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The Visual and Narrative Styles of 2D Animation

When receiving a briefing or a simple request from a client wanting to do animation, Creative Directors have to deal with one of their worst fears: The blank canvas. When you consider that animation allows for infinite possibilities, it further amplifies the challenge and the fear that comes with it.

But really, all it takes is a bit of education to understand what the possibilities are, which types and styles of animation are right for your project, and how to discuss the options with both your client and the animation company.

In this article, we’re going to explain:

  • The different styles of 2D animation projects, taking into consideration both the visual and the narrative styles.
  • The positive and negative aspects of each style, helping you make smart decisions based on you client’s goals, budget, and the project’s timeline.
  • The different production aspects and processes related to the styles explained above.
  • The most relevant information you should share with an animation studio/professional before a project starts.

Visual Styles

Motion Graphics or Motion Design

The simplest way of explaining Motion Design is to think of it as the style that adds movement to graphic design elements like typography, geometric shapes, and simple illustrations.

It’s commonly used as a marketing asset by businesses of all sizes, and it’s a powerful visual tool to represent abstract themes. The combination of animation and narration can give multiple meanings to inanimate abstract elements, allowing them to be used as components of any kind of explanation, no matter how complex the topic is.

The abstraction of those elements and the fact that the narrative threads everything together is what makes motion design so magical. It creates immersive, engaging, and curious narratives, allowing them to be partially constructed in the viewer’s mind, much like when you’re reading a book – part of the story is on the page, and the rest is up to your imagination.

2D Animation

This is the most common kind of animation seen today on the web. It’s a style that usually employs more complex illustrations and characters to tell stories. The explainer videos I previously mentioned would fit into this category due to the number of characters and elements used to tell the story.

2D Animation is commonly considered a “more complex Motion Design” because a lot of its language is based upon Motion Design’s purposeful way of using abstract elements and transitions to tell a story.

One aspect that makes 2D animation more complex is the use of characters. Animating them can be one of the most time-consuming tasks in animation, so relying on software to simplify and improve such a labor-intensive process reduces the impact on the production’s speed and budget. Still, understanding that even with software aid, this task can be time-consuming, it’s important to always ask yourself if animated characters are essential or not for your project, both from a branding and narrative perspective.

Frame-by-Frame Animation

This is the most classical style of animation. Think of it as Disney movies like Lion King, Dumbo, or any “classic princess animation.” Everything is hand-drawn – and when I say everything, I literally mean everything. It can vary in practice, but it usually ranges from 12 drawings per second to 30 drawings per second.

Since every frame is hand-drawn, the creative freedom allowed by this technique is limitless. As you can imagine, all this power also comes with problems. It’s a time-consuming style, so it impacts the budget and the project’s timeframe. And there isn’t a lot of “software aid” that can be done on this animation style, so the production’s timeline is mostly tied to the number of professionals working on the scenes.

An important question to make any production more sustainable is: “Can I combine Frame-by-Frame with some other technique to reduce the number of individual frames that need to be drawn?”

The good news is that most of the time, the answer will be yes! And you should definitely explore this to your advantage since every second that can be animated using another tool means a considerable reduction of work time from a specialized animator, considering that for each second, they might need to draw from 12 to 24 images.

Also, in practice, there are ways of making this kind of animation slightly cheaper. It’s possible to mix the 12 and 24 frames per second animations to achieve incredible results without requiring so many drawings to be made every time.

rough of a scene from our video Anymotion 2019 Opening Title. It shows the characters fighting

Mixed Media

Mixed media is simply the combination of different visual styles. It can be the combination of frame-by-frame with live-action, stop-motion and motion design, motion design with collage, and much more.

Creativity is all about the unexpected, and mixed media is the perfect tool for that. It blurs the boundaries of what is expected from the story, creating opportunities for incredible and unique results.

Narrative Styles

Setting the story’s tone and defining its narrative evolution is crucial because it impacts most of the project’s steps. The direction chosen can affect the moodboard and the script, all the way to the animation’s timing and the style of the sound effects.

The visuals, for example, depend a lot on this definition.

In this example, the story follows a woman enduring life’s daily challenges as she tries to achieve her dream of becoming a professional boxer. The story shows, almost side-by-side, her training and the daily challenges she has to go through at work, at home, and at the gym.

Our narrative goal was to make people feel her struggle and her pain. We worked with a limited color palette to represent both sides of her life. Her training used primarily black and white, with red as an accent color. Her struggles were way darker and heavy, using more red and black than white on the scene’s visual composition. The color choice, together with the narrative and the sound design, reinforces her life’s daily tension.

Another example can be seen in this explainer video’s visual evolution. It tells the story of someone who had an accident and will now have to navigate all the issues with personal injury law while recovering at home. The client wanted to sell the idea that their product would allow the person’s recovery experience to be much better because they wouldn’t have to stress about a bureaucratically complex legal process.

Our solution was to create a visual evolution in colors and narrative, starting the video in a gloomy and monotone hospital environment. Then, after the character is at home, the environment and the colors around him get more vibrant. And so do the actions that he can perform, showing his smooth healing process.

