Archive for the ‘Animation Production Process’ Category

The Hangover

December 16, 2015


The worst hangover ever…


Family Pants’ The Holiday Hedging Horror

January 9, 2011

What I did Over Christmas Break… and then some:
Why I finished a new Family Pants Christmas cartoon of mayhem of course!  Unfortunately, I missed Christmas, New Years’ and even Three Kings Day to unveil it!  So better late than never, I present Family Pants’ The Holiday Hedging Horror!

The Back Story or Who Needs Outsourcing in This Economy?
The “Holiday Hedging Horror” was written back in ’08 when the price of gas jumped through the roof.  I myself ran out of gas to finish the cartoon.

Plus I’ve been busy with my political cartoon, “Angie” about smaller government:

and a single panel gag cartoon called “Oxymoron” about… well strippers, nipples and silliness hoping to be the world’s first Twit-Toonist:

Panel cartoons and comic strips provide something to show for it with less than 1-2 hours of work.  Plus I could “work” on it while going for a walk or Christmas shopping as ideas that pop into your head only need a moment or two to jot down.

But with animation, you need to be shackled to your desk for non-stop work.  I thought there has to be a way to make cartoons faster.  Many productions achieve this by outsourcing labor.  Or “insourcing” by taking advantage of cheap slave labor we call “interns”.  In our current economy, and for some time now, economics, or the bottom line, has driven our industry over innovation or smarter thinking and planning. But it was innovation which grew America into a world power, not cheap labor!

So one day after rising gasoline prices yet again, I became motivated to finish this gag.  After watching some Gerald McBoing Boing and a great cartoon from Cartoon Brew called “Depth Study” by Terry Toons, I thought a simpler Family Pants design would ease my work load.

I was also motivated by Mondo Media’s Dick Figures and  Their sloppy and loose style lent itself to be animated quickly yet actually very well.  And it’s “new”!  (So many art directors claim the “50’s” style is lost on kids who don’t know what era we’re referencing.  So what if it’s lost?  If it’s funny and in budget, great!  And if people who do know art appreciate it, all the better.  Why “bad” art is “in” I’ll never know.  Perhaps non-artists who produce cartoons feel less inadequate if the style is not far from their own limited ability?)

The original cartoon from 2008 was 80% done before I abandoned it.  Here is as far as I’ve gotten before abandonment.

Here’s a still of the new style again.  Rather than worry about making the line smooth, I kept the line rough.  And like Terry Toon’s  Tom Terrific, I didn’t even opaque the character, letting his lines bleed through other lines.  The innovation being better design… (hopefully anyway…)

In addition to the simpler style, I completely re-story boarded the cartoon using cuts to work around action, still telling the story but without animating everything.  The innovation being better thinking and planning the cartoon.  Here are the rough boards I worked off of.  Compare this to the original which has no cutting around action.

With thumbnails in hand, I roughed in the cartoon directly into Flash using a new Wacom tablet called the Bamboo Fun.  Here are a few stills.

I added my dialog tracks to the Flash time-line which I recorded using a Mini Disk recorder.  I can’t be sure, but I believe I hear some static on the recording.  Perhaps it’s that the equipment is old?  Or did I mess up the recording somehow?

I edited the audio tracks in the Flash time-line and animated to them, following the roughs.  Then I exported a SWF and imported it into Premiere.  In Premiere I added sound effects.  I could have edited audio in Flash’s time-line just as easy. Premiere is pretty versatile, but not faster to move around in than Flash.  It is however far more technically superior.  Flash audio editing is good for web stuff, but Premiere can generate audio as professional as you can imagine.

Flash’s Pain in the Butt Export
Since Flash 4, Adobe hasn’t figured out how to render out true QuickTimes from Flash.  Flash spits out a SWF, then “screen records” it into a QuickTime.  If your machine has balls, it could come out right.  However, unless you have a NORAD diesel machine, your record could skip frames or have artifacting.

The work around is to export a PNG sequence, then open the sequence in QuickTime Pro to render out a true QuickTime.  Even for a 2 minute cartoon, this could take a while.  As I’m the client here, I’m not bound to make nit-picky “tweaks”.  Imagine a horde of client changes?  Phew!

Instead I imported the SWF into Premiere to render from.  Technically, 20 guys could email me each 60 second SWFs for me to assemble end to end and render out a full blown HD quality QuickTime.  I’ve successfully done this using QuickTime Pro 4 and Flash 4 for Family Pants’ “Hole in ‘Da Roof!”.  But today, I need a far more expensive program to do the same thing.

At least with Premiere, you can do some real sound editing.

All in told, I think the 2 minute cartoon would have taken 3-4 days if I worked 8 hours/day right through.  (In addition to a busy holiday and 2 comic strips, I’ve also been sick!   I know… excuses, excuses…)

My Mom’s Nativity Set vs. Han Solo:
My Mom’s Nativity set set always had jungle animals in it.  I guess as the years went by, she added more animals to the mix she acquired along the way.  Many of them were in different product branding styles and proportions, perhaps from old toys.  Quite a strange mix to an outsider.  Long before “The Lion King”, my Mom said it was all the earth’s animals bowing down to Baby Jesus.  So when I drew Blanche’s Nativity set, of course I added an elephant, 2 giraffes and a lion without thinking.  When I was done, my wife asked, “What are they doing there?  Jesus was born in a manger!”  And then it dawned on me how silly it was.  I had to keep it.

Also, I remember getting yelled at not to play with the figures as my Han Solo action figure ran past Joseph and the sheep near the tree.  Han was of course on some adventure climbing a giant Christmas tree with lights and garland.  Perhaps on some tropical Wookie forest planet… that celebrated Christmas for some reason.  But the one thing you could never mess with was the Baby Jesus.  “Be careful of my Baby Jesus!” Ma would yell from the kitchen upon hearing some jingly thrashing about the tree and what sounded like a faint humming of the “Imperial March”.  Of course in the Family Pants universe, Frank would always unwittingly mess with Blanche’s Baby Jesus!

And one last bit of anatomical perfection…

Hope you enjoy!  At least until next year…


The New ‘ol Family Pants Animation Production Pyramid

February 9, 2009

A couple of years ago I posted a step by step animation process, which I used to make some Family Pants cartoons.  I worked with older programs, Flash 4 on G3 Mac G3, and over the years I’ve been forced to finally upgrade.

In doing so, many of the tricks that worked then, now do not.  So here’s a new process.  There’s some repeat from the older process but lots of new stuff.

First off, lots of animation producers and clients are under the impression that Flash is a magic program that could cut animation costs because… it’s Flash!  And they’ll mistakenly think 11th hour corrections and poor designs or staging are just a push of a button to fix because it’s on a computer!

The key to animation and cartooning can be summed up in this simple drawing.  You get this, you’re a professional.
Preston Blair Staging
Preston Blair Staging 2 Cartooning is not about how well you draw, it’s about how well you think.  Staging is about composing your idea in a clear easy to read manner.  All communication, especially humor, requires clarity.  No matter how brilliant your idea, if it is not clear, no one will “get” the joke.  So if there’s a magic word, it’s not flash, but staging.  With good staging, people will laugh or cry or what ever you’ve intended them to do.  For me, I’m in the cartoons-are-silly-and-funny camp, so I focus on that emotion.

If it’s not yelling “Flash!” in a meeting, people use the term “limited animation” as if just saying this saves budgets.  You have to know what limited animation is and faithfully practice it to reap its benefits.  Limited animation is planned animation.  it’s like “Name that Tune” but where you tell the story with fewest pictures possible.  If it’s done well, nobody knows your cheating.  If it’s done poorly, especially to the animator or cartoonist, it’ll stand out as a mistake.  What is animated must be staged in a way to save the cartoonist or animator’s time animating it.  This keeps costs down.

Staying on budget in a cartoon production requires planning.  Plan your story.  Plan your staging.  Plan your designs.  Each subsequent step of this process builds on the previous step, little by little improving the staging and design.  If an idea does not improve the staging or design from it’s previous step, it should be discarded.  This is where creative and executive heads clash!

If you’ve never trained in art, you will not understand staging and design.  Sometimes an executive’s idea does not build on the previous step, rather complicate design and staging, which complicates the idea, which drives artists to go back clarify the idea again, which causes the budget to go up.  Then artist’s complain on their blogs quietly.  Or artist’s will reprimand the executives directly, coming across as insubordinate farts trying to squash the ideas of the guys actually paying for it!

Following structure can hopefully allow both groups to meet in the middle and make something that breaks creative ground without breaking the bank.

(Note, I may preach a good game, but I find I can’t always follow it.  My biggest animation problems stemmed from not planning the staging thoroughly and having to go back to re-do what I rushed over.  Or I’m forced to labor over a simple sequence that could have been animated more efficiently with alternate staging or adding a couple of cuts to jump around action.  So I’m writing this process for my own benefit as well.  Perhaps if I write it out, I’ll actually follow it!)

The 8 Step Animation Process.
(Using Post-Its, Sharpies, Flash 8 or 9, Quick Time Pro or After Effects 7 and Pro Tools.)

Animation Production Pyramid

The pyramid shows the work flow going from bottom to top.  Why upside down and a pyramid?  The further you go in production, the less room you have to move.  The harder it is to turn back and make corrections.  Generally, the animatic is the point of no return.  From the animatic onward, a production is a matter of “connecting the dots”.

On the right side of the pyramid are the creatives, consisting of the director, assistant director and crew.  On the left side are the executives, consisting of the producers and client, if there is one.  The client and executive producers are equal in power to the director as is the producer to the assistant director.  The crew, being creative, follow the lead of the director and assistant director and hence are on the right side with them.  (For more information on the importance of the balance of power and what a producer is suppose to do anyway, read this.)

Step 1.  Script:
Some cartoonists feel that a cartoon being a visual medium needs to be “scripted” visually by drawing storyboards first.  The history of storyboards for animation was for building a dialog-less story, which was mostly a series of related gags as seen in the early days of animation.  For example, say a Mickey visits the “farm”.  Cartoonists would dream up a dozen farm related gags.  Characters didn’t talk, so writing descriptions of his actions seemed silly.  By drawing a story board on removable “post-its” tacked on a wall, like a kind of editable comic strip, gags could be combined, re-worked and re-organized.  It was a perfect system for that type of cartoon.

However, I’ve found it is faster to write then draw.  To change a script that reads “100 hippos dance” to “100 monkeys dance” takes seconds.  To do the same visually, wouldn’t.  Plus it allows you to focus on the story structure and not get hung up on drawing a nice picture.  Sometimes it’s hard to let go of a good looking picture even though it hinders the story.

Writing for animation is different than writing in general.  Care must be given not to write scenes too complex for your budget.  The script can use devices or cheats like “telling” rather than “doing”.  Actions could happen off camera, letting the sound track do the work rather than the drawings.  Sometimes you can set up action through dialog, then just jump to the end result.  Say a character shows up in the usual location wearing swim shorts, zinc oxide on the nose and holding water skis.  He’ll tell the cast he plans on going water skiing later.  He leaves, then we dissolve to the same location some time later.  A cast member says, “Hey, I wonder how Larry’s water skiing went?”  Then enters Larry in a body cast, ready to tell us what happened.

