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Blender ProductionCreating Short Animations from Start to Finish
By Roland Hess
Focal PressCopyright © 2012 Elsevier Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAn Overview of the Short Animation Process
Creating a Short Animation
Creating a short animation from start to finish is a complicated, time-consuming task. It uses all of the skills you have developed while learning your way around your three-dimensional (3D) software while calling for an even broader range: storytelling, asset and time management, organization, acting, and editing. As you work through the process, you will find that each step necessarily builds on everything that went before, and to shortchange or entirely skip one of the steps will lead, surely, to disaster.
No step in producing a short animation is difficult by itself. Certainly, no individual portion of the short animation process is harder to learn to do than, say, getting the hang of doing back handsprings or integral calculus. The steps themselves are fairly easy. It turns out that the single most difficult thing to do with a short animation is, simply, to finish it. Doing so takes dedication, lots of available time, a willingness to keep pushing through when things are less than fun, and, most importantly, a plan.
Avoiding Death by Natural Causes
No doubt you've seen a hundred animation projects announced on web forums, in chat rooms, and inside cozy little restaurants over too many coffees. Although born with zeal, they slowly fade away into a shadowy death.
Say, why'd that project die?
We're not sure. It just kind of ... fell apart.
Oh. "Natural causes," then.
Natural causes, indeed. How do you keep your project from fading into the oblivion of natural causes? You need a plan.
Fortunately, there is a time-honored structure for actually finishing animation projects. It consists of three stages: preproduction, production, and postproduction. Mysteriously and oddly named, to be sure, but there they are.
Preproduction encompasses everything you do before you touch a single polygon of 3D. Story development, storyboarding, preparing a rough sound track, and assembling a story reel become the bedrock of the rest of your production. The time you spend here will make the modeling, animating, rendering, and compositing worthwhile. Before anything else, though, comes the story. Without a good story, your production will be little more than a study or an extended animation test. A "good" story, though, is not only one that will interest or amuse your viewers, it is one that is producible with the time and resources that you have available. Choose too ambitiously, and you're on your way to "natural causes" before a pixel ever hits the screen.
A good subject for a short animation is more like a short short story (Figure 1.1) than a novel or any of the longer narrative forms. It will grab the viewer's interest, sympathy, or comedic sense almost right away. It will focus exclusively on expressing the theme of the story, or setting up the joke, if that's what you're going for. At this stage, it is a balance between your resources and ambition, and you are advised to save the 20,000 character epic battles for later in your career.
Once your story is in order, you proceed to making storyboards. Storyboards are shot-by-shot (and sometimes pose-by-pose) breakdowns of your story, presented in a visual format as seen in Figure 1.2. Usually done as line illustrations, they help to organize your thoughts on how the written story will translate onto the screen. You don't have to be the world's greatest sketch artist to pull off an effective storyboard for your short animation, but the more time you spend on it, the less effort will be wasted later when it's time to actually animate.
With your storyboards in hand (or on a USB stick), you create a simple, very rough sound track. This is most easily done by sitting in front of a cheap PC microphone, speaking all of the dialogue, and making the sound effects with your mouth while you visualize the animation. It's crucial not to let anyone get his or her hands on this rough track, as it will probably be personally embarrassing and most likely cost you any chance of ever standing for political office.
The temporary sound track is matched to the storyboards, so that it forms a primitive version of what will someday be your masterpiece (Figure 1.3). This rough representation of your animation is called the story reel. It will be the bible for the rest of your production.
Now you get to do all the things you were aching to do from the start of the project: character design (Figure 1.4), construction (Figure 1.5-1.6), and, if you're a masochist, rigging (Figure 1.7). The process of modeling and rigging your characters reaches both backward and forward in the production process. It is informed by the themes of the story but bows to the requirements of animation and, later, to the minimization of render times.
At this point, lead character modeling can be finished, but as long as you organize your project properly and use the correct tools, things don't need to be completely finalized before animation begins. Unlike creating still images, surfacing (materials and texturing) can be skipped almost entirely at this stage.
With a good start on your characters, you set up your control rigs. This is the first place that good storyboarding pays off. You build and test your rigs to the specific actions your characters will take. It could be that one character never gets out of his or her seat—in that case, you can skip Inverse Kinematic leg controls. It could be that another character's face is never really seen—in this case, you can skip facial animation controls. By looking at who does what in your storyboards, you can decide what sorts of controls each character is going to need. Of course, you could spend several months creating a brilliant all-purpose rig for each character, but it would only be a waste of time, both now and later when the calculation of every bone takes its toll on render times.
Along with the characters, you build rough sets, as in Figure 1.8. Really, all you need at this point are placeholders for final set elements—boxes that represent chairs, rocks, or statues of Abraham Lincoln. Whatever your animation needs.
