Read Part 1 of Cowboys and Indies: the Vertically-Integrated Individual.
Part 2 The New Animation Pipeline: Son of Better, Cheaper, Not Necessarily Faster
If youre gonna maximize your budget/optimize quality, you might wanna revisit an analysis of the animation process and the Japanese manga formula (i.e., Akira, Ghost in the Shell). And dear, dear Finance Friends, try and make the reciprocal, Herculean effort it takes for artists to understand finance, and try to understand the basics of The New Animation Pipeline.
Script: The script is, ironically, one of the cheapest elements of a film and, of course, everything. But, ironically, it is the part that takes the most amount of time. Every effort should be made to make the script airtight before doing anything else. Take the time since its less a question of money, especially if you are doing the writing. From first flash of inspiration to final draft it is five years. One to think about it, one to work out the nuts and bolts, one to do the development (with initial designs/graphics) and two to get it right (beat outline = three months, beat outline to first draft = three months, first draft to second to final draft = three months for the first writer subsequent writers/readers/partners, etc. reading it, suggesting changes, etc. being the lions share of the time after that.)
A European feature film script writer gets anywhere from 50K to 75K to do a first, second and final draft. A European animated budget these days is normally between 7-10 million. One percent of the budget for a 7.5 million budget!
Design: Again, one of the cheapest elements of a film but, once again, time-consuming. Getting the design right and getting characters to work together graphically as an ensemble and with the backgrounds is a biatch. A year to get the style right and another to do the production bible. The less people there are involved, the better. Normally, one/two/three people part-time for the development, two to three people full-time (the same people?) for the full-color bible/key BGs/animation tests/etc.
Storyboard: Again, the storyboard is, ironically, one of the cheapest elements of a film but everything once the script/designs are locked off. This is where the manga formula can save you oodles of dosh:
Dramatic camera angles instead of movement (animation), heroic/dramatic poses
When it doesnt move, dont move (hair blowing in the breeze, intense close-ups on the eyes, etc.); when it does move, it moves well (the characters) but keep your distance when you can (keep the characters small so theres less to animate less pencil mileage show off the BGs); in the 10 or so big scenes, throw time/talent/money at them (50-horse battle, etc.) but keep it short with lots of cuts so you can split up your animators. Long, arduous scenes will be the death of you and the animator (only one guy can do it and retakes will be near impossible).
multi-plane: the characters hold but BGs move slightly. Backgrounds are, once again, one of the cheapest line items in a feature and can be very lavish, adding lots of richness. Have lots of them and lots of OLs. Use the camera moves and multi-plane for drama, not the animation use posing.
The storyboard should be as fat and detailed as possible; all key poses should be included. Camera moves, timing, slugging, etc., should be extremely precise.
Keep this stuff in mind when you write the damn script. Put it in there!
Music: Again, one of the cheapest things, believe it or not. But one of the most powerful. The music is an actor, think of it that way. And use it as one.
Animatic: here is the ultimate irony. The animatic is the film. And it is, no contest, the absolute cheapest thing in the entire budget. An animatic is not an option, it is a requirement. And, seeing as how it costs next to nothing and takes almost no time, there can be no objections whatsoever. Once you have your storyboard, all of the timing, editing, etc. The Film, including final voices and preliminary music mix (final mix and SFX can come later) will be done here. Your key poses are here with only the in-betweens left to do.
Watch it over and over and over again. Watch it with the crew, watch it with friends, watch it with strangers, watch it again, watch it, watch it, watch it, watch it. Get it squeaky tight and lock it off, adjust/correct the storyboard and go. As scenes are animated, insert the linetests into the animatic, then the color version, then the final version and keep watching it over and over and over again. Keep an eye on the timing since sometimes animators will add seconds that could amount to minutes at the end and change the pace, timing, etc. of the FILM.
The rest is post (picture + FX + M&E) magic.
**(Note: no digital sweatshop description, here, because were just talking creative )** Suffice it to say that scan-paint-compo-render-rushes (in order, ready for editing) is a fat line item for which a digital production subcontractor, depending on where he/she is located, can access local subsidies (typically Europe) or as an out-of-pocket co-producer part (typically Asia), to finance up to a third of the production budget, in some cases, and will not bother with the editorial content of a family film!
Animation: The animation is the most expensive part, but be smart:
Do the difficult scenes first, more energy at the start than at the end, good for morale, you dont notice the early mistakes, get warmed up for character animation, etc. Also, theres never time/budget left at the end, so really important stuff gets sacrificed, unfortunately, which can cost you a peptic ulcer, your film, your reputation. Diminishes the stress level, too, and allows you to concentrate on niceties and window dressing in post.
Shadows: black adds richness, depth and drama have lots of shadows (cheap, too).
Take extra special, Vaseline-intensive care to get the lip-synch right films are essentially talking heads. If the lip-synch is screwed up, all you do is stare at the lips and dont follow whats being said or the story.
- Give animators sequences, not characters. It makes them happier to know they did a chunk of a movie. They can also say to their friends in the movies, I did this bit. Watch the model drift, too (as the animators get to know the characters better, they embellish.)
Get yourself the best assistant director/animation supervisor (a wrist, in Hollyspeek) you can find to keep an eye on only that, if need be (although he or shell be doing shed-loads more in time.) And somebody you like, is funny, relaxed and kicks asses diplomatically. Also, try and give the animators the scenes they want to do or what you think they can do best or what they think they can do best (without starting a war.) Pit them against one another by showing especially good scenes to everyone without a word or saying who did it. They will know and will try to do better than that on their bits.
- Let the animators show off but watch the timing. Sometimes they will go over the time, but sometimes it might work so well you want to keep it. Encourage discipline, though, or it will be hell to pay for the ego-manship.
Then you sit in a post suite and do your deal with the Devil. Dont move from there, either. The assistant director is your legs (retakes, quick fixes, errands, coffee, etc.) Dont move and dont leave until you have the film in the can.
In the end, it a music paradigm garage band (orchestra, rather). Give key talent a piece of the backend and less cash up front for more glory. Small team, bad attitude, live in pajamas/headphones and make COFFEE. (AWN historical exception #3.)
Thats it. Thats the rant. Too late now, information is a one-way road do with it what you will, but its too late, now. Its in there. But just in case you missed it: pre-production (relatively) cheap, animation expensive. Ego, Cashflow, Coffee and Integrity.
And, Last But Not Least, our old friend Mr. INTEGRITY! (AWN historical exception #4.)
For an artist, no matter how long she or he lives, life is short. How many great films can you do in a lifetime? It takes two-three years. It takes five to think about it. How old are you? The great thing about making an animated feature is that there are less people you have to deal with, everyone is immediately serious and dedicated because their names on the marquee, youre only as good as your last picture and, if youre lucky enough to make one, you not only will want to make another movie, but just might get a second opportunity.
With or without the same wonderful, talented people. This is a small world after all. (Walts mommy didnt raise no fool!) Animation, despite its vast numbers, is a relatively small band of brothers/sisters. Its hard enough as it as to make a film without creating aggravation for others.
(New vocabulary alert: Schadenfreude, to take malicious satisfaction in the misfortune of others.)
Special thanks to all the courageous souls who contributed to this article.
Chris Panzner has split the last 25 years doing TV, animation and films. His favorite joke is: Ya know, I was thinking the other day no, wait, that wasnt me. He recently created writing company Power Lines and production/distribution company Eye & Ear.