Pipeline For Animation Production

The pipeline for CG can differ greatly when making your own film from traditional animation because many times you cannot create all of the content yourself.  To prevent loss of data it is vital to stay organized and provide project folder structure that can support growth. This is the structure I suggest using as a start when making your own film.

Production Pipeline

Making a film is a big task.  It makes more sense to work on smaller chunks and put those together later. The pipeline enables the crew to figure out how those chunks will fit together to make a film.

  • The feedback cycle is about aesthetic fit.
  • Production is about doing the actual work.
  • Production pipelines must get software and resources to people, allow them to work, and pass the work easily to the final output.
  • These resources (typically files and data) are the ‘physical’ embodiment of the assets.

The production files and data have their own set of dependencies that may or may not mimic the dependency graph of the entire project. It is crucial to a successful production to balance organization with solutions and flexibility in the pipeline. Too much organization might limit artists, but too many hacks make assets impossible to manage in the end.

 

Production pipeline is a combination of:

  • Production software; i.e. what you use to make stuff, which spills into file formats and capabilities, can also include automation / project specific software that depends on project practices.
  • Standards and best practices: naming conventions, project file organization, dos and don’ts, limits on poly count, image size, etc.
  • Pipeline software: any software or scripts that automate the pipeline, project on a metalevel, or enforce the best practices, or better, allow only those best practices to be used (i.e. instead of using append/link, use the project approved asset manager, which only links in predictable ways)
 

From an artist’s perspective, this implies the following needs:

  1. An artist has to be able to get any initial data/files they need to start with ease due to organization fo file structure. For example: an animator needs a shot with layout, a texture artist needs models and perhaps photo texture library access, etc.
  2. An artist needs the software to work on the files.
  3. The pipeline should be idiot proof. Maintaining naming conventions, ‘what goes where’ and how the files link to each other is critical.
  4. Finally, artists need to be able to fit work back into the project.

Asset and Task Management

Resource management (people, computers, assets and renderfarms) are critical to planning your project.

The terms “Assets” and “Tasks” are a good way to organize your project. The assets are the parts of the show that are animation, objects, props, effects and characters built on the computer. Additional assets include the shots for your film.

  • Assets are nouns.
  • Tasks are verbs.

ASSETS:

  • animation
  • objects
  • props
  • visual effects
  • characters
  • cameras
  • environments
  • shots

TASKS:

  • art direction
  • concept art
  • character design
  • layout
  • modeling
  • texturing
  • animation
  • lighting
  • rendering
  • compositing

TASK MANAGEMENT:

  • budget
  • schedule
  • shot list
  • asset list

When creating a shot the tasks must be completed to generate assets used in a scene.

For example if a character is going to sit in a chair in a scene, you need:

  • the chair,
  • the room,
  • the lights,
  • the camera,
  • and the character at the minimum to complete the shot.

Each task potentially needs review by the director and technical director to ensure it satisfies both the creative and technical aspects of the asset.


Assets can be shared: A shot asset may need several models to be built. Each shot asset may be reused for other shots like that same chair and room environment might be used in several shots within a scene and sequence.

Tasks have dependencies: Animation cannot begin without the rig being built. A chair cannot be created without the reference art. Shading and textures cannot begin without the modeling. Tasks for one asset are dependent on tasks on another.

So, an Asset|Task tracking list can be a combination of an asset database and a dependency graph. The graph can be designed as task-based, or it can include asset-to-asset dependencies.

I prefer to start with lists and then create Gantt charts with scheduling and dependencies worked when the assets will have to be created with due dates since the whole house of cards can come tumbling down if the tasks are not scheduled.

 

 

Feedback Pipeline

Project directors and concept crew generate verbal/text descriptions, concept art, storyboards and animation references for the tasks to be completed.

