3D Animation Production on a Budget – Time and Money saving Tips

Want to make your own 3D animated short movie on a budget? I wish to share some tips to help make it happen.  This is especially for those that are planning their first production.

First off to do a reality check.  Second see what happens if you don’t.  3rd thing I can give are these tips. I’ve touched on many of the following points before, but they are worth repeating.

The idea here is that time is money and while things like rendering can be speeded up with more computing power(=more money), you should first do everything you can to optimize your work – try make the project take less work and less render time.  There are some choises that can ease your way.  Having said that an animation production is always plenty of work – I’d lie if I said otherwise.

Story focus

If we take pointers from industry leaders, and we should, see how Pixar goes from success to success. They focus heavily on story. If you read interviews you know they really polish the story until it shines. Why not do the same?   Story, storyboards(and animatic) are by far the least expensive way to builda good a base for any movie.

Style choices

Second quite obvious Pixar-lesson is that even though their enviroments become ever more detailed and life-like, the characters stay cartoony. Why? Cartoon is highly expressive, gives all sorts of freedoms in anatomy and motion and allows using caricatyres. Also cartooony is design for sympathy and emotional impact. Set realistic character style against this and it loses big time.

Additionally we people know realistic humans, usually see many of them every day, and hence have an uncanny ability to notice if there is anything unreal about a realistic character on screen.  We can’t help but notice these things which brake the illusion and flow of the story, whereas cartoony figures don’t receive same scrutiny or critisism. And finally cartoony is easier and hence faster and cheaper to make.

Enviroments could have same stylistic approach or you could use photo-cutouts or paintings. Think about 2D-animations and how much they achieve with fairly static backgrounds and how much leeway these fictious works are given.  Almost anything goes because we don’t expect real world rules or logic apply to cartoons.

Modeling & Texturing choices

Again choosing cartoony helps here. Cartoony models don’t need much detail and you may not need to paint textures at all – you may not need to have 3D-painting or sculpting software at all.

Animation choices

Cartoony style gives leeway for animation too. It allow animations that are too fast to be real and that whisk from one dramatic pose. This is easier do than natural motion that can’t have as dynamic suddent starts and stops.

Also going very stylized characters, or having animated items for a characters such as Pixars Luxo Jr. lamp character, can reduce animation work.  Luxo-lamp there is no facial features or legs, it is like a body with a head jumping arond – less to animate.

If you choose to make a silent story(no dialog), you cut the workload.  No mouth is another way to save and so on it goes.  The animation however will not be any less effective -you will find the audience can sympathize with almost anything as long as it is well animated and has a good story. I’m not saying cut it all down to a simple shape – just keep in mind that you can simplify.

Filmography and Rendering choices

What do you need to show to tell the story? Taking cue from old masters of cinema, a horror not shown is often more effective than the one shown. Our brains are filling in the blanks all the time, anyway – you can tell stories with far less images than you may expect.

Real-world-ish lighting and rendering is easy to overdo or waste too much computing power on. You can achieve dramatic and functional lighting with just a few spotlights. Don’t go for GI(global illumination)-features straight away, for they mean longer rendering times, are more likely to cause flickering when rendered images are played together as a video.  And also GI does not replace hand-placed lights. Lighting specialist exist for a reason – lights are storytelling tools.

Render to series of images, not to video.  Rendering to image series’s make software crashes less troublesome and images give you far more options in post-production.  Also almost never render all things to one layer – instead render foreground, midground and background separately for futher editing and compositing possibilites.

If your images need enhancement or fixing, and they often do, push as much you can of that to post-processing(After Effects or similiar). Effects that often are toublesome to both setup and render may be a breeze to add as a post process.

You can check more tips for rendering here and some tips for modeling and animation here.

Hardware choices

As long as you optimize your work, the computer you work on doesn’t have to be an expensive beast.  With something like 1000 dollars you can have a fast enough computer. Just make sure you have a decent processor and enough work memory(ram). Graphics card can be anything middle range as middle range is, these days, very powerful already. You will need some storage space too, but that’s cheap and getting cheaper every day.

Software choices – some affordable options for animation production

This section is here to merely give ideas.  I know only some softwares and other and better combinations are possible. Also your selection of tools depends on what you need in addition to modeling and animation (sculpting, 3D-painting, post-processing or HD-video editing – or none of them). And of course  software features and pricing are subject to change, which is why I’m not trying to list any prices. Also note that I’m not listing 2D-image editing software here and don’t touch on music or sound at all – yet these are all important.

