We recently kicked off a new relationship with the wonderful people at NPCA, whose passion for protecting America’s national parks touched and inspired the whole team. This project was close to my heart, as I visited Cumberland Island many times as a child. It’s a magical place that’s more than worthy of our care, which we tried to impart in this short video.
Yana and Egbert is here! We produced the first five episodes of this adorable series in collaboration with professor Laura Schulz, who heads up the Early Childhood Cognition Lab at MIT. Designed to teach preschool- and early-elementary-aged kids how to think and reason like scientists, Yana & Egbert began as bedtime stories Dr. Schulz once told to her daughter. Thanks to our amazing partnership with her and her team, they’re ready for all to enjoy.
A gaggle of arguing aardvarks, some not-so-sneaky zebras, and a smarty-pants ostrich named Izzie. These are just some of the creatures Yana and Egbert meet on their adventures. The series was our most complex project to date. We called on multiple voice talents and a deep roster of artists, animators, and sound designers to produce these episodes.
Each 3- to 4-minute episode begins in live-action with Yana playing at home, helping her mom at the store, or watching her dad cook. Yana’s curiosity soon leads her into a cartoon world, where she, Egbert the hippo, and their animal friends use scientific thinking as they explore imaginary worlds.
You can watch the first five episodes right now at Preschool Pioneer. They’re also airing daily on KUEN TV in Salt Lake City to coincide with the National Association for Education of Young Children’s Week of the Young Child. A huge thanks goes out to our longtime friends at the Utah Education Network for airing the show and hosting the episodes along with supplemental materials for teachers and parents. They worked very hard to bring Yana & Egbert to their audience.
Storyboards are the beating heart of our animation projects, and for years, we’ve been using an antiquated workflow to create them. We just couldn’t find an alternative we liked better and were willing to pay for. Then we discovered Boords, an online storyboarding app that checked all our boxes of must-haves: Easy image uploads, drag and drop panel organization, and the ability to share boards with clients and receive comments. Boords goes well beyond that basic feature set, offering features we didn’t know we needed. But, now that we have them, we’re completely hooked.
Here’s a look at our old storyboarding “platform” that you may recognize as a medieval software program known as Excel.
With Excel, we had to copy and paste panels we’d exported from Adobe Animate (Flash!) one by one. Version control was done manually, and sharing via email often led to the typical headaches that arise when email attachments are flying around to lots of folks. It was a total drag.
Enter Boords. To create a new storyboard, give the board a name and drop all your PNG panels into an aptly named box. If you’d like to start from scratch and use Boords as your canvas for creating storyboard sketches (more on that later), simply start with blank frames.
Once you’ve done that, computery magic stuff happens and you’re left with a tidy, smart looking board. Next, you’ll need to add the script lines and action notes, because Boords doesn’t automatically write scintillating scripts about petrochemical companies… yet.
Once your board is all loaded up, and you’ve got the text where you want it, all of the panels are completely movable, replaceable, deletable, and editable. It’s all quite delectable, really.
Drag panels around to reposition them, or select single or multiple panels (pro tip: hold down shift) to delete them. This is a huge time saver for us. You can also use the overlay interface that pops up on panels to do several interesting things: Resize and crop panels, add a blank panel, launch the animatic feature, or launch the frame editor. Let’s take a closer look at those last two.
The frame editor offers the ability to draw directly on frames, or to create new artwork on a blank frame. No fancy external drawing programs required. The editor also includes options for brush size and color, as well as additional tools for shapes, text, and more. While it’s fairly barebones, it’s great for sketching quick ideas on the go, or to add visual commentary on existing artwork.
Meanwhile, the animatic feature let’s you create animatics in one click. If you have it within you to click a couple more times, you can even upload an audio track to accompany it. We’ve traditionally relied on Adobe Premiere to create animatics, and we may keep doing so for now, as Boords doesn’t appear to offer a way to control the timing of each frame, at least at the time of this review. If shot timing isn’t important to you, Boords is a dead simple option. At the more expensive plan levels, the app also supports download of animatics as MP4 files.
