Author: Erin Cole, Motion Graphics
Preproduction for Motion Graphics IS Planning Ahead
Ever heard the phrase “We’ll fix it in post”? It sounds like an innocuous phrase, said by plenty of carefree and optimistic people in many different production processes. However, it is also one of the most damaging to the cost and time for your project. When you procrastinate or delay answering questions, the closer you get to a deadline, the less options and solutions you have available to you. Time, money and limited resources can choke good ideas or leave them just out of reach late in project development. The more clearly you communicate and plan up front, the more solutions and opportunities for improvement can be applied to your project. Exploring all your options is best done in the wide open spaces of the preproduction phase, when nothing is stressed, crunched or overdrawn.
Preproduction is literally the period of a project prior to the start of work. Most people know it as the planning stage, and it is usually followed by production, the actual work on the project, and postproduction, the edits and revisions before the project is delivered to its final output or destination. These terms can be applied to many types of projects, but in this blog entry we’ll be using them specifically as they apply to animations and motion-graphics videos.
Why Is Preproduction Important?
Preproduction is the most underappreciated part of the production process, but is also the most open and creative. This is the stage where all the planning and prep work happens, and the client and creative direction is solidified as most of the major decisions are made.
Everyone knows that when you have a mapped route, you spend less time getting to your destination than if you randomly drive around looking for someplace new. The same concept applies in video production. When everyone knows the plan, the time can be used more efficiently because all the questions are answered and the shots and animation are planned out. The more questions that are unanswered, the more production has to stop and wait on the answers; this is why preproduction and approvals can save time in a project and production.
Every time a step is skipped in preproduction or you move into production without client and creative approval, there is a higher probability that necessary shots will be missed, key points of visuals will need to be reworked, and sometimes entire animations can be scrapped. This means that you will have to pay for additional time and work for these things to be corrected. The more you plan ahead and confirm preproduction deliverables with a client or creative team, the less likely you will have multiple rounds of revisions or rework that drain your budget. This is why planning ahead and using stills and animatics to show the clients what will be done is so important. It is a lot quicker to change a storyboard visual or scratch track because they are flexible and editable, much more so than a completed video with interactive elements and dependencies.
When everyone knows what the plan is for achieving the project goals, the team works together better. A clear road map of visual and sound production can show how to smoothly generate all the needed footage or animation. And with a backup plan and multiple people accounting for details, there is less need for stress throughout the remaining production. This is the entire point of planning ahead, and it is well worth the calm you will feel knowing the facts of the project.
What Is Preproduction?
Preproduction is the planning stage of a shoot, animation or project that involves a production timeline (also known as the production pipeline). It is the most important stage of a project to work out what is needed. This means deciding what the end result should be, and getting everyone involved, from the client to the animator, to agree on the project and its deliverables. Planning ahead gives you a road map of how production will be run and some expectations of what you may need to accomplish in postproduction. Planning ahead means giving the client options for what kind of video they will receive, and allocating your time and budget to the best places to invest your resources. The more you think through all the details, the better prepared you are for the project, giving yourself options such having a Plan B or even a Plan C. This means less scrambling because you have a backup; it means it’s less likely something will be missed and it provides more opportunities for error correction before it is “too late.”
Gathering the plan also means developing several deliverables that will document your progress and inform the team what the project is about and how it will look. Below is a basic set of deliverables that is needed in a video pipeline to complete preproduction and move confidently into production.
State Goals and Define Specifications
Everyone on the team should review the creative brief and understand the goals of the video, but everyone also should know the specifications. This means asking the right questions about the video’s final output, for example:
- Where is this video going to end up?
- How long does the video need to be?
- How many file formats or sizes are needed?
- How many videos are needed?
- Are additional assets from the video going to be needed (stills, thumbnails or assets for ads and print)?
- What is your budget?
- What is your timeline?
- Are the budget and timeline reasonable for the goals you are trying to achieve?
