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3D Animation Production Pipeline

3D animation production introduction

In this article, we’re going to take a look at the 3D animation production pipeline. The 3D animation production process from start to finish is called “Pipeline.” Just mind that the term “Pipeline” is not exclusive to the animation industry.

There are three stages to the 3D animation production pipeline. Pre-production, production, and post-production. Going forward, I will briefly discuss the nature of the pre-production and production stages:

Pre-Production

Before jumping into pre-production, you need to address the following decisions and issues:

  1. Choosing a producer
  2. Appointing a director
  3. Finding the assistants to the producer and the director
  4. Taking into account the available financial and non-financial resources
  5. Discussing sales strategies
  6. Evaluating the story script from different angles
  7. Knowing your audience and demographics
  8. Deciding on marketing strategies
  9. Understanding what you have(resources) and what you want(project goal)
  10. Setting a timetable for your animation project
  11. Assigning a project manager
  12. Assigning an executive manager/producer
  13. Setting up your studio
  14. Going over the script for revisions
  15. Discussing the animation techniques
  16. Coming up with an explicit schedule for production
  17. Assigning roles to the production team members
  18. Preparing the primary schematics for the story, concepts, and character models

With those out of the way, here is an introduction to different steps of pre-production:

The Idea

Scripts start as Ideas or thoughts. A spark of imagination can lead to a whole script, just as it can start a story or an article. This initial thought needs to be in proportions with the resources at your disposal. In other words, it needs to be tangible through seeing and hearing. Cinema and Television have given rise to many possibilities, but sometimes our imagination cannot be translated into images. Sometimes it is better to turn an idea into a book rather than an animation.

When considering an idea, remember that ideas need to be innovative but also accessible. Understanding your audience’s taste is an integral part of the process. A good idea forms the rest of the animation around it. If you make an animation from a bad idea, no matter how beautiful it looks, it won’t compensate for the fact that you have started from a weak or bad or uninteresting idea. On that note, an idea is as good as the way you develop it. Even the best ideas can suffer from improper development.

3D animation production UP
“UP” would have been a terrific animation even if it was made with older techniques
Case Study: Toy Story 1

Many animation creators think that with the advancement of animation creation technologies and develop[emt of newer and stronger animation creation hardware and software, creating a popular animation has also become more manageable. This is hardly the case. After all, Toy Story 1 was created in 1995 with considerably older technologies, and it is still considered a masterpiece and can compete with any 3D animation made today.

Toy Story 1 is one of the best 3D animations created considering the ideas behind it and its direction. Although it has a lower video quality and even the smallest animation studios today can produce higher quality animations, creating an animation as popular still eludes most animation creators. Toy Story 1 is a unique and brilliant animation, and even reading it as a book can be exciting. Add to it a brilliant director that brings the story to life and turns it into a captivating animation and a real work of art.

Animations as a form of Storytelling

Stories consist of a series of events told in a specific sequence. They all have a structure. They have a beginning, a middle, and an ending. The events of a story are related to each other through the narration. We tell stories to convey information attractively.

There are many ways and formats to tell a story. Technology has brought us even more ways to tell our stories. Considering all the exciting new storytelling formats, there are only two main ways of telling a story:

  • You can tell a story by words (written or spoken)
  • Images -Storyboard- that tell a story
  • You can also combine those two ways and tell a story through words and images

Animations are methods of storytelling. They are also a form of art and consist of narrations and aesthetics. But if the narration is not engaging, the aesthetics alone cannot save your animation or make it interesting for a wide range of audiences.

Personally, I prefer animation with a good story and poor animation art to an animation that has masterful scenes and a poorly narrated story. But unfortunately, most studios think that they can dazzle their audience with amazing animation design, colorful locations, and life-like character models; courtesy of new computer-generated technologies. This is a dangerous path to follow since these technologies are here to give you more options to tell your story. They shouldn’t become the epicenter of your animation.

In short: A perfect animation combines good visuals with a good narrative.

Execution of story and visual elements is also important, and that is why right now, Toy Story 3 has a bigger audience than Toy Story 1. When two animations have good stories and good directors, you can say that the animation that looks better has the edge over animation with poor design. Mind that If Toy Story 3 had a weaker story than Toy Story 1, it would have lost the competition.

3D animation production masterpieces
Remember these faces? You should. This image highlights the best 3d animations ever made.

Try to take advantage of every narrative capability that animation format offers. This is also what the audience expects from the animation: A narration that a realistic live-action movie cannot deliver. That being said, animation studios still try to make animations as life-like as possible with stories that better suit live-action movies. That’s something that you can also do with real actors and the result will be higher life-like quality.

Nevertheless, I think what separates animation from live-action is its capability to deliver unrealistic visuals and concepts too abstract for the live-action movies. Although live-action movies can deliver fantastic visuals through computer-generated graphics (CGI) and special effects, there are limitations in life-like visual narration that only animation can overcome. This is why directors like James Cameron tend to rely heavily on computer-generated graphics for movies like Avatar, a movie that is more animation than live-action.

