Scene: a young couple walks into a general contractor’s office to discuss their custom home project and check out some in-progress photos. After reviewing a few images, they say:
“Hey, we love that bathroom, but can we put it on the right side of the hall instead? And I know we said we liked the granite countertops, but after seeing a few samples this weekend, we now prefer concrete.”
Folks—that’s a big structural change. And it’s gonna cost our lovely homeowners a pretty sum. See, the contractor already got approval on the blueprint, materials, and fixtures. Changing the location of the bathroom requires rewiring, repiping, and a lot of other work. It also means rethinking and redrafting the entire blueprint. All of it. And these changes could’ve been avoided.
That, my friends, is why we’re writing about the motion design production process. The entire workflow is much like building a custom home—if you don’t respect the process, you’ll be the proud owner of a complicated mess.
This guide will help you better manage the production process so you can avoid costly mistakes. As you begin creating animated content, knowing what to expect is crucial to maintaining your sanity and not blowing the budget or missing a deadline.
Now, before we start, let’s step back a second and take a quick look at a general overview of the entire motion design process. There are five primary phases of work:
We’ve got a lot of ground to cover, so get comfy—‘cause it’s time to make some stellar motion content.
Phase 1: Empathize // Discovery
Creative Brief Questionnaire
The first thing we do is send our clients our Creative Brief Questionnaire (CBQ). The CBQ contains 15 questions that help us gather initial input so we can hit the ground running and attend the first meeting prepared to discuss things in greater detail. This saves time and is more efficient for everyone.
There are many different versions of CBQs, but here’s ours.
Any good creative firm will spend considerable time understanding their client’s brand and audience, as well as how their project will be used. This helps uncover specific insights that can be used throughout the creative development process.
In agency terms, this research phase is called account planning, which is just a fancy term for the process of understanding the market and uncovering insights for your creative strategy. For example, if all your competitors use certain language or have the same look and feel, you’ll need to decide how you’re going to differentiate yourself. Rise above the generic competition—find a niche to fill, and use the insight you gather from your research to drive a creative strategy.
We do a lite version of account planning here at BIEN, and it works quite well.
Whenever possible, we like to meet face to face with our clients so we can better understand their needs. Besides, it’s always more fun to shake someone’s hand, share a cup of coffee, and just get to know each other. It also gives clients a chance to relax and take a break from their ordinary, hectic routines.
The creative process should be focused, no doubt—but it should also take on a relaxed, effortless quality.
If our clients are out of town, we at least set up a Google Hangout meeting to evaluate their reactions. It’s essential to develop good rapport and relationships early on, as this will go a long way further down the line when complications inevitably arise in production. Rapport builds relationships, and relationships build trust.
Trust is the only way you’ll be able to accomplish great work together.
Collaboration is essential, so laying down a few building blocks in that foundation is well worth the extra effort early on in the production process.
During the discovery phase, we ask a lot of “Workshop Whys”—questions that help us understand what our clients want from their product or service. Some clients get annoyed by the sheer number of questions, but we fire away anyway. It’s all good. After all, this is our one shot at clarifying what we’re working with and trying to accomplish.
If we ask “why?” enough, we start uncovering the really good stuff.
It’s important to educate clients, especially if they’re new to production. Everyone involved should know how critical the various approval stages are. For example:
- We only start concepting once we’ve gotten approval on the creative brief.
- We can start storyboarding after getting script approval.
- When the storyboard is approved, we start animation production process.
This cascading approval process helps consistently plan projects and avoid surprises.
Remember, we do this every day. If we don’t educate clients on the process, we can’t get upset if they don’t know what to do (or not do) next.
Right from the get-go, we lay out all the project roles and establish a clear point person: the producer.
The producer is the project manager and keeps the trains running on time.
They set up the meetings, work out any kinks in the schedule, manage the team, and ensure we’re on budget and on deadline. Because BIEN is a bicoastal shop, we usually have a producer on the East Coast who’s up early and taking care of logistics; the creative team is on the West Coast, working on projects until a bit later in the evening.
Logistics happen first, then creative execution.
Using multiple time zones to our advantage, we’re able to work from 6 AM to 9 PM EST every day, without putting too much stress on our team. This also helps with international projects when time zones are all over the place.
Finally, we stress the importance of what we call Triple-C Feedback.
- Clear: Direct and straightforward. No fluff, no pleasantries. Just clear direction.
- Concise: Short, easy to understand, and easy to tick off a list and address in production.
- Consolidated: Capture feedback from the entire team in a single session, e-mail, or note.
