Tag Archives: filmmaking

Layout and Technical Challenges

First, as a side note, before I get into this, I’ve been having a hard time finding time to write posts, keep up all the social media pages, forums and get work done on the short. Naturally the actual production work takes priority. But also, I hadn’t really found a good breaking point the past couple weeks as I’ve been going back and forth between different technical challenges with the rigging, hair dynamics, cloth simulation, asset management, etc. So I hope things will level out a bit from here on.

I finished the layout pass for the first scene:

The point here is mainly to get the timing, framing, and staging down. Everything is just block-in and the animation will be done from scratch, with models, lighting, etc. to be added at the rendering stage. So ignore the animation quality and weighting issues.

I explained what’s going on this scene in my previous post where I talked about the storyboarding process but I’ll go over it again and explain a few things in particular about this layout itself:

In this scene she’s just woken up and found herself in this room with people sleeping all over the floor and empty bottles and things and is sneaking away towards the door when a glint from the dresser catches her eye and she goes over to check out this shiny ring (I indicated the glint effect with some scaling and rotation, but that’ll be replaced with the actual lighting effects in the final version. The first shot will have a lens flare too that’s not there presently).

While examining the ring she sees a shadow behind her from the corner of her eye and quickly spins around drawing her pistol (not present in the layout yet -it’s just her hand) but it’s just someone rolling over in their sleep and knocking a bottle around. Then a knock at the door draws her attention and knocks a bottle off the dresser which crashes and causes her to turn to the man in the bed, where we’ll see him waking up in the mirror behind her. Then she pockets the ring and bolts before the door opens and the room stirs to life. And we end the scene panning on the open window to suggest that that’s where she made her escape.

I should point out here, that the movie is going to be silent (Music only. No dialog. No sound effects) -because I wanted to avoid actors and lip syncing so the focus would be completely on the animation. This created a filmmaking challenge. Instead of hearing a a knock at the door, I have to visually represent through animation that there’s noise from the door. I think this will be fairly apparent from her head spinning to look at it and the bottle crashing, but I might also add some animation of the door shaking or other objects if it doesn’t read as well.

I also noticed another change I need to make just uploading this. When she first pulls her gun and we cut to the bottle rolling I think it should actually cut to the person who’s just rolled over so we know they’re still asleep. Let me know if anything else doesn’t read as well for you too. Getting new eyes on this will be incredibly helpful.

If you’d like to read the script I’ve included the first page that corresponds to this scene here for reference: Nemusidian Cruise Ship Page 1 I might share more of the script as the production progresses going forward if there’s interest.

Here’s a WIP render of Nemusidian and the BlenderArtists thread I started for her character: http://blenderartists.org/forum/show…for-Short-Film
Nemu Full Body 1

I also began a thread on BA for the movie as a whole: http://blenderartists.org/forum/showthread.php?312222-Nemusidian-in-Cruise-Ship-Catastrophe

—–Technical Challenges:—–

1. Cloth Settings for Linked Objects
-In addition to getting this layout done I’ve been spending time working out a lot of the technical issues that have to be dealt with such as the workflow for hair and cloth. Currently there is no way to access simulation settings on linked objects in Blender. This is a problem if you want to, for instance, have a character file with all the object data and armature, and then link it into each scene. Under current functionality you can only make a proxy (local-ish version) of the armature for that character, which is fine for most things, but for cloth simulation and other physics simulations like hair, these will undoubtedly have to be tweaked on a per shot basis. So getting access to those settings for linked objects would be a lot of help.

I’ve been in contact with one of the lead Blender developers, Brecht van Lommel, and Bassam Kurdali, director of the first open movie, Elephants Dream. Brecht has been very generous and shared a snippet of some code that might be a start to a workaround, and Bassam said he would post his methodology for this that he’s using on his Tube project. On Sintel/ Project Durian they had a hard-coded script for this that was production specific. Unfortunately, I am not a coder, and my focus is on getting this movie made.

Production can still go on, by simply appending the cloth objects separately into each shot, and they’ll follow the linked armature, but it’s not ideal because any changes made to the original objects will have to be manually applied to every shot.

