Making an animated film can seem like a daunting task to someone who watches films like Toy Story 3 and Despicable Me. It may look like film magic, but with some patience and creativity, creating an animated film is an achievable task even for someone who is new to computer animation. This article will serve as an introductory guide to show the steps in creating an animation film.

Story

It can be difficult for many people to think of an interesting and engaging story to tell. Creating a story should be fun and inspiring. You may already know about how some of Pixar’s greatest works sparked to life – on the back of a napkin at a business lunch. Inspiration can struck any time but many times the best ideas are the result of brainstorming with friends and co-workers. Whether you came up with a story all by yourself or in collaboration with someone else, you should feel completely jazzed about making it into a film. Never settle for a mediocre story. Here are a few tips for aspiring film makers to create great stories.

Make it engaging

     Creating an engaging story will greatly improve your film in several ways. The story is the basis for all of the decisions you make throughout the entire process of creation, in every good film it’s the story that drives the action and the characters forward and your decisions should ultimately be made because they improve the storytelling in some way. These decisions can be anything from what kind of world your characters inhabit, how they act, what kind of sounds they make to what emotions the characters portray.  Creating interesting characters to go along with this story is an important part to great animation films. The character and story reinforce one another and are created together in this pre-production process.

Keep it as short.

     Many times novice film makers have very ambitious storylines, a myriad of characters and locations and amazing set pieces. It is great to think big but as an inexperienced beginner, it’s very important to keep the amount of work to a minimum. This will keep you motivated and prevent you from becoming overwhelmed with the amount of planning a film production entails.  For a traditional story, it’s advised to keep your first film below 1:30 minutes, this will insure that you have quality above quantity. It’s better to have a great short film than a mediocre long one. To keep it short, consider telling only a slice of a larger story line. This makes the audience think more about the larger story without actually having to tell it. For example, if you have a story about a man who creates a robot, and the robot decides to pursue its dreams, consider starting the story after the robot is created, and hint at the process of the man creating the robot. This can leave a lot of the story to the audiences imagination as to why did he really create the robot, and what did the robot do after he achieved his goal. Telling the entire story can make the experience less thought provoking. Showing just one part of the overall story can help create an interesting film.

Use a unique perspective.

     Ever wondered what all the toys do when kids leave the room? Ever wonder what happens in an ant colony? What would it be like for a rat to be a French chef? Pixar is known for using unique perspectives to tell amazing stories.

    These films are interesting because they tell stories from a novel perspective that we are not used to experiencing. Instead of telling a story about a kid who is scared of a monster under his or her bed, flip it around and tell the story from the point of view of the monster. Flesh out the story from the other perspective. Creating a story that shows the audience a unique perspective on something that we are not used to experiencing can make the story a lot of fun to develop and bring alive.

Make it stylized.

     Make the story, characters, and design as stylized as possible. People are exceptionally good at finding flaws in realistic animation and human anatomy. Because of this, keeping the visuals stylized will actually help the audience focus on what is important. This is why it took Pixar a few tries before they were comfortable in creating a film with human characters in The Incredibles, and even then, the characters have unique shapes and designs that strongly reinforce their personalities. Tell the story in a unique world. Can characters jump extra high? Can their limbs stretch? Is there a certain culture that the characters have which makes them behave differently. Tell your story in a stylized world that is different from ours, it will help make the story more interesting and suspend the disbelief of the audience.

Visual design

Before even touching the computer, it is important to get the look of your film with concept art and mood boards. This will save you hours of work if you can define exactly what the film will look like before you get into complicated animation software.  Define colour palettes, character anatomy, environments and style. Thinks of this as creating a blue-print for your film. Just like in construction, workers need a blue print for a sky-scraper, films need storyboard and mood boards to give film makers a clear direction when crafting a film.

     Create mood boards

Research research research. This step in the processes requires you to gather all of the ideas you have about the visual look of the film. Take screenshots from your favourite film styles, Capture colour palletes that create certain emotions, think of interesting camera compositions and movements from films. Gather all of these different references that give you that certain feel you are going for. This allows you to go back to something when you need inspiration or direction on something design related.

