The underestimated importance of a structured workflow
It surprises me again and again how often in everyday business studios are trying to push a project through, without having a clear and structured workflow. Not only is this lack of organization exhausting and stressful for the people involved, but at the same time a lot of money is lost in the process. And on top of it all usually a good organization becomes very visible in the quality of the creative result, while making work more inspired and healthy for everyone. Building on a consistent structure is not only something which should be obligatory for the studio, but the studio also needs to teach the client how a good process and communication looks like. If the client demands “final-looking” animated results from the first day on, there is something fundamentally wrong with his expectation.
What I mean with “structured workflow” is fairly simple and should normally go without saying for any creative working in the field: Styleframes – Storyboard – Animatic – Final Result. If it’s possible to add any more steps inbetween that’s great. But to at least stick to these few steps, already seems to be expected too much sometimes. It has happened to me not only once that I worked with agencies who said they are not able to imagine the final result by only seeing Styleframes and Animatic. If a professional creative is not able to have that little amount of imagination, I seriously doubt he is working in the right field.
Especially 3D animation often comes with extensive long render times, therefore any animated renderings should be postponed to the finalization of a project or at least never be mandatory for an intermediate presentation. To be able to talk about looks and feel of a project a nice moodboard can be helpful and a good amount of Styleframes should be more than enough to clarify all visual specifications. It not only gives an impression of how the animated result will look like, but even more it’s the basis for binding creative decisions from the client. In a perfect world nothing has to be changed on the fundamental visual look of the project anymore after the approval of the styleframes.
STORYBOARD & ANIMATIC
While in my opinion a storyboard is something that is great to have, but not absolutely necessary, an animatic is mandatory. Often the styleframes are already a short version of the storyboard, but still sometimes it helps a lot to sketch out the whole animation first before starting to work on the animatic. But most important is an animatic. It helps to get clear about transitions, speed, camera work, technical approaches and so on. And especially it helps to communicate with the client. With a little bit of imagination the client can actually get a very clear idea of what to expect as a final result and then make all the changes he wishes to do, so that the final rendered animation is already as close as possible to what the client wanted without having to change a lot again.
The major benefits of using such a structure might not be perfectly obvious for everyone at first. The client might say that they don’t want to see drawn pictures or ugly wireframes, but the images they are actually paying for. While that expectation might be understandable, it simply is not reasonable. Especially since the client usually only wants to pay as much as necessary – a structured and well organized project can actually save everyone a lot of money! You would never develop a new car by just building it from scratch and then start making changes after the first build is finished. You would never build a new house without having an idea and a construction plan. And you should never try to create a digital animation without organization and concept. Good things – things that work – need preparation! Without preparation the car won’t drive, the house will collapse and a motiondesign piece will simply not work.
A great insight for everyone new to the scene gives this short documentary about creative commerce. During one month filmmakers Terry Rayment and Hunter Richards set out to interview a bunch of well-known commercial artists on questions like creativity, the pursuit of financial profit and the different directions artists can take in their career. Most significant is the conflict of creating art that equates the vision of the artist, while at the same time one has to create commercial work which fulfills the wishes of the client.
"We need to understand that this work is not our own, it belongs to the brand. And ultimately it has to elevate them first and us second – and that is hard for artists to do … cause then they feel it’s not their art anymore." Peter Kote, Conscious Minds
In the commercial space the brand has a lot of control over what will be told. The client intervenes in the process of creation and tries to shape it into something that does not belong to the artist anymore, but to the brand which bought it. With the money comes the sacrifice of artistic self determination and freedom. At the same time the amount of money involved often seems to determine the amount of creative freedom given.
