Making an animated short film alone

Making an animated short film alone

As far as I remember I’ve always been curious about 3D and CGI in general, but I had no clue that one day I would actually try to make my own animated short film. Here is my journey from a simple idea to a Trailer.

I was born in 1990 and as a kid I spent countless hours playing my Nintendo Game Boy. Later on my older brother and I got a Sega Mega Drive (Sega Genesis for our North American friends), but all those games were in 2D. Few years later everything changed! 
With the release of the Nintendo 64 and the PlayStation One I had the opportunity to witness the transition of video games from the 2D world to the 3D world. Pretty much at the same time Pixar released Toy Story, the first computer-animated film, and this is when I got the click in my head.

Even though I was already in love with 3D, as a teenager it was quite impossible for me to create anything. Computers were still those big, noisy, slow and expensive machines… So I had to wait a bit.

Nowadays things are different. Internet is full of amazing resources and my smartphone is probably a hundred times more powerful than my very first computer. The technology-related issue I had as a teenager is no longer an excuse. So two years ago I took a decision and decided to learn 3D, but first I needed to answer two questions.

  1. What’s my learning process?
    If you type “learning 3D” on Google or YouTube you will probably find a million of articles and tutorials. Even though some of those resources can be incredibly good, they don’t necessarily teach you the fundamentals of 3D, and I wanted to learn it the right way.
    Looking for Professional 3D courses I eventually found two incredible resources. The first one is a free course called “Pixar in a Box” available on Khan Academy and made in partnership with Pixar.
    The second one is “CG Cookie” a website specialized in Digital Art Training.

  2. What 3D software should I use?
    This is the most common question when talking about 3D. There is plenty of choice, all of them have pros and cons but I decided to go with Blender
    Why? Because Blender is awesome, it is open-source and completely free!
chicko-movie-poster

A crazy idea

Learning a 3D software from scratch is definitely not the funnest activity, it’s very technical and the learning curve is extremely stiff. Every single functionality can have dozens of parameters and options, but eventually if you don’t give up you reach a certain point in the learning curve when the fun starts to appear. As soon as you pass this point you can truly start to bring your ideas to life. 

In my case the idea of making a short film came right after watching a course made by Kent Trammell on CG COOKIE. In this course Kent explains the entire workflow in order to create a short 3D animation.
This course blew my mind, for the first time I realized that creating a 3D animation is not just for big animation studios, I can actually do it on my own with very limited resources. 

And here it is! No matter how hard and how long, I’ve now decided to create my own short film and I will call it “Chicko”. 

Putting the idea on paper

The story

Long or short, the most important thing for any film is probably the story. I personally never wrote anything like this but my brain is always bursting with some kind of imaginary stories, and I was pretty excited to try this new exercise.

However, having ideas popping in you mind is one thing but writing them down is something else. Most of the time I realized that my ideas were extremely basic, absolutely not interesting and there is no way I could turn them into a captivating story. This is where the course “The art of storytelling” by “Pixar in a Box” really helped me out. It made me understand that a good story is made of arcs, has a theme and a message.

A theme that I particularly like is the transformation of individuals when facing complex situations. In my film the main element of the story is the transformation of Chicko. He is a small chick being bullied by its pairs, and later in the story he will have to face a great danger, but eventually those events will turn him into a much stronger individual.
I also wanted the film to share two messages: bravery and independence. But I cannot tell you more or I would spoil the full story. 

The characters

We all know a movie that could have been great but ends up being just average or even bad because one of the actors performed badly or wasn’t a good fit for the role. In 3D it is not different, in order for the story to work you need good characters. 

chicko-characher-faces
chicko-character-poses

This part is quite difficult because it is divided in two categories:

  1. Character Traits
    Who is the character? Where is he/she from? How old is he/she? What does he/she likes? And many more questions… 
    You need to think about the personality, all the characteristics of the persona and everything needs to make sense in the story.
  2. Character Design
    The look is very important as it tells a lot about the character itself, its life and its personality. If you have the opportunity to work with an illustrator go for it! I am definitely not the best for illustration but I always loved drawing and working on the Character Design was a lot of fun.

The environment

Basically, the question is where and when is the action taking place?
The choice of the environment is crucial because it directly impacts the vibe, the atmosphere and the overall look of the film.

chicko-farm-environment

As soon as I started working on the Environment I realized the importance of having a good Artistic Direction. It took me a while to figure this out but I had to ask myself: What kind of direction am I aiming for? Do I want the film to be photo-realistic or completely cartoon-style? 

