How to make a cartoonish explainer video

Many of internet marketing professionals and entrepreneurs come to a stage when they need an explainer video in order to increase the conversion rate of their visitors. I have experience of developing very different range of video products and animated videos. I will tell you how to make a good quality explainer video paying way less than a thousand of dollars. I’ll share the process details, which I use in our company.

Let’s say, you want to produce this type of an online presentation:

This video doesn’t use standard pre-animated characters or stock images. The client also didn’t want any whiteboard video, because it’s considered outdated nowadays. It was a serious project and we couldn’t put some cheap drawings that you can come across all over the internet.

Here is the list of steps you will need to take to produce this type of professional animation:

  1. Script writing.
  2. Storyboard writing.
  3. Making the voice-over.
  4. Animation draft.
  5. Adding music and sound fx to the video.

1. Script writing.

Skills needed: web-marketing, online sales, copy-writing, creativity.

Most common mistakes:

  • “I’ll do it totally myself”;
  • technology based startups often like to put some complex terminology, which sounds mind-blowing to most people;
  • the script is written in a style: “we are cool”; “we are great” and “we are super company with a super-duper product”. Script describes more product benefits rather than solutions of customer’s problems.

Script is THE MOST important and time-consuming thing in the whole video production process.

That is where your key selling points are designed. You can draw best illustrations, make a blockbuster-type of animation, record a voice-over of a famous TV voice-over artist, but if your message doesn’t inspire your potential customer to make the next step – the video won’t sell.

If you aren’t sure you’re a ninja in sales and marketing – then you better find one. Unfortunately, it’s really hard to hire such person, because a high level marketing professional will be wildly expensive. When I wrote my first script for an explainer video – I was lucky to have a possibility to show it to a friend, who was responsible for strategic marketing in a multibillion-dollar tech company. He gave me some valuable advices, which I still use while writing scripts for my clients. Try to do the same before generating the storyboard.

And be careful with asking an advice from your friends or relatives, because they may give you a non-objective opinion. A friend of mine likes to say: “By the way, my Mom always tells me I’m special”.

When I used to ask my friends to give a feedback about a new website I’ve developed or a new video I made – I usually asked it this way: “Hey! Here is a script my competitor developed for my potential customer. In order to win this client I need reasonably tell him why the competitor did a poor job. I have some thoughts, but what’s your opinion?” With such a request – there is at least a chance your friend will be more honest with you.

So how do you start writing the script? What points should you make at the beginning?

I suppose, you know the Shark Tank TV show, right? See a fairly good example of a well-delivered sales pitch:

The only thing: here she starts from telling who she is and what she wants, while in the web-videos it’s better start right from the point: a problem issue or a question, for example.

The key thing: you have just 11,5 seconds to grab the attention of your viewers. If you don’t do it – most likely the majority of people will ignore your video.

Summarizing all that – here is what you should do in order to develop a great script:

  1. grab the attention of your target audience in firs 1-2 sentences.
  2. put around 130-140 words per minute unless you want a hard-sell voice-over (which rarely works well, by the way);
  3. make sure the video is going to be less than 90 seconds long (around 200 words);
  4. read your script in loud to yourself and to a few other people collecting a subjective opinion;
  5. show your script to the best marketing guru you can find (it actually could be your boss or colleague); let them correct it from sales point of view.

2. Storyboard development.

Skills needed: creativity, creativity and one more time creativity!

The main purpose of a storyboard is to provide a detailed description of a task for a cartoonist and animator.

Most common mistakes:

  • start recording the voice-over while/before generating the storyboard;
  • not counting how many seconds each scene will take;
  • put the whole 1,5 hour movie scenario into a 7 seconds scene;
  • put a description for a cartoonist without examples of a picture and a comment like: “Well, read the script, this should be easy. Come with an idea, which I will like”.

As you probably already understand, generating the storyboard could be very challenging. In order to give you an idea how my initial storyboards look – here is a screenshot from the storyboard of project called “BorrowBuddi” (online loans platform):

Storyboard evolution _ stage 1

The picture you see on this storyboard was found somewhere on Google Images; we do not have any rights to use it in our video products. But it helps cartoonists to understand what actually a customer wants.

And if they get the idea well and you work with professional artist – your storyboard evolves into something like this:

Storyboard evolution _ stage 2

As you can obviously see – it is also a draft, because illustrations are black and white.

Here is the same storyboard with final illustration:

Storyboard evolution _ stage 3

“How to come up with ideas for a storyboard?”

It often happens you read some part of the script and have zero ideas what to show there. I usually go on Google Images and start typing keywords from that sentence. You will usually end up with a problem of choosing the best idea out of the ones you find. If not – then go through the videos on our portfolio: you may actually find a scene that is close to yours.

