Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Thesis question: Solo or Team?


Thesis question: Solo or Team?

Many students have asked me that question before they’ve gone into prepro in their third year. No one really can answer this other than you, but I can give you some tips to help you understand better how to approach this dilemma.

First, let’s look at the pros and cons of each option.

Working Solo


  • 100% full creative freedom-- your own ideas and vision.
  • You can work at your own pace and according to your own priorities.
  • You can make creative decisions very quickly
  • You are responsible for everything-- your entire film is your demo reel.
  • You can improve your skills in each field.


  • You are responsible for everything (which can be frustrating at times if you are weaker at or don’t enjoy specific parts of the pipeline)
  • You need to come up with all the ideas, which can lead to an increased feeling of pressure, especially during Faculty critiques.
  • With less manpower, you are limited to smaller-scale stories

So why you should pick Solo?

There are plenty examples of people who have worked solo and made amazing films. They wanted to create something personal with their ideas, and were confident taking on every step in the pipeline (and confronting the challenges that could happen along the way). It might be scary and intimidating for sure - but remember that as long as you are wise choosing the scale of the project (one or two characters and a SIMPLE setting), as a senior at Ringling, you DO have all the skills to make it a reality. Even though it might feel like you’re on your own, you still can get support from your teachers and classmates. This might be your only chance to make a film that is really, truly yours, every step of the way-- take advantage of it!


The Final Straw (Ricky Renna)
My Little Friend (Eric Prah), 
Reviving Redwood (Matt Sullivan)

Working in Groups


  • A team can brainstorm, develop, and strengthen ideas together
  • Together you can create longer, more elaborate stories with more characters
  • By working closely with a teammate with different strengths, you can help to elevate each other’s work
  • Companies are looking for people with good teamwork abilities.


  • Every part of your project needs to be agreed upon together, which can slow down and complicate your workflow.
  • You must communicate with the others about every step you and they are doing, to make sure you’re all on the same page and are carrying equal work loads.
  • Collaboration can sometimes lead to confusion if two team members want the same shot/element for their demo reel.
  • Your working schedules and time management skills may be different (day person vs. night person; fast worker vs. slow worker) which can lead to a perceived unfairness in work load, which leads to resentment.
  • Many people think that, as a team, you can delegate tasks-- one person doing animation, one doing modeling, one doing lighting. This is a myth! You will ALL be working on EVERYTHING whether you want it or not.
  • Teams of three can easily evolve into a “two against one” dynamic, which is poisonous for morale.
  • Teams of three or more can run into problems in certain film festivals (The student Oscars for example only recognizes up to two directors, so if you win, only two out of three will get the reward)

Why Choose a Team?

Choosing to work in a team can be great. Some undeniably amazing films have come out of this type of collaboration. It’s a great opportunity to learn how to work with others and to be a part of something that’s “bigger than yourself.” However, it definitely comes with its challenges. A normal film has one director calling the shots and making the decisions, and that’s why even hundreds of people can work smoothly together. In your case, you’ll have two, three, or even four “directors” competing to have their visions on the screen. Everyone’s opinion matters, and there will be a LOT of compromise. That being said, if you’re all willing to put aside your egos, you can create something great together.

Examples of great films made by teams:

Colors of Evil (Alyse Miller and Phillip Simon)
Defective Detective (Avner Geller and Stevie Lewis)
Chicken or Egg (Elaine Wu and Christine Kim)
Ballad of Poisonberry Pete (Adam Campbell, Elizabeth McMahill, Uri Lotan)

Further advice for those thinking of working on a team:

  • Your first priority is to find people with whom you can work well together and who will share your vision. Don’t just partner with someone because they’re talented-- talk with others about what kind of film they want to make, and find partners who have similar taste and priorities. Talent won’t matter much during pre-pro if your partner wants to make an action movie while you’re trying to tell a romantic fable.
  • That being said, skill level does still matter. Try to team up with people who are around the same level as you, or higher. It might sound harsh, but you don’t want to have to carry a weaker team member.
  • Do practice projects so you can test out your group dynamics and identify potential problems. This is especially important at Ringling, because there are not very many group projects in the curriculum and you might realize too late that it’s not for you… Consider taking some time to do it during the summer and semesters before pre-pro.
  • Don’t team up with someone just because they’re your friend-- thesis is extremely stressful and can permanently strain your relationship. Same goes for romantic partners.

For current groups:

  • If you’re in pre-pro together reading this or doing practice projects and it’s not going well, it might be a sign that your group should split up. It will only get harder with thesis, not easier. Remember to talk to your teacher about your issues, and do what’s best for you!

