A Plan for Animation Production

 

Preface

            This document is starting out informal and will hopefully become more formal and structured as it progresses.

 

SECTION I: The production crew

This section outlines the various roles required to create an animated short with limited personnel and finances. Some of these roles may be combined, some would be difficult to combine. Much of this depends on the amount of time each team member is willing to commit to the project.

 

1.   Full Time Roles

1.1. Production Manager

1.1.1.     Job Description: This is probably the most intensive and least fun role in the team. The production manager is responsible for all of the major project decisions and is the ultimate authority. This person sets the timeline for the project, has final say on the story selection, talent selection, storyboard revisions, goals, meeting agenda, and so on.

1.1.2.     Job Requirements: (included some sample questions to ask yourself here as this is a tough job)

Š      Good people skills and a good judge of character. EX: If someone is a great artist, but a difficult person, are they a good potential member of your team?

Š      The ability to make solid and steadfast decisions, even if they are unpopular. EX: Is an extra character really needed, can one or more roles be combined?

Š      Able to resolve conflicts and make compromises. Animators A and B both feel they should get to do the main character. If you give the role to one, how do you assuage the feelings of the other?

Š      Must have a comprehensive view of the project and progress and make a realistic timeline. Person A is not pulling their weight, how do you handle it?

 

1.2. Director of Animation

1.2.1.     Job Description: Organizes the animation team, this person must handle the delicate task of ensuring that artwork of various animators meshes up. For small production, this title covers several tasks. Generation of the master timing sheet, authority on shot sizes and angles. Authority on matching motion of multiple characters/props animated by different people (matching key frames) Final say on character and prop designs. You probably won’t get to do as much animation as you’d like. For such a lofty title, you’ll end up with a lot of schlock jobs.

1.2.2.     Job Requirements:

Š      Solid math skills.

Š      Animation experience.

Š      Good eye for composition.

Š      Strong working knowledge of visual storytelling techniques.

Š      Ability to herd cats, uphill, in a blizzard, with a loose-leaf folder.

Š      Possibly some mentorship.

 

1.3. Senior Animator

1.3.1.     Job Description: This person probably handles the main character and will be expected to have the highest volume of output.

1.3.2.     Job Requirements:

Š      Dedication and sustained high-volume output.

Š      Solid animation skills. Good understanding of physics and finesse.

 

 

1.4. Secondary Animator(s)

1.4.1.     Job Description: This title covers character and effects animators. Basically, you animate. For a small project, you will be responsible for doing your own in-betweens and pencil tests.

1.4.2.     Job Requirements:

Š      Good understand of physics and motion.

Š      Humility

Š      (This is probably where I fit in an animation group)

 

1.5. Grumpy Gnome

1.5.1.     Job Description: I don’t know what to call you. Production assistant or secondary producer, maybe? You keep everyone organized. You make sure the producer is doing their job, force the animators to neatly label and file their work, bicker with the producer, director of animation, and sound lead about the practicality of everything. You probably have your hand in finance. You do all the little tasks that get ignored by the hotshots. You are usually very cranky but are good-natured at heart and really care about the success of the project. You probably take meeting minutes. You are also probably the continuity checker because you like that sort of thing.

1.5.2.     Job Requirements:

Š      Strong organizational skills.

Š      Obsessive desire to file things.

Š      Nagging voice.

Š      Focus

Š      Shorthand or fast typing skills.

 

2.   Part Time Roles

2.1. Screenplay Writer

2.1.1.     Job Description: You adapt the story to the screen. Your job is key to the end quality of the project. You’re the person that everyone hates for letting those farting statues get into Disney’s ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’, even though we realize you probably weren’t given much choice.

2.1.2.     Job Requirements:

Š      Strong writing skills.

Š      Solid understanding of the methods of visual storytelling.

 

2.2. Story Board Artist

2.2.1.     Job Description: Translate the screenplay into a storyboard. Interact with director of animation to discuss how each scene should be visually presented. Interact with Sound lead.

2.2.2.     Job Requirements:

Š      Strong understanding of methods of visual storytelling

Š      Good people/compromise skills.

 

2.3. Sound Lead

2.3.1.     Job Description: You find the voice talent, Foley, and music and assemble it into a glorious harmonious symphony. You are very important, but under-appreciated in the quality of animated films. You will also probably be the sound mixer in a small-staff project. You should work closely with both the Director of Animation and the Story Board Artist.

2.3.2.     Job Requirements:

Š      Direction of vocal talent.

Š      Solid understanding of audio emphasis in visual storytelling

Š      Wide vocabulary of music.