  • OK, let’s say you already have an idea for a scene in mind, but now you just need some preferably cartoonish illustration that will look close to what you want. For example you type keywords like “parking zone” or “city parking” or whatever. Most of the pictures you will see will be photos. But if you add a word “cartoon” to any of those keywords – you may see something you need.
  • Remember cartoonists may not always be a good marketeer in order to be capable “to come up with an illustration you will like”. If you are creative enough – do the work on coming up with ideas for the storyboard yourself.

“How many seconds should include each scene?”

In the majority of good explainer videos most of the scenes last 9-15 seconds in average.

For example:

Here is a quote from the script, which was initially drafted for PayBySky:

“Parking is a hassle… They take away your car, they pull out the feelings out of your teeth and sometimes they threaten to take your first born children! There has to be a better way!..”

This line will last less than 10 seconds. And in those 10 seconds you can’t really show 3 slides of pictures. Technically you can animate even 10 images per 10 seconds, but viewers won’t get the visual message. So you need to choose which single picture will illustrate this message the best on this scene.

There are cases when you are really forced to put one slide per 15-20 seconds of your video. It means that most likely the voice is going talk very long time while you will be showing just 1 action. If you caught yourself in such situation then be creative in what to animate:

  • don’t show the whole picture very quickly;
  • make sure something new appears on the scene every 3-5 seconds;
  • maybe add some text, but no more than 5-10 words and do not repeat in writing the same thing that voice-over says. That’s a very popular mistake in many presentations. Don’t make it;
  • try to make as much live movements and animation for this scene as possible.

Revise your script.

One of the usual things that often happens to video makers is that the storyboard makes them to implement some changes into the script. Sometimes you find a really great visual idea for a scene of your storyboard, but it doesn’t match the script without minor adjustments. Of course, it’s not a problem if you haven’t recorded the voice-over. But if you have – then you may have a hard time finding the best solution of adjusting the storyboard.

3. Unique illustrations.

Skills and stuff need: talent to draw cartoonish illustrations in different styles; special pen and tablet to make digital drawings.

Common mistakes:

  • make hand-drawings on a paper, then scan it and convert into a digital format;
  • not making simple black and white drafts;
  • not giving enough details about the format of final illustrations;
  • using illustrations that were drawn by different artists.

“Can I use some $3-$5 stock illustrations?”

You can, but to my mind it won’t look professional in most of the cases. And many stock images are alike. You want your video to be unique.

“How to get a good cartoonist?”

Fiverr.com may work. I also tried to hire cartoonists on oDesk, but they were either too expensive or I wasn’t satisfied with the quality of their portfolio. I’ve hired quite a few good web-designers there, but definitely not cartoonists.

Before I got the first client at Doodle Video Production we held a contest among 100 cartoonists. Only a few got hired eventually. Many of them were filtered at the very beginning just because they simply didn’t have special tablet for graphic design:

Graphic design tablet

The others got filtered because they didn’t understand my task correctly. They didn’t draw exactly what I was asking, even though I recorded almost 5 minute screencast explanation. Trust me, you do not want to have any extra revisions of your illustrations just because your freelancer can’t understand a task from the first time.

“How to explain what I need?”

This is simple one. Start from showing your storyboard, where you can see all the descriptions of a future animation. Then answer all his\her questions and ask for a black and white drafts for a few scenes. Not all scenes, just a few first ones.

Here is a list of requirements to the images themselves:

  • preferably “ai” format, but “psd” also works;
  • all elements of the pictures should be drawn in separate layers: if you have a table and a flower on it – the table and the flower should be in separate layers;
  • all the layers should be grouped;
  • each layer group should have a name, so that you could quickly find how to “cut” any part of the picture;
  • if you have people (characters) on a picture – they should be divided into separate layers (layouts) like this:

layouts for cartoonish graphics

4. Voice-over.

Skills needed: years of experience of working in some kind of a radio or recording studio; great, engaging voice; perfect native accent; very clear diction and many many many others.

The main purpose of a good voice-over is bringing to life your perfect script.

Common mistakes:

  • the wrong selection of male or female voice;
  • recording a wrong type of voice tone, speed and style;
  • accepting MP3 quality;
  • paying for a voice-over without having a customized sample.

To my mind the only way to get a high quality of American or let’s say German voice-over is to hire a freelancer, who is doing this type of thing minimum 40 hours per day 5-7 days a week. I work with a guy, who works 10-14 hours per day in his home based professional studio. He produces approximately 6-20 minutes of a high quality voice-over per hour. Could you imagine the quality of sound he can record having this much of everyday practice?! I find those type of freelancers in two places: Fiverr.com and Voices.com. The last one is wildly expensive. And you can’t really purchaise any voice-over on Voices.com with a budget less than $100. For example, I paid over $250 just for this voice: http://youtu.be/scfFk6UdfEU

But for PayBySky video I paid around $42 in total on Fiverr.com. Currently, if Fiverr.com can’t meet my demands I go on VoiceBunny.com and Voices.com and watch, who can bid me the best combination of quality and price.

