Sunday, 24 May 2009

10 Steps To Succeed: A Guide For Future 4th Years

I've learnt a lot over the past 3 years from helping lots of 4th Year animation students, and now that I've gone through 4th Year myself, I thought it'd be a nice idea to share some of my insight here so that future 4th Year animation students can make their final year at ECA as straight-forward as possible. So here it goes:

1) Do your research, and LOTS of research! The word 'research' can be used for everything, so use it as an excuse to watch loads of films or do all kinds of bizarre things...
Animation does not, and like any art form, should not, be confined to influences from within its own circle: If animation is influenced by animation how far can you really develop it?
For sure there is an incredible variety of styles within animation, but you can get much more out of the original source (eg: painting, illustration, photography, graffiti) rather than from an animation source that has taken those original influences and filtered them down to a fraction of the brilliance of the original art forms.
You can then use all your influences to fully develop your own style and create something new, which deviates from the stereotypical. This is exactly what the examiners are looking for when they assess your work, so make sure you give them plenty of it in your end-of-year portfolio if you want to get the best grade you could hope to achieve... (Just make sure you document why it influenced you, and how you developed it into your own work within your portfolio).

2)Try to experience using various different animation techniques before starting 4th Year. Not only is it going to be an interesting experience, but it can be vital to how your film turns out too...
If you've only ever done one type of animation then you don't know about the potential you have with other techniques. Likewise if you've tried lots of different techniques you will have the knowledge to decide which is best suited to your temperament and/or which is best suited to telling the story of your graduation project. It certainly isn't worth sticking with one particular technique just because you prefer it/because it suits the story/because it is quicker or easier... You should try to strike a balance between all the important factors (your interests/the artistic potential/time available/costs/requirements/etc).

3) Try to learn about all the software available to you before starting 4th Year. I went into 4th Year with a project proposal stating that I wanted to make 4th Year as slow and challenging for myself as possible, therefore I intentionally avoided digital shortcuts (like AfterEffects) in order to do as much of my film by hand as possible; but in that process I missed the opportunity to learn how to use AfterEffects properly (which is not good for my CV).
By learning about all the different software available at college before starting 4th Year you can make informed decisions about what is the best way to achieve whatever you are trying to create; you don't have to waste time learning the software during your already busy 4th Year; and choosing to use programmes like ToonBoom or TVPaint (which currently seems to get ignored at eca) could save you a massive amount of time during production in comparison to Photoshop.
I would certainly recommend TVPaint (available on some of the college computers) for everyone who plans on doing a drawn film with traditional cel-style colouring (similar to Scooby-Doo) because it only takes half an hour to get used to it, and thereafter it takes seconds to colour each frame, which in comparison to Photoshop could save you at least a minute per frame!

4) Start thinking about your film as soon as possible. In other words, start working on your 4th Year film as soon as 3rd Year is finished (if not earlier), and spend as much time as you can afford during the summer holidays developing your ideas so that they can get as much development as possible. This way you can get the most out of your ideas without worrying about the limited time you have left, or worrying about your CVCS projects on top of your animation projects (as will happen once Term 1 begins).

5) Don't begin work on your CVCS project until Term 1 begins. It may seem like a good idea to get the less enjoyable part of the course [if that's what you think of CVCS] out of the way as soon as possible so that you can spend all your time in college working on your animation; but in reality when you return to college you will be asked to write a short proposal for CVCS, and for the remainder of term 1 you will be given SO MUCH really beneficial advice and unknown research topics from the staff that all the work you had done over summer will become pretty pointless - and you will then regret not spending that time on your film instead!

6) Get a good idea of your story and/or technique before the end of 3rd Year. That way you can get vital feedback and advice from the staff and/or current 4th Years before leaving for the summer, and you will have a good idea whether your concepts are possible or not. From this you can discover how much potential your ideas have from an early point and develop them from there, rather than spend all summer working on an idea only to discover 3 months later that it won't be possible to pull off successfully.
Ideally you should have a film concept with as much pre-production complete as possible before returning to college in September. If you can create a portfolio with the basic script, visual designs, storyboards, etc, by the middle of October then you will be in the best possible position for getting the most out of your remaining time at college (the time flies past incredibly quickly!).

