Hello and welcome to this project workflow tutorial!
Unless you are an artist or team member that is actively involved in a studio production environment, chances are you find the requirements and good practices for a project workflow to be a complete mystery. It is not uncommon to see new, or even intermediate Blender users with little, to no idea how to efficiently structure a project. This can cause unnecessary delays and challenges during production.
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This tutorial, or editorial of sorts, is meant to try and shed some light on a few things you can do to help make your production more successful; regardless of your project is or who is involved.
Efficiently structuring a production, and the project workflow is absolutely key to succeeding with larger projects. If your project is not a solo project, and instead you’re working with a team then this is even more crucial!
An effective project workflow, or production workflow, not only helps you get the job done faster but it helps you produce better work. You will enjoy the process more and it leaves you with a project that is easier to navigate several years down the road; even if the person looking at the project was not on the original team.
Every project is different and the workflow must be adapted to fit that particular project as best as can be. However, there are a few things that are universal to all projects. In the below text you will find a few of my thoughts on these things, along with some of the techniques I have found to make a successful project workflow during our productions here at the CG Cookie Studio.
I have attempted to break the key parts of a production or project workflow into five components. These are Project Roles, Team Communication, File Structure and Naming Conventions, Asset Management, and Finishing the Project! Let’s take a look at each one of these in turn.
#1 – Project Roles
Being part of the Blender Community, I believe many of us have this idealized picture of a large group of people all coming together and communally working to produce something awesome without a centralized direction or project lead. This is a great mental image but in reality, particularly when it comes to your beloved project that has been stewing in your mind for years it just doesn’t work.
One of the first things you should do before you produce a single project asset is define team member roles. Determine who is doing what, which roles need to be filled and figure out how you can best make use of the skills your team brings to the table.
Below are some example roles which you should be looking to fill. Granted, depending on the size or type of project you may also include User Interface Designers, Concept Artists, Marketing, and others. The exact roles for your team may vary, the important thing is that you define them.
Example Primary Roles:
- Project Lead - the person responsible for making project-wide choices and keeping the team on task and motivated.
- Art Director – the person that takes charge of the look and feel of the project. On smaller teams this person may also help direct marketing.
- Production Artist(s) and respective Leads - these people are charged to ensure all project assets are completed to spec. Depending on the spec of your project, this may be broken into several areas such as: Character Artist Lead and Environment Artist Lead.
- Environment Artist: Responsible for all hard surface modeling and environment layout. This includes object modeling and lighting in most cases.
- Character Artist: As you can imagine all things characters. Clothing, accessories and textures.
- Animation Lead – the person that keep tabs on all animation to ensure quality and consistency
- Tech artists / Engineers - these people are responsible for making sure everything actually works. This can boil down to shader development, optimization, custom tool creation and staring at lines and lines of codes for months on end.
When you have these roles defined, stick to them! Within the production environment, it is crucial each member fills their role to the best of their ability; this includes everything from the producer keeping the project going to the asset artists pumping out quality work. Doing this helps everyone stay on track and keep moving towards project completion.
Aside from making the best use of available skills, this also helps to avoid work overlap and too much head-butting. It is very common for new directors/producers to try and always be nice and let everyone do what they want, but this nearly always results in one things: you getting walked all over and the team getting nothing done. Let’s face it, this is your project and it should be done the way you want it to be.
#2 – Team Communication
I cannot stress just how important team communication is…personally I believe it is more important than your entire team, hardware, location, and everything else combined. The only reason this isn’t the #1 key is because the roles can determine aspects of the communication. Without good team communication your project will start to fall apart even before you begin. Good team communication should be a lot like your neighbors annoying, clanging, noisy machine that is always spouting steam! It’s always there, constantly makes a racket and refuses to be turned off.
The first step to good team communication is to put together a group of people that actually like to communicate. If each member of your team is off gallivanting with no regard for the rest of the group your project is doomed to fail. Every person on the team should actively contribute to team discussions and updates while also following the project lead. It is their job to help guide the project through completion and it is everyone else’s job to fulfill their role.
There are many different ways teams choose to communicate, if you’re looking for some new options then here’s a brief list to ease the process:
- Skype - this works great for active discussions, particularly if the group chats are used to keep all members up to date
- Wunderkit - the newest member of the 6WunderKinder family, this software is a great team to-do list and management application
- BaseCamp - this tool is renowned for great team management while offering a wealth of tools
- email - while boring, email is tried and true but it takes a very good team to not lose track of messages and to make sure everyone is on the email list. Use mailing lists to help solve this problem.
In the end, the most important thing is to simply keep the communication going!
#3 – File Structure and Naming Convention
If there’s a single thing I would consider a pet peeve of mine in the production process, it is bad or inconsistent file structures and naming conventions. When I’m knee-deep in a project, the last thing I want to do is spend hours searching for the files Sneaky Tom sent me because I don’t know what they’re called or where they’re at. Hours may be an exaggeration, okay fine it’s a huge exaggeration, but you get the point. If each team member follows a consistent naming convention and file structure it will be much easier for each member to pick up where others left off or make use of files from other people on the team.
You can use most any structure and naming convention as you like, just so long as it’s consistent and everyone sticks to it!
An example project directory structure:
- Project Root
This is merely an example and could be broken down further for specific projects. For example, you might further separate assets into characters and environments.
#4 – Asset Management
Right up there in importance with file structure and naming convention, is asset management. While working in a team environment it is crucial that every member know exactly where each and every file exists that is pertinent to them.
There are many different ways you can manage your assets, but I highly recommend using something like Dropbox with shared folders to keep everyone in sync and on the same page. The requirements of your project may bring to light other challenges for asset management, but Dropbox or some of the other software is a good place to start.
- Dropbox - an automatic file syncing tool that allows for shared folders between team members; also includes file change history in case of emergencies.
- SugarSync – another automatic file syncing utility with much the same feature set as Dropbox but with wider range of customizations.
- SVN – a version control utility that lets team members check in and out from a central source. It is great for coding projects but not so good for animation projects due to file sizes.
#5 – Finish the Project
This sounds like a silly thing to bring up in a workflow guide, but this is probably one of the hardest things to do. We’ve all seen and been around the start-up projects where everyone is excited, anxious and pumped to get started. Only to find out months and sometimes just weeks later that the project is on hold… Somebody is upset at somebody else, this other person won’t answer e-mails, and the motivation to work on this awesome project instead of going streaking on Saturday night isn’t winning.
If you follow the above project guidelines you will be making the first steps towards a successful project. By making communication a priority, defining team roles and managing your assets well you can not only give the project a successful start but be well on your way to finishing the project and going on vacation!
All vector artwork done by the excellent Yuanden