What is a Film Layout?
During the production of an animated film, the layout department is in charge of preparing each shot of a film into a 3D scene. The layout artists are responsible for setting up all the elements required for every sequence of a film. In fact, they do most of the heavy lifting of assembling the shots into virtual scenes on a film. They are like gnome assembling tons of pre-fabricated parts together to make a working object.
They actually set up where the action in a film happens, according to the director’s vision. The artist will create a 3D scene by importing the correct environments, characters and props for each shot, based on the storyboard . Therefore, they will use objects from all asset departments: from modelers to texture artist, riggers, and environment modelers, as well as FX artist and matte painters.
A prop is an object that is required for the continuity of a scene. It can be used by a character or not, but it needs to be present despite not being part of an environment itself (e.g. a walking stick). This may be because it will be animated eventually in the film, or because it is intermittently present in the environment.
There are two distinct steps in a 3D production where the layout artists can be required to work on:
- The Layout (before animation)
- The Final Layout (before lighting)
The Layout Department
The layout step is where the scene is first assembled in a 3D production pipeline. This means that there needs to be a rough modeling done for every object before it can begin. However, the texture and rigging don’t necessarily need to be started, but it simplifies the workflow. We will discuss different pipeline workflows in a subsequent article.
The layout department prepares all the 3D scenes before the animation department begins. It is used to lock-in a few important elements with the director and to facilitate the lengthy task of animating everything in detail. Layout artist will also make some basic movement animation, to get a sense of the timing of characters and cameras. The layout may establish the basic positions of characters and objects, but they are not making the detailed animations.
This step is very useful in order to test the montage of the movie before the final output. It is often called a rough-cut, playblast edit or pix-lock. This is the first time, a preview of the scene will be created in 3D, and in motion. It is however usually pretty bland-looking: usually all in grey tones with boxy low-resolution models.
Tasks of a Layout Artist
For every shot of the movie, the layout artists will lock-in the following:
- Loading the appropriate 3D assets for a shot
- Choosing the proper 3D environments
- Loading any 3D object, prop or accessory used
- Optimizing the set only for what actions are needed
- Positioning the action
- Choosing the placement of the action within the environment
- Setting the camera positions, focals and movements
- Setting up the character’s first and last positions
- Positioning the accessories and props
- The timing of the scene
- The duration of the shot
- The movements of character’s main actions
- The rough animation of props and constraints to a character
- Creating a video preview of the shot for a rough-cut edit
What is a Lead Layout Artist?
The layout artist will work in conjunction with the lead layout artist, and the director, to follow the vision as established in the storyboard. The (lead) layout artist can suggest additions, edits and he can have a certain creative output, depending on the hierarchical structure of the company. However, this isn’t normally a creative position, in that every aspect has to be in tune with the pre-established idea from the storyboard. The art director, director and lead layout have a lot more creative power over the artistic direction of each shot than the entry-level layout artist. It is aking to a cameraman on a live set, and it’s director of photography.
The lead layout artist is the equivalent of a cinematographer in a real live action movie. He works in conjunction with the director to convey the vision established in the storyboard. He the directs his team of ‘layout artist’ to accomplish this vision into each 3D shot, individually.
The Final-Layout Department
When a 3D artist fixes layout elements after the animation step is already completed, it is called the ‘final layout’. Sometimes, a technical animator may also be required to fix specific animation issues with characters.
Whilst the ‘layout artist’ will prepare 3D scenes for animation, the ‘final-layout artist’ will prepare the scenes for the lighting department. Everything has to absolutely final at this stage, because the lighting is where the final images are rendered. There are also plenty of other challenges to deal with during lighting. Therefore, every creative decision that does not have to do with colors, has to be set in stone beforehand. Any changes to the elements and compositions during lighting will likely cause a lot of unforeseen errors in continuity. So ideally, things have to be as constant as possible throughout the process, so as to be able to detect technical bugs, by comparing with the last ‘final layout’ playblast.
This means that the final layout’s main responsibility is a careful attention to detail. He or she has to recheck and tweak everything that influences the composition and timing of each shot. The artist also has to match what was approved by the director and the production at all times. But in addition to the tasks of a layout artist, there needs to be a special attention to technical problems, version management of the latest assets and animation issues.
Tasks of the Final Layout Artist
The “Final Layout”, finalizes the scene after the animation step is completed, but before the lighting department. It is often a step done by the very same artists that worked on from the layout step. Often, it is a more efficient workflow to assign the same shots to one person, both in layout and final layout, so that he knows exactly what he’s working on, the second time around.
- Asset Management
- Importing the final animations & visual effects
- Placing the right backgrounds & matte paintings
- Update all assets to the latest version (environments, characters, props)
- Optimize and clean up the scene
- Animation Tweaks
- Repairing technical problems from the animation department (see also “technical animator”)
- Repositioning the animation of characters of props, if needed
- Camera positions, focals and movements have to be finalized
- Animation curves have to be smoothed
- Shot durations and timings have to be fixed and final after this (for the sound)
- Finalize the look of the shots
- Making the creative changes requested by the director or the production
- Finalizing the compositions (filling-in empty space or incomplete areas in the frame)
- Check for continuity mistakes in the camera axis and missing objects
- Setting up the stereoscopic cameras and depth separation (for films using 3D glasses only)
- Prepare the 3D scene for the lighting department
- Add a basic skylight or skydome
- Create a final preview of the sequence, used as the final reference or ‘pix-lock’
How to Become a Layout Artist
The “3D layout artist” position is an entry-level position in the industry. It is highly sought-after by recent 3D animation graduates because it doesn’t require previous work experience. It’s also a good starting point towards environment modeling, animation, artistic direction or film direction. Therefore, we recommended that you obtain a 3D animation diploma in the field to get a competing chance, where places are limited.
It is a good starting point for 3D artists interested towards a later specialization as a character animator, a technical animator, an environment artist, or a lead layout artist. It is also a good position for artists who are more technically inclined than animators and those who have a particular interest for the cinematographic language.
The layout department does not require a lot of previous work experience in the field, except to become a lead or senior layout artist. We recommended a college degree in either film studies and/or 3D animation as it can be strong asset to distinguish yourself from the mass.
- A good knowledge of the codes of cinematography
- Shot values, camera movements, axis line, cinematic continuity rules
- Knowledge of film history and film codes
- Understanding the principles of 3D stereoscopic camera and depth separation
- Proficiency with an industry-standard 3D software
- An understanding of the basic 3D animation tools (move, rotate, scale, keying)
- Ability to use and fix graph curves for movements
- Understanding the production workflow in a studio pipeline
- Ability to rigorously manage 3D assets and version updates
- Qualities of a good layout artist
- Being organized and methodical
- A good attention to details, anomalies and technical errors
- A talent for spotting continuity mistakes between shots (missing items)
- Facility to work in teams and autonomously
- Ability to take criticism constructively and reconcile multiple input sources
- Having good problem-solving skills
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