Monday, 4 November 2013

How To Start Your Animated Short Film

So, you’ve prepped your great idea for a film, you’ve developed your story, you’ve done your designs, your storyboards – you may even have recorded a guide track and completed an animatic. Everything is good to go, but you’re wondering… What do I do next? How do I start?
In stopmotion and CGI (and somewhat in Flash), you need to get your characters built, rigged and into animation tests as soon as you can. Without these, there’s no way forward. The big danger with stopmotion and CGI (this also applies to constructing characters in Flash), is that your project now turns into a modelmaking exercise. You shift from the relative safety and security of pre-production into a similarly snuggly, safe and secure craft-based modelmaking discipline. This takes time. Everything must be perfect – all the characters, the rigs, then the sets and props… My advice is to plough through this phase quickly. Set yourself definite deadlines. Get some of your characters done and get animating. Your results onscreen will inform your modelmaking process. You need to find out early what’s working and what needs more work. There’s NO point in ending up with beautiful looking models in four or five month’s time, only to discover that they don’t animate. Build some, animate early, then build again, based on your animation learning from your tests.

This brings me to the question of time… How long DOES it take to produce a 5 minute animated short film? I would say it takes on average around 6 months. It can take substantially longer – it’s rumoured that Tony Donoghue took 8 years to shoot his beautiful ‘Irish Folk Furniture’. I made my 2010 ‘Mister Heaney, a wee portrait’ in one month and I shot the first full pass of ‘Furniture – Murder and Love’ in 23 hours (including voice record and voice edit and a nice 7 hour sleep). On average though, it takes around 6 months to make a 5 minute animated short. Time is your friend and your enemy and time must be managed. Find out NOW how many days you have to your deadline. Map out the different tasks you need to get done – character construction, set construction, props, animation, animation, animation, compositing, reshoots and reanimations, effects, final edit renders. If you haven’t any previous production experience, guess how much time it’ll take you to do each task. I would say try to allocate at least a third of your available time to animation. At least!

I generally start in the middle of the film and work my way to the end. Then I work back from the middle to the very start of the film. In this way, the opening shots are possibly the best animation, because I’m well up to speed by then. The first shots you shoot (unless you’re flukily lucky) will often be terrifyingly terrible! Don’t worry about this. In a week, or a fortnight, you’ll have ironed out whatever problems you’ve found and you’ll be animating smoothly. Keep pressing forwards, shot by shot. Do NOT redo shots at this point – press ahead with the next shot, then the next shot. You can do your reshoots and reanimations at the end of the first pass.

Keep an edit line alive. I drop my animatic (if I have one) into the edit line and then, each day, I drop the shots I’ve animated onto the edit timeline, replacing the animatic shots. It’s a good idea to watch the entire edit timeline from the top each day, just to give yourself a feel for the overall shape of the film, and to encourage you that you’re making progress in your production.
Animate your first pass as soon as you can, then go back and reanimate the bits you hate the most and keep doing this until your animation time runs out.

In CGI, my advice is to render early – every day if possible. Do NOT leave renders to some vague three week block at the end of your production. Get stuff onscreen, in the bag. It can always be rerendered later, with much more polish and finesse, time permitting. Get stuff onscreen asap. This also applies to complicated comping or effects passes with stopmotion or 2d animation – get them rendered now, get them onscreen now. They can always be tweaked and improved at a later date, time permitting.

That’s it – take a deep breath and start.

I’ll be shooting three animated short films over the next six months – one simple (a second ‘furniture’ film), one secret (I can’t say anything) and one more finished and complex. I’ll keep you posted on progress.