What you need to know when starting an animation project

Written by Anca Manolache

Co-founder at Vână Animation Studio

Each time I get into a cab, uber, bolt, you-name-it, I feel uncomfortable. Imagine how it will be for me in self-driving cars (I laugh out of stress right now). An instant fear of not being in control, of not knowing what to expect from the style of driving keeps me at a safe distance from these so-casual-for-others tools. When we decided to write this article about what to expect from animation in terms of process, and milestones, these were the kind of uncertainties that we had in mind. Not knowing what to expect from something that looks maybe too artsy, or maybe simpler than you would imagine might keep you at a distance. Not knowing how the animation process works. Or what you have to do or know to get that wow animated ad or that friendly explainer on some complex software or health program or maybe that super imaginative animated music video or content. 

I recently heard from a therapist that we shouldn’t make decisions out of fear. So here we are, befriending you with what we love and with what we think will become your next content crush: animation.

Now let’s go through the steps of making an animation together. Once you know them you’ll know what to expect, what to ask for, and what to pay attention to - when everybody thinks you don’t :). The whole point of this animation process exercise is to help you approach it in a healthy, relaxed way for your next project - which of course we would love to know about.

#1 Starting the engine: Brief, budget and managing expectations with the proper references

We love an animation with a purpose, that’s why understanding your brief, your brand, and your specific project needs is the first solid step. This is the foundation of this collaboration and you should make sure you give the animation studio a brief with all the details relevant to your project:

The brief is followed by a debrief - the studio asks the questions that will help the animation team better understand the specifics of your project. If the studio is shy, make sure you encourage them and make yourself available for questions and further info. 

After the proper debrief, make sure to expect an estimated budget and a general timeline of the project - also some references from the studio are a big plus, since they will help you better understand their vision for the animation. 

This is how we do it, anyway and we believe it sets a healthy base for the partnership. Based on the brief, we have a debrief, and then we send you an offer with the estimated budget - we usually do this very transparently and put all the stages and jobs involved there, as well as the hourly fee and total budget.

Because it’s important to know what you get for your money, based on our expertise and the needs of your project, we showcase illustration and animation references that point to the approach and vision we’re proposing (illustration and animation-wise). If you like it, then we have a match and if you’re not sure, we’ll work with you until we get what we all need for the project. We find it wise to also offer versions of project complexity (when the case asks for it) and send you two approaches that result in a lower / higher version of the budget and timeline. 

 #2 Adjusting the car to the road conditions: Before animation, there’s preparation - script + storyboard + animatic

Writing the story 

We love bringing meaningful stories to life, and the first moment you know you have a good story on your hands is the script. 

The script is the written story of your animation and you can expect it in many formats - a script in classical format or a Word doc, depending on the preferences of the studio. The importance lies not in the format, but in the content. The story should read easily, clearly and leave you with the right message (right for your project). 

I believe a story should be an interpretation, not a show & tell explanation - even for explainers. The flow of the story should be captivating for the audience - and by captivating I mean it should have one or some unexpected twists in it so that the audience can enjoy a real story there. I find it so refreshing when stories succeed in really exploring and benefiting from the power of animation - which is pure imagination. 

It’s important to find someone who can write you an animation story so that you don’t end up with a story that can be easily recorded by the camera. 

In the end, you know it’s right for you  - you feel it not only in the checked points from your brief but also in the emotion it leaves you with. Remember that with animation, kinda everything is possible - or at least not impossible.

We love to have all pragmatic info and objectives settled before we begin writing the script. Then we put our quirky narratives to work and create the characters and their storyline. With the you-know-exactly-what-to-say choice of words and voice-over, we design the tempo and the rhythm of the story. Every story has a life of its own and it’s very gratifying to guide it to maturity.

Storyboarding it

This is the first look you get at the script being translated into pencil sketches. The animation director shows you how the team aims at capturing the emotions and the message of the story with the choice of angles, character expressions, and transitions from one frame to the other. 

This is the story in thumbnails, but you should expect to easily see the flow of the animation and get a grasp of what it will be like.

In this storyboard phase, we aim to establish the flow in action, main keyframes, and transitions - to make sure that we go further with the process of creating an engaging experience. 

Putting it on a timeline in an Animatic

Timing and pacing are everything, so the next step is to put the storyboard on a timeline. This is the first sight of the future animation - in a very rough and low-key note. Expect to see little to no movement and focus on giving feedback on how long every scene should be and how they merge.

