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'Inspired 3D Short Film Production': Production Planning — Part 7

In the seventh part of the production planning chapter from the book, Inspired 3D Short Film Production, Jeremy Cantor and Pepe Valencia go deeper into scheduling and charting your CG short.

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.

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.

Be sure to check out Parts 1-6 of Production Planning to learn about basics such as the production pipeline, budget analysis and production deadlines.

Scheduling Your Production

Now that youve determined the size of your intended team and made any necessary adjustments to the complexity of your cinematic vision to ensure that your production cycle will fit within the limits of your available timeframe and finances, its time to organize the steps along your pathway toward film completion by creating a schedule for each of the three phases of your project cycle pre-production, shot production and post-production.

There are many ways to schedule a short animated film production, depending on the complexity of your film, the steps included in your overall digital pipeline, the size of your team and your available hours and assets. Before you begin, you need to answer a couple of important questions about your overall production plan.

  • Will you be working alone or with teammates?

  • Where will music fit into your pipeline?

If you work alone, your schedule will be rather linear. Although you might bounce back and forth between different tasks, you will basically be doing one thing at a time. If you work with a team, obviously you can accomplish certain tasks simultaneously.

If music will dictate the action of your story beats, you will need to schedule creation and recording time into your pre-production phase. If music will be used as a final enhancement to your storyline, then it can be composed or acquired much later and then scaled, offset or edited to fit with your visuals.

Pre-Production Scheduling

Start by making a list of all assets that will be required for shot production. These include:

  • Vocal and/or music tracks

  • A 2D animatic

  • A 3D animatic

  • Character models

  • Texture maps

  • Character setups

  • Background models and props

  • Background paintings or photos

You should have determined the quantity, complexity and build times of these elements when you created your time estimate. Here in the scheduling stage, you simply need to organize a sequential plan for creating each of these assets. The order you choose for the creation of these elements is not particularly important as long as you get them all ready for shot production at an appropriate level of completion.

[Figure 22] Create daily or weekly columns depending on the expected length of each task.

[Figure 22] Create daily or weekly columns depending on the expected length of each task.

Lone Filmmaker Pre-Production Scheduling

If you are working alone, then obviously you will be creating all of these assets yourself. This might not necessarily be the most efficient way to accomplish such a task, but it will indeed make for the simplest schedule.

Start by building a task table, where each column represents either a day or a week depending on how long you expect the creation of each asset to take. If most of your assets will take at least a week to build, then use one column per week, titling these columns with the start date of each workweek. If you expect to work much faster, then break up each weeks column into sub-columns representing the number of days in a typical workweek (see Figure 22).

Then simply fill in the necessary time blocks for each task you will accomplish. Figure 23 might represent a typical pre-production schedule for a lone CG artist creating assets for a film with two characters and a bit of dialogue.

[Figure 23] Pre-production task table for one filmmaker creating two characters and a small amount of dialogue.

[Figure 23] Pre-production task table for one filmmaker creating two characters and a small amount of dialogue.

Pre-Production Schedules for Teams

Building a task list becomes a bit more complicated when additional teammates are included in the mix. Each team member will have his or her own row and corresponding task blocks. Determining who does what and when will depend on the specific contributions that each teammate will make. Regardless of the size of your team, if you are the sole director or the project lead, it will probably make sense for you to assemble your animatic alone and perhaps elicit occasional feedback from your crew. If more than one person will hold the title of director, then this task should be collaborative. If each team member is a generalist who can model, texture and rig characters, it might make sense to give each artist his or her own character to build concurrently. If you have a team of specialists, however, you might prefer to structure your pre-production more like an assembly line, where the individual tasks follow a sequential order and are placed on the appropriate artists rows. Figures 24 and 25 represent a couple of example scenarios.

[Figure 24] No dialogue, music to be added in post, three characters, a fair amount of background elements and props, a two-person team, both generalists, and one director.

[Figure 24] No dialogue, music to be added in post, three characters, a fair amount of background elements and props, a two-person team, both generalists, and one director.

[Figure 25] No dialogue, but music will dictate the action; two characters; a three-person team, one director, who is also the character rigger, one modeler and one musician, who also paints textures.

[Figure 25] No dialogue, but music will dictate the action; two characters; a three-person team, one director, who is also the character rigger, one modeler and one musician, who also paints textures.

Shot Production Scheduling

A final shot will be a video clip or a series of image frames rendered from virtual stages containing background objects, props, character puppets, texture maps, lights, animations and particle effects. All of these elements need to be created or acquired and then assembled, rendered and possibly composited during your shot production stage. To sufficiently organize, schedule and track the production of your shots, it is a good idea to create two charts.

  • A global shot schedule

  • A shot progress chart

When you are scheduling time blocks for modeling and rigging, consider whether you will need detailed and functional character puppets just yet or whether you would prefer to use rough stand-in models for your 3D animatic and layout phases, and then refine and rig them just before your blocking and animation stages begin.

[Figure 26] To organize and track your shot production, you will need a global schedule as well as a shot progress chart.

