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3D Animation: Getting to Know the Production Pipeline

People, hardware, and software aligned in a specific sequence to create a 3D animation product or asset. The final product could be a traditional film, short film, TV show, or video game, or something completely different. While the hardware and software used for each project may vary, the basic stages of 3D animation are the same. The production pipeline has three major stages:

  • Preproduction
  • Production
  • Postproduction

Working in 3D Animation Preproduction 

Preproduction is the 3D project's planning, designing, and research phase. This is the stage where great ideas are born and production plans are made that will help you manage the project.

Preproduction is divided into five stages, and depending on the project, you may use all or some of them. The following is a typical sequence:

1. Idea/Story

A project idea can come from anywhere and anything. Unexpected encounters with strangers or listening in on someone else's conversation can spark an idea. Ideas should be fun and simple, not set in stone.

2. Script/Screenplay

The script or screenplay is the final story written down. It describes the character's movements, time, environment, actions, and speech. This literary form is used by preproduction and production teams to visualize the story. Many people on the preproduction and production teams will need to quickly gather information from the script.

3. Storyboard

The storyboard is the script's visual story form. Imagine it as a script comic book. This is the first visual representation of your story. It includes early camera staging ideas, visual effects concepts, and key character poses or scene events. A storyboard depicts a scripted story beat or moment.

4. Animatic/Pre-visualization

An animatic is an animated storyboard. An animatic is a limited animation of your entire story, similar to a storyboard. An animatic can be made in the same way as a computer movie. It's just the storyboard images timed to temporary dialogue and simple sound effects to show the project's sequence pacing. The preproduction team will switch between storyboards and animatics to create the final edit.

5. Design

The design component decides the project's final look. Character, prop, costume, and environment design are all included in the entertainment industries. To create conceptual art, preproduction designers or concept artists use anything from traditional media like pen and paper to computer software like Adobe Photoshop or Corel Painter.

Working in 3D Animation Production

The final visual elements of a 3D animation project are created here. The assembly-line concept comes into play here. Components of the production stage include:

1. Layout

The 3D layout stage creates a 3D animatic. This is important because in 2D, you can often cheat on things like perspective angles, character scale to camera, and object distances, but in 3D, these things can be difficult to cheat on. 3D layout artists start with the 2D animatic and match the shots with 3D characters and environments. The 3D layout becomes the new production blueprint for the 3D animation team.

2. Research and Development  (R&D)

R&D is a component that spans the entire 3D animation pipeline, from preproduction to postproduction. In R&D, artists from various components collaborate with technical directors on upcoming technical challenges.

3. Modeling

Nothing can be seen onscreen or quickly prototyped without modeling. A model is a 3D surface representation of an object that can be rotated and viewed. Many methods exist for creating 3D models. Create them in 3D animation software like Autodesk Maya, 3ds Max, or Softimage. A laser scanner can scan a real object and create a digital 3D model of it. Using software like Autodesk Mudbox or Pixologic ZBrush, you can digitally sculpt your object like clay.

4. Texturing

Texture artists texturize geometric models by applying color and surface properties. The models usually arrive in a program's default shaded flat color. His job is to make the model's surface resemble the concept art or its real-world counterpart.

5. Rigging/Setup

Rigging is the process of attaching a control rig to a geometric object so that animators can move it. The rigger's job is to help the animators by creating a control system that allows them to work quickly and efficiently. Every moving object in a 3D animation project has a control system.

6. Animation

The animation component creates object or character movement. From there, the animators add the final performance or movement to the scene.

7. 3D Visual Effects

The 3D visual effects artist animates everything except the characters or the props they interact with, such as fur, hair, cloth, fire, water, and dust. Like rigging/setup, this part requires both technical and artistic skills. Most 3D visual effects use a dynamic physics engine within software to manipulate natural physics like air, gravity, and drag. So basic physics and math skills are required. But a 3D VFX artist must also be an artist.

8. Lighting/Rendering

Lighting is the production stage's painting. Lighting artists use preproduction color guides to create lighting and mood for a scene or sequence. 3D lighting is similar to lighting in film or photography. 3D lighters can simulate real-world light sources like spotlights, lightbulbs, and sunlight.

Working in 3D Animation Postproduction 

Postproduction is the final stage of a 3D animation project, but the outcome varies by industry. The entertainment industry uses this stage to add visual effects and color corrections to a project. Professionalism is the icing on the cake. The scientific industries use this stage to double-check projects' accuracy and output them to desired media.

The postproduction stage includes the following components:

1. Compositing

In compositing, the postproduction artist layers all of the created and filmed imagery. Layering can be simple with only a few layers or complex with hundreds of layers. A mix of 3D and 2D graphics can be used, as well as live-action film plates.

2. 2D Visual Effects/Motion Graphics

Compositing often includes 2D visual effects and motion graphics. In some studios, the compositor and 2D visual effects artist are the same person. If a lighting artist completes the initial composite for a shot, the 2D visual effects artist will finish it. The 2D visual effects artist will add effects that are easier to achieve in 2D than in 3D.

3. Color Correction 

Color correction, also known as color timing or color grading, is the process of adjusting the project's color to match the final output source.

4. Final Output 

3D animation outputs include film, video, web, rapid prototyping, 3D stereoscopic film, and print media. The most common output is digital video for computer or internet playback. Color correction is the most technical limitation of this type because not all computers and monitors are calibrated.

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