An example of a pipeline, and why we must solve these problems.

Pipeline

When crafting games or animation - or any work where multiple software, files, and creative people are involved - we have numerous complicated steps of work. Usually each of these steps is performed by a different person or team.

Everyone would like to use the different software and conventions they know the best. Bringing together different ways of working usually will not happen without the production turning into a clamor.

Let’s take a look at a 2D animation production. In this simplified example, it starts with the following steps.

The script - story and dialogue is written. Based on the story, storyboard artists start planning the shots; camera angles and character acting, similarly to comic panels. The storyboard is usually very sketchy and rough, making it easy to change and avoid extra work.
Storyboard panels are laid on a timeline by the editor to make an animatic. It’s used to build the timing and structure of the animation. Often temporary music, dialogue and sound effects are used to convey the mood of the end product.

Concept artists draft the locations, props and character designs, developing the final look.

Layout artists start planning the backgrounds based on the location designs and storyboard panels. They figure out the requirements for desired camera movements and character positions. All the moving background elements need to be separated for compositing later on.

Animation begins by planning the acting and key poses for characters, special effects and so on. based on the storyboard and layouts. The shots can then be worked on in parallel by multiple animators, starting with rough animation.

There are many, many more steps to follow.

Drawing and painting the final backgrounds - cleaning up and colouring of the animations (ink & paint) - compositing the shots from assets in various levels of finalizing - adjusting the edit, composing music, recording dialogue, sound effects… All the way to final color grading, mastering, exporting and delivering different versions.

To summarize: each step of work is often done by a different person, most likely with their own software setup, a unique way of organizing their work and different needs for naming conventions and folder structures. A completely different way of working from each other. When one person finishes their work, they will produce an output for the next person in the pipeline.

Production art workflow

The workflow is not a single, linear process. Even in our simplified example, the work is split to multiple parallel pipelines that overlap and connect with each other. All the way through, work bounces back and forth in review loops before moving forward to the next step.

Leaks and blockages start to form when mistakes happen. For example when someone sends their output to the next person in the wrong format. Perhaps they are sloppy with the naming convention, which in turn will break the links further in the production chain. Often the work files are buried in personal folders and only the creator knows where to find them.

Deciding that everyone can work however they want, and letting the next person worry about sorting it out can work for a while, at least for a smaller team. But eventually things will start to fall apart.

A way to begin solving these problems is to control the versions of software used, and force some kind of standard naming and folder structure convention to help people find the files they need. More tech-savvy organizations can create scripts (helpful tiny pieces of software) to assist manual tasks, but they are often limited and very specific.

We haven’t even taken a look into the production tracking systems, when we can see upholding all of these rules and systems starts adding up to a considerable amount of work. The more complex it is to uphold a pipeline, the more it leaks.

Artists and designers are often forced to work in a way that doesn’t make sense to them. And when your work is blocked, you’ll find a way around. Finding a balance that serves all the people in the project is extremely difficult.

But we’re sure you know a company doesn’t need to be huge or the project massive, for the creative work management to take up a massive chunk of work efficiency and nerves. Next time we’ll look at a smaller studio’s problems.

Written by Puida Illustrated by Stewart Gray Edited by Jaakko Mukka