7) Don't be afraid to make drastic changes. No matter how much work you have put into the project, don't be afraid of making drastic changes because they can lead to much greater end results - but don't change things constantly all through the year or use it as an excuse for unfinished work!
If you are not happy with your project there might be something small that is not noticeable to you, but very obvious to outsiders - so seek their advice. If you feel that your idea is constricting your artistic capabilities then at the very least take a short time to check if there is something new that will get more out of you, because not only will it result in a better film at the end, but it will also be more enjoyable to work on too.

8) Work in stages. After writing your script and completing the storyboard animatic do everything else in stages so that you've always got a full story to show (regardless of how it looks). This allows you to check how well the story actually works, means you can do editing all through the year, and means that if you run out of time at the end of the year you at least have the full film available for assessment without it looking too jumbled or confusing.
I'd suggest having the animatic assembled at final screen resolution (eg: 1020x576 at 150dpi) first of all. Then go through the animatic doing rough animation for all the shots - adding them to the animatic as you go. After the rough animation is complete you will have an animated version of the film, which gives a very strong idea of how the film will play, and will allow outsiders to give critical feedback without misunderstanding things as they might do with a crudely drawn animatic.
Next do cleaned-up animation for all the shots (starting with the most valuable shots, leaving the least important shots until the end), and add these to the animatic as you go...
Finally do the colouring, texturing, backgrounds, or whatever else you want to have, and continue doing those in stages too.
When colouring, go through the entire shot with one colour at a time, and then go back and do the next colour for the entire shot, and so on and so on... This process saves you a bit of time per frame because you only need to pick the different colours once each for the entire shot, instead of once each for every frame. It may not seem like much time to save, but over the course of your entire film it will be a very substantial saving.
Likewise, if you plan to add digital textures and other smaller details that affect the aesthetics, but which don't particularly enhance the film (ie: things that aren't vital to the story), leave them until the rest of the film is fully finished. This will allow you to dedicate all your time to the most important things so that by the deadline you have a film that appears to be complete even if you have not finished it to your original plans... (And you can always continue working on those smaller details after the assessment deadline if you want).

9) Say goodbye to any social life you had. 4th Year is almost certainly going to require much more work than any other year of your life - and if it doesn't then you haven't pushed your project far enough; so you can pretty much say goodbye to living a normal social life for this year. Some animation techniques will give you more room for error than others, but regardless of how long you expect your film to take to complete, don't say to yourself "I'll just cram more in towards the end".
You have the entire year (October-May) to work on your film, so use it! It will be easier to cram as much of your work into the early stages of the year than to try cramming everything into the last few months - when you will have even more than just your film to concentrate on... (I originally predicted my film to be fully rotoscoped by the middle of March because it was such a quick process, but it was also very tedious and didn't look how I really wanted, so in reality I was just trundling along while putting things off to try finding a better solution, and in the end I was still animating at the start of May - which I really regret with hindsight!)
You will probably need to spend term 1 on pre-production balanced with your CVCS project, and don't waste your CVCS project because it could bring in valuable marks at the end of the year to mitigate if anything goes wrong with your animation project.
During Term 2 you should spend all your time on the animation project because it is the only time during the year that you will have completely free for it. At this point you should also begin arranging helpers, sound designers, and whoever else to work on your project because help is always a very valuable resource (and it's better to have that from an early stage than only during the last few weeks). Sound designers and composers will need a full version of your film before they can do audio work, and they usually prefer to work towards the end of your year, so try to get most of your film (if not all of it) complete before the beginning of term 3.
Term 3 is the final 5 weeks of your project when everything becomes more frantic. As well as working on your film, you will need to: write loads of things for the degree show and press release forms; spend time working with sound designers and composers; compile your full years work into a professionally-presented portfolio for the assessments; finish writing/printing/binding your production diary (depending on whether you write it by hand or type it on the computer); designing postcards and/or business cards; designing and printing your DVD presentation; create a trailer for the degree show catalogue; and a load of other little things that the college will demand are mandatory...
No matter how organised you are, there are always these little things that are likely to get forgotten or in the way of "more important" work; and although you can't ignore them, it really does make life so much easier if you get things planned and done within plenty of time. Term 3 will be stressful enough, so don't leave things to the last minute - particularly because things tend to take longer than you'd expect (who could ever have imagined it would take me over 12 hours to satisfactorily bind 6 production diaries?!), and you can't account for all kinds of potential problems (computer crashes, corrupt files, printing errors, low printer cartridges/no replacement cartridges, misplaced documents, forgotten showreel, mislabeled DVDs...).

