WarLord's WarBlog

Production

The Magic Camera

by on Mar.20, 2013, under Production

The “Magic Camera” is not a joke… it’s not a hope… it’s not a failure to work hard but instead it is a tool like any other when used properly eliminates the need to do those pesky everyday animations and motions that when done poorly kills the scene and loses focus.

Where is this application? Is it open source? Where do I get it? Well… if you are an animator then you already have it. The camera system that comes with your flavor of 3D software can and “WILL” be your magic camera and best friend. It will step you around minor and in some cases major animation obstacles with uncanny ease.  All it requires is a deft touch. Don’t let the “deft touch” thing scare you either… because all you have to do is not overuse it or abuse it and you find yourself completing scenes you used to loathe and possibly even enjoying it along the way.

More than anything what I’m talking about is something we all know about but tend to forget in the animation stage… camera cuts. That’s right… simple little camera cuts.

In my world some of the hardest animations to key frame (thank God for mocap in most cases) are everyday things… and in particular… setting down at a desk or table. Then there is picking up a pen and possibly a drinking motion or opening a door and walking through it. Some animators can do these in their sleep but I’m not one of them and poorly animated versions of these motions can lead to disaster in terms of viewer focus and quality of the production. I used to hate seeing these everyday motions in the scripts I would be get but everyday motions are what fleshes out an animation and makes it fuller unless you are a minimalist.

The Magic Camera has saved my butt more times than I can say and all it really takes is a common sense approach to the camera angle when setting up the cut shot.

Example:

  • A man gets up from the kitchen table…
  • grabs his keys and coat…
  • walks out the door…
  • gets in the car and drives off.

For some of us the inclination to show this entire sequence of events IN FULL is too strong to resist. Some of us don’t consider an alternative and by animating the entire action we actually pushed ourselves off an animation cliff. Some of you reading this are already thinking of animating the entire sequence, you aren’t alone until you get a little more time under your belt. Most of us fall prey to this tendency.

I’ll tell you how I’d break this sequence down and this is just my method… there are many ways to accomplish the same thing but in a nutshell we are going to turn our camera into a Magic Camera and let it do the heavy lifting with the implying of an action rather than actually animating the action.

Getting up from a table can be as problematic as sitting down. Its a difficult job to do it smoothly. Curves in the timeline help but the more key frames we add the more convoluted it can become if those key frames aren’t managed. Part of that management is when to key frame it and when to camera cut and imply the action instead of showing it.

Wide View:
Man at table

Closeup:
Usually from the waist up showing the man straightening up… a few seconds of him going from a slightly seated position to slightly standing with a tight frame for the shot. Linked to the camera for smoothness of movement. All I have to do now is animate a few seconds of a partial motion. Camera framing makes or breaks it. We are at the precipice of the cliff but haven’t stepped off.

Wide View or Medium:
Man walking toward door… in this case to exterior door so we don’t have to do any more interior shots if possible. We backed away further from that animation cliff and we can use this as an opportunity for an “establishing” shot showing our door, wall, table, key rack or whatever is called for.

Closeup:
Hand reaching for keys on wall or door side table or whatever. Do NOT animate picking up the keys… that’s over the edge of the cliff at terminal velocity for most of us even with a provided motion.

Closeup:
Hand/arm reaching for coat hanging on coat rack or laying on a table. We are now getting comfortably away from the cliff edge and are starting to enjoy the view. This ain’t so bad after all!

Wide or Medium:
Man walking through open door framed in a manner that hides the door opening side of the body and arm. Shield it from view and leave it alone. You have just ordered your favorite adult beverage and starting to relax. The cliff isn’t even in site anymore.

Closeup:
The car door opening. Notice I said nothing about the character opening the car door. Use camera angle even an interior view if necessary to shield the hand and that portion of the door. This way you only have to make a little arm movement to look like they are closing the door without attachment to the door and that is only if you can’t mask it entirely with the camera angle. We may have just looked up from our comfortable position and glimpsed a view of the cliff… but we didn’t advance towards it.

What do we have left to do? Leaving… kiss my butt we don’t even have to think about that… wide… medium… close…. a shot of the car leaving, backing out, going down the street… whatever your preference is and you are done!