Goes from free to cheap and to affordable softwares

  1. Blender+some free video editing software(many available).  Blender does almost all, now even compositing I hear, and is free. Blender is also an invaluable addition to other combos for the excellent simulation (cloth, fluids, particles) and animation tools, and hence is included in every following combination.
  2. Wings 3D + Blender +Vegas Movie Studio HD Platinum. Wings is a fine polygon modeler and free. Vegas(this particular version) does a lot for reasonalbe price. In this combo you would still animate, do dynamics and effects and render in Blender. Vegas is used for video editing and basic compositing and effects.
  3. Wings 3D + 3D Coat + Blender + Vegas. 3D coat adds sculpting and 3D-painting.  In this combo too most will be in Blender unless 3D Coat now includes a timeline for animation rendering.
  4. Silo (+ 3D Coat) + Blender + Vegas. Silo has modeling and sculpting.
  5. Silo (+3D Coat) + Messiah + Blender + Vegas.  Messiah is for animation and for rendering.
  6. Modo + Messiah + Blender + Vegas.  Modo has modeling, 3D-painting, sculpting and rendering.
  7. Modo + Messiah + Zbrush + Blender + Vegas.  Zbrush offers advanced sculpting and fine 3D-painting.
  8. Modo + Messiah + Zbrush + Blender + After Effects/Vegas Pro. Now we have advanced tools for all.   After Effects brings a whole new post production dimension to the mix – makes getting a fine look easier and moves many effects from 3D to post process(2D).  Vegas Pro is the cheaper alternative, is great for video editing and does ok for basic compositing and effects.

So, that was some optimizing tips for making a 3D animation short on a budget.  I hope it will help someone out there going into their first productions.  Drop a comment below to let me know what you think.

Character Creation in brief

Animation ready character creation steps very briefly (for animation production or games).  These are for those wondering how to go about it in general or for those wanting to compare workflows.  Includes tips.

Backstory in design

Backstory, motivation and emotion –  we expect these things from characters.  Who is your character?  What drives him?  What kind of life he leads?  How do all these things show in his appereance(design) and behavior(animation)?  Solid characters have solid stories.  Little of what you write may make it to the screen, but just having the story in hand supports everything, makes choices easier and gives your character feel of history.

Match story with style

What visual style is the most effective to tell just this story?  Cartoony may give you more freedom in expression, but may not deliver as much information as you could with a more detailed style.  You may find the story changing too, to meet the style.  There is no style better than some other, but overall I find realism usually a poor choice, for it ups the challenge in all aspects yet can’t tell a story any better.  Pixar for one knows this.  They stick to cartoonish characters even though their enviroments are getting more and more real and detailed.

Draw your character

Goblin design for a story of mine You might be very fast at modeling and wish to visualize there, but I don’t think it can ever compete with a pen.  More to the point, you need at least front and side-view pictures of you character to ease your modeling and for making sure you stick to the chosen style.

Choose a modeling method

Modeling gurus may go directly to shaping final model in polygons leaving the fine detailing to a sculpting software.  Yet, if you have the option, more organic way would be to sculpt first without worrying about polygons.  You might for example start with Zspheres in Zbrush or from a volumetric blob in 3D Coat and sculpt like crazy.  Then you would build the lower polygon-mesh on it and project the detail from old to this new mesh.
Pick the method that you are most comfortable with.  You can mix and match methods as you go.

Model for animation

Make sure your surface flow is optimized, edgeflow supports the directions of the motions and allows extreme poses and the joints have loops and volume where it is useful.  The better and simpler your base model is, the less problems you will have at rigging, animating and later when making changes.

Build simple and flexible animation rig

The less bones you use the smoother(organic) transitions you’ll get in their areas of effect.  And the simpler you rig is, the easier it is to animate and change later if need be.  When done make some action poses with your rigged mesh to test if it is all working correctly.

Fish UVs

UVW-map it

Automatic uvws, such as AUVtiles in Zbrush, may be all you need for animation production and pretty much make UVW-mapping trouble free, but please note AUV-tiles work only with 3D-painting.  For games, and often for animation production too, you need well planned and carefully divided UVW-islands.  These help painting textures in 2D, understanding what you are working on, and allocating more texture space to what is important(like the face).

Paint textures.

I recommend 3D-painting softwares for most of the work and 2D like Photoshop for futher detailing and colour&contrast correction.  Be sure to generate normal- and displacement-maps from your high-detail mesh.  Normal maps are defacto detailing tool in games these days and can replace displacement maps in animation production as long as the character isn’t viewed too close.  Also don’t look down on bumb-maps, ‘old tech’ as they may be.  They are great for small details.

Fisman textures

Light and render your beauty

First, with character in relaxed or T-pose, create even lighting with global illumination and bake out an ambient occlusion-map.  It works  as a dirt-map for animation production and games, helps bring out skin folds and other crevices, and for games gives sense of realistic lighting, too.  Now pose your model.  Make the pose asymmetric and such that it shows personality.  Remember to give the eyes a focal point unless you want a zombie-look.  Make your model ‘pop’ with 3-point lighting(or similiar) and render using at least the following texture maps: color, specular, ambient occlusion and normal/displacement.

That’s it, animation ready character creation in brief.  Do you do things differently?  Feel free to give critique and share your approach.

7 Animation Production Tips – Render

I wish to encourage lunacy that is Personal Animation Production.

