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  • Christine Figurski

The Spreadsheet Shuffle

Now, I love a good spreadsheet. Even before working collaboratively on 3D animation projects, I have used them to organize information and tasks for the sake of visual clarity if nothing else, but have never explored beyond the most basic possible functions. I've always enjoyed organizational roles in group projects where I could make use of my passion for color-coding documents, so it was no surprise that I eagerly dug into this during our Environment Production course. Unfortunately, there wasn't a lot of affirmation in our program of this being an important or valuable role (which is a post for another time) so it wasn't until we began production on our senior short film Monster Roommates that I attempted to dive a little deeper.

At that point, basic asset and shot lists had started to bore me. Don't get me wrong, they are absolutely vital to every production, and the more you can make them work for you, the more successful that project will be; but, I knew there was more that could be achieved. I had big dreams for an elaborate Gantt chart with filter functionalities, a clean user interface, and automated tasks, all fully integrated into our pipeline- how hard could it be?

Well, considering that the extent of my knowledge was dropdown functions and basic conditional formatting, very. On top of that, our team is pretty deeply ingrained in the Google ecosystem which meant being limited to Google Sheets. Sheets, despite being capable of pretty amazing things, doesn't have many of the capabilities native to Excel and therefore requires a bit more work to achieve the same results. Regardless, I was confident I could make it happen.

Several months later...

Nothing. Okay, not nothing, I've learned a LOT - but it's certainly difficult to feel like I've been productive when there's not much to show for it. I wish I had the foresight to document my research a little better and the many, many templates used, videos watched, and project management programs dissected via free trials. What I can do is tell you that my initial hopes and goals for the Gantt chart were dashed, little by little, every day. Sometimes it was by my limited coding knowledge, many times it was from scouring Google Sheets forums to find that the function I was looking for isn't possible at this point in time, but most of all it was the lack of time and resources I had to learn and develop all of these things. You may be asking, "why don't you just use an existing service for project management?" to which I have two reasons: 1) the ones that have the features we need for our production and group size are way too expensive to be worth it for a student project and 2) where's the fun in that?

After countless days of frustrating dead-ends, I gave in to the creeping realization that I needed to let it go. The time I was spending to try and automate our management system was negatively impacting our progress on the production as a whole, so I tucked my big ideas away for the time being to focus on the bare essentials: the asset and shot lists. Luckily, the modeling team took initiative on creating the asset list for our environment models, giving me more time to dedicate to the shot list we desperately needed. Though our animatic still needs a few minor adjustments, we felt confident enough about it to break it into sequences and then shots. With the help of Jasmine and Eric, we made a basic spreadsheet with each shot's time code, description, characters, and hero assets. I added an additional column that would then take the start/end times of each shot and calculate the number of frames it has, then adding them all at the very bottom of the sheet.

As we began layout of our shots (a rough blocking of the environment, characters, and cameras in order to create a 3D animatic from our 2D version) we needed to keep track of what is getting done and by whom. In an attempt to keep it simple, I used the tried-and-true method from past projects of dropdown lists and conditional formatting. Because this is a document we will be using throughout the entire production, I created a few columns for identifying different tasks, the pipeline step for that task, a status, and the individual assigned to complete it. As with everything in this document, there are a lot of improvements I'd like to make but, for now, this has been functioning well for us.

Finally, the last few columns are pretty self-explanatory:

As we add more tasks, this is likely to become an unwieldy document; so, to combat that, I have made use of the grouping feature to make viewing pertinent information a little easier.

For now, I feel good about where this document stands and how it will help us in the beginning stages of production at the very least. My next steps will be adding a column to rank the priority of shots (high, medium, and low) as well as their budget cost (in terms of time). That way we are able to allocate the appropriate time and resources to more expensive shots first that may cause us unforeseen issues.

While my priorities have shifted more toward the day-to-day management of this production, all slack time will be used to continue my R&D on the Gantt chart that feels like nothing more than a distant fantasy... someday.

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