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Starting your own Pixar for peanuts


What, you don't have a line of credit with Apple to cover that $30k price tag? OK, fine, here's a cheaper alternative. Go out and buy a Mac mini. My suggestion would be the top-of-the-line model at $699. It's got a DVD burner and wireless capabilities, all of which are darn handy. More handy is the 80 GB drive, because (as one person noted on my previous post) all the files you'll be creating, especially the final film, will require scads of drive space. And let's be honest here— no way are you going to do film res on a mini. HD content alone will choke a G4, at least in realtime, so you're probably talking standard definition TV quality, which is good enough to put on a DVD and sell online yourself.

It was also mentioned that you'll need talent. Interactive Voices has an a la carte menu to choose from, so go crazy and watch the budget. Back in the day, when Cyberflix was producing their Titanic adventure game, they'd just use whoever was hanging out at the office. But pros are definitely a better way to go... As for the ability to make a movie, there's the Cyber Film School, but beware, it is for total movie n00bs. Learning animation is just as tough, but a good place to start is Jeff Lew's great DVD, "Learning Character Animation." If you prefer a hands-on approach, try Animation Mentor, an online animation school. And finally, if you want to see how some really clever guys are making their own sorta open source movie, check out Project Orange and it's online production journal.

Next you should think about the process for making an animated film. After the jump we'll look at what Pixar does, and how we can fit our tools into their workflow. The goal: stay under $100 (for software).

Step 1: Pitch the idea.
If you're a one man band you really don't have to do this. If you're trying to woo others to your cause, putting together a range of storyboards, paintings, and story ideas would really help. There's an extra on the first season of "Spongebob Squarepants" where they talk about how Stephen Hillenburg pitched the show, and there's a tiny bit of this mentioned on "The Incredibles" as well. It is more than a PowerPoint presentation. In fact, do not create a PPT slideshow. This calls for a very simple effort: make pretty pictures you can control and talk about. Personally, I'd use iPhoto, or maybe Galerie to create a simple slideshow of art that goes through the vision for the film. I'd recommend iWork for Keynote's great slideshows, but it's $80. And when pitching your flick, remember this rule: sell the sizzle, not the steak. [Thanks Dr. Hinton]

Step 2: Story treatment.
This is where you write up story ideas, start putting them together, and hammer out the structure of the film. All you need is a word processor. TextEdit, TextWrangler, Open Office... Choose your poison.

Step 3: Storyboards.
In my DIY ILM post I mentioned Director's Boards. There's a free version, and it works. Storyboards really work better when printed and arranged on a giant wall (which is the way everyone does it anyhow), so I'd just suggest you find the cheapest printer you can find. Better yet, just draw them on pieces of paper... Don't know how to draw? You can learn. Pick up "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain."

Step 4: Record vocal talent.
If you absolutely have to, recording should be no problem. Jump into a closet full of heavy coats, or a soundproofed room and fire up QuickTime Pro. It's only $30, which is a heck of a deal. Now you can record your audio. I guess if you're really cheap you could use Audacity.

Step 5: Editorial reels (layouts).
This is where you see the little storyboards moving around, timed to the audio you recorded. This is the first look at your film, and here you see if the direction you're going works. Pacing, framing, and structure are what you should be refining at this point. I suggest using iMovie for this, as you can always record more audio if you need it, while watching your images move around. This is sort of a rough cut at this point...

Step 6-13: The modeling, animation, lighting, texturing, and rendering process.
So here's where you get locked into a cage and don't see the sun for months on end. Project Orange is using Blender 3d, a free, open source 3d tool for their project. It's good. In fact, it's amazing. The fact  that this remains free and OSS to this day is a testament to the power of OSS. To learn Blender properly however, you should  really buy the manual. Good news is, each manual goes to the Blender Foundation, which keeps it alive. We have mentioned Blender before. That interface bugs a lot of people, but take it from me, once you learn how to move in it, you'll be animating very quickly from there on out... Well, as quickly as 3d animation will allow.

Step 14: Editing, adding music, effects, and distribution.
For editing, you've got iMovie. For music, there's GarageBand. But you knew this, didn't you? Effects can be handled inside of Blender, to an extent. If you really need compositing, you could download and "try" a demo of After Effects, from Adobe, or Motion, from Apple.

Pixar doesn't distribute their movies, Disney does. Distribution is a top-heavy industry, with millions sunk into P&A: prints and advertising. The physical cost of creating the film prints is exorbitant. I say either create DVD's on demand (sold through an online store), or distribute digitally, using say, DTV or even the iTunes Music Store. Then wait for the big-time Hollywood offers to roll in, you little John Lasseter.

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