In my case I went for 50–50. I wanted the environment to be realistic enough so you can relate to it, but definitely not photo-realistic. After many tests and watching hours of animation movies I finally found a balance and a style I was happy with.

The Storyboard 

At this point I finished to write the story, I was happy my characters and the environment was done. It was time to assemble everything into a storyboard and “Storyboarder” was the perfect tool for that. 

chicko-storyboard

The truth is, I’m quite a picky person, and I like when everything is perfectly polished. But with the storyboard I had to put my perfectionism aside. What matters with this exercise is not the quality of the drawings but what you feel and how does everything fit together.

I cannot remember how many times I draw something and erased it. This process is all about failing and repeating, but eventually once the storyboard is good, you feel it and you know you’re ready to move on. 

Turning the idea into 3D

Modeling

This is clearly my favorite part of the entire process, modeling is really fun. It is quite hard to describe it but it’s like assembling a very challenging Lego or building up a piece of super complex Ikea furniture. It may be annoying and complex from time to time but you cannot stop doing it, and once you’re done with it you feel so proud of yourself.

chicko-character-modeling

Even though modeling is fun, it’s a serious part of the process. If the modeling is wrong you will have tons of problems during the next steps, and I learnt it the hard way. I did fourteen versions of Chicko before getting the right result. 

Rigging

And this is definitely the worst part of the process in my opinion. Rigging is so hard but it’s extremely important.

chicko-character-rigging

If you are not familiar with 3D you may wonder, what is Rigging? 
If I have to make a comparison, Rigging is what the engine is for a car. It’s hidden, you never see it, it’s super complex but if it’s not there nothing works.
Just like humans, to be able to move 3D characters need an internal structure made of bones. By connecting all those bones together in various configurations the character becomes a puppet and can do whatever you want.

If you are not familiar with 3D you may wonder, what is Rigging? 
If I have to make a comparison, Rigging is what the engine is for a car. It’s hidden, you never see it, it’s super complex but if it’s not there nothing works.
Just like humans, to be able to move 3D characters need an internal structure made of bones. By connecting all those bones together in various configurations the character becomes a puppet and can do whatever you want.

I spent so many hours working on the rigging of Chicko and it’s far from being perfect. This exercise really changed my vision of animated movies and I have deep admiration for all those people in big and small studios working exclusively on Rigging.

Texturing

During this process I realized that the human eye is extremely good at noticing small details. If something looks off, your eye will immediately notice it and your brain will entirely focus its attention on this detail. When you make a film you definitely don’t want this to happen. 

Fort this reason, Texturing is very important and it’s not just about the characters, it’s about absolutely everything that is visible on the camera. Every single element needs look real or at least to feel right and fit in the environment. 

chicko-elements-texturing

Even though I love Blender I’ve decided to use another software for the Texturing and I chose “Substance Painter”. It is not a free software but it is absolutely outstanding. The Texturing with Substance Painter is really fun and the results you get are incredible.

Even though I love Blender I’ve decided to use another software for the Texturing and I chose “Substance Painter”. It is not a free software but it is absolutely outstanding. The Texturing with Substance Painter is really fun and the results you get are incredible.

Animation 

Before starting this project I always heard animation was one of the most difficult and tedious steps in the process. And what I heard was absolutely right. 

chicko-character-animation

Making a character move is very easy but making the movement realistic and believable is extremely hard. The key of good animation is all about references and timing, and I realized it’s impossible to create a realistic animation without a visual reference. If you know good actors around you, ask them to play the story and record everything. Unfortunately this is something I didn’t spend enough time on and I deeply regretted it down the road.

Earlier I also talked about the importance of Modeling and Rigging. When you start working on the animation you finally realize why are those two steps so important. If your Modeling is poor and the Rigging badly executed you will really suffer during the animation.

Rendering

When I started this project I didn’t know I would end up building a render-farm with five computers in my living room. You may ask, what are all those computers for? For the Rendering! 

