This week, I started a new course in motion media. I’ll be honest. I know about 0% about creating animated stories, which makes this course equally nerve-wracking and exciting. Luckily, we’ve started with some excellent reading materials that are giving me insight into the creative process of building a compelling story. I’ll be reading a book called Animated Storytelling by Liz Blazer. throughout the semester, and will summarize my learnings in blog entries like this one. I’ve gained some comfort, realizing that although motion media is not a skill I know, several parts of the creative process already feel familiar from my experience in graphic design and design thinking.
Chapter 1 of Animated Storytelling introduces the first step in creating animation and motion graphics, which is called pre-production. Pre-production is the creative thinking and planning that goes into designing a motion graphic or animation. It’s everything that happens before you even open up the software, and it prepares you for the act of creating work that is relevant and thoughtful. Pre-production can be broken down into three stages that occur sequentially: 1. Concept Development 2. Pre-Visualization and 3. Asset Building. Below I’ll break down each one in more detail.
1. Concept Development
Concept development helps define what you are making. It provides clarity and purpose to your work.The elements of concept development are explained below.
*For fun, I completed the lesson at the end of Chapter 1 and used the concept development process to conceptualize a commercial concept for a French coffee shop located in Shanghai. My examples appear in pink boxes like this one.
Build a Brief
If you work for an agency, you’re probably familiar with brief. But even if you don’t (i.e., you are freelancing or working on a personal project), you should create one for yourself anyway. A brief should answer some critical questions in order to align stakeholders on the project and provide you some logistical clarity. These questions are:
- What type of format should it be?
- Who is it for?
- How long does it need to be?
- What is the objective of the piece?
- When is it due?
Bread Etc. Coffee Shop Brief
What must it be?
20-second commercial advertising the unique appeal of Bread Etc., located in a populated coffee shop neighborhood in Shanghai—which also happens to be the city with the most coffee shops in the world.
Who is it for?
This commercial is for people located in the bustling Former French Concession, who have plentiful options for coffee shops, and need help deciding which one to choose.
What is your objective?
To increase business against the competition by promoting Bread’s unique ambiance and qualities.
Once you understand the scope of the project, then you can begin brainstorming ideas. While the brief answers what the project is, brainstorming will explore how the project can take shape within those boundaries. By following the brainstorming process, you can help steer your creativity in the right direction.
The brainstorming process:
Define the Big Idea
The Big Idea represents the central concept of your story. Write this on a whiteboard or piece of paper pinned up to a blank wall.
Big Idea: French charm meets Shanghai zeal.
In the space surrounding your “big idea,” on the wall, start writing everything you think or feel related to it. This practice should be open and judgment-free. The goal isn’t quality but rather quantity. As described by Blazer, “Write those things down, filling as many pages as you can until you have nothing left to write—literally until your head is completely empty of anything else to say on the subject.” This process should take 15-30 minutes.
Start Telling the Story
Review all of the things you wrote down and highlight the ideas that seem the strongest or most compelling to you. Then, try to narrow it down to 4-5 concepts that you think are best.
Bread Etc. Top Ideas:
- French music
- Large patios and windows surrounded by green landscaping (garden, oasis-like)
- Pedestrians and scooters zooming by
- Friendly, hospitable staff
You’ve planted the seeds for a story to grow in your brain by doing the prior work. Now, let your brain do the work. While keeping your goal in mind, give your brain a little space to relax and craft a story. Building stories is similar to meditation—it requires a balance between concentration and relaxation. I’ve found that ideas have emerged while I was walking or washing the dishes—always after I had already spent time actively thinking about the story. Blazer says that “Storytelling is as old as dirt. People have been making up stories since cave dwelling times. Our brains are wired to make connections and find narratives.”
Bread Etc. Storyline
A young gal is having a horrible day in the city. The sun is beating down on her face, she nearly got hit by a scooter, and she accidentally stepped in dog poop. She passes by a coffee shop located on a busy intersection with a cute, French-themed deck and lush garden greenery. She drops in for a quick break.
She enters the coffee shop and is greeted by smiling, hospitable staff and charming french music playing in the background. She orders a vanilla latte and takes up the server on the suggestion to try one of their famous croissants. Shortly after she pulls up a seat on the deck, a kind staff member brings her order and complimentary lemon-infused water.
As she enjoys her latte and croissant, she begins to take in her surroundings. The frazzled feeling she came in with slowly begins to fade. The french music perfectly blends in with the humming of cicadas, scooters, and chatter. She’s whisked away by the newfound beauty of her city and savors the moment—and her new perspective—all from her seat at Bread.
Define Your Elevator Pitch
An elevator pitch is a short statement that describes your story. It should include the tone, plot and theme of your story.
The commercial is a delightful and slightly romantic [tone] story about a frazzled late-20-something-year-old who pops into a Parisian coffee shop called Bread Etc. This simple experience positively changes her outlook [plot] and reinforces the theme of watching the world go by. [theme]
Create Your Tagline
Alright, now that you’ve clarified your story through your elevator pitch, you’re prepared to create a tagline. A tagline is a short and straightforward phrase that describes your project.
I’ve never created an internal tagline for a project, but I like this idea a lot. It can operate as the guiding light for the work that comes after and a constant point of reference while creating work.
Tagline: A Parisian oasis in the center of Shanghai.
Previsualization (aka Previs)
Most commonly known as “Previs,” this step starts to explore your project’s look and feel. Blazer explains that “Previsualization can range from simple sketches to fully rendered characters and backgrounds. Previs serves to both solidify design direction as well as establish animation techniques and methods. It gives you the opportunity to experiment with visual directions, materials, and animation.”
During this phase, let yourself research other people’s work and be inspired by how they conveyed specific ideas or emotions. And, don’t forget to step away from the computer and into the tangible world. Explore your surroundings or get messy by playing with different creative materials like paint or play-do. Think about your story and explore different visual and stylistic approaches you can use to tell it effectively.
Do you know that old wives tale that creatives are disorganized? Well, it’s false. Maintaining an organized system means you have more time to focus on the fun part—creating! Building creative work, especially in times, requires a ton of organization to stay on track and focus.
Like Blazer puts it, gather “all the ‘stuff you’ll need to go in there and make magic happen.
Like the iterative design in UX design, this work doesn’t mean that things won’t change as you progress. As you begin building and delving deeper into the story, your style or level may vary some. This is natural and all a part of the creative process. It just means you may need to revisit your previous work and update it to reflect the new direction based on more recent discoveries.
This chapter was a great resource for methodically learning and applying creative storytelling. I look forward to putting these lessons into use in the future.
Animated Storytelling: Simple Steps For Creating Animation and Motion Graphics. 1st Edition. by Liz Blazer. https://www.amazon.com/Animated-Storytelling-Creating-Animation-Graphics/dp/013413365X