Something I struggled with a lot in school was getting my animation done on time (or even at all). It seemed like no matter how hard I worked, none of my shots were ever “finished.” I started to dread those looming deadlines and in the process caused myself a lot of unnecessary stress and anxiety. Which led to more procrastination. Which led to more unfinished work. It got so bad during school that when I finally did graduate, I didn't have a whole lot of animation that showed off how much I'd really grown in such a short time.

Since then I've gotten a lot better about consistently hitting that target date.  I'm still no grand master of the deadline, but I'd like to think I've at least improved.  Whether it's a self-imposed deadline or something from a supervisor, it's something we all have to master sooner or later. So to that end, I wanted to share a few things that I do to help me and my animation get over the hump and across the finish line in one piece.

1) Make lists. Bear with me, because this one's going to take a bit of an explanation. After getting my blocking approved, it can be a little daunting to finish when I realize just how much more work has to get done to finish the shot. It can be really tempting to just start adding in detail and fixing trouble spots as you see them. The real problem with that you can waste a lot of time and energy fixing the wrong areas of your shot.

Here's an example of a list I made a few weeks ago while animating for the Animals and Creatures Commercial Contest a AM.

Now I realize it looks a little like gibberish to anyone but me, but I'll do my best to explain the system I use.

To start out, I'll just list every change that I can think to make at the time. Even if I'm not sure how to fix things at the moment, I still just list everything I can think of. It's important to be as specific as you can, so all the notes will make sense later.

Once that's done, I'll start to put arrows on the items that I think are most important for the shot. I don't bother numbering them yet, because the priority changes a lot as I'm going down the list. So for now, important vs. not-so-important is okay.

This part of the process helps you organize changes into what can be done and what should be done. The trick is to realize which changes are important for the shot and which ones aren't. Where is the viewer supposed to be looking? Is it important to polish the overlap on a character's fingers in a medium dialogue shot where the audience is mainly focused on the character's face?

Another thing I like to make note of is whether the changes I make add new animation to the shot or not. This is something I like to keep track of just because it helps make sure that I'm adding enough polish to the shot. It also keeps me from reworking the same problems over and over again. For some reason layering in new animation is usually easier for me than fixing stuff that's already there.

Next I'll make note of the stuff that I know is going to be really tough to fix. Usually the things that are the hardest for me are the stuff that I don't have any idea how I'm going to fix. I know something's wrong, but it's going to take some experimenting to figure out exactly how to fix it. The more stars I put next to an item, the harder I think it's going to be. Keeping note of how hard changes are will come in handy later.

Next, I'll prioritize them. I'll sit down and try to figure out what things are most important for the shot, and number them according to which things I think I should do first. A good question I like to ask myself while deciding what to do next is, “If the shot went final tomorrow, would I be embarrassed if this change didn't get finished?” This is just something I ask myself to ensure that I'm not ignoring important things like leaving animation in stepped mode or animation that goes to a complete standstill for no reason. If I'm spending time finessing arcs on frame 250 when the character is still in stepped blocking from frame 50 to 70, then I'm mismanaging my time. It's not that tracking your arcs isn't important, but it can probably wait if there are more important things to do.

Once I've got everything numbered, I'm finally ready to sit down and do some animating. Now I know that it might seem like a waste of time to go through all the trouble of listing and prioritizing things, but for me the small time investment now saves me loads of time later on. Keep in mind that this list isn't set in stone. It's just a general road map for where you should go next.

As I'm working my way down the list, I'll check things off as I go. More often than not, the more important fixes are the most difficult to do. So when I find myself banging my head against a wall, I'll try to go do something on the list that's quick and easy. That way at least something is always getting done, even when I'm stuck. Stepping away from a problem is usually the best thing for me when I'm stuck. It gives me time to think while still being productive.

I can't tell you how much faster being organized has made me! Most important of all, it's helped me learn how to let certain changes go. It can be really easy when you don't pay attention to what's important for the shot to waste time on things that, even though they might be really neat, keep you from getting a shot done. Having a shot that's done is much more important than having a shot that's perfect. There will always be little details you want to add and little hitches you want to rework and fix, but part of hitting a deadline is learning to let the unimportant stuff go.

2) Don't get tweak happy. We've all been there before. Something in your shot just isn't working and instead of sitting back and figuring out a game plan, we just jump right in and start tweaking splines and then playblast it to see how it looks. The problem with this is that going back and forth between tiny curve tweaks and then playblasting after each change can add hours of work without very good results. So don't go into the spline editor until you know exactly what you're going to do. What you have planned may not pan out. That's okay. If that happens, take a playblast, sit back and ask yourself what to do next. Chances are, if you don't know what you want, you're not going to get what you want. Knowing what you want to do is 90% of the battle when you're facing a deadline, because there's likely not much time to experiment without any real goal. Every piece of lousy animation I've ever done is probably due to the fact that I didn't know what the hell I wanted at the time.

3) Keep track of the time you spend working. This is doubly important if you work from home. I like to use a free app on my iPhone to keep track of how long I spend animating each week. If you want to give it a shot, you can find it here. But no matter how you do it, it's important to know just how long you've been working. If I took a break every time I got sick of what I was working on, I'd be done in twenty minutes. Keeping a timer helps me say to myself, “Come on now. You've only been working for an hour. You can do better than that.”

If I'm stuck I also like to keep track of how long I've spent on a particular problem. If I've spent more than an hour on the same problem, and I still haven't fixed it, it's time to move on and come back to it later. Maybe it's just me, but it's really easy for me to sink two or three hours into the same problem without realizing it.

It's also good for keeping track of how many hours a week you're putting into your work. I may feel completely drained, but if I know I've only put in fifteen hours this week, I'm more likely to push myself just a little further than I usually would.

Now I don't consider this by any means to be a comprehensive list of all the things that will for-sure make you faster as an animator. But they've all helped me immensely, so here's hoping they'll help you too.

Oh, and while I'm thinking about it...

4) Going to the gym once in a while never hurt anyone either.

Happy Animating!