I've been so engrossed in drawing and character design lately, that I'd forgotten to write a post about my story development process and how I progress through to final animation. I'll use my pre-production work from The Apple to illustrate how I work:
1. Story sketches
With the general idea in my head, I start off with quick sketches of the key storytelling moments. As you can see from the slideshow above, I'm exploring the character's emotions, figuring out how he reacts to the events that unfold as the story progresses.I'm also beginning to think a little bit about staging - how best to show what's happening. It's not about pretty pictures, it's all about getting as many ideas out onto paper as you can, working fast to keep the creativity flowing. The results will be reviewed and refined at the next stage.
2. Story panels
Working through all the ideas in the story sketches, I pick out the ones best suited to tell the story and design a series of story panels. At this stage I'm concerned with clarity in the staging of the action - i.e. how the shots relate to eachother across cuts, mantaining screen direction between shots, managing the space and composition of all the elements within frame (moving or otherwise) and hopefully, start to show how entertaining the character's performance will be.
Story panels are great for working out the design of a shot and figuring out how many you need to tell your story but they only go so far. Creating an animatic with them is essential for making editing choices, exploring pacing and most important of all - figuring out the length of each shot. Crucial for animators. I also tend to work out a rough sense of timing for the character's performance, building it in rhythmically with the cuts. This makes the animatic an all-round perfect reference moving forward through production.
Using the animatic as reference, I re-create the entire sequence shot by shot in Maya. This initial layout pass is to ensure all the essential props are accounted for and arranged in a manner that works across all shots. Camera angles are established here, as is the rough placement and movement of the character and props - ensuring everything is at the right scale, in-frame and not cluttering up the screen.
Obviously there's no acting or believable animation here at all, but that's not the point of a layout. Layout is about ensuring your choice of camera angle, staging, backgrounds and props all work effectively within the picture frame - allowing the character to deliver a performance that will tell the story in an entertaining way.
If the layout is working, I can confidently lock the camera angles and start getting into blocking in the character's performance. I have thumbnail drawings (like the story sketches above) to refer to for each shot. I like to work in complete poses and almost always opt for "step mode" in Maya. Whenever possible, I get all shots to the same level for each blocking stage. So for this first pass, I've established only the keys. All shots feature the character going through his essential, story-telling poses.
Blocking (breakdowns and inbetweens)
This is a much more detailed blocking pass - almost entirely on 2's and 3's. So now all shots have keys, breakdowns and some inbetweens of the character's performance. I usually arrive at this just prior to final refinement and smoothing stage. If you haven't already, view the final short here.