     Create character style sheets

Character style sheets serve multiple purposes. They allow the character designer to define the anatomy of a character in an easily recognizable way. Showing the character from directly in front and on side leave no question of how the character should look. These style sheets also greatly help the modelling artists create the character. These style sheets are imported into the 3d software and allow the modeller to base the model directly off the style sheet. Remember that designing your characters with a stylized look will allow you to be more flexible in the decisions you make about the film. If you design a character that is realistic, then that means that your set must look perfectly realistic, and your animation must be perfectly realistic, and the end result, if done perfectly, will still not be very interesting to the audience. It is much easier to make a wacky character design with wacky animation because it is more visually interesting and the audience will respond to it better.

     Concept art

Concept art allows you to get the visual style and look of your film before doing any real production work. This can be a tough part of the process as it requires a you to be a skilled fine artist. Doing rough sketches of your set design can help you plan out how your shots will look. The more time you spend on this, the more time it will save you later. It is much easier to change the look of a character on paper than have to go through modelling, texturing or animating further down the line.

3) Story Boarding and previsualization

     Story boarding is the way to tell a story through drawings in pre-production. Creating frame cells that display what the film will look like is a great way to visualize a film without actually modelling or drawing anything in detail. This allows film makers to make edits and change a story before much more time consuming work is started. You don’t have to be a great visual artist to create basic storyboards, the important thing to keep in mind is the storytelling through the use of composition and camera movements. In a storyboard, rough sketches are enough to convey the pace of the action. These sketches are accompanied by annotations of camera movements and character actions, along with the setting of the scene and other relevant notes. Ideally, when you show your storyboard to someone who never heard of your film before, they will understand it completely.

Keep layering your storyboard with all your colour studies, mood boards and style decisions. This will slowly grow your storyboard from a few rough sketches to a true reference and a glimpse even into the emotional weight your story goes through. Having your entire coloured storyboard on a wall gives you an instant and complete perspective of your entire film. Again, should someone from the outside take a quick look at this wall, they should be able to gauge the mood, feel and even setting of your story based on the colours you used.

Previsualization is the creation of a rough 3d animation using very simple models and basic animation. A previz is done right after or even alongside the storyboard and serves as a visual guide for the depth the and framing of a 3d film. It is a valuable tool for figuring out what works and what doesn’t in terms of pacing and composition. A previz can also help with decision making, certain shots might reveal themselves as being too complex and ambitious,  others might introduce awkward pacing into the film. Spending a good amount of time in this phase will give you an excellent foundation to keep the motivation and efficiency of your production high.

3) Modeling

     Modeling is  the art of creating three dimensional objects and characters that can be used in your film. Characters, sets and objects populate a scene and are all modelled to varying degrees of detail depending on their prominence in any given shot. When modelling, it is essential to take a while to study the anatomy and mechanics of what is being created. Understanding how an object works will help you make conscious decisions on how to model it.

For your first short film, it’s recommended to focus on a few good models and one or two sets. Many of the greatest animated shorts like Blur’s Gopher Broke and Pixar’s Lifted have only one or two sets. If you were thorough in pre-production, you already know exactly where your story will unfold and what objects you need to tell it. You should keep to that and create what is necessary to tell your story, even though detail is very important, clutter is only going to dilute the viewer’s experience (unless the story is in some way about clutter).

As a novice 3d artist, you might not have the resources of a studio. This means that you have to be as efficient as possible, re-using assets in creative ways, keeping polygon counts low to speed up your workflow and reduce render times and always creating models that serve a purpose within your story. If you can’t point at every single model and justify it’s existence, it might be better to leave it out.

4) Texturing and Shading

     Textures and shaders is how your models get their surface properties such as colours, reflectivity and fine detail. With shaders and textures is how you create metal objects with rust around their corners, skin tones and scars, plastics or wood. The first step is UV mapping your model so that it can have 2d textures applied to it. Most modelling applications have UV unwrapping tools built in. UV unwrapping is how the surface of a 3D model is translated onto a flat 2D plane so that an image can be used as it’s texture. Most likely you’ve seen a similar process in action when you created a cube by cutting a flat piece of paper in the shape of a cross. Every time you look at a world map, it is a flat representation of a spherical planet. Once the UV mapping process is complete, then you can work on painting in the proper colours and textures.