Make sure you review the list of answers and confirm they don’t conflict. For example, if you need several 30-second videos and the budget doesn’t support this, you may need to think of alternative solutions to the costs or deliverables to give the client a project that fits their needs. Remember that in this stage of the project nothing is set in stone, so there are alternative options available. Preproduction is the best place to address these needs, because further into the project the budget and timeline are already locked down. For example, suddenly informing the creative and production teams that there are three additional videos to come in the middle of production, with no additional money in the budget, can cause a lot of issues. Don’t try to force a square peg into a round hole; you will end up with a shaved peg at best and a broken project at worst. Key details can make the difference on what kind of project you are doing. When you understand what’s possible within your time and budget, you can alleviate a lot of stress in a project.
It is important to note that as more and more people use the Internet for shopping, news, research, leisure and other aspects of life, having digitally savvy and production-based people in initial goal and specification discussions can help to push you to achieve better results. While there is a lot of discussion about the cost of time and people in the brainstorming phases of a project, there is often a lot of time saved by working out all the possibilities of a potential project in these first work sessions, as having digitally savvy team members in brainstorming sessions can open up new avenues of development. Providing recaps to production teams later in the project can cause slowdowns and add multiple costly reviews to recover key points and goals, while many possible innovations in digital and online work become missed opportunities for the client. Everyone can be aware of new technologies and platforms, but you can get more information from the people who create these products on a regular basis by working with them before the timeline and budget are solidified. This can help push your client and creative work to accomplish great things without breaking the budget. The Richards Group is in a prime position to use these people and tools right in the same building! Even if you just have a question on how something might work, the production team is available to help work things out without the cost of airfare or an hour’s drive in traffic. Working together as a team can help bring your project or video to new and innovative heights.
Creative style defines the visual look and design of the project. You can use examples of types of visuals, from live action to stop motion, 2D, 3D or a blend of several types. Gather mood boards and references, but make a point of calling out what makes YOUR project different, how you are improving on the ideas, the artist who influenced you to make this new piece stand out. Sometimes pushing concepts further helps to make them stand out in a sea of similar ad placements. You can also create new visuals and illustrations or drawings to give the client and the team a better understanding of the characters and visual style the video will have.
This is mainly the responsibility of the creative team, but, again, it helps to include the production team in this brainstorming, as they are often on the cutting edge of the new and cool things happening in their respective fields. The production team’s experience can inspire new and great ideas.
Write Scripts, Then Read Them
There is really only one person on the team who is “responsible” for writing a script. But everyone should read them. Just putting a “completed” mark on the checklist of needed documents is not enough to keep a project moving forward. Each team member can catch a mistake or address client concerns by being aware of the direction in which the project is going. Maybe there is a word the client doesn’t like the connotations of, or there were previous discussions on a moment of silence, or reading the art cards aloud shows that something was missed or not clearly communicated to the copywriter and proofreader. The more involved you are in the project, the faster these issues can be caught and corrected, and the better the team performs for the client.
Storyboards: What They Are and Why They Are Important
Once a script is written and the style is confirmed, these two things are combined to make a storyboard. A storyboard is the script with visuals to show how objects and characters will appear in the final video. Composition and different layouts can be explored in various angles and object positions. How things move in and out of screen will be depicted in drawings or boards to help show the production team and the client what the video will look like when it is produced. Because this is part of the preproduction process, this is subject to change, but the more you can address in this stage, the better prepared you are to move forward. So make sure to ask questions if anything seems incorrect or unclear.
A shot list is critical to any production that includes live footage. While there are many templates online, you can create your own in any text or spreadsheet document. It should be created directly from the script and storyboards. It should include a description of the environment, such as any lighting or set notes, and it should include a list of all props, including those in the script and any that are needed for set dressing and actions, such as utensils, dishes and garnishes in a food-related shoot, or clothing, makeup and sewing kits for filming with actors. Looking over the storyboards and scripts, you should be able to review the action in each shot and account for every item in the shot list. Again, while one person is responsible for creating the list, everyone on the team should review it and confirm they understand that everything is accounted for. If you end up with a missing item on the day of shooting, you waste time waiting for someone to go and get it or you end up paying exponentially more to figure out a work-around. The shot list quickens a shoot and helps to save time during production. Any shoot that I have been a part of where the shot list was confirmed in advance not only ended early, but allowed the team to get several additional shots that would not have been possible otherwise.
