Here is another great article from Yoav, an old classmate of mine from Ringling College back in the day. At Ringling in order to graduate we have to create a “Senior thesis”, essentially a 2min animated short film in 3D, alone or in a group, in which case you get an additional 2min per person in your team if you like.
I created my film alone, called “Serial Taxi” and Yoav created his in a group, “Spy Fox” . In this post, he talks about some of his biggest tips and lessons from his experiences during the creation of Spy Fox.
For a while we have promised to sum up our conclusions and the lessons we learned from our senior year at Ringling in one place. Lindsey and myself collaborated on this long article and hope you will find some of it useful. Please note: these ideas are just suggestions based from our own personal experiences. They are more guidelines than rules…
Don’t be wasteful
When it comes to prop/environment modeling, try to think economically and model to the camera. If you have objects far in the background that we will never see up close, model it in low-res, which will save you time both modeling and rendering. Don’t model hidden parts of objects if we will never see them anyway.
Make it more believable
Sometimes (depends on the film), I found that if you add more details and objects in the background, it helps sell the world and make it more believable. Besides making it feel full and lived in, it can help convey subtle story concepts that add depth to the characters (is this character neat? messy? what’s their “style?”) and create a mood (“man, this isn’t just an alley, this is a CREEPY, nasty alley.”) The most important thing is that you hide any CG issues (floating objects, cut off geometry, etc) from the audience, because it will break focus from the story. In SpyFox we modeled 3 computer boards and by scaling, rotating and changing the colors it looked like many different props inside the factory.
Modeling for Layout
If you haven’t modeled your environments yet, it is essential to build a very simple low-res version (cubes, spheres, etc) of your future models, so you can see how they fit in the shot and adjust the camera accordingly.
Cheating to the camera
Cheating to the camera is sometimes a great tool. Often we found that certain elements are hard to stage– but don’t let that limit you. So often we would cheat those elements for the camera so they will fit. Cheating is 100% acceptable (even the pros do it). Throw lattices on things, make them float, change their scale… do what you need to do to get your shot…as long as it’s not obvious. (Have a friend look at it to double-check).
Using the camera and staging to create a certain mood.
In the shot where the fox is trying to reach for the gun, we found (by looking at some film references) that by tilting the camera we could make the shot more interesting and dramatic. This is one of many examples how to amp up your story without too much work. In DDLM, just by pushing the camera higher and wider when the girl first falls underground, we were able to amplify the feeling of loneliness and vulnerability.
This is something different for every movie, but in Spyfox for example, we cheated the number of minion that are running along the screen by using only two rigs going on a cycle. It helped us to save render time and make the Maya scene work faster.
In Dia de lus Murtas short (DDLM), for the “fiesta” scene at the end, we had modeled an entire town square… However, in any particular shot, you might see only two or three buildings at a time. It didn’t make sense to have all those other buildings and props in the background of every shot, slowing down render times. So, we designed the town’s file using nested references so that we could turn off any buildings we didn’t need, with one click of a button. This could be easily adapted for any environment.
Sometimes you can reduce the number of your shots to help your story and simplify rendering. When you are in the ‘layout phase,’ be on the look out for similar-looking consecutive shots that you could possibly combine.
Transition to Layout
When transitioning from 2D (storyboards) to 3D (layout) it’s important to use your storyboard as a guideline more than a strict rule. The boards are a great starting place, but once you are in the 3D world space, you may discover ways to amplify and enhance your staging and camera angles. There were many shots in our film that we found that we could make much more dynamic and interesting by adding camera moves, for instance.
As you work on your layout try to work on the eye trace of your film. On SpyFox we had many action scenes and planning the compositions and eye trace helped to make them read easily. (check out and the video on the other post)
Each shot has significance
Every shot should have a reason to exist, and should help to tell the story. If it doesn’t, you can probably get rid of it. (Examples on the other post)
Reference for animation
Even when the motion of the characters is very clear in the storyboards, it’s good to plan it out. Look for specific references from feature animations, film your own reference, and draw thumbnails. It will only help to enhance the animation and make it more interesting. In terms of acting, remember that you don’t need to gesture to every phrase (unless you are going for a very exaggerated, cartoony style, which could work.) Sometimes, less is more.
Planning your animation
No matter which way you like to work – the most important thing, I think, is to at least know in your mind what you are going to do with the animation. If you don’t, you will get stuck in a situation where you change your ideas and animation all the time, wasting valuable hours. This is why using reference, planning in 2d or thumbnails helps animators to make decisions about the animation. You don’t want to end up having to reanimate poses and shots. Plan!!
Send renders to the farm every night (if possible)
Constantly send render tests to the farm. It doesn’t cost anything to send your WIP lighting to the farm every night before you leave the labs…You’ll get to wake up to a new rendered shot every morning, and can check for and fix farm errors early. This way you will have at least a SMB version of most of them rendered before the ‘render week,’ which will be both a huge time saver and stress-reliever.
