Although there are many ways to approach and complete an animation/design project, I like to explore a path that has proven many years of valuable service in the industry for me. My 10-Step Process is discussed below, and is a great tool to breakdown deadlines without skipping valuable phases of production.
Step 01: Competitive Analysis
Production is always smoother when there is dedicated and focused time allotted to invest in pre-production. No one has inherent knowledge of every single client and industry. Before you even begin thinking of your specific project design solutions, it’s always a great idea to see what is already out there, who your competition is, and what has come before you. This establishes valuable knowledge of genre conventions, historical styles and aesthetics, and current trends in the industry.
Step 02: Style Contact Sheet
In Step 02, you collect all your research data, ideas and pictures and composite them into an easily viewed plate of images and notes. This contact sheet is NOT composed of images analyzed in the Competitive Analysis phase – this is a collection of ideas that pertain to your original design solutions. These images can include references of light and shadow, materials and shaders, typographic elements, color schemes, line and space, sound design, and more. Each design solution you come up with should have its own corresponding Style Contact Sheet, and is referred back to constantly thoughout the whole project.
Step 03: Storyboards of Major Action
Accomplished drawing skills are not required to create effective thumbnails, but you do need to have the sufficient ability to quickly convey concepts to others- as well as further explore the possible design solution to yourself. At this stage, you need to pay focused attention to effective camera angles which will allow you to see what assets are needed, how you can build them in the most efficient manner, and how your visual cinematic language techniques will convey the most effective message to the viewer. You should be illustrating rough moving cameras as well as directorial actions and framing.
Step 04: Building of All Major Assets
Assets should be built in the most effective way in regards to speed, level of detail, and proximity to the camera. ‘Hero’ elements are given more attention to detail than mid and background elements. Assets are not limited to 3D models – they are backgrounds (both CG, traditional or filmed), principal photography, illustrations, practicals, rough dynamic effects and more. Rough models and assets are useful to quickly begin to frame in animatics without getting bogged down in detail that may not be needed. Textures and lighting are not included in this stage, but basic color swatches are useful.
Step 05: Camera Animatics
Whether you are incorporating solely 2D or 3D elements, you must pay strict attention to cameras. The term ‘camera’ is used interchangeably with the framing of graphic design elements. Even non-traditional projects such as holograms must still focus on what the viewer does and does not see. The industry has moved rapidly from 2D Boardamatics to 3D Animatics that include low resolution assets and bare-bones animation. In feature animation, this stage is called Layout. Camera angles and movement is usually locked down here, so the emphasis is on timing, narrative and message readability and comprehension. This stage also solidifies what you need to build, and at what level of detail. Shots are identified, ordered and incorporated into the project timeline. Scratch audio is included, and preliminary edits are heavily influenced by this. Do not wait until Step 09 to consider audio choices!
Step 06: Animation and Effects
Full animation begins. This includes 2D and 3D characters, props, logos, text, backgrounds, fluids, particles, dynamic effects, interfaces and other design elements. Close attention should be paid to Step 03 (Thumbnails of Major Action) for timing and placement. The Twelve Principles of Animation is used here in full capacity of the artist’s talent and ability. The animation should be very close to the final, but don’t spend a great deal of time polishing the animation that may yet still be altered. Dynamic effects are cached out. The focus is on readability and appeal, all created in support of the message. If lip-syncing is required, the final speaking performance should be completed and choices locked.
Step 07: Asset Finishing/Polish
By this stage, all assets are built, animated and rendered quickly for continuous review of readability and project effectiveness. Polish begins for UV/surfacing/texturing 3D assets, completion of 2D characters and backgrounds, matte paintings are completed, shaders/lookdev are built and completed. Lighting is close to completion. Care must be paid to color scheme choices, as well as referring constantly back to Step 02 (Style Contact Sheet) to achieve the look and vision desired.
Step 08: Animation Polish
By Step 08, there have been numerous reviews, critiques, recommendations and analysis from colleagues and art directors. Often, ‘polish’ is considered a luxury and squeezed into a schedule as time permits. Making this a priority instead of an afterthought is usually the difference between a competent solution and an award-winning piece. Remember the Cheetham Principle, and seek out constant feedback and external observations. It is vital to be selfless and maintain the perspective of what is best for the project, not the artist.
Step 09: Final Audio
Scratch audio is replaced by the final mixdown of music, effects and voice-over talent, and should correspond closely to the original timing. Musical choices should be explored and discussed in regards to mood, timing, tempo, applicability, quality, cost and rights. Sound effects should be completed and incorporated. Remember another mantra of our Motion Design Department: Half of what you see goes through your ears.
Step 10: Compositing and Compression
Motion Design professionals know what they need to get out of a rendering engine, and what can be created effectively in the compositing stage. I’ve always said, “Never go 3D until you have to!”- this can often mean the difference between a project completed on-time or not. By maintaining full control of your project throughout with the use of mattes, render passes and multichannels, large scope changes can still be incorporated quickly and easily if required. Final grading and color-correction is applied, as well as some camera effects (depth-of-field, motion blur, etc). Remember: lossy compression has not been introduced until the end of this stage – right before final delivery to the client. Ciao!