Not a lot is written about directing animation - especially for shorter forms like TV commercials, motion graphics, explainer videos and social media videos. Whatever the medium or duration the goal for the animation director is the same - to tell a good story.
Unlike the film director who can shoot a lot of takes, B-roll, and even invent unscripted shots on the fly, there's no such luxury in animation. The animation director gets one take, exact duration, no B-roll, no optional shots. Arguably the animation director's job is harder than the film director because she has to get it right the first time. Here's a brief look at what's involved for the short form animation director:
Script editing - what ends up on the screen is the director's responsibility, so if the director thinks the script needs adjustments, then better to make them here, before it goes any further into the production pipeline. This is not a reflection on the writer - who has already done the amazing job of creating something from nothing. All scripts are flawed - they are after all not a final work - but an unfinished film - the final draft is the one that ends up on the screen. The director might continue to make script adjustments at every step of the animation production process.
Visual Style - Sometimes the visual style may already be established in a previous film or dictated by a style guide. Other times the director in collaboration with the designer will arrive at a visual style. The director will pitch the visual style to the client, and when approved will oversee the asset build to make sure it stays on-design.
Storyboard - In animation, this is where most of the directing happens. Good storyboard artists are not just good at drawing, they understand the language of film and are really directors in their own right. However, sometimes in shorter animation forms like TV commercials and web videos, storyboard artists may not always be across film language or story. These artists might need direction to interpret the script - they may even need a thumbnail storyboard from the director. Board artists for example who mostly work on TVC's are sometimes not across narrative storyboarding as well as TV series board artists. The storyboard is where you find out what's wrong with the script - unforeseen problems usually emerge at storyboard stage and so refinement of the story is on-going as the film gets closer to the screen.
Vocal casting - the project may need to have vocal actors or voice over artists cast. The director will usually be involved in the selection of vocal talent, and will make recommendations to the client. Sometimes the project has vocal talent already assigned - perhaps from a previous film or commercial. In case you haven't already discovered this - voice over artists are usually not actors - so don't expect they will be able to perform a character, just because they have a voice. Characters need vocal actors.
Animatic - The animatic (sometimes call a leica reel or story reel) is where the director finds out what's wrong with the storyboard. Sequencing the storyboard panels on a timeline is a quick (cheap) way for the director to see if the transitions, timing, staging and continuity are all working seamlessly to tell the story in the best way possible. Skip the animatic stage at your peril - finding and fixing problems here is way, way easier than fixing them in animation.
Animation - If the pre-production process has been thorough, the animation stage is simply execution. The story heavy lifting is mostly done by this stage and the director should be mostly focussed on performance (or in the case of motion graphics - the choreography). It's not really the director's job to be looking at technical details like lip sync, turns or walk cycles - an animator should already be across these skills, or in a larger studio an animation lead will guide less experienced artists before presentation to the director. But if there are technical mistakes present, the director will find them and ask for a retake. The director will be mostly looking at the animator's interpretation of the performance - is it on-brief, on-character, optimal for the story. The director may identify some late improvements to the story as the process nears the finish line - hold a shot longer, adjust a camera angle, remove a shot, insert a new one, and so on.
Sound - the director will usually make the final calls on music choices, sound design and the sound mix, before presentation to the client.
Self-directing animators - often in a smaller studio, artists might play multiple roles - the storyboard artist might also be the animator for example, or the writer or producer might also be the director. Some animators self-direct, some don't. A self-directing animator will never say "…but I was just following the storyboard". Instead he will fix the issue or bring it to the director's attention. Animators in smaller studios are often self-directing because they might be the sole animator on a project, and may not have a director, so they have to be across the whole story. Unlike animators in a large studio, who are only focussed on the shots allocated to them, and probably don't even know the full story.
All animation projects - no matter how big or small, need a person to take creative ownership of it - to take it from script to screen, and to be responsible for making the story or message as good as it can be.