Not a lot is written about directing animation - especially for shorter forms like TV commercials, motion graphics, explainer videos and social media videos. Whatever the medium or duration the goal for the animation director is the same - to tell a good story.
Unlike the film director who can shoot a lot of takes, B-roll, and even invent unscripted shots on the fly, there's no such luxury in animation. The animation director gets one take, exact duration, no B-roll, no optional shots. Arguably the animation director's job is harder than the film director because she has to get it right the first time. Here's a brief look at what's involved for the short form animation director:
Script editing - what ends up on the screen is the director's responsibility, so if the director thinks the script needs adjustments, then better to make them here, before it goes any further into the production pipeline. This is not a reflection on the writer - who has already done the amazing job of creating something from nothing. All scripts are flawed - they are after all not a final work - but an unfinished film - the final draft is the one that ends up on the screen. The director might continue to make script adjustments at every step of the animation production process.
Visual Style - Sometimes the visual style may already be established in a previous film or dictated by a style guide. Other times the director in collaboration with the designer will arrive at a visual style. The director will pitch the visual style to the client, and when approved will oversee the asset build to make sure it stays on-design.
Storyboard - In animation, this is where most of the directing happens. Good storyboard artists are not just good at drawing, they understand the language of film and are really directors in their own right. However, sometimes in shorter animation forms like TV commercials and web videos, storyboards are drawn by artists who may not be across film language or story. These artists will need direction to interpret the script - they may even need a thumbnail storyboard from the director. The storyboard is where you find out what's wrong with the script - unforeseen problems usually emerge at storyboard stage and so refinement of the story is on-going as the film gets closer to the screen.
Vocal casting - the project may need to have vocal actors or voice over artists cast. The director will usually be involved in the selection of vocal talent, and will make recommendations to the client. Sometimes the project has vocal talent already assigned - perhaps from a previous film or commercial. In case you haven't already discovered this - voice over artists are usually not actors - so don't expect they will be able to perform a character, just because they have a voice. Characters need vocal actors.
Animatic - The animatic (or leica reel) is where the director finds out what's wrong with the storyboard. It's a quick (cheap) way for the director to see if the transitions, timing, staging and continuity are all working seamlessly to tell the story in the best way possible. Skip the animatic stage at your peril - finding and fixing problems here is way, way easier than fixing them in animation.
Animation - If the pre-production process has been thorough, the animation stage is simply execution. The story heavy lifting is mostly done by this stage and the director should be mostly focussed on performance (or in the case of motion graphics - the choreography). It's not really the director's job to be looking at technical details like lip sync, turns or walk cycles - an animator should already be across these skills, or in a larger studio an animation lead will guide less experienced artists before presentation to the director. But if there are technical mistakes present, the director will find them and ask for a retake. The director will be mostly looking at the animator's interpretation of the performance - is it on-brief, on-character, optimal for the story. The director may identify some late improvements to the story as the process nears the finish line - hold a shot longer, adjust a camera angle, remove a shot, insert a new one, and so on.
Sound - the director will usually make the final calls on music choices, sound design and the sound mix, before presentation to the client.
Self-directing animators - often in a smaller studio, artists might play multiple roles - the storyboard artist might also be the animator for example, or the writer or producer might also be the director. Some animators self-direct, some don't. A self-directing animator will never say "…but I was just following the storyboard". Instead he will fix the issue or bring it to the director's attention. Animators in smaller studios are often self-directing because they might be the sole animator on a project, and may not have a director, so they have to be across the whole story. Unlike animators in a large studio, who are only focussed on the shots allocated to them, and probably don't even know the full story.
All animation projects - no matter how big or small, need a person to take creative ownership of it - to take it from script to screen, and to be responsible making the story or message as good as it can be.
Unless you've been living under a rock, you would know that consumption of video on mobile devices is the new normal. Latest stats show that *70% of YouTube audiences and 90% of Facebook users are on mobile devices. So if you're creating video or animated content for audiences on mobile devices, you should be designing your content for the medium. Here some of the main considerations:
1. Aspect Ratio
A question that clients are often not expecting is "What aspect ratio do you want to make your video in". Here's a few popular flavours:
But a viewer can turn their screen sideways to view 16:9 right? Wrong - by default we hold mobile devices vertically with one hand - and a *recent study found that only just over 20% of users will actually turn their device sideways to view a landscape format video.
Clearly the full 9:16 vertical occupies the most screen real estate. But the full frame vertical format can be tricky to design for, and won't suit all content. If you're on the fence 1:1 square is a good compromise. If you have a dual requirement for mobile and traditional (16:9) audiences - then ask your supplier if they can provide your content in 2 formats - say square and 16:9 - they might say yes.
Videos that appear in the newsfeed of Facebook, Linkedin and Instagram are mute by default - unless the user switches the sound on. How do we design for this?
The safest assumption is that the entire video will be viewed mute - which means your film should be designed to be understood without sound (deja vu - the silent film era - have we gone full circle?).
If your message relies on dialog, add subtitles to the mobile version. Trouble with subtitles is they're not pretty, and may cover important parts of the image. So keep the lower third empty if you know sub's are being added later. Alternatively design it as a kinetic text piece - where the text becomes a part of the design, instead of an add-on.
*Recent studies have shown that text support in videos can increase view time up to 30%. Lets face it - text plastered over the screen is the new normal in mobile video - so design for it, rather than stick it on top as an afterthought.
To make your soundtrack pop out of a crappy mobile speaker system, don't use a track that relies on bass - cuz it may not be heard. Use a track that emphasises the mid-range so that the highs and lows are not lost if viewed in a noisy environment.
Optimum duration will depend on the social media platform your content is going out on. *Facebook states that to capture attention, branded content should be only 6 to 15 seconds duration! Facebook also cites the 3-second rule - that the first three seconds is how long it takes for people to decide to continue watching or not (it wasn't that long a go this was the 10-second rule - how quickly things change!). Facebook also recommends to present your brand in the first 1-2 seconds - if you are making branded content - which is totally contrary to TV commercial mentality where your couch potato audience is presented the logo at the end.
Instagram and Snapchat audiences have similar concentration spans! Linkedin audiences on the other hand have a little more patience and are more likely to persevere for longer durations of a minute or more. YouTube audiences are the champions when it comes to viewing staying power - with *average viewing times of around 14 minutes.
One thing is for sure across all social media channels - you gotta create a killer intro with a solid hook in the first few seconds to keep people around.
The challenge is to tell a story in short duration - which done well can be awesome. With this in mind - perhaps the new story paradigm for say a 15 second social media video might look like this:
ACT 1 - 1-3 seconds - the killer intro - the most compelling part of the story. Hook the audience here or it's likely you'll lose them. Better give them a whiff of the brand here too - in case they decide not to stick around.
ACT 2 - 4-11 seconds - the body of the story - more context - reveals, twists - live up to the expectations of the killer intro. 10 seconds is the big threshold - if you can get a viewer to commit to ten seconds - it's likely they'll stay 'till the end.
ACT 3 - 12 - 15 seconds - the climax - the film leads to it's exciting conclusion, Don't disappoint - pull the rug out from under your audience - surprise them, shock them, make them laugh, or cry.
5. Camera angles
Gone are the big beautiful wide establishing shots that languish on the screen for 6 or 7 lazy seconds. Instead it’s a quick full shot or medium shot to establish. Or maybe skip the establishing shot altogether and go straight to the action. Keep your scenes uncluttered cuz the more in the shot the longer the audience needs to take it in - and time is something it seems small screen audiences don't want to commit to any more.
* Source Buffer blog
Condensing a complicated message into a minute or so of compelling web video is a tricky business. Here's some tips that will have you writing like a pro.
