Tiny Island: Animation Process

Sometimes creating an entire film can feel so daunting.  It’s a huge process from idea, to storyboards, rough animation, clean-up, all the way to post FX and sound design.  Whether this process takes years or one sleepless weekend, no animator would tell you it’s light work.

So when I wanted to develop my animation reel a few years out of school I naturally felt intimidated.  I don’t have the freedom to spend a year on a personal film like I did in college.  I went back to CalArts to talk to my mentor, Fran Krause, about it, and he gave me a great idea.  Why not make a bunch of 5 – 10 second animations to show off my abilities?

In hindsight, it seems obvious.  There’s no reason I have to make an epic film with story arcs and character development if my only ambition is only to show off my animation skills.  I sat with the idea for a couple months while I worked my current freelance gig, and eventually an idea took form.

There’s a music making app called iMachine I’ve been playing around with on my iPad.  It’s not too advanced, only capable of making short loops of audio.  I had made this short song with it that made me think of a tiny island in the middle of the ocean.  The image was so clear that I knew this would be my first short animation project.

island BG

Using Photoshop, I illustrated the scene, making sure each element was separated on it’s own layer (There were 45 layers in total).  Once it was done, I imported my PSD into After Effects and began animation.  Everything that moves from palm tree frond, to strand of seaweed, and ocean wave was key-framed to give the illusion of life on this little oasis.  It was nothing I hadn’t done before until I decided to add the treasure chest.

So far, everything in my scene was animated in the x and y planes (left, right, up, down).  Adding the treasure chest meant I had to either animate frame by frame the illusion of the chest lid flipping back, or utilize After Effects’ 3D layers to move the chest along the z-axis.  I opted for using 3D layers because I wanted to keep the style consistent.

Outlined below was my process for making the 3D chest in After Effects.  Yes, this probably would have been easier to make in Maya or Blender, but I wanted to see what I could do with After Effects alone.

    1. Figure out the geometry of the chest.  Because After Effects isn’t a program made for 3D modeling, I had to make sure the images I was importing were the right dimensions so they’d fit together properly.  I also had to figure out how to make a chest using only flat planes.  The process reminded me of origami, so I got out some paper, scissors, and tape and began folding.  After some trial and error, I managed to create the paper chest!
    2. Create the planes with Photoshop.  I measured the length, width, and angle of every plane on my paper model, and used those dimensions to recreate them in Photoshop.  Here’s what that looked like: treasure chest pieces
    3. Assemble the planes in After Effects.  This was the hardest part because as far as I know, After Effects isn’t meant for doing this.  Each plane of the chest was turned into a 3D layer and meticulously assembled into a 3D shape.  It super helped that I knew the angle of those top slats from my paper model.  Here’s a comparison of my paper model to the digital one:paperbox
    4. Rig the box to open and close.  I won’t go into too much detail of how I rig things in After Effects (That’s another blog post), but with the help of parenting and a couple of null objects, I had a working chest!treasure-chest.gif

I’m very proud of my treasure chest and the rest of my tiny island animation!  I feel like I learned a whole lot about 3D layers, and now my mind is open to so many other possibilities.

Check back soon for more short films and posts about my animation process. 🙂

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