Shading is the process of defining how a surface reacts to light. An object is only partly defined by it’s colour and texture, much of what we see is actually how a surface reflects and refracts light in different ways. This is how we can tell a metal apart from plastic for example. Even if both are the same exact colour, the metal is highly reflective while a plastic typically has lower reflectivity over a larger area. Likewise, the reflections and the transparency of water or glass are defined by shaders.

Your short film must make good use of textures and shaders as they play a huge role in the visual style of the film. Good textures allow for moods to be set and in conjunction with shaders, they allow for the objects to be immediately recognizable. This is essential because a short film has little time to set scenes and introduce locations or characters. Everything the audience sees on the screen should help them locate themselves in the action .

5) Animation

     Animation is bringing your world to life. This cannot be stated enough. It is the single most important part of the whole process after the story. You can tell an engaging story with only a few cubes and simple colours if you animate life and emotion into them. With great story and animation, your viewers will forget about the modelling, texturing and lighting. It may sound obvious, but animation is the essence of animated films. This is how your viewers get locked into the story and believe what they are seeing. You can make a character move from point A to point B with simple animation. But with great animation you can make him sulk depressingly from A to B, stride confidently, or make him want to get from A to B so much he’ll trip all over himself with excitement.

You will be spending most of your time animating. Sometimes you will get a lot of animation done in one day, sometimes you will spend a week on a single motion to get it just right. Detail is everything to making believable animation. It requires a lot of research and many of the most successful animators will set up a camera and record themselves doing a particular movement so that they can see how their anatomy looks in certain poses and performances.

There are a few basic principles of animation that you must study closely if you want to create good animation. Animation is as much art as it is a science, the animator’s job is always to make the audience feel the motion. Yet before any character or complex object can be animated, it’s necessary to create a rig for them. The rigging process is very technical and consists of creating the structure which drives the 3D models to animate. A rig can be something as simple as adding a slider for the intensity of a given light in the scene all the way to a full blown body and facial rig for a realistic character which makes use of motion capture, dynamic simulations and even particle effects, all driven by a rig.  In larger teams, there are rigging specialists who dedicate themselves to crafting comprehensive rigs that give the animators maximum amount of flexibility with any given character or object. In many ways, the rig will determine the quality of animation that is possible to achieve.

When creating your own film, this is another area where a good pre-production will help you out immensely. By knowing beforehand exactly all the animations that you will require for your characters and objects, you will be able to create your rigs with this in mind and avoid extra work. There might be scenes where your characters don’t need to be driven by a fully featured rig because they might be seen only from far away for example. Other times you might have a shot with an extreme closeup of a face, where the body rig is not relevant but extra care needs to be given to the facial rig. For this reason several rigs for the same characters are usually created, tailored for each shot. It is a more efficient work flow than trying to create a one size fits all rig.

6)Lighting

     Lighting is the setting up of illumination in your scene so that your models can actually be seen. But that is only it’s most basic definition; lighting sets the mood for your scene. Lighting is a very important story telling technique because of the way different lighting conditions can reveal a lot to the audience. From the obvious portrayal of time of day and if the scene is interior or exterior, to the way the lights in your scene will determine the feeling of the shot. A striking sunset can mean a romantic setting. A dark night ripped apart by lightning flashes sets an ominous tone. A bright room with hard clinical light will make some people feel uncomfortable because of their memories of hospitals and dentist. Lighting can also direct the viewer’s eyes to specific areas of a shot allowing you to focus their attention on what’s important.

Several techniques can be used for lighting a 3d scene. Every 3d software gives you several options that range from basic lights that are not physically accurate and not very realistic, to lights which properties come from laboratory measurements and thus are completely physically accurate. Additionally techniques like global illumination simulate the way light behaves in real life and give great looking results. Lighting, like shading, is somewhat an exception when it comes to a stylised art direction. Usually the lights should always be as realistic as possible, even for a completely stylized film. When you think of films such as Pixar’s Wreck it Ralph, you can remember that the characters are extremely stylized, yet if you watch it again you will notice that the lighting used is absolutely realistic, even in a world completely made of candy.