  1. Artists use this material to start work.
  2. Frequent (daily or weekly feedback sessions).
  3. Artists need a place to post work to get feedback in the form of comments, draw-overs, grease pencil lines on animation.
  4. Artists refine until a task is complete (agreed by artist and supervisor or director to be final).
  5. Sometimes you need to “un-final” things. The system has to be flexible enough to allow this.

Show Organization

Organization should run along the lines of:

SHOW –> SEQUENCE –> SHOT –> CLIP

Show Example: Mutt’s Story = MS for SHOW

Sequence Example: Marvin the Mutt Runs Away = RA for SEQUENCE

Scene Example: Marvin Jumps Out the Window = JW for SCENE

Shot Example: Shot = S for SHOT and use 0010 for growth

Naming Conventions

NEVER add a, b, c to shot names!!!  This is poor form and will cause major problems later in specific software that order all of your files numerically.

NEVER use “.” in your file names.  Maya freaks out with the dot in a filename as this means something else to Maya.

So, the name of a file might be: MS_RA_JW010_S0010_anim_v23.ma

Translation: This is v23 of the animator’s file for the Show Mutt’s Story, Sequence: Marvin the Mutt Runs Away, Scene: Jumps out the Window, Shot 01, and no clips.

01 PREPROD

All of your pre-production files are housed here for easy reference
01 RESEARCH

  • Inspiration
  • Logos N Fonts
  • Movies
  • References

02 TWO SHEET

All of your two-sheet files are housed here for easy reference

  • Final
  • Old

03 STYLE SHEETS

All of your research on look dev and style sheet files are housed here for easy reference

  • Final
  • Old

04 CONCEPT ART

All of your pre-production files are housed here for easy reference

  • Final
  • Old

05 BOARDS

All of your storyboard working files are housed here for easy reference

  • Final
  • Old
  • Scans
  • Scripts

06 ANIM TESTS

All of your animation test work files are housed here for easy reference

  • Final
  • Old

07 ANIMATIC

All of your animatic working files are housed here for easy reference

  • Final
  • Old

08 PITCH BIBLE

All of your pitch bible work files are housed here for easy reference

  • Final
  • Old

02 CAMSET

All of your camera and set files are housed here for easy referencing into Maya.  These are your final-hero files.
01 RESEARCH

  • 01 Cameras
    • SC010
    • SC020
    • SC030
  • 02 Environments
    • SC010
    • SC020
    • SC030

03 SHARED

All of your shared assets are housed here for easy referencing into Maya.  These are your final-hero files.
01 RESEARCH

  • 01 Cameras
    • SC010
    • SC020
    • SC030
  • 02 Chars
  • 03 Live Action
    • 01 locations
    • 02 casting
    • 03 wardrobe
    • 04 schedules
    • 05 production photos
    • 06 plates
  • 04 Models
    • vehicles
    • weapons
  • 05 Props
  • 06 Rigs
04 SHOTS

All of your shots and your Maya project are housed here.  This is where you set your project for the Maya workspace.

  • assets
  • autosave
  • clips
  • data
  • images
  • particles
  • renderData
  • renderscenes
  • scenes
    • SQ010
      • SC0010
      • SC0020
      • SC0030
    • SQ020
    • SQ030
  • sound
  • sourceimages
  • textures

05 LIGHT

If you hire a lighter, this is his/her workspace.  You may also like to have separate workspace for lighting even if you are doing it yourself.  Just keeps files clean and only the hero work is referenced into the final shots. It is helpful to create a Maya workspace here so all of the files are saved in the  right directories.  Lights are, of course, shared assets but they get their own place in case you hire a lighter.

  • assets
  • autosave
  • clips
  • data
  • images
  • particles
  • renderData
  • renderscenes
  • scenes
    • SQ010
      • SC0010
      • SC0020
      • SC0030
    • SQ020
    • SQ030
  • sound
  • sourceimages
  • textures
06 AUDIO

If you hire a sound person or even if you just want to keep all of your dialog files in a separate place as you might be making revisions to them, this is where they go. Lights are, of course, shared assets but they get their own place in case you hire a sound designer.  Audio is not subject to the Maya project since the audio will be revised and mastered in different software.  It is helpful to keep the SEQUENCE/SCENE/SHOT structure, though.

