Thursday, September 11, 2008

The A-Team

The Animation Team. Not the hit 80's action drama.

The A-Team is like my fantasy football team, except they create animated movies for cheap instead of raking in millions in endorsement money.

Since I've devoted several recent posts to the gathering of resources when attempting to pull off an animated production, I put some thought into the most important resources: human. (Is it just me, or does the business term "Human Resources" seem derogatory? It's like cattle ... if cattle could be outsourced. Okay, I stand corrected. It's worse than cattle.)

Join me now on a thought experiment: let's figure out the ideal number of people to work on a CG-animated short film. And by "ideal" I mean "minimum" because the fewer people the better: less people who have to agree on everything, less to have to attend every meeting, less to track and organize, and the perennial favorite: less to pay (if they aren't volunteering or stakeholders). Also, less is more when you want to maximize efficiency. The larger the team, the more people tend to expect others to pick up the slack. Most importantly, if you get too many on your core team, your project suddenly blooms because past a certain tipping point you suddenly need HR folks (moo), production managers, accountants, yawn. So the ideal number I came up with: 6.

A small team will always figure out how their talents compliment each other efficiently. The ideal production team consists of two focus groups: environment and character. We’ll call them the Char Crew and the Set Crew. For a typical 3-to-10 minute short, I would propose a minimum of 6 dedicated artists with the following task divisions:

Char crew

  • Modeler/Animator – a specialist in organic movement and character design. this person should have excellent drawing and caricature skills and would have taken part in storyboarding and visual development during pre-production. Can have several of these, as the extra modelers could also help out with the set crew.

  • Rigger/Technical Animator – someone to focus on the technical side of character rigs, to “own” the development of rigging systems. Should know anatomy inside and out and should be comfortable with modeling and cloth/hair simulations. They can also pitch in on animation, though they need not be as experienced in this since they will mostly be doing cycles for crowd sims, background characters, cleanup, etc. Should be comfortable with scripting and expressions.

  • Shading and Texture Specialist – should be a disturbing hybrid of computer scientist and fine artist. The resident Photoshop expert who paints photorealistic when need be but can also be painterly. Should know light and color theory and be willing to master shading networks and be able to procedurally simulate any surface type. Experience in fur and hair helpful.

Set crew

  • The DP/Head of Layout – ideally, this can be the same person is editing or directing the movie. should know classical cinematography techniques, lighting and some modeling. responsible to create the basic set design and “owns” the shot, controlling the webwork of file referencing and serving as gatekeeper of what is imported or updated in each shot.

  • Set Dresser – a wizzbang modeler and texture artist with lots of fine art and design experience, able to set dress and finalize any layout, interior or exterior. Should also be able to pitch in with lighting and effects. Prior research in architecture, graphic design and environmental sciences (like geology and botany) is helpful.

  • Head of Lighting – controls the color script of the film: continuity of hue, contrast and saturation in each sequence to heighten the dramatic impact of the story. Sets up key light rigs and render passes, maintains the render farm and serves as the main compositor on the film. A background in design and painting is ideal.

As you can see, the attempt is to consolidate everything that needs attention to as few “specialists” as possible. With these six working close to full-time (20-30 hours a week after their day jobs, assuming this is an unfunded short), you could pull off a fairly elaborate short film in a reasonable amount of time (6 months to a year from the time the story reel is locked?). Of course picking up volunteer help from outside the core crew is desirable, particularly in the areas of modeling, texturing and animation (because these are somewhat “portable” tasks, unlike, say, layout, which demands an insider’s full attention and access to the central data repository to maintain). You’ll notice I don’t include a full-time effects artist (assuming a combination of the Set Dresser and other technical artists can pull this off) but on a big effects-driven film, this could easily be a seventh key person. Also, if you are not so fortunate to have all of your artists technically proficient, the addition of a fulltime technical director (all-around tools programmer, system administrator and troubleshooter guy) would make an excellent addition to the core group; even better if he had artistic skills in one or more production areas to help during crunch times.

I throw this out there for debate. You're free to disagree. As long as we agree to disagree. Or else I'm filing a report with HR. Moo.

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