Our feature this week is written by Caroline Dahllöf and Carolyn Uy, founders of Lyn And Line. Their high quality, whimsical, and educational kids apps are recognized world-wide on the iTunes charts, and most importantly, by the parents and kids who enjoy them. This article shares the secrets on why these apps are so darn good. Developers and future developers – take notes!
Before we started Lyn And Line, the two of us worked for a number of years in the film industry doing CGI (computer generated imagery) for feature films. When we decided to make apps, we used a lot of what we learned as visual effects artists in the development of Madera & Figaro in The Rescue of Ginger and Madera & Figaro Save The Day. Storybook apps and feature films are both forms of entertainment, where the visual and audio experiences are an important part of storytelling. We ended up treating the apps just like any other movie we worked on. Here are a few of the things we do at Lyn And Line and why we do them.
Test, test, test (even if you don’t have a finished product).
There are some who believe you should wait for a polished product before doing user testing. We feel you shouldn’t fear showing unfinished work. When testing unfinished products, people will naturally fill in the visual blanks of your story.
Since an animated film can take years to complete, there are often a few test screenings done while it’s still in development. During these test screenings, showing potentially large chunks of unpolished footage doesn’t really matter. Movies that are screened before their release date are a mixture of scenes that are completely done, scenes that are still black and white storyboards with temporary audio tracks, and scenes that are somewhere in between. With any project where millions of dollars are at stake, it’s important to know early if you have a problem. There was one particular movie (it will remain nameless to protect the innocent) where an early test screening didn’t go very well. It was deemed too scary by the moms who saw it. In order to tone it down, an entire sequence had to be removed. Unfortunately, it also happened to be the one sequence that was totally finished. Months of work by dozens of people were unceremoniously left on the editing room floor. This isn’t typical, but it does happen, which is why you test with your target audience.
The same holds true for apps. As much as we discussed and redesigned and tweaked our apps, testing always pointed out something we hadn’t thought of. (By the way, that movie went on be #1 at the box office.)
It doesn’t have to be real. It just needs to be believable.
Our apps are about a talking monkey and frog who are best friends, which isn’t the most realistic scenario. However, making concepts believable and visually appealing requires details that most people don’t think about. For example, contact shadows and consistent lighting direction go a long way in selling believability. If shadows on the ground are missing, or if lighting is inconsistent, people will notice. They might not be able to put their finger on the problem, but it will catch their attention enough to take them out of the story. On the flip side, if shadows are done correctly and the lighting is consistent, no one should even notice (which is the goal).
Version control is extremely important.
On every film that’s ever been made, it invariably happens that if you are showing version number 20 of a scene to the director, he will tell you that what you showed him a few weeks ago was closer to what he was looking for, and you will need to go back and resurrect that other version. Nothing instills more panic than an entire screening room looking at you when you are asked this, and you realize that you have no idea how to find that file.
Having easy access to older versions of files is pretty important. We use a software program called SVN for our images. You can think of SVN as way of adding bookmarks or snapshot in time for a particular file. Once you are at a point where you think, “Hey, I might want to get back to this exact state of my file later”, you check it in. In essence, you are taking a snapshot of what it looks like. Then later on, if you ever want to get back to that point, you can. There are also huge advantages to using it when there is more than one person working on the same project at the same time.
Those are just a couple of the big things we learned from our former days of making water splashes, dropping food from the sky, and destroying things! If there are other film industry veterans that have advice to share, we’d love to hear it!