The second reason a shot list is important is because it is an exact list of the shots you need. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get additional shots or B-roll footage. The more options you have the better, but the shot list confirms that you know what shots MUST be included to fill out the creative and client-approved vision for the video you will be producing. If you skip or miss a shot on the list, you will have to rework or work around the original idea, and, as stated before, this costs time and money. This is the place in preproduction and production where the phrase “We’ll fix it in post” is thrown around the most often, but usually by the people least likely to do the actual fixing. Postproduction fixes almost always add additional time and cost to the project, and are a lazy way out of fixing actual problems in production or having a plan ahead of time to save you this step because there isn’t a problem in the first place.
While the storyboard is underway is the best time to get music samples or scratch tracks, if needed. Sample music should be provided to give the client and the team an idea of what the creative team feels the sound should be. This can be a short 5- to 10-second clip or a song that gives an impression of the type of music that will be included. Oftentimes, several music options are provided to give the client their choice of preferred genre. This can help inform the team of how the client sees the video moving forward, and gives everyone an insight into the client’s ideal video.
A scratch track should be a simple reading of the script that can give the client and the team an idea of what the voiceover will sound like. This shouldn’t be a big deal, because the final sound will most likely be recorded later in production. But this quick pass on sound can give the team a chance to work through timing and word issues that may need to be changed in the script before going into production. Multiple takes for timing and tone/inflection should be reviewed by the creative team to find the best fit. The preferred track(s) should be shared with the entire team so that everyone is informed on the sound. The production team can also include sound in the timing of the next deliverable: the animatic. Compare the scratch track and the final created during production below:
This seems to be the most misunderstood part of preproduction for animation. Best defined as a timed/moving storyboard, an animatic can have some movement and limited animation to get across the feeling and timing, but this is NOT full animation. To give you an example, compare the animatic here vs. the final spot at the bottom of this blog entry. Because an animatic has some movement, many people think this is “unpolished” animation, and that is not the case. This is the first pass at the pace and timing of a video and should not be confused with a production piece. This is a very fluid and editable but necessary step of the process in animation. Pay attention to changes in the timing or from the boards when movements and camera angles need to be corrected to make the shot clearer.
Once the story and timing are clear, the actual asset development begins. If this is a live-action shoot, gather all the items, actors and set pieces, and then plan the shoot days (with a backup or rain day, especially if weather or location could be an issue). For animation, this is creating 3D or stop-motion characters, sets and environments, and confirming 2D character styles and looks are approved. This can include colors, props, products, environments and multiple characters based off the approved style.
How long does this take? Everyone wants to jump into the action of production or jump to a finished product they can nitpick. Spending the time to really work out the details in the planning stage can not only quicken the rest of the production, but it can sort out problems that could slow production or even bring it to a halt. Spending the time to confirm the team understands all the preproduction details and that the client is on board to move forward keeps the project running smoothly further down the pipeline. The best thing to do is to talk to the individuals creating each preproduction deliverable, as every project is different and dependent on multiple details covered in the goals and specifications stage. A 3D project might take more time in asset development than storyboards, or a 15-second script might not take as long to write as three 30-second scripts. So make sure when creating a timeline to confirm it with the production team, and take into account client reviews and revisions. Also understand that some things can be done in tandem, such as drawing up storyboards and creating a scratch track – these can be done at the same time if the script is already approved. However, any changes that are needed in the scratch track will need to be relayed to the storyboard team, and vice versa, so that the project can stay consistent. This is where keeping everyone informed and involved becomes most important.
How Does This Apply to You?
