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Are you wondering how animation, VFX, movies, games, and apps are actually made?
Think of it as the step-by-step process that all projects need to go through in order to start from concept and to final viewable (or playable) product.
Each type of project has slightly different variations on their pipelines, but overall the same big ideas must happen. As soon as you understand this process you’ll be able to strategically plan where your talents can add value to the industry AND you can focus on mastering the skills of whatever part of the pipeline is most exciting to you (for me, I loved story and character animation).
Before we jump in, my name is Mike L. Murphy and I've worked on Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Iron Man, The Iron Giant, Fast and Furious and dozens more. I really want to share my expertise with you and answer these questions:
Instead of wondering about all that, I want to tell you exactly what I did and what others have done, so you can make your dreams happen much faster than they normally would.
The pipeline is broken into 3 distant phases:
Now let’s jump into the 10 ‘big steps’ that all awesome projects follow (use these exact steps to create your own pro-quality projects!
Every exciting project must start out with a great idea.
How many movies have you seen where the main idea wasn’t interesting? All the best animation, VFX and eye-candy can’t save a bad idea!
It takes a lot of brainstorming of ideas before the ‘best’ one is picked. The bigger studios develop dozens (if not hundreds) of projects in order to pick the best ones. All your favorite projects had to be developed, pitched and agreed upon before too much work was put into them.
A great story concept is one where you can hear a one sentence description and think ‘that sounds cool! I want to know more…”
In Hollywood, we call this a ‘Log Line’. It has nothing to do with wood!
This phrase is used because the development executives would have to ‘log’ these concepts down into the studios development logs (notebooks) and be able to track them.
Here’s some examples of great ‘log lines’:
A theme park uses DNA to bring dinosaurs back to life, but the dinosaurs escape and things get very bad…
A young orphan is able to escape his miserable life when he’s invited to attend wizarding school and learns to become a hero.
A rich billionaire uses his wealth to seek revenge of his parents murder by masquerading as a bat in order to instill fear into Gotham Cities criminal underground.
If you don’t recognize these concepts, they’re for Jurassic Park, Harry Potter and Batman. These concepts are so strong they spawned franchises and even different ‘reboots’ (like Jurassic World or the countless Batman movies).
If you’re making your own project, instead of just going with the first idea that comes in your head, you should brainstorm different ideas.
For example, in the original script for Back to the Future, the time machine was a refrigerator that needed to be blown up at the nuclear test site in Nevada in the 1950s. This idea was nowhere near as cool as the DeLorean car! Imagine if Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale (the writers) stuck with their original idea? I’d have less toys in my office!
In other words, never, ever take your first idea and just assume it's the best.
Also, EVERY project is based off a story, or concept. Even games or apps. If the core concept isn’t attention grabbing the project won’t be marketable. This means that STORY is everything. Never get seduced by cool artwork…instead come up with a great story and have faith the visuals will make it better.
You see, a great story is the key to success. Shows like The Simpsons, South Park and Family Guy are all somewhat crude in their designs…but the stories are so good (and entertaining) that the audience tunes in anyway.
On the flip-side, expensive movies like Batman Versus Superman have awful stories so all the special effects in the world doesn’t make them any more watchable. Stories engage our emotions and curiosity. Without those 2 human elements being engaged you’ll never make anyone care about your project.
That’s why we have a famous saying in Hollywood: ‘Story is king!’
Once you have brainstormed a bunch of different ideas, it’s time to pitch them to different people.
You want to make sure that your ideas are solid and they stand on their own before you flesh them out with visuals or examples. Simply pitch your different concepts/log lines and ask, "Which concept stands out the most to you?”
Chances are 80% of the people you pitch to will like the same ideas. Once you narrow all your ideas to a few select ones, it’s time to develop those a little more. Here you can start finding visual examples of what each story might look like.
We call this ‘visual development’. This will let you take your log line and add a little more complexity to it. The key is to keep this simple…don’t waste time doing tons of development art. It could call get tossed if that idea isn’t the one you decide upon.
I suggest you pitch 30 ideas to 10 people and narrow down the best ideas to 2 or 3. This is what the studios do, and you should do it too!
Once you have 2-3 rock solid ideas, you can search for images on Google that represent how you want your concepts to look like. This whole process should only take a few hours. You can find examples of the characters, locations or images that evoke the feelings you want your story to have. Then place them into slideshow (use Keynote or Powerpoint) and re-pitch your top 2-3 ideas to people. Ask people what their feedback is so you can determine the final concept you’re going to go with.
Remember that if you pick the wrong concept/story/log line, no one will care about your project! You put the same hard work in no matter if the idea is good or bad…so protect your time (and reputation) by developing different concepts, getting feedback and finally picking the one that people positively react to the most (not the one you’re most in love with).
