Producing 'ALMA' | Breakdown

Making Of / 03 February 2021


'ALMA' is an award winning, master student, 3D animated short film. It was produced within eighteen weeks, entirely remotely, at Escape Studios in London. It is written & directed by Rola Hafez, Francesco Cordari and Alexandra Megerdichian. In the below blog I will share my experience as a Producer and a breakdown of the production process. 

'ALMA' is about following a robot’s daily commute and routine to reflect on human life, aim and purpose.



I only joined the project halfway so I will only be able to share some beautiful initial sketches, our character rig development along with the colour script.


As you can see there a clear development of the character which happened both for aesthetic and practical reasons.


Colour script played a huge role in setting up the right lighting and accurate colour grading during comp.


Mocap was used for the first time in Escape Studios for this project in order to provide the animators with a base animation for almost each shot. After that, animators built on top of that so they could keep their animation polished. Clement Gharini, a cinematography tutor at Escape Studios, was kind enough to supply the team with an Xsens Awinda MoCap suit (worn by Jake Lee, one of the animators in the team, see the pictures below).


Our main platform of commination was Discord which many people often view it as a gamer's tool but it is actually a really interactive and user-friendly platform which allows you to create your own server and channels (text or voice), which contribute to keeping things organized and time efficient for your team. You can also assign different roles to different people so when an artist wants to share their WIP they can tag the appropriate person without distracting other artists. This allowed me to communicate with the team and share documents fast.

In addition to Discord, we used Google Meet for all our dailies and emergency meetings. It allows us to record and save the videos straight on the Google Drive and share it with everyone. That makes things even more simple for us because we are already using Google Drive to store and share files across all workstations. If you decide to create your documents offline in excel, upload them on the GDrive and convert them into Google Sheet like me you will find out that there are issues with it. When using the filtering option with Google Sheet, it does not like certain actions like 'merged cells' for example. 

We also took advantage of Google File Stream which enabled us not only to sync offline files with the online ones instantly but also enables the artists to set their projects on to that and their scenes will be getting updated with a click of a button! We did encounter some issues though like Google File Stream disappearing from our PCs or crashing and having to reinstall or not being able to stop syncing at certain times.


As a producer, one of my responsibilities was to coordinate the team (internal and external people), to ensure we keep track of progress and keep to deadlines.

I did that by structuring all dailies based on priorities and availability of people, keeping notes and actions of any meeting, ensuring artists are aware of their tasks and following up for updates throughout the week. This is a template that I created which I was adjusting before every meeting. Every department and every artist have their own dedicated time slots which allows them to spend less time on the call and be more productive with their time. Also, the way everyone addresses feedback is structured so it is easily recorded and better understood.


Then, I created a ‘Team Breakdown’ document for anyone looking for quick information about their team members like their name, role, email address and Discord ID. This was important, especially because this project was fully done remotely during COVID and people could not meet face to face to bond and get to know one another. When someone new joins the project, this helped them understand the team dynamic. If you ever joined a team you can surely understand that feeling of being lost on your first day (document not shared due to private information).


One of my focus areas was to streamline all processes and optimize ways of working using mostly Excel. I created a ’Progress Tracker’ document to ensure all actions are recorded and easily tracked. It gave us the ability to have drop-down lists as data instead of manually typing and the artists to apply filtering actions (by department, name, status etc.) which helped them navigate to their pending actions much quicker. 


After that, I created a new 'Production Schedule' with the purpose of displaying the production data in a more visual way. Folders and sub-folders are included so the user can choose how simple or how complicated they want it to be. This document was to help the production team have a general overview of each task, duration and progress. All the tasks from the left side of the schedule are displayed on the right side in a form of calendar with the working days marked as blue blocks, known as Gantt Chart. This type of charts is highly valued by people who are doing Project Management. Even though It contained the right information, I found it quite challenging sometimes to quickly understand what is pending so I'll need to experiment a bit further with this type of schedule.

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Then, I created a ‘'Shot Plan'’ to track the progress of each shot which means tracking the whole process of animation, ABC export, lighting, rendering and comp. It displays all the shots, the frame range of each shot, approved cameras, mocap versions, offsets and status of the actual animation (Blocking, Splining etc) which are key for the animators. Also, it allows each department to pass on their work to the next one by simply choosing the right action from the drop-down lists. For example: If animation exported the ABC, the animator would select ''Pending Check'' and the lighting artist will choose ''In Progress''. If there is an issue with the ABC, the Lighting artist will change it to 'Blocked' and the ABC will turn into ''Re-Export''.  I also placed comment boxes for each department so they can communicate with each other and avoid mistakes during export.


