14 Live-Action Production Alternatives You Can Offer Clients Right Now
By Ricardo Roberts & Hung Le
For live-action production companies, COVID-19 changed everything.
This article is in response to emails from friends who are not able to shoot. They are unable to generate revenue to pay staff or serve their clients.
Live-action production is an integral part of our industry that we — those in post and animation — can never live without.
We are in this together.
In a time of unprecedented crisis, we want to contribute our knowledge and expertise to help you continue to serve your clients. More importantly, we want you to stay in business until we get back to normal.
This article offers various live-action alternatives but focuses on animation and motion design for the following reasons:
- You can keep a lot of the work in-house. Creative directors, directors, copywriters, producers, editors, and sound designers are still needed for animation projects.
- Most live-action scripts can be converted to animation scripts with ease.
- Brand consistency — for certain projects, this could be your best selling point by pivoting to animation or motion design.
- Cost — your clients are as uncertain as you are about spending in the current situation. Instead of killing off planned projects, you can offer up motion design/animation as a compromise. Motion design can often be tailored and scaled accordingly to the allocated budget.
- Flexibility—visuals can evolve as the project moves forward. Contrast this to live-action where you have to work with whatever you have in the can to avoid costly re-shoots.
Your clients have your trust. They will appreciate you as a valuable partner for offering up various solves on how to continue supporting their comms and marketing efforts. Here are 14 ways you can deal with the crisis.
1) Motion Design and Animation
If you’re used to managing live-action shoots and post-production, you can pivot to motion design. It’s not that different. You can leverage your current know-how in project management, strategy, creative direction, and outsource only the execution.
Motion design is infinitely flexible and can be done on a variety of budgets and styles. Every project is different, and studios/freelancers have varying rates. Generally speaking, a 60-second animation starts around $10,000 and can easily go upwards of $250,000.
Factors that affect pricing:
- length (:90 seconds is a good target. If the target length is 3 minutes, it will be roughly double the cost of a :90)
- style (2D, 2.5D, 3D, cel animation, heavy character animation, etc.)
- rounds of revisions (2 rounds is typical)
- custom music vs. stock music
- timeline (getting it done faster requires more hands on deck)
Character animation and cel animation is expensive. You can mitigate character animation costs by limiting or avoiding characters walking, jumping, and other activities that require extensive rigging and animating.
3D animation and design are more expensive than 2D in most circumstances.
If your budget is less than $15,000, hiring freelancers is your best bet. If you have more, a small studio can handle the job. Larger, well-known studios may require budgets of $50,000 or more. The top studios are much more expensive.
Make sure you fully understand and can explain the traditional motion design process to your clients. This is crucial, we can’t stress this enough.
Most studios follow a “waterfall” project management style, meaning all stages of production are done in succession. Once they are finalized, locked, and approved, you move onto the next step. Going backward and revising already-approved assets can cause delays and impact budgets. Here are the milestones we use, in order:
Written Art Direction —
Sketch Storyboards —
Voice Over —
Sound Design Preview—
Rough Draft 1 Delivery —
Rough Draft 2 Delivery —
Final Deliverables —
The workflow is similar to live-action. However, unlike the editorial phase in live-action post, visuals are very time consuming to change once they are animated. Once something is animated, going back to make changes is similar to scheduling a re-shoot.
I’m happy to provide our full process for you to use, just email me.
From start to finish, final deliverables can typically be completed 4–6 weeks after the script is locked. Production schedules can be compressed if needed but will require next-day feedback from your client and more hands on deck.
As you might expect, simple, shorter animation projects can be done much quicker. A 15-second 2D spot with no character animation can be turned around in 2 weeks or less. If you want high-quality character animation, it will take longer.
Right now, studios and freelancers may be much more willing to take on rush jobs and deliver faster than they normally would. Just be careful you don’t compromise quality.
Resources and Tips
Should you hire a studio or freelancer? There are pros and cons to both.
Hiring a Studio Pros:
- Speed and scale — you’ll be working with a dedicated and experienced animation producer, animation director, and animation team. This will result in quality work done efficiently that is scaleable and mainly hands-off.
- NDA, non-compete, legal paperwork — a studio will have all of these safety nets in place and have experience working in this manner.
- White-label collaboration — if you choose, many studios have no problem white-labeling their services. This collaboration can potentially expand your own offerings in the future.
- Process — a studio can guide you through a project, following industry best practices.
Hiring a Studio Cons:
- Cost — compared to a freelancer, studios will be more expensive. However, pricing varies and depends on the size of the studio and where they are located.
Getting a referral from your own network is your best bet when hiring a studio.
Hiring a freelancer or team of freelancers is more cost-effective, but turnaround times can be longer. Managing production is more time-intensive on your part, so you’ll need to plan for that.
Hiring a Freelancer Pros:
- Budget — for a small project, one experienced generalist freelancer might be all you need to incorporate into your pipeline and keep your profit margin intact.
- Creative control — freelancers are guns for hire. They will typically execute your vision with little pushback.
- Direct communication — you are dealing with the person(s) doing the actual work, not a middleman.
- Flexibility — you can hire freelancers remotely from anywhere in the world and find just the specialist you need.
Hiring a Freelancer Cons:
- Scale — for larger, complicated projects, finding and managing multiple freelancers with different skill sets can be challenging.
- Reliability — unless a freelancer is directly recommended to you, there’s no way of knowing if they are reliable to hit deadlines.
- Lack of Cohesion — if you’re hiring a team of people who haven’t worked together before, it can take some time to ramp up production. There also may be issues during production.
- Resume Confusion — unlike hiring a Director or DP, a freelance animator or motion designer may not have his or her job description clearly labeled. More on this later.