Let's assume you have a great idea…
Everybody loves it! Now it's time to flesh it out. That means you have to write a script.
A script can be as complex as 120 page screenplay, or as simple as a few ‘bullet points’ written down on a napkin.
A script serves as the ‘blueprint’ for the entire project.
It lets the entire crew all be on the same page so everyone can be clear on the vision for the project. It also lets the producers budget things out. Each character, location and prop needs to be rented or built…and each of these elements costs a lot to create! A script can help artists cut out ideas that aren’t necessary in order to streamline the story and keep the budget reasonable.
Studios hire professional screenwriters to create these scripts. You, as a humble and up-and-coming genius, may think ‘I’m not a writer!” Never fear, you don’t have to be a screenwriter to write a ‘script’ for your project.
You can simply write bullet points of what happens in your story. I
t’s a lot more efficient to write ideas down then draw them. It takes just a few minutes to write a sentence that makes sense to others. It can take hours to draw something that makes sense. And if you invest too much time sketching your thoughts you’ll be very resistant to throwing any ideas out. There’s another famous saying in Hollywood ‘kill your darlings’. It simply means that nothing should be cherished…in the end each idea needs to create a great story, not force the story to go into any specific direction.
If you have no idea what storyboards are, they’re simply sketches of the script. They let you visualize the ideas the script is trying to convey.
Storyboards are meant to be rough, and quickly generated. This is because it takes dozens of sketches to arrive at the most elegant version of each idea.
Just like a story concept, you never want to settle for your first idea. The big studios hire dozens of storyboard artists, and on average they use 1 sketch for every 100 that are created!
That means you need to have the mindset that you’ll be putting a lot of your work into the garbage bin.
Storyboards also let you figure out the cheapest ways to get ideas across. It’s a lot cheaper to hire a storyboard artist to figure ideas out instead of a full crew! You just basically have one artist who figures out what needs to be seen on screen for any given section of the project.
For example, let's say your story requires a gas station as the main location. You might be thinking you need to model the entire gas station including the bathrooms, storage room, every piece of candy in the mini-mart, the gas pumps and break room. But after storyboarding the idea out, you would realize you only need to model the cash register area. Knowing that would literally save you weeks of work (and time is money!)
That's why the storyboards become really important!
They also communicate to everybody what your visual ideas are. When you read a script you envision things looking a specific way. Imagine if everyone on a crew envisioned the project looking completely differently? Storyboards help get everyone onto the same page.
Long story short, the script and storyboards are essentially time and cost saving measures to get the story right up front so there are no cost-overruns in the production phase. That’s the phase where 80% of the crew is employed. This means projects can easily go over-budget if ideas aren’t worked out in advance.
Let's assume that your storyboards are great. You now need to time them out onto film.
A storyreel is where the storyboards are edited together along with music, dialogue and sound effects. Because the final project will end up as a film-based medium (meaning it’s something that audiences will view on a screen), it’s important to mock up that final product as quickly as possible. That’s where story reels come in.
Storyreels do a few important things:
The funny thing about storyreels is they often highlight major flaws in the story. Things that worked great in the written script feel odd in the storyreel.
A famous example of this was on Finding Nemo. The script was apparently amazing. But once the storyboards were timed out the story felt dull and predictable. So the editor moved things around and the filmmakers basically rewrote the script in storyreel format. That’s why you never want to skip this important step!
If you’ve come this far, now is the time to get feedback before any time is wasted.
That means you’ll show your storyreel to people who haven’t seen it before to get a fresh set of eyes, and see what works…and what doesn’t.
In Hollywood, this is where they screen the project to ‘test audiences’. There were many times when I, as a young college student, would get free tickets to attend a test screening. Often the movie is very rough! But it lets the filmmakers verify if their ideas are working or not.
Here is where you want to ask:
Remember that if you’re making a project everything makes sense to you. But the ideas you THINK you’re conveying are probably very different than the ideas that others are picking up on. The only way to make sure your ideas are clear (and that audiences can enjoy your project) is to ask them ‘does everything make sense? If not, what was confusing?’.
This is where the Pre-Production Phase officially ends.
Studios usually only move into the Production Phase once they know the story is clear. The exception to this is if they have a crazy deadline and can’t stop things to re-work the story. This is the point where some films get shutdown in order to totally rework things (like Toy Story 2, or the Good Dinosaur). If projects with story problems aren’t fixed at this phase it is near impossible to salvage them later!
Assuming all is good with the story (the test audiences love the storyreel), then it’s time to jump into the Production Phase! This is where 80% of the crew is working on the project.
