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Hitting a Moving Target: get a grip on your animation project schedule

If you don't have a grip on how long you'll need to produce your animation, you don't have a grip on your animation. This first post on targets shows how easy it is to calculate an animation target, and how important...

So... you've decided to make an animated film! Or someone else has decided for you. No matter. The first question (after what's it going to look like / be about) is... how long is it going to take? If you consider this bothersome, real-world issue a chore or a distraction from the real work of designing a character and animating it, you're wrong. The question How long is it going to take? is the difference between a meandering project that never gets completed, and an enjoyable project that does. What's more, it's an integral part of designing your character, your look, your story. If you're approaching this central, all-decisive question as a task detached from the real work of an animated film, then you are not only setting yourself up for serious pain in terms of production management, but you are depriving yourself of a true creative opportunity.

More about that creativity in a future post... today I want to rob you of all excuses by illustrating how easy it is to come up with a target. Its easy because you already know what your target is.

You do? Yes, you do. Let's say you want to make a film with 5 1/2 minutes of character animation and you've given yourself 4 months for animation. Nothing easier than that... your animation target is 5 1/2 min in 4 months.

This animation target isn't optimal, however. It's duration is defined by the course of the entire project, so you only know if you're on-target or not at the end of said project. No landmarks, no assessment moments. No good. In fact, this target isn't really providing you with any usable information at all. Does it give you a feel for how realistic it is? Will it be sustainable? Will you be killing or enjoying yourself, sleeplessly slaving away or refininingpasses to make sure that transition reads perfectly?

Let's break it down into a more digestable time-segment... a week.

Ah. That's better. 20.625 sec/week. Doable? That depends on variables such as look, animation style, pipeline and personal or team abilities. At any rate, its already clear that we won't be doing any photorealistic creature animation or subtle acting. 20 seconds per week is a massive volume to produce sustainably. That's 4 seconds a day... prepping, blocking, animating, polish.A tall order, but in and of itself not impossible... that depends on other production variables.

What's more important is that we now have a value that tells us something meaningful about our project... and we've only spent a few minutes. Now I can assess my options and adjust the variables: project length, style, nr. of animators, etc.More importantly, I can assess my project at the end of ne week. Am I on target? If I'm only over by a small margin, I can assume that the production speed will increase during the course of the project and consider this a confirmation that I'll get to the end of my project on time. If not, I've only spent one week - I still have the option of changing look / style / timespan. I'm still in control.

Another way of approaching this is by doing an animation test. How long did it take to produce a second of animation. Multiply this by the volume and - voila - you have a target.

So you can approach the same value from whittling away at the mass that will become your project's form, or by adding clay until the mass is fleshed out. Sound familiar? It should.

It's the same with modeling and practically any other task in the film-making process. Its integral methodolgy. And so its no surprise that it should crop up in scheduling your animation. As usual, one approach isn't better than the other, but rather both complement each other. You can compare a volume-down calculation with a detail-up one to see how realistic your projections are.

To make things easier, I've prepared a spreadsheet for you. Fill in the numbers and indeirectly tweak your target. Here you see an 11 second club animaiton project. Length of film is 11 sec. which is also the length of character animation within that film. And we have one month to animate it. I'm the only animator working on it and my week consists of 5 days (yours should, too). Thus, we have an animation target of 2.75 weeks.

Haven't got a full month? Who does! Cut that down to 2 weeks. Result: 5.5 seconds per week.

And this is what our example at the top of this post looks like.

And here's the spreadsheet, in the cost-free and band-width friendly OpenOffice ods format. Like I said... no excuses.