Classes & Assignments: the production pipeline of a 3D animation

This past year, Stamps students had an unusual opportunity to immerse themselves in a real life 3D animation production pipeline. The course, taught by Elona Van Gent, was a collaboration with the staff at UM3D Lab: a high tech resource center in the Duderstadt Center run by modelers and animators with professional experience in the gaming and animating worlds.

Together, they constructed a syllabus that took the students from storyboards to finished animation over the span of two semesters. For many, it was a crash course in 3D animation and a lesson in the true meaning of teamwork.

Stamps students Anna Brown and Rich Liverance lived to tell the tale...

1. Relay Race

Illustration: Rich Liverance

Rich: The way it works in a production pipeline is that you start with the story boards, then move on to concept art, then modeling, texturing, animation, and so on. You're always receiving something from an earlier stage of the pipeline or handing off to someone working on the next part. So if one person is behind or has misnamed their file, then the whole project gets bogged down.

At first we didn't realize how closely we all had to work together. One day we were all essentially fired because we were just messing up so much and the production had basically ground to a halt.


2. The Pipeline

Anna: Before any animating or modeling occurred, the story had to be conceived. After a lot of brainstorming sessions and meetings to discuss character relationships, an outline was created. Working off the outline and additional input, the storyboards were then illustrated:

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Rich: I couldn’t believe how many revisions and iterations we had to do. I think I used enough paper for 4 trees just doing the storyboards on paper before we made them digital.

Anna: Once the storyboards were drawn out, they were then put together in an animatic:



Around the time that the storyboards were being finished up, the concepts and modeling began. In an animation, every single scene element, all the props and characters, need to be conceived, drawn and modeled so they can be animated. For example, Wesley, the main character in our movie, started out as a bunch of black silhouettes:


Wesley: Silhouettes by Annie Cheng

These were meant to convey character shape and general attitude before beginning to refine the design:


Wesley: Concepts by Annie Cheng

Once the look of the character had been selected and approved, the concept art was used to draw a model sheet:


Wesley: Model Sheet by Annie Cheng

The model sheet was then sent to the modeler to be built (or modeled) in 3D:


Wesley: Model by Annie Cheng

Finally, textures and diffuse maps were added to the character, bringing that last touch of life to the model:


Wesley: Textures & Clothing by Annie Cheng

Rich: You go through this process for everything in the movie. For us, since our story took place in the future, we had to design everything. We had to think: what would a microwave from the future look like? We couldn’t go too far off from what a microwave looks like, otherwise it wouldn’t be recognized by the audience.


3. Animation Boot Camp

Anna: The second semester we had to learn how to animate. Many of us had never done that before. I think we stuffed about two year’s worth of animation training into 7 weeks. It was incredibly intense.

Illustration: Rich Liverance

Then we started animating the final version. We only had around four to five weeks left of the semester, and there were four scenes in the animation and each scene had about 20 shots. So there was never any time for a break. Our class just had to push on.




4. The Render Garden

Rich: The staff at the 3D lab added textures and lighting and then did the final rendering for us. Our first scene took 15 days to render

Anna: The computers themselves did their own share of work. The UM3D lab has a collection of computers called a "render farm" that renders out each frame. It takes a lot of power and time, and the big animation studios use render farms too. However, those are usually a lot larger. Our farm is more like a garden compared to Pixar. In the end, it took our "garden" 41 days, 22 hours, 34 minutes, and 21 seconds to spit out all 226,537 frames of our animation. If we had only one computer it would have taken 157 days to render.


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Rich: I couldn’t believe what it looked like in the end. This was definitely the most exciting and the most unexpected experience. All you’ve been seeing are these parts and then you see it all together.




5. Sleep Deprivation Creates Bonding

Anna: For me, what was most amazing was the community that formed in the class around this animation. Coming late at night, there was always somebody here, often a group of us, problem-solving together. We were constantly looking at each other's screens, learning together and helping each other along. If one of us fell behind, we all did. People even slept here.

Rich: Yeah, one girl slept under the desks one night. Another student, Lonny, became a master at the 2 chair sleep method. I’ve never really seen anybody do that before.

Illustration: Rich Liverance


6. Final Thoughts

Anna: I have always been in love with animation and I studied the art for years. I mainly hovered over books and experimented here and there, but never felt confident in the medium. Now I feel as though I have gained the basic structure and skills I need to push forward. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to be a part of this group and finally animate.

Rich: When I was 10 years old, I became obsessed with Monsters, Inc and I knew I wanted to be an animator. I didn’t realize how collaborative it was — as an art student you get so used to working on your own.

I definitely love it. You fight with your animation all the time, it’s so hard. But you fight the thing you love.

Illustration: Rich Liverance


Teleporter Travel Tale was created over the course of a year by the following team of students:
Zoe Allen-Wickler, Ashley Marie Allis, J'Vion Armstrong, Ashley Boudrie, Stephanie Boxold, Anna Jonetta Brown, Jaclyn Caris, Emily Cedar, Annie Cheng, John Foley, Paris London Glickman, Molly Lester, Rich Liverance, Lonny Marino, Olivia Meadows, Thabiso O Mhlaba, Maggie Miller, Kaisa Ryding and Sarah Schwendeman.


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