Unclear or delayed feedback is the #1 reason projects veer off track. When input from a stakeholder comes in late, it can wreak havoc. It’s not uncommon to get feedback from a CMO or other executive after the Final Draft of the video is complete.
It’s unfortunate—because we end up having to explain to our client that we can certainly make the changes, but there will be fees and delays involved.
Phase 2: Define // Pre-Production
Once we’ve wrapped up our discovery and research phases, we compile everything into a creative brief. This serves as our strategic roadmap and is the first thing we need to get signed off. Above all, it demonstrates that we’re not just half-assing things—we accurately understand the assignment.
It helps us stay on target internally and drives our creative approach.
Typically, our creatives don’t participate in upfront research, so this gives them what they need to know in a compact format. In short, the creative brief is “what” we need to say, and the creative concept is “how” we say it. Here’s our version.
FEEDBACK STEP 1: Approval of the creative brief
When scheduling projects, we work backward from the due date. Typically, motion design production takes 4–6 weeks for a 1:30 to 2:00 minute video. This varies depending on how involved we are in writing the script. If a client provides an approved script, the timeline can be as short as four weeks.
We try to be flexible and work with people. If we have the capacity, we can sometimes work faster to accommodate tight deadlines. It all depends on the project and our production pipeline.
Keep it Simple, Stupid
As with all things creative, there are no hard and fast rules—except one: keep it simple, stupid (KISS). To KISS, we use Google Calendar for scheduling with color-coded entries. Green is our production time, red is something we’re delivering, and blue is a client responsibility.
Our handy-dandy KISS production calendar
As you can see, the review and feedback cycles are what often stretch out production timelines. If we need to compress a delivery date, we require same-day feedback, as this can shave a week or so off the entire timeline. This only works if there’s just one decision maker and they know exactly what they want.
Again, we stress the need for timely Triple-C Feedback and approval stages.
Once we’ve received approval, we can finally move forward. This is built in to protect the client and their budget. If there’s a significant structural change to a section of the video in the final draft, that’ll require a change order, a budget revision, and a timeline extension.
Here’s our project management checklist. It’s in Google Docs format but you should be able to copy and adapt it to your preferred to-do app.
FEEDBACK STEP 2: Schedule Approval
Phase 3: Ideate // Creative Development
Okay, now that all the “boring” prep work is done, we’re ready to get to the sexy stuff—coming up with ideas. An art director and copywriter get together and start brainstorming. They usually come up with about 20 or so concepts and settle on just a few good ones. These ideas get tested against the creative brief and modified if they don’t hit on all points.
Remember—the creative must be based on strategy, or it’s going to fail eventually.
Once we’ve got a couple of concepts we like, we can go one of two ways:
- Put together a treatment for the client. This includes up to three general concepts, moodboards, initial styleframes, etc. It’s basically a quick mock-up and description of what the final vision could look like. Once the client picks a direction, we move into scripting.
- Start writing and developing final, presentable scripts. This happens if we’re on a tight deadline or if there’s lots of trust between the clients and us. These scripts can be pitched and presented in a treatment with loads of visual assets, just like concepts—except we’re just a little further down the road and ahead of the game. The risk with this approach is the client may not like any of our scripts, and we’d have to start from scratch. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does—ouch. It’s a calculated risk we sometimes choose, but it’s not ideal.
We don’t like complex ideas because they usually don’t work.
Simple genius is the goal, and it takes a lot of effort to keep ideas focused and to the point. Many inexperienced clients want to hit more than three primary messaging points, but we just fight it. We fight it not because we’re assholes and want “creative control” but because we know that the audience can’t absorb and retain more than one or two key messages per video.
FEEDBACK STEP 3: Concept Approval
The script is the blueprint. The plan. The foundation for everything going forward. We use a special video script for our projects that helps us quickly communicate ideas and collaborate with our team and clients. It’s a three-column script in Google Docs. Nothing fancy, sure, but it works well. You can snag it here.
We present scripts with written art direction when possible. Sometimes, we paste initial designs or sketches right into the doc to help visualize our ideas. This is helpful with clients who lack experience in creative production.
It also helps to time out each scene and note the length in the scene column. This helps determine if the visual you’re considering will fill the required time and still be surprising and interesting.
Clients can make changes and comment directly on the document. This reduces back and forth—a lot.
Remember the good ol’ days of e-mailing scripts? We. Do. Not. Miss. Those. Days.
Oh, and keep your scripts short.
Ain’t nobody got time to watch a video longer than two minutes.
If you think your audience does, you need a reality check. Seriously, though, your average Juan likely has the attention span of a kitten. If that.
