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Why Understanding the Differences Between Animation and Live-action Production Can Make or Break Your Next Project

While there are many similarities between live-action and animation, their processes differ a lot. Not only regarding the time invested in each step of the process but also on how each step affects the final product.

If we wanted to draw a parallel between the two, we could say that animation is a predictable process defined by milestones that act as road gates, requiring approval to move from step to step. Whereas live-action is a bit more like sailing and readjusting based on conditions; everything is malleable right up until the camera rolls.

As a global animation studio, we often hear from agencies and brands with different backgrounds. We noticed a pattern where many creatives and producers who had primarily worked in live-action before approaching us would assume certain aspects about the animation process that weren’t accurate, which could create disruptions for a project down the road.

Here’s How the Live Action and Animation Processes are Alike

Animation ProcessLive-action Process
Pre-ProductionPre-Production
– Conceptualization
– Moodboards
– Styleframes
– Scriptwriting
– Scheduling and talent resourcing
– Storyboarding
– Animatic
– Conceptualization
– Moodboards(optional)
– Scriptwriting
– Storyboard or Shotlist (depends on the project)
– Logistics*
– Production design and construction

* Call Sheet, Shooting Schedule, Production Calendar,
Crew Management, talent casting, travel,
location scouting and scheduling, etc.
ProductionProduction
– Voice over recording (optional)
– Illustration
– Animation
– Filming, also called principal photography
Post-ProductionPost-Production
– Compositing
– Sound Design
– Editing
– Voice over recording (optional)
– Visual Effects (optional)
– Motion Graphics (optional)
– Color Grading
– Final Edit/mix/master
– Sound Design

Every creative project is slightly different from the next — there isn’t a simple, repeatable recipe. For example, this article focuses on 2D animations, which is MOWE’s expertise. Even though 3D animations or stop-motion animations would have many similarities with 2D animation, their processes are also slightly different.

To simplify some explanations throughout the article, let’s divide commercial animations into two different styles: narrative-based animation and content-based animation.

Narrative-based animations can have zero-to-little support when it comes to voice-over delivering the video’s message. This means that it relies heavily on the story, the characters, and their actions for that.

Content-based animations rely heavily on the voice-over to deliver the video’s message, and it’s commonly the choice for more abstract themes or content-heavy videos. The visuals, in this case, can be more abstract than in the other style, and they are used as a support that eases the understanding of the content and makes it more engaging.

Even though all phases have particular steps, the pre-production phase is where most of the confusion happens. This is because live-action and animation share common steps – like scriptwriting, storyboarding, voice-over, and sound design – that seem to be the same but actually differ in how they’re detailed or handled during the project.

How Do the Live-Action and Animation Processes Differ?

The initial creative process related to the campaign’s development, the refinement of the message, and the creation of the concept and the story are pretty much the same. It involves having a kickoff meeting with the client or the agency, and developing or working off a creative briefing to establish the project’s creative direction. But this is where the similarities in the process end. Let’s look at these differences in more detail.

Pre-production: Treatments

Both treatments start pretty much the same, explaining the project’s concept and summarizing the story. After this textual introduction, the first differences begin to appear. Moodboards are used in the treatment to help the client visualize the project’s creative direction, but the way those are built and their ultimate goals are entirely different.

A live-action treatment can feel like an extensive and detailed moodboard. The objective is to allow the client to visualize the final result as clearly as possible by using lightning mood, colors, or a location’s architectural style, for example. It’s more like providing the client with a very detailed topographic map of what the journey will be.

In contrast, in animation, treatments are just a taste of the vision that will be further developed during the project’s pre-production. This aspect makes the project’s visual development much more collaborative than in live-action.

Animation moodboards never sell you on a concrete visual path. If a client has a well-defined branding or a specific creative vision for the project, a styleframe would be presented instead of a moodboard. Styleframes are custom illustrations created to represent precisely how a still frame from the animation would look like.

The reason for such a drastic difference in the treatment’s style and the way moodboards are used is determined by what the client is buying when they review – and approve – this document.

In a live-action project, this will be their first and the last chance to set the style of the project. After a concept is approved, everything will be coordinated and based off of that concept’s style. The team will focus on technicalities and getting everything ready for production, and the client will only see exactly what they bought when they get it.

In animation, on the other hand, when you approve the concept shown on the treatment, you’re only buying the concept and idea. This step is just meant to kickstart the discussions about the visuals, which will be developed during the storyboard and styleframe phases. The concept presented will be refined until the client has a perfect understanding of what they’ll get in the end.

Pre-production: Script

After the client is happy with the project’s creative direction, the story is developed more thoroughly in the scripting phase. The beginning of this process is pretty similar on both mediums – your story’s premise evolves into an outline, which eventually unfolds into the final script – but** the final form of this script changes a lot depending not only on the medium but also on the project’s narrative style.**

The Audio/Visual script – AV script, for short – is a common practice for both mediums, even though they vary a little. It’s the gold standard for advertising live-action projects, being presented and approved by the client.

In animation, though, the AV script is mainly used as an internal tool that helps the creative director align their vision with the storyboard artist that will develop it further. Those kinds of scripts also differ depending on the style of the animation.

Narrative-based animations usually require full scene descriptions and more detailed outlines of the actions, as they help directors translate their vision to the storyboard artists.