Š      Sound mixing experience.

 

2.4. Voice Talent

2.4.1.     Job Description: You talk, maybe scream, yell, cry, laugh, etc.

2.4.2.     Job Requirements:

Š      Ability to emote strongly with voice alone.

Š      Patience to be put through ‘Just one more take’

 

2.5. Foley

2.5.1.     Job Description: Make noise.

2.5.2.     Job Requirements:

Š      Find, capture, and create cool sounds.

 

2.6. Photographer

2.6.1.     Job Description: You photograph animation (and pencil tests if the animators bribe you) You must be able to follow the cryptic directions of the Director of Animation on how to do various zooms and pans.

2.6.2.     Job Requirements:

Š      Follow directions.

Š      Operate animation compound.

Š      Camera operation.

 

2.7. Digital Transfer Technician

2.7.1.     Job Description: Transfer photographed art to computer for cleanup, ink and paint. Yours is probably the most boring job in the team but fortunately it’s relatively short.

2.7.2.     Job Requirements:

Š      Download images from camera to computer

Š      Break photos apart into clips

Š      Apply filters to correct work of photographer as needed.

2.8. Inker

2.8.1.     Job Description: You trace pictures. This could be done either on paper or digitally using a tablet, so your job could come before or after photography, depending on setup.

2.8.2.     Job Requirements:

Š      Patience

Š      Steady hands

 

2.9. Digital Painter

2.9.1.     Job Description: Color inked works. You have a miserable job. You’ll hate animators for not closing areas so you can just use flood fills. Still. Your job is important. It is the final thing that really brings life to the piece.

2.9.2.     Job Requirements:

Š      Patience

 

2.10.              Compositer

2.10.1.  Job Description: You put everything together. The layers of finished cells, scenes, and audio tracks. You’re probably the Director of Animation being a glory hog. If not, you work very closely with him/her.

2.10.2.  Job Requirements:

Š      Strong understanding of visual storytelling.

Š      Solid experience with non-linear editing systems.

 

2.11.              Marketing

2.11.1.  Job Description: You sell refrigerators to Eskimos. You radiate oiliness, you usually try to get the largest cut of any profits. In this sort of project, you’re out of luck. Instead, you figure out how to get this thing seen by people. Check dates of various film festivals and competitions, probably manage a webpage and try to drum up dedicated fans starved to hear about any progress the project has made.

2.11.2.  Job Requirements:

Š      Contacts (not lenses)

Š      Good people skills

Š      Understanding of legalese or ability to hire someone who does.

 

 

 

SECTION II: Getting Started

 

This plan outlines near-zero budget animation projection. As yet, it is untested and only theory based on personal experience. Everything stated herein could be totally wrong or different from your experience. This is, however, a living document and may be altered at any time as my knowledge and experience grows.

 

1.     First thing is first. Who is your producer? Settle that, and you have an authority figure for settling every other issue. Put some serious thought into this. It’s not a position to be taken or assigned lightly. You want Captain Ahab’s determination and command but you want him/her to listen to Quiqui too!

2.     What are your resources? Financial, artistic, time, equipment, talent, etc, etc, etc. For this model, time is the utmost important resource. Early on, everyone should agree to time commitments, even if only 5 hours a week. Team members may need to be strictly held to these commitments. ‘I got bored’ is the death knell of many projects. Treat it like a real job, but be honest with yourself. Plan for eventualities in your life and other interests. Don’t say ‘I can put in 20 hours a week’ without considering how you’ll manage your day job and social life. Most of the other resources can be faked or sidestepped with a bit of ingenuity. Equipment and processes in particular will be discussed in more detail in following sections.

3.     What are you making? This is the first ‘fun’ step. What do you want to make? What is it about? What does it mean? A brainstorming session and discussion between all members of your team is vital here! You need buy in from everyone about what it is you want to create and how you can all compromise to translate the many ideas into a single clear vision.

4.     How are you going to make it? This is where you address all of the technical challenges of creating your project. How do you match shots between artists who may live on the opposite side of town from one another or even the country? Do you want to do all your work in the computer or totally traditional, or a mix? What is going to be the look and feel of your piece? This is a great point at which to do a 30-second commercial for your planned project. Use it as a ‘proof of concept’. Use all the steps you would for the full project. Storyboard it, and make it piece by piece. It will prove that your process can work and everyone can work together, the finished result will energize the team and it will give your production company a useful tool for advertising itself and building external interest. It also gives everyone a feel of the commitment involved and whether or not they can really work together as a part of this team.

