An aspiring 3D artist is likely to take on a short animation at some point. It could be as little as 30 seconds. Hopefully it won’t be more than five minutes of screen time. This could be an assignment from one’s school, something one’s doing for themselves, or even a freelance project.
I’m still undertaking that first independent, non-tutorial led animation. It’s for a paying customer, though I underbid it quite a bit. The customer knew ahead of time that this project was likely to run a bit long, and is still, I believe, happy with me.
I’m nearing the end of the project, and I learned a lot. It’s important to properly scope the project and manage the expectations of both one’s self and the client.
Evaluating One’s Experience
This may be one of the most difficult things for any new artist to do. Even for experienced artists projects often seem to take longer than one planned. How, then, is an inexperienced artist to determine how long their first big project is going to take?
I’d say without having completed at least a couple class or tutorial projects of similar scope it’d be very difficult to come up with an accurate time-frame. I’d add 50% to the time to complete something that’s not instructor or tutorial led. So, even for the inexperienced, it’s probably worthwhile doing an animation project or three before taking on a paying client.
This was probably my first mistake. I should’ve animated a couple or three more scenes before taking this on.
Determining the Project’s Scope
Without a proper scope to the project it’s almost impossible to say how long it will take or should cost.
Some clients will have a well thought out plan for what they want. Models already purchased, or at least well done 2D concept art, story boards done, tight timing on all the shots, etc.
Other clients may need:
- Modeling, materials and textures, and rigging for all objects and characters; and may not have a list of all the models or characters involved
- A very rough idea of the animation they want, and may not know how long the animation will actually take. They may not have the sequence of events down fully.
- May not know if they’re willing to allow marketplace assets in their project, or the implications of using such assets
Without a proper scope, the project is impossible to properly price.
Pricing the Project
It’s important to look up how much a studio would charge to do a project of a similar scope. It’s also important to understand that an individual artist is not a studio. As an individual you’re a generalist, and a bit slower at any given task than somebody who specializes.
Somebody who does nothing but model all day is going to be faster than a generalist at modeling.
You’re also having to do all the parts of the project in series, where even a smallish studio will likely be able to do several things in parallel. They’ll have a project manager, lead animator/rigger, modeler, a material/textures guy, and maybe a render/technical specialist.
They’ll likely have dedicated render machines or a render farm on call. They’ll be able to do things in parallel where you can only do one thing at a time.. You’re going to take longer to get the same product out the door, so will not be able to charge as much, even if the end product is the same quality.
If the project hasn’t been fully thought out it probably makes sense to let the client know that you’ll need to determine the true scope of the project during pre-production. The client will be charged for this, and during pre-production the scope of the project should be revealed.
Pre-production should include:
- Creating the story
- Determining all the characters
- At least having the full story board, if not block out animations
** This is important to determine how much animation one is actually doing for this project
- Determining all the assets in every scene, and deciding whether they’ll be marketplace assets or something the artist has to create themselves
Pre-production should be paid for, and will give the client, and the animator, a better scope and cost for the rest of the project.
It’s also a stopping point for the project. If the project is much larger than the customer anticipated, it may not make sense to proceed. At least the customer should understand what they were really asking for at the end of pre-production.
Managing the Project
A big part of the project is just the “day to day” check-ins and progress meetings. Depending on what’s agreed upon, this could be multiple times a week, or it could be just for larger milestones.
Most likely for a fledgling animator there will be check-ins at least once every other week, more probably once a week.
These meetings can be a real time sync. They might just be 15 minutes in length to say “this is where I’m at”, or they can run over an hour as the animator and client dive into particular bits of the animation.
Large milestone meetings are one thing, but weekly check-in meetings should probably be billed at the hourly rate if for no other reason than to keep them concise.
Explaining One’s Skill Level
It’s important for both the client and the animator to understand the animator’s skill level. A relatively new animator probably isn’t going to be producing visuals along the lines of the movie “Gravity”, and it’s important that everybody be on the same page as to the quality of the end product.
Managing Customer Expectations
With enough time, money, and people nearly anything can be accomplished. The client is going to want as much as possible, as fast as possible, for as little as possible.
It’s important to point out what one can and can’t do, and to suggest shortcuts. For instance using a marketplace asset instead of creating a lifelike cat from scratch that’s just a background creature in one shot.
Some clients will give the animator a budget for purchasing background assets. Others will want to have approval over any 3rd party asset, plugins, or other resources that the animator may choose to use, or people or companies that the animator brings into the project.
Having the customer understand ahead of time that there will be 3rd party assets involved, or the cost will go up considerably, is important.
Managing Scope Creep
It’s likely that the customer had some things they forgot. Holes in the plot, scenes that could be extended, professional level sound mixing that they didn’t realize they wanted, etc.
It’s important that the animator let the customer know ahead of time, and remind them as needed, that the contract specifies these scenes and this level of work, and that any additions will have to be agreed upon, and will come with an additional charge.
It’s important that the customer get some revisions, and definitely corrections. Some scope needs to be placed on the revisions. I probably need to do a bit more reading up on things in this regard. Reworking a scene or two is one thing, but if unchecked one can easily double the animation time simply by making lots of changes to scenes that should really be locked down. Maybe the contract can say X revisions allowed, but after that every revision is like redoing the scene from scratch and billed appropriately.
The animator really needs to make sure the customer understands that the scope of the project are all the scenes agreed to either ahead of time or in pre-production.
- Lengthening a scene is an additional charge
- Adding a scene is an additional charge
- Adding models, simulations, etc. is a sufficient change to the project that it will incur additional costs.
- The animator probably has a budget for how long they can be committed to a project. The animator needs the freedom to let the customer know that they may not be able to extend the project
Doing One’s Homework
It’s incumbent on the animator to research sample contracts. To seek out mentors in the industry to ask questions of. To do their best to understand what should go in the contract in the first place.
It’s also up to the animator to realize that they’ll likely miss things in the first contract or two, and, unless one’s customer is unreasonable, that’s okay.
Enjoy the Learning Experience
At the end of the day those first few projects are likely to be underbid both time and money wise. They’re likely to hit some rough patches. As long as both the animator and the customer understand that, this learning experience can be fun and sets one up for more successful contracts in the future.