The Magic Camera just saved our butt. Machinima tools still lack fluid animation and anything we can do to eliminate animating it at all will be one less problem to contend with. Keep it simple… real simple.

Now write or interpret that freaking script like you CAN instead of “OMG… how will I do this!.

 

 

 

 

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Managing Multiple Projects/Contracts

by on Feb.06, 2013, under Production

I’ve been asked several times how I manage multiple projects along with how many projects I was comfortable taking on at one time. This is relative to the project as some take longer than others but in my own case I usually have between 4 and 7 projects going on with various deadlines and I try never to have multiple deadlines scheduled for the same week if possible. One reason for not front loading deadlines in the same week is that revisions are a fact of life so there needs to be time for them as well. Even with your best work the direction can change requiring a revision and quite possibly a major revamp.

Those revisions can pay well but what about the next job in line? Can you still deliver on time? You HAVE to deliver on time… that is not an option in this business.

I usually add a minimum cushion of 25% and in some cases as much as 50% but doubling the time is not practical on a lot of projects and will severely limit income potential. The minimum 25% cushion allows me to farm out what I can to competent and in some cases better freelancers than me while giving me time to jump into other projects on the deployment schedule.

But… I’ve NEVER done that before!

Yeah well… guess what… neither have I in a lot of cases. That is what freelancing is all about. You will constantly be tasked with projects you have never attempted before. Asked to create 3D models you never even thought about creating or help with script treatments and many other facets of a project. Replace the “Can I do it?” attitude with a “Got to do it” attitude and you may find the task easier.

If you constantly stress over deadlines then I’d have to guess that freelance is going to be tough on you or you aren’t scheduling it properly. I hate to turn down work and will burn the midnight oil to keep from doing so but the fact is you will have to turn down work eventually. You just have to be careful how you do it and over time you will learn which clients will tolerate it. Yes… you’ll probably lose a few clients along the way but you will lose them anyway if you blow deadlines and if you do it with high profile contracting studios then your reputation will suffer too.

When you first start managing multiple contracts you will usually have a little experience under your belt as to how long it takes you to do something. If you have no idea then its time to get out a stopwatch or clock that you can time some test projects with. Do a wide variety of test projects to get a good measurement. Try single and multiple task projects and throw in an “emergency request” or two to see how well you can work on two projects with close deadlines.

Mind you I’m not advocating scheduling deadlines that close but you may be given opportunities to earn way above the standard for an emergency project that needs to be rescued from a failed deadline or a change in direction with minimal time left. This will give you an opportunity to see if you can actually meet both deadlines on the same day or close to the same day when one project wasn’t even on the deployment schedule.

Don’t wuss out on these tests either. Make them a good test of your ability. If you don’t succeed only you will know and can take steps to do better. It’s also good to discover your limits because if you continually overstate your ability to accomplish a task then I seriously doubt you will be kept in the employment loop much longer.

Deployment Timeline is Critical

I have been very fortunate to serve as project, timeline or deployment manager on many projects in the past and this experience helps me to understand some of the difficulties encountered by other freelancers.

As a Project Manager I am very intolerant of missed deadlines. If you were sick then you better be very sick or turn it over to someone else on the team. If I have to be up till 5:00am to meet a deadline because the assigned freelancer couldn’t perform then you can imagine I’m not a happy camper. Who would be if they are supervising or paying someone to do a job and its not done?

You certainly have to be organized and I keep a flow board of timelines so I can see what is coming up and when. A quick glance at the flow board tells me who is doing what and at what point they should be at within that project including my own projects and pending deliveries or deployments. This flow board is nothing more than a timeline on a calendar. You can get them at your local office supply or use a whiteboard.

In our case we use computerized and manual methods to keep track. The flow board is for my benefit as a manager but it also helps when you are a cog in the machine as the machine needs to be running as your delivery time is very important for the next step in production. If you have a problem being a cog in the machine then again… freelancing will be very difficult for you.

Who’s Your Boss? Everyone!

As a freelancer I answer to everyone at the firm that employs me. This is not what is required in most cases but just how I handle myself. A freelancer needs to be informed and who will know the comings and goings that you are not privy to? The people in the trenches with you… that’s who! By treating everyone at your employer’s firm with respect you will find yourself given more information that is vital to keeping track of production and being on time.