One of my favorite shows, “Seinfeld” presents another great example.  In one episode George tells Jerry, Kramer and Elaine in the coffee shop about wrestling a beached whale, to perpetuate his lie to his girlfriend that he is a marine biologist.  During the struggle, he pulls a golf ball Kramer is responsible for hitting into the ocean earlier in the episode, from the whale’s blowhole.  In a flash back, George walks into the ocean.  We never see the whale or his wrestling with it.  Rather, the story is told to us.  This type of writing saves budget costs.  (I can’t imagine how much a prop whale would cost!)

These cheats are the practice of real-life sitcoms and stage plays.  It was even the practice of Shakespeare’s Global theater, where actors even described their surroundings, saving money and time building a set that could have showed it.

These cheats could also be used similarly for animation.  Now don’t get too carried away with telling over showing.  If you do, why bother making a cartoon anyway?  These are just examples to help reduce work where and when you need to.  You want to draw what would be fun to draw and leave the boring stuff for the cheats.  I hate to spend time with eye blinks when I could be drawing good banana peel slippage!

I use small post-its when scripting a story.  I write story events and plot points separately on post-its, sometimes drawing images on them.  Then I spread it on a bed or wall and could easily re-organize or swap out pieces to better assemble the story.  Once the idea is laid out, a script is written in a more formal and final form and the post-its are discarded.

Family Pants stories are kind of a long version of a panel cartoon.  Panel cartoons are the basics of humor; set up and punch line.  The set up leads the viewer in one direction while the punch line does the opposite.  The punch line is a surprise or twist that creates a jolt of humor, chuckle or laugh.  So think of it as turning right, turning right, turning right, BAM, turn left!  Sometimes the viewer can see that left turn coming.  But anticipation of the surprise can be a good thing, causing the viewer to smile just before you get there.  It’s a delicate balance though, as you don’t want them guessing the punch line too soon.  Thus the old adage, humor involves timing.

To stretch an idea into a cartoon longer than a sentence, you expand on the formula.  I first think up a punch line or ending gag where Frank is in a ridiculous situation, then I figure out the set up or how he got there.  Hopefully the journey is a fun ride for the viewer.

Some prefer immature gross out humor and others more sophisticated socially embarrassing humor.  Whether it’s Jack Tripper getting himself in a ridiculous situation of having 2 dates the same evening, while accidentally handcuffed to Chrissy, or Lucy Ricardo wearing a long putty nose as a disguise and setting fire to it or Ben Stiller getting his penis caught in his zipper, whatever your preference or target audience, humor comes to imagination and timing.

Step 2. Thumbnails / Shot Storyboard:
Next an artist creates small rough drawings, illustrating the story and building off the well planned story.  These thumbnails serve as production preparation.  Unlike live action film making, animation is pre-edited.  So these small thumbnails are to edit the story’s scenes before any animation is actually drawn.  They are drawn quickly and roughly focusing on basic staging not detail.  Lots of guys call these kind of thumbnails, “shot storyboards”.

The goal here is to think of economy and to optimize work, building off the script’s well planned and efficient story telling.  Imagine getting the script, “Fred gets a bowling ball from the closet.”  A directors can kill a budget with a simple action like this.  They’d show Fred opening a closet toward us, stepping out of the way to reveal 1,000 gags in the closet; a pterodactyl umbrella and such, then grab the bowling ball on the top shelf causing every one of the 1,000 items tumbling out toward us, in perspective, and finally having the bowling ball hit Fred in the head.  A simple act, that might be funny, but has nothing to do with the story other than getting the ball.

Hanna and Barbara would have simplified this to; Fred walking left, asking Wilma, “Where’s my bowling ball?”  Cut to Wilma sitting in chair, we only see her neck up, “In the closet Fred.”  We hear a door opening off camera.  Cut to Fred’s butt sticking out from behind a closet door with some rummaging sounds.  “I can’t find it!  There’s too much stuff in here!”  Cut back to Wilma, “Try the top shelf dear… Fred look out!”  A crash off screen, the camera shakes and Wilma’s eyes close.  Cut back to a pile of stuff in front of a damaged closet door.  Fred’s head pops up from the wreckage, “Wilma, one of these days, you have got to clean out this closet!”  Then the bowling ball rolls off the top shelf onto his head with a “klunk!”

Plan how the characters need to stand to carry out their function.  Perhaps a different angle could better clarify what they’re doing or perhaps you and cut around the action simplifying animation.  Remember you’re building off the economic planning of the script, but in this stage, art trumps the script.  So if dialog or scene details need to change slightly to better clarify an idea, do so.

I use standard square post-its again and cut the lower third off it to create 3X5 dimensions. I could use that lower space to write a note if need be.  Again, post-its allow for tacking the drawings to a wall or laying them on a bed for an easy overall view.  I could re-arrange shots, add shots and remove shots easily.  This helps editing and development of the cartoon.  I prefer drawing with a black Sharpie marker.  This way, I can’t get caught up in details because the marker point is too thick to noodle detail.  I also can’t get caught up in erasing and laboring over a drawing since Sharpie ink is as permanent as Stonehenge.  By keeping it down and dirty, I can’t get attached to my drawings, and could make objective decisions on timing and staging.

Finally, when the artist has something the director likes, each square is numbered chronologically in pencil, just in case you need to change the number.  The script is updated with any minor dialog or scene detail corrections.  The post-its are stuck to the right side margin of the script, so you can read along following the drawings.  And just in case you drop the whole thing down the stairs, the number is also written on script under post it to re-assemble it while cursing the staircase.

Step 3a. Dialog:
Simultaneously with design production, voice talent is recorded by a sound engineer using a standard sound editing program like Pro Tools.  Actors are directed by the director and follow the script and thumbnails.  Final takes are immediately selected and numbered numerically, 0001.aif, 0002.aif etc., in chronological order.  Overlapping dialog tracks, say of two guys talking at the same time, are numbered 0003a.aif and 0003b.aif so they line up by placing them flush on top of each other in a time line.  The sound engineer keeps hi res copies at 44.1kHz stereo or better, while lo res copies at 22.05kHz mono are sent for the Flash files.  The lo quality sound keeps the flash file size down and is less likely to crash while being worked on.

In the old days, the sound engineer’s assistant would “track read” the dialog tracks, determining the length of the track and mapping it out phonetically.  The assistant director would translate those numbers onto an X-sheet for the animators to follow for lip syncing and animation.  But with Flash, you can import the sound and instantly see it’s length graphically in the time line.  Animators can scrub over the sound to hear it phonetically to animate to.  So thanks to Flash, we can skip track reading!

With big budgets, sound engineers have their own foley artists, guys who custom make sound effects to the animation.  With smaller budgets, sound engineers pull ready made sound effects off CDs.  The problem with this is that not all the “blams” and “zips” match the action the animators created.  This leaves long hours “frankenstein-ing” sound together to match the action.  It rarely works the way you want it to.  And if you’re a really small studio, perhaps a one man band, you’d rather spend time animating than fussing over editing a sound effect.

I’ve found you don’t need sound f/x for everything.  Sometimes quiet is nice.  I remember off hand in 101 Dalmatians dogs running and jumping about without a single thump on the floor or jingling of dog tags.  Fewer sounds obviously makes sound production easier.

Also, I’ve found it easier to do a little post-production during pre-production by putting together the sound effects during this stage.  Perhaps a character is to jump in a speed boat and zoom off.  Simple enough for post production, but try hard as you can, there just wasn’t a good speed boat f/x on your sound effect CDs.  Now what?  The animation is already done, you’d hate to re-do that.  So you’re stuck pitch shifting a lawn mower sound to get it right.  But it never sounds right.

You do, however, find a good squeaky door knob sound and a good “ker-plunk” water splash.  If you put those together you get a funny row boat sound.  If you knew this before design and animation, you would have changed “speed boat” to “row boat” in the script, changed that little rough thumbnail in your shot board, that you’re not married to since you drew it roughly and quickly, then tell your designers to design accordingly.

So to catch possible post production problems like this, you’ll need to work in a more linear fashion, possibly telling the designers to hold off a day or two to make sure the sound f/x will fit the story accordingly.  Smaller productions usually work more linear anyway, so this is not much of a stretch and bigger productions usually have the budget to afford foley artists in the first place for custom speed boat sounds.  The lesson here is to know your budget before choosing to have your designers jump ahead or wait until the sound engineers play their sound libraries for you.

If you are a really small production, without a sound studio, you can record dialog using a microphone and portable recording device.  I use this mic and a mini disc recorder.  I’ve also used a regular old camcorder to record audio.  (I pull the video into iMovie, ditch the video and keep the audio.)

But you could use other solutions, like an USB microphone to record high quality sounds directly into your computer.  You could get a portable device which records directly to a hard drive for easy file transfer to your computer.  And for iPod nut jobs, there’s an attachment for the iPod that allows you to record directly onto it.  Whatever your means, I’d recommend  something portable enough to record high quality dialog and in the field sound effects, like at your uncle’s yachting club for that speed boat sound.

If you record dialog, I’ve found the two best places are in your car and or bedroom.  The car is quiet and muffled.  It gives a good bass tone.  Although it’s too cramped for me as I need to stand to belt out Frank’s lines.  The bedroom room with bed, pillows and rugs are good to muffle sounds.  Plus there’s plenty of room to jump around.  I’ve preferred the tin sound and slight echo of a real room to the deep bass of a sound booth like car interior.  It sounds louder due to a more “treble” feeling.  But that’s just me.  Find what’s right for you.

Step 3b. Design:
Simultaneously with dialog recording, illustrators and cartoonists design characters and props working off the script and thumbnails.  Even for shows with an established design, new characters or scenes may appear and need to be designed.  Designers need to know about animation, so as not to create elements that are too difficult to animate for the budget.  They build off the previous efficiency of the thumbnail and script stages.

Watch some Underdog cartoons or their rival Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons and you’ll see simple in-betweens from pose to pose.  The characters are great looking, yet so simple and easy to draw.  Again, there’s a balance.  You don’t want an easy to produce cartoon that looks like it was drawn by someone’s foot.

I’ve started Family Pants with a thick black outline, ala the Flintstones, but the more flash animators I meet have no experience with pen and ink.  Lacking that hand touch, they have a hard time drawing a controlled thick and thin quickly.  Usually they would labor over a line, using vector strokes and Bezier pen tools to adjust the line rather than drawing it outright.  This is slower than molasses in winter.

So I’ve slowly adjusted Family Pants to be “sans-lines”.  I rough action out in one layer, then set that layer to “outline” mode and lock it.  Then I make another layer under it and “paint” in blocks of color of the characters, referencing the outlined image above.  Black line is added on top of the block of color to further define the image.  Then I delete the above layer.  This process lumps  cleaned up and finished colored animation into one step.  Flash’s brush tool is a little “crunchy” which fortunately plays into this design.  A fine welcome to the havoc it wreaked replicating the Flintstone line before.

