Hi everyone,
I've recently finished a script for my senior thesis film that I'm happy with (it will likely be between 6-7 minutes long), and I'm in the process of figuring out how I want to move forward with the production over the course of the next two semesters. I'll be working on this project almost entirely by myself (minus some extra help with things like music and carpentry), and with the other short projects I've done since I started school I have always gone in the order of:
writing story -> storyboarding / character & set design -> building puppets & all sets -> animating everything -> editing & sound.
This was generally okay when I was working on projects that had to be completed from start to finish within 3-5 weeks with a small group and were under 2 minutes long, but I don't know if it will be wise to do it this way for my current film. 
My question is...for a project that I will be spending 11 months on, and dedicating most of my time to, what are some suggestions for ways that I could structure the production so that I'm using my time most efficiently? Should I built one set, film all the scenes that take place there, and then move on to another one? (there will be 5 main sets for puppet animation, and several smaller ones for camera shots without character animation) Is it helpful to start editing sooner as well? What are some questions I should have in mind when figuring this out? My goal is to make this project as professional looking (and organized) as possible given that I am a student, and go into it in a way that won't be setting myself up for workflow issues that could have been easily avoided.

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That sounds like the best way to go when you have limited time to access the studio space, so you want it to go in with everything ready, and shoot it as quickly as possible. So if that is the case, stick to that plan.

I have my own space to both animate and make stuff in, so it is the overall time that matters, not the time spent animating vs propmaking.  I like to build some of the sets before I start, but not all of them.  The one I will be using first, and maybe the next 2 after that.  A couple of reasons -  

One is that even when I have storyboarded, some things will change during the filming.  I might decide a scene is not needed after all, or think of a better way to tell the story.  So if I have not made that set yet, I save the time it would have taken.

Another is that I like to get a break from doing one task, like animating, and do some set or prop making for a change of pace.  Sometimes it is because there is not enough time left in the day to complete another shot, and once I start I like to finish it, however long it takes.  (Sets left overnight can move as the room cools down, and when I start again the next day there is a sudden pop.)  Sometimes my back is too sore to keep bending over the set for another 3 or 4 hours, which happens if it is an awkward shot where I have to reach a long way into the set to get to the puppet. So rather than go home early, I can go make pieces for a set that is coming up.  Also sometimes I don't feel creative, or I need to think about how to do the next shot, so making a lot of bricks or something mindless like that lets me still be productive.

As far as editing is concerned, I do a running edit as I go.   I have place holders, stills from the storyboard, in the edit until I have the shot to drop in.  The shots will be maximum length to start with, but I may take a few frames off as I refine the edit.  Since I often cut on the action, there aren't many places where I can get a nice cut with the action matching up from the end of one shot to the start of the next.   Even when I worked with a film editor, I still did the rough edit myself as I shot it.  

Not sure if you mean "animatic" when you say "Storyboards", but an Animatic is the best possible way to plan out your film. It's a timed edit of your boards, so you'll know exactly how long each shot is, to the frame. 

Next, figure out how many seconds of animation there are in the animatic, and block out a shooting schedule based how many seconds of animation you can expect to shoot in a day. So, say 420 seconds of animation, at 5 seconds per day, is 84 days of animation. 3 or 4 months. 5-7 seconds per day is a reasonable number when working alone.

However long your build will take, just make sure you set enough time aside for animation. Since it's last stage after concept, design, build.. it's usually the part that filmmakers convince themselves will go faster than it does.

Thank you so much for the info, StopmoNick! I'm in a situation where I'm not guaranteed a longterm usage of space in a shared stop-motion lab, but can request certain areas for a particular amount of time, so your method of building a couple of sets first and leaving the rest to have more balance in the process / room for changes is really helpful to hear about. I especially like what you said about having more flexibility that way - that you can switch between tasks when you're getting burned out on one thing or not feeling creative but want to stay productive.
I never really thought about having a running edit while I'm working on things, but now I definitely will plan on doing that since it makes sense and could be extremely useful in knowing how things are looking as the project is being filmed (I have had issues in the past with realizing far too late that certain footage isn't salvageable / should have been re-shot, but no longer have access to the setup/camera, so this would be an easy solution!).
StopmoNick said:

That sounds like the best way to go when you have limited time to access the studio space, so you want it to go in with everything ready, and shoot it as quickly as possible. So if that is the case, stick to that plan.

I have my own space to both animate and make stuff in, so it is the overall time that matters, not the time spent animating vs propmaking.  I like to build some of the sets before I start, but not all of them.  The one I will be using first, and maybe the next 2 after that.  A couple of reasons -  

One is that even when I have storyboarded, some things will change during the filming.  I might decide a scene is not needed after all, or think of a better way to tell the story.  So if I have not made that set yet, I save the time it would have taken.

Another is that I like to get a break from doing one task, like animating, and do some set or prop making for a change of pace.  Sometimes it is because there is not enough time left in the day to complete another shot, and once I start I like to finish it, however long it takes.  (Sets left overnight can move as the room cools down, and when I start again the next day there is a sudden pop.)  Sometimes my back is too sore to keep bending over the set for another 3 or 4 hours, which happens if it is an awkward shot where I have to reach a long way into the set to get to the puppet. So rather than go home early, I can go make pieces for a set that is coming up.  Also sometimes I don't feel creative, or I need to think about how to do the next shot, so making a lot of bricks or something mindless like that lets me still be productive.

As far as editing is concerned, I do a running edit as I go.   I have place holders, stills from the storyboard, in the edit until I have the shot to drop in.  The shots will be maximum length to start with, but I may take a few frames off as I refine the edit.  Since I often cut on the action, there aren't many places where I can get a nice cut with the action matching up from the end of one shot to the start of the next.   Even when I worked with a film editor, I still did the rough edit myself as I shot it.  

Thank you, Evan! Those are great tips. I have done majority of my projects in the past with untimed storyboards and acting out scenes before animating, but not with actual animatics (something I've only done twice as per course requirement, but sounds like something that can actually be the most important thing to do to plan!). I am definitely guilty of thinking that animating will always take much less time than it does, but making an animatic first and using it to calculate and plan out how much time I should reasonably be spending on the entire process sounds like it would be incredibly helpful and hopefully give me a much clearer idea of what my schedule will look like.

Evan DeRushie said:

Not sure if you mean "animatic" when you say "Storyboards", but an Animatic is the best possible way to plan out your film. It's a timed edit of your boards, so you'll know exactly how long each shot is, to the frame. 

Next, figure out how many seconds of animation there are in the animatic, and block out a shooting schedule based how many seconds of animation you can expect to shoot in a day. So, say 420 seconds of animation, at 5 seconds per day, is 84 days of animation. 3 or 4 months. 5-7 seconds per day is a reasonable number when working alone.

However long your build will take, just make sure you set enough time aside for animation. Since it's last stage after concept, design, build.. it's usually the part that filmmakers convince themselves will go faster than it does.

I find that there is another process that takes more time than I expect it to, which is the actual planning of the shot. Some of mine are simple enough to dive straight in, but often K need to spend at least a day getting everything ready - pop throughs, live action videos, sorting out the X sheet and lighting the set, not to mention checking that the puppets can do everything I want them to. 

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