Friday, 19 July 2013

Advice To Animation Students: Development

This is the first in an ongoing series of posts about the production process during final year at Falmouth University. It will cover everything from concept to completion; Development, Pre-Production, Production, Post-Production, and Distribution & Marketing. The focus for this first piece is on Development.

My advice to you is the use the time you have this summer and use it to plan. 
Literally plan everything all the way to the finish from script to screen.

What Development Covers:

  • Script & Screenwriting
  • Core Team & Recruitment
  • Developing New Skills
  • Meeting Facilitation (this will come in to play during the entire year)
  • How I would run the development process
Should I Direct/ Producer my own film should I just be a crew member?
This is one of the last chances some of us will have the chance to make a film for ourselves. You will never be surrounded by talent (working for free), resources (studio, equipment), lecturers (experts in their field) and time. Outside of an institution such as University of a commercial studio you will need to be able to raise money, have a solid core team while managing freelance life. So trust me I would make use of this now.
On the other hand if you know there is a specific role/ job you are interested then perhaps being a crew member is best. For example Phoebe Herring produced concept art, colour scripts, textures,
her portfolio and showreel both look awesome and she has put herself in a very good position for entry level work.
The sooner you know where you want to go and what you want to be the better you can make a decision here. For example if you know you want to be a producer its in your best interests to produce a finished film and apply for a production assistant position at a small studio. If you want to be a character animator you may as well just animate across several different projects, graduate with a diverse showreel and apply for a job as a junior animator. Makes sense right? I'll leave the ball in your court.

Scriptwriting & Script Development:

Falmouth University has an MA in screenwriting and some of it is online for free here
Its run by a woman called Jane Pugh who was interested in helping me out for the script on Little Loud. As well as using the lecturers I would get in touch with her as your "script consultant" over the summer and try to get a few drafts written before the start of term. Don't dwell on the script for too long though, this is animation after all and most of it will be worked out visually. I think all the projects should have scripts written but spending too long during term time will cause more hassle. It need to be locked before the start of term.

Writing script is hard and you will go through several variations. I only reached five draft on Little Loud but Hook, Line & Stinker reached 19 drafts and was 9 pages in length but his is mostly due to its complexity and the amount of dialogue. Despite the length of the script, estimated at around a page a minute, our short was 3 mins 30secs without credits because of its pace.

Its easier here if you have rough team in place otherwise you will be wearing many hats at once.
If the director is writing the script then they will have an idea of what it looks like in their head which is good but will make things tricky for a script editor.

Learn to write good properly formatted scripts. Do your self a massive favour and lock the script as early as possible. Why? Animation is visual so make it work visually and don't get bogged with the script too much. If its dialogue heavy like Hook, Line & Stinker to the point it may as well be a radio play then you will have to spend a certain amount of time on dialogue.

Also keep is simple. Remember that Game of Thrones meets Blade Runner mash that you've always wanted to make? Don't. My advice is to use previous graduates projects as a benchmark. Hook, Line & Stinker being the heady heights of feasibility and Kernel being a lot more realistic in execution.

Narrative or Experimental Projects:
Another thing i'll add it avoid experimental projects like the plague. This may not sound fair but my experience of "experimental" projects this year translates to this "I don't know what i'm doing. I have no vision for this film. Lets just see what happens." This is bad for obvious reasons.

Watch Films & Read Scripts:
As soon as we knew Hook, Line & Stinker was set at sea you'd think we would have sat down to watch a few movies set at sea right? Not the case. Please don't make the same mistake this will inform your story and allow you to slip in references to old movies. For example on Hook, Line & Stinker we would watch films such as; Jaws, Titanic and The Perfect Storm as well as films which have important scenes set at sea; King Kong and the opening scene of Shutter Island. The purpose of this two fold. You need to fill your memory bank with symbolism, framing, camera moves, staging, mis-en-scene and intertextuality. Along with narrative techniques like how the setting thematically tied to the stories? character development of to people in small spaces. When you have your core team in place, which I will go into in a moment, I would give them a list of  mandatory movie to watch before they begin work on the project.

