Disclaimer: Warning, these blog posts are not intended to be an example of how you should run the production of an animated short. If nothing else, my hope is that you learn from my mistakes.
So I managed to gather a bunch of super talented people to help me make this short. We had a story reel (our road map), and a plan. It should have been easy sailing from here, right?
Wrong. So wrong. Oh so wrong! Let me set the record straight for everyone out there. Producing a short is a feat of sheer willpower, that and a lot hard work. In the beginning, there is a lot of excitement and you can get quite a bit of momentum from that. But the key to completion is maintaining that momentum. There are so many places along the way that conspired to steal that momentum away. Work schedule. Home schedule. Technical issues. Personal issues. Random Acts of God. All of these things can chip away at your goals. And once that forward movement is eroded, it’s very difficult to get back.
So what do you do? Honestly, I’m not 100 percent sure, but here are a few things that. I learned;
1) Don’t force it. This is a rule not only for production, but life in general. Things come in waves. If something isn’t working the way you want, figure out a way around it. Sometimes you have to make concessions. Sometimes you have to get creative, and sometimes, you really just have to wait.
2) Keep the lines of communication open. This was something I needed to work on. When you’re coordinating with a group of people and you’re the point-man, you have to be very clear with the crew. Let people know the plan. Be clear about your expectations for them, and keep everyone in the loop. When obstacles or issues pop up, let people know, and where applicable, refer to point #1.
3) Set realistic goals. I was oh so foolish in the beginning. I thought ”The short is a minute and a half, we should be able to bang this out in the few months, easy!” That might have been true… if we were all working on it full time instead of in our spare time. You have to respect the process, and you have to respect the crew. Life is complicated. People have lives, jobs, families. That’s a lot of moving parts any one of which can blip and send the best laid plains off course and out of control. Always giving yourself padding when planning deadlines. Hope for the best, plan for the worse.
4) One bite at a time.Any movement forward is good movement. Keeping your goals clear, simple and open to the crew not only keeps everyone in the know, but it communicates a sense of accomplishment. We creatives like to know that our work is being utilized and that things are progressing. Every task completed is a victory, no matter how small.
5) Compartmentalize. I’ve worked in feature film production for many many years so it’s fair to say I’m pretty familiar with how the process works (generally). My mistake was treating my short film production like a feature film production. It just didn’t work. I tried to coordinate several different departments simultaneously, projecting deadlines, and handing out multiple assignments… It was a debacle. It was fixed when the second producer, Tim Hahn came on to help out on the short. He proposed that we break the production into shorter milestones. We would only recruit from a new department when previous milestone were completed. For instance, with the story reel complete, we could focus on layout and modeling. Animation would not be recruited until the characters were finished, and the layout reel was complete. Unfortunately we couldn’t fully implement this idea, but where we did, it worked to great effect!
These are some of the biggest lessons learned that I’ll be carrying forward with me on my next venture (whatever that will be).
When it came time to gather a crew my approach was very simple. I wanted to have something to show people, something that would both get people excited and also make them feel that the project was doable. It was important for me to show them that there I had some sort of plan. I had my comics for visual reference, but I needed something more. I needed a story reel. Fortunately, when Emma convinced me to do a short she also agreed to board for me. She was looking to board something for her portfolio, so it worked out perfectly. At this point I had teamed up Lauren Montouri who agreed to be a producer on the vignette (a key person to have if you’re going to make something like this happen), and with her help we recruited Chris Zuber, our editor, right away. We showed him the boards and the source material and he (surprisingly) agreed to help. I wanted to recruit some of the principle people as soon as possible so we could start laying down some ground work. I talked Mach Kobayashi into being the Technical Lead. I needed him to start laying out the technical groundwork, but he ended up being instrumental in helping recruit people. The producer, Mach and me made a list of people who we felt might be interested in working on the short and we invited them all to a screening of the reels. This is what we showed them:
I was surprised by the number of people who agreed to work with us. I think this happened for a few reasons.
1) I really wanted people to do things they may not have had the opportunity to during their day jobs. I was trying something I was interested in (directing) and I wanted to offer that same opportunity to anyone who wanted to help out on the production.
2) The material was so unconventional. It’s a gritty urban fantasy piece, how often do you get a chance to work on something crazy like that?
