The Ins and Outs of Marvel Animation

Final Animated Still of Storm - Marvel Animated Cartoons - HeroWiz

It takes a lot of artists and creative talent to develop the Marvel animation art that we all love. The amount of effort that goes into each episode of Ultimate Spider-Man or Wolverine & The X-Men is astronomical so we thought we’d break down the process a bit and give you all a glimpse behind the scenes (so to speak). We found a great scene of Storm from the 2009 animated series “Wolverine & The X-Men” to get us started.


Marvel’s animated cartoons run at a speed of 24 frames per second (fps). The motion is “shot” on the two meaning that one drawing is shown for every two frames of film… or roughly 1440 animated drawings PER MINUTE of animated action. There is some variation to this as faster movements require less frames, while more fluid movements require more frames. For the average Marvel animated TV series, there can be between 30,000 – 50,000 of hand-drawing work to create 22 minutes of a tv show. How do they do it?

Well it begins with a script and a storyboard… these original images from Wolverine and The X-Men storyboard artist Al Bigley showcase how the script is pulled into a sequence of drawings with direction and dialogue. Once the script and storyboard are finalized we get into the animation process itself… breaking apart each scene into animation folders that setup the pieces.

Storyboards by Al Bigley for Wolverine & The X-Men


First, a Scene Setup is created (like the one shows here of Storm). Usually drawn by the art director, this scene setup is a complete image to show the animations a rough idea of the end result. This scene setup gives the master animator an idea of all the elements needed for production. These drawings are usually a bit rough, but colorful to showcase the end animation goal.

Scene Setup - Marvel Animated Cartoons - HeroWiz


Next, the Master Animator re-draws the scene as a layer setup, separating out each of the elements in a scene that contain motion onto individual pieces of art.

Layer Setup - Marvel Animated Cartoons - HeroWiz


Third, Keyframes are drawn by the master animator. These are tha main images of a scene (usually the first, middle and last image of a particular scene). You can tell these keyframes in the final art by a symbol that looks like the letter F with extra lines through it. This symbol showcases if the motion is shot “on twos.” What do we mean by “on twos”? One drawing is shown every two frames of film (running at 24 fps), meaning there are only 12 drawings per second. Faster movements require less frames and those are usually animated “on ones”, as “twos” are too slow to convey the motion adequately. Mixing the two techniques keeps the visual movement feeling smooth but more fluid movements require more frames so “on threes” so on may be used.
Diagram A shows the keyframe mark and layer position.
Diagram B shows that this belongs to Layer C, Drawing 5.

Keyframe - Marvel Animated Cartoons - HeroWiz



Next, Tweens are developed. Tweens (also called inbetweens) are done by the studio artists and apprentices. These drawings are the frames that sit in between the keyframes to create motion on screen. For every motion, eye motion, mouth movement, hand movement, etc. within an animated series there are layers of tween pages to create that motion. In the tweens shown below you can see the motion of Storm’s hair while the red lines indicate her body position.

Tween - Marvel Animated Cartoons - HeroWiz



The animator creates an exposure sheet (also called a dope sheet or x-sheet) to outline all the layers of art needed to create a scene. Then it’s onto coloring and animation! A colorist from Wolverine & The X-Men, Peter V Nguyen, has some great insights on his DeviantArt page into the process of creating that depth and brightness when coloring Storm.
The end result ends up being a vividly colored, animated piece of one of the X-Men’s most famous mutants (final sequence visible around the 2:20 mark)…

See the available animation art at

Joe Giordano

Joe is a comic and art lover to the core. A lifelong creative himself he utilizes his passion for comics, animation and art on a daily basis as the fearless leader of

  • 30,000-50,000 drawings PER episode? WHOA. I knew it was a lot but WHOA.

  • Joe Giordano

    Makes my hand hurt just thinking about it.