  • For groups in their senior year: If you feel like your group dynamics are not going well try your best to make it work! Be adult about it and put the cards on the table. Talk about your issues and see how you can make this year the best together despite your differences. Sure it’s easier said than done - but - you don’t have a choice at this moment so you should at least try to fix it.

I hope this has helped to clear things up for some of you. I wish you good luck with your film whether you are in a team or working as an individual! I’m sure it will be AWESOME!

Special thanks to Lindsey St. Pierre and Ricky Renna helping me writing this post.


Friday, September 20, 2013

How to push your work beyond the average student!

I got to meet a charming animator, Ryo Wakasugi, at my Pixar summer internship and I was amazed to see how dedicated and passionate he is. I was especially blown away to find out how he pushed himself as a student. Ryo set himself a goal to animate one clip a day during winter break in his last year at school (SF Academy of Art University)! He animated a total of 44 clips showing simple ideas and characters. Once the day was over, Ryo stopped and moved on to the next animation without looking back! He was so excited to complete his goal that he even animated during Christmas, New year and HIS BIRTHDAY!
Crazy guy! but passionate nonetheless!

I think he is a wonderful example and inspiration for how every student who wants to push himself outside of school work can easily do it. Ryo didn't care about making it for his demoreel - it was for himself.

Here is the link to his 44 clips:


Sunday, September 15, 2013


If there is something that scares students the most, it is probably faculty critiques, or even friends’ critiques. So as you prepare for a critique, breathe, stand next to the screen, present your work, listen and explain the logic behind your choices if asked (please don't get all defensive - just be calm). As you go back to your seat remember the following tips...

First of all, our job as artists is to find the best way to communicate our ideas to the audience. By listening to our teachers and peers, we see our film through their eyes and can find out if they understand it clearly. This is why asking for critiques is important. The trick is to be able to keep your ideas while trying to listen to what others have to say and  be open for advice.

A critique is an objective thing. it's only an opinion!!! We all have a different tastes when it comes to films, and so you will sometimes get notes that will actually confuse or complicate the story you are trying to tell. Your job is to filter these comments and identify the thing that is not communicating in your idea which is causing people to question it.

For example: Gordon Pinkerton told us a few years ago that when he showed his film Hunted (Which take place during night time) at a lighting faculty crit halfway through second semester, he got the note: “just make it happen during day time.” That was a ridiculous note. It was halfway through the semester, half his shots were almost wholly lit, and changing his entire lighting setup would have basically been suicide!

So he thought about it, and, rather than doing something so dramatic and rash, he identified the issue at the heart of the faculty’s suggestion: his film was too dark, and they were having trouble seeing. So he brightened the moonlight in his nighttime lighting and managed to address the note while keeping his original idea. The faculty were pleased, and he even got Best of Ringling. Ta-da!

What we are saying is when you get a critique, don’t try to do everything. You can’t, and it’ll make a mess of your story. Rather, identify the  heart of the note that will help you communicate the story you want to tell, and be open to ideas that will help your story become more interesting and unique.

A great way to “see” the problems is by asking 3 random people to critique your work. If you get a repeating note - you must address it. It means it’s obvious to the general viewers and is not an individual taste.

Another one is to ask your friends and family: “Was there any part you were confused?...” Ask them to tell your story back to you in detail. You’ll be able to see how much they understood, and what they misinterpreted.

Good luck and please comment and let us how you deal with notes!

P.S - is this article helpful? we are open for critiques :P

Friday, August 23, 2013

How to come up with stories...

A year ago we had to come up with a few ideas for our pre-production class to create our short film. I mush say that it was quite a challenge! During the process I was fascinated to learn how others came up with their ideas for story. So I have decided to make a list with links that will help people who look for brainstorming techniques, exercises or inspirations for their assignments. More articles about how to make a good story will be posted soon but the main objective to keep in mind when you think about your story is a few things:
1. Clarity - it's important that the audience will be able to understand everything you are trying to communicate
2. Simplicity - some of the most interesting stories sometimes are the most simple ones. It doesn't need to have a huge arc or a complex structure. 
3. Emotional connection - if the viewer cares for the character/s he will be more engaged to the story.
4. Entertainment - see if you have any elements that can make the story more interesting, unique and fun.
5. Unpredictable ending / avoiding Cliché - In most cases predictable stories are usually boring... Just like that moment when we tell a joke and people say: "oh yeah, we heard that one..." yap, try to avoid that. A good way to do that is to tell your friends your story and see if they can guess how it ends. Use their answers to guide you how to improve the story.