"Before I kind of just did what I wanted to do … now it’s kind of like I have to fight for the things that I think are good." Jose Gomez, Shilo
"The worst client relationship is when you can sense that, that person is just impeding the process because they feel like they need to say something, otherwise what are they doing in the room." Orion Tait, Buck
The role of middlemen in MotionDesign
In the dawn of a unionized VFX community not only people who are working in Visual Effects, but also creatives working in MotionDesign should discuss the structure of their business. One of the biggest point of criticism of the VFX solidarity movement is about the role the VFX studio plays in the correlation of all production companies: While actually creating most of the visible work, the attention that VFX artists and their studios gain is comparably tiny. Even just looking at the credits of a movie, in which the people working on the effects are often lined up close to the end, illustrates the adressed issue. A situation that understandably is not satisfying at all for the digital artist. Many studios have to work on very limited budgets, pushed down to a painful minimum, but at the same time are asked to fulfill all the wishes the director or the production company comes up with. Exhausting overhours become part of everyday business and if sacrificing freedom and health is not enough, the artist might not even get paid.
While the situation in the MotionDesign industry is different there is also a lot of common ground. Not only is the business structure and working environment similar, but also the correlation between studios, agencies and clients shows a lot of commonalities. In many cases a client hires an agency to produce the desired product, which then hires a studio to realize it, which again hires additional freelancers to do the job. A constellation that is fairly comparable to the situation in the VFX industry – in which the client resembles the director and the agency the film production company. It is unquestionable that the motiondesigner has to fulfill every wish the client has, since of course most important is that the client is happy with the final result, but beside designing the visuals, even more important is that creatives are hired to give advise and their expertise on how to communicate and advertise the desired message. An expertise that is especially important in such a high-technological field as MotionDesign. If the middleman between client and MotionDesigner is not knowledged enough in the production workflow and the technologic side of it, it is most likely to happen that concepts are created which in the end are impossible to realize in the given budget. And if that happens, the client will ask for changes over and over again and the studios and designers are then blamed for being too expensive. So whenever a motiondesigner is creating a concept, planning how it can be technically executed is a major part of this process and if that part is left out by the intervention of unknowing middleman, the project will most likely turn into a struggle or even be damned to fail. But for certain it will not be possible to execute it efficient, profitable and satisfying for all involved parties.
The same way the VFX community demands more influence and a „higher“ position in the hierarchy, the MotionDesign community as well should discuss their position and working environment. This starts at demanding to always be completely involved in concept stages, trying to avoid the intervention of „unknowing middleman“ and goes on to forming a union that protects the rights of design workers. It can’t be that the designers which are actually creating the work, having the expertise and knowledge to do so, are often considered to be at the end of the hierarchy – and then even have to suffer the most, when somebody higher in the „chain of command“ screws up. The main reason for this to happen more and more often, is that there is no institution or organization to support and protect the digital artists. There is no common organized voice speaking for their rights and unfortunately the designers, being afraid to loose their jobs, often don’t dare to speak for themselves against the misery of crazy overhours or unpaid projects. Something that is more than normal in most other fields, is strangely abscent in the motion picture industry.
A brief look into the latest incredibly beautiful and powerful work by Richard Mosse shows this short documentary by magazine “Frieze”: Mosse shot his latest film “The Enclave”, which will be shown as a 6-screen installation in the Irish Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A country lost in a never-ending civil war, torn in a cruel legacy of misrule, described by the United Nations as “the rape capital of the world”.
Mosse used 16mm color-infrared film to shoot the imagery, which created a pinkish, bright look. A visual style that is far away from being typical for documenting the “world’s worst war”, but nevertheless achieves to create a different perspective on imagery that has almost lost its message after being recycled again and again by mass media. The stunning images put the audience in an uncomfortable situation, on one hand admiring the beauty of what is seen and on the other hand being terrified by its cruel content. His explanation of why he decided to use this visual approach was highly interesting and inspirational:
"Beauty is one of the mainlines to make people feel something (…) And if you are trying to make people feel something, if you are able to make it beautiful, then they’ll sit up and listen. And often if you make something that’s derived from human suffering or from war, if you represent that with beauty – and sometimes it is beautiful – it creates an ethical problem in the viewers mind. (…) They are confused, angry and disoriented… and this is great, cause you got them to actually think about the active perception and how this imagery is produced and consumed."
