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10 tips for guerrilla animation production

Tuesday, August 26th, 2014 | Article by Kory Martin Juul

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In the quest to complete CG feature White Tiger Legend, Hobbit compositor Kory Martin Juul has had to turn himself into a one-man film-production studio. Here, he reveals the ten key lessons for other indie animators.

140822_KMJ_bioKory Martin Juul has worked in animation and visual effects for over a decade. Starting out as a compositor on Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within at Square Hawaii, he went on to work for studios including ESC Entertainment, Industrial Light & Magic and Weta Digital, on movies including The Matrix trilogy, Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, Avatar, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and, most recently, Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy.

But despite working on some of the world’s best-known movies, Kory wanted to tell his own stories. His CG animated short Sunaba (The Sandbox), completed in 2005, was screened at festivals including LA Shorts Fest, the Seattle International Film Festival and Ars Electronica. Since then, in between commercial jobs, he has been working on an animated feature: White Tiger Legend.

A black belt in bok fu, Kory recorded most of the mocap for the martial-arts-themed action adventure himself via a PhaseSpace active LED system, using the data to create a full-length previsualisation of the movie. He also shot the live-action backgrounds himself on a 30-day trip to China. With voice recording completed, and Elysium orchestrator Alain Mayrand lined up to score the film, Kory is now hoping to raise $858,000 to complete White Tiger Legend via Indiegogo. “I don’t have $1 million, but I’m willing to bet 200,000 people have $5,” he says.

Below, Kory discusses his quest to complete his dream movie, and how the lessons he has learned along the way can be applied to your own indie animation projects.

1. Time is your ally

A guerrilla production is going to have fewer people, fewer resources, and far less money than a Hollywood blockbuster. But as the old adage goes: “Fast, good or cheap: pick two.” So if you want to make something both good and cheap, it’s going to take time. Luckily, there is always plenty of it. If you free yourself of a hard end date, and just keep going no matter what, you will be amazed at what you can accomplish.

To put things into perspective, even with millions of dollars and hundreds of artists at their disposal, Pixar and DreamWorks usually spend four years developing a film. Only the final year is spent in full on production – the first three are spent changing and nailing down the story.

Hollywood producers don’t pick films up unless they are willing to spend seven years to get them made. Screenplays sit on shelves for years. You could spend an entire year finding an agent, only to have your project waste away in development hell. From this perspective, if you can finish in five years, you are doing very well.

2. Story, story, story

As CG artists, we can’t wait to start look development, creating awesome characters in fantastic worlds. Resist this urge. It’s easy to waste a lot of time getting ahead of yourself, only to have those scenes dropped or rewritten by the screenwriter. For guerrilla animation, you need to do as little throw-away work as possible.

So create the best screenplay you possibly can. If there is any part that is not awesome, stop and redo it now. Less gripping parts aren’t suddenly going to get better further down the line.

Once your script is locked down, do your voice recording, then begin previsualising each scene. I used motion capture for White Tiger Legend, which was brilliant for putting together scenes quickly with MotionBuilder’s Story Mode. The data is then reusable for final animation. Alternatively, if you’re going to hand animate, begin blocking using previs sets that you can later upgrade, reusing the cameras and updating the models.

By the end of this process, you should have a complete low-quality version of the film. Make it sing. When viewers are fully engaged by a bunch of primitive shapes, you know a high-quality version will be amazing. It doesn’t work the other way around!

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White Tiger Legend’s Indiegogo pitch illustrates what is and isn’t possible in guerrilla film-making. Working solo, you won’t produce Pixar-quality animation – but you can get a lot of useful mocap and previs done.

3. Do the best you can – and then get feedback

Feedback is crucial. When you think something is done, show it to people. Are the ideas you are trying to convey coming across? Are they engaged? Are they tearing up at the right moments?

When something isn’t working, everyone will give you their ideas and solutions. Disregard the solutions. You need to figure out why what’s already there isn’t coming across – not how to make things more complicated! Nine times out of ten, the solution is already in your film: it just needs to be made more obvious, or set up sooner.

Everyone has their own life experience. Some things that are obvious to you will not be obvious to others. So rework scenes to ensure everyone can understand them. Don’t water the story down: just make the communication more effective.

4. You are surrounded by resources

Even if you don’t have much money, the internet has all the resources you need. Can’t afford top talent? Use craigslist for casting calls. There are a lot of people out there looking for their break. Look for good actors, even if they don’t exactly fit your image of a character. Be flexible and let them surprise you.

Use Google Maps for location scouting. It took a month to find all the locations for White Tiger Legend. I had never been to China before, and I didn’t speak any Mandarin. But using the Panoramio option on Google Maps, combined with Google Translate, I was able to scour the Chinese countryside from my living room.