If a problem is popping up in some department or two creative geniuses aren’t getting along then its nice to be alerted to the problem instead of stumbling into it or wondering why things are not going smoothly. Get along with everyone in the project and you will be included more than excluded which makes the job much easier.

More Skill… More Time Taken???

You would think that as your skill improves you would shave off time to accomplish things but in reality you will find yourself using those skills to further enhance the project which can actually take more time instead of less.

You just learned a great new technique for adding greebles to break up flat surfaces and hard lines. You want to use this technique whenever possible but it will add more time to accomplish the task and you need to be aware of this and schedule for it. Don’t assume just because you’re getting better it’s going to get easier!  Oh no… in fact… every technique adds another layer of work so schedule for that contingency.

In Conclusion

I bet you thought I was never going to get here with this ramble but hang in there… it’s all relevant to the process.

  1. Keep a record of everything done with the creation and deployment of a project. Write it down somewhere and make a backup of what you keep online or on your pc.
  2. Use a calendar to assign people and teams to a task with a proper deadline.
  3. Add “wiggle room”. Pad your estimate as discussed earlier. If you think it will take 5 hours to accomplish a task then add 25% more time to it.
  4. Stay in touch with all managers, directors (especially unit directors as they have a lot of influence) and creative supervisors. Limiting surprises will limit your chances of failing to meet an objective.
  5. Be prepared for revisions. That 25% padding will look real good to you during this time.
  6. Time yourself to get a grip on what you can accomplish and how long it will take.
  7. Be firm but fair with any freelancer you farm out work to. Give them a firm deadline and outline the consequences of missing that deadline.
  8. Never schedule multiple deadlines on the same day or week if at all possible.

I was nervous the first time I started working with multiple deadlines and I think a lot of us are. We just have to focus, document, prepare and plan. Don’t cut corners. Consider it the ultimate evil to miss a deadline. Give yourself plenty of time… pad that estimate just make sure you don’t over charge your client. Padding the time doesn’t mean padding the bill!

 

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Case of the Giant Rat aka Losing Focus

by on Jan.16, 2013, under Production

You are in the midst of your premiere… family, friends and possibly a few not so friendly folks are in attendance. The  movie starts. Everything is going great then… Boom…there IT is.

Later you are watching another movie. Its great… nice story, great visuals then BOOM! There it is… that rat in the corner is the size of a fire hydrant (I’m not from New York City so maybe they do grow to that size). In another scene a car takes up 2 stories of windows on the passing buildings. Is it really that big or the buildings are built for a smaller version of humanity? The door behind the character is too small or way way too large and you can’t blame perspective because the character is standing directly in front of the improperly scaled door.

It GLARES out at you now and yes… it is mocking you and the fact that you just didn’t pay attention. Its generally a small thing… a simple thing that we are all aware of but its still there because we missed it.

I hate being a victim of improper scale. I find myself focusing on the scale problem instead of the story. Maybe this is because I’m oriented towards that but then a lot of machinimist are oriented the same way. We missed the fact that a human being can’t possibly fit into a car too small or see over the dash of a car too large.

This all leads to a loss of continuity… which is a term you really need to know if you don’t already. Losing continuity in a film means losing focus… at least that is my perception. The reason we make films… the reason scenes exist at all is to get a point across. When focus on that point is lost… even temporarily… then the mood is lost to some degree and in many cases to a degree that the scene passes without the viewer seeing the information that was intended for them.

Heaven forbid if the lost focus was during a time when plot holes were being filled or a setup for a future scene! Considering the short length of a lot of machinima productions… that lost focus even for a few seconds can add up to a disconnect for the viewer. Enough disconnect and we lose that viewer. Game over.

Its not just scale… that is an easy example and often overlooked. There are many opportunities to go wrong but at least we can track scale, timing, footage quality, audio levels and other factors if we use a checklist.

There is a lot to keep up with in production so make that checklist and follow it. No shortcuts! No easy button! Listen to Grandma. Do the job right or don’t do it at all. No one is in this field to lose viewers… in fact… I think the whole point is to gain as many viewers as possible.

So… no more giant rats.

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