I recently graduated with first class honours; however there are some things which if I had known from before starting the year, would have made my life far easier and myself more satisfied of the final product. Here are some tips for you budding students.
This post is mainly for Teesside people, but I suspect courses across the country and perhaps others too have quite similar structures in the final year. We each had to do a personal short film (called the Final Year Project) and a group-made short film (with 5 people to a team).
1. Find out exactly what is expected of you.
From the beginning, I (and quite a few others) had always assumed it was necessary to create a 1 ½ minute short film. It was not until after the new year that we found out in fact the final year project could be absolutely anything (within the realm of computing). Everyone in the computing courses (from web development, to games design, to character animation) is given the same assessment guidelines, so you really can do anything as long as you back it up when writing the report. Word of advice though, make sure to pick a supervisor that can help you.
Now you may think, “What’s the problem with doing a 1 ½ minute short film?” Well the problem is that you have to do a second film (the group project). That’s two short films in 7 months (October-April). This is actually a very small amount of time to make something of quality (an opinion shared by several seasoned professionals from CGCoach).
So what can you do instead of a short film? Well, actually I do still recommend doing one – BUT keep it very simple and short (less than a minute). Alternatively, you could animate to several short audio bits. Again, keep it to less than a minute. It really is about the quality, not quantity.
2. Tailor the project to meet an artistic and/or career goal.
If you’re less interested in animation and more interested in particle effects, rigging or whatever, then definitely go down the root of making something very specific to that. If you’re not sure what root to go down, then I’d advise you hurry up and find out, otherwise your final project might be a bit of a mess. One non-character-animation student that really stood out to me this year was Terry Thompson. I think everyone who saw his showreel at the student showcase event was in awe.
If you’re going down the path of character animation, then you must tread very carefully on the subject matter. Not in terms of ethics (although the uni does not allow anything to do with drugs), but in consideration of who you want viewing your work at the end. I would say that the majority of studios in the UK want to see good acting dialogue pieces and body mechanics (by that I mean natural movement). I personally made a silent short film, with a 50:50 ratio of body mechanics and emotional (no dialogue) performance. I think this was a strategic mistake on my part because these days everyone expects moving picture to come with dialogue. Also with dialogue, you can be somewhat more flexible with the story. Being able to do good acting and lip-synch is a key skill that most studios look for since all of their film or game projects neccessitate it.
Whatever the project, I suggest you find a balance between something that meets your artistic and early career ambitions. If it’s a short film, then make it about something you care about. For example, mine was about sibling rivalry and was named after mine and my sister’s middle names. If you’re doing short shots then do action or dialogue scenes that are specific to the kind of work you want to do. For example, if you want to do games animation, then do a shot between two characters fighting.
Don’t forget, your animation has the opportunity to win the ExpoTees award or even be circulated in festivals. This may seem like a far-away goal, but considering some of the things I’ve seen in Annecy festival… it may not actually be that hard after all. Winning an award or being circulated in a festival is a big eye opener to employers.
3. Keep it to less than a minute and SIMPLE.
I mentioned this already, but the point needs to be hammered home. Quality not quantity. Something to consider is that your scenes will have to have backgrounds and possibly more than one character. If your career aim is to be a character animator, then you really need to keep the scenes as simple as possible so that the majority of your time is spent doing animation rather than modelling, rigging and other things. Do not write a story that’s set in war-torn Berlin with crumbling buildings and corpses lying everywhere, nor an apocalypse featuring hundreds on animated zombies.
4. Animate to a soundtrack.
This is probably the most important thing I’ve learnt about animation in general. I used to be very purist about animation, thinking that a great animation will stand out on its own without any sound. And this is true, however for us novices still learning to make animation, it is best to have a soundtrack. Soundtracks have a rhythm and beat that you can animate to, but most importantly, they have an end. Without a soundtrack, you might well keep animating and animating. Before you know it, the shot is twice as long as you intended it to be. Because of the rhythm and beats of a sountrack, you can give your animation more punch or flow by animating to one, and ultimately it’ll be more entertaining to you and whoever else sees it.
How do you go about making a soundtrack before the animation? Well it’s mainly about having good judgement of how long actions will take. You don’t have to be precise to the millisecond though. Actually the beauty of making the soundtrack first is that sound is half of what the viewer will perceive (the other half being what they see on screen). So even if your animation of a guy punching a wall is a few frames off from looking completely natural, the sound will make up for that fact because the audience sees what looks 90% like a punch and hears the punching sound, and they won’t think anything about how maybe it looks slightly off.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying audio should be a way to get out of doing perfect animation, but it is definitely another tool to help your skill develop. At the end of the day, you can always easily move a sound up or down a timeline in a track, whereas changing animation takes much more effort.
To make your soundtrack, I recommend downloading sounds and music anywhere from the internet and putting them together in Audacity, Adobe Sound Booth or After Effects.
5. Get all pre-production done before starting the year.
Pre-production to me means any drawing or planning, including storyboards, character designs and the finding of pre-made rigs or models. In particular, you have to find the right rig. And no, generally as a student animator you don’t want to be making your own rig. I’ll explain this now. To convey your story or make good animation, your rig has to be nothing short of fantastic. That means IK/FK-able arms, stretchy/squashy limbs, spine and head, and maybe most importantly – a facial rig capable of moving everything, especially lips, in all possible human positions.
Now let’s look at your timeframe. You’ve finish 2nd year of university at the end of May. You start 3rd year in October. That’s a 4 month break in which, while you do want to improve your CG skills, you also want to do a lot of other things. If you worked full work-days for two months, you will probably manage to make something quite decent, but that is really a fairytale world. Summer is the time where CG artist’s dreams go to die. For me personally, I’m not much of an outdoor person, but still, seeing the sun shining outside is demoralising.
Why not do it in term time? Well for one, you won’t have full work days because of the second project, and also just because of living with other students disturbing you. What might’ve taken one or two months to learn will end up taking double the time.
6. Use all 7 months of term-time for animation.
Good animation takes an unbelievably long time. Reason being that you can’t just make good animation in one fell swoop. It takes several, dozens or hundreds of takes. Once you make a little bit, you look over it with critical eyes and then change it. When you’ve gone over it enough, you let someone else look at it and then you go back and change it again. And again and again. Considering you have to concurrently do a second project with a team, those 7 months will pass by in no time. And in fact you need to leave at least one month available for rendering and writing the report.
7. The report is your saviour.
As I said earlier, your project can be anything as long as you justify it in writing. Someone can actually just spend the entire year making one character model and that will count as a final year project. For us more ambitious people, we’ll end up spending much more time working on our extensive project; however you could still fail to fully meet your goals. That’s where the report comes in. As long as you can justify why things happened as they did, you’ll be fine. One more thing to note is that the report doesn’t necessarily have a minimum length (suggested is less than 10k words). Mine was 7k long. I know some others who wrote 5k and did just as well as I. The fact of the matter is that everyone’s project differs in the amount and variety of work put in.
8. You might never be happy with your project.
Some people are proud of their work. Some of those people are rightfully proud and some aren’t quite justifiably so. And then there’s people like me (and a lot of you too) who rely almost solely on other people to tell them their work is good. I’m here to tell you that that’s ok. It either means that your work really isn’t good, or that you’re overly critical, or both. With time and effort, you will eventually outgrow one or both of these things. The fact that you recognise faults with your work is a good indication that you have a lot of potential.