Sometimes, to get a better grip on how the story happens, our team adds some keyframe animation and transitions. If we have an animation with voice-over, we usually make an in-house demo, a voice-over guide, to make sure we nail down the right rhythm. 

#3 Enjoying the scenery: Style frames

Style frames (the visual style of your story) are usually done in parallel with the animatic because they all spring from the storyboard and they are both needed when kicking off the production - aka the animation step.

What you’re looking for here is a visual style that speaks and enhances the identity of your brand or the voice of your project. It should feel yours but with a fresh and unique perspective. You should ask for the appropriate amount of extraordinary for your brand and audience, and budget.

We pride ourselves on a mix of great illustration skills and an in-depth understanding of both the story and the brand, which results in the visual style of the animation. We’re always looking for a spectacle of shapes and colors, ultimately creating a beautifully crafted universe, unique to the project. A unique visual voice.
What we usually do is send 1 up to 3 style frames at first - the proposal, so that you can give us feedback and see what works or not. Then we continue with all the mainframes of the animation so that the path is all set for the production phase.

Styleframe from "A Drive". Short Film Written and Directed by Anca Manolache.

#4 Hitting our destination in style: Animation & PostProduction

We’ve driven so far and it was towards this end - with the magic of animation skills and software, the story and its characters come to life, as envisioned in the style frames and as paced in the animatic. 

This is the part you’ve been waiting for so long and the reason you want to tick all the stages above is to make sure that you get the animation you expect (fortunately, a bit more). So far, you’ve seen and given feedback to the storyboard, animatic, and style frames so that all those assets turn now into the proper production - the animation. 

Your animation can be more motion, or with a pinch of 3D, traditional frame-by-frame way, or 2D after effects. Either way, putting it all together requires a rough phase and a clean phase (especially for frame-by-frame) - at the end of the rough phase, you should see a rough animation and at the end of the clean phase you will see the final animation.
In this stage, it’s harder to see intermediary materials, because you would get to see mostly bits and pieces that don’t make a lot of sense when seen individually. So if all the stages above have been done properly, please be a bit patient and expect the export of scenes already composed, not bits of material since they might throw you off.

What we like to do, so that we keep the client in the loop, is to have intermediary exports once we have the main movements and transitions, when we have the main character animation done, or when some other significant part is put together.

Our skilled animators put a peal of laughter, a smile, or a tear on our characters but also on our audience’s faces through the power of 2D, frame-by-frame, and motion animation. We work in teams and on scenes, separating the animation into frames or into bits that can be done separately. And that is how we move along to the next phase.

Compositing & Sound Design

Now we’re landing this baby home and we are putting it all together into one beautifully crafted piece of animation. The compositing team is like a pit stop crew, working to seamlessly blend all pieces into the final one, your animated story. The final voice-over, the sound effects, and the music that makes the story flow come together here. 

Here is where you should have a wow feeling upon seeing the final product, even knowing beforehand what you were expecting.

We love to reach our destination in style, so we really appreciate it when we have a bit of time to fine-tune everything. There’s a lot of mastery involved here - the fine eye of the composition artist makes sure the story runs smoothly and its magic is enhanced by light and shadow details, textures, or other kinds of visual effects that add to the beauty of the product and of the animated story. 

Our talented artists spring a mix of emotions, moods, accords, and notes until we know we have a match for our story, an overall look and feel designed to empower and complete the visuals.

When is a good time to share your feedback along this ride?

If not enhanced enough, let me tell you again - Don’t wait until we reach our destination. To make sure we’re all riding smoothly, hit us with your feedback early on the drive - script, storyboard, animatic, and style frames phase are the best moments for us to make adjustments so that we can all get what we want, the sweet ride. After each phase of the process, we send you the material and eagerly wait for your feedback, so that we can move on healthily.

We call it a success when we work on it together in a collaborative and ego-free way, driving towards the same goal. We pride ourselves on our power of adaptability for each project and we love building relations for the long run with our partners.

Now, if you wanna feel the thrill of animation and its superpower - naturally transferring emotions and capturing the essence of being human in its wide variety of expressions, we’d love to enable it for you and gear it up together. 

P.S.: Writing this article and sharing this unease about riding with an unknown driver, Anca got a bit more comfortable in her shoes and if you share similar anxieties, she encourages you to share them - with someone you trust, with her or just spell them out loud.

This article was written by Anca Manolache.
She is a co-founder of VÂNĂ Animation and has a background in copywriting, scriptwriting, and producing. 

If you have any questions that we did not answer yet or want to tell us about your project or idea, drop her a line at anca@vana.ro

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