MotionDesign vs. AbsoluteFilm
Often I’m wondering about the origins of the field that we are working in and why it seems to be so disconnected from any ideologic historic reference. There are many different kind of theories and perspectives around how MotionDesign has developed, but scarcely any scientifically grounded papers. A handfull of people tried to shed some light in its history by connecting different movements from the past with what we have today, but beside investigating its historical development, it feels even more necessary to think about its ideological and philosophical origin. The artistical and conceptual idea of MotionDesign is a poorly discussed topic in the history of art, design and media sociology – not seldomly the impression arises that MotionDesign is only perceived as a temporary craze. But taking a closer look at what it is today and looking for similar movements in the past, brings up several interesting connections.
A few years ago the project MotionPlusDesign appeared, which is trying to discuss the history of MotionDesign further. They created a nice and illustrative video, which shortly mentions some of its historical references: http://motion-plus-design.com/. Although it all started quite promising, unfortunately it doesn’t look like it is developing much further.
In February this year SCAD’s professor Michael Betancourt released his book „The History of Motion Graphics“, which seems to be the only complete and comprehensive work about the topic till today. But finally there is a summary of MotionDesign history that could be a future standard for a common definition. Definitely a recommendation for everyone who wants to get deeper into the topic: http://motionographer.com/2013/02/12/the-history-of-motion-graphics/
But as I mentioned in the beginning of this post, my interest right now lies less in the historical reference than in looking for ideological origins. Although MotionDesign is by its name categorized as a subform of design, I see it much more as a hybrid of several different genres. While design plays a big role in it’s visual creation, we can often find a much more artistic approach in its conceptualization. Especially abstract animation is an extremely important form of expression amongst many MotionDesigners and as soon as projects are not commercial contract work, they often turn out to be visually designed experimental films, forms of experimental narration or progressive abstract animations. Even more since the term MotionDesign is in itself only poorly defined, the question arises which works of film history are to be considered as a reference. Do we understand MotionDesign not only as the realization of graphical animations, but furthermore as a creative and less narrative approach to timebased media, the perspective on its ideological origins changes again: Early works of experimental film as well as abstract animations are then to be perceived as references.
I’m working on a title sequence right now, which involves a lot of 3D tracking, and therefore using TheFoundry Cameratracker quite a lot currently. Unfortunately there is a known bug using the plugin with AfterEffects CS6 – they are working on fixing it right now: Normally you are able to see your tracking results as a PointCloud in 3D space, after enabling “Toggle 2D/3D”, but unfortunately that feature doesn’t work for some people. When using a CustomView-Camera to actually analyse that PointCloud, it doesn’t show anything. I contacted TheFoundry and they got back to me with a workaround which actually solves the problem using an older version of the plugin - thought I’d share it, since I didn’t find it anywhere else on the net. Thanks Ravi from TheFoundry for the quick support:
By using the previous version of CameraTracker with CS6 you might be able to make the PointCloud work. Follow the steps to get CameraTracker 1.0v3 installed on AE CS6:
1) Uninstall CameraTracker completely from your machine.
2) If you have AfterEffects 5.5 installed, Install CameraTracker 1.0v3, which you could download directly from the FTP location below:
3) If you do not have AfterEffects 5.5 installed, please create a folder structure yourself as below:
/Applications/Adobe After Effects CS5.5/Plug-ins/
4) Now, Copy the entire CameraTracker directory to the same place, but under the AE CS6 install directory – the install directory for Cameratracker is:
/Applications/Adobe After Effects CS5.5/Plug-ins/CameraTracker_1.0_AE/
copy the entire Cameratracker folder over to
/Applications/Adobe After Effects CS6/Plug-ins/CameraTracker_1.0_AE/
5) Launch AE and check if the PointCloud works now.