Friday, June 27, 2008

How Do You Manage?

Now here’s the most important consideration when creating an animated film. The absolute, numero uno most important thing. What is it? A good story? Compelling characters? Appealing design? WrongWrongWrong!

The most important consideration when making an animated film ... is ... I’m going to say it ... wait .... for .... it .....

Production Management.

There. Now I'll never get a gig as a project consultant. Because that’s definitely not what artists and filmmakers want to hear. Production Management is boring. Probably the most boring thing you’ll ever get involved in. I just spent the last week sorting files, renaming folders, drawing myself little bar charts and documenting compulsively. It’s like spring cleaning, except you have to do it at least once a month. But it has to be done, thoroughly and often. And if you get involved in a group project, forget about it. Then you have to keep running documentation not only of WHAT, but WHO and for HOW LONG. But understand this: most glitches in production happen because of poor production management. And for some strange reason it’s about the only aspect of production that isn’t even taught in colleges! The most important one! Sure, they’ll teach you how to run a hair simulation, but nothing about how to document and organize hair sim data to pass it downstream to another artist.

Even if you are only attempting a two-minute solo short film, the first thing you have to think about is production management. How are you going to keep track of all that data? All of it has to be iterated, so there will be many versions. And some versions only work with specific versions of other upstream and downstream bits. At the very least, focus on the twin pillars of good data management: naming conventions and directory structure. And please have at least a spreadsheet (if not Microsoft Project or Quickbase) keeping track of Project Management: who’s doing what when.

So I speak of Production Management as an umbrella concept encompassing both the priorities of data management and project management. You can use different software solutions for each, but they feed into each other all over the place, so an integrated solution is the most elegant one.

Some tools that may help you keep track of assets and milestones are actually free. As an indy, I’ll focus on those. First there’s Toontrack ( which used to be kinda cool but I’m not sure if it’s being supported any more. Joomla ( is an open-source community with lots of extensions for project management and online collaboration – a good solution for people collaborating remotely because you can use secure logins, ftp files to a repository, create a notes and tasks database, basic version control functionality like check-in/check-out, etc. Here’s a link to some samples:

For something simpler to maintain, and especially for smaller online collaborations (but scalable) you could try Google Groups ( or Yahoo! Groups ( They offer message boards, mailing lists, file sharing, secure logins, docs and spreadsheets, etc. We used Google Groups to some success with a recent class project at CalState (shout out to the Forest Detail Crew!)

Other tools that will help your management tasks: good, free FTP clients (Core FTP LE on Windows, Cyberduck on the Mac), and ftp hosting (1 GB free at; also check out the discussion here), file syncing software like Fsync (, free image album webware (, animation communities to provide people and resources (like the Animation Co-op: and all that you can glean from the various animation forums. Online tools have genuinely made it possible for zero-budget animation productions to take place, even collaborating remotely.

Finally, there’s a plethora of non-free alternatives like Basecamp, or if you prefer, this impressive list of Basecamp alternatives:

So that was today’s brain-dump. These long-winded entries may someday be gathered in the coffee table compendium “Erik’s Big Book of Random Dorky Yammering.” Till then, I’m outrĂ©.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Character Design Pt. III: The Message is the Medium

When designing a character, it’s good to have a couple of things in mind. The medium is one of the most obvious: 2D animation? CG? Children’s book illustration? The medium dictates, to some extent, the limitations of what you can get away with (Charlie Brown: the quintessential 2D design. In CG he would appear as a balloon-headed ogre).

It's a well-known fact in the industry that the old Disney designs don't hold up too well in cg, and neither do the old Fleischers.

However, here's an old Disney 'type" that seems well-suited for today's bone-and-skin driven CG characters:

So there’s truth to the idea that not all designs work for all media. It’s good not to overthink this point, though, since it can be a bit restrictive in the first phase of character design. I like to keep the early phase “blue sky,” that is, anything goes, so put the pencil to the paper and don’t mind the media. Adapting to the medium can come at the finesse stage, for the most part.

Sometimes it’s even wise design against the medium. Playing up spiky, sharp lines within the usually soft and curvy CG medium can give your design distinction. This was done to some success in the designs for Open Season and Madagascar, who took the pencil line of 2D into the round for an unusual look.

