No matter what the budget is on a show, no matter how much time there is, it’s never really enough, is it? The reality is that corners get cut. The real trick is finding the corners that just aren’t all that important. Corners nobody really notices. If you’re doing it right, you should never have to use budget as an excuse when showing someone your show.
There is one part of the process, however, where you should never cut corners – the animatic.
The animatic (or leica reel), for those of you not in the midst of animation right now, is basically the template for an episode. It is the storyboard panels, the episode illustrated in quick pencil drawings (almost like a comic book), timed out in order to the dialogue track. In animation, that’s where we do the editing – in advance of the actual animation. We check angles, timing, expressions and set down all cuts and scene changes within the animatic. What we have at the end of that process is a whole episode, all edited to time, told with the dialogue and black and white drawings.
The animatic is one of the most important parts of the process.
It is where you set down the story. It is where you truly find out if the script is working or not, and it’s where you can amend things if it’s not. It is where you define all the setups, turn abstract descriptions in a script into actual working scenes. It defines every other part of the process and its importance can’t be overstated.
What you do after animatic stage can make a good episode great. But it won’t make a bad episode good. Your animatic has to work. This is especially true if you are shipping animation overseas – it will be very rare that you get something back that surprises you by being much better than what you had in the animatic.
If you rush an animatic, push it through before it’s ready, your show simply will not be as good as it should be.
In the last few weeks, I have seen some shows that clearly have had so much love go into them, with great design, and yet some weird setup problems, framing issues and lack of flow that let the episodes down. That will have come down to the animatic and, when so much work is going into a show, isn’t it a massive shame to aim for anything less than excellent?
So what to look out for in an animatic? Well, there are many problems to avoid, things not to do. Too many to tackle here (I may tweet some if anyone is interested – my twitter is here). But here are some more positive things to look for, ways you can make your episode better at animatic stage -
Listen for the rhythm
Yes, it’s a visual medium but the rhythm is so often established with the sound, and the reality is in preschool that children often listen more than they watch. Your show should have beats, like music. Don’t just watch your scenes. Close your eyes and listen to them. Is the rhythm right?
Watch for the flow
Key word here: momentum. Energy can carry us across the cuts. If there is something moving fast from left to right when a shot cuts, that momentum will be with the viewer as they enter the next shot – use that by finishing the left to right movement somehow in the next shot. Let momentum ease those cuts by carrying the energy across the cuts. Your story should flow naturally.
Establish visual rules
Our brains expect order. Yes, you can move a camera anywhere in a cartoon but our brains don’t want chaos. If you don’t want cuts to confuse, establish a set of visual rules in every scene. For example, if you have a shot with a dog and a cat and the dog is on the left and the cat is on the right, stick to that when you cut to different shots. If you have a close up of the dog, have him a little left on screen because, once that setup is established, we expect him to be on the left.
Reign in your shots
It’s best not to use more setups than necessary. Too much jumping around can feel chaotic and confusing. For example, if you have a group shot and are cutting in and out to characters, that group shot should have the same angle, framing and distance each time unless there is a strong reason to change it. If you have 34 different shots in one conversation, you have probably got a problem. Reign in the shots. Reusing setups is not just something we do because it’s cheap – it’s actually less work for the audience.
One place at a time
This is a big one – remember that people can only look at one place on screen at a time. If you have action happening at the left of the screen and action happening at the right at the same time, the audience will miss something. Don’t have two important things happening at once. One thing at time.
Give it time and then push it further
It’s amazing what difference a day can make, fresh eyes the next morning. Try not to send an animatic into the system the second you think it’s done. Give it time and let it sit. Come back to it later. You will see it differently and you will find things to improve. So go ahead and improve things. You can’t do this indefinitely but time spent improving an animatic is never wasted. Push further – polish those expressions, amend poses, make sure each action and each mood changed is marked (keeping in mind rhythm and flow). As a director, I usually do all that myself in the last phases. I’m constantly adding and amending and, as great as our board artists have been, because I have the dialogue, timing and flow, I can always go further and make our episodes better.
If you have a great animatic, you will have the foundations for an awesome episode. Everything else on top of that becomes a bonus, taking something already great and making it magical. If your animatic is a problem, well, your job will invariably become just damage control. That’s no fun.
Give the animatics the time they deserve and make your shows fantastic.