Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Project Planning for Animation

"Why should an amateur animator be interested in project planning for their animation?"

In my case it's to solve the problem of working on the film very intermittently and forgetting what needs to be done and what is important. For a large project or a project with many people working on it, project planning can help communicate between the team members.
A good project plan links together the tasks that need to be completed, the resources (either computers, materials or people) and time. A plan can also be used to communicate to non animators such as project sponsors if you are lucky enough to have some. A plan can help provide an estimate for your budget or highlight problem areas in your project.

There are different techniques for project planning, I'm going to describe just one which is task based planning as I feel that is more suited to smaller projects with one or a few resources.

The first and minimum requirement for a plan is just a list of tasks to be done.

A simple example framework for these is outlined below for character based short story with two characters and three scenes.

  • Storyboarding
  • Script Development
  • Recording voices
  • Model Character 1
  • Model Character 2
  • Model Sets
  • Animate Scene 1
  • Animate Scene 2
  • Animate Scene 3
  • Sound Effects
  • Film/Video Editing
  • Production/release
In total these tasks define the scope of your project, if in the script development a new set or new character is needed then these should be added to the plan. The size of the tasks will depend on the timescales and complexity of your project. If for example you are on a 2 week schedule with 2 team members then large tasks such as in the example above would be relevant. If you are running with a large team over a longer period then each of these tasks can be broken down into smaller tasks, for example modelling character 1 could be split into modelling the armature/rigging and costume design. It is important that your tasks are clearly definable but it is not important to put that detail into the actual plan. It helps if each of the tasks of of a similar size/effort. This will make assigning dependencies easier and will avoid smaller tasks being overlooked.

Time Estimates and dependencies
A task list by itself can be very helpful for your project and will allow you to monitor progress and share tasks between the team. To turn you task list into a plan the time element is added.

There's two factors to the time element, the first is an estimate of how long a task will take and the second dependency information.

Estimating is notoriously difficult but that's not an excuse not to do it. As you complete more projects you will find that it becomes easier. One technique is to break your tasks down into subtasks to help you to estimate them but in your plan simply put the total for the subtasks.

The dependency information defines how the tasks related to each other. Most project planning tools show this as a link between the tasks. In our example above, the recording of the voice actors would not start before the completion of the script development. When you could to perform these tasks you may find that there's a little overlap, for example you may be perfecting one characters lines in parallel to recording another character. Trying to put these details into the plan is going to be problematic so my recommendation is to not bother for simple plans. If you have a large project then this kind of overlap may be an indication of the tasks not being sufficiently fine in detail. You might find that splitting the tasks into subtasks will resolve the problem.

You may find that the process of adding estimations and dependencies will add tasks into your plan, for example you may have forgotten about training requirements or you may need to split the animation of a scene into two tasks, for different shots. To use the Ratobat film as an example the Jump Shot required two steps. The first was recording, the second was the removal of the bridge, these were significant tasks in their own right and hence could be planned separately. The cleanup task is dependent on filming task but the two don't need to happen at the same time, hence we know we can split this into two tasks.

Ratobat on a bridge

For the Flea Film the production plan contains just the tasks and time and was produced using OpenOffice's Calc.


Resources are any materials, places, equipment or people associated with the project. For example you may only have one sound studio hence you can only record one voice at once or you may be the only person on the project and hence if you are designing characters you can't also be animating. However, coming from a engineering background I liked to refer to Fred Brooks' Mythical Man-Month book which makes the point that you can't just throw resources at a task and expect it to get completed more quickly. Fred's comments really apply to most projects and not just software so I recommend his book.

There are several reasons to add resources into a plan. The first is to find the areas in the plan where people or other resources are over booked. The plan can then be adjusted in an attempt to balance this. Some software can do this automatically and others will require you to manually make adjustments. The second reason is to help budget the project. For example you may need to pay for studio time or for CGI projects for rendering time and the plan should be able provide this information for you. You may also have need to book resources some weeks in advance so being able to get this information from the plan is vital.

Like anything you need to pick the right tool for the job. The right tool might be dependant on your computer, your budget and will definitely depend on the needs of you plan.

One of the things I find annoying is the assumption that if you need project planning software then you must be a big corporation and capable of paying lots for a fancy project planning tool. For example Microsoft Project costs £499 for the latest version which is well beyond my budget given that I'd only be using it for maybe 1 or 2 hours a month. There is a way out of this for students in that Microsoft have teamed up with Software 4 Students to provide Microsoft Office Professional.

However all is not lost, there's lots of Web based open source solutions for project planning, track one of these down on Google if you have an international collaborative project. There's also a few stand alone software options such as Open Project. However, I choose to forgo having gant charts and resource calculators and simply put my project details into a spreadsheet.
I'm not an expert on Apple software, so here's some comments from a user on Mac planning software.

Final thoughts
One important thing to remember about a project plan is that is should not be carved in stone at the beginning of the project. The plan can be based-lined, either by taking a copy of the plan and setting it read only or by using your software's baselining functionality. This allows you to then compare your current plan with the original. This can then be used to ensure the next plan you start is better. The plan can become a working document with new tasks being added and time estimates being more accurately reflected as the project goes on.
My other thought is that the project should run the plan rather than the other way around. Although this might sound counter intuitive you should think of the plan being there for the benefit of your project. A good project plan can help you provide budgets, with booking of resources and ensuring you don't end up trying to animate before your sets and models are ready.
Happy planning!

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