Animation Production Reality Check

Here are some things good to think about before going into animation production for the first time.  Main message is just this:  Think what is doable and how you can reduce the amount of work.  I’m not saying don’t do anything cool – just make sure you can finish it too.  The following is bound to stomp on many toes, egos and dreams about animating wonders, but I mean well.

Animation production is literally producing everything in an animated movie, not forgetting the managerial part, marketing and all the rest. Usually the studios doing these things have from tens to hundreds of people on they payroll and still they outsource tasks.  Even smaller productions are epic in work hours.  One has to be nuts, absolutely loco, to go at it alone.  Yet some people do.  Someone like that needs to be a generalist with very wide and adaptable skillset or have unlimited production time.  Even then I would not recommend doing it alone.

My team for a small production (5+ mins, final cut 3min 33s) was a sound guy for sounds and a friendly musician gave me song of his to use.  I did everything else.

The tough decisions – kill your darlings

Many personal animation productions are born from big ideas and die for the same reason. Please be a realist.  Scrap all big plans and start with a short story.  Also don’t aim for the production values big studios buy.  Rather make many effort saving choises with your storytelling, cinematography and overall design – create something less grand but still absolutely wonderful.

Some questions for those planning animation production

  • What’s the problem your protagonist has, how does he solve it and what challenge(s) does he face on the way? That and the main message of your story is all you need. Anything beyond this is likely just extra your short story can do without.
  • Do you really need many characters? Try staying with just protagonist and the antagonist. 3 characters is the effective maximum for short story – more is just a distraction.
  • Could all take place in one room or other limited enviroment?
  • Could the story happen within one day or even an hour or less? Make that one momentous occasion in the life of your protagonist.
  • What could be said with less?  Often non-flashy way of getting information across has more impact.
  • What do you really need to show to tell the story and what can you leave to the imagination of your audience?  Comic books rely heavily on imagination – most of the story takes place between the frames and the frames you see and read have only some key moments.  Film and animation can do similiar things.
  • What design is the most effective in telling the story and capture the hearts of your audience?  Don’t go for realistic characters just because you think or know you can.  There are reasons why even the great Pixar avoids that.  More stylised the design is the more forgiving your audience is towards the faults in any visual elements. Also the more cartoony/stylised you go, the easier it becomes to design sympathetic characters.

Plan it, Test it

Get your story core down to few sentences.  Run them by your friends, family and your cat, and get their opinions.  When you have something that really works, write the rest.  Remember to take brakes from writing, days or even a week, to regain sense and perspective.  When you and your testers are happy, draw the few key story moments.  Here is a good moment to define the style you are going for.  If it the key moments work and connect both visually and  storywise, continue.

When pivotal moments are pictured, draw all important moments between them.  It doesn’t have to be art, just something understandable.  When you have all main things pictured, as if it were a comic book, put them in order and on a timeline(in Flash, video edit – any software with a timeline).   Soon you should have a storyboard you can watch as a video – an animatic.  This is the true stress test.  If you story still works and resonates, you have something worth creating.  This is also where you can pre-cut your movie, try different pacing and order for things – shape the movie before ever going into actual production.

I’ve written a few stories(most about nice goblins) and made animatics for some of them.  Most tests soon showed the story wasn’t working and the animatic was never completed.  I think I’ve only finished one which passes the stress test, more or less.   I’m including pictures from different animatics.

Animatic screen shotAnimatic screen shot

Animatic screen shotAnimatic screen shot

Animatic screen shotAnimatic screen shot

Focus

It is easy to lose focus in production.  Maybe you want to add one more cool enviroment, a bit of backstory or just a little more detail in that one rock to make things more interesting.  Don’t do that.  Rather finish what you started they way you planned and tested it and only after, if you still feel like it, add things.

That’s it for now.  So, did I do my animated movie like this?  Nope.   But I should have.  The details are here.

Do you have an animation production experience to share?  How well did you plan yours?

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