I prefer backgrounds and layout to be simple and almost vaudevillian to clarify the jokes.  Detail may look great in an art gallery, but not in joke telling.  For example, take a gander at this great art, so beautiful it could hang in a museum, but too complex for simple gag.  Simpler design saves production time as well as communicates easily.

I also prefer to do all the special effects via Flash, using imagination to create an effect, rather than special effects software.  So my explosions look drawn, rather than real.  It keeps my budget low as well as my process simpler.

Designers design exactly what you need if working off thumbnails.  If for example, there was a one-shot coffee barrister character behind a counter, the designer would see from the thumbnails that he doesn’t have to concern himself with what the legs of the character look like.  This saves time.  Likewise, there’s no reason to design aspects of the coffee house, say what the storage room looks like, if that part is never actually seen in the final cartoon.  The resulting designs could be used in the style guide bible but also directly as completed art in the production.

Also, the designed characters work within the narrative.  You won’t end up with a great design of a character that can’t do what the script requires him to do.  Sounds silly, but imagine a great looking approved style guide of a character with short legs.  Problems arise when the script says, “Harry Hamster crosses his legs in contempt.”  Countless notes come flooding down from producers, “I can’t really tell Harry is crossing his legs.  It’s too small.”  Now what?

The thumbnail storyboards help in breaking up and distribution of the work.  Take all the thumbnail post-its and look for the scenes with the same background.  Those are grouped together in a pile to be drawn in a single flash file named by it’s background description; ie “CoffeeShop.fla”.

In this file, flash’s “scene” feature separates the actual scenes of the cartoon on that particular background.  Using the same flash best utilizes flash’s symbol library.  If you make one change to the coffee shop, every scene with that coffee shop is automatically updated.  You won’t have to keep track of copying and pasting change across several files.  Everything stays consistent.

Each scene within that background flash file is named “000_”, where “000″ is the number of the scene.  Flash appends the name of the flash file to the name of the scene when the scene is exported separately under test scene.  So scene “018_” in flash file “coffee_shop.fla” becomes “018_coffee_shop.swf”.  The description in the name allows you to locate the flash file this SWF came from and most importantly, the number in the name allows all the scenes to fall in chronological order when placed into a folder together.

The character art is designed in a separate Flash file and named accordingly, scenes and numbers are not necessary.

If need be, flash files could be broken into separate flash files.  This would keep the file size down and allow for artists to work simultaneously.  But you have to be cautious.  What’s changed or updated in one needs to happen in the other.  To do so, you could open both libraries, compare each element and copy and paste art from one symbol in one library to the other.  You also have to double check that the update is the same size and location within the symbol of the original.  Other wise everything will be new art, but out of whack on the stage.

This may sound complicated, but to make the next steps fall into place and build off each other, this stuff needs to be organized correctly.

Step 4.  Storyboard:
The storyboard artist tells the story visually, following the rough thumbnails.  He solidifies the characters actions, gestures and staging, still building off the previous stages of script, thumbnails and now design.

Traditionally the storyboards would be redrawn larger and in greater detail by the layout artist.  The layout artist would refine the storyboard art and add tracing paper overlays indicating camera movements and character key positions, showing where they start and end for that scene.  The layout serves as a “blueprint” for the animators, background artists and camera men to follow.  Strict attention is paid ensuring the characters and elements are the correct size and shape and on model according to the designs established earlier.

However, if enough time is given to the storyboard artist he could make a storyboard clean enough that it may be used as the layout.  In some productions, it is done this way to save some time and money.  Either way, work is work.  If a storyboard artist zips through a board, extra time would be needed for layout.  If the storyboard artist is given the time there’s no need for layout.  A 10 hour job will take 10 hours to complete no matter how you look at it.

In this production model the storyboard artist is the layout artist.  He is also a digital storyboard artist working directly on the computer.  Since the designs followed the rough thumbnails, some backgrounds, props and characters may already be finished.  The storyboard artist need only to re-size and position them within their scenes double checking the scene naming convention so upon export, they all fall into chronological order.  Some elements will need to be corrected or drawn from scratch, namely the character art, but every little bit the storyboard artist could avoid doing, saves time.

Some argued designs should follow the storyboard.  That way the designer only designs what you need.  Why would you need to design the basement of a house if it is never seen in your story?  Others ask how would the storyboard artist draw the story board without knowing what anything looks like?  They argue storyboards come first.  This production model follows both.  Rough thumbnails set up the shot and angles, assisting the designers in what to design.  In turn their designs assist the storyboard artist in what to draw.

I don’t like showing anybody the storyboard.  Strangely, I’ve found no one knows how to read a storyboard!  It’s not like reading a comic strip, which many compare a storyboard to.  Storyboards are indications of something else entirely, an animated cartoon not a comic strip.  A gag or idea that works well in a comic strip may not work in a cartoon and visa-versa.  To properly read a storyboard, you need to visualize a finished animated cartoon in your head and from that imagined thing, make decisions.  Lot’s of producers ask for great comic strip corrections, never actually thinking ahead of how the “comic strip” will really be played.  Plus some people read to slow or too fast so the timing in their heads are off.  If I should “present” the storyboard to them, reading it at the pace it is meant to be, sometimes they’ll look at panel three instead of panel one, messing up the timing again as they’ll see the gag before they should have.  And forget showing them x sheets, dope sheets or slugs to understand the timing!  NOBODY on that side of the pyramid understands those.  (More on x sheet and slugs later.)

I prefer to have producers or clients wait to see the animatic.  It best shows the timing of the cartoon the way it was meant to be.  Remember humor is about timing.  Making unnecessary corrections because the guy reading the storyboard is “off” will only add to the budget.

But sometimes the client and producer insist on having a storyboard anyway.  If so, you can take all the exported SWFs of each scene and import them in chronological order into a digital storyboard template.  I made this one. (If you’d like the FLA file to customize for your production, let me know.)

It’s designed to be shown online and only lets you see one panel at a time, guiding viewers correctly through the story and it’s timing.  Through action script it automatically numbers the panels, so if you edit the panel order in the flash time line, you don’t have to renumber them by hand.

If you need a printed copy, open the SWF in a web browser and print each page as you would print anything else you find online.  It seems like a waste of paper to have one panel per page, but having 3 panels per page, you literally need to hire a full timer to cut, paste, tape, xerox panels here and there to scrap book a board together.  With one panel per page, rearranging, editing, and adding frames is much faster and provide winter heating fuel with old storyboards.

Even so, the grunt work to print boards and make copies still adds to production time.  Unfortunately the extra work doesn’t guarantee catching mistakes.  While I’d prefer to have clients and producers to wait to see the animatic, each budget and client is different.  As long as the extra money for the extra time and death of more trees is justified, then so be it.

Step 5.  Slug board/ X-Sheets / Dope Sheets / Digital Timing:
In the old days, the assistant director would add the track reads from the sound engineer (the phonetic mapping and length of each dialog track) to the x-sheet.  He’d then add the timing of actions in between and around each dialog quip.  The end result is one long x-sheet. (Think of it as a paper time line.)  Every animator follows it.  Even the camera man follows it when filming the animator’s work.

Other times, a guy called a slugger would transcribe the same information, dialog track lengths, timing information and even camera moves on the printed storyboard. It’s a little sloppier since you don’t have a beautiful grid to work in.  But slugging is faster than x-sheeting and you don’t have to pay this guy assistant director wages!  A dirty trick, but it does cut budget costs.

For this production model, the lo res dialog tracks are imported into the storyboard flash files.  The assembly is easy since each track was numbered chronologically.  Overlapping dialog is stacked in the flash time line using the numbering, 0003a and 0003b.  You can hear one track or both by turning on that layer’s “eyeball”.  Lo res sound files keeps the flash file size down, so as not to crash often.

Then a slugger or timer adds space or key frames between and around the dialog tracks.  It’s identical to slugging or x-sheeting, only this is digital.  Notes may be added using flash’s frame commenting.  Hand drawn arrows or even hand notes could be added on separate layers just as a slugger would add to a storyboard.

Note that playing real time in flash is not entirely accurate.  In other words, hitting return and letting flash play for 1 second is a little slower than an actual second.  So sluggers and timers will still need a stop watch and an understanding of real animation timing to get the job done right.  This job is not to be underestimated.

Also note that flash’s graphic rendering of sound is slightly inaccurate.  I’ve had a work around but any version of flash above version 5, won’t play nice with this solution.  The good news is that small short scenes distort a short amount.  It could even be unnoticeable.  But if you have a long scene with no cut or scene change, the discrepancy would be very noticeable.

This could really reek havoc with animated music videos or sound driven animations.  Say you pull Led Zeppelin’s “Over the Hills and Far Away” from your CD collection into a flash time line at a low resolution to keep your flash file low in size.  You animate to it, perfectly in sync, and export your video.  You put the original higher resolution audio to the video… and everything is out of sync!  Double check the animation in flash and it’s perfectly in sync!  What the…?!

With Pro Tools you can do a little nip / tuck on the audio to line it up again.  In some cases altering the audio is acceptable.  But in this case, the audio is locked.  So instead you do a little nip / tuck to the video in After Effects or Final Cut Pro.  Either way, this becomes post production work, common to larger budgeted productions.

If you have a very small production, working without After Effects, Final Cut Pro, Pro Tools, foley department or sound studio, you can pull the dialog, home foley’d sound effects or sound effects from CDs into free sound programs like Audacity.  There you do a little mixing, clipping, adding effects or editing a couple of sounds together to get that special “slip and fall down a staircase”.  The final mix and edit happens in flash’s time line.

Mixing sound in flash can be brutal.  Good sounds need to be a 44.1kHz stereo which make your flash files huge and cumbersome.  (I’d opt for 44.1kHz mono.  If it’s good enough for “Born to Run” and every Bugs Bunny cartoon ever made, it’s good enough for me.)  You can adjust the volume of the sounds in Flash to get your final mix.  It’s not the professional way, but sure as hell beats buying $1000 programs to fix flash’s boo boos.

Step 6.  Animatic / 1st Render with Post Production:
Most clients request an animatic to keep tabs on the production.  Traditionally, animatics were filmed copies of the storyboards with limited sound edited in, possibly using stand ins for the actor’s dialog recordings.  This gave the director a glimpse of what the finished cartoon would look like before it’s actually done.  As the name implies, the animatic is like automatic animation.  It’s also called a lieca reel, because it’s like-a-reel.  (I’m not sure of why it’s spelled that way of if in fact that’s the actual explanation to where the name came from.)  Like a cook tasting the batter before the cake is baked, if you don’t know what your looking for, you’re just being unhygienic.  (I’ve heard clients and producers comment upon seeing the animatic, “Yes, but is the final cartoon going to be in black and white?”)

