There are all kinds of fancy animation tools, plugins, scripts and tricks that I use to enhance my animation workflow. Though in my opinion, none of them are as valuable as a pen and paper. Physically writing things down is the foundation of everything that I do in my work. It’s the most basic tool you can use, but in my opinion there’s no better way to organize your thoughts and come up with new ones than by making lists. Here I’ll explain how I use lists in every phase of a shot.

Phase one: Planning

Starting a scene with a blank page or viewport is generally accepted to be the most terrifying thing in the world next to clowns. And just like you wouldn’t enter a dark house with a clown on the loose, you shouldn’t jump right into a blank scene without planning. Writing down the purpose, beats and intent of the scene is the most effective way I’ve found to ease in and flip on the figurative light switch. If you’ve gotten a kickoff from a director or teacher, make sure you write down everything they said to make sure you don’t forget. Make note of the shot’s place in the sequence, what’s happening before and after, the framing, the desired emotional content, etc. Write out the dialog to make sure you know every word, pause, and breath. Think about the actions and gestures that you want to hit, and make note of them with simple scribble sketches. If you get through all this and you’ve written three pages, you probably have too many ideas. Seeing it all written out can be a great first indicator of whether you’re picking the simplest and most clear way to get the job done, or if you’re overcomplicating things.

What if you’re doing a school assignment or personal shot where there’s no director, script or storyboard? No direction at all and all the possibilities in the world? This is where that list becomes even more important! To successfully complete an animation, you have to set limitations. You need to make the big decisions first to have any hope of making good small decisions. If you don’t know what you want the shot to say, how can you decide how to say it? Spend some time up front coming up with the context and purpose, and then narrow in on things like staging, acting and props. Writing it all down will keep your ambition in check and help ensure that you don’t stray too far. And it’ll make that black void a lot less intimidating.

Phase two: Blocking

Once you’re drawing or posing the rig, you should have a clear idea of the specific actions that you need to perform. Writing out each beat gives you a roadmap to follow, and each pose in your blocking should represent one of those list items. Pose blocking for me is nothing more than finding the visual representation of the ideas that I’ve written down. I’m not concerned with how they transition between each other or how the timing plays (often I do it on consecutive frames to be timed later). I’m only concentrating on laying down the clearest visual of each pre-defined beat. This ensures that when I show my director for the first time, there’s no ambiguity or fluff – just the necessary information to get their buy-off.

Phase three: Dailies

Daily reviews are a crucial part of animation production. For a student, it’s class reviews and peer feedback. Actively listening to and implementing feedback is as much a part of what we do as setting the keys in the first place. Make sure to write down everything that they say so that you don’t forget about it later. Just the act of writing them down will imprint them on your brain and get the problem solving process started immediately. An animator that repeatedly fails to address feedback won’t last long, so be thorough in your note taking and cross each thing off as it’s completed.

Phase four: Polish

Polish can feel like it takes forever. There are always endless little things to fix and it can get overwhelming. If you just watch it loop and get swamped by the enormity of what still isn’t done, you’ll start to panic. You need to detach and take it one step at a time. Start your list by writing down three major issues that you can see. Note the frame number/range, and a few bullet points that will lead to the desired fix. Now do them and cross them off. Repeat. And repeat. And repeat again. Take it to reviews and repeat Phase Three. That’s how we do it! The shots you see in the movies aren’t done by some perfect robot that goes straight from blocking to spline to final in three easy steps. They’re done using this process of repeatedly executing personal and outside notes until the due date arrives.

I hope that you give this a try if you don’t already. It’s drastically reduced my stress level and kept me on track where I otherwise might have gotten lost. If any of this is unclear or if you have any questions, please feel free to ask.

Now I can cross this post of the list.

-Chris