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Trust the Process

Making tough decisions about your animation is easier when you’ve got a proven process to follow.

Creating an animated video with a long-lasting effect is no easy task, but it doesn’t take a Hollywood budget to accomplish. Effective and streamlined procedures allow studios to bring big production values to more and more businesses. So how do studios do it?

Our phases of production are:  

  • Creative brief  
  • Mood boards
  • Style frames  
  • Storyboards
  • Animatic
  • Motion
  • Finishing phase  

Every project starts with a creative brief. That involves sitting down with the client and listening to a description of both their brand and what this specific project needs to accomplish. The studio’s job is to ask questions and use active listening, to understand the client’s strategy, and how they want to present their product or service.

Clients usually have some rough ideas about what they're thinking creatively, and it's our job to take lots of notes and ask lots of questions. Back at the studio the creative director and producers gather research on the product/service — but also a lot of the competitors. This helps to understand the market and brainstorm ideas, and boil down what can work well for this particular client’s goal.

The creative team will develop a set of mood boards, which are often composed of images grabbed from web searches, previous projects that are similar, and images from competitors. Mood boards are basically several interpretations of the creative brief, given back to the client and presented in a visual way. Subjective terms like what constitutes “edgy” or “classic” are clarified between the design team and client. These mood boards inspire fonts, color palettes, and overall esthetics, then are presented to the client, with the primary purpose of triggering feedback. Often, it's more important to hear what they don't like rather than what they like. Constructive criticism gets everybody on the same page about images, colors, and visuals. Up until this point, the project was all words to be interpreted.

If a style frame is done effectively, it should look like an image was pulled from the final product. If it's a TV show, it's often the logo and the final landing frame. If it's a commercial explaining the inside of a printer, we'll present views inside the printer that have a very clear explanation. Instead of a printer, it could be a medical explainer. If it's a medical explainer, it would be one or a few key frames of the explanation and how matte or glossy the final animation will look.

Another phase — which could also be happening in parallel — is the storyboard phase. Storyboards are thumbnail sketches of each key point in the story, sort of like a comic book. The storyboards typically go through a couple of iterations. Design teams may drop some story frames that are not necessary or add new story frames if a concept needs more explanation. Often these have text descriptions or arrows suggesting the motion or voice-over copy from the script. We can all look at these storyboards and make sure that we're telling the entire story and it's serving the purpose and strategy.

Once the storyboards are approved, we'll move to the animatic phase. The animatic is now the video blueprint for the rest of the piece which is set to the timing of a scratch voice over track. This gives us a sense of timing to make sure that each key point is on the screen for enough time, and that the shots are long enough for the audience to understand the concept, while also not being too long and boring for the audience! If it's a 30-second spot, the animatic will also be 30 seconds. The creative team then shares the animatic with all of the stakeholders. (If it's a medical animation, this is also the point at which it gets submitted for legal approval.)

Once the animatic is approved by the stakeholders, then we move into the motion stage. The motion stage is when animators create motion in a 3D-animation software, using 2D animation, or stop motion, and everyone can actually see objects move. The process involves creating motion for each of the story points and as the project progresses, each of the storyboard frames is replaced by motion, till the entire project is in full motion. As a first or draft pass at motion, the images don't have a lot of subtleties or reflections and shadows. The colors may be dull, there's a lack of detail, but it's important the client reviews and approves the motion before added detail, secondary motion, and the project gets more polish and refinement. Then the motion is approved for the finishing phase.  

The finishing phase consists of color correction, high-resolution rendering, and the addition of effects like lighting and shadows. At this point, it's about making it beautiful, and not going back and changing any of the earlier phases. This is when the final voiceover is recorded and edited back into the piece, any music is added, and sound effects are added to round it all out

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I should mention each of these phases is specifically chosen at points where the client needs to make a decision to suggest revisions or approve before moving on to the next phase. For example, the goal of the mood board presentation is to get the client to choose an esthetic direction — or, sometimes, a combination of esthetics. Having deliberate design phases prevents having to go back and change one of the previous phases. Which would be called a “change in direction,” and that is costly. The whole point of our process is to avoid any changes in direction so that we're always working in a forward motion and not having to go back and redo work costing additional money.

The final delivery often requires different formats if it's going to be posted in different places. If it's going to be on an HDTV; streaming on YouTube; presented in a square frame for Instagram, or an odd Facebook size — it’s important to know the different shape outputs from the beginning so we don’t cut off important information like characters or on-screen text.

This collaboration between the client and the creative team eliminates surprises. The client understands their product, and the creative studio understands the design and animation process. Together, the two teams hold the key to producing the best possible product for the client’s goal.

Originally published: 11/23/2021

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