Have you ever had a project you’ve worked hard on for weeks, only to realize just hours before the deadline that it’s all wrong? For me, that project was my very first 11-Second Club animation. For the uninitiated, the 11-Second Club is a wondrous monthly competition in which animators can showcase their character acting skills using an audio clip, often taken from a movie or show, chosen by those in charge. The prompt is posted at the beginning of the month, submissions are taken until the night of the final day of that month, and then a new prompt is posted in the following month.
As I was going into this project myself this past April, I was mostly eager to get some practice with character acting, as it was one of the areas of 3D animation I hadn’t yet practiced, and submitting it for the competition was just a bonus in my eyes. Having talked about this project ahead of time with my instructors at Exceptional Minds, I was planning to use three class days out of the week to work on this project, and as soon as I came in on the first week of April, I saw and listened to the chosen audio clip. The conversation involved the character Wednesday from the show of the same name. I got straight to work looking up any potential character rigs I could use that would suit the role, and after finding characters I was satisfied with, I put them all into a singular Maya scene and spent the day learning the rigs and experimenting with various poses to get comfortable with the characters I would be using. Once I opened up my scene the following work day, however, I noticed that both of my characters had vanished from the scene entirely. I tried many different approaches, but every time I managed to get two characters of any kind into the same Maya scene, they would be gone once I opened it again. Ultimately, it meant that I had to put aside my ideal camera angles and try to produce new angles that convincingly conveyed a conversation between two characters showing only one of them on screen at a time. This wasn’t ideal, but I was willing to make it work in the interest of time.
Moving forward from that setback, the next step was to find an environment that would work well for the short. Since the dialogue implied a school setting, I had decided to look for an office room to resemble the office of a faculty member. Finding an office that looked presentable, was functional to animate in, and had some level of prop interactivity took some time, but I was eventually able to find something I was happy with. After taking some time to break my main character into the environment, I realized that the month was already halfway over. All I had so far were some assets and undocumented choreography ideas, so I decided then that it was time to animate.
Since this was the first time I had animated to dialogue, I chose to start with lip-syncing so that I could analyze the lips before the character was moving around too much. I had worked with lip poses in the past for some 2D animation drills, so I was able to work through that portion easily enough, and I then dove into the character acting portion. As I was still experimenting with choreography ideas throughout this portion and still wasn’t fully versed in what this rig was capable of, I ended up foregoing the blocking phase of animation, both in the interest of time and of observing my character in motion to see what worked. At the time, I felt comfortable with how things were looking and how much time it was taking to get there, so I felt no need to change my workflow. So once I got to a point where I was happy with one of my characters, I then had to move on to the other one with only three days remaining until the submission deadline.
As I moved on to the second character, I soon learned that lip-syncing for this character was a much more challenging experience than the first one. This wasn’t due to the rig itself, though. It hadn’t come up during the first character, but this time around, my hyper-sensitive hearing was the obstacle, as the amount of chatter I was experiencing in my work environment made it impossible for me to actually hear what my character was saying. At that point, I should have relocated, but I was holding out hope that things would get better shortly. They didn’t. I decided eventually to shift away from lip-syncing for the time being and see what I could do about rendering the scene with my first character, which created a whole ordeal of its own. My instructors nor I could figure out why, but the character’s hair refused to render properly. Because of these setbacks, my confidence had wavered for that night. I was able to get a new set of eyes on it the next day and find a workaround for my issues, which gave me newfound hope that this would be finished before the submission deadline after all, so I pushed onward, with only the weekend remaining before the deadline.
That weekend, I was entirely on my own for the remainder of the project. I was fine with this, as I had been animating independently throughout the month already. I was able to finish the lip-syncing in a chatter-free environment, and by Sunday afternoon, I had given the remaining character the animation they needed. It wasn’t the most believable movement I’ve ever seen, but I figured it would do. After editing the final exports together into my final product, I went to the 11-Second Club website to make my account and submit my animation. However, I misspelled my email when making the account and had lost the contact address as well, so I now had to scour the website in search of a way to fix this so that I could activate my account. While searching through the website, I ended up reading through their list of resources and guidelines. As I read further in, my confidence began to waver once again. This wasn’t due to any specific technical difficulties this time. I was seeing posts about specific encoding requirements, about blocking before animating, about sharing works in progress for feedback, and many other such things. Seeing all these things made me realize that I was working on this project in my own little world for a month instead of working on it in the real world. I had been foregoing the steps that mattered most to save time for steps that mattered significantly less. I sacrificed the quality of my character acting for visual quality when the point of the exercise was specifically to work on character acting. Worst of all, I never once showed my animation to anyone that would have been able to offer any sort of constructive feedback. I felt like I had failed as an animator, and I felt like I could not, in good conscience, pretend that I didn’t by submitting my piece as it was. As the deadline came to pass that night, my piece remained unsubmitted.
While the competition period ended with feelings of self-doubt and remorse, I learned a lot of things from the experience that made me hopeful for any future attempts. In areas where I spent extra time on elements such as lighting and rendering, as well as finding visually appealing character rigs and environments, I will instead use a simpler rig and put that time towards furthering my character acting, as all those other elements should come second. While I worked the entire process solo this time, I plan to use the community resources offered by the 11-Second Club to seek feedback throughout my future processes, starting with the blocking phase. For anyone planning to animate an 11-Second Club prompt, my advice to you would be to take some time to understand the rules and guidelines posted on the website, as it helps not only to understand the ins and outs of what’s allowed or encouraged but also further to understand the spirit of the 11-Second club competition.