Animation enables you to create ambitious and fantastic scenes and characters that may seem too complicated for live-action visualization. There are some technical limitations to any narrative tool, but there is no telling how far a talented animator can improve upon a narration.

Production

The Script

There are two types of scripts. The first draft of a script is more like a play script, and the writer does not go into technical details when writing it. The first draft is only supposed to tell you a story. After a script is green-lighted for production, the director and scriptwriter will turn it into a technical script with details regarding the camera angles, sequence cuts, and camera movements. In a sequence, an action starts, continues, and finally concludes. Sequence change can happen with a fade-out, a dissolve, or a simple cut. Keeping the rhythm and appropriate pacing in a sequence is vital.

Scene

A sequence consists of one or more scenes. A scene consists of a location, time, circumstances, etc. in which something occurs, or in which the action of a story, play, or the like, is set up. Each scene itself consists of shots, and each shot starts when the camera starts recording and ends when the camera stops recording. A scene can have one or more shots.

Below you can see some abbreviations that we use for shots in movie and animation scripts:

E.L.S. = Extreme Long Shot

L.S. = Long Shot

M.L.S = Medium Long Shot

M.S. = Medium Shot

C.S. (C.U) = Close Shot/Up

E.C.S. (E.C.U.) = Extreme Close Shot/up

3D animation production Camera Shots Types
Camera Shot types might vary a bit in name depending on your source, but their description is the same.

Storyboard

Six reasons to create a storyboard before going into production:

The storyboard is an important part of pre-production. It helps you contain risky moves in a project to a minimum.  Starting an animation project without a storyboard is like building a structure without a blueprint. So let’s review why we need a Storyboard before moving into 3d animation production.

1. From Concept to Implementation

A storyboard helps you make sure that concepts and ideas in your story plot are suitable and doable. You should be able to summarize a concept for a storyboard in two paragraphs. Turning the concept into a storyboard shows the project manager whether it is possible to make it into a movie or not.

2. Quality Assurance

Storyboards have side notes and suggestions for project developers to see which elements of the plot are extremely important and what goes better with this part of the narrative. This provides a better overall view of what you can expect to go into production. These notes not only acts as an outline for the developers but also can act as a quality assurance of what ends up in the final product.

3. Budget Management

Going into an expensive animation project which needs considerable fundings, it is better to make sure you have a green-lighted outline of the product. The storyboard gives you the schematics of the final product. If your customer needs to make adjustments, it is far more cost-effective to do it at this stage than when the animation is produced.

4. Early Stage Adjustments

In this stage, storyboards enable you to make adjustments to the narration, plot, and details in the scenes. Errors and mistakes are easy to find, and you can save a considerable amount of time.

5. Choosing the Right Medium for Your Story

It is important to present your story in the right medium. Storyboards are the best way to find this out. This is the first time your story is turned into images. This helps you figure out whether the medium you have chosen for your story is the right one and if it conveys all the concepts of your story. Should you be making a CGI animation? Wouldn’t a stop-motion or claymation be better? A storyboard will help you find the answer to such questions.

6. Dialogues

By employing a storyboard, you can find out if you have enough dialogues in your story. When you can take a look at a long period of time in your animation on one board, it becomes far easier to recognize a surplus or lack of dialogues in the animation as a whole.

Creating a Storyboard in 3 Steps
Yes, even seconds-short commercials need a storyboard too.

1. Thumbnails: a visual outline of the animation. At this point, directors take charge and make a simple road map for the storyboard artist about where the final product should be going.

2. Second draft: More details are added. Camera positioning and angles are made clear. Character positions and backgrounds are also chosen.

3. Final draft: This draft has even more details. After the final draft, concept and character artists can begin their work on characters, objects, and locations.

The storyboard is a useful and straightforward solution. It is the best way to show your 3d animation production team what your visual ideas are. Although movies and animations with intricate details and complicated concepts can benefit more from a storyboard, even cheap live-action can use it to trim dialogues and adjust some visual details in the early stages.

Animatics

When making animations or using special effects for movies, the storyboard can be done with simple models called animatics to show the scene and movement pacing with better details. Simplest animatics are stale pictures drawn and then shown in sequence. Then, to make sure the sound and the dialogues are just right, they are added to the animatics. This helps directors and animators to adjust camera angle and pacing in the storyboard. After making adjustments to sound and storyboard, another set of animatics is made. Its always better to edit animatics than modifying the final product since deleting a fully animated scene is expensive.

Story Reel

Story reel helps the 3d animation production team put shots after each other and make sure the pacing is desirable. Storyboards are great visualizing aids, but they don’t give you any ideas about speed and movement pacing in a scene. Story Reel is the solution. After making the storyboard and adding Sound to it, you can use editing software to put scenes after each other in real-time. In some of the shots, you can see the key movements as well. The production team can use this video file to make adjustments to the overall rhythm of the scenes and adjust the pacing and timing of the movie.

Sound Recording

Voice acting is one of the most critical parts of sound recording. Studios usually hire all-star casts for this reason.