Exporting, Sharing, and Versioning
Boords has export options aplenty. In addition to a simple interface for downloading a board as a PDF, you can also download the script and images separately. And although we haven’t tried it yet, you can even export a board and/or animatic to After Effects if such a workflow strikes your fancy.
The export features are great, but it’s in the realm of cloud-based sharing and collaboration that Boords really shines, and outpaces many of its competitors. This was a must-have for us, and Boords enables it simply and intuitively.
Simply hit the share button and a password protected link appears. With the link and password in hand, clients can open a read-only version of the board and add comments to each and every panel if they like (ahhh, the demoralizing agony!). Online collaboration with other in-house staff or freelancers under the same account is easy, as well, if you pay for a multi-user account.
It’s also worth mentioning that Boords has a painless way of dealing with versioning. Simply create a new version and Boords creates and labels a fresh, editable duplicate. All previous versions are quickly accessible via a pulldown. And, thankfully, each version is associated with a unique sharing URL, so you can select which iterations you want to share with a client.
The folks at Boords have obviously thought deeply about the needs of animators and filmmakers. We were skeptical that it could provide the flexibility and freedom we needed, but now we’re completely sold on it. The best thing about Boords is that it removes all of the repetitive tasks and logistical hassles of other solutions, leaving more time for the stuff that matters to us: Thinking and making. For that reason alone, it’s a keeper.
Oh, and here’s the first video we boarded with Boords.
As a small studio that specializes in a mixture of 2D character animation and motion design, our artists need to have a mixture of skills. Jen Sanchez joined our team fresh out of SCAD with strong animation training and she was familiar with After Effects, but she didn’t have formal motion design experience.
We believed in Jen, and knew that with some more specialized instruction she could be a well-rounded animator. So, we invited Jen to enroll in School of Motion’s Animation Bootcamp class, an immersive online course that teaches the principles of great animation, and how to apply them in After Effects. After Jen wrapped up the course, we sat down to discuss her experience.
Hi Jen! Let’s begin with why you chose School of Motion?
I was a recent graduate of SCAD, where I primarily studied character animation. The software that we used was mainly Toon Boom, and occasionally Flash, programs like that. I only knew the very basics of After Effects, but I didn’t know a lot about motion design, so I thought this was a great opportunity.
It seems like some School of Motion students have After Effects experience, but not much actual animation experience. You came in sort of the opposite of that, since you already had animation training. Did you find that helpful or hurtful?
There were a lot of methods I had learned in school that SoM taught, like the bouncing ball technique, overshooting, follow through, but what was interesting was that I had only applied those techniques to character animation. I never realized that you could apply the same principles to motion graphics.
That’s cool. Can you tell me a little bit about how the classes are structured?
In Animation Bootcamp, every day during the week they would share the lesson content, which could be a tutorial video from SoM founder and head instructor Joey Korenman, a PDF, or a podcast. Then, they assign you a homework project based on what they shared. Once you complete your assignment, you post it back and the Teacher’s Assistant follows up with you to review your work.
Were you the TA’s only student?
For the fall course, each TA had around twenty students. But they still made time to go through your files and offer one-on-one instruction. They have access to your full project file so they can really get in there to see what you did right or wrong and make suggestions. My TA, the super-talented motion designer Patrick Butler, was very supportive.
As a person in his (cough) forties, remote learning wasn’t an option when I was in school. How do you feel about this method? Does it work for you?
You don’t look a day over thirty-nine. I’ve taken on-line courses in college before so it was normal for me. I enjoyed it. It was nice being able to work from your own room, to have that flexibility.
Does taking an on-line course replace the experience of working with someone face-to-face in a classroom?
I would say that while it doesn’t necessarily replace face-to-face interactions, it’s probably the best online course I’ve ever taken. The benefit of SoM is that it saves all of the instructor’s comments onto the site, so there’s no chance of forgetting anything. And you have access to review the tutorial videos whenever you need to.
How long was the course?
It was an intensive eight weeks, but they allow you two more additional weeks to catch up, which is nice.
How in the world did you manage to attend the course while still working full time?
