An animated learning process

Sometimes a project comes along that really stretches you. Challenges can come from all angles; the brief, the time constraints, the complexity, dot-dot-dot, it can all mount up and I’m learning that only experience can give you the foresight to see what’s coming ahead and plan accordingly.
A year ago I was commissioned to produce an animated music video for Dubai based rock band, The Boxtones and, not being particularly busy at the time, I agreed immediately. The brief was simple and open and I’d produced animated music videos in the past so I didin’t think it would be too much trouble. How wrong I was. Wonderful hindsight points out a number of things I should and shouldn’t have done but I believe that I had to make these mistakes to understand the reason why professional creative projects are organised just so. I’ve learned a lot of lessons. Some seem obvious but most of them were learned the hard way but for some reason I feel pretty good about it all. Although, that could well be the warm glow of nearing completion.

Looking back, the problems began straight away when there was no initial deadline set and the project floated in limbo for a fair few months before the band decided it was time to push on. The project was already dragging but I had decided that I was going to push the boat out on this one and work in higher detail, more colours and better accuracy. It was all very well thinking these grand thoughts but I still had to put pen to paper.

Lesson 1 learned: When given a commission/project, get stuck in ASAP.

Unfortunately, I’d used the intervening time to break my finger whilst snowboarding and had undergone two operations to straighten it out. It wasn’t until the end of the summer that the storyboards first went out for review. In my experience up to this point, an open brief had meant just that; “go away and make something cool that we will like.” Of course, animation is not the sort of thing that you can create through trial and error but I was under the illusion that showing the band the storyboard was merely a formality before I got stuck into the animation proper. Well within their rights, the band spent a few weeks going over the storyboards and finally sent back some ideas of their own that they wanted to include in the video. Storyboarding takes a long time. In a solo project such as this, I don’t consider it part of the discussion phase, more a tool for me to use while in production. Unfortunately a lot of the changes that the band wanted meant that most of the storyboard was useless and I had to go back to square one to re-imagine the animation which, for some reason, I did with some indignation. UPDATE (23rd December, 2012): Since working on more recent projects, I have come to the conclusion that the storyboard is a good way for clients to visualise what you’re suggesting. No matter how much effort you put into descriptive prose and gesticulation, a client is never going to really completely understand what your putting to them. A couple of lessons learned here:

Lesson 2 learned: Hash out the exact details of the story with the client in paragraph and sketch form before launching into the storyboarding process. UPDATE (23rd December, 2012): See update above to see recent opinions on this.

Lesson 3 learned: If a client doesn’t like you first idea(s), move on! Don’t get all upset about it.

My animation program of choice is Toon Boom Animate. It’s awesome and I’ve been using it for around five years. I had up to this point been using the amateur version, Toon Boom Studio but decided that it was time to upgrade in order to accomodate my grand designs. Even though Animate is the next rung on the Toon Boom ladder, it’s architecture is pretty different to Studio. Suddenly I found myself having to learn a program from square one before I could even tween!

Lesson 4 learned: Stick with what you know. Learning new things is great but don’t do it when you’re in the middle of a project.

There still hadn’t been a deadline set and it wasn’t a failure on the Boxtone’s part. They were politely asking for an approximate completion date and, because of being in the process of learning lessons one through four, I was unable to give them one.

University had begun and I was finding it hard to put aside the time to really think it all through. In hindsight, a deadline is exactly what I needed. Once I’d set one I felt much better. I’ve decided that I like them. They give a light at the end of the tunnel, a finality to all things, a date that you know this job HAS to be completed by.

Lesson 5 learned: Always work to a deadline and learn to love them.

My final lesson is an unfortunate one but some might say one of the most important. As my brother is in the Boxtones, I was happy to give a ‘family rate’ for my fee which I set at a relatively small figure based on other projects that I’ve done. If I’d really thought about the work involved, even with the family rates in there, I would have charged a little more.

Lesson 6 learned: Work out your fee carefully. It’s all very well trying to appear good value for money but if your hourly rate ends up being half the national wage then you probably didn’t charge enough.

I’m now in my last week of production and I can see the finish. It’s unfortunate that the deadline coincides with a bunch of other deadlines that seemed to materialise after I set my own but such is life. It’s taken a long time but not all of it has been due to the process described above. The project has been a complicated one and while not learning my new lessons, I’ve spent a lot of time actually animating. That being said it has been a rewarding experience and I hope the final product works it’s magic for the Boxtones. I’ll post it here soon.

Square one…

So here marks the beginning of my journey into blogging. I’ve never written one before and I’m not much of a social networker and yet here I am putting down the first bundle of words that will be my first blog.

So why write one now, you may ask. Well, I’ve taken a more unusual route than the norm might dictate to finally arrive at the place I’m at now. I managed to live my ‘rock’n roll years’ as a variation of a rock’n roller (albeit a mild one) in the perpetually touring and now (as I write this blog) almost defunct Barrage show. I had an experience of a lifetime (I expect there to be more) and learned a lot of things. Some perhaps more applicable to the betterment of my future than others but none of it was wasted. I don’t think there will ever be a time when I won’t miss that decade and the people who became my second family.

But now I’m moving on, I’m almost one third of the way through a bachelors degree in Digital Media and Marketing and I’m determined to find a more permanent job that I can devote my time, effort and passions to. My degree is a combined honours course at Manchester Metropolitan University and I’m crafting my options towards the front end web development and design areas in the hope that an awesome digital media agency will want to take me on as their new bright spark.

This blog will journal my discoveries and learnings in the world of web design and creative digital media in general and maybe once in a while I’ll see fit to ramble like today on some thoughts. See you over the next few years.

Now where’s that publish button?

Matt Harney