On the other hand, content-based animation descriptions are considered more guides and ideas than descriptions that need to be followed at all costs. There are a few facts that influence that, with two of the main ones being:

  • Animation is a heavily visual-based medium.
    Being able to draw and visualize the scenes and actions in a sequence allows for better creative solutions on the scene’s progress, helping them to flow better from one to another.
  • Timing written descriptions of actions to spoken words can be tricky.
    Many of the illustrations and animations of content-based animations are tied to specific moments of the voice over narration, and timing those two together can be a challenging task. More common than ever, directors end up overflowing the scenes with steps and actions that go beyond the scene’s duration.

It’s important to note that live-action scripts are malleable, where animation scripts are not. Live-action scripts can be edited right up until — and after — the camera starts rolling.

Whereas with animation, the script needs to be locked before anything else can happen.

Pre-production: Storyboards

Storyboards in live-action are mainly used to pre-visualize scene setups, helping directors define the shot sizes, camera angles, camera movements, and the composition of the actors inside the frame. Even though it can be a valuable tool, a live-action video can be developed without a storyboard depending on the director or the project’s complexity. In those cases, a shotlist is usually used as a guide, as it maps out exactly what will occur and the setup of each shot, or scene, of the film.

On the other hand, if you try to create an animation without a storyboard, you’ll be digging your own grave. Storyboards are vital for animation because it lays out the director’s vision to the illustrators and the animators. Without it, each individual would be interpreting things their own way, and no one would be able to predict the final result – something that, in animation, is a recipe for disaster.

In animation, it’s always important to have things locked and approved before moving to the next phase to prevent unnecessary reworks and delays in the project.

Another aspect that distinguishes the two mediums is the level of detail required on the scenes’ visuals and their corresponding descriptions.

Live-action storyboards don’t require detailed descriptions of what’s taking place on the screen. A brief explanation of the actions is already enough for it to be interpreted by the whole team. In animation, we need ten times as many words to describe the visuals or the actions. The objective is to leave little to no room for misinterpretation. This is extremely important because our entire team – from illustrators to animators – use the storyboard as a guide. Making sure the descriptions are detailed and precise turns this document into a map for navigating the whole project seamlessly.

Pre-production: When the differences stop being subtle.

After the storyboard is approved, the structure of each process changes drastically. In animation, the project can evolve in two ways depending on the project or the studio.

Suppose the story’s complexity, the client’s goals or even the creative direction changed slightly during those initial phases of the project. In that case, more styleframes can be developed to either confirm how or realign the final animation look and feel.

If that’s not the case, the next step would be to create an animatic, a sequence of still images displayed in sync with a rough dialogue, a scratch recording of the voice over, or a rough soundtrack. They are built essentially to test the overall timing of the scenes and the video’s rhythm. After the animatic is approved by the creative director, the pre-production of the animation can be considered complete.

There’s no animatic for live-action unless it’s a high budget or a more complex project. Still, there’s Logistics, a much more time-consuming but vital step for the success of the live-action shooting. Logistics comprise everything that needs to be bought, prepared, scheduled, or developed for the filmmakers during the shooting days.

Production

Production in live-action covers the shooting day, and that’s it. Those days are intense because locations are usually rented for a specific number of hours or days, so there’s not much time to lose, and depending on the budget, not even space for mistakes. And you’re doing all that under a schedule, usually with lots of people and with many layers of dependencies built upon people’s actions and decisions, any one of which could derail the process.

And if in live-action, working with thousands of variables can be a problem, working with time can be one of animation’s biggest challenges. All the previous work on the storyboard and the animatic are intended to prevent issues in the animation production, comprised of the illustration and animation stages.

Comparing live-action and animation production times, if a live-action production usually takes days, an animation production typically takes weeks.

Post Production

Post-production is another phase where both mediums differ a lot. The post-production step in animation can be relatively short. After the animation is done, there’s an optional compositing step where different sources and styles of animation are combined and refined to look seamless. Still, many projects just go straight from animation to sound design.

Now, in live-action, a significant amount of work goes into post-production.” Several takes are recorded during the shooting, each slightly different because of the camera’s configuration, its position in the scene, or the actor’s performance. Together with the director, the editor will move the pieces around to create the story according to the director’s vision.

After the video’s cut is locked, things like sound design, visual effects, motion graphics, and color grading start to be developed, some in parallel and others slightly after the other, until the final video is ready.

An important aspect that might seem the same in post-production but is quite different in both mediums is sound design. Investing in Sound design is much more critical in animation than in live-action because an animated story requires a sonic atmosphere to bring life to it and make it more relatable. Otherwise, your animation would simply be a completely silent video.

“If you’re interested in learning more about the relationship between sound design and animation, check out:

After the sound design is done, both projects are complete. Now, it’s time to mesmerize the client with the work produced.

How to handle your future productions

Expertise in one field doesn’t translate perfectly to the other

After reading this article, I hope that you’re able to understand better how animation and live-action production differ and that your expertise working on live-action or animation doesn’t translate so well to the other.

For example, if you don’t have experience in animation, don’t assume that your storyboard is ready for production because it won’t be. Preferably, work with your animation partner to develop it from the ground up.

Choose Your Production Partner Wisely

No matter the visual language you decide on for your project, your final product will rely on two leading figures: The producer and the director. Even though their roles are entirely different inside a project, both are vital for it to be delivered on time, with quality, and within the expected budget.

Understand their background, ask for references of their previous work and make sure that you’re partnering with an expert you can trust. Every project can come with unique challenges, and having someone capable of taking the lead will always result in a better project overall.

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

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