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'Inspired 3D Short Film Production': Production Planning — Part 4

In the fourth part of the production planning chapter from the book, Inspired 3D Short Film Production, Jeremy Cantor and Pepe Valencia tackle the issues of budgets.

Be sure to check out Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of Production Planning to learn about basics such as the production pipeline, budget analysis and production 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.

How Much Does It Cost to Produce a Typical CG Short?

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this question because there is really no such thing as a typical CG short. The cost will depend on the complexity and length of the film, the size and cost of the team, and the amount of assets needed versus those already available.

For instance, Squaring Off was created by a single individual using pre-owned hardware and software. The only asset that was purchased specifically for the film was a piece of copyright-free music downloaded from the Internet for $15. Lets assume, however, that no assets had previously existed for this film. The cost of the equipment used for this production would have been as follows:

  • $2,000 for a computer (1.8GHz Pentium III, 512MB of RAM, GeForce3 video card, 60GB hard drive)

  • $1,100 for a digital camcorder used for sound effects recording

  • $12 for a camcorder tape

  • $2,000 for Maya 4.0 CG software

  • $600 for Adobe Premiere used for sound FX synching

  • $15 for music

The total for all of this comes to $5,727. Of course, if certain assets had not been already available, a certain degree of budget shaving would have taken place. For example, the sound effects could have been recorded using a $10 microphone rather than an expensive camcorder, which was used only because the director already owned one. Adobe Premiere was also a pre-owned luxury item. The sound-synching could have been accomplished within Maya, although the process would have been less efficient.

Many students are given access to all the equipment they need as part of their tuition fees. Therefore, the total cost of films such as Venice Beach, Mickeys Buddy, El Arquero, Horses on Mars and Run, Dragon, Run!!! would basically be the price of tuition for the necessary number of semesters at the appropriate schools. For example, Sheridan College in Ontario runs approximately $11,000 per year for their computer animation program. Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida, charges around $17,000 per year for tuition. California Institute of the Arts in Valencia costs approximately $22,000 per year. Also keep in mind that these numbers do not include fees and housing.

[Figure 14] Eddy Moussa managed to complete a 15-minute CG film using only free software.

Films such as The Chubb Chubbs, Bunny and Geris Game were created by large teams of salaried professionals with state-of-the-art equipment and substantial marketing campaigns. The costs for films of such scope and complexity can easily run into the six- or even seven-figure ranges!

Lets assume you have a decent computer but no extra money whatsoever to spend on software. You might be surprised to learn that you can potentially create a CG short by legally gathering every piece of CG and filmmaking software you might need without spending a penny! If you are using a Windows operating system, try for a piece of fully-functional CG software you can download absolutely free. Windows users can also download GIMP from, which can be used for background and texture painting. And Windows XP users can use the bundled Movie Maker package as a surprisingly robust non-linear editing software solution. Some software packages are available in trial form, meaning they will expire after 30 days or so. If your production cycle is short enough, you might be able to get sufficient use out of such promotions. An example of a fairly substantial CG short that was created almost exclusively using free software is Eddy Moussas 15-minute science fiction tale, Out of Memory (see Figure 14). For more information on his production process, peruse his website at

[Figure 15] Once you have completed a preliminary cost estimate, you can bid your proposed production budget to yourself and then respond accordingly.

How Much Will Your Film Cost?

When a studio is asked to bid on a project, they will examine and sum up the costs of each production step and then provide their prospective client with a fairly accurate total estimate on how much they will charge for their services. Then, of course, the client can accept the bid, negotiate or simply turn it down. Similarly, you can examine the potential cost of each step along your planned production pipeline and then bid this estimate to yourself (see Figure 15). Once youve seen this preliminary dollar figure, you can tell yourself, Okay, that sounds good. Lets get started. Or maybe, Hmmthats a bit pricey. Lets see where we can nip and tuck. Or perhaps, Are you insane? I cant afford that!

Unless money is no object, which is rarely the case, it is important that you come up with a fairly accurate initial cost estimate for your production pipeline so you can make any necessary cost-reducing adjustments to the scope of your intended film before production begins. Examine each step along your digital pipeline and figure out which of the six previously listed production costs will apply and how. Then sum it all up, add a bit of padding and see where you stand.

Lets assume you will follow our overall pipeline proposal and youve already completed your early development phase. Analyze how you will accomplish each production task to determine cost.

  • Dialogue. Can you get away without it? Where will your voice actors come from? Are they free? What hardware do you need for recording purposes? What software will you need to process your audio files? Does your CG package handle sounds sufficiently so you wont need any additional editing software?

  • 2D animatic. If you drew your storyboards on paper or photographed them, youll need a scanner or a digital camera to bring them into your computer. What software will you use to assemble your animatic? Something inexpensive, such as QuickTime Pro ($30), or will you need the additional functionality of a package, such as Premiere ($600) or Final Cut Pro ($1,000)?

