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Animation vs. Live Action: Which Medium is Best For You?

Updated: Jun 29, 2023

Typically when we get into this debate - animation versus live action - it's after a conversation that goes something like this:

Client: “We want to make an explainer video for our site. “

Us: ”Great! What were you imagining?”

Client :”Um, maybe one of those animations where the hand is drawing on a board. Like a whiteboard? Do you guys do those?"

We've been asked this question so many times that it has almost become an inside joke at our company. Not because whiteboard animations are bad (though, let’s be honest…), but rather because it has become synonymous with uncertainty.

It can be difficult for companies that are sure they want a video, but are unsure what that video should look like. Is it a cartoon? Is it of real people? Is it a....whiteboard animation? There isn't a simple answer, because it relies on a multitude of factors. Every company has their own unique value proposition (click here for more on crafting a value proposition video) and purpose for a video. Some people believe that live-action is best for products and animation is best for services (especially those that are digital), but that typically isn’t the case. Whether it’s an explainer video, product demo, about us, etc., there isn’t necessarily a right answer to what medium will work best for your company.

Just because there isn’t a ‘right’ answer doesn’t mean that you can't make an educated decision. I want to share insights and real-world examples that will allow you to do just that, helping you determine what medium is right for your individual video needs.

Before we start talking mediums, you first need to ask yourself this question: What is the message that you are trying to relay to your audience? Your video's appearance is just a vehicle that helps drive your core message forward. Consider what you are trying to say, who you are saying it to, and what you want them to do after watching.

Many people believe that video is the future of marketing, and that if you have video, you have a leg up on your competition.

I know it seems funny for a company with our name to say this, but don't rush into making a video because you feel you have to. Really stop and think about what a video would accomplish, because this answer will influence the medium that you choose. At this point you know what your video is trying to accomplish, and you may even know who your target audience is. Now, you can begin to answer the question, should I use live action, or animation?

Let's talk about live action

When we say “live action” we’re referring to filming real places, products and people, either on-site or in our green-screen studio. It’s an age-old fact that people prefer to buy from people over anything else, and that’s where live action has an advantage. For companies whose service or value proposition IS a person (consultant, lawyer, doctor, etc), video can serve as a more personal way to virtually introduce yourself to prospective clients while explaining how you can help them.

Do you sell a tangible product? It adds a lot of credibility to your video when you can actually see the product being used in the real situations, or show how it works. Charity videos work in the same way, and thus are best when promoting real individuals working towards a real cause. Really any video that asks a person to go somewhere ( a tourist destination, real-estate video or event promo) should contain real footage as well.

These may seem like obvious examples, but they illustrate a driving theme- if you want relatable, live action may be your best bet.

An example of this can be seen in the snippet below:

After being approached for this project, we were asked about making a ... can you guess? That’s right! A whiteboard video that would illustrate the frustrations of a process that their service makes easier.

Animation can be a great way to illustrate a problem, but our team really wanted to stop and consider who exactly this video was for. It’s for people, mainly school administrators, who need a better way to track documents.

How is that done? By using this client's intuitive and easy to use software. What was the goal? To get them to sign up for a free consultation/demo.

After considering these factors, we came to the shared conclusion that the best approach is to show the product being used in real settings by real people. It may not be “exciting,” but it doesn’t have to be. In this instance, clarity wins out over spectacle.

Live action is definitely a powerful medium, and it can also be more cost effective over animation -- to a point. While animation is typically more expensive to produce, filming re-shoots can become costly because of a need to hire actors, props, and traveling fees. Before you consider making a video or commercial, try to think about the future of your videos. Will they exist as a set? Will your product or location be changing? If so, filming will become an ongoing cost.

So then when is animation best?

It’s easy to explain a product that is tangible by showing it, but what if it can't be seen? What if it’s an app, process or service, or an idea that is difficult to explain? This is where animation stands supreme, providing a means to explaining abstract or complex ideas in an exciting and entertaining way.