Rather than building elaborate CG sets, I got a $1,000 plane ticket, and in 30 days, I photographed every single background I needed: 54 locations, spread out over 2,500 miles of travel. All planned out ahead of time, with all the camera angles known from the previsualization. That’s guerrilla efficiency.

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A VFX breakdown from White Tiger Legend illustrates how inexpensively shot source material can be assembled to provide an alternative to full-3D environments. Use Google Maps to scout locations remotely.

5. Use technical shortcuts to shave time

Although processors have increased dramatically in speed, render farms on blockbusters are still slammed. As a guerrilla animator you can’t afford to waste render hours, so you need to use technology to your advantage.

First, check out image-based modelling software like Agisoft PhotoScan: it’s a great way to build complex geometry very quickly. Use IBL to quickly set up lighting environments similar to your background photography. Grab a $5 mirrored garden ornament and photograph multiple exposures with a 120mm lens. The first thing we did on the The Matrix Reloaded was to blur our high-quality chrome ball references to save render time. Save money and by a cheap blurry ball instead!

Spend time making translucency maps instead of using SSS. Learn about spherical harmonics in V-Ray, and how to bake textures. Use projection mapping wherever possible. All will vastly reduce your render times. Avoid heavy FX simulations by using real elements and compositing them in. The only thing that matters is the final image. No one cares if it took two days a frame, or 15 seconds. Only build what you are going to see.

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A 3D reconstruction of Russia’s Gatchina Palace: one of Agisoft’s ‘application examples’ for PhotoScan. It isn’t perfect, but image-based modelling provides a cheaper alternative to modelling complex geometry by hand.

6. Take care of your body

As a guerrilla animator, you are sprinting a marathon. You’re going to have to do the jobs of many people, so taking care of your body is imperative. In order to work like a ninja, you’ve got to fuel your body like a Ferrari.

I’ve worked on productions and pounded the super-caffeinated drinks. You can go hard for about two weeks this way. But I’ve also worked a hundred hours a week for six months straight. The key to this is eating foods low in sugar and exercising hard. Sugar lowers your immune system. Work through lunch, eating at your desk, and saving your lunch break for an afternoon run to the gym. Slam a ginseng, guarana or similar beverage of choice before working out like a maniac. This is the last thing you want to do in your exhausted state, but amazingly, it works. Have dinner at your desk at six, and you can keep going for hours.

7. Stay inspired

This is a big one on long projects. You are going to hit low points: points where things aren’t working. I take lots of showers when the ideas aren’t moving. I also watch one of my favorite movies when I wake up each morning, no matter what genre. When you’re exhausted from the previous day, a great film has a way of dusting you off and sending you back into battle.

8. You will get stuck: don’t sweat it

No production goes without a hitch. People drop off your project. Things happen to derail you. But the difference between projects that finish and those that don’t is perseverance.

If you get stuck somewhere on your story, keep working on other elements. Often times, two or three weeks later, a solution will suddenly appear out of nowhere. You can then go back and fix the problem in minutes instead of being stuck for days.

When pieces aren’t coming together the way you think they should, take a step back. You usually have everything you need around you: you just can’t see it yet. For White Tiger Legend, we only found 20 of the 30 voice performers necessary. But when we asked, it turned out that many of those 20 were so talented, they could play multiple characters. A show-stopping problem was averted.

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Erik Braa during recording sessions for White Tiger Legend. A games industry veteran, Braa voiced three of the characters for the movie when it proved impossible to find separate actors for the roles.

9. Your biggest obstacle is yourself

You will face a lot of practical challenges in creating a feature-length animation, but ultimately, your own thought patterns are going to determine your success. On White Tiger Legend, there were plenty of days when I didn’t want to get out of bed since I was stuck, and didn’t have a solution to the problem – yet. Don’t listen to yourself. Keep going anyway. Every day is one step closer to your goal.

10. Be tenacious

To be a guerrilla animator, you’ve got to do whatever it takes. Do things and ask for forgiveness later. Let other people tell you no.

On the second to last day of background shooting in China, I wanted to film a massive waterfall that lies on the border with Vietnam. I had gotten a day entry visa for Vietnam a few weeks beforehand: what I didn’t know was that there is no border crossing nearby. There I was at this epic location, and I couldn’t get the shots I had planned. The Chinese side was full of guard rails and winding lines of tourists. The Vietnamese half was vacant, with the exception of a few fisherman standing out in the middle of the falls. All I’m going to say is that the next day, at 5am, I went fishing. A few hours later, I got all the shots I needed. Like I say, you do whatever it takes.

Support White Tiger Legend on Indiegogo

Visit the White Tiger Legend website

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  • Tolu Abisola

    As someone who wants to start creating animated shorts soon this was a great read. The points raised are all common sense but it’s always good to see them raised by someone who has been through the process.

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