What you’re looking for is an evaluation on where the art is heading and the sense of timing.  While some clients cannot see the finished cartoon through the roughs, the animatic is more clear than scripts, storyboards, x-sheets or slugs.  Its the closest thing to a cartoon than the cartoon itself.  If you have an up hill battle with a particular client, the animatic is the best bet to get your idea across before hitting the point of no return in production.  (More on that later.)

Making the animatic, a compositor exports SWF scenes from the flash files.  (You’ve done this before if you made a printed or digital storyboard.)  All the SWFs fall in chronological order when placed in a folder.  Then a compositor converts the SWFs to quick times.  The sound will be lost, but that’s okay since you’ll need the sound engineers to fix the syncing problem in post production anyway. (Remember, flash is inaccurate with sound. Plus the dialog tracks in the flash files were lo res.  You’d want the better quality dialog tracks the sound engineers kept anyway.)

You may be asking, why not export quick times from flash directly?  Essential to this organizational system is exporting each scene separately.  When you export quick times from flash, it links all the scenes together.  So you’d need to edit the quick times apart afterward.  Plus SWFs are small exports.  A team of animators could email me their SWFs at the end of the day for review.  Quick time or PNG sequence exports would be cumbersome in file size.  And most important of all, exported quick times from flash are actually “recorded” SWFs playing in real time.  So if your computer isn’t fast enough or if you have lots of art, your SWF will play choppy in real time and thus so will your recorded quick time.

Rendering flash SWFs into quick times can be done several ways, each with their own pros and cons.

1) The compositor can use After Effects 7, which could import scene SWFs and render each frame as a quick time.  But this version of After Effects requires the latest Intel macs and operating software.  This is your best bet although I don’t have this software or equipment.  Perhaps this is why Adobe never fixed flash’s time line and export errors, hoping to sell more copies of After Effects?

2) The compositor can import scene SWFs into a Flash time line and export out a PNG sequence, assemble the PNGs into a quick time using Quick Time Pro.  Then assemble all the quick times into one final quick time also using Quick Time Pro.  This is a slow, round-a-bout process, but allows artists to send small SWFs instead of other large exports and saves money on purchasing After Effects.

3) The compositor can import the scene SWFs into a Flash 8 time line and export a quick time directly.  Flash 8 conveniently exports regular quick times, not recorded SWFs.  Then assemble the quick times into one final quick time using Quick Time Pro.  You’ll need the older flash 8 copy and QT Pro.  This is the work around I prefer.

4) (Now this one is a theory, but still exciting enough to mention.) The compositor can import scene SWFs into a Director made application, which renders quick times directly.  Director has always been able to render quick times from SWFs and if the right programmer came along, I believe he could make an application which does so.  (I know one such programmer and am prodding him to do so.)

Which ever process you choose, the compositor hands the final quick time to the sound engineers who’ll pull it into Pro Tools, and using their hi res copies of the dialog, adjust the audio here and there to keep it in sync and high quality.

Smaller productions without post production will have hi res dialog audio in the flash time line and mixed there.  Video must be exported directly from flash with that audio.  This means you must have the original flash files to export video with sound and you won’t have the conveniences of smaller SWF files.  You’ll need a fast computer to render the SWFs well or use an older copy of Flash 8.  Since exporting video from flash lumps all the scenes together, you’ll have to edit those quick times into proper sequence using Quick Time Pro or other video editing software.

When all is exported and edited together, you’ll have an animatic!

Generally, the animatic is the point of no return.  It is the boundary between pre-production and production.  After it’s completion, finishing production is a matter of connecting the dots.  Corrections at this point involve going through steps 1 through 6.  Script changes, design changes and timing changes after the animatic raise the budget.  Which is why I prefer showing script, design and animatic but skipping the story boards.  Story boards and even dialog out of context may give wrong impressions which could create unnecessary corrections.

It is difficult but so important that the client or producers make final decisions, or as close to final now, at this point, to keep the budget under control.

Step 7a.  Animation
Step 7b.  BGs
All that work, cheating tricks and razor accurate decision making and acute organization leads to this moment; animation!  Ironically, from a production point of view, animation is the easiest step in an animated cartoon, provided each step built on top of the previous step, further refining the clarity of staging and design.

The animatic flash files are updated with final back ground art and rough animation of the characters, following the timing instructions in the time line.  It’s good to rough your animation before committing to it.  Remember the motto: SPEED then CLEAN.  Keep it rough to do more thinking than drawing.  Plan the movement out by making some small thumbnails of key poses on a notebook, then draw straight ahead in flash, aiming to hit those marks.  If it works, you’ll finish the art later.

Lots of flash animation is basically a puppet character who “pops” to each key pose.  Animators boil down in-betweens to three poses; anticipation, overshoot and settle.  You can create these three poses by manipulating pieces of the character like a puppet; anticipation is a manipulated key pose 1, over shoot and settle are slightly manipulated key pose 2.  For extra slickness, you have flash “tween” from key pose 1, to the anticipation pose and from overshoot, to settle, to key pose 2.  Within each puppet body part there are several alternate parts; a hand symbol would have 10 frames of different hand positions.  That way the animator could “dial up” a different hand that better suits the key pose.  All of this lets the animator get his work done without drawing a whole lot.

Why would you want your animators to draw less?  To save money, time and to create consistency in production.  Regarding consistency, you could have a guy who draws Fred Flintstone-like sitting next to a guy who draws Manga-like sitting next to a girl who draws Marvel Comics-llke, all working in perfect harmony without any ramp up time, retraining them to draw alike.  Producers could hire who they want, rather than who they need.  (Terrible I know, but hey, that’s business.)

Furthermore, once your designers design the puppet or 2-D rigged characters, a production could lay off most of the designers, since episodic cartoons are 90% reused.  I imagine most 3-D animations offer similar advantages of reuse and consistency while keeping a “tweened” frame by frame slick look to please the eyeballs looking at this stuff.

While rigged 2-D puppets can save time, they also can be limiting.


This image is not a flash 2-D cartoon, but Hanna and Barbara limited animation principles are what 2-D puppet ideas are based on; breaking characters into pieces to reduce what is actually re-drawn.  I remember looking at this drawing of Fred golfing thinking how awkward his pose was.  It looks like the how NOT to draw a character in the Preston Blair animation book.


I’m imagining this artist tried so hard to reuse body parts, head and torso, so as to only draw the limbs to save time, that he forgot to make a good drawing.  Whether or not that was the artist’s true thoughts, I think this image best illustrates the point; reuse can sometimes hinder your production.  Many times I find myself trying desperately to reuse a character puppet that I waste more time fudging the thing into an awkward pose.  If I simply drew the thing from scratch, I’d be done with it already.  Such is the curse of Flash 2-D animation.

I try to draw for the action parts and cheat for the dialog or non-action parts, a combination of drawn artwork and puppet-ed symbols.  You can draw key pose 1 and key pose 2, then tween with one drawn in-between or a drawn blur frame.  Watch some Looney Tune cartoons, you’ll see quick broad actions with few in-betweens.  It’s almost like watching action in a strobe light.  Because the action is so fast, lots of the in-betweens are blurs or “cheats”.

After final animation, lip syncing is done to the dialog tracks in the time line.  The head symbols have up to 9 frames of phonic lips, still, ah, eh, ee, oh, oo, vah, lah and mah or pah.  Animators “dial up” the appropriate mouth according to the sound in the time line above it.

Step 8. Renders with Post Production:
The scenes of these flash files are exported as separate SWFs and handed back to the compositor who renders a new quick time.  (See step 6 about the various methods of rendering SWFs.)  The large quick times are handed to the sound engineers again to sync up the dialog, add sound f/x and music using an industry standard like Pro Tools.  For smaller productions, quick times are exported with mixed sound directly from flash and edited together as one large quick time.

Each round becomes the next approval stage; 1st render is the animatic, followed by corrections, 2nd render is rough animation, followed by corrections, 3rd render is final animation, followed by final corrections and 4th render is the final final animation to deliver.

Lastly, regarding animation production, here are some good sayings to use in production meetings:

“Speed then Clean”.
Draw quickly and rough, making sure the art will work, before concentrating on the finer details.

“Plan Ahead Practice Behind”.
Use technology that’s older and proven. Play with new technology to get ready for what’s around the corner.

“Animation is a House of Cards”.
Like a house of cards, when you get to the top and decide you want to change the bottom card arrangement, the whole thing comes crashing down. The moral is each layer is final before you move up. Otherwise, suffer the consequences.

“If Your Vision is Exploratory, Then So Will Be Your Budget”.
The only way to keep your work on a definite track is to keep your vision on one as well. You can’t “try” this and “try” that, but still have everything done by a specific time. Be precise, and so will be your budget.

(And my new personal favorite…)

Every time someone wants to leave their mark on a project or every time someone says, “Hey, you know what we should do?”, the budget goes up.  Cartoons cost whatever the executive wants it to cost.  Cartoons may be a team sport, but it’s run like a dictatorship, not democracy.

American Politics and Animation:
Speaking of government, the recent change in American politics, the election of Barack Obama and a shift toward a Democrat majority, will jeopardize the animation industry’s total dependence on outsourcing.  On one hand, if you’re an American animator, this is a good thing as now you’ll be paid and treated fairly without fear of losing your job to cheaper artists in Canada, Korea and India among others.

On the other hand, animation industry executives will be faced with harsh realities.  Money must come from somewhere to pay for American artists.  Animation executive salaries and jobs must be cut.  Executive creative control must be limited, as infinite “tweaks” increases animation budgets extensively.

With the popularity of recent change, I do find it hypocritical, and a bit comical, if animation executives voted for Obama.  Perhaps  they not think this through.  Perhaps it just a ruse that while they wore an Obama pin they secretly voted Republican.  Equally odd are Canadian animation bloggers who wished for Obama’s victory.  Ultimately, Canadian opinion does not determine the American vote, but aren’t billions of dollars worth of American animation production sent north?  Somehow I can’t escape the feeling that lots of people shot themselves in the foot in efforts to go with the popular vote.

The good animation executives, who voluntarily curb their salaries, voluntarily hire American animators exclusively and voluntarily offer little “tweaks” to disturb production, are not affected by either Republican or Democrat policy.  The good animation executive doesn’t need to be changed.  But even the good animation executive relies on outsourcing as a safety net for when the occasional proverbial production poop hits the fan.  They now will be asked to fly without a net, sink or swim with no plan B.

The question is, will the vote for change actually turn bad executives into good executives?  After reading the industry negativity on most animation blogs about executives, I can’t see a highly paid animation executive cutting his salary or laying off his executive comrades in favor of the minion animators beneath him.  So no money gained there for American animators.  I also can’t see an animation executive curbing his mighty ego and placing a cap on his “tweaks”.  No money their either.  So where is the extra money going to come from to pay for American artists?

