Client’s Guide to Animation: How To Use Video And Navigate Your First Production

With over a decade of first-hand experience in animation making, ZOA Studio’s Art Director, Bence Falussy, shares his perspective on the impact video has on architectural competitions and modern development. We also discuss how studios can guide architects and developers through their first animation projects and manage these complex creative productions.

Over the years, many signs have pointed to a change, and now it’s clear: just like almost every part of our modern life, the way we think of and interact with architecture and real estate marketing is being reshaped by video. The problem that many developers and architects face is that they are lagging in this quiet revolution, not yet investing in animation when it comes to selling their visions and promoting new developments.

History itself has been reshaped by the steady rise of moving images, starting with cinema gradually overshadowing theater, then TV taking over radio, and finally, short-form video essentially redefining not only how we engage with entertainment but with advertising as well. Recently we’ve seen that not just architecture and real estate, but multiple industries have been affected by the so-called “TikTokification” of media.

Compared to still images, videos quickly proved to be six times more effective in terms of engagement and communication, which prompted even the biggest player in social media, Meta, to adapt and reshape its whole ecosystem around video content. According to them, video content receives an average of 612% more likes and comments than image ads, making them much more effective in building deeper and longer-lasting relationships with audiences.

In the architecture and real estate business, this change mainly means creating animation alongside traditional forms of 3D visualizations. But understanding this medium’s infinite potential and the shift in customer preferences is just the first step to success, getting to terms with its complexity and higher production cost is the bigger hurdle for most companies trying to implement animated content into their business. However, investing in this field will be necessary sooner or later as the next generation of decision-makers will not only standardize video showcases but expect them.

First, we need to understand what animation is and why it’s a more effective tool for presenting projects to potential buyers, investors, or municipalities. Compared to still images, Bence says that “the most valuable aspect of animation is that it can accurately present information, ideas, and visions in only 60 seconds.”

It’s essentially a curated experience, just like exploring an art museum with a guide. Instead of just showing the building in a digital twin or trying to get your viewers to understand a floor plan, you can figuratively take your audience by the hand and convey to them the messages you want more effectively. The use of narration, visual effects, music, and various other tools combined guarantees that you can get the same message across to every viewer.

Speaking from experience, the most common deterring factors of doing animation are their complexity and financial aspect – and somewhat rightly so. As Bence puts it: “Animation making is indeed more complex than producing still images. Since there are many building blocks in an animation that are dependent on each other, such as video editing, music, camera dynamics, 3D, live shooting, and narration, the process requires more effort from each party and has time constraints. There are certain points in the workflow where we have to declare ‘picture lock’, a state where we can only build upon what is already done, without going back to change things already set in stone.”

To ensure a pleasant client experience, it’s best to establish steps and important milestones before taking on the challenge of creating a film. Kicking things off is an extensive talk with the client where we set up the needs, the must-haves, and every technical detail that helps us deliver creative ideas later on. Then we follow up the brief with a concept presentation that “when done right, is a direct reaction to the client’s needs, figuring out the solution to a problem they need solving. It should never completely blindsight them as it builds upon the information and ideas they have provided.” Ultimately the aim, of course, is to surprise the client but rather through execution and creativity. Clear communication is also of utmost importance according to Bence, as the client has to get the full concept, see a vision of the studio’s proposal, and understand how it all comes together in the end.

The next big step is creating a so-called sketch that is the first visual representation of all the ideas and plans that the client has previously only seen in written or heard in spoken form for weeks. “This might be the single most important step in animation creation as it has to represent the ideas that we’ll include and further develop in the final product” You can measure the effectiveness of a sketch with a squint test: if it looks like the desired result when viewing it with only partially open eyelids, it’s ready to get fully developed. If the client is perfectly aligned with the realization of ideas at this stage, only then can we move on to complete the animation with detail and fidelity.

The point of not showing previsualization shots (half-baked images sourced straight from the rendering software) beforehand is a deliberate decision: sending over incomplete 3D plans for camera angles and effects runs the risk of giving the wrong idea of what the final animation is going to look like. Seeing a very technical and visually unpleasing set of shots might make the client believe that it’s representative of the final quality or they might see more into it than what is going to be there at the end. “It’s better to showcase a semi-finished product for both the studio and the client as we can manage feedback rounds more efficiently and clients don’t have to put too much effort into pondering on the small nuances of each scene.”

