2D and 3D animation software brings animation capability to the desktop and makes it easy- but just launching the application and starting to animate straightaway is not always the best way to make a good movie. This tutorial shows a workflow that has proven efficient and useful in professional and amateur animation projects alike.
When you have a tool like Poser or Anime Studio that makes animating easy and quick enough that just about anyone can do it, there's a temptation to just jump in, launch the program and start making things move. This is fine if you just want to do something quick and simple, and it can go a long way towards familiarizing yourself with the tools and workflow of the program.
If you've got a longer work in mind though- something that goes beyond a simple five- or ten-second sequence- it's usually a very good idea to take a minute, sit back and do a little planning before launching your program of choice. If you'll be using more than one program to produce your movie this can be especially important, to minimize the time spent having to redo effects or sequences that just didn't work in one application or another.
The first thing you'll probably want to do is to sit down and make a few notes on the story you're trying to tell. Professional animators always have a story- even if it's a simple one- and knowing what's supposed to happen and who it happens to is very important in making a good movie. Who are the characters? Where are they located? What happens to them, and what do they do about it? Having these ideas clearly in mind is crucial to making an interesting movie. You might or might not need to write anything down at this point; thinking it through is the key (although it helps to have notes at least, to help with the next step.)
2. Scenes & Storyboards
Once you have a story, it helps to break it down into scenes. Very few movies (at least of those longer than a minute or so) are filmed as one long scene, and although using multiple scenes presents certain complications, it also allows you to work with smaller files with shorter timelines, and render individual clips more quickly. For each scene, it can help to sketch out a storyboard- a sequence of simple drawings that show what the scene is supposed to look like.
Don't try to put too much detail, or make everything look realistic- just sketch in the things that you'll show in that scene, in a few quick pictures. If you can't draw people use stick figures, but get something on paper- this helps you to visualize where people and things need to be on the 'set' and how the camera will see them. You can write down any dialogue or audio effects that'll be in the scene on the storyboard as well, and this will help with the next step.
Now that you have the dialogue noted down for each scene, you should record it and save out the sound files you'll need. At the same time, you can record any sound effects you'll want, and even add music if you like. Then mix it all down into a soundtrack for your scene. The idea is to have a unified audio file that has as much sound as you'll need to animate over- if at all possible, do the sound before you animate. Regardless of which software you use, it's always easier to animate over the sound, rather than trying to synchronize the sound with the animation later on.
Also, having a soundtrack with noises, dialogue, sound effects etc. will be a huge help with the timing of the animation; you can get a good idea of which movements need to happen at what points by what the audio is doing. I can't stress this point enough- the animate-over-sound workflow was developed in the early days of sound movies and has proven itself over and over through the years; almost every professional animator in movies and television works this way. At this point, depending on how you'll be doing your dialog (if there is any) you'll want to also save separate copies of each character's audio files- just the things they're saying in the scene- to facilitate lip-synching later on.
4. Prepare Files You Will Need
By now you're probably saying, 'When do I get to start animating??' Not to worry, we're almost there; this step is the last one before you actually start to animate the scene. Here you make sure you've got everything you need- with the audio ready to go, you can generate lip-synch files, build or buy any props you'll need, prepare background video clips or special image files, etc.
Here it starts to make a difference which program you're using; Poser animators will want to use the audio dialog files they've made to work with and generate lip-synch poses here, so they can be saved to the Expressions library as animated face poses to be applied during the scene, while Anime Studio users will want to use a program like Papagayo to generate the speech keyframes they'll need to apply.
Users of any program will want to make sure that any image or video files they'll use as backdrops or image maps are ready to go, and that any other assets- 3D props, prepared figures, scripted actions or saved poses, etc.- are available and working properly.
5. Time to Animate!
Now, with everything in place, you can finally start animating. By now the scene will be very familiar- you've worked out your story, drawn the storyboards and gone over the dialogue, you know the timing, you have all the pieces assembled and it's now time to put it all together and build the scene that you'll be rendering. One nice side effect of the process you've been following is that it tends to reveal story and dialogue elements that don't work before you spend a lot of time animating and rendering them. Properly done, animated features typically don't have much that winds up on the cutting room floor- the stuff that doesn't work gets left out long before any rendering takes place.
As you animate, be sure to save frequently- and save copies too, if you think you might want to go back and redo anything later. Back up your work regularly- nothing spoils your day like having a hard-drive crash eat your last week's worth of work.
5a. Preview Rendering
Speaking of rendering, especially in Poser it's usually a really good idea to make sure the timing of your scene works properly, by doing preview renders periodically to check your work. You can save these or throw them out after viewing, but a fast preview-mode render is an excellent reality check for your work in progress.
In Anime Studio you can do the same thing by exporting half-size, half-frame-rate versions of some or all of your frames as video clips. Rendering a sample still-frame image every now and then at full size and full quality can be a good way to check the effects, lighting and overall 'look' of the scene as well.
6. The Final Render
Once you're happy with the scene and you think it's as good as it's going to get (did you check the lighting? Are all the textures and shaders working properly? Is the timing right- are things moving naturally?) it's time to do the final render. Turn on any features you deactivated for previews, choose the quality level and frame size you want (see #7A below), run any simulations you need to have, save your file one last time (and save a copy too,
just in case
) and then start the render. Make sure your computer won't be needed for a while- a full-size, full-quality render of a movie can take some time. It might also be a good idea to turn off any scheduled events- automatic shutdown, etc.- that you normally use, to avoid disrupting the render process.
Once it's rendering it's best to leave the computer strictly alone- there'll be a temptation to do other things on it while the render progresses, but doing this slows the render process and tends to be very frustrating since most of the computer's horsepower is used in rendering, leaving you with a very sluggish machine at best. Render at the largest resolution you'll be using, so you won't need to scale the video up in the editing process; also, save the rendered file at the highest possible quality settings (save it uncompressed or as an image sequence if you have enough hard drive space.)
Once the scene has been saved as a movie file, back up the scene file and the rendered movie to a secure location (an external hard drive or server, a CD, tape-drive, etc.)- then you can go back and do it all over with the next scene. When you have all your clips rendered, you can fire up a video editing program and edit them together. This is also a good time to add any additional sounds you might want to use- music, other effects- or to replace the audio in the rendered files with higher-quality sound from the original audio files you made earlier. Remember to save early and often, and back up your work regularly.
7a. Resolution and Scaling
Once your movie has been edited together at full size, you can export it out in the formats you'll want to distribute. For DVD or video, 640 or 720x480 is a good resolution; for movies played back on the Web you'll be better off at 450x337 or smaller (320x240 works well also.) If you go and check out
it can provide a good guideline to the frame sizes you'll most likely want to use.
And there you are- following these steps won't necessarily make you the next Brad Bird or Hayao Miyazaki, but it'll save a lot of time and frustration and help your talents speak for themselves.