I started a thread focused on this issue on BA as well: http://blenderartists.org/forum/show…ation-Settings

2. Rigging the Shoulder Bag
-A second problem I’m working to solve right now is rigging her shoulder pack. It’s going to be around her shoulder most of the movie, but as you can see in the layout she does need to be able to take it off. That’s actually the easy part though, and can be done fairly simply with animated copy transform constraints. I’m trying to find a solution that will automate the animation for it bouncing about against her hip as much as possible, perhaps using cloth or rigid bodies in combination with an armature. But that’s a challenge I’m still trying to solve so if you have any ideas that’d be a help.
Nemu Rig
That’s where things are at the moment. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this layout. Please let me know what you think. And don’t worry about pointing out problems. Things are very easy to change at this stage. That’s the whole point of layout!
Finally, if you’re on Facebook or Google+, and you like what you see, it would really mean a lot if you could please give it a Like or a Follow:

You can also follow me directly on Twitter if you’d like, where I tweet updates regularly: http://twitter.com/mikhailpschalk

Links mentioned in this post:
Why I Don’t Believe in Storyboards
Nemusidian Character Blender Artists Thread
Nemusidian Animation Blender Artists’ Thread
Elephant’s Dream
Tube Project
Library Linking Cloth Simulation Settings Blender Artists Thread


Why I Don’t Believe in Storyboards

Or do I?

Well what is a storyboard? Let’s try and work that out first.

I think it could be a lot of things. It could be drawings, sketches in little identically sized boxes laid out on pages with arrows drawn between them. That’s the first image that comes to mind for me. Something like this:

Toy Story storyboards Copyright Pixar Animation Studios
Toy Story storyboards Copyright Pixar Animation Studios
Storyboards from The Dark Knight Rises, Warner Brothers
Storyboards from The Dark Knight Rises, Warner Brothers

Could anything else be a storyboard? Well what is the goal of a storyboard?

We have a script. We have the lines and the shot list and breakdowns. What are we trying to accomplish with a storyboard? Is it something we need to do before making an animatic (rough looking animated version of the movie)? Is an animatic just an animated storyboard?

The goal of storyboarding in my view is to convey the framing, beats, and visual content of the film with some indication of movement. We need to know where the camera goes, what’s in the frame. What’s moving. What’s in focus. What’s out of focus. How close are things. What’s the lighting like might be important to know etc.

Storyboards are basically a tool for the filmmaker(s -usually accompanied by some sort of production team) to better understand the visual look of the film, prior to filming it. This is a very important task, because to film things (or animate) even in this day and age is extremely expensive and time consuming. So the filmmakers want to be prepared when they walk on set (or sit down to animate the characters).

This is not news to anyone familiar with the process of filmmaking.

So we’ve established what a storyboard is meant to accomplish: clarifying an understanding of the visual narrative.

That’s especially helpful when we have a team of people that we need to align behind a common vision. And in that situation I might be more willing to agree that storyboards are useful, but let me elaborate on my own experience with storyboarding…

First off, beyond my own personal experience, a lot of the directors that I follow closely (though certainly not all), use storyboards only sparingly (to the best of my knowledge). That’s not to say they never use storyboards. There are certain types of scenes, action sequences… where storyboards can come in handy a lot more than say in a dialog sequence. Alfred Hitchcock for instance made use of storyboards often.

There’s also, I think, a separation here between live action films, where everything is given to us, and animated films, where we have to build everything from scratch. But isn’t there’s a difference between storyboards and concept art to visualize the assets for the movie? Those are separate things… so does it really matter if the film is animated or not for the question of should we make storyboards?

This is where I’ll jump in with my personal experience:

I wasn’t originally going to make storyboards for this short at all, at least not in the traditional sense of having a separate phase of the production after script and before animatic (or blocking/ layout). Partly, because I’m producing this completely on my own so there’s not a need to convey the vision to others (which saves a LOT of time in just general communication and collaboration -though the trade-off is a LOT more work for me). Partly because I can’t draw well (that’s not a big deal though, I’ll come back to that). But the main reason was I really wanted the movie to be character-animation driven. I wanted the story to HAPPEN in the animation phase, or at least at the blocking/ layout phase.

I’d build the assets, characters, sets. Rig them up. Throw them into the scene. And start animating following the script only as a guide, and allowing the process of character animation to play out and then to some degree block camera around the animation as opposed to the other way around.