The Democrat plan is to make playing nice the advantage.  The idea is to make it so difficult for the bad executives, that they are are run out of town by the good executives.  They won’t go quietly, so for the next 4 years, things will be really bad.  Creator’s will get less of the pie for their creations.  Animation productions will become grossly understaffed and American workers must shoulder the extra weight.  In this way, the extra money will come from the workers, who needed help to begin with.  But eventually, this allows the good executives to take the lead while the bad ones turn their interests to live action reality shows abandoning the animation industry altogether.  In the end, government policy forces improvement.

The question is can we survive the change?

The other point of view is not necessarily better, just different.  Republicans opt to let the industry do whatever they feel is necessary to continue business.  And that means outsourcing is not necessarily a bad word.  Animation outsourcing may cut American animation jobs, but the pre production jobs it keeps are well paid and well staffed.  The Republicans want to keep the good jobs here.  And the good executives still have the advantage over the bad ones because better products and services are not always the cheapest ones, but the smartest ones.  This is especially true for entertainment.  In the end, industry works itself out.

The question is can we survive waiting for change?

Ultimately after much friendly and fierce debate with my Republican and Democrat friends and foes, I’ve come to the conclusion that real change comes from within.  Regarding American animation and her industry, that involves a more efficient production methodology.  More precisely, that entails better management from the left side of the pyramid with responsible executive pay and less micromanaging tweaks.  And from the right side of the pyramid, better design with better thought out staging and movement.  If we do that, there’s enough slices of pie to go around immediately, with no wait or government involvement.

I don’t pretend that this animation production process is the greatest.  So if you have other ideas, please send them my way.  Change is, after all, constant.

Lamaze Daze Revealed!

January 4, 2009

What the process of making a Family Pants cartoon?  Well, here’s the whole process broken down from start to finish.  It doesn’t take long, but since I’m working in my spare time it feels kind of like Tim Robbins digging his way out of Shawshank with a spoon… a tiny bit every day.

Warning, these are spoilers!  Watch the finished cartoon Lamaze Daze here, then look back at the steps to get there.

1) Story (4 hours)
My Dad frequently gets motions sickness from being a passenger when driven by my Mom.  It’s not funny, but he does this strange breathing thing, in through the nose and out through the mouth.  His gagging sounds like “up… up”.  This was the start of this idea.

From there I thought of some dialog between Frank and Blanche inspired by identical arguments between my Mom and Dad about my Dad getting motion sickness.  I wrote that part and went back to re-write it.  First to simplify it, rather than them being in a car or say on a carnival ride, I put it in the living room and from my own experience with back pain, I had his cause of motion sickness being a vibrating back pad.  Second, I re-wrote it to complicate Frank’s predicament.  (Think of Jack Tripper complicating a little lie to Mr. Furley.  It gets bigger and bigger.  Maybe the audience can see it coming and those little hints of what’s going to happen add to the humor.  This is the stuff of comedy!)

Then using stream of consciousness thinking, I linked Frank lying on the floor breathing those strange “ups”, to a woman in labor.  That lead me to work in Nick’s Lamaze meeting and Alex’s doll.  I added “after birth”, which conveniently doubled as vomit from Frank.  And lastly it only seemed right Jöhan stealing the doll in the end for a good finish.

I’ve often heard that when you throw up, you “sell your Buick” because it sounds like that… “Buy by Buick… Buy my Buick.”  So I put it in there. I’ve also thought every beer sounds like throwing up.  Bud, Budweiser, Becks, Bush, Coors, Schlitz and of course Grolsch!  So I put that in there as well.  Saint Paulie Girl didn’t make sense, which is why I thought it was the funniest.

So here’s the finished script:

“The Lamaze Daze”:
Nick setting up a couple of folding chairs.  Frank walks in with a box labeled ATTIC STUFF and drops it.
F: Oh, my knuckled neck!  My vertebrae is as-cue with obtuse angles! [moves head side to side to emphasize]
Frank rubs neck and does some stretches through out.  Pushes chin in, tilts head to side, Egyptian dance, shoulder stretch with arms raising up behind him…
N: Hey!  I’m having a pre-Lamaze class meeting here in a few minutes.
Alex enters.
F: You can go back to your camel class after I find my vibratin’ back pad!
Frank bends over and searches in box.
A: (ignoring Frank) Pre-lamaze?
N: It’s a meeting to encourage and educate expecting women, allowing them the right to a birth free from routine medical intervention-
Frank pulls out back massager pad and a doll falls out onto the floor.
N: Hey, Alex!  Your old dolly!
A: You played with that thing more than I did-
F: Never mind youthful memories… dis electrically charged vertebrae vibratin’ pad will rectify my spinal region!
Frank puts the pad on a folding chair and sits on the pad eyeing it’s remote.
F: They say it’s got realistic needling masseuse man-hand action in there! [gestures]
He starts the pad which makes a lawn mower sound.  His eyes shut.
F:  Ahhhhh!  The masochistic realism…  I can feel my vitreous fluid flowing through my medulla…
The pad then makes a ringing sound and vibrates more.
N: Is that the door bell?  It’s the lamaze president!
Nick leaves.  The pad smokes.  Frank looks up worried.
F: Uh Oh!  My giblets are gettin’ jostled!
The pad ejects Frank ripping off his pants.  He up ends and lands on the floor.  Frank gets up and bends over, hands on knees and breaths deep like Dad.  Dizzy spirals over his head.
F: Oooooh…. (breath) (breath) Up.. Up.. Up…
A: What’s wrong?
F: I got motion sickness! (breath) (breath) Up..
Blanche walks in.
B: Thank goodness, you finally turned that thing off!  (Looking up into the air) It sounded like a helicopter in here!
F:  The earth… she spins… (breath) (breath) Up.. Up.. (Gestures spin with finger but holds his stomach.)
B: Well, are you dizzy or nauseous?
Frank stands up.
F: What’s the difference? (breath) (breath) Up.. Up..
He bends back over and spits.
B: There’s a big differ- HEY!  Don’t spit on my floor!
F: (staying bent over) Blanche… put me outta my misery…. Up… Up….
B: Believe me if it wasn’t for Grissom and CSI I would have!  Besides that motion sickness is all in your head-
F: BUY MY BUICK, BUY MY BUICK, WILL YOU BUY MY BUICK, LOW MILEAGE, LOW MILEAGE (fades out and with added gibberish throw-up blub-blub snd f/x)
A: Looks like what’s in his stomach…
B: What are you doing?  Get to the bathroom!
Frank stands and boldly talks, then immediately yaks after each statement.
B: Fer Christ’s Sake!  Alex help me get the mop!
Blanche pulls Alex away to help get the mop.
B: (Off camera)  I just CLEANED in there!
F: I need to lie down… get low… I need to get my inner ear closer to ‘de earth…  Oooo I gotta get my sea legs above me…(breath) (breath)
Nick walks in with Lamas president to Frank groaning and breathing on the floor, legs up, fluid chunks by his feet and a doll in the “after birth”.  Prez stunned.  Nick looks at Frank then at doll in puddle.
N: Oh my God!
Jöhan runs in and grabs the doll and rips it up and runs away.
N and PREZ: AHH!
Quick cut to END.

2) Soundtrack: Dialog Recording (Half an hour)
I didn’t need thumbnails of boards as I knew exactly what I wanted in my head to direct my Mom as Blanche, my wife Melissa as Alexandrea and me as everyone else.  Otherwise at least a rough board could help the actor’s performance and director’s direction.  (See, you look like this when you say this line… etc.)

I do the recording on a Sony Mini Disc recorder using a Sony omni-directional microphone.

3) Soundtrack: F/X and Editing (12.5 hours)
This serves as my X-sheet or exposure sheet.  By timing out these sounds, I can plan my animation to it.  Lacking a foley department, I am very limited to the types of sounds I can get.  I find it’s easier to draw to sounds than custom sounds to my drawings.

Lately, I’ve been trying to use Audacity over Pro Tools Free.   Audacity is a free OS X sound editing program and Pro Tools Free, a free OS 9 sound editing program.  Since I can’t work in OS 9 forever, I’m trying to make the jump.

An advantage of Pro Tools is that I could start editing a cartoon, then pass it off to a professional sound editor since Pro Tools is the industry standard.  But once the file is opened in a non-free version, it cannot be opened again in the free version.  So once I hand it off, there’s no handing it back.  But in the case with Family Pants, I’m an army of one when it comes to production, so there’s no worry there.

Another advantage with Pro Tools is that it is a non-destructive sound program.  Where as Audacity is destructive.  This means the edits you make in Pro Tools do not destroy the original sound files as Pro Tools references those files.  In fact, you have a “library” on the side where you can pull the original sounds back into your time line to re-edit a sound again differently.  Audacity imports the sound files and permanently alters them.  Without a “library”, you have to re-import the sound to edit it differently.

Also, Audacity is a little cumbersome to work with.  I’ve found it hard to mix volume easily.  Plus you can’t seem to move sound from one track to another without slightly off setting it’s position in the time line.  There doesn’t seem to be a “snap to” feature as with Pro Tools.  Without such a feature you’re forced to adjust a perfect edit again if you move one sound to another layer or track.  And the worst feature is that if you delete a part of a sound, sounds located further down the time line move forward, having me to select all those segments and move them back to their proper place.

It could be perhaps Audacity’s interface is buggy.  Perhaps I just am simply unfamiliar with the program.  But hey, it’s OS X and FREE!  What can you really complain about?

4) Storyboard / layout (7 hours)

I made small thumbnails to organize my thoughts and plan my animation in my sketchbook.



Usually I work with a thick magic marker on a small post-its, to prevent drawing detail and erasing as well as allowing me freedom to re-arrange or edit my panels.  But for expediency, I worked in my sketchbook, crossing off and adding to my messy panels.  It’s not orderly, but it works.

Lots of guys call this a “shot layout” rather than storyboards.  Since you’re really planning a rough layout rather than facial expressions and body gestures.  The way I see it, you work from broad strokes to thin.  I’ll work on the character positions first before detail on the eyes or mouth.

I took my own advice from an older entry in my sketchbook about limited animation.  I cut around action, used audio to guide action and used what I call a 3 layer rule, where your animation must be simple enough to fit on just 3 “cell” layers.  (Think of a great walk cycle where the background pans on one layer, the upper body is perfectly still on the second layer and just the legs move on the third.  It makes for simplified or caricatured action and movement.  This not only adds to the humor, but cuts production.  Plus, if you wanted reality, watch reality.  If you want perfect physics in your movement, use 3-D programs.  If you want silly cartoon fun, then you’ve come to the right place.  A side note, this works for humor, but limited silly caricatured action and movement my not be able to convey more serious or complex moods.  If Bambi’s mom moved in a silly way rather than realistically, we wouldn’t have cried when she was killed.  So there are reasons to break the production bank and obey physics and laws of motion.  But for my purposes, I want to be funny.  Thus I can save time and money.)

I re-drew the roughs into flash.



In some cases I put my sketch book on the LCD screen and trace it off to get it in there faster.  If I drew directly in Flash it would have been that much faster, but I could draw in my sketchbook anywhere, including the dinner table.  My computer setup isn’t that portable.