Here is great example of a short and simple story by my friend Tom Law
 (He made it in two days!) Check out his other films!
And for the list of techniques and inspiration - since I'm kinda busy this month, I will add more information during weekend, so keep checking for updates!

Eyes from Tom Law on Vimeo.

1. Pick a random images and write your interpretation of what's happening in the scene. You can describe about the time of the day/location/period/characters/etc as much as you want. If you are in a team you can select a few and print them one on each paper and exchange with your teammates and look at what you all wrote. 

2. Five Random Words - using some kind of random word generator (there are tons of them on the internet), generate 5 words. And make a story idea based on them. Try to incorporate at least two of the words into your story-- but, the more the better. Think about how your story would flow, and how it would end. This is a fun exercise for groups, because you’ll be amazed how many different stories you can come up with using the same few words. This is how Lindsey's group came up with their “Ratgirl” story (which wasn't used, but we were very proud of it!)

3. Get inspired and explore other short films.

4. Make a list of things you would like to animate and don't (Genres/characters/objects/locations/abstract). Than try to combine some of those ideas together and see how many new ideas you can create.
(spy movie + animal characters = SpyFox)

5. Contrast - you can add an interesting story just by combing two contrasting ideas immediately makes it interesting (for example, rats are a disgusting thing to have in a kitchen and yet Pixar took an advantage of this to create their feature)

6. Observation - A fun exercise you can do to inspiration is to go with a few friends to drink coffee at a public place (farmer's market is a great time for that, outside of Wholefoods) and as you watch people passing by write a quick story about them. You can guess their name/age/job/personality and what's their current story... This way you can sharpen your creative writing as well as your observation skills.

7. Find inspiration at the museum or the newspapers articles. The more you learn about the world the more stories you encounter.

8. Start reading articles of other story artists! Yeah! Explore the net! Be curious...
Temple of the Seven Golden Camels
The Art of Dave Pimentel

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Tips for senior thesis

For a while we have promised to sum up our conclusions and the lessons we learned from our senior year at Ringling in one place.Lindsey and myself collaborated on this long article and hope you will find some of it useful. Please note: these ideas are just suggestions based from our own personal experiences. They are more guidelines than rules...


Don’t be wasteful
When it comes to prop/environment modeling, try to think economically and model to the camera. If you have objects far in the background that we will never see up close, model it in low-res, which will save you time both modeling and rendering. Don't model hidden parts of objects if we will never see them anyway.

Make it more believable
Sometimes (depends on the film), I found that if you add more details and objects in the background, it helps sell the world and make it more believable. Besides making it feel full and lived in, it can help convey subtle story concepts that add depth to the characters (is this character neat? messy? what's their "style?") and create a mood ("man, this isn't just an alley, this is a CREEPY, nasty alley.")  The most important thing is that you hide any CG issues (floating objects, cut off geometry, etc) from the audience, because it will break focus from the story. In SpyFox we modeled 3 computer boards and by scaling, rotating and changing the colors it looked like many different props inside the factory. 


Modeling for Layout
If you haven't modeled your environments yet, it is essential to build a very simple low-res version (cubes, spheres, etc) of your future models, so you can see how they fit in the shot and adjust the camera accordingly.

Cheating to the camera
Cheating to the camera is sometimes a great tool. Often we found that certain elements are hard to stage-- but don't let that limit you. So often we would cheat those elements for the camera so they will fit. Cheating is 100% acceptable (even the pros do it). Throw lattices on things, make them float, change their scale... do what you need to do to get your shot...as long as it's not obvious. (Have a friend look at it to double-check). 

Using the camera and staging to create a certain mood.
In the shot where the fox is trying to reach for the gun, we found (by looking at some film references) that by tilting the camera we could make the shot more interesting and dramatic. This is one of many examples how to amp up your story without too much work.  In DDLM, just by pushing the camera higher and wider when the girl first falls underground, we were able to amplify the feeling of loneliness and vulnerability. 

Think economically
This is something different for every movie, but in Spyfox for example, we cheated the number of minion that are running along the screen by using only two rigs going on a cycle. It helped us to save render time and make the Maya scene work faster.
In Dia de lus Murtas short (DDLM), for the "fiesta" scene at the end, we had modeled an entire town square... However, in any particular shot, you might see only two or three buildings at a time. It didn't make sense to have all those other buildings and props in the background of every shot, slowing down render times.  So, we designed the town's file using nested references so that we could turn off any buildings we didn't need, with one click of a button. This could be easily adapted for any environment.  

Combining shots
Sometimes you can reduce the number of your shots to help your story and simplify rendering. When you are in the 'layout phase,’ be on the look out for similar-looking consecutive shots that you could possibly combine.