A bonus for keeping the script short is that your budget will go further. It becomes incredibly difficult to maintain a viewer’s interest after two minutes unless you’re spending mega cash on the project.
Our budgets include three script revisions.
MAJOR FEEDBACK STEP 4: Script Approval
A treatment contains a director’s vision for the project. You’ll find moodboards, reference frames/videos, and written concepts detailing how a director plans to approach a project.
Notice a common theme? Every stage in the production process and workflow is a building block. We’re building on the last step, always helping the client see the end product before we start production. This minimizes curveballs.
The client knows exactly what they’re getting.
When we’re pitching agency work, we almost always lead with a treatment. When doing client-direct work, we sometimes do treatments, but it just depends on the job and budget. The bigger the budget, the more time we have for pre-pro.
Style frames are visual representations of the approach we’ll take for a project—they allow clients to glance into the future of what they’ll get when the project is completed.
We develop 3–5 style frames and present them for feedback. Usually, we present these live or over a phone call. Design is nuanced, and we like to walk clients through our thought process.
These style frames will dictate the art direction and style for the entire project, so it’s vital that we’re all on the same page.
A live workshop session helps us understand the client and dig deeper into what they’re thinking.
FEEDBACK STEP 5: Style frame Approval
We’re plugged into thousands of voice-over artists. Our partners connect us with people all over the world that have different accents, styles, and voice tonalities. To start things off, we put out a casting call using an initial script and a mini voice-over creative brief. Then, we sit back and wait for the auditions to roll in.
Our minimum is 25 auditions, and we go through each one to determine which voice works best.
Once we’ve made our initial picks, we present five to the client for review and selection.
FEEDBACK STEP 6: Voice Over Approval
Music can significantly influence an audience’s emotional perception of the work and brand. So we put a lot of time and care into selecting the right tunes. When possible, we use premium licensed music over stock music. Of course, there’s also the option of using custom music.
Here’s how the three are different:
- Stock music: Created at scale to serve as cheap background music for videos. Don’t be surprised if you hear the same music you used on a video in other places. Regional TV commercials, corporate videos, and indie films are notorious for reusing stock tracks. Stock isn’t exclusive, but if that isn’t an issue for the client, it’s not a big deal.
We use stock quite a bit, but usually for lower budget projects. Stock licenses are typically wide open, and you can use the music for internal projects, web videos, and even broadcast spots. The licenses are usually in perpetuity, meaning they can be used forever and ever.
- Licensed music: The real stuff—music created by artists who “lend” us their songs for a royalty fee. The bands in this space are usually fairly unknown, so don’t expect to be licensing a Kanye West song or a Taylor Swift heartbreak. That tight new ASAP Rocky joint? Forget about it.
These songs are much more expensive and can be exclusive if desired. However, exclusivity is always more costly. This approach is cool because you can sometimes find bands with a unique sound that gives your project more production value.
- Custom music: Music that’s been scored by an artist specifically for your video. You own the rights to the song, and it’s 100% exclusive. Budget-wise, it’s sometimes cheaper to have a custom score created instead of licensing a famous band’s song.
Once we narrow down the VO and music options, we mix them into a file for client review. This is extremely helpful because the two are meant to go together, and reviewing them separately doesn’t make sense. Mixing the music with the voice-over also ensures that we won’t run into potential problems later on when the client sees and hears everything together and changes their mind because the mix doesn’t work as well as they imagined.
Quick hand-drawn sketches called thumbnail storyboards are usually done to speed up the process and help us figure out if our ideas will work or not. Hung—BIEN’s creative director—is a master at this; he can bang out ideas fairly quickly. Thumbnail storyboards aren’t pretty, so we don’t usually share them with direct clients, but we do sometimes share them with agencies if they understand the process.
We quickly sketch out an entire video and then jump right into developing the final storyboards. This saves us time by reducing revisions on the actual storyboard, which usually ends up being production ready the moment it’s approved.
If the script is the blueprint, storyboards are like the 3D renderings of a house.
We design the entire project as still frames so you can see how everything will look before we start building the final product.
Each key frame is designed and redesigned until all the kinks are worked out—before we start animating.
For a two-minute video, we present roughly 45–55 storyboard frames, depending on its complexity.
Storyboards are a major milestone.
We may have 2–3 people working on boards at the same time, each working on scenes that best suit their strengths. For example, a design-heavy section may be polished by a traditional designer, while scenes that need an illustrative design may require the steady hand of an illustrator.
Depending on the project and budget, we sometimes create the storyboard right in After Effects and Cinema 4D, making the boards essentially ready for animation.
Another important aspect of storyboarding that a lot of people don’t consider is timing.
