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Butterflies. “When’s the event?” my mind began to race before I received an answer. We’ll need multiple directions. I could have Meg handle one look, maybe Mikey could take on the second direction. “You need how many deliverables?” Storyboards are a must. Should probably develop keyframes. “Absolutely… we can make that deadline. “Jay could take lead on the cel animation. Music is going to be critical. “We’ll send over the SOW and MSA later today!” Three weeks. Butterflies.
Even with over ten years of experience dealing with ups and downs of our industry, I still can’t help feeling the flutter of excitement on that big project. The longshot pitch. The ludicrously tight timeline on deliverables so daunting you wonder where to begin. Why do we do it, and, more importantly, how?
We were in dash’s third year when we landed Riot’s League of Legends College Championship video. Three weeks to make an event opener and login screen, catered to the world’s most passionate fan-base, left us with little room for error. Spoiler alert – we finished, and not only did we finish, but we delivered an animation Riot loved and one that will always be a favorite of ours. So how do you pull off the impossible? Process.
Blood, sweat, and tears will only take you so far if you don’t have the structure to support it. Motion design is a time-consuming process and if you don’t have the right structure in place your work won’t stand the test of time. The best studios know that and big budget clients know that. So, whether you’re a studio or a freelancer, you need a defined process; here’s the dash approach.
The first phase of the process is one of the most important: why are you making this video? If you’re building an animation for the wrong reasons it won’t matter how good it looks, it won’t do its job. It’s critical to ask as many questions as possible to set yourself up for success.
Here are a few we ask for example:
Who is the target audience?
What should they do after watching the video?
Where will they be seeing the video?
How are you measuring the success of this video?
What are the KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators)
What are things you like? Things we should avoid?
Where will this live after the conference?
What are the screen dimensions at the event?
Is there a specific frame rate you would like to use?
Is there a specific style you’re looking for?
How do you want people to feel?
With the Riot piece, we discovered their need for a college anthem-- something the community could rally around. It was important to give it the March Madness type feel that’s popular in mainstream college events without forgetting the main reason LoL is so popular: it’s dedicated fan base.
Once you know the problem the next task is finding a solution. Should this be animated or live-action? Would a :90 second anthem video work or should this be shared through small vignettes? How about a voiceover, or will on-screen text do? With the right research, these questions become easier to answer. During this phase the dash team likes to have small design charrettes to discuss and build off each other’s ideas until we feel we have the right solution. In Riot’s case, a voiceover put too much emphasis on one individual, so we felt it was best to approach the project through text callouts. Second, we really wanted to build the emotion in the piece, so we felt a countdown of the teams in the tournament would create the right amount of suspense, but also allow us to highlight each school individually for some personal touches. Lastly, we needed to combine elements from each college into the League of Legends world. We did this by bringing in physical references from the college (mascot, buildings, features, etc..) paired with the visuals from the top five League of Legends characters used by each team.
When you’re on a rushed timeline communication is imperative and decisions need to be made quickly. On a normal job, there may be time to finesse or refine a single look, but tight timelines require a bit more up-front investment. Your research and eventual solution will dictate what pre-production elements you need. Is a single direction of style frames paired with storyboards enough or is it a more robust approach with multiple directions, storyboards, animatic, and pre-viz? Time, budget, and direction will all be determining factors. In the case of Riot, we pitched two directions and Riot’s internal team pitched their own for a total of three looks. This enabled us all to get through pre-production quickly and make a decision for production without having to finesse one of the looks further. In the end, we went with a graphic approach that became what is now the final piece.
In-between the pre-production and production phases is a simple yet critical question that if left unanswered can sour any project: have your pre-production elements all been approved? This is the most exciting part of any project and what creatives live for: making cool stuff! Which is why it’s so important to make sure you have confirmation from your client that everything is good to go before moving into production.
When we’re working on a project with a tight timeline that involves our internal creative team and outside vendors organization is paramount. You choose your best methodology, but before you open the creative gates make sure everybody involved has access to a platform / document that visualizes 1) their responsibility 2) timelines and 3) overall expectations. With Riot we had two weeks for production with three illustrators and four animators all working simultaneously on a single piece; we had to stay organized. But with the right balance of internal check-ins, reviews, and client management we could get through everything with minimal feedback – which is a direct testament to a clear outline of content developed in pre-production.
Don’t take compressions and final files for granted. There is nothing worse than sending a “final” piece out the door with a spelling error, a color mismatch, or even the wrong dimensions. Creating final files is the last opportunity for a gut-check and everyone should look at their scene, and the collective piece, to identify any potential issues. Spelling errors, transitions, graphics, sound, etc.… When you’ve looked at a piece a hundred times, make sure to look at it once more. When everything looks good and creatives, directors, and producers have signed off, dash will kick out links to the final video for download and then immediately backup our files to our server. On each project that has multiple animators we’ll have one lead who collects and organizes the project into a single file or folder backed up on the server.
True story – 90% of dash’s work is through referrals. We take incredible pride in how we treat our clients, and we want every client we work with to tell their friends about us and come back for more. That means being engaged, not only during the project, but following up afterwards. Was it a success? Are you happy with the outcome? We’re not perfect but we are trying to be and this last phase of a project allows us to be self-critical and ask ourselves what we can do better.
This is a stressful industry but it’s also an incredibly rewarding one. Projects ebb and flow and sometimes consistency can be hard to find which is why it’s important to control what you can so you have a foundation for anything that comes your way. Focus on the process and methodology that’s right for you so when big opportunities come, you can focus on making the best possible work.