• How To Include Animation Without Ruining Everything

This film we made with our friend Marshall Jones recently reached a strong 315K views and counting (woo-hoo!) after being featured on Upworthy and passed around on the Internet.

There are several things that contributed to this film’s success: the magical mojo of doing free work (yes, we did this one for free too!), the “clickable” thumbnail choice, and most importantly Marshall’s incredible writing and performance.

But one other thing that really makes this memorable is the use of animation and text throughout the piece (shout out to animator Zach Daulton).

The film is simply shot, with just three angles of a single subject on a tripod — and with the animation so frequent and central to the piece, it functions as a character in itself.

While Stillmotion doesn’t use animation a whole lot in our work, we think it worked really well in this particular piece, so we want to use it as an opportunity to talk about some of the choices we made while planning for this film.

Basically, there are three major factors to think about when you’re introducing text and/or animation to a film:

  • Placement — where are gonna put it on the screen?
  • Color — nothing too flashy…
  • Font — maybe don’t use Papyrus, ok?

We’ll let you in on why we made the choices we made in each of these areas for the spelling bee piece, but before we get into that… let’s take a minute to think about why we use animation with video in the first place.

When should I add animation?

The better question, really, is when you shouldn’t add animation…

Often you’ll find that studios use animation/text to cover things up. They’ll use text to provide crucial information/plot points that are not communicated in the footage (i.e., “3 years later…”).

Sometimes you’ll see text used to cover up a crappy transition or mistake — for example, in sports highlights you’ll often see BIG GIANT WORDS spread across the screen, and it’s not always because it was planned that way.

Like anything else in storytelling, animation is a tool that can absolutely enhance a story and help you tell it correctly — but it should always be a specific choice, not something that is added to the piece after you’ve shot everything.

After initially watching Marshall perform the spelling bee poem — one that focuses so much on actual words themselves — we felt that video visuals alone wouldn’t really do it justice.

We decided to use text and animation for the “Spelling Father” film to highlight specific words and moments in the poem that stand out and carry more weight. Also, we really felt that letters on the screen fit the piece — it is, after all, about a spelling bee.

So, our #1 piece of advice when you’re thinking about animation is to first ask yourself:
is it adding to the piece, or just making up for something that’s missing?

Plan your shoot around it…

If your answer to the question above was that animation WILL add to the piece, and you know you’re going to be using it in your film, you’ll want to make sure you establish this in pre-production, and often you’ll need to plan your shoot around it.

We shot the spelling bee piece from just three angles with no b-roll, because we knew that we’d be adding in a heavy amount of text and animation in post.

As you watch the film you’ll see that we made some very specific choices as to where to put the text…

For example, the letters “M-O-T-H-E-R” are spread across the entire screen, covering Marshall’s face. This decision wasn’t instant, and caused some debate around the studio…

Do we want letters covering our subject’s face?

Will this take away from the performance?

In the end it was decided that it was best to draw all attention to that word on the screen, to make it stand out and give the viewer no choice but to focus on “M-O-T-H-E-R” in that particular moment. Marshall’s poem asks you to listen to his story without imparting judgments or standards of your own, and we felt using text this way at the right moments reinforced that concept.

These are the conversations you want to have when you’re deciding where to place text on the screen — what’s it really doing in this area as opposed to that one? This is just one important part of how your film is received to your audience, and it’s something you’ll want to ensure is story relevant.

Choosing the right color for your text…

Color is another choice you’ll have to make, but it’s one that should be less difficult.

White is often best — when it works with your background.

It’s a neutral color, one that viewers feel no obligation to connect with either way so that they can focus on the actual content. If the text were blue or red, people would have a more difficult time connecting with what’s on screen, and instead focusing on their own relationship with the color. White also stands out on a darker background and is just easier to see.

For these reasons we used some white — but that’s probably not the color that is most memorable to you in this piece.

We also chose to use yellow for the text. We chose this color based on how we wanted the piece to feel, and what the content represents.

We wanted the film to feel warm and have a glow to it — the poem is explaining a dream and we wanted to represent that feeling with color.

The yellow was also chosen because we wanted to shine a light on a sensitive issue. Typically this topic is discussed with great negativity — focusing on the carelessness of negligent fathers and the struggle of single mothers. While the poem does do some of that, ultimately it is a celebration of one man’s incredible mother, and we wanted that positivity and love to shine through.

How would this film be different if we’d chosen to use a blue text? Or green?

Color really matters in establishing that warmness or coolness, and it’s most important that you remember not to let the color choice get too crazy. Text is there to communicate something to the audience, but it’s not what you want them to focus on entirely — anything too flashy is going to take away from the content of the film.

Font choice is voice…

Hey, that rhymes! Now you won’t forget it.

Recently Vincent Connare, the creator of Comic Sans, spoke to the Huffington Post about the most widely used, and ferociously hated font that he invented. He claims that he created the font in 1993 when he was working at Microsoft, to be used in a “doggie speech bubble” — where Times New Roman was clearly unfitting.

I think we can all agree that Comic Sans is perfectly fitting for a doggie speech bubble, but we can also all agree that it is often horribly, horribly misused — and what’s so infuriating about that? Why does it feel so “wrong” to see Comic Sans in certain settings where it doesn’t seem right?

We’re not about to dive into a big lesson on typography here — the point is that font choice really does serve as the voice and feel of your text — giving the letters shape and personality.

You’ll see in the spelling bee piece that we used thin, squiggly letters in some parts, and thick heavy block letters in others.

