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Dream Catcher. How to stay sane during a prolonged project.

Dream Catcher. How to stay sane during a prolonged project.

Dream Catcher. How to stay sane during a prolonged project.

This story is about my most demanding personal project so far. It was finished in 2015, so not a novelty. So I decided not to focus on the technologies I used, but rather on the perseverance that was needed.

Prologue

Frankly, if I had a chance to pick my diploma project for a second time, it wouldn’t be this big. I had to be at the very beginning of a curve described by Dunning-Kruger Effect or out of my mind. At the time when I studied, 3D wasn’t a thing in Poland. Even though I studied in 3D graphic specialty, number of classes, bringing up that subject was minimal. Also, I must say, my way of learning back then was extremely unorganized. Despite all my best efforts I didn’t learn as much of 3D craft as I wanted. Finally, after 3 years of studying there I was. I had to decide on my diploma project. Of course I wanted to do something extraordinary, something original. A mixture of determination and lack of competences. What could possibly go wrong?

Almost two years into it, I knew what. Everything. Although this is a fossil, some of the lessons learned remain valid.

Planing

I started planing my project at the end of a third year of studies. Before the semester ended, I had established overall mood and style of my animation. I wanted my work to be soaked with a worrying atmosphere and tell a fairy tale in semi-medieval kind of Tim Burton-like stylized town. I listened to the stories of Edgar Allan Poe to put myself in tune. I also watched bunch of Tim Burton animations that he made decades ago. I highly recommend you to check out Vincent from 1982. It’s brilliant.

After I’ve created  a world where my story could take place, I took time to plan what kind of character would be a proper hero. I was strongly inspired by tenth Dr. Who obviously. Yes, I know. Cliché. Pardon me.

Properly chosen inspirations are crutial for consistent vision and shape of final product. Never underestimate phase of gathering references.

Early versions of Dream Catcher, against my magnificent concepts. Storyboards were even more awfully drawn.

Scenario

To sum up, I had marked out a graphic style and what kind of story I wanted to tell along with defining a hero of this tale. At this point I still had plenty of time (or at least I thought so) to meditate and let unrestrained flow of thoughts, so rough ideas could appear in my mind until they connect into more stable vision.

The main idea for a plot born spontaneously. Overall concept and a scenario came into existence during one evening. Later it repeatedly changed over time, even at storyboard stage. A lot of scenes were also cut during a montage in order to keep only necessary scenes and get rid of boring non-crucial fillers.

I rendered poor quality viewport previews from 3Ds Max to show it to my friends and gather feedback, whether they understand what’s going on. That way, I cut a lot of footage and saved myself time on rendering redundant parts. Even if something seems easily understandable in your head, that’s not necessarily the case with your audience. Try to confront your ideas with someone’s perspective.

Dream Catcher

What story would fit a calm place from before steam revolution and Dr. Who running around? I had several options on my mind. I tightened them to only a few with the assumption that the story should take place during the night.. Here’s why.

  • I really wanted first scene to be camera flying through clouds lightened by a moon. I found such images and inspirations and really hooked on those. I think this is my best scene. After that, I could just roll closing credits.  For real. Especially if we consider, that next scene contains weirdly animated cat sniffing a fallen camera.
  • At night everyone is sleeping, which means I don’t have to animate people wandering around. In early stages of storyboard I had planned scenes where citizens are slowly leaving streets for the night, but that wouldn’t add anything to the story so I got rid of it. I cut a lot of potential work at this early stage of planning an animation. Profit!
  • Palette of colors. Yellow warm light of street lamps is perfectly mixed with cold shades of blue. Profit again!

After all the planning, that’s how I could sum up the plot: ‘One of countless adventures that the unnamed hero goes through, when he tries to keep nightmares away’. Reference to native americans decoration quickly snaps into right place. That’s how, our mysterious hero got his name- Dream Catcher. At this stage I started to realize the massive amount of work ahead of me. I was terrified.

Enviroment

I’ve started modeling a couple of unique buildings. I knew, that it would be enormously time-consuming to make the whole city with this approach. This phase was about working out modeling workflow and getting along with stylized form. After I was happy with achieving style, I’ve created several different modules representing houses storeys. When mixed, it served me as over 20 new unique buildings.

I had a couple of aerial shots, so it was crucial to prepare interesting and convincing topography. To accomplish that, I searched for a few illustrations of medieval cities and listed out several landmarks such city should contain:

  • town hall
  • marketplace
  • trade district
  • wealth district
  • suburbs

I have modeled surroundings based on prepared sketch. First roads, and some landmarks. Later I filled the empty spaces with buildings. Having complete environment, I could start tweaking Mental Ray settings and make a few test renders. I was rather happy with the results.

Other assets

I sought for inspiration at various sources. Weapon to dematerialize nightmares based on ‘Nerf’ toy gun. Every asset was poly-modeled, without high poly, without baking. There’s nothing interesting here. Characters had faces animated with Morph Targets. Cloth simulation of Dream Catcher’s cloak definitely was a challenge. Some scenes I had to cut earlier because of bunch of vertices going wild. Oh, since we’re discussing animation…

Animation

As you can tell it looks terrible. That was the most challenging part of the whole project. I didn’t know anything about it, and thankfully I found a procedural walking system inside CAT. Otherwise, I would have stayed on this phase forever.