Learn about structure:
If director use the rule of thirds and the golden section to compose their images visually then screen writers use the three act structure, the inciting incident and the third act climax to structure their screenplays. So should you. Some of you may feel that you don't want to look at structure so as to avoid a "cookie cutter" film but its the same way your composition was improved by adopting rule of thirds and the golden section until you understood its purpose enough to find your own style. Its the same things with structure. Learn it. Use it.

Script Breakdowns:
The script will go through constant iterations and the story will evolve. To speed up production have someone (producer/ CG Supervisor) start making  script breakdown. It will be easier to do this with a script that has numbered scenes. I like to use coloured pens/ highlighters to categorise the following.
  • Major Characters (how many? biped or quadruped? costume changes? 
  • Minor Characters/ Crowds (how many? do they talk? can we use that auto rig off creative crash?)
  • Environments/ Backgrounds (how many? how much will we build?)
  • Major/ Minor Props ((how many? is it key to story? can we cut it?)
  • Dynamics, Simulations & VFX (water? smoke? fire? all of the above?)
  • Audio; Voice Actors, Sound Effects, Music
Screenwriting Resources:

Scripts, Screenwriting & Story:

Falmouth University MA Screenwriting Lecturers:

By the start of third year you should know who can work and who can't as well as who you get along with. Hopefully you kept an eye on talent of the 2nd years and plan to make friends with the 1st years when they arrive. Here is my recruiting advice...

Identity Talent & Build Relationships
Identify talented 1st and 2nd year student and what they are good at really at. You should already know what people are good at in your year but some will surprise you. Spend time at the start of first term building relationships with 1st and 2nd years during freshers week and the first 10 weeks at the start of the year. As an example there are some third years that would have tried to approach you to work on their films but you don't work for them because you don't know them. It was so much easier for me to recruit 2nd years because I knew them. The sooner you understand the importance of building relationships on our course the better you will be in industry.

Pool Talent from Complimentary Courses
Don't just look to animation use other courses to pool talent from. Your Production Designer could be an Illustration or Graphic Design student. Looking to the Music, Digital Media and Film course for sound effects designers, composers and musicians is a good idea too. Stick up posters and send emails but understand that the best way to get people on board is to be able to pitch your idea face to face with them and get them to believe it as much as you do.

Find Core Team and Key Roles:
Try to get the following roles in place over the summer, draw up your "dream team" of students in your year and the year below. Try to identify Writer, Director, Producer, Production Designer and CG Supervisor, Editor as a core team. This should also extend to Lead Animators, Voice Actors, Sound Effects Designer, Musicians and Composers at a later date when you know what the films is but keep these roles in the back of your mind for now. Have one producer and one only. I won't go into detail on it just trust me on that.

A Few Things You Should Think About:
  • Producer:
  • is this project feasible? if not can we simplify?
  • what resources skills do we have? do we need training/ lectures?
  • drop-box or google drive? (use google drive/ docs. Thank me later)
  • Master Schedule (daily/ weekly schedule. keep this on google drive.)
  • Baby Schedule (monthly. print this out and stick it up.)
  • Shot tracking/ sign-off template
  • Deadlines dates (set deadlines for absolutely everything!)
  • Contact sheet
  • Festival strategy (you get bonus points for this one.)
  • Director:
  • writing the script
  • what is my vision for the film? (have a solid vision throughout)
  • what existing films explore similar themes?
  • who is my editor?
  • CG Supervisor:
  • what's out pipeline? parallel? non-parallel? can we automate it? (beware overkill!!)
  • asset management? file naming conventions?
  • drop-box or google drive? (use google drive/ docs. Thank me later)
  • who are my modellers? riggers? texture artists? technical directors?
  • do we need water simulations? fire? smoke? clouds? who is testing this?
  • whats the minimum we need to be on screen? aim to meet this
  • Production Designer:
  • character, environments/ backgrounds, props, 
  • who are my storyboard artists? 'visual development' artists?
  • who is doing the colour script?
  • Editor:
  • shot and frame count on every version of edit (makes it easier to discuss shots)
  • Frequency of edit? (new animatic each week? every fews days?)

