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Best Practices for Making an Animation in Multiple Aspect Ratios

Have you ever developed an entire project only to receive that heartwarming email right in the end: “Everything approved! Can you also send a vertical and a square version? Thanks!”

Yes, we know how it feels. The next step is that long explanation about those adaptations not being in the original scope, the fact that they are more complicated than just clicking a button and the terrible news that the current design may not work when cropped or reduced due to X, Y or Z.

It goes further than “things not fitting.” It’s also about storytelling and connection with the viewer. There are many factors related to video aspect ratios that end up influencing the design, copywriting, and storytelling of your project. As a whole, the best approach to produce animation for multiple sizes and orientations is to know the project outputs before it starts.

This simple information allows:

  • Producers to plan the project accordingly
  • Creative directors to design the appropriate creative approach for the project
  • Copywriters to recognize the constraints of the story, helping to limit the amount of information and actions suggested in the script.

Any adaptation that occurs after the storyboard phase will undoubtedly impact the final product. If things “go well”, it’ll remind you of that extra water on the sauce; but if not, I wouldn’t want to be in your place.

The pros and cons of each aspect ratio

While there is a wide range of video aspect ratios available, for this explanation, I’ll reduce the list to the four most common ones. Let’s explore the challenges and opportunities when it comes to making videos for multiple orientations and sizes.

16:9 Horizontal – the supremacy of the horizontal format

The 16:9 horizontal format is the gold standard of aspect ratios, popular for Everything from cinema films to internet videos. And there’s a good reason for this. It’s simply because this ratio is similar to how our eyes perceive the world.

Let’s experiment! Take a look around. Yes, right now. Which orientation has more information? The vertical or horizontal?

The aspect ratio of our eyes is not precisely 16:9, but our field of view captures the world in a landscape format. This horizontal orientation also allows us to add more elements to scenes, add more characters in a single shot, and play more with the camera’s movements and angles. However, one drawback of this format is that it’s not suitable for mobile viewing, which is where half of the world consumes information nowadays.

For example, if you aren’t producing something to be displayed neither on a website nor on YouTube, your user might probably watch the video while holding the phone vertically. That means that your super detailed video will play in the smallest size possible, making all of its careful details invisible to the viewer.

Still, this is usually the standard of most productions, with the additional formats being developed as extended variations of the horizontal one.

1:1 Square – Challenging but full of opportunities

Many creatives see the square format as the worst format possible because the vertical and horizontal reductions create challenges related to composition and storytelling with multiple characters. While this can be the hardest format to adapt, it also gives you many opportunities if you’re creating a square video from the start.

As long as you have control early in the process, you can have an incredible project without any reduction in quality. The key with this format is “less is more.” In the script, if there are scenes with too many elements, characters, or actions, work to simplify them. And if the script is already approved, focus your visuals on the essentials, integrating as much as you can the illustration to the typography so things can fit nicely in the space you have.

An excellent opportunity for the square format is that you can put your effort into the details since your focus area is almost the total area of the video. Use the relatively small white spaces to plan smart transitions and actions – that would otherwise take too long to happen in a wider format – making it more entertaining and immersive for the viewer.

Some techniques commonly used in a horizontal orientation may not work as well on the square format, so avoid them and look for better options. Instead of using a wide two-shot or an over-the-shoulder take of each subject, try building your story using a “shot reverse shot” cut to show each one of them individually.

While the square format can be challenging, many times it can be a good thing as well.

Constraints create new opportunities for innovation in both design and storytelling, which can make it especially relevant.

To add to that, since 1:1 is the lowest common denominator between all video aspect ratios, the video can be easily shared on many platforms without any adaptation. And the experience on mobile is excellent as well, so considering that 72% of people will only use their mobile devices to access the internet by 2025, 1:1 is in a great position when compared to the horizontal orientation.

4:5 Vertical – Almost square but with a bit more space.

Honestly, there isn’t much difference between the 1:1 and the 4:5. The most significant advantage it has when compared to its close brother is that its slightly bigger vertical space allows characters to fit better inside the composition.

And if there’s no character at all, you can use the extra height to fit a text or other elements that will help tell the story.

9:16 Vertical – All the height you could ask for, and a little more.

The full HD vertical format can be found everywhere nowadays because of two things: Smartphones and Snapchats. People started taking pictures in the same orientation that they usually held their phones, which eventually made Snapchat realize that they could create a whole platform using only vertical photos and videos. Some years later and many ideas “stolen”… Instagram launched its “stories” feature. And here we are, creating and adapting animations to this new vertical standard.

One of the biggest challenges of this format is the interaction between multiple characters. Human characters have a vertical structure that doesn’t allow two of them to be fully displayed side by side with this size constraint. There are a few options, like showing only one at a time with a “shot reverse shot” technique or cropping parts of their body, so they don’t need to be shown so small. Either way, if you can avoid multiple characters or even any character at all, this orientation will be much easier to work with.

The strength of vertical videos is in the possibilities this extra space brings to videos that rely heavily on typography or more abstract motion graphic videos. Another great use of this additional vertical space is to use the extremes of the frame to add supporting text, call to actions, or subtitles.

And if your video doesn’t need any kind of supplementary text, you can always shift the ground to be in the middle of the video. This small adjustment reduces the vertical space on the top while giving you more space on the bottom, which can be used in smart ways, depending on how the perspective is handled in your illustration.

Another thing to love about this format is that it’s the most immersive mobile experience you can have on social media nowadays. Since it fills the entire screen of the phone, if used well, the impact is enormous. There’s nothing better than an animation using the vertical space as an essential part of the storytelling, or just creating complex compositions using the entirety of the format.

Tips for creating animations for multiples aspect ratios

Understanding the challenges and opportunities of each orientation and size is the primary step. After that, since each project is unique and there’s no rule of thumb here, creating or reading the script carefully with the limitations in mind is also really important. It allows problems and challenges to arise earlier rather than later.

It’s essential to bring this topic to the client, even if they don’t mention anything during the early project discussions. It’s our job, as animation experts, to make it clear for the client both the opportunities and challenges of implementing digital marketing assets in today’s world. And this is definitely a relevant matter for both sides of the spectrum. It guarantees that we will be able to do our best work (without any last-minute adaptation stress) and that the client will have an opportunity to think about their marketing campaigns with a long-term view, going beyond that specific asset.

Considering the complexity of a project like this, I also suggest you try new methods and ways of storyboarding. For example, you can add guides in the storyboard to help you visualize all the possibilities in a single place. It can help you and the client in several ways:

  • The client will be able to review the work more effortlessly than if he had to review four different files.
  • Being able to see the limitations in size allows discussions to be more focused on “the best solution” instead of personal preferences.
  • The person developing the storyboard will be able to test ideas and concepts faster, noticing where specific adaptations may be required.
  • Having all the restrictions set in your storyboard increases your chances of integrating the elements and the story in an attempt to find a unique solution for all the different aspect ratios.

To sum it all up, the best approach for this kind of intricate work is to spend most of your time in the pre-production phase. A solid storyboard and script prevent aspect ratios from limiting the production.

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

1 comment

  • Incrível a simplicidade, utilidade e qualidade do conteúdo! Tinha comentado com o Felippe sobre estar fazendo um estudo aprofundado só desse tema afim de elaborar algo educativo também. Certamente vou recorrer a essa postagem e ao contato com Mowe novamente como fonte de inspiração e conhecimento.


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