Which voice should you choose: male or female? That’s a tricky question. You have to know your target audience really well in order to answer that question correctly. Generally speaking, if your target audience are mostly women then you should consider male voices; if your clients are mostly men – then a female voice may sound more appealing to them. BUT!!! If you are selling new type of diapers targeting stay-at-home moms you better consider a female voice for the voice-over reasons. Or, let’s say you are selling some high tech solution targeting entrepreneurs and CTOs of big companies (over 25-40 years old): in this case most of your viewers may not trust a female voice, because they got used to hear about high tech products from men.

If you are having a hard time figuring out which way to go: try to find some similar videos of your competitors – maybe there will be an answer. If you still can’t figure out what to do – leave me a comment below – somebody from our team will answer.

How to choose the right tone, intonation and speed of the voice-over?

Again, to find that out you better know your target audience well. For some high tech complicated products the target audience are usually men above 35 years old, so you should write that down in your job-post for the voice-over artist. In such cases I also add a comment: “you should sound like a confident businessman reading presentation”.

If you are making video to sell iPhone covers – then your target audience are mostly women in the range of 15-35 years of age. In this case your male voice should sound like a young guy of 23-27 years old; he should sound fun and entertaining. The speed of voice should be a bit higher than a “businessman” from a previous example.

Before paying a penny to a voice-over artist I usually ask a sample of the voice-over for my script (2 or 3 sentences). Because here is what happened to me some time ago: I had listened to the samples of work on freelancer’s profile and liked them all. I made a full payment for voicing-over my script. To my surprise it was recorded on different equipment (worse of course) and the guy sounded not the way I expected. As it happens in our everyday life: advertising sometimes looks much better than the reality of product or service we get.

5. Animation. Final product.

Skills needed: video production and video editing experience; design skills; a professional software and patience.

Common mistakes:

  • changing storyboard or script during this change; even if it’s not a mistake it increases cost of production significantly.
  • using poor software;
  • writing the same text on a slide as the voice-over is saying.

OK, now you have great illustrations and perfect voice-over. How to put all those things together?

Hire an experienced animator to do that.

Let me tell you something: professional animation is very time-consuming. It takes over 500 hours of effective practice to reach an acceptable level of required skills. That’s why most people hire somebody to do that job.

I won’t teach you in this article how to make an animation using Adobe After Effects, Adobe Flash, GoAnimate, Sparkol or VideoScribe… It’s too long of a journey. I will show you how you can create a 2d animation cheaply using freelancers.

STEP 1. Once again make sure your storyboard looks perfect. Any future changes in illustrations or script may cause extra costs.

STEP 2. Take each scene and record a screencast explanation of how do you see the animation of it. I usually use TechSmith products.

Remember, the more movements you request the more expensive and time-consuming animation stage will be.

STEP 3. Hire a professional animator for a reasonable price.

What is a reasonable price? Around $10-$15 per second is OK. $25-$100 per second price is more for cartoons rather than regular motion graphics for business.

You don’t need too much of animation like in a Pixar cartoon or a good computer game. You need to bring a bit of movement to your characters. Just enough to engage a viewer. That’s why that service shouldn’t cost that much unless you hire an animator, who lives on Palm Beach.

If I were in your shoes I’d go on oDesk or Elance and publish this type of job post:

Look for somebody, who has strong portfolio, over 100 billed hours on the platform and a reputation no lower than 4,5. Do not consider agencies, because in most cases the price is high and they show you a portfolio of a one guy, but your job may be done by another. They also like to show a high end work sample, but when you make a contract and leave a deposit you find some “little misunderstanding” that actually you will get non-unique characters, and almost nothing will be moving in your video…

Misunderstandings in design_final

If you try to hire an animator on oDesk or Elance platforms: always add screening questions. If you decide to use some standard questions that for example oDesk can offer – rephrase them. Make your potential freelancer write a customized cover letter. Ask some specifics. Many freelancers have a very poor English level. And trust me, when you get 50 applications to your job – you do not want to waste your time on those, who will write “READY FOR TAXI TIME” instead of “READY FOR TAX TIME”.

STEP 4. When you pass an explanation of the 1st scene to an animator – make sure he/she understands what are your expectations. I usually make a Skype call and ask “How did you understand the task? Explain me your action plan.”

STEP 5. When you’re done with intimidations of your animator – give them a task to accomplish just first slide. Check results and make corrections after each slide.

STEP 6. Don’t put sound fx until you animate the whole thing. When you finish the animation and you’re happy with results – only then you may add some sound fx to make your product look more alive. But make sure they are not too loud and they don’t distract the attention from a voice-over.

STEP 7. Be careful with the music. Many videos shouldn’t include music at all in order to keep viewers focused. Many marketing videos start with a problem description. And a positive music appears only at the stage when you explain a solution to a described problem.

Of course, your music should be unique. Usually voice-over artists or professional animators can offer that for a symbolic fee. I used pay $5 for that service at the beginning, but currently I have huge collection of different melodies, so I rarely spend money for background melodies.

Good luck in your journey of video production!