I should have done the rough boards or shot layout before the sound.  Because after I did these boards, I figured I could cut around some action saving animation.  This alteration changes the sound edit.  If I had the boards to reference while I did the sound, I wouldn’t have to go back to make adjustments!

Since I’m lazy, I made the sound edits in Flash, matching it up to my rough boards.  Flash’s sound editing capabilities are pitiful.  But they are good enough to make big edits.  When I was done, I had a rough animatic.

The sound from this QuickTime was pulled and then imported into Audacity and used as a guide to adjust the real soundtrack accordingly.  Remember the edit I did in Flash was broad and crude.  So I had to make a smooth edit in a real sound program.  The newer edit replaced the crude flash edit soundtrack in the animatic.  If Flash had better sound editing capabilities,  imagine the time saved editing image and sound together!  (Some guys I know edit their sound in Flash to save time.  But I feel that Flash’s frustrating interface, poor sound manipulation and frequent crashing eats up any potential time reservoir.  Hence I don’t do the bulk of my sound editing in Flash.  Some guys do their animatics in Final Cut Pro where they can cut image and sound easily.  But, if you need any drawing adjustments, you’ll have to draw it separately, either on paper and scan it into the computer or directly in flash or photoshop and save out a jpeg to get it back into Final Cut.  Again, that round about process eats any time you’ve saved.  I think my next cartoon I will bite the bullet and edit the sound in Flash, because Audacity is equally frustrating.)

5) Animation/color  (25 hours)
I’m doing this one in the “Canned Ham” style, which although some people didn’t like the yellowish skin color, it got favorable opinions from others.  Ripping off my previous cartoon this time around I didn’t have to think of the final color!

The process of no holding line or no thick black outline was inspired by Ubbe Iworks. This guy drew entire cartoons by himself in record time.  After you look at his finish, you’ll see the characters lacking black outlines.


This was because these characters were done in black and white, very graphic images.  Essentially you could smear a shape, and presto your finished!  Now, it’s not that easy, Ubbe was perhaps the greatest animator who ever lived, but certainly his technique helped him do so much in such a short time.

What I do is rough out a couple of frames, then “paint” color over that on another layer or frame.  I may have to add black lines over the color shape to further define it, depending on what the image is.  Usually hands needed further defining.  (In the case with Mickey there, Walt Disney had Ubbe add white gloves to the characters so their hands would stand out, rather than be black smears all the time.)  The inking and coloring is simultaneous with cleaning up the line work.  It’s all done in one shot and saves time.

Flash 10 give you some crunchy line work, which for this 50’s style works.  If I wanted a “Flintstone” line, I’d have to break out Flash 4 to get such control.  The older version of the program, for those of you who’ve been doing this long enough to remember the different feel, give you smoother lines.  But the good thing about Flash 10 and crunchy lines is that if I were to pass this work to other artists,  the style could be copied easily.

When I worked on some projects with perfect outline work, like a Flintstones line, most artists lacked a steady hand to keep their work up to par.  It either looked terrible or took forever and broke the budget.  While some old timers could replicate the line easily, they couldn’t do it on computer and younger computer savvy artists knew the computer but most didn’t even know what a crow quill pen was!  They preferred the line tool in flash and “sculpted” the line rather than draw it outright.  The line looked consistent and perfect, but lacked a human touch and still took way longer than simply drawing it.  The technique in Lamaze Daze could actually be done with no pressure sensitivity no the pen at all.  In fact, sloppiness becomes an attribute to the style rather than a mistake.

6) Tweaking (1 hour)
After exporting video, (details below) I watched it a few times and thought I should move a sound effect here or there.  Mostly in the part where Blanche and Alex walk off screen.  So I made this fix in Audacity then spat out a new soundtrack and replaced the one in the Flash time line.

7) Export and posting to YouTube/blog/etc (3 hours)
I made this cartoon in “wide screen” ratio for no particular reason really.  But in exporting the video I had to put “letter box” it since this was just before YouTube started using HD proportionate video.  (Regular video is 720×540, HD is 1920×1080)  Since I had a more squat video, I had to create “letter box” black bars on top and bottom so my squat video would fit a more square one.

I did the letter box in QuickTime Pro with the help of a couple of jpegs, one a complete black jpeg at 720×540 72 dpi and another png which “masked” the jpeg.  That png was also a completely black image 720×540 72 dpi had a 720×405 box cut out of the center of it.  Then I off set the video to peek from behind the black bars by lowering it 66 pixels.

In the past, I’ve copied my cartoon into a movie clip in Flash, then centered it on a 720×540 stage in another Flash file and exported a correct quick time from there.  But I was feeling lazy and just slapped together in QuickTime Pro.

Flash CS3 doesn’t export Quick Time videos easily.  It really “renders” SWFs.  So I saved down to Flash 8 and exported a Quick Time, animation best quality from there.  The soundtrack in flash was 22kHz mono to keep the FLA file size down, yet still give me some audio to work with.  So the audio of this rendered Quick Time was swapped out for the 44kHz file from the Audacity mix.

Then I exported the whole thing as a M4V or “iPod” video.  It’s an automatic compression with nothing to think about.  Just hit the button and presto you got a compressed video ready for uploading to YouTube, Revver and such.  Although the iPod format is quick and easy, some video hosting sites don’t read these compressions.

I posted to a few video sites.  You can how the different video sites handle the look of each posting:

Easy to post.  Almost 2 minutes after YouTube gave me the green light I was able to see it in action and forward the link to friends.  Plus WordPress allows me to post YouTube videos directly on their site easily.  And every one in the world knows YouTube, but I was never crazy about the quality of the video.  It looks kind of crappy.  But what can you ask for since it’s so easy and noticeable?

MyToons Animation:
A newcomer in the video user sites, but one that gave me lots of hits!  I’m hoping its lots of people and not one crazy fan viewing it over and over… Well, even that wouldn’t be so bad.  If there were a reason why I made this in HD, it would be for this site.

So far it was pretty damn easy to upload.  And in HD no less!!  See for yourself!

Anyway, it looks like the total amount of time is around 53 hours or a little over a week of full time work.  Man… it seems so much longer than that.  If only I could duplicate myself…

What Makes a Good Producer? or What Do Producers Produce?

March 27, 2008

animator and producer
There seems to be lots of animation blogs out there vent frustrations about producers who make the lives of animators intolerable. But you’ll hear the same complaints from designers and other artists. In fact, I’ve heard similar complaints from construction workers about architects! Whether animation, design or website producer, it’s an eternal conflict between the producer and talent.

What is a producer anyway? If they don’t actually draw or do the work, how can they rightly be called “producers”? Well a producer’s job is not to make something, but to sell the artist’s work and allocate time for the artist to produce more work. They work with the artist. Together they are team mates for the company they work for.

In some cases, the artist’s work is so good that, as they say, the work sells itself. Here the producer takes the work into a client meeting and presto, the client is instantly happy. In this case the producer gets the Super Bowl ring just for showing up to practice.

But in other cases, the artist may create work that is not up to snuff. It could be that the artist is simply not talented enough to tackle the task at hand or that pressing deadlines distracted the artist from doing a perfect job. In this case, teamwork comes in, as when the artist drops the ball, the producer picks it up and runs it in for the touchdown. Imagine a meeting where the client says, “Well, this is not what I really wanted.” A good producer bounces back with, “Really? I kind of like it this way. In fact I think it’s much better than the original idea we talked about.” His purpose is to sell the artist’s work.

Too often producers mistakenly believe they work for the clients. They’ll side with the client in such cases. “It’s not really a nice color” says the client. “Yes, I agree. And this area needs to change as well. In fact, this whole second half needs to be redone,” says the producer. It may seem like the producer has the client’s best interests, but it’ll only mean disaster for the company, because at the end of the week, when the beans are counted they’ll find the artist doing 80 hours of work, but only getting paid for 10. The client doesn’t care if the company it employed goes bankrupt so long as they get their “product”. But If the company fails, the artist and the producer both get canned. (Which goes first depends on how many artists versus producers the company is currently employing. If you have 10 producers and 2 artists, you can bet a couple of producers will get the boot. And visa versa. (Why you’d need 10 producers for only 2 artists I’m not sure… but I have seen it. I’d imagine those artists would have a red cape and a big S on their chest.)

In addition to selling the artist’s work, producers allocate time for the artist to produce more work. Here honesty is the best policy. Again, that’s teamwork. “The client needs this by Friday,” says the producer. “I can’t finish it until next Tuesday,” says the artist. “Well, I’ll have to either push the meeting to Tuesday, change the client’s mind as to what he wants to see on Friday, or get you the resources you need, if possible, to make that deadline” the producer should say.

Often producers make the mistake of being under the impression that they are above the artist. They’ll tell the artist what to do and expect the artist to jump. That’s not teamwork or working together. Sometimes they’ll belittle the artist by requesting work before the deadline. “If I tell the artist I need it on Friday, I won’t get it until next Tuesday. So instead I’ll lie and tell him I need it by Wednesday, so I’ll get it by Friday!” That’s not only dishonest but also disrespectful by putting undue pressure on the the artist. It not only ruins the art itself, the very function of the company, but also ruins the notion of teamwork. Eventually this will hurt the company by creating a workplace filled with mistrust, dishonestly and selfishness. That’s not a good environment for a companies’ prosperity.

I’ve been pretty lucky in working with great producers who work with artists and trust them. I don’t know if those producers played high school football, but I believe school athletics could help in teaching people how to work together. I played high school football, and frankly sucked at it. About the only thing I could do was run full speed into a guy. I can say with pride that I gave a kid on the other team a concussion. But I lacked skills of actually playing the game. I did, however, learn about teamwork. There were lots of guys on the team I didn’t like and perhaps didn’t like me, but we trusted each other on the field. We were a team. Because, if I did well, the whole team took credit and if I did poorly, the other guys shared my shame. There’s comfort in that. There’s security and teamwork. That’s what I’d imagine a company that makes animation or web design or rolls of toilet paper to be.

So I say, some producers should be required to play football with the artists to learn basic trust, respect, teamwork and how to cover each other when one drops the ball. And that way, even in the worst scenario, an artist could vent his frustrations by running full speed into his pain in the ass producer, giving them a concussion at least!

How are Family Pants Cartoons Made? (or the ‘ol Animation Production Pyramid)

January 5, 2007

Family Pants is made using Flash 4, QuickTime Pro 4, a Mac G3 and a Wacom LCD tablet. In 1999, Jason Sawtelle and I were told this particular technology couldn’t make TV quality cartoons. This encouraged us to prove them wrong. Although the technology improved and the prevailing opinion changed, I still wanted to carry the theory though and finish this cartoon with pre-millennium technology.

The process of making cartoons hasn’t changed much since the digital age, but some aspects of production must change to accommodate different technologies and budgets. Jason and I put together this 12 Step Animation Process that uses digital technology. It is the process I used for Family Pants, minus the team. (Whether one person or a hundred, the process is still the same.)