I know I’ve said live action is great for connecting audiences to people’s personal stories, but animation has that ability as well. We’ve all seen how films like Pixar’s can make grown men cry (and before you ask, yes, I AM talking about myself) with their emotional storytelling. Humans have the innate ability to connect with almost anything, human or inhuman. Real or fake.

An example of this is in an 'About' video we made for a client, a snippet of which can seen below:

In it, the President of the company is telling the story of why he and his wife started their business. It’s an emotional story, and involved a flashback where he explains quitting after his kids wrote a letter saying they missed having their dad around.

We didn’t want to film a reenactment of the events, because we didn’t want it to feel corny and stilted. In this instance, live action actually made the human element less real, which would have negatively impacted the story they were trying to tell. By taking the people involved and making them into caricatures, we were able to 'act' out the scenes. Animating their emotional struggle and eventual formation of their current business allowed them to tell their story in a way that didn’t feel dishonest.

Animation can also be a great way to catch a person’s attention, which makes it valuable for social media use.

For sites like Facebook and Twitter, where videos automatically start playing, having a flashy animated intro can be a great way to pull eyes your way. Using text in an animation can push this even further, allowing someone to watch a video completely silent. Technology is changing the way that people digest media, including video. As we evolve towards mobile devices, our videos must also evolve.

Furthermore, animation can be a great way to differentiate yourself from the crowd, allowing you to show off your personality in a more unique way. Being able to tie the style of an animation to a brand is something that we take into great consideration before starting a project.

Too often, we see animations that look like they were done by a template, reusing styles and characters to save on costs. While this approach is fine if you don’t have the budget for something more individualized, remember that people have shorter attention, higher expectations and seemingly unlimited content on the web to enjoy.

Your customers compare us not only with our competition, but with everything they see. What makes your content stand out?

As I write this article, I’m starting to fear that I’ve been painting a very polarizing approach to video design, pitting animation versus live action. It’s kind of like offering someone a peanut butter or jelly sandwich. The world isn’t black and white, so why should your medium be? Maybe the right approach for you isn't one or the other. Perhaps it’s both.

Yes, this article has a good ol’ fashioned M. Night Shyamalan twist at the end with a third option:

DYNAMIC DUO: Live Action & Animation

Hand-in-hand, live action and animation frolic through the vast content-plains creating joy wherever they go.

In all seriousness, we have found that by mixing both options, we can fill in the gaps that the individual options may leave open. Take the below video as an example:

After discussing the goals for the video with the client, we realized that the video served two purposes:

1. To introduce the CEO to the audience 2. Tell a story about a problem and his method to solve it.

Using animation would help tell this story, but we also wanted to meet the man the customer would be working closely with. We decided to have him in the video, and transition to supporting animations to help clarify his story.

What if you have a physical product or process, but it’s too complex to easily film? We specialize in both 2D and 3D animation, so we understand the impact that including 3D model breakdowns or more simplistic 2D drawings can have in making your product or process more easily graspable.

Remember to consider who this video is for: Is this for other businesses (B2B) or is this for customers (B2C)? Are you trying to teach them or excite them? Asking these types of questions will make it clearer which medium is best for you.

Mixing mediums can be a great approach, not only for helping to paint a bigger picture but also for budgeting reasons. Can’t afford a really nice 1.5 minute animated video? That’s absolutely fine. It’s better to have sections of quality animation mixed with footage than to have less polished animation.

An example of this is the client video below, which took the simple style of the company's existing e-book/infographs they had and made an animated/live-action mix to promote it:

Again, it's not always easy to say which medium will work best. Every company is different. Every viewer is different. My advice is to stay true to your message, consider your goals and audience, and the video will take shape from there. Remember that in the end, people really just want to know how you can help them, and a good story story never hurts either. Have you been thinking about making a video? We’d love to hear your thoughts about which medium you would choose, and why, in the comments below.

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