Cinemas. Websites. Television. Billboards. These are just some places where the explainer video lurks, waiting to entertain audiences both captive and itinerant.
Ubiquitous as the explainer video may be, many remain unaware of the effort behind production. In fact, 60s of 2D animation may take about 2 months to push out – with additional animation complexity exponentially increasing the time required.
Let us unpack the nuts and bolts behind the magic – so you’ll know exactly how much time you should cater if you’re planning on getting a video done!
How long should animation take?
Most videos, animated or otherwise, go through a process, better known as a production pipeline.
The pipeline can be split into three phases, namely, Pre-production, Production and Post-Production.
The pre-production phase for most studios begins with a creative brief. This creative brief should at least impart the following information: a) budget, b) video duration and c) the amount of time available for production.
Here’s an example of a really simple brief:
With these constraints in mind, we move into the conceptualisation phase. This is the creative bit, where we start trying to figure out how the video will look. Will it be realistic? Will it be stylised? Will it be done in 2D or 3D? Will a voice over be required?
Depending on the video objectives – the medium might change. For example, if you’re selling a service or a software, 2D infographics will suffice quite nicely. But if you’re trying to sell a product and you’re trying to jazz it up, then it might help to push out a realistic 3D video. Similarly, a video intended to be played in the outdoors might not need a voice over because it’s going to be really noisy outside. Subtitles might work better!
Once the approach is confirmed, we move into the script-writing phase. Unlike your usual books however, scripts for animation normally incorporate some element of the visual.
One way to deal with this is to create two columns – one for the visual, and one for the audio. The stuff you want your characters/narrator to say goes into the audio column while you fill the visual column with either descriptions, or better yet, pictures.
In times of great need, the scriptwriting phase is sometimes combined with the storyboarding phase – better known as the “Let’s Draw Some Comic Strips” phase. It’s not easy to translate a primarily visual medium entirely into words. This means it’s sometimes necessary to draw a bunch of pictures to help illustrate how our chosen narrative will unfold. This bit is normally done in black and white.
We then choose a couple of key frames to fully colourise to help show what the final video will look like.
In some cases, animatics may be offered in lieu of storyboards – that’s where the frames are joined together – like a photo slideshow, if you must, to better replicate transitions between frames.
Here’s an example of animatics, courtesy of Gorillaz.
For comparison’s sake, we’ve also embedded the final product below.
Depending on the number of stakeholders involved in this stage and the sort of changes required, pre-production can take anywhere between 2-3 weeks.
The next step in the process is production proper.
This is where we move into production proper. Depending on the agreed-upon style, a variety of assets will have to created. For instance, if we’re working with an animated corporate video in 2D, our illustrator’s going to have to start creating elements like the characters, environments and backgrounds.
An animation video like this requires that all of the mushrooms, vegetables, meatballs and adorable fox mascots be illustrated, oftentimes from scratch. The good news is, once you’re done drawing and colouring them in digitally, you’re pretty much ready to start animating.
It is at this point that I’m going to make a quick segue into cel animation if you’d like to find out more about Cel Animation, you can check out this other article we wrote! Cel animation requires illustrating close to every single frame in a video to provide a smooth, almost organic quality to the animation. Cel animation done well is breathtaking but if you’ve elected to go for Cel Animation, expect your asset creation phase to take a really, really, really long time.
Cel animation is back-breaking labour for a single artist. In fact, Cel animation is to modern 2D animation what dinosaurs are to birds.
That’s a living fossil right there
Modern animation, or the one we’ve been discussing for the most part, makes use of “tweening”, or the creation of in-between frames. This means you don’t have to manually draw out 24 frames a second – you do perhaps 5 to 6 frames and let the computer extrapolate and create the other 18 less important frames in between. It saves a whole lot of work.
Speaking of “whole lot of work”, let’s take a look at the 3D asset creation process.
3D asset creation requires a little more work than 2D; namely, the creation of the base model, the skeleton inside the character, proper lighting and texturing.
Bonus fact: It is for these reasons that the 3D pipeline tends to take about 1.5 times as long as the 2D pipeline.
Once the assets have been created, all that remains is to animate them and to rush a first cut out – expect a lot of changes to be made at this stage.
In comparison, the 2nd cut takes barely 40% of the time required for the first cut.
Expect to spend between 4 to 8 weeks in production for a 60s video, subject to animation complexity.
Here’s where we jump into the audio bit of things. Accent and energy are two things to consider when you select your voice over. If your target audience is primarily Singaporean Aunties, you definitely want to go for local talent to create rapport.
Similarly, if you’re trying to advertise funeral services, you might not want to get a pre-pubescent voice artist. Unless, of course, that’s part of your marketing strategy, in which case we will hold our tongues.
