Exposure Sheets

In a complicated process like animation, tools like exposure sheets provide the structure necessary for the artistry on display to function as intended. Much like model sheets, exposure sheets serve a more behind-the-scenes role— often left unseen by the general public and instead exclusively made for internal use only. That said, you can understand why the general public would want to see a model sheet: they exhibit incredible pieces of artwork worthy of praise on their own. Meanwhile, their accountant cousin, the exposure sheet, focuses solely on the technical side of animation, specifically analyzing and clarifying the composure of the drawings on screen and translating it numerically. Countless animation fans would potentially buy a print of model sheet artwork; not as many would put a poster of an exposure sheet on the wall (I have thought about it, though). Put another way, a model sheet conveys the visual aspects of the animation, and the exposure sheet more so establishes the edit/montage of the drawings. However, exposure sheets serve an indispensable purpose in the animation pipeline that remains crucial to reflect on and celebrate. 

Exposure sheets— also referred to as X-sheets or Dope sheets— act as the instructional guide on how the animators should implement/draw the different drawings/frames for the final animation. Exposure sheets have persisted since the beginning of animated film— their name being a carry over from exposing the cel-frames to the camera. Typically, this part of the process occurs after the storyboard and layout artists have completed their work and after the production has a clear understanding of the visuals. Then, an exposure sheet gets created by the Timer— a role designed around writing exposure sheets— who annotate in excruciating detail exactly when each completed or potential frame of the animation will play. Although they may resemble an excel document that wants to hurt you or something Nicolas Cage would find on the back of the Declaration of Independence, exposure sheets serve as an integral part of any animation production because of how it helps properly communicate the plan to accomplish the final visuals. Particularly, that high level of clear communication remains especially important for productions working with a large number of animators and/or overseas studios— including countless shows ranging from The Simpsons to The Fairly Odd Parents to Naruto

To show an example of an exposure sheet, here’s a short animation I completed recently of a flower blowing in the wind as a bee flies behind. It’s a simple, fun, two-second loop that when I showed it to a professor the other day, he said that it “made him happy for the first time in fourteen years.” I still don’t know what to do with that. But, next to the animation, I’ve included its rough exposure sheet to help illustrate how they work. I haven’t gotten into using exposure sheets until recently, but I’ve found them to be a beneficial tool in the pre-planning stages of the animation.

The layout of an exposure sheet can sometimes have varying details from studio to studio, but, broadly, it contains several horizontal and vertical columns, with the horizontal rows denoting the frame and the vertical columns denoting what information gets shown during that frame. This information encompasses everything that happens on screen, no matter how minor; every time a character talks, moves, twitches, or blinks gets marked down on the exposure sheet— down to the exact twenty-fourth or even thirtieth of a second. Timers have to be attentive about including as much information as possible, so the expectation for the animator is as understandable as possible— but I cannot overstate how wildly specified Timers have to be in their notes. For instance, exposure sheets contain not just the dialogue of a given scene but the transcription of that dialogue written phonetically as a way of better illustrating precisely how the lips should move. Indeed, “transcribes” acts as the best description of exposure sheets— a transcript of the final animation down to every trivial motion or syllable. Consequently, it becomes easy to overlook the work of Timers because of how technical and back-stage their work is. However, it remains essential to both recognize and appreciate their hard work because— although maybe not as glamorous or exciting as some other animation positions— their technical proficiency allows the artistry of the animators to shine exactly as it should.

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