We time out our ideas in the initial scripting phase, but the storyboard phase is where we really test our theories. If the paragraph you’re trying to cover is 15 seconds long, and all you have boarded out is a simple visual to convey the core idea, you could find yourself scrambling in production trying to come up with “something else” to keep things moving. And that “something else” hasn’t been seen or approved by the agency or client yet. Awkward.
If the client has any changes in mind, the storyboard phase is the last point when we can make significant revisions without delaying the project or revising the budget.
This is an excellent time for any higher-level executives to weigh in if they haven’t already done so. Many clients are afraid to show their boss a script because they think they won’t be able to visualize the final product.
Yeah, we get it.
But it’s imperative they share the boards with anyone who has the authority to step in after seeing a rough draft animation so they can make any necessary modifications. Those innocent little changes can derail a project, so it’s always better to get sign-off from ALL stakeholders at this crucial stage.
Don’t get us wrong—we’re happy to make changes. We’re just protecting our client’s budget and giving ourselves the opportunity to deliver a quality product on the deadline we’ve agreed upon.
Don’t mess around. Just get everyone to carefully review the boards and tell them to make changes now or forever hold their peace. Just kidding, but kinda not ¯_(ツ)_/¯.
ULTRA MAJOR HYPER IMPORTANT FEEDBACK STEP 7: Storyboard approval
Phase 4: Implement // Production
We made it. We have our approved blueprint (script) and 3D render (storyboards). Everything’s now falling into place. Let’s finally break ground and build!
An animatic is a very rough, short previsualization of a scene. We cook these up when we’re working on a complex scene and want the client to see where we’re headed before we go all in.
For example, we recently worked on a project where we had to animate product assets that were designed by the agency using a flat 2D style. However, we knew that recreating some of the assets in 3D would allow us to do more and add depth to how we transitioned from scene to scene. We explained our approach verbally, but the CD doubted the client would go for it. So we quickly roughed out an animatic, e-mailed it over, and had approval within just a few hours.
The client had to see our idea in motion to understand it.
Animatics are also used internally, as they give the animation production team a solid understanding of the style we’re aiming for. Essentially, they’re rough style guides for animation.
After the client selects their preferred voice-over artist, we set up a recording session. Usually, the VO talent is in another city, so we direct and manage things over the phone. Whenever possible, we have clients call in and participate, for three reasons:
- Clients enjoy the process and want to feel like they’re contributing (they are).
- We love collaborating and end up having more fun, too.
- Client supervision ensures there are no mispronounced words.
If we’re on an extremely tight deadline, we go to one of a handful of voice actors we trust and let them record on their own time and send us the files. This isn’t ideal but can allow us to shave some time off a delivery schedule.
Properly directing voice actors is crucial to getting a good read. To that end, we have talent read and re-read every line with varying inflections, speeds, and levels of emotion. We host one initial session with talent where we experiment until we get what we want—and then we practice running through those lines until our brains go numb.
We’re not afraid to ask for multiple reads because any good VO talent is used to it and takes direction well.
We usually devote around 2–3 weeks to the full animation production phase. Typically, we have a team of animators working on different scenes concurrently. This allows us to move quickly and pair animators with scenes based on their specialties.
The animation production process is fairly quiet on the client side—we’re just cranking away, having fun, trying new things, and sometimes failing miserably. We try some outlandish stuff, and when it fails, we work double time to make up for it.
For us, it’s about constant experimentation and pushing ourselves to create something new.
This exploratory approach keeps us inspired and eager to tackle more challenges.
The process of 2D or 3D animation is the most time-consuming and expensive phase of motion design production. Fortunately, since our client signed off on each milestone beforehand, it’s a breeze to work out and deliver something amazing.
After Effects, Illustrator, Photoshop, and Cinema 4D are the tools of the trade here.
At this stage, our First Drafts are about 85% final. The styleframes we delivered weeks ago are usually a distant memory at this point, so this is our big chance to surprise and delight clients.
First Drafts include voice-overs and music and are fully animated. We may have a couple of scenes that we’d like to tweak and add more detail to, but things are looking pretty fresh and final. We don’t include sound effects just yet because there may be tweaks down the line that affect the length of the video.
If possible, we share and discuss drafts live in meetings or over the phone.
This allows us to get real-time feedback and talk through any issues. We set up a call with clients at a specific time and share a link just before. That way, everyone is entirely focused on the project, and we get feedback the same day.
Of course, it’s not always possible to do real-time feedback sessions, so the next best approach is to send a link to the First Draft and have them review it on their own.
We use Frame.io to host videos and get frame-by-frame feedback.