There are 12 steps, but some steps are done simultaneously with others. So each pair of steps are grouped together into a “key”, represented by each level of a pyramid. The work flow goes from bottom up. Why upside down and a pyramid? The further you go in production, the less room you have to move and the harder it is to turn back and make corrections. Generally, the animatic is the point of no return, located in the middle. After it’s completion, its a matter of “connecting the dots” to finish production.

On the sides of the pyramid are the creative side on the right, consisting of the director, assistant director and crew and the executive side on the left consisting of the producers and the client if there is one. The client and executive producers are equal in power to the director as is the producer to the assistant director. The crew being creative follow the lead of the director and assistant director and hence are on the right side with them.

Family Pants Animation Production Pyramid

Step 1. Script (Key 1):

Some artists feel that a cartoon, a visual medium needs to be scripted visually. The real purpose of drawing storyboards in animation was for building a dialogue-less, series of gags, mostly seen during the early days of animation. A character goes to the “farm”. Cartoonists come up with a dozen farm related gags. Characters don’t talk much so writing descriptions of his actions seemed silly, when the drawings were what told the story. Buy using removable “post-its”, gags could be combined, re-worked and re-organized. It was a perfect system for that type of cartoon.

However, I’ve found it is faster to write then draw. To change a script that reads “100 hippos dance” to “100 monkeys dance” would take seconds. To do the same visually, wouldn’t. Plus it allows you to focus on the story structure and not get hung up on drawing a nice picture. Sometimes it’s hard to let go of an idea because the picture looks so good, even though the story would suffer if the picture prevails. Productions that are drawn instead of written usually look good but could lack good story structure.

Writing for animation is different than writing in general. Care must be given not to put the production over budget before anything gets started by writing scenes that are too complex to animate. The script can use a device of “telling” rather than “doing”. The action could happen between commercials or off camera. What we watch is just the result of what the characters were planning on doing. This is the practice of real-life sitcoms and plays. It was even the practice of Shakespeare’s Global theater, where actors described their surroundings, saving money and time building a set that showed it.

One of my favorite shows, “Seinfeld” is a good example. In one episode George tells Jerry, Kramer and Elaine in the coffee shop about wrestling a beached whale, to perpetuate his lie to his girlfriend that he is a marine biologist. During the struggle, he pulls a golf ball Kramer is responsible for hitting into the ocean earlier in the episode, from the whale’s blowhole. The story is told to us. We never actually see it. This type of writing saves costs for sitcoms and plays as well as animation. It is good acting that helps make the dialogue funny.

Ironically, I do use small post-its when constructing a story. Post-its allow for re-organization of story events and plot turns. Most times these post-its have words, not images on them. Once the idea is laid out, a script is written in a more formal and final form and the post-its are discarded.

Step 2. Thumbnails (Key 2):

Small rough drawings are created illustrating the story. These thumbnail storyboards focus on staging to get a feel of the look of the shots. They are also used as layout preparation. Done quickly to figure out where the scene takes place, the character and background details can be worked out later. Storyboards are done on removable post-its. These post-its could be tacked in the right-hand margin of the script during creation. They could also be tacked to a wall for an easy overall view. This helps in development and editing. Afterward, they are numbered. The first number is the “scene” or cut. The second number is the panel number of that scene. Corresponding numbers are written UNDER the post-it on the script, so you can put the right image back in the right spot. (Keep numbers written in pencil just in case!)

I like using standard square post-its and cut the lower third off it to create 3X5 dimensions. I also use a black Sharpie marker. This way, I can’t get caught up in details because the marker point is too thick. I also can’t get caught up in erasing and laboring over a drawing. At this point I don’t want to sacrifice timing, story or editing for a good drawing. By keeping it down and dirty, I can’t get attached to my drawings.

Step 3. Timing (Key 2):

As the thumbnails are being done, the timing could also be worked on. By reading the script along to the rough boards, you can judge timing. This helps the director direct the voice talent and estimate the length of the script. The time is indicated in the left margin of the script using a stopwatch.

You can also record the dialogue scratch track and even fake the sound effects using your mouth. This scratch track essentially becomes a digital x-sheet, something more tangible than a traditional x-sheet which could be misunderstood or completely ignored by clients and producers who cannot read them. A scratch track would provide a clearer picture for them and prevent costly corrections later in production due to misunderstandings.

Step 4. Design (Key 3):

Illustrators and cartoonists design characters and props relating to the script and thumbnails. Even for shows with an established design, perhaps a new character or scene may appear and need to be designed. Designers need to know about animation, so as not to create elements that are too difficult to animate for the allowed budget. I prefer backgrounds and layout could be simple and almost vaudevillian to speed production and clarify jokes.

Designers work faster if working from thumbnails. Also, they’ll design exactly what you need. If for example, there was a one-shot character behind a counter, the designer would see from the thumbnails that he doesn’t have to concern himself with what the legs of the character look like. This would save time. The backgrounds, having been worked from the rough boards, may not only serve as images in the style guide bible, but actually end up being used as a completed background, also saving time. And by working the designs off the thumbnails, the characters will work within the narrative. You won’t end up with a great design of a character that can’t do what the script and narrative requires him to do. This forward thinking can only be done after the script and rough thumbnails establish your shots.

Step 5. Dialogue (Key 3):

At the same time of the designs, voice talent is recorded in a studio, following the script and possibly referencing the thumbnails. They are directed by the director or simply follow the director’s scratch track in the director’s absence. If the director is to direct in person, his rehearsal of the timing earlier will allow him to know exactly how he wants his talent to perform. This saves time and gives clear direction to the actors.

Each dialogue record needs to be mixed in a sound program. Immediately arranging them in chronological order as they are being edited saves time, rather than adding the extra step to do this later.

Step 6. Storyboard (Key 4):

The storyboard artist tells the story visually, following the rough thumbnails. He solidifies the camera angles and moves. He also sets up the action and mood. He is the second most important person next to the director.

Traditionally the storyboards would then be redrawn larger and in greater detail by the layout artist. He would refine the art and add tracing paper overlays indicating camera movements. The layout serves as a “blueprint” for the animators and background artists to follow. Backgrounds need to be drawn so they create the illusion of a 3-D space under the camera. It should have the character on the background and key positions to show where that character will start out and end up during scenes. Strict attention must be paid ensuring the characters and elements are the correct size and shape and on model according to the designs established earlier.

However, if enough time is given to the storyboard artist he could make a storyboard clean enough that it may be used as the layout. In some productions, it is done this way to save some time and money in hiring more artists. Either way, work is work. If a storyboard artist zips through a board, extra time would be needed for the layout. If the storyboard artist is given the time, less time is needed for the layout artist. A 10 hour job will take 10 hours to complete no matter how you look at it.

In this production model however, the storyboard artist is the layout artist. He is also a digital storyboard artist working directly on the computer. Since the designs are done following the storyboards, some backgrounds may already be finished. The storyboard artist needs only to copy and paste these elements into place. They might have to slightly adjust sets or props to the director’s liking. Even so, slight adjustments are easier than total redraws. Character art however, may need to be completely drawn fresh following the designer’s model sheets.

Some have argued designs should follow the storyboard. That way the designer only designs what you need. Why would you need to design the basement of a house if it is never seen in your story? Others ask how would the storyboard artist draw the story board without knowing what anything looks like without seeing the designs first? In this production model, the rough thumbnails set up the shot and angles. This assists the designers in what to design and in what not to design. Their designs would in turn help the storyboard artists as some of their designs could be used as final art!

(Some Technical information regarding digital storyboards and layout in Flash.)

The numbered thumbnail storyboards help in breaking up and distribution of the work. Each scene is separated. All scenes with the same background are grouped together in a pile to be drawn in a single FLA file, with each scene separated by Flash’s scene feature. The FLA file is named according to the background within it. Keeping all backgrounds separated helps in utilizing Flash’s symbol organization to speed production in not having to redraw artwork, copying and pasting artwork and thus keeping a consistent look. Each scene is named “000_bknd”, where “000” is the number of the scene in chronological order and “bknd” tells which FLA file it came from. This way, each scene could be rendered separately from the FLA file as a SWF and placed in a folder. It’s naming conventions would allow the scenes to fall into chronological order.

If necessary, each scene could be broken into separate FLA files. This would keep the file size down and allow for multiple artists to work simultaneously. However, similar backgrounds would have to have their symbol’s art be copied into the corresponding FLA’s symbol. Or you may open up the library of the new FLA and drag those updated symbols onto the stage of the old FLA. When prompted, choose “update”. After, delete the item from the stage.

Step 7. Soundtrack (Key 4):

Traditionally the director times the cartoon using X-sheets. If he is too busy, he has the assistant director do it. More recently, he’ll farm the work to sluggers who basically time the cartoon in a more shorthand way but more importantly won’t have to be paid assistant director wages. An issue with these traditional methods is that producers or clients paying for the production do not have the ability to read x-sheets or slugs. Many of their concerns or requests go ignored until late in production costing time and money.

So for some more recent digital productions the timing will be created by digitally editing together storyboard art and dialogue recording. These “automatic animations” are called animatics and provide a more tangible view of the production to allow them to offer suggestions / corrections. Although animatics aren’t new, and have been around for decades, they allow directors to see the cartoon, before the cartoon was done, double checking the x-sheets. But this is generally a feature for larger budgets. Smaller budgets have to trust the timer.

But making video animatics puts a cartoon’s timing in the hands of a video editor, who may not understand cartoon timing. You could hire a slugger who knows video editing software or perhaps the director himself took a class in video editing and therefore could do it. The least efficient and most expensive way is having the director sit elbow to elbow with the video guy and tell him what to do, shot for shot. This wastes long hours of the director’s time as well as requiring hiring a video editor, who would hate such a job.

In this production model we have an altogether different approach.

Sound guys know timing because they know music. Music is all about timing. Listen to the soundtrack to a “Tom and Jerry” cartoon. Scott Bradley’s piano playing to the antics of Tom chasing Jerry is musical. In this case the actions were timed first and the music added later, but note that director Bill Hanna’s timing of the characters are in fact musical, whether Bill knew it or not. Movement is musical. Actions are like dance. Look at fight sequences in Jackie Chan movies. The moves are choreographed like dancers. Even dialogue is musical. Listen to George Carlin’s performance. His timing and tones are musical. All speech is. Oddly enough, good animation timing falls into beats and measures just as music does. Thus a good sound track could drive a cartoon and a well timed cartoon could drive a sound track.

So in this production, rather than have the director sit with the timer, slugger, video editor or assistant director, he’ll sit with the sound guy.

Just as a child would provide a soundtrack to his playing with toy cars using nothing but his imagination and his mouth, the director would do the same for the sound guy. In less than an hour or two, he’ll record a scratch soundtrack that would direct the sound-man. This also will be a quick way for the director to communicate to the sound engineer as to what he specifically wants for the sound effects used in production. As mentioned above, the actual scratch recording could have been done earlier for clients to hear rather than confusing them with timing numbers or asking them to trust the director. Communication between the client and director is important and communication gaps in animation productions are generally caused by clients or producers simply lacking the skill to understand what is being made until late in the production to make changes or requests economical.