Due to lack of experience, I made plenty of mistakes during the animation process. I didn’t bother to block out my animation. I went full improv there. Which often led to weird timing, boring poses, and necessity of fixing fully animated sequences when it turned out they are too slow or too fast. I was so desperate, I tried to use Kinect to gather mo-cap data. I don’t know if Kinect was so bad at it, or my knowledge so limited, but I had to abandon this idea, without any usable results.

If I were doing animation today, I would definitely block out a shot with several key poses, and after adding a couple of in-between uses that to preview and confront with my friends. That would have saved me so much time.

Particle systems

Dreams were PFlow emitters, attached to a sphere with emissive material and set constant rotation. Simple solution. Clouds from first scene was a completely different story. I desired something that will attract viewer’s attention from the beginning. I’ve created them using FumeFX and this whole sequence took over a month to render (40 minutes for one frame). That was a brutal experience. When at mornings I checked renders from the night before, it often turned out that light is incorrectly calculated and dozens of frames must be re-rendered.  That was exhausting.

Sticky notes

If I were to point out one matter which saved this whole project, that would be sticky notes. Notes that were placed all over the front of my wardrobe for months. Crossing those out, filled me with an unspoken feeling that there’s an end of this work somewhere. At the beginning I haven’t used any system of tracking progress. That period was chaotic and felt like Sisyphean work.

When stickers kicked in, it all changed immediately. I wrote notes with specific tasks, and proposed deadlines, and all remaining work suddenly started to shape into something feasible. It restored my long gone motivation. Back then, I wasn’t familiar with Trello, Jira, nor any task managing software, but even if I was, I would still use sticky notes. Feeling of crossing out finished milestones was purifying.

When I noticed that some tasks may take too long, I just cut out certain scenes, or simplified it. This is difficult, but also crucial to long term projects. It’s better to finish your imperfect venture, rather than drag it out indefinitely hoping for reaching perfection.During animation phase, I locked myself in a room and worked for dozen hours per day. This experience was extremely demanding. Since Dream Catcher, I never again managed to do a project on such a large scale even though my skillset at every aspect is much higher than back then. Maybe because that includes self-awarness.

Sorry for using stock photo from Pexels here, but my stickers weren’t esthetic enough to share. But you get the idea.

Conclusion

Without a doubt I gained a great amount of experience and knowledge during this project. Can I definetely discourage anyone from doing something of similar complexity without an experience? Of course not. Nowadays, there’s plenty of free to use materials, textures, models, HDRIs, animations, ways to automate processes, realtime rendering pipelines and others to discover during your own journey. One just should have in mind what is a purpose of it all. Mine was to get into 3d animation industry straight after studies. Did it work? Not at all. Although this project was a huge leap, none of its aspects were perfected. Therefore, I needed a couple of years to find my way into game dev industry, and my first role as a 3d artist. Do I feel like all this time was wasted? Weeeeel, kind of. It didn’t guarantee me a position at DreamWorks nor any position at all, nevertheless that was a wonderful adventure. If I didn’t have to work professionally, this is how I’d like to spend my days. Creating without any restraint. So if you feel this makes you happy as well and you have enough resources go for it. Just keep in mind these final advices, and you’d be all right.

  1. Sticky notes. Setting up and sticking to deadlines is horrendously important. But at which point you decide to work with them is up to you. If you have some vague idea for an upcoming project, but there’s no specific time you need to release your work, you can take your time. But if you are a contractor and there’s a specific deadline you shouldn’t let your imagination wander around. I personally like, when pieces fall together in their places under the influence of movies I watch, the books I read, or everyday events. Eventually, you have to set milestones. The smaller they are, the more easily it is to complete them.
  2. Sparing yourself work starts at the beginning of your project. It is easy to complicate base assumptions, which might cause problems later. It’s proficient to cut your work in early stages! Do you really need a giant battle scene with dozens of characters in a story about a dragon slayer? Does this dragon need complex facial expressions, or it won’t be able to speak so you could simplify it? Ask yourself, such questions.
  3. Understanding your imagined world, characters, motivations are a great way of creating compelling and reliable stories. Setting basic constraint forces you to look for inspirations within a certain consistent bubble. Of course you can still mix steam punk with a fairy tale about mermaid, but if at some point you would start to lean to cyberpunk, you know that’s too far from what you really want to do. If you put too many contradicting ideas inside one project its complexity might overwhelm you. Keep it simple.
  4. Creating a simple storyboard is a great way of visualizing whether your idea is clear, consistent and interesting. It’s worth to sketch it even if you lack drawing skills. Stickmen on a plain background will be enough to decide which scenes should be cut off.
  5. Research and development. Give yourself a time for testing different solutions, before utilizing a tool which turns out useless for your project or too difficult to use in your case. My project wasn’t technically challenging, but if your project strongly depends on a certain effect, be sure you can provide it. Otherwise changing main concept in the middle of the pipeline might be painful. E.g. I wanted to see if mo-cap could be a good way to animate my character. Eventually it wasn’t, but I’m glad I checked on small part instead recording plenty of sequences and wasting great amount of time.
  6. Asking for feedback. I know this can be difficult to show unfinished work and any critique hurts, but only at the beginning. This is actually crucial because when you work in a team, you constantly gather and give feedback and learning how to do it properly will help you progress. If you don’t want to show your unfinished work to your friends, you can ask for feedback on Facebook groups, Discord servers, professional forums, etc. This way, you gain different points of view and sometimes some clever ideas you would have never thought of.

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