Animations: A how-to guide for think tanks

29 June 2017
SERIES Think tanks and communications 26 items

Are animations something you’ve wanted to try in your organisation for a while, but have been unsure how to approach? No two projects are ever the same, but working as an animation producer at Soapbox, a busy design studio in London, has given me insights that I wanted to write up as a standard guide.

Not too long ago, Soapbox held a Breakfast Club event in partnership with WonkComms where we discussed how our client base (think tanks and research organisations) can make animations with impact. We looked at films such as the animated RSA Short with Dr Brené Brown; the work of the late Han Rosling; and the Healthy Not Hungry animation by Project Everyone. The follow up blog (well worth reading) contains loads of useful information about identifying your target audience, setting your aims and objectives for the animation, putting a dissemination plan into place and other factors to consider.

What we didn’t cover in much detail was the process of actually producing an animation. So I felt that a step-by-step production guide to how we work would be extremely helpful.

Getting your ideas together and writing a script

Assuming you have identified an idea, or content, that will work for an animation (again, check the first blog for help with this), involve an animator or studio as quickly as possible – the earlier the better, so you can bounce ideas around and check what is achievable for your budget. If you’ve seen animations you like, definitely share those with us (or any studio/ animator of your choosing) so that you can establish a brief for the look and feel.

Writing for short animations is harder than it first appears. You need to employ the utmost brevity to tell a story in a minimal yet impactful way. Provide raw content around key themes, characters and take-aways at the start of the project ahead of the scripting and editing process.

Animations need to behave like movie trailers – all the best bits of a project or report, cut together in an exciting way that makes audiences crave more. This book by Karim Zouak is great for understanding how short ideas can be made to work well onscreen. Keep it snappy, and when we say snappy, we mean between 30 – 90 seconds. Max. Here’s a tip: we test the length and efficacy of scripts by recording a scratch voiceover at a moderate pace, repeatedly timing it and cutting it back. Here’s another tip: we might divide your script into ‘what is said’ and ‘what is seen’ to prevent us from packing too much visual information into the voiceover.

We made this pre-election animation for the National Housing Federation. It is optimised for social media, as it’s designed to be fairly short and to work without sound.

Creating the storyboard and artworking

The thing to remember about animation production is that sign-off stages matter a great deal if you want to avoid potentially costly revisions. Once your script is agreed and signed off, it’s going straight to the designer/animator (whoever is doing the static designs) for storyboarding. Storyboarding is a visual representation of how your animation will unfold, scene by scene. It’s made up of a number of squares with illustrations, notes about what’s happening, and what’s being said in the script. Check that you’re happy with the visual ideas presented in the storyboard and understand the planned motion that connects the different scenes. If you’re not sure, ask! Where images need to be technically accurate, for example a particular sort of power station in an animation about renewable energy, it helps to supply example photographs at this stage. Suggest amends to anything you don’t feel will work.

The agreed storyboard is then artworked. This is where detail, colour and brand style will be filled in. You may have agreed a few panels of artworked design in advance of this, in which case this is where that design is rolled out across the entire storyboard.

An example of an animation storyboard
An example of an animation storyboard

Don’t forget music, voiceover and SFX

Music and voiceover will help tie the narrative together, help the messages to stand out in the right places, and help the animation to flow more smoothly. Voiceover (or scratch voiceover at the very least) needs to be ready before the animator gets to work so that the animation, transitions and overall pace gel together. We always record voiceovers at a professional studio using suitable voiceover artists and arrange licenses for usage. Normally we do a ‘wild’ record instead of recording in sync with the finished animation. For music, we establish a brief with our client and then rummage around in a range of online music libraries for the perfect track, arranging licenses through them.

Another hint: sound effects are the unsung heroes of animations. They don’t cost very much but add a noticeable richness to your animation. You can also use SFX to draw the eye to the most important element of a scene. For example, a small light switch didn’t stand out enough in an animation we recently produced – until we added a clicking noise. Simple, but vital for the narrative we were trying to convey. We’ll normally add SFX at the final stage of production.

Soapbox made this animation for the Pearson Affordable Learning Fund. It shows how music, voiceover and SFX combine to create the right mood

The all-important animation stage

We’ll ask our animator to create a sample clip quickly to approve the style of movement and pace. This is taken from a representational part of the animation, not necessarily the beginning. They’ll then incorporate the voiceover and music track and animate most of the film. With a few rounds of feedback, they will refine scenes until everyone is happy. Then it’s time for the final render, which can take a while, so make sure you’ve got a bit of spillover time in case.   

Time to disseminate

Plan ahead, because the communications plan for your animation should be set from the beginning of the project.

This Zika awareness animation was produced alongside IFRC’s dissemination plan to reach communities in Latin America.

We will quote directly from the WonkComms blog here:

Be relentless in your dissemination on and offline. For example, use your animations at events but also use them in your offices, maybe have the animation looping in your reception. Use your website and social media, but also use email as this can be highly targeted and effective.

Couldn’t have said it better myself. Good luck!