[Figure 26] To organize and track your shot production, you will need a global schedule as well as a shot progress chart.

A global shot schedule will represent your overall plan of attack, while the shot progress chart will be used to track the completion level of each individual shot from blocking through final imagery. With these two charts working hand in hand, you will be simultaneously monitoring your entire forest as well as your individual trees (see Figure 26).

Global Shot Schedule

Start with a chart similar to the one you constructed for your preproduction schedule, with week (or day) columns and a row for each shot-producing team member. The number of columns in your chart will be determined by your initial time estimate. In our running example, we had estimated 100 man-days for shot production. If our hypothetical filmmaker will be working alone at five days per week, we would need 20 (week) columns. If our filmmaker brings in a partner, then we would need 10 (week) columns. Four team members? Five columns. You get the idea.

As you fill in your schedule with shot-production tasks, you might find that you need additional columns, so make sure you leave a bit of extra room on your paper just in case.

Once you have this chart laid out, insert the necessary time blocks for each shot, factoring in the amount of time each one will take to produce based on your initial time estimates. In some productions, each shot will be completed from start to finish in a single uninterrupted block of time. In other productions, different stages of each shot will be handled in different time periods and perhaps by different teammates. For instance, you might block a particular shot but then move on to blocking a few others before you return to the first for final animation, lighting and rendering. One team member might block and animate certain shots, while others will handle the lighting, rendering, compositing and other finishing touches. The way you organize your shot production schedule will depend on how many teammates you have, as well as their availability, skill sets and working speed (see Figures 27 through 29).

[Figure 27] Possible global shot schedule for a lone filmmaker attacking each shot from start to finish sequentially.

[Figure 27] Possible global shot schedule for a lone filmmaker attacking each shot from start to finish sequentially.

[Figure 28] Possible global shot schedule for a team of three filmmakers, each one a generalist who can take a single shot from blocking through compositing.

[Figure 28] Possible global shot schedule for a team of three filmmakers, each one a generalist who can take a single shot from blocking through compositing.

[Figure 29] Possible global shot schedule for a team of five specialists.

[Figure 29] Possible global shot schedule for a team of five specialists.

When you insert task blocks into your schedule, dont forget to factor in vacations and holidays.

[Figure 30] A poorly planned production schedule will have task holes and will unnecessarily extend your deadline.

[Figure 30] A poorly planned production schedule will have task holes and will unnecessarily extend your deadline.

As you fill in these time blocks, try to be efficient with your scheduling so that none of your teammates are sitting idle, waiting for their turn on a particular shot (see Figure 30). This is not always a simple task, so be patient and spend the necessary time to assemble your schedule in the most efficient manner possible.

Keep in mind that your actual production will very likely stray a bit from what youve laid out on your shot-production schedule. Certain shots will take longer than you thought; others will go more quickly. Some shots will have to be revisited at a later date. Team members might be unexpectedly absent. Shots might need to be reassigned in mid-production. Because variables such as these exist, it is important for you to create your shot-production chart in a format that is easy to edit and update. A dry-erase board is a very popular medium on which to create this chart. Just make sure that it is kept in a safe place where your kids or your cat are unable to inadvertently erase your entries. A large piece of paper can also work just fine when you draw your row and column lines with an indelible marker and you fill in your time blocks in pencil so you can erase and redraw them as necessary. Using appropriate computer software has obvious advantages in this capacity because of the ease in which data can be inserted, duplicated, erased and edited. Also, it is very easy to add columns and rows to digital charts.

[Figure 31] Indicate your progress by color-coding your task blocks or using stickers to indicate completion levels.

[Figure 31] Indicate your progress by color-coding your task blocks or using stickers to indicate completion levels.

As your shot-production cycle continues, you will need to mark your time blocks somehow to indicate the completion level of each shot. There are a number of ways you can accomplish this. You might want to use different colors to indicate different stages of each shot. You might use no color for a shot that has not yet begun, yellow for a shot that has been animated, green for a shot that has been lit and rendered and blue for a shot that has been completed or finalled. Some producers like to use removable stickers on a dry-erase board, with different shapes, colors or markings indicating the completion level of each shot (see Figure 31). Any of these methods will work as long as the one you choose allows you to glance at your schedule and quickly understand the status of each shot, as well as step back so you can see the overall progress of your entire production.

Shot Progress Chart

In addition to your global shot schedule that will indicate the start and end dates of each stage of each shot, you will also need an individual shot progress chart that will represent the completion level of each shot. You will fill in the cells in this chart as each shot develops from blocking through final tweaks.

Build a chart like the one you constructed for your shot production time estimate, with columns representing each shot stage and a row for each shot (see Figures 32 through 35).

As your shot production cycle progresses, simply fill in each appropriate cell with an X or a checkmark as each shot stage is completed. When all of the cells on this chart have been filled in, your shot production is basically complete.