  • scratch
  •  SQ010
    • SC0010
    • SC0020
    • SC0030
  • SQ020
  • SQ030

07 COMP

If you hire a compositor, this would be their home to work.  Final composites bring your CG to a higher level.  You may be the one working in this directory.  All the same, it’s better to break this part of production out of the rest and let it have it;s own home.  Again, it is best to respect the SEQUENCE/SCENE/SHOT structure.

  •  SQ010
    • SC0010
    • SC0020
    • SC0030
  • SQ020
  • SQ030
08 EDIT

If you hire an editor, this is where he/she will save their files.  This area can get quite messy with lots of iterations, so I encourage you to set up this structure.  Keeping and inbox and outbox of the files being exchanged is critical.

  •  01 inbox
    • progress
    • final
    • SC0030
  • 02 outbox
    • final
    • progress
  • 03 audio
    • final
    • progress

09 FINAL

Pretty explanatory.  This is where all final files to be shared go.  This will help you know where the files for submitting to festivals and competitions are for quick reference.

  •  incoming
  • notes
  • outgoing
  • title credits

Maya Project Workspace

Set Project to the Maya workspace:

When working in Maya, it’s best to use the Maya project workspace as it is is hardcoded into the file structure and workspace Maya saves the assets in.

Maya is like that drawer you keep your silverware in…

  • Maya doesn’t like the spoon in the fork slot.
  • Paths are created to point where files are.
  • Truncating paths to work with set/project.
  • Finding textures.

How to set a project:

Go to File —> Set Project

  1. Choose the Maya project file structure you copied from the default directory provided with the Maya software.
  2. Or you can just set the project to any directory and Maya will create the default workspace.

Referencing the rig into your scene files:

You should get into the habit of always referencing the rig/puppet into your scenes. Referencing is beneficial for many reasons.

Why should I reference my characters?

  • Your files will be smaller.
  • You cannot break the rig.
  • Updates are seamless.
  • This is how production works, get used to using references.
  • Referencing saves time.

How does referencing save time?

  • Animation can be created even if rig is not finished.
  • Other artists can work on a scene while you animate.
  • Updates are done with a simple click instead of copying curves.
  • Since the rig file is not actually in the animation file, the size of the scene file is very small.

How to reference a rig:

  1. Go to File –> Create Reference —> Options
  2. Reference the rig with the namespacing ON by clicking the Options menu on the right. You want to click on namespace to activate it.
  3. Below the box that appears, click on New Namespace String.
  4. Enter the new namespacing for the rig with a word 4 letters or less (i.e. ball). Hit Reference.
  5. Next, if you set the project correctly, the file structure should be visible. Select the rig you want to reference into your scene from assets or another directory if it is stored somewhere else.
  6. Now, you have a rig correctly referenced into your scene file.
  7. The namespacing is critical to the organization of your files and animation in the scene.

So what have we done and why?

  •  We resolved all conflicting nodes with a proxy namespacing for the referenced file.
  • Character Identification and consistency are why we do this.
  • Naming your character makes elements understandable, the larger your file gets.
  • Ogre, Girl, Goblin, etc. will allow another user to understand what’s what.
  • Multiple references of the same rig require this organization.
  • If you have a crowd scene or a group of soldiers, using the same name breaks.
  • File names can get long, so the added organization helps you keep track of chars.
  • By naming each reference with a different name spacing, you prevent losing animation.

To see if you did it correctly:

  1. Go to File –> Reference Editor and you should see the file listed in the editor.
  2. Click on the file, and the path should display.
  3. You can see the name spacing listed there.
  4. If you named it incorrectly, this is where you can change it.
  5. You can also repoint your rig here if you end up moving its location for some reason.

 

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