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'Inspired 3D Short Film Production': Production Planning — Part 1

In the first of a multi-part series from the Inspired 3D Short Film Production book, Jeremy Cantor & Pepe Valencia begin to help you organize your project with detailed planning.

All images from Inspired 3D Short Film Production by Jeremy Cantor and Pepe Valencia, series edited by Kyle Clark and Michael Ford. Reprinted with permission.

It is a bad plan that admits of no modification.
Publius Syrus

Budgets, schedules, outlines, blueprints, game plans, flowcharts, strategies to a cinematic storyteller who is eager to dive into the more creative areas of short film production, such words might inspire dismissive shrugs or all-out fear and loathing. After all, creating a short film is supposed to be a fun and exciting experience, and the thought of spending even a small amount of time planning and organizing might sound like an unappetizing chore rather than an interesting part of the production process.

However, every short film director we interviewed either wholeheartedly acknowledged the benefits of replanning or regretted having not done more of it. As the saying goes, Those who fail to plan, plan to fail.

If you happen to have unlimited time and money, you might be able to get away with just rushing into production without a plan and simply making things up as you go along. Some filmmakers actually prefer to work this way to stay fresh and motivated. However, we assume that you have a budget and an official or self-imposed deadline; therefore, it is extremely important that you assume the role of producer and create at least a semblance of a production plan to organize and streamline your filmmaking process and avoid unexpected complications down the line (see Figure 1).

[Figure 1] In this chapter, you will assume the role of producer.

A production plan is like a roadmap. Of course, to construct a logical and methodical pathway toward a destination, you must have at least some idea about the specifics of where you are going (see Figure 2).

Consider the intended length, style and complexity of your short film based on the plans and discoveries you made in your development phase.

  • How long will it be? 30 seconds? Three minutes? Seven minutes? Half an hour?

  • What is the overall style of your film? Cartoony or perhaps highly realistic?

  • How many characters? One? Three? Two dozen? Perhaps none at all; just a few abstract shapes?

  • Will there be dialogue? Narration? Music? Sound effects?

  • Will there be rich or limited background elements?

  • Will your images be ray-traced, hardware-rendered or toonshaded?

  • Will you need procedural effects, such as smoke, water, fire, rain, cloth or hair?

  • What will be the final output format of your short? A 320×240 AVI file running at 30fps for the Internet or perhaps a 24fps film rendered at 1024×768?

To plan a sensible route toward a particular destination, you also must know some specifics about your starting position.

[Figure 2] You need to know where youre going before you can figure out how to get there.

  • Are you a student, hobbyist or professional?

  • How much total time and how many hours per week can you devote to this project?

  • When can you start?

  • Do you have an official or self-imposed deadline or just a vague idea of when youd like to be finished?

  • What necessary equipment do you already own?

  • How much money can you spend?

  • What are your skills? Storytelling? Character design? Animation? Lighting? Organization?

  • Will you need to bring in teammates or do you have sufficient time and skills to go it alone?

Once you have some idea of the details of your origin and destination, you can build an organized, efficient and cost-effective pathway toward project completion by constructing a production plan made up of the following four elements:

[Figure 3] This chart identifies the actual steps that were used in a few example short film productions, but it does not necessarily represent the chronological order of each step.

  • An overall production pipeline

  • A budget analysis

  • A schedule

  • Asset organization and safeguarding

An overall production pipeline is the full series of steps needed to complete your film. Budget analysis will determine whether and how you will be able to afford the journey, with regard to both money and time. Scheduling is the process of placing your production tasks in a logical order and then figuring out the best way to divide and conquer each step. Asset organization and safeguarding involves file structures, naming conventions, and backup procedures.

Your Overall Production Pipeline

A complete CG short film production process is typically broken up into four stages.

  • Development.

    This is the initial planning phase, in which the elements that will dictate, inspire and guide production are created, assembled and organized. These elements include scripts, character designs, reference materials, look-development imagery and storyboards.

  • Pre-production.

    This is the stage in which you create the digital elements that will actually be used in your film. Think of them as the fundamental puzzle pieces of your production. These include vocal tracks, 2D and 3D animatics, CG models, texture maps and character rigs.

  • Shot production. In this stage, individual shots of your film are blocked, animated, lit, rendered and composited. In other words, this is where the gathered puzzle pieces are assembled into a cinematic whole.

  • Post-production. This is the final tweaking phase that begins after all of your film elements have been created and assembled. The puzzle pieces are all there, but a few of them might need to be touched up, rearranged, deleted or resized to fit better. Marketing and distributing are also considered post-production steps.

At this point, we are assuming that you have already completed your development phase and you are ready to begin production on your short film. The first step in preparing for this journey is to construct an overall production pipeline, which will consist of a global task list of all the steps necessary to fill in the blanks between development and project completion. It is the structure and general order of the steps involved in the official production stages where the elements of your film are created, assembled, ordered and refined. The remaining chapters of this book represent a fairly standard production pipeline consisting of the following steps:

  • Pre-production

    • Vocal Tracks: Writing, Recording and Processing (Chapter 9)
    • Story Reels and 2D Animatics (Chapter 10)
    • 3D Animatics, Layout and Camera Direction (Chapter 11)
    • Modeling (Chapter 12)
    • Materials and Textures (Chapter 13)
    • Character Setup (Chapter 14)
  • Shot production

    • Animation (Chapter 16)
    • Lighting and Rendering (Chapter 18)
    • Visual Effects (Chapter 19)
    • Compositing (Chapter 20)
  • Post-production

    • Sound Effects & Music (Chapter 21)
    • Titles and Credits (Chapter 22)
    • Marketing and Distributing (Chapter 24)

[Figure 4] The production of Venice Beach included a significant compositing stage.