If you’re an animator you’re probably immediately going to point out how much more time consuming it would be to animate first, and only then decide how to cut the shots.

I probably would be working on both at the same time and wouldn’t really go farther than the blocking stage of the animation before locking the shot down into an edit. But the reason I wanted to do it that way is the majority of animation I see lacks a naturalism to the characters in terms of how the shots are cut. You can’t always tell, but a lot of the time you can sense it, that the shot length was determined before the character was animated. From an editing standpoint, that’s terrible form. And I wanted to avoid this.

So a friend of mine, Alex Slover, last summer suggested that I make storyboards for the movie. I didn’t explain my whole reasoning for not wanting to; I sort of just brushed it off. But today I was trying to practice drawing Nemu and I decided why not pick a pose from the actual movie, and then I proceeded to start planning the animation of the first scene in my interpretation of the the traditional storyboard method, drawing little boxes and arrows and so on.

What started to happen was, first off my drawing skills have been improving over the past year, but certainly aren’t that great yet, and I found myself reverting to my old habits. I wasn’t paying any mind to proportions or anatomy or rendering. It was just totally: get the point of the poses and the basic layout of the scene out on paper as fast and as simply as possible. So obviously they look like chicken scratch:Nemu Storyboards 1Nemu Storyboards 2Nemu Storyboards 3

If anyone can understand what’s going on there other than me,  I’ll be impressed. I also wasn’t laying out boxes evenly or in any order so it’s a bit of a mess with the story just zigzagging and going all different directions across the page, but I got the whole first scene down more or less in that fashion.

I think storyboards are supposed to be total chicken scratch though anyway, or we’re spending too much time on storyboards. The majority of the scene I was able to sketch out pretty quickly, and my focus was just about getting the poses for her character to look right. I was trying to capture the gesture and expression (which is something I need to work on a lot in my drawing). Character animation centric movie remember? So gesture/pose and expression are what mattered.

But I ran into a snag towards the end of the scene. She’s just woken up and found herself in this room with people sleeping all over the floor and empty bottles and things and is sneaking her away towards the door when a glint from the dresser catches her eye and she goes over to check out this shiny ring. In the script, she then hears the sound of someone moaning and turns around, afraid of being caught, but it’s just someone turning over in their sleep. Then there’s this quick succession of other events: a knock on the door which wakes up the man sleeping in the bed and she gets frightened and quickly flees the scene with the ring.

->I should also add here, that the movie is going to be silent (Music only. No dialog. No Sound Effects). So I changed a few things. Instead of hearing a noise or a knock at the door, which the audience might be able to follow if I animated her well enough, but just to be safe, I replaced those shots with a bottle rolling on the ground when the person rolls over and the door shaking, a bottle falling off the dresser and breaking on the floor, and the doorknob turning back and forth.

->Second aside: I’ve included the first page of the script that corresponds to this scene here for reference: Nemusidian Cruise Ship Page 1

When I started boarding this I was doing it from memory without looking at the script. So I boarded the shot where she’s inspecting the ring, and then the man in the bed starts waking up in focal blur behind her, so she turns, frightened. We then pan to the door to see it visually vibrating back and forth. This is when I worked out how to represent the knocking noise without sound, and I came up with this concept of the room being like an ancient ruin or a desolate post-apocalyptic wasteland that she’s carefully navigating where the whole room suddenly comes alive after she finds the ring. Things on the dresser start shaking, bottles fall off, people start waking up etc.

Then I was a little confused because something didn’t seem right and I went back to check the script. Aside from the fact that it didn’t make sense for the man to wake up before the knock on the door I had left out the first person on the floor rolling over as the false alarm. I backtracked and started a second branch from the shot where she inspects the ring and added a new shot where she pulls her gun on the person rolling over, which I liked. It was a good character move, and I want the animation to be so fast, all in one motion, like it’s second nature to her and this is the type of reaction she takes by default because of the situations she’s regularly in all the time.