I would like to think that I have a decent work ethic, so I’m able to motivate myself. I told myself that I had a certain amount of days to do my homework, and needed to finish by a given date. But, if you don’t have the drive, I could see this being difficult.
Do you have an example of a lesson that was especially beneficial or useful?
There are a lot of valuable things that I learned during my time at SoM. I would have to say, though, that learning about the value graph and the speed graph was incredibly useful. It gave me far more control in terms of timing things out and making them move in a way I wanted. There are honestly far too many tools and tricks that I learned during this course to name, but overall I would say that the entire course from beginning to end was incredibly beneficial.
Can we see some of your work?
Of course! On this Pong Challenge assignment we were introduced to Duik, an AE plug-in that allowed me to manipulate the paddles in such a fun and noodle-y way. The main reason why this assignment stood out to me was because it pushed me out of my comfort zone and forced me to think and animate in a more energetic way than I usually do.
Have you had a chance to apply your newfound motion-design skills?
I certainly have! The first project I worked on after completing the course was Utah Futures. I focused on really using the value and speed graphs to my advantage and timing things out just so. I also made sure to use expressions and really play with the settle of each object. Oh, and trim paths were a huge element in this project.
Last question, have you kept in touch with anyone from the school?
After the course, I was invited to join the school’s alumni Facebook page where you can connect with other animators. It’s a great forum to discuss animation tips, find answers, share your work and receive feedback from your peers, or offer others feedback.
I lied, this is the last question. Will you attend more classes at School of Motion?
Yes! Definitely. After a little break. 🙂
A decade. Holy heck. What happened?
This is an attempt to piece together a brief history of life on Planet Nutshell. Before I start, I want to stress how much of this adventure has been supported and powered by other people, people much more talented than me, particularly in the areas of art, design, and animation.
Ten years ago, I wasn’t sure what was next. I was living in Seattle, working at a small content writing company that I’d co-founded. Then, my girlfriend and future wife received an academic job offer in Boston to teach English Literature. Getting a professor position in the humanities is a bit like winning the lottery so there was little question about whether or not she would take the job.
I knew I wasn’t really satisfied with my current job, but Seattle felt like home. Fortunately, though, I decided my relationship with Jill was more important than the life I’d leave behind. To make the move work, though, I needed a job I could take with me to Boston.
A friend pointed me in the direction of an emerging media form called the “explainer video” that was finding audiences on a relatively new platform called YouTube. These short, often inventive videos were designed to help everyday people understand products, services, ideas, and more. One of the pioneers in this space was CommonCraft, a Seattle-based husband and wife duo who produced a popular series of “In Plain English” videos. Their work comprised of stop motion paper cutouts moving on a white background that had a disarming handcrafted quality. I got to know Saschi and Lee of CommonCraft a bit and said to myself, I want to do something like those guys.
Three essential things converged to enable the explainer video way back in 2007 and 2008: Increasing technological complexity and the general confusion that comes with it, more accessible and affordable production tools, and online video platforms such as YouTube. Suddenly, explaining technology to your parents and/or in-laws became a necessity. Meanwhile, big companies were seeing the value of making their products and platforms more friendly and relatable beyond the typical marketing and advertising paradigm. It wasn’t enough to just pitch something, you needed to explain it, too. It also helped that many new startups, which were exploding in number, wanted concise, engaging videos to attract investors and users.
And so I got started. I jumped headlong into this promising new space with little knowledge of how to run a company or get new clients. The only guiding light I had was to focus on creating good work, or at least work I thought was good.
At first, I produced videos for free and released them into the public domain in the hopes of getting noticed. Here’s one of the first videos I ever made, which explains Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” I chose the poem because I’d learned from a wonderful professor in college that it’s commonly misinterpreted, requiring deeper analysis than the casual reader might give it. This, I figured, made it ripe for an explainer.
The first video I actually got paid to produce was this little ditty for Brooks Running Shoes. In retrospect, the design and animation are a little, well, embarrassing, but I think there’s still something lovable about it.