When characters and rough sets are created, you can begin to build scenes, one file per shot from the storyboards, trying your best to match camera angles and composition in your 3D scenes to the images in the storyboards (Figure 1.9). You may find that certain things you had drawn for the storyboards don't work out so well when you have to re-create the scene in an environment that enforces the laws of size and proportion. In those cases, you can adjust your composition on the fly, or, if the change is drastic, rethink that part of the scene and redraw the storyboards.
At some point during the character creation and rough set portion of the production, you need to obtain a quality recording of any dialogue that may occur in the animation. Environmental sounds will be filled in afterward, but any quality character animation that must accompany the spoken word needs to be built correctly from the beginning.
Only then, after weeks (or months) of buildup and work, do you actually get to animate. The best way to accomplish this stage is to lock yourself away from the rest of humanity so they won't see you obsessively performing the same intricate hand motion over and over in order to learn exactly how the fingers flare and in what order and position they come to rest when your character performs a specific motion. It's also better if no one sees you doing the silly walk that your character needs to perform, around and around and around. Regardless of the level of self-ostracism you choose, the process of animating will require time and patience. It may also require that you go back and adjust your models and rigs. If you've done things correctly, though, if you've followed the plan, this sort of minimal backtracking will not hurt the production (Figure 1.10).
As you complete the animation for each shot, you get to do what is probably more fun than any other single part of the process. You put your animated version of each shot back into the story reel, covering up the relevant portions of the storyboards, like Figure 1.11. With each new shot you finish, the story reel evolves from a series of still images into a moving compendium of your animation genius. And frankly, at this point you hope it's genius, because you'll have soaked months of your life into it.
After the final shot is animated, and you can stand to watch the whole full motion story reel without wincing too frequently, you finish the sets, surfacing, and lighting. Of course, what you do with the sets and lighting can be helped along by the storyboards and a careful analysis of the current state of the story reel. Just like rigging, you could spend a nearly infinite amount of time creating beautiful, detailed surfaces for every element of your imagined set. But it could be that only certain items and spaces that appear in close-up need that level of attention. Some things might appear at a distance, or only briefly, or may be moving so quickly that they are smudged by motion blur, and those elements can be given an appropriately smaller slice of your time.
And then, once you've surfaced, built, and lit appropriately, you render. Go get a cup of coffee. This is going to take a while (Figure 1.12).
So you have gigabytes of rendered frames that must be compiled into a final animation. You bring them into an editor that is designed for cutting audio and video sequences together. You watch it over and over, adjusting the timing of the cuts between the different shots so that the action seems to be continuous throughout, even though it probably isn't.
When the timing is right and the animation does exactly what you want it to do, you raid the kitchen and the garage for anything that will make noise. Turn on a microphone and act out the shots, trying to sync your noisemaking with what happens on the screen. Get a friend to help you, if you have any left. Find some music that suits the theme of the story and approximates the running length of the final cut.
Put the sound effects and music on top of the dialogue track you recorded earlier, and you are ... finished?
Maybe there's that one shot that bugs you. Your friends think it looks fine, but you know better. It's the shot you animated first, and it just doesn't cut it. Go back. Make a duplicate file and redo the animation. Then again, if you're out of time, maybe you won't. In the end, you'll have something like Figure 1.13.
At some point, you'll have to exert some discipline and call it done, whether it's ready or not. Rest assured that even major animation companies release material that they would like to have spent just a few more weeks on. Listen to the DVD commentary tracks on some of the best animated movies, and you'll hear open admissions of elements the animators and directors feel are lacking in the finished product.
The Importance of Following the Workflow
All of that was just the barest overview. It should be obvious that creating a decent short animation is a very specific and involved process. However, should you find yourself thinking, Oh, well, I can just skip that step! What could possibly go wrong? here is a brief list of what, exactly, could go wrong:
Problem: No story.
What happens: The animator begins by fully modeling detailed props and characters. The project has no direction and never passes the modeling stage. Doom!
Problem: Too much story.
What happens: After the third year of the project, you begin to think that you should have concentrated on the character of Pecos Rose, instead of her 14 sisters. Disaster!
Problem: No storyboards.
What happens: Without storyboards to guide your shot breakdown and composition, you waste countless hours/ days/years of your life animating actions and creating and detailing elements that will never see a final render. Also, the vision of the story is created on the fly, which can lead to narrative and visual dead ends and more wasted work. Peril!
Problem: Creating detailed sets and surfacing before animation.
What happens: Much work is wasted, because things inevitably change during animation. That entire set of kitchen knives you painstakingly modeled and textured (with little food bits!) were part of a shot that was cut because the animation just didn't turn out well enough. Shame!
Problem: Poor asset organization.
What happens: You put weeks into a complex shot, then realize that you used the wrong versions of the set and characters, meaning that you either completely redo the entire thing or have it stick out in the final production like a line drawing at a Monet impersonator convention. Horror!
Excerpted from Blender Production by Roland Hess Copyright © 2012 by Elsevier Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Focal Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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