How to Reduce Animation Production Costs

One of the worst nightmares for any Producer or Director is when they are tasked with “reducing production costs.” Budgets have been shrinking over the years, but you’re still expected to work with the best talent available. Finding ways to reduce budgets even further while delivering stellar results can feel like trying to squeeze blood from a stone.

The good news is, when it comes to animation production, there are several ways to reduce costs. The key is understanding what’s necessary and what is merely a “luxury” from the creative side.

What Impacts Animation Production Costs?

There are several key factors that contribute to rapid increases in animation budgets. As a rule of thumb, the more people you need, the more money is required; and the more specialized professionals you need, the deeper your pockets should be. Usually, those specialists are the ones contributing to a need for higher budgets. Unless they’re indispensable, you should consider reducing or even cutting them out completely.

To better understand the impacts on animation budget, we should focus on which elements of animation contribute the most to a rise in production costs:

  • Characters
  • Character animation
  • Cel animation
  • The number of scenes and transitions
  • Original music

Characters

As you may have noticed, I separated Characters from Character Animation. This may seem strange at first glance, but you’ll understand why pretty soon.

Characters are powerful because they create emotional attachment with the viewer. But they also come with some increases in costs and frustration. Decisions about characters are likely to require the most back-and-forth discussion with your team and your client. As characters are what we can most relate to, everyone has an opinion about them. Stakeholders can be very picky when it comes to reviewing and approving a character for a campaign.

To reduce the increases in cost and complexity that characters bring, look for ways to replace characters with iconographies, or even cut them out completely.

In the example above, the same scene can work with or without the original characters. The first one is more inviting and charismatic than the second, but the second leaves less ambiguity around the message and saves a lot of time and money on character development.

If your situation is more complicated than the example presented and budget reduction is inevitable, consider going in less literal directions. Use shapes, text, and a lot of metaphors to convey the message without a human figure.

Besides requiring a good illustrator focused on character design, adding characters to the animation requires them to feel and move naturally, which leads us to our next point.

Character Animation

Not every character needs to move, but when they do, costs skyrocket.

Bad character animation is detrimental to any brand. As humans, we’re used to seeing other humans walking, talking, moving. And this perception comes so naturally that we all notice when a character isn’t moving in a natural, “human” way. This concept is actually called the uncanny valley, and it suggests that humanoid objects that imperfectly resemble actual human beings provoke feelings of eeriness and revulsion in observers. And of course, no brand wants to be associated with “feelings of eeriness and revulsion.”

Character animation is a lot more complicated than traditional motion graphics. Moving a single character requires dozens of animated layers. And to do this you need a very skilled and specialized professional — and they are neither easy nor cheap to find.

Cel Animation

Traditional animation has become very popular in recent years and is often requested by clients. Instead of being an exclusivity of Saturday morning cartoons, nowadays it’s used as a powerful style of expression due to its fluidity and limitless capacities of movement in the 2D environment. Most of the time, cel animations are incorporated with motion graphics and other animation techniques. But sometimes, entire videos are made with this technique. We can’t deny the possibilities it brings and how impactful it is for animation; however, I’ve seen many agencies requesting it when it wasn’t necessary — especially when they had tight budgets.

Unless it’s part of the video’s creative direction and strategy — and you have enough budget for it — avoid adding cel animation to your short-on-budget animations. There’s always an innovative alternative that a great creative team can spot right from the storyboard.

The number of scenes and transitions

Every new scene in animation means a frame to be conceptualized, designed, and animated. With more extended scenes, you usually need less time from designers and directors, and it also frees more time for animators. A single 1-second scene can require as much work as developing a 5-second one. Finding ways in the story to keep the number of scenes at a minimum will both speed up production and save money.

Also, with more scenes, we need more transitions — and coming up with smart transitions is not always easy. If you have a bunch of scenes to work with and want seamless transitions between them, you’ll need a lot of direction and animation work to make that happen. Using more traditional cuts and simple transitions will definitely help reduce your costs. 

Original Music

Everything that is custom-made costs more — and it should. Original music in an animation is a great way to enhance the narrative and the effectiveness of a message. It allows the visuals to create deeper connections in the viewer’s mind. Everyone wants original music in their campaigns, but if there’s not enough budget for that, you can find excellent stock audio options that can easily save thousands of dollars.

“Less is More”

Next time you plan a project, remember Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s motto, “less is more.” There’s this misconception that adding more “features” makes a product — or in our case animation — better.

But when telling a story for a brand, some core elements need to be presented: the brand itself, the single sentence you want people to have in mind, and the visual impact that will make it memorable. And a lot of information on screen makes it harder for viewers to understand what to focus on. If your message is in the middle of a “noisy” environment, it will be harder for the audience to connect, or even to understand the story.

Adding stuff only because it looks cool doesn’t contribute to an effective campaign. You might receive “oohs and aahs” when you show it, but if it doesn’t align with the core message, you’ll be merely creating an entertainment piece instead of promoting your client’s brand.

Just remember: aiming for “simplicity” doesn’t mean sacrificing output. Most of the time, it’s the best solution. (And I added “simplicity” in quotes because going for less can be a lot more complicated than just populating your projects with elements. It’s far from straightforward; however, in the end, it can look effortless.)

In other words, don’t simplify — optimize your animation, message, and result. It can start as a cost-reduction approach, but it may be one of the best decisions you make.

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Felippe Silveira

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