A ten-step health check for your 3D team

("Take your medicine" by Morgan. Licensed under Creative Commons)

Ten easy questions

I've worked on quite a few different 3D projects from academia to computer games to animation. Most were enjoyable, successful experiences but a few, in fairness, were not. With hindsight the mini disasters shouldn't have surprised me; they were often prophesied by some rather obvious project-wide failings. I've collected this hindsight and reworded it as a "Ten-Step Health Check" tool. Using the tool is easy: as you embark on a project ask yourself these ten questions. If the answer to each is "yes" then you're in good shape. If you've answered "no" to any... stop, and correct it.

  1. Do you have a naming convention for files and folders?
  2. Do you enforce technical and artistic standards?
  3. Do you have a one-page Project Specification?
  4. Do you have concept art and art guidelines?
  5. Do you enforce a "publication" system?
  6. Do your artists share and review their work constantly?
  7. Do you record notes in a database?
  8. Do your team leaders induct new staff?
  9. Do you use version control software?
  10. Do you give art tests in interviews?

 

1. Do you have a naming convention for files and folders?

Every 3D project has hundreds of "things". There are models, rigs, textures, animations, drawings, scans, frames and documents. I'd say that 95% of these "things" contain fragile links to other "things". They are used/opened/edited by, at best, three or four people, and at worst 20 people. Without a solid naming convention (and a nominated rottweiler to enforce it) this delicate information structure becomes a catastrophic mess which costs money to maintain. Get it right from the start; devise a naming/saving convention and flog anyone who flaunts it.

2. Do you enforce technical and artistic standards?

Everyone (everyone!) benefits from good graphical draughtmanship. Tell everyone from the start: "I want assets made a certain way. I want them arranged like this, named as such, tidied up like so. I won't have un-welded vertices, unnamed groups, sloppy husbandry or any other sort of random 3D detritus polluting my files." I'd also suggest you write down the project's art guidelines too. Tell everyone about colour palettes, light direction, texturing approaches. There's a good example from Valve Software here.

3. Do you have a one-page Project Specification?

Create a folder at the very top of your project directory. Into that folder put a single document. This is your Project Specification - an incredibly useful reference for the team, especially new starts. It explains in plain language the following:

  • Project name
  • Project aims
  • Intended user/audience
  • Project deadline
  • High-level technical standards
  • Key contacts and responsibilities (project team and HR)
  • Paths to important files and folders
  • Login details and locations for any project tools

4. Do you have concept art and art guidelines?

A golden rule in 3D: unless you draw a picture of something then it wont be made as you expected. All 3D artists love concept art and visual reference, some even depend on it. It's so important to have a cohesive set of artistic guidelines to keep everyone on the right track. Trying to align the art styles of individuals is easier at the outset rather than retrospectively.

5. Do you enforce a "publication" system?

3D projects are a lot like factory production lines. An asset - lets say a 3D character - passes down a conveyor belt through several departments. As the model moves it gets - in theory - more and more polished, increasingly fit for purpose. But, all too often, mistakes accumulate. Draughtmanship errors creep in, artists underpressure invent workarounds, tweaks and fudges. To avoid this implement a "publication" system. This is a formal hand-over system where an artist on the line formally passes ownership of an asset to the next artist. The formality is important and it will become the backbone for asset tracking and qulity in your project.

6. Do your artists share and review their work constantly?

If you're working on a video game then publish your 3D models into the engine quickly and frequently update them. If you're working on an animation then get them into the render pipeline quickly and frequently update them. The Directors need to be able to critique them collectively - side-by-side with other assets - and against the story or gameplay. The secretive artist who shares nothing will cripple your project and your vision.

7. Do you record notes in a database?

Big 3D projects such as video games, animation and VFX generate a lot of change notes and comments. For the love of God don't use Skype, email or Word documents to issue change notes. You'll create an unholy mess of un-trackable, asymmetric crap which no one will be able to follow. Use a shared database or issue-tracking software instead so that all notes can be collated, prioritised and tracked efficiently. Try Redmine, Google Docs, Trello or similar.

8. Do your team leaders induct new staff?

Staff inductions can often degrade into clumsy announcements of where to find fire exits, kettles and toilets. But an induction is the perfect opportunity for the Lead to set the expectations for the project; to get things right from the start.

9. Do you use version control software?

I've used a few in the past: Sourcesafe, Perforce, Subversion, Alenbrain. Version control - tracking files as they change and keeping backups of each revision - is utterly indispensible. Perforce is brilliant but expensive, Subversion is free but limited. "SmartSVN" is a nice middle ground.

10. Do you give art tests in interviews?

When you're recruiting someone you basically want to determine if they're (a) talented, and (b) get things done. I think that the best way to assess them is by giving them an art test. Not everyone agrees and some artists I've interviewed have been mildly offended. Why, they ask, should they perform an art test when they've a brilliant folio? This is true, but the art test isn't about the final output, it's about their thinking process, their reaction to critique, their defensiveness, openness or reaction to pressure. It's an opportunity for you to see if they'll "fit in" too.