Another big milestone, and one that really launched Planet Nutshell out of my apartment in Boston, was a relationship I developed with Utah Education Network. In 2009, I submitted a proposal to produce 15 or so online shorts explaining Internet safety to kids. Those are still alive and kicking on our website today and thousands of parents, teachers, and kids watch them each month. Here’s one of the most popular episodes:
Our work in education continued for public broadcasting with a followup series for UEN on climate change, physics videos for WNET and NASA, and an early learning series for KET. Through the years we’ve met some wonderful people in the PBS ecosystem and this work will always be important to me and the team. A highlight from our work with WNET is this animated interview of Gloria Steinem:
Planet Nutshell has always been focused on social and environmental impact. The work we do in these areas is simply an extension of our values: Media should advocate and inform for good. The first project that comes to mind in this domain is for Roca, a Boston-based nonprofit that asked us to explain their innovative, data-driven program for supporting, mentoring, and educating at-risk young mothers.
Early on in Planet Nutshell’s development it became clear that working for public television and nonprofits would not fully support our growing team. I began exploring ways that we could be a part of two key industries, healthcare and technology, both of which have a strong presence here in Boston. Out of that effort, we developed a long standing relationship with Foundation Medicine, which we worked with when it was a relatively young company right through to its IPO and beyond.
We’ve also worked with a many technology companies, but some of the most fun we’ve had is simply creating videos for companies that never actually hired us, such as this video for WhatsApp:
We released it during the WhatsApp craze, when Facebook had just acquired it for some incomprehensible amount of money. Projects like this one, while not directly profitable, were worth their time and effort because of exposure. I learned that if you timed things right, lots of people who are interested in a hot topic will see your work. In addition to bringing us many views, the video was picked up by German television, expanding our exposure even more.
And no overview of our work would be complete without mentioning a video we did for a company that never existed at all, Exploozy, a “disruptive” technology company that allows you to make a 90-second animated video in ten seconds, right from the palm of your hand. The irony speaks for itself, and perhaps Planet Nutshell will be made obsolete with something like this in the decade to come. But I do wonder, will it ever be possible to automate creativity?
As I said at the start, the story of Planet Nutshell is a story about talented people. John McGowan, who joined us relatively early, has devoted so much of himself to this enterprise, offering inspiring optimism, empathic thoughtfulness, and creative leadership that are sewn into every video we release. He’s an absolute force of nature. David Trexler came to us three years ago to bring order and organization to the studio. His unparalleled skill as a producer has made Planet Nutshell work for all of us. It also helps that he’s fun to be around, a devoted father, and infallibly loyal to the cause of art. Occasionally, he even tells a good joke. Our newest addition, Jen Sanchez, has in just a few short months gone from a fresh art school grad to a vital part of the team. We’re all in awe of her drive and commitment to learning and growing.
We’ve also been supported by an incredible lineup of freelance writers, artists, and animators over the years. Their work is deeply sewn into the fabric of many of our videos. A special thanks goes out to them.
Of course, some people have moved on, but they certainly left their mark. Brien Hopkins sadly moved on to Google, but his dry wit always made me smile, and I felt privileged to watch him develop into a wizard-level motion designer while he was under this roof. Trevor Piecham was very instrumental in creating Planet Nutshell’s visual style for several years and he worked diligently to help me develop Planet Nutshell into a professional studio.
If I’ve been successful at one thing, I’d say that I’ve found a way to transmute all of the efforts of these amazing people into something special that lives at the heart of everything we do. Call it special sauce. Call it a soul. Call it love.
Now, I do not want to sugar coat this. There have been many setbacks, many trials. This is a tough and competitive business, especially if you are guided by principles of service to a greater good. But people, amazing people, keep bringing me back through the door each morning. That includes the Planet Nutshell team. And it certainly includes my wife, who has listened to my woes with care and attention. She’s also known exactly when to stop listening and turn me back to the hardest work of all: Faith in oneself. Our clients bring me back, too, those people who are doing incredible things, educating the world, and solving seemingly unsolvable problems. The ones who delight in our work and see potential in us, the ones who, for ten years, have taken a leap of faith and entrusted us with a great honor: Telling their stories.
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