Keyframe Illustrator

The role, salary, software and skills of a keyframe illustrator

Student work by Katinka Thorondor

What does a keyframe illustrator do?

Keyframe illustrators sketch out pivotal scenes in a script to establish looks, timings, camera angles, and points of view, often sequenced as short storyboards. In filmmaking, they are a visual guide to how live-action films will be shot, especially complex scenes requiring special effects, chase sequences, tight choreography, etc. In animations, they identify how crucial or visually definitive scenes will play out.

They illustrate the midway point between concept art and final shot. These are definitive images from the work that establish its style, thus operating as key artwork. 

The work of a Keyframe Illustrator is vital as it sets the tone and look of major set pieces. In the case of film they work with the director to visualize the major or big budget sequences in the film, storyboarding the scenes as a reference for the filmmaking process. In the case of animation they illustrate the scenes that express major plot points and climaxes in the production.

Keyframe illustrator job description

The role of the Keyframe Illustrator is to sketch out key scenes in a script. The keyframes establish the look, timings, camera angles and points of view of the sequences, and they can be sequenced as short storyboards. In filmmaking these illustrations operate as a visual guide to how live action will be shot, especially complex scenes that require special effects, chase sequences, tightly choreographed sequences, etc. In animation they will identify how crucial or visually definitive scenes will play out. 

The Keyframe Illustrator works closely with the director to illustrate their vision of key scenes. In filmmaking cinematographers, gaffers and editors will use these illustrations from pre production to post production. In animation these illustrations will be a reference for how to animate key scenes as well as influence the rest of the production. 

Role and responsibilities of a keyframe illustrator for film and games:

  • Liaising with writers, animators and directors regarding the look, style and level of detail required for the keyframe sequences
  • Reading and interpreting scripts
  • Breaking down the script with the director to identify key scenes and planning them visually
  • Sequencing the scenes from a script into illustration or storyboard format 
  • Including special effects in the keyframes
  • Identifying lighting requirements and articulate circles of tension within each scene
  • Including key dialogue or scene directions within each frame
  • Briefing animators on keyframe sequences
  • Amending scenes during the course of production 

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Skills required to become a keyframe illustrator for film and games

The Keyframe Illustrator works closely with the director to give graphic representation to their vision of the script. They need strong visual storytelling skills to bring the scenes to life and identify important production and narrative elements of the scenes.

Employers may look for the following skills in a keyframe illustrator:

  • Ability to collaborate effectively with concept artists, writers, directors, clients, etc to visualize the scenes 
  • Strong portfolio of original work
  • Training in animation or filmmaking
  • Presentation skills
  • Fluency in visual storytelling 
  • Knowledge of various styles and genres of film and animation
  • Talent for sketching
  • Photography skills can be beneficial
  • Understanding of the principles of animation
  • Knowledge of the principles of storytelling, ie: the Hero’s Journey
  • Able to interpret the ideas of others into detailed drawings
  • Analytical skills
  • Strong layout and design skills
  • Ability to work quickly and react to last-minute changes
  • Adaptability in working with different directors who will demand varying degrees of complexity from keyframes and storyboards
  • Equally skilled in hand drawing and computer drawing
  • Solid knowledge of camera angles and cinematography techniques
  • Editing skills

What software and tools do keyframe illustrators use?

Keyframe Artists can work with simple pen and paper or with computer software. On animated sequences, they will use 2D and 3D animation software. 

Keyframe illustrators may need knowledge of a combination of the following software:

  • Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator
  • Toon Boom Harmony
  • Maya
  • 3D Studio Max

How much does a keyframe illustrator make?

Keyframe Illustrators fall under the category of Illustrator pay scales, with an average salary ranging from USD $32,00 to USD $77,000.

*Source: Glassdoor

To learn more about this field, visit: What is Digital Illustration? 



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