23 Important Things to Plan Your 3D CGI Story Around Now

Written by Sherri Sheridan

Avatar is the new Star Wars for this generation of digital filmmakers. The visual fourth wall was shattered inviting the audience to be in the film they are watching during a 3D IMAX type viewing experience. As a filmmaker and writer, you now have to consider things like Z depth, and how your story can literally reach out and grab the audience from the screen in full 3D CGI glory – every scene.

3D CGI films also make more money (if the visual story is good) and are the hot new thing studios are making. The 3D CGI experience cannot be duplicated as easily with home viewing situations, forcing movie lovers back into the 3D theaters.

Independent filmmakers can still make 3D CGI films. They just need to focus on doing what 3D CGI does fast. Avoid using highly detailed photorealism visual styles that require long set up and rendering times. Pixar films started with plastic toys, then, moved on to fish, cars and flat shaded cartoon looks for a reason. Here are 23 Things 3D CGI Does Really Well to plan your story around.

Scene from Avatar

(1) Original 3D CGI Characters.

You can create any character you can imagine in 3D CGI. This is the biggest sell point of this very time-consuming  animation style. People want to see things they have not seen before, or in a drastically new way in 3D animated films.

(2) Original 3D CGI Sets.

Any location that you can imagine, you can build in 3D CGI. What set have you always wanted to see? Avatar shows us a jungle utopia on a distant planet with tree gods.

(3) Image/Camera Mapping.

Most 3D CGI programs do a good job of mapping photos or DV, to simple planes or objects, which can then appear as highly detailed 3D CGI elements with lots of depth.

(4) Adding Digital Makeup/Extra Body Parts.

3D CGI may be used as digital makeup on actors, or blue screen characters, to add limbs, cut them in half, or have something like a worm crawl out of holes in their faces.

(5) 3D CGI Camera Movement.

Cameras in 3D CGI software programs can do almost anything, unencumbered by needing dollies or tracks for movement. They are especially good at mathematically controlled motion paths, original POV’s and flying through unusual, microscopic or tight spaces.

(6) Realistic 3D CGI Stunt Moves.

3D CGI stunt actors never get hurt or complain. Blowing 3D CGI models up is much cheaper than destroying real cars or buildings. How could you create a 3D CGI enhanced POV stunt shot for your film that is too dangerous to do in real life?

(7) 2D Characters on 3D CGI Planes for Better Animation Controls.

The 2D animated show South Park is done in Maya, by mapping pictures onto flat planes the shape of the images. This allows the character animators to take advantage of the powerful animation abilities in the 3D CGI software to move the parts around more easily than using a less evolved 2D package.

(8) 2D Cell Shading for Video and 3D CGI Footage.

Some filmmakers are shooting on DV, then taking the footage into 3D Studio Max or Maya, to take advantage of the 2D shader abilities. A shader is like a filter that renders adjustable visual styles such as looking hand drawn.

(9) Distorting Actors.

Many traditional 2D animated distortion or morphing effects can be created with an added dimension in 3D CGI.

(10) Animated Animals or Objects.

What animals or  inanimate objects could you bring to life in your film using 3D CGI?

(11) Duplication.

Once you model, texture map and animate one object or character, it is easy to make copies. Use this to your advantage by making robot armies, twins, gangs, fleets of objects or factories full of workers. How could you make simple variations of one character, to form a group of individuals, by modifying parameters such as scale, visibility, color, rotation and position on individual body parts?

(12) Flocking Systems.

Flocking is the ability to animate large groups of objects or characters in a natural looking way.

(13) Physics.

Many 3D CGI programs allow you to assign properties to objects such as weight, material, velocity and friction. These objects then assume those properties during animations while interacting with other objects.

(14) Hair and Cloth.

What kind of hairy looking characters or unique clothing could help give your film a signature look?

(15) Motion Ride Animation Paths.

What kind of POV ride could you take your audience on as part of your film? 3D CGI works great for traveling through spaces in a way DV and 2D animation cannot do.

(16) Mixing Animation Styles.

Real blue screen actors can be inserted into 3D worlds to save money on character animation and sets.

(17) 3D CGI Water, Fire, Smoke, Weather, Plants and Trees.

3D CGI is getting good at doing natural elements and plants. How would the plants and weather look different in your world where you control everything?

(18) Outer Space Shots.

Space has low geometry (lots of space with round planets), that makes it easy to do in 3D CGI. Modeling a simple flying saucer and setting a few motion keyframes against a starry backdrop plane is relatively fast. Taking that spaceship and duplicating it a hundred times gives you a fleet of UFOs. How can you have your story take place in space? How can you create a unique version of outer space?

(19) Unusual Texture Maps.

Once you have a 3D CGI model, you can place any type of texture map across the surface, which opens up a bunch of metaphorical possibilities for your stories. Avatar features characters with blue sparkly skin and lush jungles.

(20) 3D Scanning.

3D scanners are getting better and cheaper as the technology develops. Almost any object can be 3D scanned to save time modeling.

(21) Motion Capture.

If character animating is not a thrilling way to spend your time, you could choose to use an actor in a motion capture suit to generate keyframes. There are lots of motion capture files available on the web to plug into your 3D CGI characters too.

(22) Z Depth Wow Shots.

Study what works best in 3D CGI by watching Avatar in a 3D IMAX theatre. Thin things poking out into the audience from the middle of the screen look more 3D than big thick objects. Sets that wrap around the outside edges of the screen with 3D CGI elements extend the film world into the audience. Little firefly looking jellyfish creatures who hover in the middle of the theatre add lots of depth and pop out off the screen.

(23) Free 3D Internet Models.

Google any type of model and find ones online ready to go for free.

23 Important Things to Plan Your 3D CGI Story Around Now

23 Important Things to Plan Your 3D CGI Story Around NowSherri Sheridan is a leading world expert in teaching story to digital filmmakers, animators, screenwriters and novelists. “Filmmaking Script To Screen Step-By-Step” her new book is coming to Amazon in 2021. An app featuring the step-by-step story process is also in the works. Other books include “Maya 2 Character Animation” (New Riders 1999), “Developing Digital Short Films” (New Riders / Peach pit / Pearson 2004) and “Writing A Great Script Fast” (2007). Sherri is the CEO and Creative Director at MindsEyeMedia.com and MyFlik.com in San Francisco.


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