staying on trackon September 28, 2005 at 10:51 am
In a large animation studio, the work is delegated to several people, sometimes several hundred. The usual suspects are:
- The director, who is in charge of the overall project. The role of the director is to be the audience member watching the finished production. This is tricky to do in the early stages, when the project is little more than an idea. The director is a sounding board and overseer for all the different parts of the production team. The director also oversees the recording of dialog, making sure that the individual performances have the proper tone and inflection and remain consistent from take to take.
- The production department, which oversees budget, timelines, screenings and the like. The are also the interface with the financial backers and eventual promoters of the project. The production department often plays the role of taskmaster, saying "no" almost as often as asking "when."
- The story department, which handles scripts and storyboards and the overall flow of the film
- The art department, which handles everything from character designs to backgrounds
- The sound department, which takes care of the recording of dialog, Foley and all manner of natural sounds that must be manufactured for an animation
- The animation department, which takes care of all the animation (this is us ally broken down by character or by scene, with the best animators often overseeing other animators
- The film or video department, which handles the transfer of animation to media as well as the editing
I am omitting the ink and paint because in this digital age there is no longer any such thing. Within each of these departments there are often other subgroups such as modelers, sculptors, checkers (for color and other details), lighting specialists, surface specialists, texture specialists, and so on. The staff of a big project (or even a small one with lots of episodes) can easily swell to whatever the budget will bear.
In an independent studio, one must wear many hats because there simply is not very much money. Money equals time, and the less money there is the longer something will take because there are fewer people working on it. I have found that the hardest thing to do in animation is making sure that things are done efficiently and in the proper order.
Planning is key. For a small project, say a five-or-six minute animated short, I am following this basic task list:
- Story. It can be a script, an outline (or treatment) or a storyboard. The more complete this part is the smoother everything will go. This becomes the boilerplate upon which everything else is built.
- Soundtrack. This needs to be recorded, in rudimentary form at least, prior to assembling any video or animation. It is much easier to time animation to sound than the other way around.
- Animatic or Leica Reel. This is the assembled mock-up of the project in which the basic timing of scenes is established.
- Character design. Here we begin to finalize the characters in our project, bearing in mind that they will need to move. Often something that looks good still will be the devil to animate.
- Background design. Here we create the environment in which our project takes place. This is a very important and often overlooked aspect of animation. Look to Miyazaki or Batman: The Animated Series to see how a beautiful background can influence the film
- Animation. This is by far the most time consuming of all. When conceiving your project, it’s wise to assume the worst. If you’re a big fan of Disney character animation, you need to realize that for most small projects it’s simply unrealistic to try for that kind of standard (unless you’re a prodigy or you want to spend five years on your project). I try for a happy medium between high-quality and timeliness. In close-ups, for example, I may do the best "on ones" animation I can muster, but in long or medium shots I may use a stock walk cycle and let the dialog and backgrounds carry the story. John K. is a great example to follow if you want to walk the line between affordable and good.
- Final assembly. This part will break your heart, because you might find that a scene you spent weeks on adds nothing to the story so you need to trash it (which is why you can never spend too much time on storyboards, I think). Editing may take the form of shaving a few frames here or there. It may also be a harrowing experience of re-assembling the whole project. I think that, as you go, it gets easier.
- Final sound. Here you can replace your scratch-track with more polished performances. Be careful that the timing remains the same as in the original. If you’re practical, you’ll do this step before the animation commences, but it’s not always possible. You also can add sound effects, Foley and background sounds and music. In cartoons, sound is 80% of the show, so do your best.
- Screening. Here’s your excuse to have a party. Make sure you get everyone good and liquored beforehand so you won’t play your cartoon to an silent house. Pay attention to the audience and see what works and what doesn’t. By this time you won’t have an objective bone left in your body, so getting feedback from others is really important.
- Distribution. Get a list of festivals and small shows and submit, submit submit. If there’s a college or independent theater near you, you may be able to convince them to show your film as a short before a main feature. Be sure they have the capability to project from your media (usually a DVD). Transfers to 35mm are really expensive, and most theaters no longer have 16mm projectors. It’s also wise to use the Internet to build a following.
And then you start all over again, maybe with more money but likely with less. Keep at it, though. Most of the big studios have their roots in tiny one- or two-person indy projects. Look at Pixar! Jeez, look at Disney, for that matter!