It saves us tons of time (roughly three hours per project), and clients love it for the same reason—not to mention that there are no more e-mail chains with multiple recipients, and you no longer have to try to describe what needs to change and where. With Frame.io, clients can stop the video and comment (or even draw) directly on the frame. We also use it internally for communicating the creative director’s feedback to the team before it goes to the client.
Here’s a quick video tutorial on how to use Frame.io.
At this point, we’re mainly looking for feedback from clients on timing, animation issues, and anything that seems out of place. If we can change something quickly, we gladly do it.
If a client is asking for structural changes that are out of scope, we provide a change order with an estimate and updated timeline.
Generally, things work out quite well with this process.
Since our clients aren’t motion designers, understanding what constitutes a minor change versus a major change can be a bit of a gray area. Here are some guidelines:
Things we can change:
- Most text and titles (a few changes here and there are fine).
- Simple character/scene tweaks. For example, the hat a character is wearing or the design of a desk in an office scene.
- Script/voice-over tweaks. We can have our voice-over artist re-read a few words in up to three sentences (but we can’t change the entire sentence).
- Minor scene and or timing edits (stretch a scene so it’s a bit longer, make elements bigger or smaller for emphasis, etc.)
Things we can’t change (without increasing the budget and time):
- Structural changes (moving a scene or changing visuals we have sign-off on).
- Script changes (adding in new voice-overs or changing entire sentences in the script—this changes timing and sets off an ugly chain of events, including voice-over session fees).
MAJOR FEEDBACK STEP #8: First Draft Approval
Sound design is the delicate art of adding sound effects to make videos more realistic and compelling. Think of it as Foley for animation.
When a design element swooshes in, our designers create sounds to support the motion. Good sound design for a :90 video takes two days, but we can’t begin until we have First Draft approval.
Make sure you have a creative brief for sound design as well.
If your video is somber, it better sound like it—you need to communicate your intent to the sound designer clearly. In contrast, if the content is slow and needs extra help, ask the sound designer to punctuate certain sections. It’s good to be a control freak (we are, it’s ok). You’re ultimately responsible for the success of the video and making it kick ass.
Music Mix & Master
Our sound engineers add compression, de-essing, and other sonic tricks to bring out the best in our voice-overs and music tracks. This phase is all about balance, clarity, and ensuring that levels are appropriate for each scene. It’s very similar to the mastering phase for any music album and can make a big difference in production quality when in the hands of a capable engineer.
Most viewers won’t know precisely why a video “feels” and sounds great or “feels” mediocre, but a great mix can punch up the emotion and add a final layer of polish to projects.
Good sound is 50% of the battle—you simply can’t expect to engage viewers without it. Naturally, we put a lot of effort into this step.
The Final Draft is 95% complete. At this stage, all sound effects have been added in, music has been edited, and feedback notes have been addressed.
Think of Final Draft feedback as a contractor’s punch list: a few touch-up items are still pending, but nothing major.
FEEDBACK STEP #9: Final Draft Approval
The client loved the Final Draft and approved it on the spot. ¡Muy bien!
After we sip some champagne or celebrate with a dram of Scotch whisky, we output final, full-quality renders and deliver the files in any required formats.
QuickTime ProRes is the standard file format and compression codec, but we can also deliver in other formats if specified for web delivery and such.
Once we deliver the finals, we like to check in with clients and congratulate them on helping us create something awesome that’s ready to go out into the wild on its own—what was once a mere idea on a few sticky notes is now an adult beast. They grow up so quickly.
Phase 5: Feedback // Results-based Improvement
The final phase involves looking objectively at the results. Did the project meet the goals defined in the creative brief? Did the audience watch, share and engage with the content? We conduct client surveys and implement feedback into future projects. BIEN is a big believer in kaizen, the business methodology that Toyota implemented and first practiced in Japan.
We’ll Leave You With This…
Though we’re perfectionists, we’re also the first to admit we don’t follow every step, every time. Each project is different. Having this process in place gives us a set of tools for different situations. Still, there are major phases that never change, no matter what:
- Script review, feedback, & approval
- Storyboard review, feedback, & approval
- First Draft review, feedback, & approval
- Final Draft review, feedback, & approval
Hopefully, this article peeled back a bit of the mystery for you and simplified some of the complexity of the motion design production process.
High-production-value animation isn’t easy and can be super time-consuming.
But if you follow this process, it can take the edge off and be far more enjoyable, predictable, and rewarding.
We’re always iterating and looking to improve our project workflow. If you have any tips or software you use, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.
And we hope you never have to move a bathroom mid-project. Ouch.