While it is always preferable to label every shot as FINALLED before you move on, sometimes for the sake of momentum, deadline demands, or burnout avoidance you might need to temporarily abandon a particular shot before it is satisfactorily completed, with the idea that you will return to it at a later date if time permits. Such shots are generally given the label CBB, which stands for Could Be Better. A CBB label on your progress chart might indeed stick out like a sore thumb, but allowing yourself one or two might mean the difference between finishing your film and allowing a single particularly frustrating shot to put you so far behind schedule that you might never recover.

Shot Ordering

There are three basic ways in which you might order the process of completing each shot in your production. Borrowing a bit from terms normally associated with the animation process (see Chapter 16), we have listed these three scheduling options as follows:

  • Straight ahead

  • Hero shots

  • Layering

Working through your shots in a straight ahead fashion means completing them sequentially. Shot 1 is taken from blocking through final tweaks before you move on to a full completion cycle on shot 2. Then shot 3, then shot 4 and so on (see Figure 32).

[Figure 32] Project completion levels at 25%, 50% and 75% using the straight ahead method.

[Figure 32] Project completion levels at 25%, 50% and 75% using the straight ahead method.

[Figure 33] Project completion levels at 25%, 50% and 75% using the hero shot method.

[Figure 33] Project completion levels at 25%, 50% and 75% using the hero shot method.

The hero shot method involves selecting certain crucial shots and completing each one before you fill in the blanks between them. (This can be compared to the pose-to-pose method of animating; see Chapter 16.) If your film has eight shots, perhaps youve selected shots 1, 5 and 8 as your hero shots. These will be completed first, and then the remaining shots will be completed in whatever order seems appropriate (see Figure 33). The main advantage of the hero shot method is that long before you complete your production, you will have a few finished shots that can serve as examples of your quality and style goal for your future shots. As production continues, you can point to a completed and particularly successful hero shot and say, Our next shot will be finished when it looks like this one. Another advantage to this method is that you might be able to use your first few completed hero shots to assemble an early teaser trailer, which you can post on your personal web site or on any number of Internet forums and online film festivals to generate early buzz for your CG short.

Layering means completing all of your shots in overall stages. First you will block all of your shots; then you will go back and finalize the animation on all shots; then the lighting, rendering, compositing and so on. This way your entire film evolves as a whole, rather than as individually completed parts (see Figure 34).

The particular shot ordering method you choose will of course affect the organization of your overall production chart. If you choose to work in a straight ahead or hero shot fashion, each of your time blocks will represent an entire production cycle for an individual shot. If you work in a layering capacity, you will need to insert separate time blocks for individual shot stages (see Figure 35).

[Figure 34] Project completion levels at 25%, 50% and 75% using the layering method.

[Figure 34] Project completion levels at 25%, 50% and 75% using the layering method.

[Figure 35] The structure of your overall shot-production chart will differ depending on which method you choose to attack each individual shot task.

[Figure 35] The structure of your overall shot-production chart will differ depending on which method you choose to attack each individual shot task.

Post-Production Scheduling

In the pre-production and shot-production phases, all of the elements of your film are created, assembled, animated and lit. Rendered image sequences are then created and possibly composited into nearly final collages, which are used in place of your held storyboards or your 3D animatic renders in your story reel, with appropriately synched sound effects and music.

Once you reach that point of your production cycle, your film is all there. There are no new assets or shots to be created. However, you must still add finishing touches before you can truly call your film complete. These final details might include sound effects and music, film grain filters, post-camera moves, color correction, wipes and fades, titles and credits. And just like the pre- and shot-production phases, this post-production stage should also be scheduled.

Add necessary columns and task bars to your overall shotproduction schedule and your shot progression chart to represent shot-specific post-production tasks, such as post-camera moves and color correction (see Figure 36). Then create a final chart like your shot-production chart, with dates across the top row, and insert time blocks to represent the time it will take to complete each global post-production task, such as titles and credits.

Milestones

Another important scheduling element is the notion of milestones. A milestone is an intermediate deadline that helps you gauge progress. As you lay out your schedules for the three production phases, mark a few points to be regarded as milestones and indicate target dates so you can see how efficiently youre heading toward your finish line. One such milestone might be the completion of your storyboards. Another might be the point at which you finalize the animation on 50% of your shots. It is much better to potentially discover that youre falling behind while youre still in the midst of production than to make such a realization only after youve failed to meet your final deadline. You might be able to apply corrective measures during the course of your production, but once youve finished, it will be too late.

[Figure 36] You can add shot-specific post-production tasks to your shot progression chart.

[Figure 36] You can add shot-specific post-production tasks to your shot progression chart.

What If Your Official Schedule Doesnt Fit with Your Deadline?

Despite the fact that you made every attempt to accurately determine the timeframe feasibility of your production when you created your initial estimates, you might be unpleasantly surprised to find that your official production schedules tell a different story. If this is the case, do not simply ignore your findings and forge ahead, blindly hoping that things will somehow work out anyway. Take the time now to apply the previously described suggestions for how to adjust your production specifics to make the length of your project cycle conform to your available timeframe. A few extra hours here in the planning stage can save you many headaches down the road and will help eradicate the possibility of having to lower your quality standards or worse yet, abandon your project before you 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.

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 www.pepe3d.com.

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