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 .....
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 (http://toontrack.toonstruck.com/) which used to be kinda cool but I’m not sure if it’s being supported any more. Joomla (http://www.joomla.org/) 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: http://extensions.joomla.org/index.php?option=com_mtree&task=listcats&cat_id=1863&Itemid=35
For something simpler to maintain, and especially for smaller online collaborations (but scalable) you could try Google Groups (http://groups.google.com/) or Yahoo! Groups (http://groups.yahoo.com/). 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 ftp.drivehq.com; also check out the discussion here), file syncing software like Fsync ( http://www.fileware.com/), free image album webware (http://gallery.menalto.com/), animation communities to provide people and resources (like the Animation Co-op: http://www.animationcoop.org/) 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: http://www.whybasecampsux.org/#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 outré.