Some of the most common narrative styles for animations are:

Advertising

It’s the umbrella term for animations aimed at selling a product, using an attractive visual language and a specific copywriting style that influences a viewer to buy or search out a product. Its output can change a lot, from TV ads to 6-second animations on social media, making it the most common marketing asset for businesses.

Even though copywriting is important for any kind of marketing asset, it’s essential in advertising: Your ad needs to be memorable. You can play on current events, be controversial or attempt something that has never been done before. Advertising is all about surprise and innovation.

Still, there a few other things that you should never forget when working on an advertising piece:

  • Exploit your competition’s weaknesses and your product’s benefits. And if you can do it with comedy and finesse, you’re in an even better position.
  • Know the audience you’re talking to and where this ad is going to be seen.
  • Communicate the “what’s in it for me” as clearly as possible to your customer.
  • Focus the message on the customer and not on the business.
  • Avoid too much information. Keep things simple.
  • Include a call to action that invites people to learn more or to buy your product.

Explainer Videos

This specific style became widespread a few years ago, during the boom of Silicon Valley startups. Due to its nature of being available primarily online, explainer videos can be watched on any type of device.

Since they aren’t restricted to 15-30s of duration, they have more room to properly explain products and services than TV ads. And many times, they go beyond the product, addressing common questions and issues that help position the company at the forefront of their market.

Being primarily available on businesses’ websites or served through online advertising services, they can be way more targeted than other advertising campaigns.

With the boom of explainer videos, there was also a backslash. Creating explainer videos was much cheaper than traditional ads because the costs to run ads on TV are more expensive than online distribution costs. This resulted in an increase in professionals’ demand for those animations, which led to a glut of less qualified professionals offering this service. In the long run, the outcome was innumerable explainer videos that were low quality and all followed the same patterns. You know them! Those classic “Meet John! He has been struggling with X and Y, but now he has discovered our solution” kind of videos that I’m sure you can’t stand anymore.

Despite all of this, explainer videos have enjoyed a comeback lately, but without the structured recipe, so there’s still a lot of space for innovation in this style and a lot of potential marketing-wise.

Content Videos

Even though content videos existed before, they grew in popularity as the explainer videos declined. Content videos are aimed at using storytelling to position a brand as something more significant than its product. It sells the mission and values behind the brand rather than trying to sell you the product directly. The story seeks to create a desire in the viewer to know more about the brand and embrace it as a brand they relate to.

This style can vary a lot, and overall, the videos don’t end with a forced CTA – and many times, with no call to action at all. You can think of it as a series of teasers that help establish a brand’s identity among its competitors and audience.

Educational

The combination of educational content and animation is one of the most fruitful ones. Educational content needs to be engaging while explaining complex topics. Keeping people’s attention in these cases can be tricky.

Animation allows a diversity of examples and metaphors to make any subject interesting without breaking the content flow. You can break complex topics like gravitational waves or controversial issues like universal basic income into immersive experiences that are both informational and fun.

Narrative

The word “narrative” might seem a bit weird at first because we expect every video to have a narrative. But this style of video relies heavily on the story as a way to sell a product or create interest in it.

Immersion is a vital aspect of these kinds of videos, so projects like these can usually cost a bit more. Every little action and detail needs to be thought out in advance and then executed to perfection to achieve this. The team then works on a detailed sound design for the project to create an atmosphere that makes the narrative feel even more real.

Something particular about this style is how the voice-over is used. It acts more as a character than a narrator, delivering lines with emotion and purpose rather than describing things. This is one of the aspects that empowers this kind of animation to feel real.

Curiously, narrative-based animations also work really well without any kind of voice-over, relying solely on the narrative and the character’s actions to tell the story. Even the concept of characters should be considered as relative for this kind of animation. Simple abstract geometric shapes can work incredibly well with narrative-based animations because their abstraction allows the viewer to interpret the actions and movements in their own mind.

Conclusion

Understanding what the project is trying to accomplish and how animation can help you do that is your best path towards a successful project. The good news is that, as an agency, you’re already doing a lot of this research to support the campaign strategy. You know, understanding your client’s pain points, their target audience and their needs, the tone of voice of the business – all of those fine details that need to be taken into account when developing a message for a brand.

Now, combine that with the knowledge you gained in this article and ask yourself:

  • Which styles do you feel could work best with the client’s audience?
  • Which styles would best fit the client’s branding?
  • What kind of message would communicate strongly with the audience?
  • Which styles would feel more natural considering the client’s tone of voice?

Bringing this kind of information to the table when discussing projects – and not only the basic DBD (deadline, budget, duration) – allows conversations, estimations, and expectations to be much more aligned.

Even better than that, if you can partner with an animation studio like MOWE, which can support you during those conversations, you’ll be in better hands. There are specificities that only someone with a lot of experience in the field can grasp. Knowing the specific questions to ask can be game-changing, so bringing your animation partner closer to you during the early stages of the project impacts not only the final result, but also the development itself.

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Author avatar
Raff Marques
Co-founder & Creative Director at MOWE Studio

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