One of the first steps in creating an awesome animated short film, is coming up with a great concept/story idea as well as planning. This post will detail the first stage of animation short film creation, the pre-production phase!

Before I get into the process, I think it’s important that I emphasise how important story is. You’re not going to be using your 3D software at all throughout this phase (I guess you could if you wanted to but only if it’s for planning purposes though). One of the most important things to get right in this phase is your story/concept. Without a good story, your film will not be seen or shared even if you have the best animation in the world with awesome lighting and modelling. This is evident in movies as well. Certain movies (not gonna name which one, lol) have awesome special effects with great action sequences, well known actors with large following and beautiful cinematography but the film still bombed at the box office due to poor story. Over the years, I had come to discover a useful tip which helped motivate me to carry out the daunting task of building a short film and I think it could do the same to you as well. I learned that it was better to have it the other way around. That is, you could have pretty average models with not-that-good character animation and lighting, etc, but as long as you had a killer story, your film would less likely flop. You might not want to create very bad models and animation though, as people won’t even get what you’re trying to convey anyway. Take YouTube videos for example, viewers don’t seem to care about the visual quality as much (although it helps), but only crave on the CONTENT! That is, you could shoot a film in your bedroom and people will still watch it if your content, or your story is good. The same applies with animated short films. Try to spend time getting a very good story. Having a great story will help motivate you to pull through and complete your short film. After all, you may be spending months, even years crafting your film, so you’re content better be good. This is something I’ve learned the hard way for my own short films. The still below is from my own film “Tripping”. At the time, I didn’t really put much thought or effort into the story and when it was release time, deep down I knew I wasn’t happy with it. Don’t want to diss my own film, but you have to see for yourself how bad the story is to understand what I mean.
My earlier film "Tripping"! Sometimes I wonder why I even made this film!

My earlier film “Tripping”! Sometimes I wonder why I even made this film!

Here is what the pre-production phase may entail:
  • Story – Bring your imagination to life and spend time coming up with a good story. This can take weeks or even months. Or you might already have one planned since a long time ago. You could even use the short story that you had to write as part of your English class and got great marks for. Sometimes the best stories come from experiences you’ve had yourself. If you can build a story based on your own personal experiences and things you’ve learned along the way, it comes across as genuine and unique. People will generally relate better as they may have had similar experiences themselves. Try to keep your story logical and try not to go too outlandish unless you know you can pull it off and make it entertaining.
    Now is also the time to start writing out your screenplay. There’s tons of sample screenplays you can download to get an idea of the format. Try to write your own story in this format. Write how the camera moves or what certain characters are doing, how the transition occurs, etc. You can write this in a Word file and save it as PDF. That way, if you plan to release the script or want to show a producer, you can simply put out the PDF file.
  • Concept Art – Here you start to draw out what your film will look like. You can design the look of your character here. You can design your environment, play with colour and mood, come up with a style for your short film. Spend time drawing the look that you want, even if you’re not good at drawing (like me!) This can help fuel your creativity and make the process of modelling much easier when you get to that stage. You can draw these images on a piece of paper and scan them to your PC where you can use a photo editing software like Photoshop/GIMP to create a final touch as well as add colour and mood. If you want to continue drawing on the PC, I recommend buying a tablet like the Wacom Bamboo Pen and Touch Tablet. This allows you to draw with a pen which has greater control compared to drawing with a mouse. Even better would be to purchase a tablet like the Wacom Cintiq which allows you to draw directly on the screen but then you’ll need to spend thousands of dollars to purchase. This will be a good option for more serious artists.

    An example of my *not that good* concept art!

    An example of my *not that good* concept art!

  • Storyboard  – You now take your screenplay PDF file and start drawing storyboards. A storyboard is simply a sequence of images. Each image can represent of a shot in your film. Having a storyboard gives you the freedom to experiment with different types of shots and different types of angles. You can also ask others for feedback and get opinions on which types of shots work and which doesn’t. Getting feedback is also valuable since the shot you think worked in your head might not resonate well with the audience and having feedback early on, can save costs later on. For my storyboards, I used the free painting software MyPaint. MyPaint gives you an infinite canvas containing storyboard-styled boxes. You can use this to draw all the main shots of the film. You can draw one storyboard image for each camera change for instance. This would serve the purpose well for the animatic. You can also take advantage of the Wacom Bamboo Pen and Tablet to draw all the storyboard images. Additionally, you could color it to get an idea of the color scheme. I didn’t do this since I’m not really all that advanced (I’m also slightly lazy)..
  • Animatic – Finally you create an animatic. An animatic is pretty much the final version of your short film. Only with really bad visuals and poor sound. The idea is that you get a feel for what the final film is like and whether you think the film will be worth slaving hours upon hours over the next few months (or even years)! Top Hollywood companies do this too. The filmmaker usually pitches their story idea with a producer using animatics and producers decide whether they think this film will be a blockbuster, and if so, helps produce the film. The storyboard helps you mix and match ideas for your shots and scenes, while an animatic helps with timing your shots and scenes and getting a sense of the overall mood of the film. After creating the storyboard, you put each storyboard image in a video editor and combine it with audio. You can go to royalty-free music websites and download the previews and sync it with the storyboards. Don’t actually purchase any of the music until you’re really happy with it (or if you already have someone who can produce the music for you). The animatic stage is a great time to extend or cut the length of each image to see if it ‘flows’ well. At times, I find that I need more images to help convey the emotion better and that’s ok, because I’ll go back and draw some more images. After that, you would add sound effects, and background sounds (for example, the sound of people in a busy street). After this, you render out pretty much the full film, but without the awesome graphics and surround sound. This should render very quickly (shouldn’t be waiting all day and night to see it rendered). Watch your animatic and you now have an idea what the film will be like. Here you decide whether your film will be a hit or not, whether it can be improved, whether it’s worth slaving hours upon hours for, and whether you enjoyed watching it. If you’re having doubts, as well as your friends/etc after watching this, go back and fix this. No point going to the production phase, as the final audience are likely to feel the same.
  • Plan – Here you plan a rough breakdown of what needs to be done, or if you’re working in a team, who does what. Try to come up with a schedule and a rough idea of a release date (as interested viewers are likely to keep asking you ‘when’s the film gonna release?’).
Once this is done, you can finally touch your 3D application!
Click here to go to the next part: The Production Phase!