Beyond the VO, remember also that a good soundtrack makes or breaks a video.
You could work with a simple piece of stock music, but if you’ve got the budget for it, consider also an original composition for your video. The right combination of bespoke graphics and sound can really drive your message home.
Just take a look at how The Croods roped in Owl City and Yuna for their soundtrack – it’s the perfect way of grabbing the audience’s attention during the movie scene and bring sweet music to many ears!
Think of sound effects as seasoning. You don’t always notice its presence, but you definitely recognise when its gone.
Post-production can be wrapped up within a week or two for animation videos in most cases. It’s also where we continue to make minor changes.
This concludes the broad picture of the animation pipeline – in the next section, we explore the factors that might affect the time required to push out a video.
“Why can’t my studio speed things up?” Here’s why.
As a general rule of thumb, the more polished the video, the longer it takes. Advertisement quality videos designed to go on air tend to take a long longer to push out then something you’re designing for an internal conference.
2D animation especially, takes up more time. Even with the advent of computer animation – the crisp, step-by-step details and consistency of hand drawings cannot be taken over by technology.
While animated films can still take the route of hand-drawn animation – it’s another case for television shows. The majority of viewers are always sitting in anticipation for the next episode the week after a release – it’s tough to meet the timeline if animators use hand drawings.
That’s why South Park’s team has decided to take a different route – computer animation. With a strong manpower of 70 skilled individuals – episodes take as fast as one week to be completed – or even as little as three to four days.
Both client and studio function as a unit. Taste is also a very subjective thing. This means that what the client thinks is fantastic may not be the case for the studio – and vice versa. What this means is that there will be quite a bit of back-and-forth and production time varies proportionately with the amount of time it takes both parties to agree.
Even though we frequently do offer our clients the final say, collaboration tends to offer better creative results.
Resolution: HD vs 4K
In the past, HD (high-definition) was the ultimate winner for any kind of animation, or even regular shows – until 4K (3840 x 2160 pixels) came in.
This was done entirely in 4K:
It’s as crisp as it can get.
However, as stunning as 4K is – there’s quite a bit of work required. At least not according to Illumination Mac Guff, the studio behind successful animated films like Korax, Despicable Me, and Minions.
4K has 4 times the number of pixels as HD – even if it doesn’t always mean that we’ll have to go into that amount of detail in our illustrations, it does mean that it’ll take a lot more computing horsepower and therefore time to render the finished product.
According to the BBC, the studio behind Despicable Me used about 20,000 computers in a “render farm” to develop the individual images and scenes for the movie. This makes animation in 4K prohibitively expensive, but of course, movie-making has never been for the shallow-pocketed.
All in all, animated videos in 4K tend to send elongate timelines quite a bit.
Having briefly addressed the usual suspects in timeline complication, let’s take a closer look at some famous animated pieces and how long they took from start to end.
Who is part of the animation squad?
Pixar’s Bruce Kuei (one of the animators who have worked on Wall-E, Ratatouille, The Incredibles 2, Ice Age 2: The Meltdown, and among many other films) has mentioned that most Pixar films take between 4 to 7 years to go from a twinkle in the eye to the box office.
But do you know what’s really tough to animate? Make a guess – it starts with an F.
That’s right, I’m talking about Fur.
As opposed to hands, legs and other body parts that don’t generally number in the millions, fur has to be simulated in order to achieve an acceptable level of realism.
So in Monsters, Inc – Sulley’s fur had to first be split up into individual strands and distinct particles by means of a computer programme. By using real-world fur from other woolly creatures such as alpacas and llamas, animators could work towards achieving a certain look for Sulley.
As you can imagine, this was neither a cheap nor painless process. But what recourse do you have if you want to make a really good piece animation?
Money isn’t everything
The good news is, you don’t always have to break the budget to produce good work. And nor should you.
Think carefully about what to prioritise and do away with unnecessary flourishes. If HD works good enough for use on a desktop monitor, do you really want to pay a premium for 4K? Similarly some videos may not require human characters – why not consider using symbols and lines to keep costs low without compromising on the message?
Above all, brief your studio early and give them sufficient time to work on your project. Express fees make no one happy. Often times, studios are more than willing to give a discount if you’re willing to budge, in turn, on depraved timelines.
And let me conclude with an attempt to answer the age-old question: Why don’t animation studios put prices up on their websites?
Well, as you should have gathered from the meat of this article, the same factors that affect time do tend to affect price – the extent to which your video can be customised makes it really hard to provide a one-size-fits-all package – short of charging an exorbitant sum to be on the safe side.
Which is, I’m sure you’d agree, a terrible compromise.
But don’t be a stranger – now that you know all about the nuts and bolts of animation production – why not reach out for a quote in the name of academic curiosity?