Reel Clever

Reel Clever help to connect filmmakers with businesses looking to produce a film. They have posted about their experiences creating an explanation video, which uses the whiteboard scribing style to promote their service.

In addition to talking about their process and tools they have some excellent advice on writing the narration and accompanying images including “ensuring that each line [of the script] was relevant and captivating.” and that you shouldn’t “over analyze [the images], keep it simple. Its the obvious connection between the narration and imagery that give these videos their punctuality”

Overall I think their finished video is really good but, if I had to be critical, i felt the lighting was a little uneven which resulted in poor contrast in the drawings, and there was an occasional distracting shadow cast across the whiteboard. Also, the camera would have been better placed to ensure that the artist’s head stayed out of shot as, again this caused a distraction as it occasionally flickered into view. My final minor criticism is that the editing on one scene caused the artist’s hand to linger, freeze-framed, in shot. I felt that this destroyed the illusion that the images were being drawn in accelerated real-time and provided an unwelcome glimpse behind the curtain, exposing the mechanics of the editing process. But aside from these minor criticisms, overall the video’s message is clearly presented and the drawings are clearly drawn and serve well to embody the ideas presented by the narrator.
I would definitely check out their full post describing the making of their film and their website is worth a look also.

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Silent movie

This is the first explanation video I’ve come across that doesn’t feature a narrator. Instead, the message is delivered entirely using subtitles, synchronised with the antics of the silhouetted figures above. No sound effects have been used and the only audio track is a musical score that plays throughout. Aside from the use of an occasional photo, used to show the product, the entire video is animated using a strikingly distinctive, limited colour palette consisting of only four colours – black, yellow, red and orange.

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Every force in nature

I briefly considered not including this particular video since it doesn’t really match my definition of an explanation video. At over five minutes long, this video is more than twice as long as others I’ve posted and has been created for the purpose of science education, rather than for spreading the word of a new service or product, but it contains so many nice innovations that I felt compelled to post it. Its first, and most impressive characteristic is the way a very complex subject has been explained clearly using a simple and original analogy. But I also like the twist on the whiteboard scribing style where a live action hand draws scenes on a whiteboard (or perhaps a pad of paper) and then adds an appropriate dusting of animation in key scenes to bring them to life and enhance the audience’s understanding.

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Simple, yet engaging

An engaging animation produced by one of the masters of this medium, Epipheo Studios, who excel at presenting complex ideas within a simple narrative. The animation successfully manages to incorporate humorous touches at appropriate times, in a way that doesn’t detract from the spoken message.

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Creating an Animation: Part 1 – Tools

I thought it would be interesting to share my experiences and chosen tools used to create my first (and only!) animation.

I stumbled upon Paper for the iPad around the time that it was starting to look like, if we wanted an explanation video for the product I was developing, I’d have to make it myself.
Fortunately, there isn’t a learning curve to using Paper and I quickly experienced the confidence to experiment, and the urge to give drawing a try. Unusually for a drawing app, there are only six tools, including eraser, and a palette of just nine colours. But, rather than this being a burden, I found that these limitations worked in my favour, forcing me to think about what I was trying to create and preventing my usual obsession for perfection, which would normally result in a form of analysis paralysis – not wanting to proceed for fear of making mistakes. Being denied the ability to obsess over every pixel, or deliberate over the ‘best’ RGB colour value to use, I was forced to experiment with, and practice, the actual process of drawing. I also found another beneficial consequence of a restricted tool set and limited colour palette is a natural consistency in the output. All pictures drawn using Paper seem to benefit from a pleasant, almost organic, natural appearance which is distinct from the drawn-using-a-computer look many graphics software produce.

Soon after beginning to use Paper seriously I thought it was wise to buy a stylus. This proved very worthwhile. Having a stylus gave me a lot more control over the placement of the “nib” since the image was no longer obscured by my fat finger. The only downside to using the pen was my natural tendency to rest the side of my hand on the iPad whilst drawing. This causes unwanted marks on the picture but i soon learned to hover my hand above the surface instead.

Now that I had a drawing tool, I just needed some way of making my pictures move. I initially toyed with using traditional animation techniques, where each frame is painstakingly drawn by hand, but a little experimentation proved this to be impractical given the time available and my limited patience! So instead, after a bit of searching, I stumbled upon Sencha Animator which is a fairly new tool for building CSS3 animations. After learning the basic principles from Sencha’s online tutorial videos I found it to be an excellent tool with an interface that soon became very intuitive to use. At the application’s heart is a timeline onto which a number of “layers” may be placed. Each layer can contain images and these can be transformed, from one keyframe to another, using transitions such as rotation, position and fade; the in-between frames are automatically generated by the app.
Sencha Animator would have been ideal for my needs if I hadn’t needed sound effects and a voice track. For a brief moment of insanity, I considered using Sencha to animate the images, importing the movie into Windows Movie Maker, then finally placing a soundtrack on top. I’m really glad I didn’t go this route! It would have been tortuous to try to synchronise each sound effect with the relevant frame and match key words from the narration to the appropriate frames. And, if I had made a mistake, or wanted to make a change, I’d have had to start all over!
Finally, I settled on the tool I wish I’d looked at earlier – Adobe Flash. It’s the obvious choice in hindsight but I think my prejudice from using poorly designed Flash websites in the early noughties blinded me from considering it. Having a steeper learning curve than Sencha’s tool it took me a couple of days to really appreciate how powerful it is, but having persevered, I can now recommend it without reservation. Flash is based around the same timeline concept as Sencha Animator, or rather Sencha is based on the concepts from Flash, but it’s power is without comparison: audio layers can be added as easily as images; a layer can itself contain an animation, consisting of many other layers, which will repeat indefinitely; layers can be added containing “motion tween” – an auto-generated transformation, similar to Sencha but a lot more flexible; traditional frame-by-frame animation can be created by adding keyframes and drawing using the built-in tools. One feature that I spent a lot of time with was the Motion Editor which allows fine control over how an object’s properties adjust over time. For example, an image’s alpha channel (its transparency) could be set to follow a Sine curve which would produce a pleasing “pulsating” effect.

To summarise, here is a comprehensive list of all the tools I used to produce the final animation:

  • Paper for the iPad – for drawing the backgrounds and characters.
  • Paint.net – for touching up, and fragmenting, the characters
  • WavePad for the iPad – to record the voiceover
  • Audacity – for editing sound effects and voiceover
  • Flash Professional – for putting everything together

In part 2 I describe my script writing process.

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Whiteboard Scribing Style

TruScribe seem to be one of the pioneers of the whiteboard scribing style. Here, an existing audio track is enhanced using hand-drawn images on a whiteboard, filmed using a static camera. It’s interesting to see how the images really help to reinforce the spoken message, despite the apparent low-tech nature of the process. It is very apparent that the artist has considerable artistic skill and I’m particularly impressed with the way they have realised the spoken concepts in images on the whiteboard. It must be particularly challenging to annotate an existing pre-recorded audio track and not have the luxury of altering as necessary to simplify the visuals.

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Introducing Graphene

This video created by SimpleShow for Cambridge University introduces Graphene using an effective technique of manipulating still images using a pair of live action hands.

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