It is one of the last steps and just like all the others it’s a very important one. By default the view-port of the 3D software displays your work in low quality in order to run as smoothly as possible but as soon as everything is perfect you need to launch the rendering in order to get the final high quality image. Depending on the complexity of the scene, the power of your computer and many other parameters, the rendering can either be quick or a very long process. 

chicko-scene-rendering

One way to speed up the rendering is to use a render farm and that’s why I decided to build one. Take as many computers as you can, connect them together and split the rendering so each computer can render a part of it. The more computers you have and the more powerful they are, the faster the rendering will be done.

In order to run my render farm I used “Flamenco” which is a render manager for Blender. And I actually have to say Thank you to Sybren A. Stüvel (software developer at the Blender Institute) for his precious help.

Compositing

When the rendering is over you basically end up with all the final pieces of the puzzle. Compositing is the step where you assemble everything back together and polish the final details in order to make everything look great.

Imagine a plate with bread, tomatoes, lettuce, onions, pickles, cheese and beef. Of course it sounds good but one by one there is nothing very special about those ingredients. However, combine them together and you get a delicious cheeseburger. Compositing is pretty much the same. 

There is a lot of famous Compositing software available on the market but for simplicity reasons I decided to stick to Blender. The good thing about Compositing is that you see the evolution of your work going from scattered pieces to the final result, and this feeling is amazing. 

Sound and Music

Do you think Jurassic Park would be the same amazing movie without its incredible music and the famous sound of the T-Rex? I personally doubt so. 
When you create an animation what you see is the key element but there is something else that is just as important and which is very easy to forget about, the sound and the music.

Unfortunately I’m not a musician and not an expert in sound effects, but I had no other choice than trying my best to work on it. The first step was to record all the sounds, so I asked a friend to perform in front of the microphone and he did quite a great job. 
For the music on the other hand I wanted something very clean and professional that would match with the atmosphere of the film and I found what I was looking for on “Premium Beat”.

Et voilà…

Of course this is a very short summary of the main steps of the process, I’m not listing them all and I cannot dig into the details otherwise this article would end up being a book, but I guess you get the point. 

So now that all these steps are completed you may thing think the short film is ready! Well, not really…

The truth is, I failed…

My initial idea was to create a short film of four or five minutes telling a story with two characters and three environments. Right now I only have one character and one environment. 

To be honest making a short film is a full-time job, but my first intention was simply to learn 3D and I ended up working on this much more complex project. At the time of writing this article I work full-time at KAYAK as a Design System Lead. So in order to work on this personal project I had to use all my available free time.

desk-workstation

During two years I woke up at 6am every morning and worked on the film for about two hours before going to work. I would then come back from work around 6pm and work again two or three more hours on the film before going to sleep. And pretty much every weekend was dedicated to the film, starting early in the morning until late at night.

With this schedule the short film would probably be finished in four years, or more, and that’s if I don’t burnout before then. This makes no sense! That’s why a year ago I decide to stop working on the entire short film and to focus exclusively on its Trailer. 

My mistakes

  1. This project is my first real 3D creation, and for a first creation it was way too ambitious. I definitely should have started with something small and simple.
  2. Being organized is a key element but my process was a bit choppy and I didn’t always tackle things in the right order.
  3. The Artistic Direction is the compass that shows you the right way. This idea of having an Artistic Direction came to my mind really late in the process but it should have been one of the first steps.
  4. Being absorbed by my work I too often forgot to ask for feedback. But getting feedback is crucial in order to improve your work and correct your mistakes.
  5. I was somehow convinced that I could do absolutely everything by myself but it’s impossible and asking for help is not a bad thing. 

What’s next?

At least the Trailer is done and I will stop here for the moment. I’m convinced that I will eventually make the short film, but it seems like it’s not the best time for now.

I truly love 3D and I plan to keep working on it as much as I can, playing with new concepts. I have plenty of ideas in mind, and I cannot wait to bring them to life, this is why I created “Short & Petit”. I will use this account to share all my 3D work. If you want to keep an eye on my future creations I invite you to follow “Short & Petit” on YouTube, Instagram and Twitter.

Conclusion

Working on this project was really difficult, intense and challenging, but it was probably the best thing I’ve ever done. Even though I failed to make the short film I definitely don’t regret it considering the amount of skills and knowledge I gained thanks to this experience. 

It was for me a positive failure

No matter if you are into 3D or not I really hope you enjoyed reading my story.
Thank you, 

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If you want to talk about Design, animated movies or any other exciting stuff? You can drop me a line at this email address: contact.ferrere [at] gmail.com

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