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What I Learned Making My First Animated Short Film

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I had been sitting on an idea for about a year. I couldn’t figure out how to translate a recorded short story into a produce-able script even though I could picture it so vividly. That’s when I had the brilliant idea, “I’ll animate it!” That’ll make my life easier, I thought. I can hand it off to the animator and work on another project at the same time, I thought. It’ll be the best of both worlds, I thought. I thought wrong.

I’m not saying Dragonfly was my worst producing experience, but I didn’t necessarily have the loads of free time as I had hoped. The life of a producer: always putting out fires.

As the project moved forward a neon sign kept flashing: You Can Never Rush Pre-Production. See, I had never made an animated anything before, so I didn’t know how making one compared to making a live action movie. I felt like a real first-time filmmaker. Where do I begin? What’s the first step I take? I was frozen and working against a self-imposed deadline in order to submit to specific festivals. I acted fast and knew I needed an animator. By this point I had edited down an almost 25-minute recording to roughly 10 minutes. I was still smart enough to know the audio should probably be finished before animation could (or should) begin, but that was about it.

On a side note, as production continued I kept wishing I had edited the audio even more. Maybe I could have shaved off a few seconds? Was that part I cut actually necessary for clarity? Did a lot of this concern come down to the increasing budget? Probably. You Can Never Rush Pre-Production.

I was able to hire a team, which gave me two animators for the price of one. That process ended up being easier than I expected. It was shortly after when trouble started. Not with the animators but with production. The source recording had major issues and attempts to re-record specific parts remotely, with the storyteller across the country, were proving difficult. I was faced with a decision: scrap or delay the project or hire someone else to re-record the whole thing. You Can Never Rush Pre-Production.

Obviously, it wasn’t a tough choice but what I loved so much about the recording was the familiarity she had with the story. She had lived it. There were nuances and character traits I didn’t want to lose using someone else. That didn’t matter because what’s the first rule of filmmaking? The sound quality needs to be great. I had no choice. I hired an amazing VO actor whom I knew and trusted and gave the simple instruction: record this story exactly how you hear it. I knew their voice qualities and life experiences were different (the actor wasn’t a 50+ year old mother who almost died in an unbelievable car accident), but I needed to feel like the actor had lived this story. I mean, acting, right? That’s why I hired an actor.

Then reality hit me. Shit. She’s union. I hadn’t planned for this. I gotta contact SAG-AFTRA and fill out paperwork. What contract do I even use? That’s when things got even more fun.

Had I made this movie 2 years earlier, things would have been simple. I would have gone through the then Short Film Agreement. The end. However, since then contract negotiations happened (2017) and “animators wanted to be taken more seriously,” at least according to the SAG-AFTRA rep I spoke with. Turns out, animated movies now fell under 3 possible contracts: Basic Codified Agreement (the same contract say, a Marvel movie would use); Low Budget Agreement (the highest of the low budget that’d most likely be used by a festival “indie darling”); and New Media (the contract you’d use for your self-produced web series). That’s it. Those are your choices. But it gets more complicated! How long is your movie? What’s the budget? How do you want to share it with the world? That will determine which contract it falls under.

To save you the time and struggle I endured, if you plan on making an animated movie using SAG-AFTRA actors, here’s the basics you will find useful:

  • Basic Theatrical Codified Agreement: your movie will cost $5,000 or more and/or has a total running time of 5 minutes or more; minimum day rate of $980/8 hours ($1,005 as of July 1, 2019) plus Pension & Health contribution (18.5%) and residuals; must be released theatrically first before adding to any online streaming or VOD service; each VO actor can only voice up to 3 characters max before a required pay bump for extra characters.
  • Low Budget Theatrical Agreement: your movie will cost less than $5,000 AND has a total running time under 5 minutes; minimum day rate of $630/8 hours plus Pension & Health contribution (18.5%) and residuals; must be released theatrically first before adding to any online streaming or VOD service; each VO actor can only voice up to 3 characters max before a required pay bumper for extra characters.
  • New Media Agreement: initial and main release online first then allowed to screen at festivals; no monetary or run time requirements; day rate negotiable and deferred pay allowed; no limit on the number of voices an actor can portray.

Keep in mind I’m not mentioning all of the other aspects of these contacts. For you lower budget filmmakers reading, I provided the information you would find most useful and beneficial. Of course, if you’re producing a student film or using non-union talent, then your life just got a lot easier.

And of course, please contact the contracts department for questions, concerns and confirmation of all the above. Contracts are renegotiated every 3 years, so this info may become outdated. And the animation adventure begins again!

Sarah McLean

About Sarah McLean

Sarah McLean is an actor/writer who splits her time between Los Angeles and New York. She wrote and starred in the award-winning action/comedy ReAction and created the only scripted show about softball, 3 Strikes. The animated short Dragonfly is her directorial debut. You can follow Sarah on Twitter and Instagram at @iamsarahmclean2 and find out more about her at www.thesarahmclean.com