10) Seek assistance (or if you are not in 4th Year, try to assist the 4th Years). Over the past 3 years I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to help other students from outside of my own year group, and I cannot stress enough exactly how useful those experiences were!
In 2nd Year I did most of the scanning for Lora Jensen's film, and from that I discovered how much physical work is involved in creating a 'short' film - it was unbelievable... Even at the end of my 4th Year I still can't comprehend the vast amount of paper that has been used for my 4 minute film; and the hours required to pull it off can be overwhelming if you are not prepared...
In 3rd Year I got to do a wide variety of tasks with the 4th Years, which meant that before I had even finished 3rd Year I had very strong knowledge of everything that needs to be done during 4th Year, and it helped me plan everything for my 4th Year to near-perfection (there are always some things that don't go to plan)!
I have always had very strong motivation, a willingness to work all hours (if required), and a curiosity to see exactly how much work/stress I can put myself under before giving up, so I had always planned on doing my 4th Year film without any assistance, and although I did to some extent achieve it (I was up for 61 hours straight by the end of the final day, having never even done 40 hours before) I don't think it was worthwhile... The self-satisfaction I received from managing to make my entire film by myself before the deadline is almost non-existent; I didn't enjoy the emptiness of working on my own all year; and I could have developed my leadership skills by getting others involved in the production of my film (which is always good for ye olde CV); and by allowing others to help you then if nothing else, you can at least have the satisfaction of knowing that you have given others some very valuable experience and possibly assisted in the development of their own work.


Here are some quotes from others in the department that I found useful:

- “If I can give you one piece of advice; it’s to start planning it all right now [May - end of 3rd Year], and make sure that you’ve got the story, the style, the process, EVERYTHING, completely sorted out before October. That way you can get as much time as possible to work on the animation. I always thought to myself in 3rd Year, 'Gosh, how are they all struggling to finish? They’ve had all year to work on it, why are they finding it so hard?'
Don’t do what I did, and keep putting it off - start planning now, and then get started right away. I’m now in the situation where I left it so late, that I am at the end of the year and I’ve only completed half of the animation” (Louis Hudson, 23/05/08)

- “I think it’s best to just pick a simple concept right from the beginning. Many people go into 4th year expecting to produce a 10-minute masterpiece [of the quality like Disney, Petrov, or Burton] and then they realize much later that they won’t be able to achieve it, and they have to cut it all right down – which ruins the story... It’s only a student film after all, it’s not a big expensive industry film.
At the start of the year, mine was the shortest at 3.5 minutes, but even I’ve had to cut it down, so I think the final animation is going to be about 2.5 minutes - and that includes the titles and credits” (Erica Weiste, 21/04/08)

- “Make a strict timetable at the start of the year, and remember to factor in CVCS, holidays, illness, fashion show, problems, etc… You don’t really begin animating until the middle of term 2, and then you’re really pushing time” (Grace Chan, 08/12/07)

- “It’s good that you’ve found something that you enjoy doing and is interesting to watch [the paint on glass animation]. After all, if you need to do the entire film in a style you don’t enjoy then it’s going to show in your film. If you enjoy doing what you’re doing, then you’re going to enjoy the film, and the audience will appreciate it all the more too” (Aaron Johnston/Erica Weiste/Neil Kempsell, April 08)

- “We as an art college, should be striving to produce innovative, exciting new works; and be attempting to break new ground for the future animators… We shouldn’t be trying to imitate someone else in the professional world, or settle for what we know and have access to. We are the explorers of today (like Lye, McLaren, or Disney were in the past). We have the rest of our careers to comply with the industry and do as someone else tells us, but for just now, as students, we should do what we want to do” (Neil Kempsell, 14/04/08)

- There’s no longer enough time to do what I was hoping to achieve. So I’m just going to have to cut it down, simplify it all, and struggle on… It’s a lot to do in the time we have” (Alison Cross, 15/04/08)

- “I hope that I can get it finished on time; I think I will be able to do it… I’ve only got two scenes left to animate, but I’m already 2 weeks behind schedule. I’m just grateful that you’ve been able to help, because that would probably be another two weeks of 24 hour Photoshopping!” (Erica Weiste, 21/04/08)

- The animation is getting easier, but there’s still so much to do that it will mean not sleeping for the next few weeks” (Alison Cross, 24/04/08)

- “That room has changed you all” [the stopmotion animators]. “You’re not even a shadow of your former selves” (Simon Cartwright to Jessica Cope, 23/05/08)

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