When you have a rendering error, it can be tempting to reach for a drastic solution, like importing your references, or importing your entire file into a new scene. This is a bad idea; it often only temporarily masks the problem, which can lead to bigger problems later on. However, most problems actually have simple solutions, if you don’t panic. Take a breath, ask for help, google it. Keep track of what’s happening in your hypergraph. Work cleanly….(Lindsey is going to write a “common render issues” manual, so be on the look out for it. )
Nuke is your best friend. Ever. Color correct, add depth of field, adjust your contrast, have more control over your light levels, use masks to selectively adjust objects… become friends with Nuke, and you will save yourself so much time and be able to push your frames so much more!
Have a non-moving camera, and a background that takes a long time to render?…. RENDER ONE FRAME! Then use nuke to add in your character & its shadow. Magic!
Slow render times? (the first things to look for)
In my experience, the thing that slowed down render times the most was hi-res textures. Sometimes it’s necessary to have that hand-painted 4096p bump map… Other times it’s just not. Use hi res textures for your characters, but when it comes to props and environments, be more selective. Only make a texture as big or as detailed as it needs to be! And use procedurals whenever possible. It’ll save you a ton of time.
From our experience many films suffer from slow pacing, lack of flow and rhythm. it usually happens because we are used to watch our film on a everyday basis. There’s also a dangerous tendency to slow things down and unnecessarily add frames in 3D. To fight it, either take a few days off or ask someone with a fresh eye for an opinion, or better yet:
1. Ask them to cut and edit your film in premiere!-See what they choose to cut out, or what they speed up. This way you will be able to see if it flows better and if you really need these scrapped shots.
Oh god… Composers!!!
Good music can help enhance your film and that’s why finding a good composer can be a great idea. There are many options out there to get free music, either by using an online music library or by collaborating with student composers. But many students that I know preferred to use a composer, which means it will cost money – so be prepared. If you choose to hire a composer, here are the things you should look for:
A. Before choosing, ask them to do a quick 20-30 sec demo to a specific moment of your animatic. Provide musical references to show the style/mood you’re looking for (you can use Youtube links of songs and soundtracks)
How to push your work
Do Paintovers. Often you don’t know what your frame is missing until you’ve pushed it around in Photoshop for a while. Push the saturation! Shift the hues! Add some bounce light! Adjust your color balance! Play! Discover the hidden potential! It’s also a great way to communicate your vision and ideas with your teammates. This way you can try out your ideas really fast and present the results.
Reference and research
Look and search for a lot of reference as you work. Try to find how other movies applied the mood that you are aiming for and use that on your shot. There are always new things you can add to make your shots better. We said it in the animation section, but it applies to every section of the pipeline (modeling/animation/rigging/lighting/visdev/compositing)
Ask friends for help
Talk to your classmates or graduates who had similar technical challenges as you have in your film. Sometimes other students will have the solution to your problem and it can save you a lot of time by asking for help. The rule we made up is: after 10 minutes of struggle you should ask for help.
Try to avoid filling your story with complicated technical obstacles. If you are not into Cloth, fur and water simulation/rigging/VFX/scripting try to avoid these things as much as you can when working on your story. It is not a big deal, and many students have dealt with these challenges in the past. It just can be very time-consuming, and will slow you down and detract your focus from what you really want to do. Just consider carefully that you might end up with great cloth simulation but the animation may suffer… which could be detrimental to your film.
First and Last shots
Of course you want your whole film to look amazing and high quality, but remember that the audience needs to be impressed by the first seconds of your film so that they really get drawn in. Likewise, an excellent final shot will leave them with a good taste in their mouth. So keep that in mind to have a good opening and closing shots in all aspects: animation, rendering, lighting and etc.
Make short term schedules and lists as you work on your project. This way you can always be aware of your situation. But don’t stress about it – it’s more a guideline to help you. If you are in a team it will be a good idea to agree about every 2 or 3 weeks on your own deadlines. This way you can give space to each other to work individually but still be able to follow and check the group’s progress.
yeah we all know, yada yada… but it’s super important so you won’t burn out. Plus, you get a fresh take on your work when you get back. When you take a break you let your brain relax, which helps your mind to focus… This is why some of our best ideas come to us just before we go to sleep or later in the shower…And walking outside the labs can even help you spot inspiration and ideas for how to tackle obstacles in your work.
Working after Midnight
Many times, students kept working for many hours after midnight, only to wake up for school exhausted the next day. Consider trying this instead: rather than working those extra hours at night when you’re already exhausted after a long day, go to sleep and plan on waking up extra early, maybe at like 5 AM. You’ll still get that extra time you needed, but with the added benefit of a few hours rest before hand, so you can work more efficiently.
The most important thing to do if you want to make it through the year is to respect your teammates. You will need to know that there will be many up and downs during the year and many disagreements and even crises. It’s part of the process because everyone have their own vision on the same matters. So to deal with that you can do the following:
Yes, it’s annoying sometimes to work next to each other all the time, but working together in the same lab will give you a huge advantage for your group and the reasons are:
GCHAT is not a replacement. It’s never the same as being physically in the same room!!!
Yes, it’s ok to work by yourself from time to time, but don’t make it a habit.
Whatever you do, there are two main questions you can ask yourself in order to push your film forward and they are:
At the end of the day, just ask yourself: How can you make it better?” often you won’t realize how much you can improve it until you just do it, and compare it to what you had before.. So keep pushing! Analyze your choices! Don’t just do “something,” do exactly THE thing!”
Upcoming topics: Tips about brainstorming ideas and how to improve your story!