Not every producer would necessarily group each of these steps in the specific categories we have assembled here. For instance, some might consider texture mapping to be a shot production step and compositing to be a post-production step. How you officially classify your individual production steps is not particularly important as long as they follow a logical order.

For example, you might be creating a film without dialogue or sound effects, in which case your chosen music score will dictate the beats of your story. You might render all of the elements of your shots in single passes, thus removing the necessity of a compositing phase. You might prefer to texture map your models after animating them, rather than before. You might also think that rigged CG puppets will be necessary in your 3D animatic, so youll set up your characters beforehand. An appropriate digital pipeline for such a film might look like this:

Music

2D animatics and videomatics

CG modeling

Character setup

3D animatics and layout

Animation

Texture mapping

Lighting and rendering

VFX

Take a moment to examine the development phases and overall production pipeline scenarios from a few existing short films (see Figure 3).

As you can see, a production pipeline can vary quite a bit from project to project depending on the scope and complexity of each film. Some productions will significantly reorder these steps. Some CG shorts require dialogue, while others are mute. Some filmmakers fully render their scenes in single passes, while others create layers and require a fair bit of compositing.

[Figure 5] The development stage of Phil McNallys Pump Action involved filming videomatics with live actors as well as puppets.

[Figure 6] A story reel begins as a slideshow of held storyboard images with necessary audio, and then evolves gradually into a final film.

For example, the production of Squaring Off varied rather significantly from a standard pipeline because it began as a simple animation experiment and was not initially intended to become anything resembling a narrative film; therefore, very few official development steps actually took place (see Chapter 19).

Instead of starting with a script, Alien Song began with a character and a song. The story idea wasnt invented until after a good portion of the animation had been completed.

Venice Beach used live filmed background plates with CG characters, thus requiring a significant composting stage (see Figure 4).

Pump Action made use of videomatics rather than storyboards or 2D animatics for scene planning (see Figure 5).

The authors of Cane-Toad elicited a good number of external critiques during the course of their production cycle, thus motivating them to revisit their scripting and layout stages repeatedly.

The production of Early Bloomer consisted of all the steps listed except vocal track recording and lip-synching (see Chapter 23, Case Study 4: Early Bloomer). The complexity of The ChubbChubbs required a full-scale production cycle that included every conceivable production pipeline step, as well as a very large team.

Although the specifics of these pipelines varied significantly, each was logical and appropriate for the particular needs of the corresponding production cycle.

Story Reel

Arguably, the most efficient and logical way to build a short animated film is to establish a software-based editing bay, where you will construct a story reel that will act as an evolving template upon which your film will grow (see Figure 6). A story reel, also known as a progression reel, officially begins with a 2D animatic, where your storyboard images are assembled sequentially with a piece of non-linear editing software (such as Adobe Premiere) and then held for appropriate durations and synched up with any crucial audio files to effectively deliver the story points. As your production continues, you will replace each held storyboard image with evolving 3D imagery until your story reel becomes your finished film. See Chapter 10 for more information on story reels and 2D animatics.

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Flowcharts

It is recommended that you draw a flowchart of your planned production pipeline so you have a visual representation of your organizational flow. A flowchart generally consists of boxes representing specific production stages or tasks with connecting arrows indicating how each step will flow into the next (see Figure 7). A flowchart will provide you with the ability to see your entire production plan as a whole, which can be very helpful when you are explaining your pipeline to your teammates, managers, teachers or financial backers. A flowchart version of the production pipeline we are outlining in this book is featured at the beginning of each chapter.

Preplanning Your Journey

Completing each step along your production pipeline will of course cost money and time. Before you dive in headfirst, it is always a good idea to play producer and construct a budget as well as a production schedule to not only organize your plan, but to determine whether you will have enough money and hours to complete your journey. A producer has two main goals in mind finishing under budget and on time. The creative side of the filmmaker inside you might come to resent these goals during the course of your production, but a bit of tough love from your internal or external producer will often be necessary to ensure that you actually reach your finish line.

To get a copy of the book, check out Inspired 3D Short Film Production by Jeremy Cantor and Pepe Valencia; series edited by Kyle Clark and Michael Ford: Premier Press, 2004. 470 pages with illustrations. ISBN 1-59200-117-3 ($59.99). Read more about the Inspired series and check back to VFXWorld frequently to read new excerpts.

Authors Jeremy Cantor (left) and Pepe Valencia.

Jeremy Cantor, animation supervisor at Sony Pictures Imageworks, has been working far too many hours a week as a character/creature animator and supervisor in the feature film industry for the past decade or so at both Imageworks and Tippett Studio in Berkeley, California. His film credits include Harry Potter, Evolution, Hollow Man, My Favorite Martian and Starship Troopers. For more information, go to www.zayatz.com.

Pepe Valencia has been at Sony Pictures Imageworks since 1996. In addition to working as an animation supervisor on the feature film Peter Pan, his credits include Early Bloomer, Charlies Angels: Full Throttle, Stuart Little 2, Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone, Stuart Little, Hollow Man, Godzilla and Starship Troopers. For more information, go to his Webpage at www.pepe3d.com.

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