In a standard 3d animation project, there are three steps of sound recording:

1. Control Sound 1 is for story reel

2. Control Sound 2 is for face sync

3. Final Sound is when you add sound effects, environmental sounds, and music to it.

Character Design

At this point, you need to start drawing character concepts. Directors usually ask for several drafts of character designs to be able to choose the one that fits the story best.

“YoYo Samurai” by Pixune.

After choosing from first drafts of character designs and concepts, the picks are finalized, and coloring starts.

Carl’s character concept art from the animation “Up”

After adding color, artists draw the character models from sides and front. This is called the Model Sheet. Modelers create 3D models from these sheets. For more information about the wonderful process of character design please refer to 2D Character Design in a Nutshell article by Pixune. Much of the topics discussed there are true for 3D animation production as well.

Notice how Carl is made of squares and sharp angles as opposed to Ellie’s round and curvy lines. What do you think is the reason behind it?

3D Character Modeling

To create character models, we can use model sheets and 3D animation software. The process isn’t unlike a sculptor implementing his 2D designs into clay or ceramics. Models are made with computers, and you can watch them from every angle. Forms and volumes are consistent, and you can make adjustments to your character models at this point.

This is a fine example of a “model sheet”

One of the more important parts of making 3D character models – especially humans and creatures – is paying attention to circular muscles (like mouth and eye muscles).

Winnie is almost entirely drawn by circular shapes, as illustrated above.

Since these muscles need to look as realistic as possible when speaking and blinking, they and the aligning lines need to look circular. The lines at the joints must be in such a way that after bending, the back and the front of the joints should keep their shape and don’t protrude in unnatural angles. Considering the correct lines of wiring and rigging in modeling is called “observance of topology” in 3d animation production.

Some of the finalized 3D models from “Up”, without textures.

Environment Design

Environment design is pretty similar to character design. Here the designs made of cross-sections are not called Model Sheets, however.

An environment concept art belonging to a wild west setting

When designing locations and environments, keep two things in mind:

1. To save time, only design parts of the location you are sure will end up in front of the camera. Why put effort and energy into designing parts of the environment that the audience never sees?

2. If you face hardware (CPU and Ram) limitations, try to use details with only parts of the location closest to the camera.

Texture and Shading

To make characters and locations look smoother and more beautiful, you can add texture to them. Artists may add textures to items of clothing, skins, hair, etc.

Those little green scales belong to a texture wrapped around this salamander model

Artists first create textures in 2D environments called Color Keys. After finalizing textures on color keys, you can use them in 3D environments and models. The trick here is implementing something from a 2D picture on a 3D object. Computer software can help you here to wrap 2D textures around 3D objects without stretching the image. In fact, by adjusting settings in 3D objects (like the U.V. option), you can adjust your model so that there are no visible stretches.

Bone Placement and Rigging

Rigging is about putting a virtual skeleton inside your character. Characters cannot move by 3d models alone, and placing bones inside a character model enables them to move within a specific range of motions. Now your character can move its arms and legs and body but in a specific and predetermined way. Lip Sync follows the same rule.

Each character moves differently and has a unique way of rigging. For example, your characters do not have as many bones like a real person or creature. Humans have 32 backbones, but you do not need that many bones in your human characters. You need as many bones in your model as necessary. This need is determined by the way your character moves in the story. Also, bones don’t need to be placed in realistic ways. They need to be positioned in a way that makes your characters move the way you want them to move. 

There are many techniques for rigging, but what you need to remember is there are no limitations in the rigging. In real life, our eyelids don’t have bones, but your character model can have two bones for their upper and lower eyelids. Tables and books have no bones either, but you can add bones to table legs and to book pages to animate them more smoothly.

Rigging and Bone Handle

After designing the character skeleton, you can move on to animating. But since there can be too many bones in a character’s model, to make the animating even more comfortable, you can specify a virtual handle for each bone and move each part of the body by using these handles. For example, if you want to make a fist, you can specify a handle that does that for you instead of animating each bone inside the hand in a separate way. This saves you a considerable amount of time.

Here you can see a long list of bones that goes into this model. The same list for the actual bones of a human is way longer.

3D Animation Production: Final Touches

Giving Skin to your character

After rigging your character, you need to give them Skin to relate the 3D models with their bones. This way, when you move your character’s bones, the model responds by actually moving.

Adding an accessory to your character

In some animation projects, characters need accessories like hats, shoes, glasses, and backpacks. Artists should design these objects so that animators can switch between different states of them with relative ease.

Adding dynamic effects

After completing the rigging stage for your character, you can add dynamic effects to the character’s hair and clothing. This means you don’t need to animate your character’s hair, and it will move when you move your character. Its movement is determined by computer analysis following the head and body movements.

Clothes can also benefit from this technique. Artists can program them to move, just like real clothes in real life.

Conclusion

I hope that this article helped you to gain a better and more detailed understanding of the magic behind creating a feature animation. The pipeline differs a bit depending on the company and the project, But the same core principles hold true for all of them.

What do you think? Is there anything particular in pipeline that you think we missed? Or maybe you wanted more information about a specific part?
Let us know in the comments below to receive a response from one of the Pixune’s crew!

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