3d animation, motion graphics and CGI for documentaries


3d animation, motion graphics and CGI for documentaries

How to add motion graphics and 3d animated reconstructions to your documentary work without blowing the budget


About the author: Christian Darkin is an illustrator and animator and has written five books and countless magazine articles on 3d animation. Motion graphics  and visual effects.

Animation and CGI in Documentary films 

Things have come a long way since �Walking with Dinosaurs�.  3d animation, motion graphics, CGI and visual effects are now a regular part of many documentary films.  As well as historical reconstructions and informational motion graphics, computer animation and CGI is now routinely used in almost any situation where shot footage isn�t available.


What�s more, costs have come down and quality of visual effects has gone up in recent years, so even documentary films with a modest budget can now afford to use compelling and stylish computer graphic animations. 


But as a documentary filmmaker, how do you go about adding visual effects and 3d animation to your productions?  What information do animators need?  How do you get what you�re looking for from the process?  And just as importantly, how much is it going to cost you?


This article sets out to answer a few of those questions.


Motion graphics and animation tips 

Don�t be afraid to approach a video animation design or visual effects artist early on in your production.  They�ll be able to let you know immediately what�s possible and how to get your animation done in the most effective way.

 Give your animators as much detail as you�ve got � your animators won�t necessarily know the subject area of your documentary film inside out, so all the background information you can give them will help in researching the animation.  3d animation studios are used to doing research, but if you can give them access to your research, experts or helpful interviewees, you�ll get a much more unified view of the subject and save money by not having to re-do animation later.


 Look at preliminary visual effects and animation tests:  The post production studio will provide you with stills and low resolution animation clips as the project goes on.  These give you time to fine tune ideas and improve the accuracy of reconstructions.  Changing things at this stage will be far less costly than changing them after all the work has been done.

 Use animation shots that tell a story:  animated sequences and visual effects shots tend to be some of the more expensive shots in your production, so choose them well.  Nobody likes re-using shots, but with an impressive 3d animation for example, it often works well.  If you have several visual effects shots that work together to tell a story, using them separately earlier on in the documentary can increase their impact.  For example, say you have a 3d animation of a meteor travelling through space, one of it entering the atmosphere, a visual effect of the explosion as it hits the Earth and a reconstruction of its consequences (the extinction of the dinosaurs, for example).  Earlier in the documentary, each shot will work well in sections of the film detailing the different aspects of the threat, and then when the entire animation is brought together for the climax of the documentary, the effect will be even greater.


 Types of visual effects and animations in documentaries

 Explanation graphics: Motion graphics are a great way to explain a complex idea or present information, if shot video footage can�t do it.  Explanations don�t have to be dull or dry.  They can be 2d or 3d animated graphic representations and often include text, but equally consider presenting them as cartoon animations or sequences with animated characters.  Whatever the style of your piece, the animation can fit in with it.

 Animation for colour shots:  Colour shots are general cut-aways that can be used almost anywhere you need them.  They�re purposely generic but relevant.  A 20 second 3d animation in which the camera rushes through the bloodstream of a patient as blood cells fly past can be used pretty much anywhere in a medical documentary without looking out of place � plus, you can always flip it horizontally or vertically or even reverse it to make it into a new shot!  Equally, a fly through or pan around a reconstruction of a building in which a crime took place can work wherever you need it in a documentary on that subject.  A couple of colour animations of this kind can save your skin in the edit when you run end up with more narration than shot footage.

 Visual effects reconstructions:  animated reconstructions are often the �hero� shots of a documentary.  If you don�t have the footage of the most important events or moments in your documentary, an animated reconstruction is often the way to go.  If you want to show the assault on Baghdad , bring back the dinosaurs, or reconstruct an assassination, or if you simply need to show how the fat gets from a burger to your thighs, a 3d animated reconstruction is probably the way to go.  If you go to an animation studio with a loose idea of your needs, they�ll be able to come up with a range of different looks for your animation and advise you on what would work best.  If you have a very specific storyboard in mind, or a very defined look, that works too.

 Title animations:  An animated title sequence is a good way to open your documentary, and it will set the tone for your entire show, so it�s worth dedicating a little time to making sure that tone is spot on for the style and content of what comes after.  Motion graphics covers the whole range of 2d and 3d animation, text, video and graphic design elements, so the animation design studio you bring in should be able to gather all the skills necessary to do the whole job.


 So what�s this going to cost me?

 Animation and visual effects span a huge range.  Compare the motion graphics used in Supersize me to those found in Walking With Dinosaurs.  So simply giving a figure is pretty meaningless.

 What�s usually better is to give your animation studio a rough idea of what your documentary�s visual effects budget is and let them tell you what they can do with it.  My usual method is to take the customer�s budget and give three options � one undercutting it, one using it to the full for the best possible effect � and one letting them know what they could get if they could find a little more 

 Of course that�s only possible if the budget is reasonable to start with � and a good yardstick is to take your programme�s budget per minute,  then guess the FX work is going to come in at between 2 and 4 times that figure per minute.

 In other words, if you�ve got a budget of 60,000 for a 60 minute programme, that�s 1,000 per minute, and you�ll want your animation to be at the same standard as the rest of your film, so 2,000 – 4,000 per minute is a pretty good guess for the animation.  Obviously that�s not the whole story � an animated Trex is going to cost more than an animated graph, but you should get into the right area with this calculation.


 How to make your documentary motion graphics cost more

 The quickest way to increase the cost of your production is to make alterations to the project at a late stage.  Changes can quite often mean elements of the work have to be re-done and that will cost � try to let the artists know what might need tweaking early on (before work starts preferably) then they can build in quick ways of adjusting things without re-doing everything.


 How to reduce your documentary motion graphics costs 

  The quickest way to reduce cost is to talk to the animator or visual effects studio about how the production can be simplified without affecting its overall look. For example, to animate a camera flying through a static model takes a lot less time (possibly weeks less) than animating every detail of the model itself.



 Most animation studios will ask for 25% of the cost up front, 25% on delivery of the first finished version and the remaining 50% at the end of the project (often � if no changes are needed � the last two invoices are at the same time).


 What if I really can�t afford animation and visual effects? 

  Go graphical: Reconstructing the siege of Troy with every soldier animated in authentic detail is going to be a big job.  But animating the strategic turning points of the siege replacing battalions with chess piece style graphics on a stylised representation of the battlefield is within the budget of most productions.  Thinking of a stylised motion graphics look rather than a realistic animated one will save tonnes of cash.  Going for still illustrations rather than motion graphics will save still more.

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