If this is Live-Action, here you’ll have actors, wardrobe people, set decorators, caterers, camera crew, stunt people…you name it! Hundreds of people are needed for each day on set.
For animation, games or VFX, here is where you have modelers, lighters, riggers, animators and more. Just like live-action, lots of talented people are needed to produce the story in the Production Phase.
A typically full CG (fully animated computer generated) movie might have 30-40 people working in Pre-Production. Then anywhere from 400-600 can be added on in the Production Phase.
In a VFX heavy live-action movie (like Lord of the Rings), they can have a crew of around 1200 people. Time is money, so it pays to take the time needed to get things right in Pre-Production.
In this step all the things that will appear on screen (which we call Assets) need to be created (assuming the project is all digital). If the project is live-action (such as a scene that will have a digital character added in), the set and props need to be rented or built.
Everything that must be created requires time or money!
Producers will break the script down to determine all the assets needed, and how much they’ll cost to create. This is where illustrators (in the Art Department), modelers, riggers, texture artists and TDs (Technical Directors) build each asset out. Once each asset is built it must be tested to make sure it’s ready to animate, and that it renders without any glitches.
Once each asset is approved it moves further down the pipeline and into layout.
Once the assets are created (and approved by the Director), it’s time to lay each shot out in the preferred CG (computer graphic) program. Most movies and shows use Autodesk Maya.
Layout simply means each shot (camera angle) is created by placing the camera (with the right lens and movement), characters and props into the right location (or set).
Then each shot is quickly rendered out and edited back into the story reel to verify that each shot is compositionally pleasing and works with the other shots.
Once the layout is approved, the shot moves to the animation department. Here the animators bring the characters to life, or add motion to things such as vehicles, simulations (wind, water, fire, etc) or motion graphics.
Once the animation is approved, the shots get ‘finaled’.
This means they get lit (where lights are set up to make the shot look pretty and direct the audience’s eye to the key story elements), rendered (where each frame is calculated in order to create a final high-quality image) and composited (where all rendered images are merged together into one final frame).
As the shots get finished they move over to the editing department. Here they shift from Production to Post-Production. The editors work with the music and sound editing departments to add in the music and sound effects.
On live-action movies the Production and Post-Production Phases are very clear. But in animation or VFX they processes overlap…
Since it takes so much time (often a full year) to produce an animated film, each sequence is worked on one at a time. When one sequence gets completed in the Production Phase it moves to Post-Production. Then the next sequence goes into Production. It’s very much like an assembly line so that all artists are always having tasks to do.
This is the one step that most artists try their best to ignore! This typically falls under the Producer and Heads of Department to make sure the entire crew is hitting their deadlines and staying on budget.
A lot of times new artists see the producer as the enemy because they’re asking you to be responsible and get your work done on time. While that can feel like a nagging parent at times, its important to remember that if the shots don’t get completed on time, the entire production will run out of money. And when that happens everyone gets fired!
So it’s very important that deadlines are met!
Think of the producers as people who have the annoying job of having to keep you focused on the business side of things (while giving you the freedom to feel creative and have bring joy to your work). In short, they really are the glue that holds the entire ship together!
If you run out of time and money, your project doesn't get done. Right? Simple as that.
I’ve never been on a project that’s wasn’t a lot of hard work!
Some projects (like the commercials I’ve directed) are 6-8 weeks long. While others (like Lord of the Rings), lasts for almost a decade.
At the end of all that it’s absolutely important for the entire crew to gather together to celebrate their wins. Just like graduating high school, you may very likely never see those amazing crew members again.
All the best projects I’ve been on have some sort of ‘wrap party’ where we celebrate the wrap of the production.
So let's do a recap 'cause I want this to be really clear to you…
The very first and most important thing is the concept.
Once you have a great concept, a script is written. Assuming the script is approved, storyboards get sketched up, then edited into a storyreel.
Here feedback is asked for, and any necessary changes are made to the script, storyboards and storyreel.
Once the story reel is approved, the project is moved into the Production Phase. This is where the assets are created. The shots are laid out, animated, rendered and composited.
Then each shot moves into Post-Production where the music, sound effects and other tweaks are added so the final product can be premiered to Audiences. Assuming they love it, the studio makes a lot of money and they’re ready to hire you for their next exciting project.
Now that you’re clear on the big picture steps, why not download the free Pipeline Process Map I’ve created? It’ll help you remember this entire process. Click here to grab yours now!
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I really love it. I think you're gonna love it too.
I hope this gave you some insights into how to get started making your dreams happen.
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Hopefully, this served you well! Remember that only you can make your dreams happen. So commit now and don’t let anything stop you!
All the best,
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