Taking a look back: Retrospective of the Demo
When preparing my talk for FSCONS, I planned to make it a journey into the project history. Unfortunately, I was unable to keep it within the time limit and that made me felt unsatisfied. This is why I’ve decided to write all my thoughts on that into a separate blog post here. Also it’s a good chance to put into a single place some historical/documentary videos that were buried in the blog history and to recall particular events happening during the last few weeks, as a huge part of them wasn’t covered in my week reports.
I believed that the birthday of Morevna Project is May 30th, 2008 – the day when I’ve launched the morevnaproject.org website. But that’s not exactly the true. In fact, the first announcement of the project appeared in my Russian blog on November 1st, 2007. By that time I’ve had a fully written screenplay. I wanted to make a project using the open-source software and have already chosen the Synfig Studio as the main tool for 2D animation. Also it was clear that Blender would be used for 3D tasks and video editing.
My plan was to create a Demo and to dedicate the whole summer of 2008 to its creation. Yes, I was that naive to believe that Demo could be done in 3 months. ^__^
So I’ve started to gather the crew from the local community and even rented the flat for the studio. We have worked for the full summer developing character layouts, 3D models and doing some animation tests at the same time. But due to the lack of skill and dedication as well as some other problems the team collapsed and by September 2008 the project has shifted to the online space.
This period can be characterized by the following problems:
- Animation with Synfig Studio. That was totally unknown area. I mean, it was obvious how to make simple things, but we needed a technology for all kinds of complex movements, including a character animation. For that purpose we have developed a Stickman template and the supporting animation method.
- Infrastructure. Since the very beginning I wanted a proper organization workflow to avoid the most problems in the future. Following the concept of an open-movie, I wanted all project sources to be relocatable and that was implying the separation of the rendered files from the sources. For that purpose we started to use GNU Make to manage the project rendering. For sources transfer and version control we used Git. Also it was necessary to provide packages with proper versions of software on regular basis, so I have put a lot of effort into investigating and setting up packaging mechanisms. Another problem was the keeping the Synfig Studio project alive.
- Artists / Dedicated team. It was one of the biggest problem for the project – to have a dedicated artist working on it. Generally people come and go and it’s very hard to make the project stick with particular style. Partially that could be explained by the lack of clarity in target definitions and by my own dedication problems (see the next problem below).
- My personal management skills. I haven’t expected that the project management takes SO MUCH time. I was naive to think that most of the work is done by contributors. In fact, that’s not like that, because collaborating with many people requires a lot of time and if all of you are newbies and still learning, then it takes even more. It took some time for me to understand and accept that the management (producing) is a special task that requires the full-time dedication. Another thing to learn was to formulate tasks clearly and to distribute them among the existing contributors. Having a strategy and a timeline is also necessary for a successful completion.
In 2009 an important thing happened – Nikolay Mamashev came into the project. He didn’t draw in anime style and didn’t like it. But he eagerly wanted to contribute. So he concentrated on drawing soldiers and learning animation in Synfig Studio. He is the only person from my practice who has learned Synfig Studio in 14 days and made his first complex animation of a character. In fact, it was him who tested the Stickman for a character animation.
In the second half of 2009 there was a huge gap in the project development due to me finishing my thesis work. At the same time Nikolay has gone to the army.
In 2010 my main focus was the software development. I was putting much effort into maintaining the Synfig Studio infrastructure (in fact it still needs my attention) and made some improvements to Pencil. As I mentioned, we were using GNU Make for automated rendering and I wrote a special tool called Remake, which automatically generates Makefiles for the project. All those things took most of my time and it might seem that Morevna Project itself wasn’t moving forward. However it’s clear now that these were the necessary steps at that moment.
But another important thing happened – I was contacted to make some kind of slideshow to present at Ubuntu Anime Boston 2010 event. I’ve decided “Hey, why not?” and made a small video demonstrating the working materials of the project. It got called “Production Cuts”.
For some reason this video gained some popularity, which was unexpected for me.
In the end of 2010 Nikolay got back from the army and the first thing he did – he found me and told: “Let’s continue working on Morevna!”
But I still had some financial difficulties and Nikolay was busy finishing his education. At that time we still had no plan, no schedule, the animatic for the Demo still wasn’t completed, and I wasn’t sure at all if we would be able to complete the Demo and how much would it take. It was obvious that we totally were on the lack of resources.
But in 2011 two important things happened, that turned the tables.
- I’ve started teaching animation to children using the open-source tools and Morevna Project’s techniques. We’ve used the simplified version of the technology, but the results were unexpectedly nice and my classes became a great test ground. Since then we have released 3 animation shorts – Amazing Sentence and two episodes of The Adventures of Boris Munchausen, which were warmly accepted on children animation festivals.
- In the search of a financial source me together with Nikolay have made a couple of commercial projects. One of our works can be found on YouTube – Tomato Paste Promo. We used the same technique, the same tools as we did in Morevna Project. That was a fine experience.
