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.
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…
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!