The other biggy to keep in mind when beginning the process is the degree of realism your message demands. Is your story a slapstick comedy? Maybe something inspired by the “screwball” designs of the forties might be your jumping-off point. Need to evoke pathos? Dig up some scribbly-line Euro-arthouse shorts for a dose of inspiration.

There’s a pretty good breakdown of the major types in Tom Bancroft’s "Creating Characters with Personality."

where he lists the following scale of realism in animated characters:

    • Iconic (UPA to powerpuff girls)
    • Simple(TV/web anim)
    • Broad (Tex Avery)
    • Comedy relief (Disney sidekicks)
    • Lead Character (Aladdin, Ariel)
    • Realistic (Beowulf)

Here are some other random notes about the character design process based on a class I taught at Disney:

Character Design Process

two phases to character design:

  • blue sky development
    • create tons of looses sketches, explore variations on themes, experimentation (trying out different shapes and sizes, substitution of different costumes or physical features)
    • lots of R&D work – literature, studying nature, observing people, surfing the web – pull information from many different sources
  • polishing
    • take an inspired design and refine through a number of the following stages:
    1. “ink” the loose sketch to give it a finished quality
    2. paint the inked sketch to develop one or more color/texture schemes
    3. do pose and expression sheets
    4. do “model sheets" that may include turnarounds, anatomical breakdowns, orthographic views, etc.

Conceptualization and Development

  • 2 Ways to concoct a character:
    • Derived from a plot (normal for film)
    • Whole cloth (no connection to narrative) - good for practice; often leads to story ideas
  • Characters have a reciprocal relationship with story (story drives character design which drives story)

  • methods of development
    • - driven by story
    • - driven by archetype or genre, playing toward or against type
    • - driven by character’s backstory or personality
    • - driven by design factors (color, shape and size)
    • - driven by serendipity (stream of consciousness methods) – good for “whole cloth” designing

  • When designing for a story, ask the big three questions first:
  1. What is the character’s place in the film? (hero, villain, comic foil, etc)
  2. What is the character’s personality?
  3. Are there plot points within the storyline that affect the design? (Dumbo’s ears)

  • Character qualities
    • Type (animal, humanoid, mutant)
    • Scale or relative size
    • Costume/props
    • Color/texture
    • Gender
    • Level of realism
    • Role in story
    • Locomotion

  • Character design can drive overall art design for a work - good to tackle first!


  • Try to build your characters out of a few main basic shapes. This applies to clothing and accessories too. Think about how much you can get across with the least amount of detail.
  • Characters that have been condensed into their essence show up better on the screen anyway, so no matter what medium, traditional or computer animation, simplify your characters to what they really need to express themselves
  • Circles
    • Likable/cute
    • Soft, rounded shapes

  • Triangles
    • Villains
    • angular, sharp angles

  • Squares
    • Solid/Dependable/Wise characters
  • Combine shapes for more complex characters
  • Should be able to break down even the most complex characters to simple shapes – helps to visualize character from any angle (not to mention overall appeal)

Size and Contrast

  • Character’s role will often dictate size

- should the villain be taller than the hero, for more menace?

- should the sidekick be an extreme contrast to the hero (very small like Timothy or very large like Baloo?)

  • Contrast is one of the most important things to consider when designing characters. Often a good idea is to contrast a large bulky character with a small thin one. Or a very young character with a very old one.
  • May help to do a preliminary character lineup (just silhouettes/basic shapes) of entire cast before you begin designing.

Shapes and Proportions

  • It’s all about shapes: only think about cool shapes
  • Balance straights against curves
  • Variety of big/med/small shapes
  • Put down free flowing intuitive strokes (Long strokes important for 2D)
  • Rhythm: create a visual theme with recurring shapes
  • Create a harmony of positive/negative shapes
  • Avoid symmetry
  • PUSH the character - never stop with your first success: take all the same elements and apply variations
Further Reading

For starters, check out Kricfalusi's take on the subject.

Here's the hub of a lot of the cutting-edge character design on the web: