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, storyboard artists may not always be across film language or story. These artists might need direction to interpret the script - they may even need a thumbnail storyboard from the director. Board artists for example who mostly work on TVC's are sometimes not across narrative storyboarding as well as TV series board artists. 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 (sometimes call a leica reel or story reel) is where the director finds out what's wrong with the storyboard. Sequencing the storyboard panels on a timeline is 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 for making the story or message as good as it can be.
Here's an older post that still gets a lot of views - thought it was time to polish it a bit and put it on top of the pile.
The agency likes what you do - that's why they've called you in to take a brief, but they need to be confident your vision for their TV commercial is aligned with what they want. They might ask you to write a Treatment. A Treatment is a pitch - a selling document to win across the agency and client to your vision for their ad. It's your opportunity to show that you totally understand the advertiser's requirement and that you are able to deliver it in the most compelling way.
1. Listen up
Ask a lot of questions so that the brief is crystal clear. Try to gauge how flexible the agency is about the story and visual style. This is important - the amount of creative freedom you have on a TVC can vary. Some briefs will be very specific, with little room for additional creative input. While at the other extreme the agency will have one of those "no idea" briefs that's gonna rely on your creative chops to flesh it out and make them look awesome. Understand who your audience is. Find out what the client likes - and doesn't. Find out if it's gonna roll out on social media as well - this may influence your storytelling.
2. Is the ad Story or Spectacle?
If it's story then it should have a beginning, middle and end, with at least one character. The objective of story is to engage the audience with a plot that resolves at the end with the advertiser's message embedded. If it's spectacle there is no story - the ad is eye candy that relies on attracting the audience's attention with appealing visuals and sounds. In a spectacle the audience is a spectator, unlike story where the audience is a participant. Story doesn't need visual extravagance to engage the audience - but if you're not telling a story then each shot has to be more interesting than the previous one to keep your audience on board.
3. Get your story essentials in place
All stories must have a CHARACTER that the audience can identify with. The character should have a GOAL - he/she/it wants something. Finally there should be CONFLICT - an obstacle to the character getting what she wants, which must be overcome. STRUCTURE is equally important. The beginning is where the character is introduced and the setting is established. Then a problem or incident moves the story to the middle part, where obstacles are overcome. Finally the story resolves and the character is much happier now that (thanks to the product) the problem is solved. Cue the logo and park it for the last second. If your TV commercial has these basic story elements in place, you're in good shape.
Ask yourself these questions - will it fit into the duration you have to work with? Can it be funnier/scarier/more dramatic/whatever? Can I withhold some information from the audience until the end to give them a surprise? Is the main character appealing enough? Raise the stakes - what will happen if he can't get what he wants? Will the audience connect with him/her/it? Could I add a prop or setting that makes the story more interesting? What about the technique and visual style - how can I make it look original/quirky/retro/ whatever. Search for images and videos for inspiration. Identify a theme - a single word that embodies what the story is really about - this can be a useful guide to keep you on track.
5. Getting it down
Start with a brief recap of the objective of the commercial, and how your treatment will get the desired result. Reassure the client how this commercial will integrate with existing content and branding. Give the impression you know the product and what it stands for - but don't over analyse this - the client knows their product way better than you do. Write with confidence and with intention to influence - make it a good read - inject it with your personality - don't be too formal.
Next take the reader through the story beat-by-beat (a beat is the smallest element of a story). Write in such a way that the reader can visualise it. Don't get technical with descriptions of camera angles or visual effects - just tell the story as it is. If your treatment is a spectacle, then keep the description brief because a MOOD BOARD (see next point) will better describe what you want to say.
Write about how your proposed visual style will give the commercial a unique look, and make it stand out. Mention the colour palette - the three main colours that will dominate the commercial to give it a certain look or mood, and how it fits with the brand. If there's a special technique you are proposing, this could be the place to get a little technical (don't overdo it) about something unique you are bringing to the spot that's going to make it special.
Write about the sound. Is there a VO (voice over)? Why - and what kind of voice? Will there be music - what kind? Will the music drive the commercial or will it be used subtly, as sound design, to accent story moments? How will the sound and the visuals integrate to work together?
Explain how it will also work across social media - if that's part of the media plan.
There should be only one main message in a TV commercial. Your client might insist on trying to squeeze 10 product benefits into 30 seconds - this never ends well. An agency worth their salt will back you up on this one. And keep it brief - one or two pages.
Finally, close with a short summary to wrap up your treatment and drive home that you and your team are going to make this commercial a hit.
6. Make a Mood Board
A Mood Board is a montage of images you have borrowed from the internet, that create an impression of the visual style, colour scheme and brand values that you want to bring to the commercial. Your mood board might be one or more full pages of your PDF document. It might be projected at a pre-production meeting. The design of the document itself is a statement about the aesthetic you are bringing to the project - so make it look good.
Author: Steve Bristow lectures in Story and Screen Language, has screen credits as a Director, Creator and Story Editor, and has produced or directed hundreds of TV commercials and web videos.
Lip sync can make or break your character animation - done well it can take your character's performance to another level - done badly it can turn your shot into a train wreck. This post is for the animator who submitted the offending shot, and the producer or director who can see that it's not working but aren't sure what's wrong with it.
1. The dialog seems too early or late
I've seen it happen more than once where the dialog has accidentally been nudged along the timeline a few frames - so my first take on this would be to slip the dialog track back and forth on the timeline and see if it falls back into sync.
Offsetting the lip sync can actually help - sometimes the mouth shapes may be accurately timed to the dialog sounds, but it still doesn't seem to be in sync when played back. Try offsetting the mouth key poses a frame or two earlier than the corresponding sound - this can improve the readability of lip sync. The exception is the closed mouth sounds B, M and P, which should fall right on the closed mouth pose.
2. The mouth shapes are too big
If the character's mouth moves through BIG shapes for open mouth sounds like A, E and O - this can look pretty grotesque. An animator tackling lip sync for the first time might have referenced a mouth shape chart like Preston Blair's famous 'DIALOGUE' page and created key mouth poses that are oversized. Lip sync mouth shape charts often show exaggerated poses - to make the point, rather than to be followed verbatim. Scale down the size of the extremes of the mouth shape and try it again.
BTW - that single page was the only published document on lip-sync pre-internet days, and a generation of animators owe a debt of gratitude to Preston Blair (RIP) for getting them out of trouble.
3. Too many mouth shapes
If the mouth is moving through too many shapes in the dialog it will looks jittery and unnatural. It's a common mistake to try to hit every single phoneme with a key mouth pose. Identify the important shapes that define the word, and skip over the lesser ones.
Generally you should try to create lip sync with as few mouths shapes as you need to make it convincing - real speech is like that - the mouth doesn't move all that much. An extreme is anime - whose limited animation style typically achieves lip sync with two mouth shapes - open and shut (millions of anime fans never complained about this).
The best way to check what's really going on with speech is to rehearse it in a mirror - and all good animators have one on their desk - right?
4. The wrong mouth shapes
If the mouth is open when it should be closed or wide when it should be narrow, it should be pretty clear that the wrong mouth pose is being used. I know it sounds obvious, but I've seen it many times and unless it was somehow accidental - there's really no excuse for it. As a supervising director once told me - animators who do this should be publicly flogged. That might be a little harsh - but you get my drift.
5. No follow through
It's not a good look when a mouth slams shut - back to the default closed position at the end of a word. Unless the word ends on a closed mouth shape, the last shape of the spoken word should hold for a while.
The final word is that there are no hard and fast rules for lip sync. What works for one character design or animation style, won't necessarily work for another. It may seem bewildering at first, but once you nail it - it's magic. And lip sync is just a subset of facial animation - which is another blog post.
Sherazade The Untold Stories (2017) is an animated TV series initially developed by Hahn Film. Images are from season 1 episode 10 and episode 17, directed by Steve Bristow.
Here's a link to the storm sequence from episode 17
Got any more lips sync tips and tricks? Post 'em as a comment.