Catching a few lobsters...
/ Lobsters are Weird Final PPJ and Team Postmortem
June 6, 2017

Almost 15 months ago, a group of six shellfish left their aquatic homes and moved into lab 206 of the URBN Center at Drexel University. Ecologists have postulated that this move was made due to ideal basking conditions behind the render machines and the residual saltiness often lingering in the air provided the salinity necessary for continued life functions. The lab is also safe from lobster’s natural predator, Discovery channel reality shows. While it is true that the lab is cleaner than the ocean, and outside of finals week, not covered in a plastic sea the size of North America, there was an alternate reason– the crafting of “Honu,” a four-minute-fifty-five-second-and-ten-frame long animation about the vastness and beauty of space.

As we wrap our project, we wish to extend the lessons we learned to upcoming senior project teams. We feel that it is our obligation, as graduating seniors, to pass down our lessons, derived both from triumphs and tribulations, in an effort that all of Drexel’s future projects may be better.
Our biggest success was fostering an atmosphere of experimentation and discovery. Since we had a non-narrative animation, we could custom craft shots that would allow us to learn skills we were interested in. For instance, Matt Rotella had an interest in databending and glitch effects, so we designed the NOV sequence to showcase his research and work. Team members also came to the table wanting to work with a variety of packages and challenges, like Side FX Houdini, Black Magic DaVinci Resolve, Pixar Renderman, Foundry Mari, live action actors, bespoke pipeline tools, hand-drawn crayon frames and hair simulations. We found a way to incorporate all of them.

Our team also elected to use an agile development cycle instead of a waterfall development style, which had amazing results for our team. In waterfall development, a team decides on an endpoint and breaks down the steps in a roughly linear fashion– moving from point A to point B. In agile development, we quickly push to a minimal viable product, then improve on that– point A to point F via waypoints C, D, and E. Each iteration of our project made the project better. Working in this development style allowed us to develop Honu artistically and push the project further than we would have been able to otherwise.

We also built a strong lab culture as a team. Some of our team members, Brendan Brown and Ian Hartman, were in the labs almost every single day. Regardless of the amount of time spent in the labs, almost all of the work was done in the labs, which allowed for ease of communication and collaborative workflows. No lobster was an island unto themselves, because lobster aren’t islands, they’re lobsters. We would heavily recommend that future teams work on the project in the labs. You can’t beat that level of team building and collaboration that you get from working together all of the time.

There were times during production where the pipeline wasn’t super clear and there was a lot of discussion on where files would be saved and how to bring them into scene files. Ian put work into developing a pipeline in the beginning and the team understood that things would flex as the project progressed. Though, the structure in the beginning just wasn’t set up to be flexible enough and that brought about moments where it was often more clumsy and confusing to reference in assets than do everything in a single file. There were attempts to used ‘published’ scene files for each stage of production but having all the files spread out across a singular maya project structure proved to be cumbersome. In the future, the project equals production model (one project folder) could work for smaller productions but for larger productions it would be way more scalable to use project in production (i.e. maya project per each shot).

Communication didn’t always work out as well as we could have hoped. We were using Slack for all of our team communication, including with Jeremy. We were pretty good about putting up what we were working on to get feedback but we didn’t have a solid way that we were keeping track of what everyone was doing at any given moment. We attempted to use Trello at multiple times during production to varying success. It really helped set up the final push in Spring term but quickly got forgotten as the usual grind of production set in in the following weeks. There were other times as well that team members would work on shots that others were also currently working on at the time or going to work on when they got into the labs. The team member either forgot to ask what the plan was or weren’t aware that anyone was currently working on that shot. Having different schedules didn’t help this issue as members would be working at different times of the day and it was often easier to just be able to ask those members currently around in the labs.

The main tension in Lobsters are Weird did not come from our project that went pretty smoothly, but in the pronunciation of GIF. The problem is that some people on the team just continued to be knowingly wrong in their pronunciation. Even after coming to some settlements in the dispute, it would peak at time of tension and side track into heated debate. We’re not joking. This was a major issue for our team.

There’s also a few changes that we would have made if we had more time. Off the top of our head, we could always add more planets, develop our narrative more, and spend some more time tweaking the DIE sequence. We also would have included a few easter eggs without overdoing it, perhaps the dog from Alone? or a Kubrickian monolith.

In conclusion–

The End.

Lobster Fact: Lobsters are Weird

About the author:

I'm an animator, illustrator, and all around artsy guy. You'd want me on your Pictionary team.

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