Transition to Layout
When transitioning from 2D (storyboards) to 3D (layout) it's important to use your storyboard as a guideline more than a strict rule. The boards are a great starting place, but once you are in the 3D world space, you may discover ways to amplify and enhance your staging and camera angles. There were many shots in our film that we found that we could make much more dynamic and interesting by adding camera moves, for instance.

Eye trace
As you work on your layout try to work on the eye trace of your film. On SpyFox we had many action scenes and planning the compositions and eye trace helped to make them read easily. (check out and the video on the other post)

Each shot has significance
Every shot should have a reason to exist, and should help to tell the story. If it doesn’t, you can probably get rid of it. (Examples on the other post)


Reference for animation
Even when the motion of the characters is very clear in the storyboards, it's good to plan it out.  Look for specific references from feature animations, film your own reference, and draw thumbnails. It will only help to enhance the animation and make it more interesting. In terms of acting, remember that you don't need to gesture to every phrase (unless you are going for a very exaggerated, cartoony style, which could work.) Sometimes, less is more.

Planning your animation
No matter which way you like to work - the most important thing, I think, is to at least know in your mind what you are going to do with the animation. If you don't, you will get stuck in a situation where you change your ideas and animation all the time, wasting valuable hours. This is why using reference, planning in 2d or thumbnails helps animators to make decisions about the animation. You don't want to end up having to reanimate poses and shots. Plan!!


Send renders to the farm every night (if possible)
Constantly send render tests to the farm. It doesn't cost anything to send your WIP lighting to the farm every night before you leave the labs...You'll get to wake up to a new rendered shot every morning, and can check for and fix farm errors early. This way you will have at least a SMB version of most of them rendered before the 'render week,' which will be both a huge time saver and stress-reliever. 

Don't panic.

When you have a rendering error, it can be tempting to reach for a drastic solution, like importing your references, or importing your entire file into a new scene. This is a bad idea; it often only temporarily masks the problem, which can lead to bigger problems later on. However, most problems actually have simple solutions, if you don’t panic. Take a breath, ask for help, google it.  Keep track of what’s happening in your hypergraph. Work cleanly….(Lindsey is going to write a “common render issues” manual, so be on the look out for it. )


Nuke is your best friend. Ever. Color correct, add depth of field, adjust your contrast, have more control over your light levels, use masks to selectively adjust objects… become friends with Nuke, and you will save yourself so much time and be able to push your frames so much more!

Non-moving Background
Have a non-moving camera, and a background that takes a long time to render?…. RENDER ONE FRAME! Then use nuke to add in your character & its shadow. Magic!

Slow render times? (the first things to look for)
In my experience, the thing that slowed down render times the most was hi-res textures. Sometimes it's necessary to have that hand-painted 4096p bump map… Other times it's just not. Use hi res textures for your characters, but when it comes to props and environments, be more selective. Only make a texture as big or as detailed as it needs to be! And use procedurals whenever possible. It'll save you a ton of time.


From our experience many films suffer from slow pacing, lack of flow and rhythm. it usually happens because we are used to watch our film on a everyday basis. There’s also a dangerous tendency to slow things down and unnecessarily add frames in 3D. To fight it, either take a few days off or ask someone with a fresh eye for an opinion, or better yet:

1. Ask them to cut and edit your film in premiere!-See what they choose to cut out, or what they speed up. This way you will be able to see if it flows better and if you really need these scrapped shots. 
2. When you watch your film after a few days break(winter break), you will be able to notice many issues you haven't notice before - take a pen and paper and write down as soon as you can all these issues you see. Your brain will get used to it and it will be harder later to spot these problems.


Oh god... Composers!!!
Good music can help enhance your film and that's why finding a good composer can be a great idea. There are many options out there to get free music, either by using an online music library or by collaborating with student composers. But many students that I know preferred to use a composer, which means it will cost money - so be prepared. If you choose to hire a composer, here are the things you should look for:

A. Before choosing, ask them to do a quick 20-30 sec demo to a specific moment of your animatic. Provide musical references to show the style/mood you’re looking for (you can use Youtube links of songs and soundtracks)

B. If you like the sample and want to move forward, write an agreement with reasonable, specific deadlines for both of you.

C. Every composer has a different speed; some can score a 4 minute film in a week, while others take up to 2 months. The best thing to do is simply ask them for an estimate of how long it will take or look for recommendations from other students who worked with him/her.
D. To play it safe, our suggestion is to ask the composer to make a full draft version for December crit. This way you can see how it works as a whole and get notes from the faculty.
How to push your work


Do Paintovers. Often you don't know what your frame is missing until you've pushed it around in Photoshop for a while. Push the saturation! Shift the hues! Add some bounce light! Adjust your color balance! Play! Discover the hidden potential! It's also a great way to communicate your vision and ideas with your teammates. This way you can try out your ideas really fast and present the results.

