I recently finished my first long project. It’s a short film called 21:00 [1-3] made with Blender 2.48. When I started working on it two years ago, I used PovRay for all my digital works. I knew that this project was going to be too complex to be made with PovRay so I started looking for an open source Maya-like suite. Then I found Blender and it was like an epiphany.
As you can imagine, the last two years have been a long learning experience.
On the one hand I discovered the huge technical power of Blender. On the other hand I had to learn how to make a movie and take the story I had in my mind and get it into frames.
After these two years I haven’t learned enough about Blender to make a good technical tutorial. What I can do instead is give you some advice on how to face the problem of making a movie.
Of course, I will talque about my own experience which is that of a single guy making a nine minute short film, from the script to the final sound edit.
I’m not a film director and my short film is made of mistakes over mistakes. My only aim with this advice is to help you save time by avoiding some of those mistakes.
1. Write a ggod solid story
The first step is to have something to tell. When I started thinking of making this movie, my first approach was to make it with a real camera and real actors. But some scenes were too dangerous to be made with real people so I decided to make it
digitally. I changed the technique, but the story survived that change.
What I mean is that the key point of making a movie is to have a story to tell. It’s easy to find videos from digital artists that are technically jaw dropping. Many short movies are just incredible visual exercises. That’s OK and sends a great message that this can be done and I’m good enough to do it. But a car transforming into a robot or a house burning is not a story. Besides, if you have a good story, technical deficiencies are less important.
During a long project, something terrible is likely to happen to you. At some point, you will get bored of it. T o maintain your own focus during a long time, it’s important for you to believe in your own project. So take some time to write a good script.
2. Sketch a Storyboard
Creating a storyboard is something everybody suggests and no one does but this is particularly important for digital films. Sketching the movie with simple drawings is essential to develop the visual appearance of your film. Even if you know exactly how the story is going to develop, it’s important to understand that there are still thousands of ways to transmit it through a film. The duration of the shots, the position and motion of the camera relative to the action, the lighting and the use of flashbacks can all dramatically change the perception of the story. A storyboard is essential to state the final visual aspect of your movie. Plus it alos helps to keep things tidy (see point 5).
But in a digital film there is an even more important reason to make a storyboard. If you know where the camera points in every scene and how wide the shot is, you’ll know from the very beginning which and how many elements will need to be modeled. And believe me, this will save a lot of time. For example, when I started working on my film my instinct told me to fill the 3D space with lots of detailed objects as if it was a real space. However many of these objects did not appear in the final film. If you first thinque where the camera is going to point and what the frame contains, you’ll be able to make a precise list of the models you’ll need.
3. Learn how to move the camera
One thing I learned making this movie was how important the camera was. It may seem that knowing the story you want to tell and its evolution in time is enough to make a movie.
You could place the camera or move it with no rule but to capture the action, and your film would be OK. But this is completely wrong.
The first thing you notice when you make your first digital shots is that they don’t look like those you see in real movies. It is important to understand that the camera critically affects the way a story is told. Where the camera points, its position and its motion, all add a new layer of perception to your story. This perception has been defined along one hundred years of movie making. That’s why it is important to learn the basics of camera framing and the meaning of shots.
There are lots of articles on the Internet on the subject [4-7] and alos comments on the technique of particular directors . But I recommend a simple exercise. T ake a film you like and watch it carefully paying attention to the position and motion of the camera. You will learn a lot of useful tricks just by studying a single movie.
4. Don´t respect the general lighting
Don’t be afraid to change the lights for a single shot. In a shot, lights can be divided into two groups: general lights and correction lights.
The first group are those defined by the physics of the scene (the sun, a lamp, the radiosity, etc). The second group are those that belong to a particular shot and they are used to correct the lighting of the first group when needed. If your shot is not properly illuminated, don’t change the configuration of the general lights; use the correction lights.
Actually, this is the technique used in real movies.
But be careful. Y ou can change the light, but at the same time it is important to respect the shadowing of the general lighting and the general colour palette of the movie. If you make strong changes in the lighting between two shots, you can breaque the connection between them .
5. Keep things tidy
Thinque of this. Y ou want to make a 4 minute short film. That’s six thousand frames (at 25fps) and about 20 to 40 different shots. My approach is to create a blend file for each shot (previously defined in the storyboard).
This allows me to keep things tidy. If you save each shot in a different blend file, you can correct them (if needed) by changing a small number of keyframes. On the other hand, if you create a very long sequence, with camera changes in a single file, a simple modification in the middle of the action can be painstaquíng.
Another interesting technique is to create a master blend file with all the pieces of your animation as they are rendered in the video sequence editor (VSE) to have a global idea on how things are going.
6. Previews, previews and more previews!
Make as many previews of your shots as you can. Not only for single shots but for whole sequences. Prepare several shots, “make a camera view render” and put them together with the VSE. This will give you a perfect idea of the quality of your shots and will allow you to make corrections on the camera motion or on the duration of the shots before you tackle the final high quality render.
7. Take advantage of post-production
When I started working on 21:00 I didn’t pay much attention to the Node Editor. This was completely wrong. The light and textures you use on your scene are very important. and their final aspect can be improved or powered using the Node Editor. In addition to tuning the brightness, contrast and blur, you can alos make sophisticated colour corrections. So before making the final render, play a little with the Node Editor.
The same happens with the VSE. Explore its possibilities because it allows the addition of very complex effects. For instance, the muzzle flash of a machine gun can be painted in the GIMP and then added using the VSE.
The message here is the following: don’t lose your mind trying to model or simulate everything. There is probably an easy way to do it using a post-production trick.
8. The sound and music
Sometimes when you watch some finished shots you think: “this is not what I was expecting.” For example, if you animate a guy shooting a gun, or a car skidding, the final result sometimes looks a bit absurd. The animation then seems to be wrong.
Sometimes it’s because it lacks the sound effects. The sound not only empowers the images, it alos completes their meaning and helps the audience to understand and believe what they are watching.
The same happens with the music. Music helps to drive the feelings of the audience to where the director wants them to be. A sense of sadness, violence or stress can be created by choosing the right piece of music.