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How Pre-Production Can Make or Break Your Animation Project

Every successful animation campaign requires good pre-production. It’s essential to start every project on the right foot and it helps project development run smoothly and more effectively. This is when you set the road for success in your production.

However, the pre-production process in animation is not clear for many agencies. The pre-production process for live-action, a radio spot, or even social media doesn’t apply when it comes to motion graphics. Since each medium has its specific demands, it’s important to understand how to better prepare your team for any motion project. Let’s look at the stages in pre-production for animation and what’s important to keep in mind when developing each part of your project.

Why is animation pre-production so important?

It’s the best time for modifications

One of the reasons pre-production is so important is because this is where you’ll probably receive the most feedback from your clients.

It’s not rare to see clients changing their minds in the middle of this stage — and you should expect that. Changing things during the pre-production phase is much easier than doing so down the road, which could drastically impact budgets and schedules. Therefore, the more you can communicate with the client and have them sign off on this stage, the easier it will be to move forward. 

Even though you can expect some back-and-forth in this early phase, pre-production still takes less time than the design and animation stages. And the more time you invest here the better it will be for the team because they’ll have a clear understanding of what to do and what to expect moving forward. Clients will have a solid understanding of what’s to come and any “bad surprises” can be prevented as clear pre-production puts everyone on the same page.

It shapes the animation

The biggest reason why you should give extra attention to pre-production in animation is that this is the place where the animation starts to get shaped. Instead of only figuring out how things will work and move once you get to the animation stage, this initial phase allows you to anticipate challenges. Also, you can achieve a much richer result when you handle pre-production properly.

Take the Script and Storyboard stages. Most of the time, scripts lay out what the voiceover will be saying throughout the video. However, not all information needs to be transmitted in voiceover. Sometimes, the best way to describe a thought or explain something is to show instead of just tell.

At the same time, paying close attention to the construction of the storyboard helps to foresee and plan clever transitions while helping the client get a better perspective of the true potential of the video you are creating. In the end, the more time you allow here the better the end result.

It affects the budget and the technical needs of a project

Deciding when you lock the creative direction has a direct impact on the production scope. During the early strategy work, you may visualize new opportunities to expand beyond a single animation. Or, the narrative and visual style may suddently demand more characters than was previously expected. Everything can change at this point, and it’s not bad. It’s just the natural way a creative concept evolves, and you should be open and allow that to happen. 

However, due to the number of people, talents, and time required to produce an animation, late-stage changes are costly. These changes will impact many different points of production so you have to account for this and be smart about budget allocation. The more you spend in pre-production, the better setup you are for future stages.

What is pre-production in animation?

When talking about pre-production, we’re referring to the stages that precede the animation stage. More specifically, this comes before we get to the point where every scene of a video is illustrated, the voiceover is recorded, and before any kind of movement is designed at all. It consists of strategy, scriptwriting, style development, and storyboarding. But even though some of those stages may not be a surprise for those experienced in live-action development, the way they should be approached in animation is unique.

Strategy

Your animation strategy aligns the campaign’s end goal with the creative direction. Strategy planning in pre-production is when the narrative style and the technical requirements of the animation are defined. It sets how everything should move and define the limitations of the project. The strategy tells us how we are going to reach the target audience, which type of animation should be pursued (motion graphics, character-based, typography, cel animation, etc.), as well as the duration and format of our animation piece. The strategy should always connect the client’s brand with the message they want to send to their customers.

Scriptwriting

This stage in pre-production helps to shape the narrative style and the flow of the story. A good script is dynamic and has a natural flow, which helps set the animation’s rhythm and gets viewers engaged. 

Just as with animation strategy, the script should be clear enough to send the message but also respect the constraints of duration needed for the piece. A great script is like great video editing: what you remove is more important than what you put in. It’s easy to fill a script document with many words and elaborated sentences that won’t contribute to either the message’s clarity or the animation’s flow. Investing the time to reduce and shape a script is extremely valuable for any project.

Keep in mind that squeezing a lot of words into just a few seconds of video is the wrong approach. Allowing some breathing space between sentences and sections helps transitions flow more smoothly.

Style

Defining your style is an essential part of an animation. It helps to connect the brand with the narrative, as well as shape the storyboard, defining what kind of movements are possible. This stage is where we define the characters’ style, color palette, typography, composition, etc.

This visual style directly influences the complexity and the expectations of the animation. Working side-by-side with the animation strategy, the style can help to refine some early directions and vice-versa.

For example:

The strategy can define an animation piece as being character-based but without a preference for the animation style — cut out or cel — for those characters. When the Art Director starts working with the team to design the visuals for those characters, their directions will set the tone for the animation style. 

On the other hand, if the strategy sets the animation style to be cut out (based on budget, timing, or target definition), the style of those characters should follow a structure that will allow the animation technique to work.

With the style and script in place, the next step in pre-production becomes clearer and helps the story align with the intended visual impact.

Storyboard

The last part of pre-production consists of a storyboard, which is the thread that guides the illustrators and animators during the animation’s production. This is where a storyboard artist and the creative director split the script into multiple sections and draw the animation’s scenes and actions to create the visual narrative of the story. The style is a great ally of the storyboard because it dictates the visual tools that the storyboard artist can use. In the same way that a more abstract style will steer the storyboard to compositions that include more shapes and metaphors, a character-based style will lead the storyboard to follow a descriptive approach over abstraction, and so on.

This moment is where all your work so far comes together to shape what the animation will be. At this point, you already know your story’s content, visual style, and storyboard to guide the production by planning each moment of the video’s actions and composition. Now you are ready to move full speed ahead to production.

A note about timing

This is the first stage of every project development cycle, and when it comes to animation, bringing your team closer early on helps to guarantee good work throughout. There is a direct correlation between getting your animation pre-production right from the start and the ultimate output quality of a project.

You will get the best results for your clients and partners when you communicate clearly from day one. In pre-production, an animator’s perspective brings smarter solutions to problems that would only be noticed later in production by less experienced stakeholders. It helps to avoid conflicts and sets good expectations, nurturing better relationships with the agency’s clients as it prevents delays and unnecessary changes.

The best moment to start pre-production and bring your animation team is now. Again, the more you spend on the early stages, the more you save later on.

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Author avatar
Felippe Silveira
Co-founder & Creative Director at MOWE Studio