Animated films give us immense creative freedom to make even the most complex ideas accessible, so they're the ideal choice when it comes to research communication and public engagement projects. At Orinoco Communications in the last few months alone we've created animations about a wide array of subjects, from the science of exam stress, to the history of sexual healthcare. Any subject can be brought to life with animation.
But it's a different beast to other forms of video content and to produce a successful animation on time and on budget, you will need to approach the project with a strong understanding of what lies ahead.
So for those of you who are toying with the idea of commissioning or creating an animated film I’ve created this 7 point check-list to help make the process as smooth and headache-free as possible.
1) DON'T LEAVE IT TO THE LAST MINUTE
There are no hard and fast rules about how long an animation takes to complete but it’s worth bearing in mind that there are a series of specific stages of the production process, each of which has to be given enough time to avoid any last minute panics.
Here are those stages...
Script Writing: Whether you're writing the script yourself or you've employed a professional copywriter to do it for you, you'll probably need a few attempts to get it right, especially if it has to be approved by a number of people, all of whom might want slightly different things. So start writing well ahead of time. Some projects are more straightforward than others but it’s best to set aside 3 or 4 weeks for researching and writing a sharp, engaging script.
Storyboard/Animatic: This is the phase when your words are turned into pictures. The storyboard is a series of unanimated, still images. These can be very rough - simple sketches will do. The idea is to get a visual storyline in place and to work out what design elements are needed. Sometimes an 'animatic' will then be produced, which brings those rough images to life for the first time, set against a guide voice over. This gives you a chance to make sure that the timings are all working and to start to get a sense of the pace and movement of the final film.
Final Design: It is vital that all designs have been signed off before you move to the animation phase. Once you start animating it becomes a lot more time-consuming and costly to try to make any changes, so now is the time to make final changes to all designs.
Animation. This is the really fun bit, when life is finally breathed into the designs. It might take a few passes, firstly in a rougher way, then becoming more finessed at every pass. You should be given opportunities to review the film and feed back on it at various stages during this process.
Voice Over: A rough voice over will usually be used as a guide during the animatic and animation stages, with the final version recorded at a recording studio once the animation has been signed off and no more changes are required.
Music + Sound Design. With the voice-over recorded you can then put the finishing touches to the animation with the sound design. See below for more info on why this matters.
2) DEFINE YOUR AUDIENCE
This is a point I've made before in other posts but it’s so important it bears repeating: defining your audience from the outset is ESSENTIAL!
Who are you looking to engage?
Animations appeal to everyone, young and old, but a one-size-fits-all approach probably won't work, as different styles will appeal to different demographics, and defining your target audience will affect everything from the film's tone of voice to the style of illustrations and sounds.
3) ASK YOUR AUDIENCE WHAT THEY WANT
Once you’ve decided exactly who you’re trying to reach it’s always a good idea to find out what they like.
Focus groups work well - select a group of people from your target demographic and show them a range of different animations. Ask them what they do and don’t like about each one.
What do they think of the writing? Is it clear and engaging? Would they like more detail, or less? Does the style of the illustrations appeal? What about the music?
You have to accept that tastes differ and there will always be some people who don't connect with your film but testing early ideas with members of your target audience will improve your chances of engaging as many of them as possible.
4) WRITE THE SCRIPT FIRST, THEN ILLUSTRATE
Animations' visuals are what make them so engaging and entertaining, so it’s always tempting to jump straight into the design phase, drafting pictures before you’ve worked out the story and structure. Stop right there!
The written script should always come first. Of course, when it's being written you'll also be thinking of how you can bring the words to life with the visuals but don’t start creating your designs until the words of the script have been finished and signed off by everyone involved in the project.
Here are some tips on how to write an effective animation script:
Keep It Concise: the best animation scripts let the visuals do the talking. Show don’t tell. Overly wordy scripts feel dense and reduce audience engagement, so you have to be brutal. Cut. Prune. Edit. Over and over again, until you’re left with the bare essentials.
Keep An Eye On The Clock: It's also important to consider the length of your script for budgetary reasons.
Unlike editing a live action video, which is a lot more flexible when it comes to altering overall length during the edit, animations' budgets are heavily linked to the length of the final product because, quite simply, a longer animation means more animating time. And probably more design time too.
So, as you're writing your script make sure you're frequently doing timed read throughs to see how long it is. An extra few seconds here and there could end up costing you serious money!
Audience! Yes, I'm talking about audience again. Always be thinking of your audience when you're writing the script. Are you using language that will connect with them? Are you avoiding jargon that they won't understand?
When you've done a first draft now might be the time to draw on the thoughts of your focus group again. Send them a copy and ask them if they like how it's been written. Criticism sometimes hurts but their feedback will help you create a script that has the power to communicate and engage.
5) BE PLAYFUL AND EXPERIMENTAL
The real joy of animations is that they allow you to go in whatever direction you want, so take advantage of that and let your creative juices flow! Check out these examples of really inventive ways of communicating research and ideas through animation:
6) DON'T FORGET THE SOUND DESIGN
The visuals might be the thing that people first notice but sound design is absolutely crucial. Animation is soulless without it. Make sure you get a good sound designer on board who will be able to bring your animation to life sonically. The CNN Blue video above is an excellent example of how good sound design can be used to really enhance an animation and give it character.
If you want music for your animation you have the option of either getting music composed especially for it (more expensive) or purchasing a music track from one of a number of royalty free music libraries. Audio Network has a massive collection and it's one that we use quite a lot but there are plenty more out there, such as Music Vine, Premium Beat and Marmoset Music.
7) CREATE A STRATEGY FOR DISSEMINATION
Often people get so consumed by the process of creating an animation that they neglect the all important final phase - making sure that people get to see it!
After all the hard work you'll want to make sure that as many people from your target audience engage with the finished product, so here are some quick tips on how to get lots of eyes on your film.
If you're hosting your video on YouTube you should make sure that your channel is ready and that you've taken steps to make sure your video is as visible and appealing as possible, such as creating an attractive thumbnail, titling it correctly and making the most of your keywords. For detailed tips on how to maximise engagement on YouTube check out my post: How To Create a Truly Engaging YouTube Channel.
It should go without saying that you need to be using your social media platforms to heavily promote your published animation. You can upload video content natively to most platforms these days - Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and Instagram - but each one varies in terms of permitted length and what type of video performs best. Check out my post on Social Media Video Optimisation for more info on this.
If your animation is too long for platforms like Twitter and Instagram then consider creating a handful of short trailers from the main video and posting them with some enticing copy and a link to the full length video.
Share It With Influencers
It's always worth thinking about who has a large, engaged online following who might also have an interest in sharing your animation, either influential individuals or organisations, such as charities, magazines, blogs etc.
Who has spoken publicly about the issues addressed in your film? Which specialist organisations campaign on that subject? Reach out to them, send them a link to your animation and ask if they would be willing to post it on their social media platforms.
Tip of the Iceberg
These suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to strategies for driving engagement with your animation.
I'll write a blog post another time that goes into more detail, including about how to use paid promotions on Facebook, which is an increasingly powerful way of getting your content seen by very specific audiences.
In the meantime, if you have any questions about creating animations please feel free to get in touch!
Peter Barker runs Orinoco Communications, a digital communications company specialising in helping research groups from science, the social sciences and the humanities to bring their research alive and engage with the public.