Both events became the decisive factor for us to grasp our capabilities. We became aware of the volumes we could handle, the main stages, time limits, techniques – all what a workflow is. The earned money made possible to buy the necessary equipment, like Cintiq-tablets, and to invest into the project. We became serious about focusing solely on the Demo.
I have finally realized that no way Morevna Project could be done in a someday-somehow manner carrying on other projects at the same time. To cope such a task we need to concentrate fully on the project and be ready (mentally, physically, spiritually) to dedicate the whole me to it for a next couple of months.
Also I’ve realized as well that a good dedicated artist is a must, who would take care of the keyframe drawing. Certainly, that should be a paid work. The question was who would become this artist. I had several people in mind and started the selection.
Simultaneously in January 2012 I’ve finally finished the animatic and developed the plan for the Demo release. We’ve divided the whole process into stages and decided to raise money by crowdfunding for each stage.
According to the plan Nikolay was supposed to work on vectorization and tweening. I didn’t considered his candidature for keyframe artist as, you could remember that, the anime style wasn’t among his likings. That’s why for that period he was somewhat left out and gained much free time. Too much obviously, as he started to draw sketches reflecting his own vision of the project, hoping they would help the new artist in his work. He showed me the sketches and suddenly I realized that Nikolay is destined to be the leading artist. What he showed still wasn’t anime but all the works had that very right spirit. Besides, Nikolay was improving his skills drastically and it became obvious that there was no style hlimits for him. The choice was made.
In February we’ve launched the fundraising campaign for the first stage – drawing of the keyframes. Usually money is raised first, then the work starts. But I was sure, it would be right to start as soon as possible. I had some money left from my commercial projects and we make an agreement with Nikolay: he starts working and I will pay him anyway, even the campaign fails. The goal for the campaign was very small – just 2200 USD, but it was a good chance to test if the project is mature enough to go with crowdfunding.
This was a very important moment for the project, because as soon as you start taking money for your work, the responsibility comes along. That means that you take a certain obligation and you have no chance (or moral right) to drop it anytime at any moment (like it was before). Because from now on this is all about your reputation. And to make this step you should be 100% sure in your capabilities. I think that was very important moment.
We’ve shoot a video for the campaign which, in addition to all its other merits, nicely summarized our production workflow.
The donation campaign didn’t worked out. We have raised 641 USD (30%) and the rest was refunded by me. The project got out of funds. We considered that we could try to start another fundraising campaign for the next stage, but it was impossible to run it in parallel with the keyframe stage, because I couldn’t afford another fail. We also couldn’t wait as the project would lose its momentum. Of course, we had the full right to abandon the project and just say: “Well, it didn’t work out”.
On the other hand we saw all the people inspired by the project and in fact we were very grateful to those who donated for their belief. The campaign showed that there were people who really care for the project. And we just couldn’t disappoint their expectations. So we decided that we want to finish the Demo no matter what. And my respect to Nikolay – I’ve got the full support in that decision from him – he wanted to finish the work. For free.
After that there were 4 long months of intensive and often tiresome work. We have learned how to attract the community wisely by making calls to Blender and Synfig Studio users. At the same time we did that in hope that more people would learn our technology and it would help them.
The video below shows the snapshots from the Demo at different stages from the recent time.
One thing that wasn’t announced in my latest weekly report was the change of the helicopter model. I was unhappy with the old one and then I accidentally came across this very cool one by Chris Kuhn. After some tuning, it turned out to fit the Demo perfectly. We intentionally didn’t announced this change because we wanted to keep some really unexpected moments for the Demo.
Another important thing to talk about is the soundtrack. Those who closely follow our production blog, might remember that initially I wanted to use the song by Per Gessle “Hey Mr. DJ (Won’t You Play Another Love Song)”. That’s definitely not a free track and we had no permission to use. Though, I’ve had some plan for trying to get the permission to use it. At the same time it was an interesting experiment and if it’d succeed that would have created a very cool precedent.
But it didn’t work out. So on the 28th of October I started to look for an alternative soundtrack. Luckily I have stumbled upon the work of Stefano Mocini and his new album “Two Soundtracks”. Both compositions fit the Demo and brought the new mood into the whole work. So, after spending 3 days I was able to rework the Demo for the new soundtrack with minimal losses. Some people still complain about the “noncommercial” license, but I never regret my choice, because the primary target was to deliver the best possible experience.
Another thing to mention about soundtrack is that there was another alternative – a music band from LaGrange wrote a special song for the Demo, but unfortunately they didn’t managed to complete it in time. We plan to finish the song and make an alternative edition of the Demo with a completely special mood… But I should stop here – the plans for the future are the theme for another post.
Right now, we have finally reached an important milestone – the Demo is released. I hope you enjoy watching it!