- Project Management — you’ll need to maintain calendars and drive the process while managing client expectations and deliverables from beginning to end. If you’ve done it before and have the bandwidth, it shouldn’t be a problem.
Again, your best bet is to ask around for referrals. Stay away from Fiverr & Upwork!
Tips for Hiring Freelancers:
- Communication skills are a must. What they write and how they write on their site is a clue into future interactions. If they respond immediately to your emails, that is a good sign. If it takes a while, think about how long they might take to respond during production when you need something.
- If you’re in different time zones, that’s fine. It can actually benefit you in many cases. Just make sure you set a clear delivery time/date for deliverables (end of your day in your time zone or theirs?)
- Work out clear payment terms before starting. Do this via email so you have a paper trail. Is it a day rate, or all in?
- Motion freelancers like crystal clear feedback. Be direct, not ambiguous. Remove all the niceties. Save those for phone convos and emails when the project is delivered. Use a review site like Wipster, Vimeo Pro, or Frame.io for feedback.
- Check out their work sample credits. They should list out exactly what they do. Be wary of anyone who doesn’t list out things like: designed by, animated by, illustrated by, etc. If they don’t list their roles explicitly, they could have been one person on a large team. Maybe they just animated a background while you’re thinking they animated that awesome walk cycle.
- Don’t hire a traditional illustrator or designer for motion design. You need someone with motion experience because assets need to be designed or illustrated in a particular way, so an animator can efficiently jump in go to work.
- Confusion about skill sets and specialties. There are many types of artists in our field. For example, designers use programs like Photoshop to layout graphic designs by manipulating text and images. Illustrators draw or paint. Many motion designers are not illustrators. A lot of motion designers do not animate and vice versa. Character animators have different skill sets than design animators. 2D animators are different from 3D animators.
- Day rates for freelancers are usually around $350–450 a day for jr people, $500–$700/d for experienced motion designers and animators, and specialists command $800/d and up. The rates are the same in all US Metros. England/Europe is a bit cheaper, as is the rest of the world.
Examples: Ice Cream Hater
2) Stop Motion
Can be done in a small studio or room, at home, on iPhone, or large format cameras, etc. Minimal crew is needed—some people do it alone. Voice over can be outsourced and recorded remotely via Voice123.com. Can use everyday objects, printed materials, hand-drawn titles, felt, food items, 3D printed assets, etc.
3) Crowdsourced Video
Can be done remotely without any crew. Low production value video can be spruced up and made interesting in post. Ask interviewees to record clips of themselves at home, on their phone, responding to your interview sheet (5–7 questions max) and send them in to you. Send them tech guidelines and shooting specifications. For example: shoot widescreen, prop up the phone, declutter the background, ensure proper lighting, etc. Keep it simple. Edit together with stock footage, graphics, and music. A good editor can make this type of content look decent enough.
4) Stock Footage Video
Develop your concept, write a script, record VO, combine footage with mograph, add sound design and music. There are some great sites out there for stock video. Dissolve is our economic go-to right now, but Film Supply has better quality footage because they recruit actual commercial companies to give them b-roll they license. So, it’s not really stock, but better.
Instead of human actors, use puppies, kittens, hamsters, or whatever cute animal you have on hand. This can be done in a small studio setting (or living room).
Tactile/practical in-camera style videos. Diorama, knolling, etc.
7) Visual Podcasts
Record podcast shows and edit as you normally would, but add straightforward visuals later. Or, just record with screencaps and share on-screen content to keep it simple.
8) Virtual Presentations
Create presentations in Keynote/Google slides, record video, audio and screencap, distribute as PDF, .mp3s and video. This is a fast and low-cost way to get content out there. Note: this is probably more appropriate for in-house production departments and internal comms production teams.
9) Self-Recorded Screen Cap Content
Have your subject matter experts do screen captures and record content at home using Loom. For higher production value, send to an animator to recreate, edit and jazz up.
10) Phone Interviews Paired With Motion Design
If you were planning on doing live-action interviews, you might think about pivoting to a “interview explainer” instead. This is a cost-effective way to interview stakeholders or clients around the world. With motion design you can produce something straightforward, including photos of the interviewee and basic on-screen text, or something with extremely high production values. Use the iPhone recording app, rev.com for transcriptions, then do a paper edit. Bonus points: mail interviewees a Zoom recorder to boost production value.
This method also works well-using stock footage for b-roll.
11) Skype/Google Hangouts Interviews
Use live action recordings of the screen itself with a cool backdrop, or screen cap. Use backgrounds creatively, For example, shoot an iPhone with the interviewee on color backdrop. You could have two phones in the frame, like they are talking to each other. Alternatively, create a mortise for each Skype video interviewee. Skype video can be cleaned up, color graded and stylized to increase production value.
12) Recycled Footage and Interviews
When you can’t shoot new footage, cut together new content with previously shot interviews, dive deeper into a specific topic, add motion design to differentiate.
13) Virtual Documentaries
Send interview questions by email, have interviewees self-interview, record onto iPhone, email, or text responses. Everyone is used to seeing text bubble responses on TV, so feel free to use this technique in docu-style productions. For b-roll, use stock, previously shot archives, abstract graphics, cel animation, title cards sans motion, kinetic type, stop motion, whatever works on your budget, etc.
14) Text Form Interview Videos
We are calling on all motion design studios and freelancers to come together and offer discount rates, flexible payment terms, and advice to our live-action colleagues.
Everyone is threatened by this uncertainty, so now is the time to band together and collaborate.
If you have other ideas, please comment below, and we’ll update as frequently as possible.