5.     The real work begins. This again, from my experience is smoothest order to do things in but your mileage may vary.

5.1.  Brainstorm and identify the story your group wants to tell. Everyone should be involved at this step.

5.1.1.     Compromise, a lot.

5.1.2.     Don’t be over-ambitious.

5.1.3.     Everyone has 50 brilliant ideas burning sunspots in their brain, but you can’t put them all in this time. Save some for the next project.

5.1.4.     Stay open-minded. Each and every member of the team has a pet project or character in their mind. Maybe some of these characters get combined into one or two characters. Maybe they’re just a sidekick or extra or maybe they don’t fit this piece. Everyone will have to give up some of their desires to really make it come together. Perhaps they fit better in the next piece.

5.2.  Screenplay. Based on the brainstorming and notes of the Grumpy Gnome, the screenplay writer is now faced with the most arduous of tasks: Making everyone happy. It is wise to get the producer drunk so they’ll sign off on your work. Wiser still would be to plan at least two or three revisions with input from the whole team. Ultimately though, your target audience is the director and the producer. Get as much buy-in as you can but keep your story solid.

5.3.  Set and Character design. While the screenplay is being written, animation and art staff should be putting together some rough concepts of what things will look like. It might be wise for every artist to make at least two different interpretations of each character, both with cleaned-up stills and rough pencil tests of some basic motion that expresses the aspect of their personality you most want to emphasize.

5.4.  Storyboarding. In my opinion, this is best done as an open forum. Everyone discusses what camera angles and visual foci would most dramatically present your story. Then the director and storyboard artist should work together to translate everything into a rough draft of the story board.

5.5.  Character and set selection. This should happen at the same time as the rough draft of the storyboard to help solidify the look and feel of the project.

5.6.  Initial sound-track: Based on the initial storyboard, build a sound track with a first pass of the dialog. Foley effects do not need to be completed at this stage, but first pass of dialog and preliminary music selections should be included at this stage.

5.7.  Storyboard and Audio track revision and cleanup: This step may need to be repeated a few times. Build an animatic (storyboard slide-show with audio track) and clean it up. Fix the timing, watch for continuity, changes in screen direction, breaks in story, plot holes, logic jumps, credibility gaps, etc. This is a good step to bring in an outside audience (a few select friends who don’t mind suffering) and ask them to look at it as team members may already be ‘too close’ to the project. If they can figure out what is going on just from the animatic, you’re probably well on your way.

5.8.  Foley Completion: All the Foley effects need to be completed before continuing. Music could still not be ‘final’ but I strongly recommend it is.

5.9.  Timing Sheet Hell: The director of animation must now take the animatic and create a master timing sheet. When does A enter the scene, where does B begin lip-synch? When does the glass hit the floor and shatter? It would be wise to break these up into timings for each scene. Remember to pad start and end times for any scenes which transition in some way other than a cut. The master timing sheet should also have the camera instructions encoded with it. This is a BIG task and needs to be reviewed thoroughly.

5.10.               Finally! The bulk of the animation begins. Sequences should be broken down into their smallest components, roughed and tested, retested if needed and cleaned up. Each sequence should be sent off to ink and paint when done. Don’t wait until the end of the project and sent them 3,000 drawings. They’ll hurt you. I know. I’ve tried it!

5.11.               Special care and coordination will be required in shots where characters being drawn by more than one animator must interact. For these shots, I recommend that the more senior of the two animators draw the key frames where the characters interact. Both should then do their own betweens as well as the work leading up to the interaction. For instance:

Betsy the Ballerina is running towards Mondo, her male counterpart to be lifted into the air. The senior animator would draw the first frame the contact and the key frames for each during the lift, ending with the moment she comes free of his hands. The secondary animator would do the run up to this position and the in-betweens of the keys, then pick up again as she sails into the night sky. Meanwhile, the first animator poses Mondo to brace for the leap, then pulling out his binoculars to watch her fly. (This will be revisited in the section on technical considerations)

 

5.12.               Photography, ink, paint, and compositing should be chugging along here in pace with the animators.

5.13.               Now it’s just a matter of finishing and maybe a final chop at editing by the director here. Have a party and a screening and whatever else it takes for everyone to regain their sanity. J Listen for the quiet slitherings of marketing.

 

 

SECTION II: Technical Considerations

 

Okay. So how do you pull it off? It costs Disney $60,000,000 to make a total flop. What makes me think a bunch of amateurs can make a blockbuster using bottom of the line equipment?

