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An insider's guide to the 3D animation pipeline

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The process of creating a 3D animation is much more complex than most people think. The number of steps to produce a 3D animated video can vary a great deal, depending on the animation studio involved and the scale of the project itself.

But generally, a lengthy list of tasks must be checked and a large group of people with different skillsets must be engaged for a 3D animated video or feature film to be produced. In order to push such a complicated process forward efficiently and affordably, a solid structure and a detailed framework is needed: 3D animation pipeline.

What is a production pipeline?

A 3D animation production pipeline is a system consisting of people, hardware and software aligned to work in a specific sequential order to do pre-determined tasks in a pre-determined time frame, which will lead to a 3D animation product or asset as the final output.

The final product could be a traditional animation such as a feature film, short film, television show, or video game asset, or it could be something totally different. It’s much like an assembly line for 3D animated video production.

Why do we use a pipeline for 3D animation production?

You can picture the 3D animation pipeline as a creative assembly line in which everything is planned out; from conception to publishing. The entire pipeline might consist of as much as 500 artists or as few as 2. The most significant point of having a pipeline in place is that every single one of these artists must know what, when and how exactly the tasks in hand should be done and handed out to the next artist or group of artists.

Generally, there are four main reasons for using a pipeline in 3D animation production:

  • Time management:

    Producing 3D animation, especially feature films and 3D animated series, is a complex and time-consuming endeavor in nature. When accumulated, even minor micro-delays in each step can postpone the outcome and lead the whole project towards a financial disaster created by a domino effect. So there needs to be a detailed time frame for each step and a grand plan to coordinate multiple creative lines accordingly; some of which are supposed to be done simultaneously.

  • Budget management:

    Although depending on multiple factors 3D animation costs and budgets might vary, most of the time a significant amount of money is involved and it needs to be spent in a controlled manner to be effective. The ROI of most 3D animation projects are calculated before the production is started.

  • Team management:

    The number of people involved in an animation project can be as much as 500. These people are usually split into multiple teams and groups, most of which must work in coordination for the project to be successful. The significance of managing these teams and individuals with different responsibilities and skills is something you don’t want to ignore at all.

  • Structuring and standardization:

    A thought-out pipeline is the most efficient way to make sure everyone is on the same page, working towards the same goal. Moreover, professional animation studios like Dream Farm produce hundreds of 3D animations per year for a variety of clients. Making sure each and every one of these animations are created with the adequate amount of precision and quality and providing the clients with the same fabulous experience every time, can definitely set you apart from the competition; bringing in even more clients.

Key components of 3D animation pipeline

3D animation production pipeline has three main stages:

  1. Pre-production
  2. Production
  3. Post-production

Based on organizational considerations, resources, outcomes and other factors, each segment of the 3D animation industry uses the three stages a little differently, but the main structure remains intact. The specifics of each project’s pipeline may also be slightly different. However, the three main stages remain the same again.

At Dream Farm Animation Studios, the following pipeline is used for the majority of 3D animation projects:

1. Pre-production

3D Animation Pre production

Pre-production is the research, designing and planning phase of the entire 3D project which is split between two teams: The design team which creates the idea, story and designs, and the management team who writes down the production plan (including budgets, teams and time frames). The better the pre-production phase is done, the easier the production stage will be.

Pre-production consists of the following steps:

  • Idea Generation:

    Every great story starts with a brilliant idea. Thus, it is essential for a successful animation to have a solid, well-thought idea.

  • Story Creation:

    Ideas will be developed and improved until the whole story is shaped. This is a basic version of what’s going to happen in the animation, including the characters, conflict, et cetera.

  • Script Writing:

    The script is the formal, written, literary version of the story; including the character movements, environment, time, actions and dialogues.

  • Storyboarding:

    A storyboard is a non-moving visual version of the script. It basically looks like a comic book, including early ideas of camera staging, major character poses, or scene events.

  • Animatic:

    A moving form of the storyboard is called the animatic which will evolve into the final edit of the entire project. The animatic is created in its most simple form, portraying the sequence timing of the project through 2D storyboard drawings.

  • Design:

    The final look of the project is decided at this stage; including the concept design, character design, costumes, prop design and environment. The mood and the concept of designs must be fully conveyed here.

2. Production

3D Animation production

The production stage is where all previous efforts must pay off and transform into action. At this stage, visual elements of the 3D animation will be handed out to the designated teams and artists. Team leaders make sure time frames and quality matches those of the determined plan in pre-production stage and goes as smoothly as possible. The outcome of this stage shapes the entirety of the 3D animation.

Production stage consists of the following steps:

  • 3D Layout:

    Simply put, a 3D version of the 2D animatic is called a 3D layout. The 3D layout contains basic 3D attributes such as the characters’ size, shape, environment, simple animation of the characters, proxy geometry, et cetera.

  • 3D Modeling:

    3D modeling is the process of developing geometric surface representation of any object in a specialized 3D software such as Maya or 3Ds Max.

  • 3D Texturing:

    The process of creating and applying textures (colors and surface properties) to a 3D model is called 3D texturing. Before coming to the texture artist, 3D models are usually in a default shaded flat color.

  • 3D Rigging:

    During the rigging process, a bone structure is put into the 3D object, so that the animators can move different parts of the geometric object (in character rigging for example) as quickly and efficiently as possible.

  • 3D Animation:

    The movements of the 3D objects or characters in a scene or setting are created during the animation stage. Animation is usually the most crucial and time-consuming part of producing a 3D animated video.

  • VFX:

    A 3D Visual Effects artist animates almost everything but the characters or the elements (like fur, water, fire, cloth, dust, et cetera) they interact with.

  • Lighting:

    Just like the real-world lighting in photography or filming, 3D animation lighting is the stage at which the mood of a 3D scene or sequence is created through light based on the pre-production designs.

  • Rendering:

    When dealing with a 3D animation, every scene is separated and rendered into multiple layers including objects, colors, background, foreground, shadows, highlights, et cetera. The layers are going to be united again in post-production stage (Compositing).

3. Post-production

3D Animation Post production

At this stage, the final touches are added to the project to make it look polished and professional (the definition of polished and professional might differ in various projects, of course). Post-production artists have a number of tools that can make up the look of a project in whatever way they want.

Post-production in 3D animation pipeline includes:

  • Compositing:

    To make a final output, the layers rendered previously are put together again in compositing. The layering process can be as simple as putting 2 layers together, or as complex as matching hundreds of layers and adjusting their properties.

  • 2D VFX:

    Some visual effects such as sparks, dust, rain drops, camera shakes, et cetera, are more easily achieved in a 2D environment at the end of the project, without sacrificing the quality. These effects are usually mixed with other layers in compositing.

  • Color correction:

    Also known as color timing or color grading, color correction is literally the last adjustment we make to a 3D animation in the pipeline. This step makes each shot and the whole project look more consistent.

  • Final output:

    There are different options out there regarding the output format of the pipeline, however, the most common type is digital video which is compatible with most digital devices and can be played on the internet.

Summary

Creating a 3D animation is a complicated process involving a lengthy list of tasks, a comprehensive set of hardware and a large group of people with different skills and responsibilities. In order to keep the process flowing efficiently and affordably, a solid production pipeline is needed.

A 3D animation pipeline is a system consisting of people, hardware and software aligned to work in a specific sequential order to do pre-determined tasks in a pre-determined timeframe. Sticking to this procedure will lead to a 3D animation product or asset as the final output, such as a 3D feature film, short animation, television show, 3D video game asset or else.

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