Later, the sound guy could compose the soundtrack following the scratch track. He’ll have to search for good contrasting and interesting sound effects for these actions if he pulls sound effects from CD libraries. Or if the budget is big enough, he will work with Foley artists to create the sound entirely. A good musician and music producer has the skills of creating thick and contrasting sounds. Of course, he’ll provide actual music as well. A completed soundtrack serves as a ready-made “digital” x-sheet when brought into Flash. No paper is necessary and no need to re-write all the actions either as x-sheets or as slugged storyboards.

I’ve found it is easier to draw to limited sound effect CDs, than to Foley new sound effects afterward to the animation. First sound effect CDs are a fraction of the cost of a Foley department. If necessary you could change your drawings to better fit the sound you have, than digitally alter a rather limiting sound effect to match your animation. This is cost effective reason to do the sound before animation.

I’ve also found to get compelling sound effects, you really have to know your sound effect CDs. You gather the sounds you think you’ll need and do the edit quickly with the obvious sound effect, but then go through the entire collection to stumble upon something unexpected. It takes longer, but well worth it. For example, a sound effect of Frank’s ass deflating after being stabbed could have a splashing “ker-plunk” sound rather than a typical deflating balloon. Unexpected, thus funny.

(Some Technical information regarding digital x-sheets and Flash when working at 24fps can be found here.)

To distribute the work, the one giant soundtrack needs to be broken into segments according to scenes and backgrounds. Each sound is named “000_bknd.aif”, where “000” is the number of the cut in chronological order and “bknd” tells which flash file it belongs to. This way, each AIF placed in a folder will fall into chronological order.

These are exported to the 1/24th of a second to make sure when it is imported into a Flash file, it falls on an exact frame number. SWFs or Quick Times that end on partial frames could have blank “half” frame at the end and would need to be corrected during the compositing process. A separate sheet of paper needs to have the exact length of the sound in 1/24th of a second. This way when the artist imports that sound into his Flash file, he’ll know how far to extend his timeline to keep everything accurate.

Also, these segments are at a lower bit rate and frequency so they do not take up too much file size in flash, yet allows you to still hear the sound clearly. The animation could be exported as a SwF without sound and edited together with other scenes and the final soundtrack later.

A big problem is when you import sound into Flash, it shortens sounds at a rate of 1/12th of a second per minute. For scenes that are seconds long, no one would be able to tell your animation was to a slightly different timing. But for longer scenes and for post production editing in general, this glitch could wreak havoc.

To correct this, convert the sounds to 22.079khz before you import them into your FLASH files. The sound will show the correct frame length and subsequently your animation will line up with the original sound externally. (22.079kHz works for 24-fps, 30-fps and 15-fps. For higher kHz, use 44.158kHz. You can export sound at this rate directly from Pro Tools or from Quick Time Pro.)

Exporting sound segments from AfterEffects can be easier by selecting the area you want and exporting AIF. However, AE will add onto your export. If I asked it to export exactly 1 min. of sound, AE will give me 1 min. plus 1 second. Although according to AE’s pop up window on the export, it should be only 2 extra frames. Using the magic number, the sound will still be accurate, only longer in length. I do not recommend this method.

When importing the fixed sound into Flash MX or Flash 6, you’ll have to import it twice. Once normally, then again through the library. This makes sure MX reads the sound correctly.

The magic number stands, 22.079 or 44.158kHz, whether exported from QT Pro, Pro Tools or After Effects, it is the way to have Flash read sounds at their correct length at 24fps.

For Family Pants, I’ve used Pro Tools Free, Quick Time Pro, Sound Effect CD’s, Mini CD recorder and Microphone. Music and talent are recorded into the Mini CD and played into the computer via the headphone jack. (The M-Box, hardware that comes with a paid for copy of Pro Tools, could make this job easier, allowing for microphones that use different jacks than the Mini CD recorders’ mini stereo. However, the Mini CD recorder may be used for the Foley of original sounds not found on CD as it is more portable than a computer and M-Box equipment. Iriver makes a digital HD MP3 player that has an input jack allowing for recording. Ordinarily, if you recorded something for an hour on your MD, you’d have to play it back again for that hour to get it into your computer. With this device, you could record something for an hour, then transfer the files to your computer like transferring files from a hard drive.)

Step 8. Animatic (Key 5):

Most clients request an animatic to keep tabs on the production. You’ll need to assemble your scenes eventually, but by doing it early you could view various stages of progress. To get the animatic, you’ll render the storyboard to the soundtrack. For the rough test, you’ll render the same thing with rough animation added. For the work print, render the final piece at low resolution. And for the final print, render it at high resolution.

The compositor imports the sound track pieces into the layout Flash files. He’ll extend his time-line to the length the sound engineer indicated. He times the artwork and camera moves which were created digitally, using symbols, tweens and motion paths, according to that sound. Since the sounds were edited to the exact key frame, and numbered chronologically, the compositor can export SWFs and assemble them end to end in a compositing program along with the original soundtrack. This could be done in After Effects or QuickTime Pro.

He may have to render out several versions due to producer or client requests. But each subsequent go around is easy since the composite file is already set up. He would just have to update the changed assets or SWFs. If producers heard the scratch track, they’d have a pretty good idea of what to expect, reducing surprises and subsequent retakes.

Quick Time Pro is cheaper than After Effects, but I’ve found you have to reassemble your SWFs every time a SWF has been updated. It seems Quick Time Pro sees the SWF but knows something is different. After Effects will always update correctly. However it is not “real time” editing so its slow to actually see what you did. Plus each element gets its own layer, making the edit window long. Final Cut Pro is “real time” editing, but cannot import SWFs. So the SWFs would be opened and rendered out of Quick Time Pro as a full resolution Quick Time and edited in Final Cut Pro.


A word about corrections. Generally, the animatic is the point of no return. After it, it is a matter of connecting the dots to finish production, going from pre-production to production and post production.

Correcting a script is as simple as offering critique and having the writer submitting a new draft. Likewise, the scratch track would have a list of corrections and the newer recording would replace the old.

The animatic corrections are more involving. Any request is first addressed in the audio track. It is fixed there, then re-exported as a new AIF. Following the technical leads above, exported to the 1/24th of a frame and labeled correctly. A separate sheet of paper would keep track of the new scene length in 1/24ths of a second. The compositor would import that new AIF and alter his FLA to match the fix. Depending on the depth of the fix, the compositor could fix the shot directly or request altered art from the storyboard artist, who’ll work directly in the compositor’s file.

A re-exported SWF is reassembled to the new soundtrack and a new QuickTime is submitted for review. Upon approval, the point of no return is reached. Now production connects the dots.

Step 9. Rough Animation (Key 6):

Flash animation is a combination of drawn artwork and puppet-ed symbols. I prefer to do all the special effects via Flash. Use your imagination to create an effect, rather than using software. I’ve found that actions animated without any sound tend to look quick and simple, which is good for animation production, but being short and quick, difficult to match sound to. The resulting sound effect is usually quick and simple. However, when sound is done first and the animation follows it, the sound is slower, sounding more musical and complex. It is as if someone enjoyed making the sound effect, rather than filling space on the soundtrack. The animator will find a “slip and fall” a few seconds long rather than quick “fwipp!” Thus he’ll tailor his animation, adding movements and actions to match the longer time. Listen to the sound carefully and draw what you “see”. A good soundtrack guarantees good animation. Good animation does not guarantee a good soundtrack.

Animators update the art the storyboard artists / layout artists created with new art. It’s good to rough your animation before committing to it. Remember the motto: SPEED then CLEAN. Keep it rough to do more thinking than drawing. Plan the movement out. If it works, later you’ll finish the art.

Lip sync is done to the soundtrack after the character animation. Remember it’s still rough.

These files could be exported as SWFs and handed back to the compositor who uses the already set-up composite used to make the animatic and re-renders a “rough print” for approval.

Step 10. Clean Animation (Key 7):

After corrections and approval of the rough print, the animation is cleaned up and given its final line and look. Coloring is also done.

Step 11. Clean Backgrounds (Key 7):

The artists follow the artwork in the layout file and update it with final clean and colored artwork. Sometimes the characters and their actions determine details of the backgrounds. Say, the location of a drawer or the height of a counter that holds a necessary prop. After approval of the rough animation, it’ll be safe to finish the backgrounds. This step could be quick, remember the designers already made these backgrounds on an as needed basis. So the background artists only need to finish corrections now.

Step 12. Delivery (Key 8):

The compositor imports the artwork of the symbols from the background files into the corresponding symbols of the animation files to consolidate them. Or he may open up the library of the new FLA and drag those updated symbols onto the stage of the old FLA. When prompted, he’ll choose “update”. After, he’ll delete the item from the stage. Using the After Effects or Quick Time Pro composite file, a small Quick Time of the animation is rendered for approval. After any possible retakes and a second small render, the final larger render is generated. The flash files are then archived.

And so this is the production I use for Family Pants. The short of it is that the soundtrack is done before production rather than in post. Animators can work faster referencing it. Sound is done in real time. To time a “slip and fall” via x-sheets would require skill, but a child could do it making sound effects straight from his mouth. Plus I’ve found drawings are more flexible than sound. If I couldn’t find the right motor boat sound, but found a great rowing sound, I could easily redraw the shot to have Frank rowing, rather than driving a boat.

In animation, the script is just a part of the process. Unlike a novel, it is not the final delivery of your idea. Some jokes in a script seem fantastic, until you see them visually with a scratch track under them. Likewise, some great ideas may never be given a chance to be seen in their true final form because they didn’t seem funny enough written down.

Thus the most clear deliveries are; script for concept, scratch track for timing and animatic for visual. Cutting out the x-sheet and storyboard saves approval time and creates confidence that the final product will be what the producers and client want. It takes an experienced person to read a script, storyboard and x-sheet and see a finished cartoon in their head. If they can’t do that or do it incorrectly, they’ll get an unexpected result and ask for costly corrections later.

Lastly, regarding animation production, here are some good sayings to use in production meetings:

“Speed then Clean”.
Draw quickly and rough, making sure the art will work, before concentrating on the finer details.

“Plan Ahead Practice Behind”.
Use technology that’s older and proven. Play with new technology to get ready for what’s around the corner.

“Animation is a House of Cards”.
Like a house of cards, when you get to the top and decide you want to change the bottom card arrangement, the whole thing comes crashing down. The moral is each layer is final before you move up. Otherwise, suffer the consequences.

(My personal favorite…)

“If Your Vision is Exploratory, Then So Will Be Your Budget”.
The only way to keep your work on a definite track is to keep your vision on one as well. You can’t “try” this and “try” that, but still have everything done by a specific time. Be precise, and so will be your budget.