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Deciding Between Animation and Live Action for Small Business Video

Brad Chmielewski has been creating motion graphics in Chicago for the past decade, and is the owner and ECD at LooseKeys, where his team focuses on helping businesses attract new customers with creative animated videos, from concept to development to animation. You can find him on Twitter at @beerad or @loosekeys.

Before you jump into creating an explainer or demo video for your company, or even just a fun little video to help promote your service, there are a lot of details to think about. A good amount of planning needs to happen pre-production so that everything can run smoothly.

Whether you're hiring someone to make your video for you or trying to tackle it on your own, one of the first things to determine is whether this video is going to be animated or live action. Whichever way you choose to go, it's going to drive how you write the script and where you focus your time and energy.

I've done a number of animation and live action videos, and both options provide a ton of value. In this post I summarize why I often choose animation over live action (although either has its advantages). This isn't everything you may encounter, but hopefully it helps guide you in the proper direction so you're able to create an amazing video.

What’s Your Target Audience?

What's your target audience for this video and what style might resonate more with them? If the audience is young adults or kids, then an animated video could be fun. If your audience is older, business-oriented people, then an animated video might look too childish and be harder for them to take seriously.

When you're doing a live action video, you're able to add some personality to the video and your service could benefit from that human element. We can pick up on a lot of non-verbal cues, and these can be just as important as what people say. As a result, live footage of customers talking about and showing off your service can be very compelling.

Getting Started

Most of us are carrying around a smartphone capable of capturing video in our pockets. And really that’s all you need to get started with your live action video, right? Not exactly. If your demo isn’t too involved, you may not need a lot of equipment, actors or a crew. You might get away with just hitting “record” on your own. However, if what you had in mind for your live action video is more than what you can pull off yourself, then you should look into hiring a company.

For animation, you need a computer and software, as well as some knowledge of that software. The steps to getting started with animation are challenging if you’re looking to do it yourself, but it can be done if you have the time. It just won’t look as polished as a professional’s work. Like a live action production, animation can be hired out. It just comes at a cost.

The Cost

Depending on your in-house skill set, neither option is going to save you money over the other if it’s done well. Animation and live action ultimately end up costing close to the same amount.

Live action costs can consist of scripting, camera, lighting, sound, directing, talent, voice-over, editing, color correction, music and any sort of logo animations or additional graphics.

Animation costs can consist of scripting, illustration, animation, voice-over, editing, music and sound effects.

Time Involved

Animation can take weeks or months to complete, depending on revisions. Animators are creating everything from scratch, so animation will take longer to complete compared to live action, which is just being captured on camera.

A live action demo video can typically be shot in a day or two. Since you're capturing video in real time, you're able to make adjustments right there, and sometimes improvise something different than what was planned on your storyboard.

After the shoot is over, your edit can be completed in a matter of days, which means that although you may have spent a lot of time on pre-production with planning, scriptwriting, casting, etc., the production and post-production shouldn't take as long.

Controlling Your Vision

Making changes to the script or how something looked after the production is over isn’t always easy. Going back and fixing or changing something could mean a lot of extra costs. With live action video, booking talent and crew for another day or more of reshoots can be pricy.

In my opinion, that ability to perform last-minute changes more easily is what makes animation an appealing option for small business videos, especially startups. When you have a service that’s always changing and evolving, being able to swap out a screenshot or voiceover line can be important. (When you’re making your animation, it’s a good idea not to include realistic screenshots for that very reason. You don’t need to be spending the money to make changes when you know it’s going to change again in a few weeks or a month.)

By going with an animated explainer video, you’re able to control a lot more of the style and tone of the video. Plus, you’re not limited to just human characters. You can grab the audience’s attention with good design and fun animation and you're able to accomplish things that are much more difficult to achieve with live action.

My number one reason why I love animation for explainer videos is the flexibility. If your product changes slightly or you need to remove a segment or mention a new feature, all you have to do is create it using animation software and make the fix. Nothing needs to be scheduled or arranged with other people. You're in control of the process.

Your Video Is An Investment, So Aim High

You’re only limited by your own creativity and technical knowledge or by that of the company you hire to animate your video. You control everything that is shown on-screen, and at the same time you have freedom to create worlds that will help to highlight the business or product you want to promote, which is often what makes animation great for startups.

Many new startups solve a complicated problem that might only exist virtually, which can be harder for live action productions to show and sum up quickly. Since you're not dealing with a production crew, animation allows you to work at your own pace: the only deadline you have is yours. No need to worry about actors canceling, or something going wrong on the shoot.

If your vision is ambitious, requiring a team of animators to pull off, it can get expensive fast. Committing the resources to do it right is what separates the amateurs from the professionals. Just because you’re not using actors or a production crew doesn’t mean that animation is going to be cheaper.

In The End, It’s Your Call

If I have the choice of whether to use animation or live-action, I typically choose animation. That’s what I’m most familiar with and most comfortable doing. However, there are also times when I would choose to make live-action explainer videos -- they have their place and can add something to a video that animation cannot.

If you're confronted with a tough decision, consult with an experienced producer before you set your sights on one solution. Remember, smart planning is the key. You really can't plan enough when you're putting together something that is going to be a key piece of your branding.

Video production can be complex but don't let that scare you. Just like anything, once you do it a few times, you'll start to understand what works and how you can make it run more smoothly.

The 30-Second Recap

Live Action Pros:

  • Can humanize your production
  • Easy to get started
  • Can often be shot and edited quickly

Live Action Cons:

  • Need camera and equipment
  • Lots of pre-production needed
  • Dealing with talent
  • Revisions cost extra money and can be hard to schedule

Animation Pros:

  • No need to hire actors (just voice-over talent)
  • Get started quickly
  • More flexibility
  • Easier to make changes in the end

Animation Cons:

  • More skills needed to get started
  • May make your business look less serious
  • Takes longer to complete than live action
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