Working at the Speed of Thought
March 26, 2013

Working at the Speed of Thought

Using the right tools helps students launch careers with short films.

The short film is an animation school rite of passage and the centerpiece of an exiting student's portfolio, as it demonstrates their ability to conceive and exhibit a complete idea or story to their teachers and potential employers.

Many hours go into this process, and many skills are learned along the way--usually by one student slaving away night after night. But at Brigham Young University's (BYU) exclusive Center for Animation short films, where only 25 students are accepted each year, there is a collective effort that builds upon a team of talents.

Brainstorm, buy-off, make, present. That is the order the team works through, and the members do it using a broad spectrum of technology, including Wacom's Cintiq interactive pen display right up until the moment the Play button is pushed.

Leading BYU's latest feature was Jeff Call: a story artist by choice and a director by vote. His charge was "Estefan," a story that details the challenges one flamboyant Spanish hairdresser must overcome to retain his title as "best in the world." Almost immediately, Jeff and his fellow artists began sketching out the building blocks for the film's environment and character designs with their Cintiq HDs.

"You learn quickly that storyboarding is re-boarding," muses Call. "Nothing ever works the first time, so you're forced to rely on the things that help you discover what works and what doesn't the quickest. Drawing right on screen lets me work at the speed of thought."

Speed comes in handy when your team fluctuates between 20 to 40 artists and encapsulates a range of skill sets that have to be managed and applied over the course of a long production. Working against a 78-week window, the team used their Cintiqs on nearly every stage of this six-minute short's development, from the 3D modeling/texturing in Autodesk's Maya to the final bits of color correction. Call even used it for logistical purposes whenever he needed to highlight changes to the various units under his supervision.

"We'd sketch out a lot of our thoughts during the dailies," says Call. "We could project the footage and make our marks with the Cintiq, targeting areas that needed some work. The Cintiq allowed us to be collaborative and immediate, so if the color script team wants to draw in the direction they think the light should come in, I can see their vision and make a decision on the spot."

Over the course of the project, Call gained the capacity to see a story from all sides. It's an attribute he still uses today in his post-school position as a story artist at the animation facility Blue Sky Studios, known worldwide for its work on the Ice Age series as well as other premier Hollywood films.

"As a director, you learn a bit about every part of the process," Call points out. "That helps when you go to a company like Blue Sky, where you need to look beyond your own job. Can the artists I pass this along to make it in 3D? Will they be able to match the lighting? Does this idea make sense in a 3D environment? They want you to internally answer questions like these before you storyboard in [Adobe's] Photoshop. Learning to go through this process in school, with the same tools studios use, means you're even more valuable on your first day."

The Cintiq workflow Jeff became so accustomed to at school proved to be perfectly suited for his role at Blue Sky. For instance, he frequently uses the Touch Strips to scroll along the timeline, flipping back and forth among the pages to see if the form and motion of his animations are lining up correctly. Wacom developed the Cintiq's Touch Strips and other non-dominant hand controls so its users can customize their workflow for even larger gains in speed and productivity--making them a favorite tool among animators. Call extends that efficiency whenever he programs customized shortcuts into one of his Cintiq's 10 ExpressKeys, keeping his mind trained to his work, rather than tool-wrangling.

"Any barrier that stands between my brain and the final product dilutes whatever ideas I have," says Call. "The nice thing about tablets, and the Cintiq specifically, is that I can go straight from my brain, to my hand, to the computer screen in a fairly intuitive way. It feels natural for me, and it's been that way ever since my Dad bought me my first Wacom Bamboo five years ago."