only, green = tiny fix needed.

Animating a short film is an unwieldy, time-consuming adventure, but planning and tracking time spent can help increase efficiency and productivity. Now that I’ve shifted the focus to writing and illustrating picture books, the challenge changes:

post-it to do

After the complexity of an animation project, this might seem like a straightforward to-do item. However, I find it’s often a monster of a problem, with its own tangle of moving parts that must be wrestled into submission.   A gargantuan task like this is never going to get done all at once – at least, not in my chopped-up, few hours here and there kind of work life. So I’ve found that the workaround for me is to start with a plan.  With each new project, I try to decide how to break up the tasks into smaller, more digestible pieces.  I incorporate my split nature by rebranding it in a positive way:


  • What’s the overall theme of the story?
  • How might I want the composition of the pages to interact with the story?
  • Are there new techniques that I want to explore? (New software, handmade textures, linework styles?)
  • Where do I want to draw inspiration for this project? (Sometimes I might put together a pinboard with some references, or perhaps just jot down a few words like “retro screenprint, simple shapes”. )



  • Listing out a big mess of all the major steps (writing draft of text/determining arc of story, sketching composition dummy, collecting reference images, character design iterations, thumbnail sketches of environments/backgrounds, mocking up color palettes, experimenting with texture…), then crossing them out, recombining and rewriting them until it makes some kind of sense.
  • Planning out when to do each step (When is my next critique group deadline – can I finish the draft before then?) Setting realistic goals for when I can accomplish each goal, or working backwards – if I want to submit the final product by a certain time, how can I fit in the individual steps before then?
  • Incorporating this project into my monthly “production schedule” (How many hours/which days do I actually have to work this project over the next couple weeks – what are my other obligations?)

I might not use the same plan every time, but having my past processes documented helps me overcome the “how do I do this again?” phase.  I’ve fashioned my methods after other author/illustrators who have been generous enough to share their processes, including:

I also keep a timesheet for each project to help me track how long I’ve worked on on each stage.  This helps me avoid the pitfall of procrastinating due to a fear of a project taking FOREVER; I can look back at a similar project’s timesheet and see that “forever” was really only 33 total hours over the course of a couple months, which already feels way less impossible.

For me, planning and tracking my time can help me leapfrog the allure of unproductive procrastination and sidestep hasty work that ends up taking twice as long to repair.

How does planning play a role in your writing/illustrating work?

Sarah Lynne Reul is an illustrator, writer and award-winning 2D animator who likes science, bright colors and figuring out how things work. Learn more at


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