 

Well. Nothing. That’s not the goal here at all. This is aimed at making something good enough to show in competitions, and pad your portfolio/demo reel/resume with. It opens the door to better things. There’s a chance you can do it, sure. Ralph Bakshi and Bill Plympton have both made money-making movies with even more primitive techniques, so it’s not hopeless but it’s not the short-term goal either.

 

The following is the process I have been working using to assemble animation of a presentation quality. It may not be the best or most-suited to your needs/style but it’s proof that you don’t need a lot of equipment to get started.

 

1.     A light box and registration.

1.1.  When I started out, I bought a generic 3-hole punch at a garage sale for 50 cents, then made a light box out of a piece of plexiglass, a florescent light, a piece of vellum, and some wood from an old couch. I punched a sheet of paper with the punch and used that as a guide for where to drill holes to stick 3 pieces of dowel in the edge of my light box and that was my registration system. Total cost was around $6. You can animate this way. The important thing is to make sure everyone’s punches are lined up the EXACT same.

1.2.  Another option is to go an online animation distributor and buy plastic pegbars. You can by pre-punched paper, or shell out the money for a punch, or if you’re a student, just do it in your school lab. J This route is a little more expensive but you don’t have to worry about doing the alignment yourself and because of the way acme pegs are slotted, the paper doesn’t get ‘worn’ quite as easily. Cost here is around $6 per pegbar. Paper varies but is $15/500 sheets and up. Punches start at around $500. (but 10,000 sheets of printer paper is $15 so it can end up being very cost effective)

1.3.  A third option, of course, is to use a tablet and just draw directly on a computer in Flash or any painting program. This gives you the added ability to do simple motion automagically.

2.     Pencil-test system. This is one of those parts that used to cost major money. Now-days you can build your own for around $40. It’s called a webcam. There are freeware programs like www.anasai.com which let you do more or less everything a pencil test system can do through a webcam or digital camera. These functions are also available in iPhoto, Premiere, Final Cut, and dozens of other consumer-level applications. Just secure your registry and your camera and photograph away (A remote control, computer-capture, or cable release is the best thing here because then you never bump your camera) You could also tape a peg-bar to your scanner capture artwork that way but this is very slow. (although very high resolution and a possibility for final digital transfer)

2.1.  If you’re working remotely with someone, be sure to include you registration in the photo so they can line it up with their work and see how they interact.

2.2.  If you’re all working strictly on computer, registration is automatic.

3.     Sharing and comparing work. This could be done a number of ways. Paper to paper is probably the best, or you could trade burned CDs or memory sticks pretty easily, or GIF animations for that matter. (Many freeware and shareware tools are available for turning a series of images into a GIF animation AVI, or quicktime) You can also import images into an application like Flash and convert them to a vectorized drawing. 640x480 is going to be more than adequate for NTSC television and is fine for pencil testing. If your destination media is projected, it would be wise to aim for a higher resolution in your finished piece, however. As an example, you might do all your pencil tests with webcams but then use registered scans or a high resolution digital camera to capture the finished work. Price here ranges from cost of ISP and up.

4.     Inking. Once again, there are a couple of different paths. You could ink on paper, tracing your pencil work (If you used non-photo blue, you could even ink directly onto your pencils) You could also trace your pencils with a tablet on the computer (this is especially nice with vector software such as Flash or Illustrator because then you can scale, rotate, move your work without getting any pixelization) You could also load your pencils into a program and say ‘Trace bitmap to vector’, or find edges and sharpen. There are many different methods available. Each will give your work a slightly different look and feel. Experiment! Cost varies from Negligible on up.

5.     Painting: Unless using very limited color, you probably want to do this on the computer. There are a variety of methods you could use to get any number of results. ‘MS-Paint’ and hi-res photos would work if you had no other options. Layers in Photoshop, Flash, and Illustrator are very handy for doing a more ‘professional’ pass, and depending on your plans, converting bitmaps to vectors in Flash or Illustrator may be a great way to go. It lets you re-use a lot of animation without sacrificing resolution. On the other hand, it alters style. Price free and up.

6.     Compositing: The last money hit is compositing software. Flash would do, Adobe Premiere, Adobe After Effects, Final Cut Pro, iMovie, VirtualDub. Depending on what you want/need/can get by with, price on this ranges between $200 and $1000 (Except iMovie for the Mac and VirtualDub http://www.virtualdub.org which are free) There are probably other inexpensive options available as well. Search for them. I use a combination of Flash, Premiere, and After Effects.

 

 

So there you go. That’s it. With next to no investment over what you already have in the computer you’re using to read this document, you could produce TV or even film-festival quality animation. So what are you waiting for! Get started!