1. Write for your audience
Who are you talking to? Plumbers, students, migrants, accountants…whatever. The "voice" you use will depend on your audience. Always try to put yourself in the shoes of the audience - what are they really interested in? How can you help them to get what they want / solve their problem / save them time or money? Don't write stuff your audience can't relate to or are not interested in.
2. The first ten seconds must be killer
That's about how long it takes for online audiences to decide whether to abandon your video or not. It's the hardest part of the script, so write and re-write the first ten seconds until you're sure you are making a connection with your audience. Say something shocking, interesting, emotive, funny, clever or empathetic. If you still have them beyond ten seconds, chances of them hanging around for a while is good.
3. Don't write literature
It's a visual medium - so write for the screen. As you write, always think "what will the audience be seeing when I say this?" Also ask yourself "do I even need to say this - maybe I can show it." Don't say it if you can show it - exploit the medium for what it's best at - showing stuff. Remember - you don't want to tell the whole story anyway - you just want to tell the essence, enough for your audience to "get it". Long flowery descriptions are for your brochure, not your video.
4. Brevity is King
Studies show that online video abandonment is directly related to duration. More people will sit through a 60 seconder, than a 120 seconder. So the briefer the message, the larger your audience. Research by Wistia shows that audiences will even abandon a video just because of the length of the timeline - regardless of the content! Detach yourself emotionally from the script - keep only the really important stuff - be ruthless.
5. Structure it
Since the beginning of storytelling, stories happen in three acts. Web videos are no different. The first act will set the scene, introduce characters, give context to what follows. The second scene is where the story unfolds and the audience gets all the information they need to understand the message. If there is a character, this is the part where she overcomes obstacles on her journey to get what she wants. The third act is where the story wraps up, the character has evolved (thanks to the product), and the message is driven home.
6. The ideal explainer video duration is 60 seconds
OK I said it. Now I know you're thinking "there's no way I can say all this in 60 seconds." Yes online videos come in all shapes and sizes, and often 60 seconds is really not long enough. I'm just saying if you want maximum viewer retention; you want to get across one strong message with say three key benefits; you want the viewer to stay all the way to the end where your big finish and call to action is, then 60 seconds is the way to go. Most explainer videos run for 90 seconds - okay that's doable but not ideal. Beyond 2 minutes and most of your audience have moved on or are comatose. BTW - the writer's rule of thumb - about 150 words gets you a screen minute.
7. Say it with animation
Animation is awesome. It crosses cultural, age, gender and whatever barriers with ease, and is the medium of choice for explainer video makers. Animation can show whatever the mind can conceive - I think Walt Disney said that. Animation can make even the most dull or complex subject matter look cheerful and easy-peasy.
8. Use Video Script format
Pro's write in the Video Script format, so write like a pro and impress your video production company. Video Script format is a portrait-oriented page divided into two vertical columns (Google "video script" to see hundreds of examples). The left column is headed Audio, the right column is headed Video. Write the Voice Over (VO) in the left column, write the corresponding video description in the right. Separate each scene with a horizontal line. Only write one idea per scene.
9. Read it out loud
I love this tip. If you read it out load you will discover things that sound clunky or long-winded. You will discover the mood of the script. You will discover places where you need to add a word for emphasis, or delete a whole line. You will discover that it's dry and doesn't sound like "talk". You will also discover (because you have your stopwatch running) that it's too long and needs to be shorter and more punchy.
10. Forget everything you just read
Just start writing - don't worry about the grammar, the tone, the structure, the word count or format. Just get it all out - let it flow - however it comes. Then leave it for a couple of days. Come back with fresh eyes and discover how long, dry, repetitive, and horrible your first draft is. But hey, you have a first draft - congratulations! Now the writing can really begin because script writing is about re-writing….and re-writing…and re-writing. Now you can use this 10-point checklist to transform that first draft into a beautiful thing.
Author: Steve Bristow lectures in Screenwriting at JMC Academy Melbourne, has screen credits as a script editor, has written scripts for corporate videos, TV commercials and web explainer videos.