  • 3D animatic. What software will you use? Will you need fully rigged characters or simple stand-in models that you will refine later?
  • Modeling. Do you have the necessary digital sculpting skills? If not, should you buy a book on the subject and educate yourself, or will you have to hire someone to build your models? Can you purchase suitable models instead?

  • Character setup. Do you have the necessary skills to set up your characters effectively and efficiently? If not, will you purchase textbooks or training DVDs, take a class or hire someone to do the work for you? Can you purchase a pre-built character rig or construction system that will work with your models?

  • Animation. Will you do it all yourself or build a team? Will your teammates charge you for their services? Do you need to buy animation books or training videos? Will you need to create or purchase reference books or videos of humans or animals in motion?

  • Texture mapping. How will you create your texture maps? Will you simply use the procedural textures included in your CG package? If you paint them digitally, you will need appropriate software, such as Photoshop or Painter. If you paint them traditionally, you will need to buy, borrow or rent a scanner or a digital camera to get them into your computer. Can you purchase appropriate textures? How much will they cost?

  • Lighting and rendering. Will you use the rendering tools of your modeling/animation software, or will you need a separate package, such as RenderMan, or perhaps an external plug-in that you might purchase or download? How much hard drive space will you need to hold all of your rendered images? A film-resolution TIFF frame might be as much as 10MB. Internet-appropriate JPG images might be around 50K. Do some quick math to figure out how much storage space youll need. For instance, a five-minute film running at 30 frames per second will contain approximately 9,000 frames. If your intended resolution is 720x486 (TV), each frame will be about 1MB; therefore, youll need approximately 9GB just to hold your rendered images. Keep in mind that youll also need space to store earlier render versions and other digital assets, such as software packages, scene files, texture maps, scanned storyboards and sound fx files.

  • Sound effects and music. Will your film require either of these audio assets? You can record your sound fx yourself using a camcorder or a microphone. Or you can buy sound fx CDs or purchase them from various web sites. You can also find many free sound effects on the Internet. Just make sure they are not sampled from existing sources without permission; otherwise, you can get into copyright infringement trouble. If you want to use a modern recording of an existing song, you will have to pay for permissions if you ever hope to see your film in a public forum. Copyright-free recordings of folk songs and classical pieces are available at your local CD store as well as on the Internet. There are a number of websites from which original music can be purchased for a song. Writing and performing your own music is an excellent option, assuming you are a decent songwriter and you have the necessary hardware and software, which can be costly.

  • VFX. Will you want your film to include effects, such as rain, snow, fire or smoke? If so, how do you plan to create such assets? In 3D or 2D? Many CG software packages have built-in particle systems you can use quite effectively, or you can create 2D effects as separate layers with the right software and then composite them into your rendered images.

  • Compositing. In many cases you can create your final imagery completely within your CG modeling/animation software in single rendering passes. However, it is sometimes more effective and efficient to composite separate image layers to create your final frames. Such layers might include background plates, effects passes and separate character and background renders. Compositing these layers together will require additional software, hard drive space and perhaps training materials or teammates.

  • Text. How will you create the titles and credit lists for your film? Will they be simple 2D lines of text or complex flying 3D objects? Will you use your modeling/animation CG software to create such text, or will you need a separate package?

  • Duplicating, marketing and distributing. How do you plan to get your film out into the public eye? You could post it on a web page, which of course will cost you a monthly hosting fee. If you plan to enter contests and festivals, realize than many have entry fees and you will usually have to pay for postage. Burning your film onto CD-ROMs or DVD-ROMs will cost you the price of a burner and the appropriate number of blank discs. Getting your film out to videotape will require additional hardware. Dumping your short out to film will probably require a professional service, which can be quite costly.

Hopefully, you already own most of what you need to complete your production. At the very least, youll need unlimited access to a computer and a piece of CG software. You can probably borrow or rent other items that you will use rarely, such as scanners. One advantage to renting is that you generally wont have to bear the costs of repairs or upgrades.

[Figure 16] A hypothetical cost analysis chart.

Go through each step of your proposed digital pipeline and do a preliminary analysis of what you will need to complete each production phase.

Now, based on this analysis, make a final list of all the assets you will need to complete your production and then figure out the method and cost of acquiring each item. Consider what you already have vs. what you need to purchase, as well as what you can borrow, rent or create. Then, to be on the safe side, add 20% padding to cover unexpected expenses that might arise.

Create a chart like the one shown in Figure 16, preferably with a spreadsheet program that will sum the cost column for you. Now add up the individual costs of your preliminary budget analysis to determine just how much your production is going to set you back. The important question youll need to ask now is, Can I afford this? Hopefully, the answer is yes, but sometimes the answer turns out to be, Uh oh, Im in trouble!

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

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