How to make a render despite hardware(budget) limits common to personal productions?

Here are some techniques to help you get it done – these are possible in several softwares. This is my 2nd collection of Animation Production Tips.

Note that these are Tips and so very brief.  Some could be expanded to full tutorials.  I may do that for some, later.  For now I just wish to get the ideas across.

Tips for animation production renders

  1. Render to image sequences(not video!) and combine to clips later. This is a no-brainer. There is so much you can do with the image sequences in post, and really to get the full benefit of post process you have to use image sequences.  And don’t forget that if your video rendering crashes, you lose the video.  But if your image sequence rendering crashes, you lose only one frame and can continue rendering from that point onward.
  2. Brake animation scenes to sub-scenes, render as separate passes and combine later.  Main reason for this is to ensure you can render at all – a way to combat the oh-so common lack of resources.  Other major benefit of having them all as separate passes is you can later adjust the look of each element and their timing.  So, begin by breaking you scenes into character, background and effects scenes (and so on).  Then render scenes separately.  In each scene use full version of current main subject and very simplified versions of all the other stuff, if they are needed at all, and set them to render as masks/invisible/shadow casting depending on your needs.  You might find different objects/effects work better with different lighting – here breaking to separate scenes helps too.  In the end you bring all passes together in a video editor or in a post production tool.
  3. Break sub-scenes to sub-sub-scenes according to where the camera points at.  This goes even futher in making sure you can make the render but isn’t needed if previous Tip is enough.  If  your camera shows only 180 degrees of your scene for a while, then that you can split that to a new scene and that’s where you can remove things.  Always remove objects that won’t be seen, reflected, cast a shadow or otherwise have an effect to the render.
  4. Light scene without global illumination. Not using GI is one good way to save in rendering time.  You may still want the GI-look.  Check if there’s any plugins for faking it for your software.  If there’s none, think how light would bounce around in your scene and place lights around to fake the effect.  Like a red wall in a well lit room should have some red coloured lights pointing away from it(towards nearby objects, floor etc.).  Granted this is more work for you, but it renders faster than GI and gives absolute lighting control.
  5. Create HDR-enviroment from you scene for rendering optimization. This approach only works in scenes where only your character moves and only in a limited area with no props(chairs, tables, anything) close by AND where your character is not casting a long shadow on the scene.  If these limits suit your story, this tip is dynamite.  In short you create a scene as normal but with one extra camera where the character is – lets call it character-camera.  Hide your character and render one image of the scene with regular camera.  Then use the character-camera to create a HDR-probe image(or similiar) of the scene, look up how to do this in your software, after which you no longer need the scene objects or lights – just the HDR and character.  Create another scene with just the character and light the scene with your new HDR. Then render the character animation to image-series with transparent background.  Combine this pass with your background image, the very first render you did, in post process.
  6. Move everything you can to post process.  There is nothing unprofessional about ‘faking’ something in post process  – only results matter.  I would move all effects that are doable as 2D-versions to post production right away.  2D-effects are faster to set up, render very fast, and are non-destructive – you can change them without having to re-render your 3D-image.  Lately post production softwares have begun to incorporate full or semi-3D tools tranferring even more power to post.  You don’t necessarily need After Effects, Fusion or similiar specialized software, though – I have done lots of simple post processing in regular video editing software.
  7. Render different shading types as passes and combine in post process. There is no sense tweaking look of your render endlessly in 3D-software when you can do it faster and with more options in post process.  So brake for example your character pass to image sequences for each shading type.  They could be color, specular, reflection, ambient occlusion and depth.  A good software should let you render these all  at once.  Fun part is that you can adjust intensity and pretty much everything else for each in post process and also how they interact as layers.  One huge benefit is that you can use depth-pass to create depth of field effect very quickly, whereas it is very slow to render in 3D.  In short you render once and get a million ways to change the result after.  And no change you make this way is destructive.

Do you use these methods in your productions?  Anything you would add or change?  Is there a tip you’d like to see expanded to a tutorial?

Tutorial – Basic 3-point Lighting

Shows how to setup 3-point lighting, render passes for post processing and combine in Photoshop(or in other image editing software).  Intermediate-level, requires base working knowledge of your preferred 3D-software and image editing.

Tutorial comes with

  • low-poly model of the character used for the tutorial.  OBJ-format.
  • higher-poly version of the same model(subdivided).  OBJ.
  • the scene example as a Modo-file, LXO, for Modo ver.3 and above.  A free 15 day evaluation version of Modo is available at http://www.luxology.com/trymodo/
  • Photoshop-file(PSD) showing the post-processing layers used.

Tutorial & files are availabe in Files-section.

This marks my first tutorial release after CGmascot-launch.  There will be others.  Now in the Files you can find one that helps animation production in Lightwave and few older ones for Gmax.

If you like the tutorial, please let me know – comment below.  Other feedback is also welcome.  Also feel free to suggest tutorials.  Ideas are always welcome.