Do not bother typing up an outlining roles of these people just make sure you understand whats they will be responsible have them do the research themselves. The core teams ned to accept that for the roles will overlap.

Put Individuals into Teams:
Break team down into individual roles as well as smaller teams with team leaders such as 'Lighting & Look Development', Character Development and Dynamics & Simulations to name but a few.
Why teams? Accountability. Collaboration. Keeping teams and team leaders in charge of their "department" there will be individuals and team leaders to answer and encourages (forces) artists and technical directors to collaborate. These teams do not have to be large and many people will overlap into different teams.

Lighting & Look Development Team =
Production Designer + CG Supervisor + Texturer + Lighter + Renderer + Compositor.

Character Development Team =

Character Designer + Modeller + Texturer + Rigger + Animator + Lighter + Renderer + Compositor.

I think you get the idea. So the sooner you can recruit and assign roles the sooner you can build these team and develop. One you know who is good at post-production you must then identify who is at a high enough level to be useful to you on a production. Unfortunately not all those who have taken pre/ or post will be good enough to that useful but some may surprise you.

Develop New Skills:
One you know what your idea in the back of your mind some alarm bells will start rigging. There are going to be things you  don't know how to do yet. Make a list of these and make a plan of action for learning them. If you don't know how to model a production ready character with the correct topology then now is the time to learn. The same goes for anything else in the pipeline.  If you have a core team then they may have skills that fill your own gaps and vice versa.

Historically the skills 3rd year projects have lacked are Producers, 2D Cell Action Riggers, 3D Maya Riggers, 3D Lighting TD's (with good understanding of cinematography). If you are interested in any of theses areas or are can't identify anyone on the course you can pull in the make a note of this. Ask george to giver a "masterclass" on these topics at the start of term and encourage several others to learn during the summer. 

Meeting Facilitation:
Try to arrange meeting for early Monday morning. If you are having them on a Friday at 3pm then you have done something wrong. Here is some quick advice for meetings:
  • Regular weekly meeting. Keep meetings in the same place (studio?) at the same time (9am?). The team will into a a good rhythm and good habits. This also avoids anyone not turning up because they did not know when or where it was.
  • Only have meetings when you really need to. Other than the regular meetings anything during the week should be necessary. only invite who is needed? (do the animators need to be in the nuke compositing meeting?)
  • Set start & end times. You will be able to work this out once you have had a few meetings. This will also force people to say whats important quicker. Similarly if you have discussed and reached a decision on all the key points in the meeting and there is still time on the clock then end the meeting. No need to overcook.
  • End early. If you have 10/15mins left don't try to fill it. Let people go.
  • As few people as possible.
  • Have an good agenda. what are we discussing? what decisions need to be made? who absolutely need to be there?
  • Meeting are called to reach a decision.
  • Make sure loud people don't dominate. Give quite people chance to speak up.
  • Take Notes. One person to take meeting minutes. who was in attendance? what decisions were made? Who is doing what? by when? Upload this to a shared google doc for everyone to refer to later. Don't transcribe its faster to type it, upload it or print it.
  • End every meeting with a plan of action. Ending meetings with "Action Steps", "Goals For The Week" and most importantly deadlines is much more effective. This will give you a yardstick with witch to measure progress at the next meeting. If you leave a meeting without action steps then what is value of the meeting?
  • Start each meeting reviewing "action steps" from previous meeting. Measuring meetings with Action Steps  I would not advise deadline that allow someone a week to 
  • Producer does not need to lead the meeting. But if you are the producer then keep the meeting on track but allow some time for a laugh and a joke. You do not need to lead the meeting and often letting other talk first will give you the chance to hear their opinion unbiased by yours.
  • Use Skype/ Google+ Hangout over breaks: Over the Christmas / Easter break some of the team may go home but meeting should not not stop. In fact having consistent meeting throughout term time will pay off if/ when people go home over 4 week Christmas / Easter break.
The core team need to be united in decisions during meetings. There will be be debates as to the best way to execute something and when it needs to be done. This was most disruptive for us between myself (Producer) and Sebastian (CG Supervisor). We found ourselves disagreeing with what was most important. Story vs Feasibility. So one thing we started to do on Hook, Line & Stinker was have a "pre-meeting" with core team (writer, director, producer, CG Lead, production designer) to ensure we could agree on how things should be done and by when. Even then it was not easy. Sometimes these "pre-meetings" result in decisions being made