While everyone should be involved in the preproduction stage and have a solid grasp of the production plan detailed in the deliverables, there are responsibilities that are more specific to certain job titles.
As the client contact, it is your responsibility to keep the client informed of the project development and also to keep the production team informed of the client’s wants and needs. Many times, because of miscommunications and misunderstandings of the process, many brand managers want to wait to show the client a “finished project.” I strongly urge against this idea: Remember that the client isn’t just paying for a video, they are paying for each deliverable in the process. And the more input the client can have over the course of the project, not only do they better understand what they are paying for, but you can head off potential issues that otherwise would go unresolved until the project is complete. These client-requested edits cause rework and possible budget and timeline overages that could easily be avoided by helping the client to understand the process and all the work that we do to give them the best video possible. For example, a client that reviews and approves the script won’t have to ask for scratch tracks to be rerecorded because of a phrase they are not fond of. A style or close-up camera angle in the mood or storyboards might remind the client of a competitor’s video, or the client might want a quicker or slower pace to the overall video that would be visible in an animatic. If they are not shown these preproduction stages, changes will need to be made to footage or animation that is already finished, causing work to be redone. Keeping the client involved and informed can save countless time and money.
This also works in reverse. If the client has an aversion to certain words or visuals, or if they prefer their product and service to be seen in a consistent manner, the production team can work toward keeping those things consistent and providing the client with work they would like the first time around, saving them time and rounds of costly revisions. The clearer a client’s feedback can be and the quicker it can get to the production team, the faster turnarounds can get into the work, and the whole project can move forward with enthusiastic client approvals.
The creative team is responsible for the look, sound and action of a video. The best thing you can do as part of the creative team is to clearly define your visions and goals for a project and keep them consistent. Keeping informed of what is going on can help make sure your goals and the client’s goals are the same. Being able to direct a production team to make your idea is a very important part of the project, but so is making sure the client understands how it will grow their business. Reaching for the moon is a great goal in life, but shoestring budgets and next-day timelines can be a real hindrance to space travel. Collaborating with your team to find the best practical solution to a new idea during preproduction can turn your project from a daily grind into an award-winning video. Production teams want to do new and great things: Talk to them about your vision, and you could be surprised by the ways they can stretch your budget and timeline to do something truly great.
The production team is responsible for the video. The best thing you can do as part of the production team is to keep your mind open to the possibilities presented in the goals for a project. The animator, director, editor and others need to be the problem-solvers that make the client’s and creative team’s wishes come true, while still being realistic to the budget and timeline at hand. If your client wants a $2,000,000 spot on a $2,000 budget, what is it about the $2,000,000 spot that makes the client excited? How can you give the client that exciting feeling without charging them more than they can afford? Being realistic is great, but finding solutions and giving people options to choose from is always better than going without work. The worst they can do is say no, and at least you’ve tried.
Project managers, producers and other management – there are always people who are needed to keep things on time and budget. The main responsibilities of these people are to keep the project running. This means making sure the entire team is informed, again, from the client to the animator, when the plan is decided, and that the plan is also documented and can be accounted for in production and postproduction. While this may seem like a simple task, it can become a monumental ordeal, such as when people miss meetings or try to move forward without accounting for all the details or understanding the project. These managerial roles are the one thing that can keep a project from going off the rails when production gets stressed. So knowing what happens in preproduction is making a road map that will help you keep your team accountable and make the next great video.
Proper planning and preparation in preproduction can save you time, money and headaches in video production. More than a checklist, knowing your goals, the responsible parties and the assets you need to produce the animation or motion-graphics video will allow you to manage the project, the product and client expectations, and make the next award-winning video. And you will never again have to hear the phrase “We’ll fix it in post.”
- Abrams, Evan. “Animation PreProduction – Adobe After Effects Tutorial.” YouTube, March 8, 2014.
- “The Story of Animation.” Tumblehead Animation Studio.
- “Explainer Video Storyboards: or ‘What the Heck Is an Animatic?’” Adélie Studios.