And 3) The short was so…well, short. I think people felt confident in our ability to finish it. As I was to discover later though, short does not always mean simple.
I decided that before I dive into a few details of the production, that I’d talk briefly about why I decided to do this project. Now let me set the record straight right now. I am not speaking as if I’m some sort of expert or visionary, quite the opposite. If I had to qualify my short as a success or failure, I’d say it was the latter (or maybe a marginal success). But it was an amazing experience that has not deterred me from continuing down this path in the least. Every misstep I made was an opportunity for growth, and if at least one person is encouraged or inspired to pursue a similar goal after reading this, then I consider these posts a success. So without further fanfare, let’s talk about why I decided to make Mojo:
1) I wanted to direct something.
It sounds simple, but I’ve been interested in directing for quite some time. However, finding a directing opportunity can be challenging to say very least. I’ve always believed that if you can’t find opportunities, then you try and create them. After seeing my good friend Emma Coats go out and direct a couple of shorts on her own, I was inspired enough to put my fears and hesitation to the side and try my hand at it. I initially intended to direct a 10-15 minute short, but I was encouraged by Emma to start even smaller. A teaser based on my comic Mojo made sense because a lot of the visuals were already established. Rather than develop a full short, I could focus on adapting what I had into a tight narrative sampler.
2) I wanted to see if I had any skill at it.
Directing is a very complicated and difficult skill set to develop. I knew that I had stories to tell, but I had no idea if I possessed any talent for it. I know the basics of how stories work, but could I lead a group of people? Could I communicate what I wanted effectively? Could I inspire a crew? Could I deliver a compelling narrative? All of these were huge question marks in the back of my mind that I needed to answer.
3) I wanted to see if I actually liked doing it.
As much as I’ve dreamed about being a director, I had no idea if I’d even like doing it. Even if I had executed the short brilliantly, it wouldn’t have mattered if the process made me sick. I wanted to not only discover if I had the ability to direct, but also if I enjoyed the process.
These questions made up the engine that would eventually drive me through completion of the project.
Next up: “How’d I get people involved. Stay tuned!
They say art is never finished, only abandoned. Man can I relate.
Almost two years ago I started working on a short animated vignette based on a comic book I self published. Somehow, I was able to convince a few of my friends to help me work on it in our spare time. While I can’t accurately say it was completed, I can say that it’s finished.
I’ve received a lot of really nice comments and encouraging words from viewers about the short and I thought it would cool to share some of my thoughts on the experience. In the next few weeks I’ll be posting short snippets about the production; why I did it, how it was done, And where it might go from here. So if you’re curious how about how we pulled this off, stay tuned.
Everett, my name is Nick Butler I am currently working on a MFA in 2D animation at AAU. I aspire to be a story artist I would love to hear more about your journey to were you are today. Thanks.
Ah… that’s a looong and twisted tale. I’ll do my best to keep it (somewhat) brief. :
I started out as a freelance story artist at Big Idea in Chicago while I was in college (Columbia College). I took a full time position shortly after that as I was working towards building my portfolio to break into feature. I got my first break after working on 3-2-1 Penguins, not as a story artist, but as an animator. I was hired by Blue Sky Studios to work on Ice Age. I animated on Ice Age, Ice Age 2 and Robots. I also boarded for a bit on Robots. As I was working on Horton Hears a Who I expressed interest in working full time in story. I started boarding early on a feature entitled: Legend of the Leafmen (which would later be renamed Epic).
As I was working on the film, I learned that Pixar was looking for animators. I still wanted to work in story, but I also couldn’t pass up a chance to work at the house that built Woody. I submitted an animation reel fully expecting to be rejected as I had so many times previously. I was pleasantly surprised when I got a job offer to animate on Ratatouille. I animated on 7 features while I was there: Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up, Toy Story 3, Cars 2, Brave, and Monster’s Inc. In the summer of 2012 I learned that Pixar was looking for story artists, some internally. I submitted my portfolio, and was pleasantly surprised when myself and 2 other animators were selected.
After going through a 6 week crash course in story with the ineffable Mark Andrews, I was thrust into production as story artist on Toy Story that Time Forgot. I worked on 2 other productions before leaving the studio at the beginning of 2014. In March, I accepted a postion as a story artist where I am currently working. The rest, as they say, will be history. :)