Speaking of details, the last step in the process is fine-tuning. Bence says that “if the communication was spot on with the client, then all that is left to do at this point is put in the finishing touches. Populate this scene with people, move that tree, have that car come into frame from the opposite side instead — these sorts of things.”

Unlike still renderings, animation is a different beast with a structure that dictates how and when changes can be implemented. This is the primary reason clients prefer still imagery and hesitate before deciding to invest in animation.

However, we also know for a fact that despite the bigger investment and effort required, animation pays dividends when it comes to lead generation. As with any video on Facebook and Instagram, the algorithm favors it over other content, and it not only has the power to engage the viewers more but can much more effectively communicate a new project than any image could. Not to mention that in the case of animation, the result will be inherently more impressive than a package consisting of a few pictures. Context and perspective matter a lot: the cost-effectiveness is much more evident when comparing the cost of a whole development to the impact and ROI animation can have. The solution to ease client concerns and reassure them that their investment will pay off is clear to Bence: studios need to have answers, results, and a tried-and-true workflow.

Expectation management and first impressions are much more tricky when doing animation work. “It’s important to have a clear workflow from the start, outlining the end product with references so clients understand that they won’t see a full HD animation in just a week. It has to be very clear what we aim for here, what to expect and when.” It has to be understood that a studio can’t provide a solution right away, and more importantly, it shouldn’t. Instead, we have to agree on the steps we take together to reach the end of the tunnel. “First, you’ll get a concept, then we’ll discuss adjustments in a week or so to figure out what needs to be changed, and then finally it’s time to do a fleshed-out sketch. If the client can see the process in its entirety, they can be more confident in the concept and our studio’s capabilities.”

Generally speaking, the client’s role is to present what they want, while the studio’s responsibility is to figure out what they actually need. Based on the goal of the animation, the target audience, the platform it will be showcased on, and the timeframe available to deliver it, the general workflow can be tailored to these specific needs. If it’s going up on social channels, then the story and the message might need to be understood without sound, or if the purpose is to show it during a pitch meeting, then its length might have to be on the shorter end of the spectrum.

The same thing applies to timing. With long-term partnerships, it’s even possible to set up a custom workflow that can be used with each new project, greatly increasing effectiveness in communication and delivery times.

Bence thinks that the days of simple walkthrough animation are numbered, saying that “while creating this type of animation is the most easily executable, it’s something that your competitors do. That’s why I believe in experimentation and creating additional value in presentations and property marketing through storytelling methods.” This can also apply to architectural firms wanting to create something that we simply call ‘architectural porn’, an animation that is beautiful scenes strung together with little to no actual purpose. “It’s the studio’s task to figure out how to go beyond conventions and deliver something spectacular that biases viewers’ decision-making, rather than merely showing spaces and layouts.” Instead of these surface-level showcases, it’s much more effective to give your animation purpose by having it explain the project’s function and how it will benefit its users, tenants, or even the local community in some cases.

To achieve new levels of creativity and spice up animation projects, it should also be considered to bring in help from other creative industries and film production crews since they “can inspire our work and have a great effect on our output”. Another viable route is to constantly meddle with new hardware and software to keep up to date with technological advancements and trends, but in Bence’s experience, caution has to be exercised. For example, experimenting with AI and the latest breakthroughs in real-time rendering, Unreal Engine, brought mixed results. As our Art Director puts it: “Unreal and Vantage are gaining traction because they can significantly decrease render times but we feel the quality is simply not there yet.”

However, the most valuable asset one can have has been and probably always will be the experience and the ability to leave a lasting impression. Communicating clearly with clients, knowing and managing delivery times, and having consultancy sessions throughout the long process ensures everyone remains well-informed on both creative and technical fronts. Simply put, the extensive experience in the field and established strong partnerships result in animations that can stand out.

Based on the current trends in business and content creation, it’s safe to say video will continue to dominate every market and industry. The democratization of tools, the advent of real-time rendering, and the new methods ushered in by the rapidly evolving state of Generative AI all point to the fact that the way we interact with design and real estate brands has a long way to go until we even reach a peak. 

After the sudden shift in communication brought forward mainly by the pandemic, we are also experiencing a virtual renaissance that necessitates having the skills to stand out amidst digital noise. We are more and more certain in our premonition that physical handshakes will be completely overthrown in the coming decades by online meetings and pitch presentations. Suppose you consider the upcoming challenges that this changing landscape foreshadows. In that case, it becomes clear that acquiring a trustworthy partner capable of handling effective visual communication as soon as possible can help you stay ahead of the curve.

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