It’s important to remember that lights are only one side of a coin. Shadows are just as important for all the same reasons. They are mood setters and without the darkness of shadows, lights could not draw attention to anything. For achieving believable lighting, shadows are key. 3D softwares have many options for rendering shadows with varying degrees of realism. The trade-off for creating great looking shadows and lights is highly increased render times.

7) Rendering and compositing

     Rendering is the process of getting your film from the 3d software to your compositing software. This is a very  technical part of this entire film making process. You must be mindful of your computers processing power and memory and be ready to sacrifice quality for speed or vice-versa. Remember that big studios like Pixar and Dreamworks have large dedicated render farms that output their film. You will most likely be rendering your film on your own computer. Though it’s possible to get the look of Pixar films, you must be efficient in the way you handle memory intensive assets like high polygonal models or high resolution textures. It’s highly recommended to always render your film in still frames. Stills are individual frames of the film that can be combined in your compositing software to make a complete sequence. Rendering a single video from animation software will give  you far less control over a films look than rendering out individual frames.

It’s important to get everything right before rendering a final output. The last thing you want is to waste hours or days on a high-resolution render only to discover a texture looks bad or a certain shader is behaving strangely. For this reason it’s recommended to make as many quick tests as possible. Going step by step and testing out individual parts of your scene will help you troubleshoot any problems and is a great opportunity to spot any part of your film that could be improved quickly but for a big impact. Be careful not to get caught up in the never-ending tweaking process!

When you are confident that everything is set up properly, it’s time to render out a scene. At this point you have to prepare for compositing by creating separate render passes. A render pass is a fraction of a render, all the pieces get combined in compositing. This gives you a lot of control to change things around for artistic reasons without having to re-do a lot of renders. For example if your scene consists of a character walking down a street. You can render separate passes for the character and for the street and simply composite the character on top. This will give you the chance to easily add things to the street in compositing, such as graffiti on a wall. Besides passes for separate objects, each pass can be composed of all the elements that make up a render, such as textures only, lighting information, shadows, reflections etc. All of these can come together and be edited separately in compositing. This way you could change the colour of your character’s pants, bump up the reflection on his sunglasses or changing the lighting of a scene from warm and friendly to bleak and foreboding without having to re-render anything.

As you can see, compositing is very powerful for tweaking the final look of your film. It can make all the difference between an awkward and bland render and an amazing piece of work.

8) Editing and sound design

     Editing is where you combine all of the film’s sequences and make refined decisions like when to cut and what order the shots will appear. Editing is the final part of the story telling processes but should not be underestimated. In a medium like animation, timing is everything. And the timing of a cut can make as much difference as a well executed animation or an amazing render. It’s for this reason that editing is very hard but often under estimated, it is as much an art as a technical process and requires a good sense of timing and knowledge of the audience’s mind and reactions. If you followed the pre-production process diligently, editing should become somewhat easier because you already have all the scenes set up. Also, an animated film will not be as flexible as a motion picture in this regard. Since you likely didn’t animate and render any more than absolutely necessary. That being said, if you find yourself in a position where your entire film just works better without a particular shot, cut it. You will mourn all the wasted hours but you will be proud of the improved result.

For small productions, editing goes hand in hand with sound design. After all your hard work purely based in a visual environment and medium, working with sound can be a welcome change. Sound design is an art in of itself and there is a lot of fun to be had with creating your own sounds if you have the right equipment. Subtlety is often a key aspect of sound design. It’s easy to rush this part of the process due to lack of experience and skill but spending some time looking at your film from a auditory perspective will enable you to create or find sounds for things you never thought about. The human ear is used to hearing something at all times. Even if just a faint background noise. Silence screams of oddity. If your scene is happening inside of an apartment, don’t just create the noises of the character and objects. Remember the cars on the street outside the building. Remember the buzzing of the fridge and the barking of the neighbour’s dog. But keep in mind that sounds can quickly become overwhelming and there are certain actions happening in your scene that need to be clearly heard so keep it simple but effective.

Every part of this process will be addressed in great detail on this website. Look forward as we show you how to go about creating your very own film on a step by step basis.

     

Julian

I write about all things interesting. My main hobbies are animating, coding, playing football and reading books.