In addition, I created an ‘Asset Tracker’ to track the progress of all our assets and make sure all artists are working with the latest geo and rigs. It focuses solely on asset versions, stages and deadlines. This document is feeding data to the ''Production Schedule'' so if we need to change something here the other document is getting updated as well. This is the bible for riggers and modelers in a sense. One wrong asset version can lead us to hours of troubleshooting. I have made folders once more to allow the user to make it simpler if they choose to. In all assets and shots, I gave an option for the status to be ''CBB'', which means 'Could Be Better' and a comment section about things to improve so If at the end of the production we still have time, we can always go back and work on them.

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As a last document, I created the ''Render Stats'' which displays rendering data which helps the relevant person understand how long it will take them to render each render layer, each frame, each shot etc. This document is taking most of its data from the ''Shot Plan'' so when animators are updating their shots, this is getting updated as well. I made it fully automated so the person doing rendering can change the input data and get the correct results in all cells. For example, if someone changes the ''PC Count'', all the rendering times will adapt to the new number. The total render time at the top right-side states 52.22 hours for 7 machines rendering, if 2 machines drop out and we have 5, the rendering time for each frame, each shot and the total time will get updated correctly. Having said that, all the cells are using the same kind of logic (FYI: The ID and the password are substitutes).

We used Zero Tier and AFANASY (CGRU) to manage our online renderfarm which is a massive help when rendering a big project. An online renderfarm basically allows you to create a network of workstations and have them rendering your short movie all together at the same time. It is the first time I am working with one and if you decide to try it out you will definitely need someone to maintain it and keep the renders active, known as ''Renderfarm TD''. It will require some knowledge but it is a powerful tool so I would strongly recommend it.  

An important task during rendering is to assign someone to be checking the renders as they come through so if there is a mistake, they can let the appropriate person know so they can stop rendering, fix the issue and restart the render instead of waste a day on something unusable. This is called ''render rattling''.

The choices for renderers are plenty, for example Arnold, Renderman, Redshift, Octane, V-Ray etc. Some people would use Arnold because of the realism it provides, but that comes with a cost, heavy rendering times. We went with Redshift without compromising much on quality but surely saving weeks of rendering time! One more thing to keep in mind is to decide on your rendering software on an early stage and make sure that all other renderers in Maya are not active. They always store data in assets and it's really time consuming to remove or convert them, especially on a later stage in production.


Overall, this was an incredible learning opportunity for me as I am not only learning from what I am doing but also from the leads in each department. 3 key reflections and learnings:

  1. Having a dedicated team is paramount to complete a project successfully. ''If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.'' Ed Catmull (Creativity Inc). This project did not just have a great story, but It also had a great team. It would not have been possible without effective communication and dedication from everyone.
  2. To successfully support a project as a producer you must continue to improve your processes and adapt them as you go. I had to learn to continuously to seek feedback from my team and tutor regarding my work and how to best support them. This allowed me to create processes to keep track of all stages, actions and deadlines but most importantly to streamline work and reduce friction so the artists in the team could focus on their creative tasks.
  3. Make it visual, keep it simple and automate it as much as possible. As a producer I needed to ensure anyone could see the progress at glance and at any stage. Using colours in my trackers, graph and visual is definitely something I had to include and will continue to do going forward. The trackers and all processes also need to be simple and effective. The more complicated the less effective I found my processes especially since most project tracking tools where manual and not using a project management software like Shotgun or Ftrack. To the last point about automation, using a project management tool usually solves it but if you have to use tools like excel or google sheet like I did, definitely invest some time to automate it to make it easier and more intuitive to use. 

Finally, a massive thank you and congratulation to all who were part of this project! Originally this was a 3-people project, and it was so beautifully developed that 20+ people got involved. This wouldn't be possible without the help of all these people that supported with concept art, modelling, texturing, animation, comp, music, sound effects etc. Amedeo Beretta, Escape Studios tutor, supervised the project which also played a big part in its success. His guidance and hands-on leadership placed this project on a successful path.


- Director & Writer / Rola Hafez, Francesco Cordari & Alexandra Megerdichian 

- Executive Producer & Animation Director / Amedeo Beretta 

- Producer / Emmanouil Zervoudakis & Rola Hafez

- Supervising TD / Francesco Cordari 

- Assistant TD / Paolo Amadini 

- Concept Art / Paloma Zhu 

- Storyboarding / Austin Hill 

- Colour Script / Jessica Elias Lopez & Francesco Cordari 

- MoCap Performance / Jake Lee 

- Modelling & Texturing / Francesco Cordari & Alexandra Megerdichian 

- Rigging / Piotr Noworyta 

- Animation / Rola Hafez, Samantha Maiolo, Jake Lee & Paolo Amadini 

- Lighting & Rendering / Francesco Cordari 

- Compositing / Amedeo Beretta

- Original Music / Maria Cortes-Monroy 

- Sound Design / Mihail Sustov 

- Motion Graphics / Alice McCall 

- Editing / Rola Hafez