Why?…

We wanted to establish a voice for the “characters” off-screen. That is, the judges of the spelling bee, and the chattering crowd that Marshall references. We wanted these characters to feel weak in comparison to to Marshall, small and uncertain, representative of the unnecessary reinforcement of what society feels is “right.”

On the other hand, we have the text that represents Marshall’s side. We wanted something big and strong that not only feels completely different from the other type of text, but also overpowers it. It’s simple and somewhat “official” looking — which reinforces the idea of what is “standard” — but it’s also not the same font you’d see on a street sign.

Now imagine how different this would feel if we were using Comic Sans…

To summarize…

Like so many of our takeaways here at Stillmotion, it all comes down to story.

When you’re using text or animation along with video visuals, it just presents another set of choices you’ll need to make based on the story you’re trying to tell.

There are some major things to ask yourself:

Font — What’s the voice I want people to hear?

Color — Do I want it to feel warm? Cold? Neutral?

Placement — Where are all these letters going to sit in the frame?

And, of course, the biggest question you should be asking yourself is if animation really fits the story in the first place.

Asking yourself these questions is the first step to answering them, and this is going to put you more in touch with the story, and ultimately help you tell it better through text or animation.

*********

What do you think “Spelling Father” would be like without the animation?

Would it still be successful without it?

Tell us what you think!

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13 Thoughts on “How To Include Animation
Without Ruining Everything

  1. “Kinetic Text” is a word for this type of text animation that I’ve always liked. It is usually in reference to text-only videos where the camera moves across the text, and some text is smaller, or larger, and it all builds on itself. Sometimes the camera turns and goes a different rout, sometimes the words make specific shapes. Anyway, this feels similar to that, except blended with the live presentation, which is totally appropriate, and makes for an interesting video.

    I always love to hear about the thought that goes into a piece. Thanks for sharing!
    -Tristan

  2. One other think!!

    B roll and other actors may have taken away from Marshall’s notoriety or recognition for such a great and powerful delivery. Not sure.

  3. I’d like to see it without animation to compare. My initial thought after watching was that I’d like to see tag art as the text.

    My first comment, however, is that while this is technically animation, it misses on the stricter definition of giving life to non-living subjects. I think that goes beyond simple movement and wonder if calling it animation is fair to those who are animators. Just a thought. Next, whether the text adds to or detracts from Marshall’s performance — animation is not responsible for all of the views. The views come from the brand awareness of Stillmotion and then the sneezing that occurs when something touches a nerve – in this case a calling of attention to a problem in an artful and personal manner.

    And, lastly, this is a wonderful piece of narrative that could have included additional actors or other B-roll to make it even more powerful. And, I suspect the choice to animate may have been born more of budget constraints.

    Still, it’s a stellar piece. Love the lighting. Love the camera angles. I think the aspect is also a huge contributing factor to the feel coupled with a performance filled with honesty and righteous indignation that clarifies the struggles for those outside the community.

    Thank you for a wonderful discussion.

    • Hey Mark,

      All great points. Thanks for sharing.

      We would love to do a spoken word piece with Marshall and shoot broll and interpret the story visually. That wasn’t this piece partly due to budget and time, as you suggested, but also because this was a piece he has had for a while and we wanted to provide something strong for him to share what he does. Our hope is to collaborate on creating a piece, and Marshall makes the words while we do the visuals.

      As for your note on animators, there are certainly completely different directions and much more complex styles you could do that would be animations. Our hope isn’t to say what we did is anything like that, but more to open the discussion of how this line of thinking can add to your story. How graphics/animations and the difference styles can add to story is such a large topic – so our hope isn’t to homogenize and simplify that, but more to start the discussion.

      Thanks again for sharing.

      P.

    • Completely understand and agree with your points, Patrick. I tried to acknowledge in my additional comment that the piece, as you’ve stated, was to showcase Marshall. Not sure I communicated that additional thought very well.

      My IP was partially in response to the e-mail about how animation got y’all to mega-views. I think as technicians we often give credit to production values that they may not deserve. Exceptions being lighting, camera angles, and lens choices. I do think production values are worth discussion and regardless of this particular piece and my personal views, or anyone else’s views on this piece, the thoughts and direction you’ve given on graphics is important, well thought out, and pertinent. And, the piece demonstrates the teaching. So, well done on that front.

      One of the questions at the end of the blog post was, “Would this be as powerful without the letters MOTHER being shown as he spells Father?” I’m not sure. I think it may take seeing it both ways. One thing I can say is it doesn’t detract.

      I think less is always more in film. The less we interfere with the story, the character, the performance, the more powerful the presentation. I still have a lot to learn from the Stillmotion crew and am grateful for the wonderful stuff you post.

  4. CRAP?

    CRAP?

    This is talking poetry!
    AND….it’s just great.

    I love the subject matter, but find the words distracting, BUT….that’s just me.

    If you like it then do it. I’ll still watch it.

    As always, STILLMOTION wins!

    Best regards,
    Brian

  5. Just Amazing!
    The poetry is great by itself, but the animation brings it more to life.
    Question:
    What is going on in measure 0:10? It seems there should have been a word, but instead it’s blurred. Was that intentional?

  6. I’ve been such a huge Zach Daulton fan for years. Most of his animation work can be seen at bluishstuff.com.

    Without animation this piece would have been a hunk of crap that you should be embarrassed of.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Zach!

      We’d be happy to put you in contact with Zach Daulton for future projects. Just be aware that he might eternally troll your blog, though it’s a small price to pay when your work would be crap otherwise.

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