Reference and research

Look and search for a lot of reference as you work. Try to find how other movies applied the mood that you are aiming for and use that on your shot. There are always new things you can add to make your shots better. We said it in the animation section, but it applies to every section of the pipeline (modeling/animation/rigging/lighting/visdev/compositing)

Ask friends for help

Talk to your classmates or graduates who had similar technical challenges as you have in your film. Sometimes other students will have the solution to your problem and it can save you a lot of time by asking for help. The rule we made up is: after 10 minutes of struggle you should ask for help.

Avoiding obstacles

Try to avoid filling your story with complicated technical obstacles. If you are not into Cloth, fur and water simulation/rigging/VFX/scripting try to avoid these things as much as you can when working on your story. It is not a big deal, and many students have dealt with these challenges in the past. It just can be very time-consuming, and will slow you down and detract your focus from what you really want to do. Just consider carefully that you might end up with great cloth simulation but the animation may suffer... which could be detrimental to your film.

First and Last shots
Of course you want your whole film to look amazing and high quality, but remember that the audience needs to be impressed by the first seconds of your film so that they really get drawn in. Likewise, an excellent final shot will leave them with a good taste in their mouth. So keep that in mind to have a good opening and closing shots in all aspects: animation, rendering, lighting and etc.

Short-term Schedules
Make short term schedules and lists as you work on your project. This way you can always be aware of your situation. But don't stress about it - it's more a guideline to help you. If you are in a team it will be a good idea to agree about every 2 or 3 weeks on your own deadlines. This way you can give space to each other to work individually but still be able to follow and check the group's progress.
Taking breaks
yeah we all know, yada yada... but it's super important so you won't burn out. Plus, you get a fresh take on your work when you get back. When you take a break you let your brain relax, which helps your mind to focus... This is why some of our best ideas come to us just before we go to sleep or later in the shower...And walking outside the labs can even help you spot inspiration and ideas for how to tackle obstacles in your work.
Working after Midnight
Many times, students kept working for many hours after midnight, only to wake up for school exhausted the next day. Consider trying this instead: rather than working those extra hours at night when you're already exhausted after a long day, go to sleep and plan on waking up extra early, maybe at like 5 AM. You'll still get that extra time you needed, but with the added benefit of a few hours rest before hand, so you can work more efficiently.


The most important thing to do if you want to make it through the year is to respect your teammates. You will need to know that there will be many up and downs during the year and many disagreements and even crises. It's part of the process because everyone have their own vision on the same matters. So to deal with that you can do the following:

1. Strive to create an healthy environment where everyone can feel good speaking their mind and not to be afraid of other member, so they can talk about their expansions and vision. If you have one dominant member who is blind to that, it won’t be easy, but pointing it out as soon as possible (maybe with the help of a teacher) will make your whole experience better.

2. Pick your fights - Fight for the things that are most important to you that you think are most important to the film. If you keep fighting for every tiny, nit-picky aspect, you will lose energy and frustrate your teammates.

3. In every group there will be the person who is more perfectionistic than the other. Maybe one person wants to stay in the labs until midnight, while the other is more relaxed and willing to sacrifice some details for a night off. It will lead to disagreements and frustration from both sides. But! knowing that can help you creating a better dialogue and think together how to make it work despite your different views.

4. It's important to work together in the same labs often:
Yes, it's annoying sometimes to work next to each other all the time, but working together in the same lab will give you a huge advantage for your group and the reasons are:
A. Sharing information and solving issues will happen faster.
B. It will help you to exchange ideas efficiently and agree on story questions that rise as you work on your film.

GCHAT is not a replacement. It's never the same as being physically in the same room!!!

Yes, it’s ok to work by yourself from time to time, but don't make it a habit.

5. In the end, think about the good of the film and less about your ego. The final product is the important thing and you should always strive to the best solution.
Final notes

Whatever you do, there are two main questions you can ask yourself in order to push your film forward and they are:

1. How I can use the composition/animation/lighting/music to illustrate the story moments?
2. How can I improve this sequence/shot to make it stronger (research, reference, fresh eye, notes, reason for every choice, drawovers etc.)
At the end of the day, just ask yourself: How can you make it better?" often you won't realize how much you can improve it until you just do it, and compare it to what you had before..  So keep pushing! Analyze your choices! Don't just do "something," do exactly THE thing!"

Upcoming topics: Tips about brainstorming ideas and how to improve your story!