How I would run the 3rd Year Development Process:
  • Begin development during penultimate or final semester of 2nd year.
  • 2nd years must pitch idea at end of 2nd year with a short synopsis and movie poster.
  • No "solo" directors. Each project must have core team supporting the director.
  • Be "Director Driven". Aim to provide writers/ directors them with a solid team to support them.
  • More mandatory pitch rehearsals earlier. One per week during 1st semester or 3rd year.
  • Pitch date should be earlier in 1st semester. In week 3 of 10 at the latest.
  • Lecturers should only allow the projects and teams you believe in to go through the pitch stage. 
  • Lecturers should have final say on who goes through not external judges.
  • Lecturers should only allow 8 projects max to be developed into short films.
  • Remaining crew must join new team within 5 days of projects cut.
  • One dedicated lecturer to act as an "executive producer". 4 lecturers = 2 projects each.
  • Cut underdeveloped projects earl. Don't let them die out. This is a waste of time/ resources.
  • Beware overdevelopment. Get projects out of pre-production as fast as possible.
  • Bring in external feedback earlier and regularly in process.
  • Encourage students to comment and have an opinion on other projects.

Thank you for reading the seconds part. Please read "Pre-Production" here.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Advice To Animation Students: Introduction

This is the first in an ongoing series of posts about the production process during final year at Falmouth University. It will cover everything from concept to completion in six stages; Development, Pre-Production, Pipeline Planning & Asset Management,  Production, Post-Production, and Distribution & Marketing. The focus for this first piece is on Development.

"The mark of successful organisation [institution] isn't whether or not it has problems, it's whether it has the same problem it had last year." - John Foster Dulles.

I have written this series post because it felt necessary to carry out a deeper analysis of issues on the production process to pass on what I have learnt to the year groups below as well as notes for me on the finer details of the project so I don't make the same mistakes as last year. It will be a mix of things I experienced working across several projects but some of it will be my opinion and bits of rambling which you should take a with a pinch of salt. It will sound quite negative as I am focussing on when went wrong more so than what we right. Thats what you're really interested in.
One thing that would have been very helpful at the end of second year is project evaluations from last years third years at the end of the year. A deep assessment of the projects from beginning to end. Having been approached by several second years asking for advice I wanted to collate it all into one place this would mean I can organise my thoughts as well have a place to send them to when they ask me. The course relies heavily on the "Eureka Effect". Waiting for great student project to come along to hang the marketing of the course on and hopefully get graduate jobs.

I know the lecturers tell students again and again, year after year, but I think it is best it comes from the students to the students. Future year groups should learn from the previous ones so they don't make the same mistake again. You will make your own mistakes but there are some mistakes that consecutive your year groups make and those are the ones we need to stamp out. 2nd years could read our production reports but this would be overkill, mostly self fulfilling exhalation. I'm not talking about glorifying successful/ finished films but I think other years groups will learn more from the films that failed or did not meet deadlines that from the ones that succeed but I guess we will find out.

We would need to develop a process that should be refined as each year group that comes through the course until we have success. Then to replicate that success for each consecutive year group.