It didn’t make sense then, if she pulled her gun out in response to a noise, for a knock at the door to suddenly send her into a panic. Also it felt better to save the fear (the punchline, the payoff) until the last minute, like Disney animator, Glenn Keane explains in this video:

So the next shot, when the door knock happens, she turns to acknowledge it, but keeps her pistol pointed towards the corner of the room, and maintains her calm, only getting frazzled a bit because now she has 2 possible threats to deal with instead of one. She’s still keeping her composure though. That meant I had only one more opportunity to frighten her so that she flees the scene (the necessary end result of the sequence). That would be the man in the bed waking up. But if the first 2 things didn’t scare her, why all of a sudden would the man waking up change anything? It was seeming like she was more afraid of the man in the bed, specifically, than anything else, and that’s not the impression I wanted to convey.

The problem is, how to cut to the man in the bed waking up, show her reaction of fear, and sell the need for her to flee the scene. The scene wasn’t working. I was cutting back to close-ups of her after each event and holding the first 2 for a beat (A moment in the rhythm of the story or the thoughts of the character. That’s a beat.) so there’d be the noise then a shot of her for a beat each time. But my goal is to create this compounding sensation of the room coming alive around her all at once so that she feels overwhelmed and needs to get out of there quickly. I needed things to happen faster, not in a speed sense, but in a narrative progression sense, in terms of beats. I needed things to be more concise.

I kept the first hold after the false alarm of the bottle rolling on the floor, and took out the second so that she acknowledges the knocking at the door, and then she acknowledges the crash of the bottle falling off the dresser, immediately, at the same time as she’s turning to the man in the bed, anticipating it will have woken him up. Then I cut to a reverse angle (remember she’s turned her head) to catch her cringing in fear. And I use the mirror to show the man waking up in that same shot because it’s not actually necessary that we cut away to him. The audience will be anticipating him waking up just like Nemu when we see the bottle crash.

So she almost doesn’t have time to think through those beats. Things start happening so fast she struggles to keep up. That’s what I wanted to convey. 2 quick shots to convey the pay-off for the scene. It’s great what you can do with film. Then she flees with the ring.

All of this may change when I get into the edit for any number of reasons: time constraints, technical or practical reasons, or it just doesn’t play on screen, which is always a possibility. The point of telling you about this snag, is this process of storyboarding, in allowing them to be just chicken scratch means I can go and test things very quickly.

Which leads me to the second big thing that happened while I was doing this. After reverting to my old drawing habits to work faster, I started reverting to my comfort zone: Writing. What I wasn’t able to draw or to make sure I remember it when I go to animate I jotted down little notes. And towards the end, I was entirely ignoring drawing all together and just planning the scene out in writing.

I work faster in writing. So it makes more sense for me to use that as a way to visualize the movie, and that’s exactly what I did when I wrote the script to begin with. Coming from that background, as a writer, if we can’t clearly visualize the movie after reading the script, to me, that means it wasn’t written well. My first instinct is to refine the script, not make storyboards. Writing is the tool that allows me to visualize the film the most clearly. It’s something I’m very familiar with and I trust my writing skills far more than I do my drawing ability.

A lot of that is simply that I need to learn to draw. Storyboards, even chicken scratch ones, are new territory for me. Like any other tool, storyboards are something we have to learn how to use properly, for it to be any use.

I follow a lot of comic artists online that often prefer to jump straight into sketching out panels, and when they think about script writing, that’s a challenge for them, because they’re not as experienced with writing as they are with drawing. For me it’s the other way around.

And I don’t think there’s a clear delineation of what a storyboard needs to be either. These tools are interchangeable and we can use writing, boarding, whatever to get the understanding of what the movie is going to be. These storyboards from Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Lifeboat’ (1944) are a good example. A fantastic movie by the way.

Storyboarding is messy. What matters is figuring out what the film needs to do to tell the story.

Anyway, this was a long post for what took me all of maybe an hour or two to do. So do I believe in storyboards? Well I’m getting better at using them. While I still fallback on writing when I’m in a tough spot, I’m getting better and better at drawing, and with practice this will become a more and more useful tool to rely on.

I believe in working out the story. I use a lot of tools to do that. Storyboarding is just one of them.

Links mentioned in this post:
Alfred Hitchcock Storyboard Gallery
Glenn Keane Animating a Dancer
Alex Slover

P.S. I’ve included the first page of the script that corresponds to the scene I talked about here: Nemusidian Cruise Ship Page 1

What do you think of storyboarding? Are you more comfortable writing or drawing or something else? What tools do you use to work out the story? Tell me in the comments below.