Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Blitzkrieg Animated Filmmaking Method

 The main conceits of this method are interrelated and codependent:
  • holistic thinking - focus on the entire play, not the individual components
  • iteration - work in wide rough passes toward selective refinement
  • momentum - due to the sheer complexity of animated filmmaking, a fairly quick accomplishment/fulfillment feedback loop is necessary to avoid burnout

What follows is an introduction to the general philosophy of the guerrilla filmmaking approach to my zero-budget animated short The Ballad of Sinister. This is concerned with production; pre-production has already taken place. That is, this presupposes that script and storyboard are airtight; scratch-track for dialog and editing of animatic are finished; timing is essentially locked. From the animatic, a Master Element List is derived; this is an attempt to list every individual model or effect on a shot-by-shot basis. The Master Element List should reveal groups of variant assets (rocks, trees) that can be organized into small libraries of "variants" for reuse in many shots. These, as well as "hero" objects and characters, should be the focus of phase 1.

The Phases of Production

1. The Modeling Blitz – This kicks off asset production. Rough out all key assets for use in the animatic sprint. Block out the major characters and props. Little or no textures; try to keep everything simple lambert shaders. Sets and set dressing are created as part of the next phase, but to allow that phase to keep momentum we do this first, creating a library of characters and major props to quickly populate our shots. Give yourself a time limit on this, or it could go on indefinitely.

2. The Animatic Sprint – kicks off scene layout. Replace all storyboard frames with their likeness in 3D by any means necessary. Shortcuts will be invented, but you will be surprised what shortcuts end up being “good enough” for the final cut and save lots of time. Sets are built on the fly through a variety of techniques, even using the storyboard frame as a matte painting, separating it into layers placed on 2D proxy cards in 3D space. From these more refined mattes can be derived during the next phase. Each finished shot should end this phase with
  • the soundtrack queued and imported into the shot
  • the camera animation roughed out
  • all animated objects in the scene blocked out, at least with proxy objects
  • set defined with simple geometry (build on-the-fly from a camera POV)
  • simple set dressing to set the mood
  • simple lighting consisting of a keylight and a general ambiance provided by final gather or a GI-type rig of fill lights. Special lighting conditions can be roughed in (for silhouettes, etc)
  • render settings set up for low-resolution sequence renders to generate work reel dailies
  • sequence data folders set up. Shots within sequences can be individual Maya files or an entire sequence can be one Maya file with multiple cameras to switch between. A rough file referencing hierarchy is established.

3. Asset Refinement - successive phases of refinement are applied to scene assets and characters. The file referencing hierarchy allows for objects to be worked on in the context of a shot so that effort can be placed primarily on the camera-facing parts. During this process, a weekly “build” - a complete rendering of the work reel -  should be processed and reviewed, to assess progress and motivate continuous refinement.

·         Character development – characters are modeled, UV’d and rigged with careful attention to (nearly) quad-based geometry and proper surface deformation. Blend shapes are also modeled. R&D is done for special-case rigging challenges, such as long hair and loose cloth.

·         Effects development – special effects are created using the rough scenes from the Animatic Sprint – fluids, foliage, etc. R&D is held to the rule that simplest solutions are tried first and complexity enters the equation only as necessary.

·         Set model and shader development – set dressing and sets are refined in passes of increasing complexity until a satisfactory look from camera POV is reached. Shaders are introduced whenever necessary to describe the shape of an object or the look of the sequence.

4. Animation – the scene is animated. This includes character animation, prop animation, refinement of camera animation, and integration of any kinetic-type effects (atmospheric effects can be integrated at phase 5, next).

5. Lighting/Rendering setup – render passes are set up. As part of the beauty pass, any remaining textures are painted. Object shader parameters are tweaked along with light parameters to achieve the correct per-object look. Any remaining matte paintings or sky dome textures are inserted. Environmental effects are created, simulations cached. Render layers are created for at least these passes:
  • beauty – textured objects with all direct light sources (i.e. lights)
  • depth – the depth pass is for post-production depth-of-field
  • ambient occlusion (or final gather) – darkens corners and contact shadows; all-white surface shaders are used so pass can be additively comped
  • mattes – every render layer should have a mask to allow for separate composite handling
6. Comp and Post – a compositor like After Effects is used for compositing, motion blur and depth of field. Any 2D effects are inserted here.

7. Editorial – final frames in work reel. As a final pass, titles and transitions are inserted. Final dialog and sound effects are created and added. Score is finalized.

Result: Maximize Efficiency and Keep Momentum

The general conceit of this method is that you focus always on the big picture – the whole film – and avoid getting caught in the details until the final passes. This allows for the whittling down of an uber-complex project into manageable stages. It also avoids the common pitfall of focusing on one detail at a time until the whole project grinds down (or gets shelved) from a perceived lack of progress. Also, by organizing things into sprints of one kind of activity, it allows small-team multitaskers to keep focus on one thing at a time. 

The Stages of Pre-Production

This technique presupposes a long time spent in pre-production, resulting in a fairly complete storyboard of at least one frame per static shot, and multiple frames describing the extremes of action within a moving shot. Also, the story itself is “locked” – most editorial decisions have been made in cutting the story reel and the story team have come to a consensus that it is ready to move into 3D. At least as much time should go into pre-production as production.
The stages of pre-production are roughly:
  • Story development – which could encompass an Outline expanded to a Treatment expanded to a Script developed into a rough storyboard and then a presentation storyboard. Put this into an edited work reel cut to a temp score & scratch track dialog.
  • Project development – budget and milestones drawn up, technical resources gathered (like computers and software and personnel) and a contract written up (if independently-produced, this contract can be symbolic)
  • Visual development – research, practice with the tools, scrapbooking and gathering of reference material, character and environment design, and finally key art created for each character and each sequence. These constitute a Style Guide or Production Design Bible, the main reference point throughout production.

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