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Understanding a creative project and how not to kill it with unrealistic expectations

Are you new to the field of commissioning, marketing, or managing creative projects? 

If you are not sure about how the creative process unfolds, then you will end up with unrealistic expectations. Not understanding the complexities involved in a creative project will leave you with endless suggestions, rejections, and iterations. This will adversely affect your project and the creativity involved in it. Your project will be like a ship sailing without any direction or destination.

From the outside, the steps involved in a creative project may appear similar to that of building a house. But in reality, the workflow, approach, and activities involved in a creative project are quite different, and here is one example. 

You can’t get the movie Avatar made at that level of quality in 3 days even if you have an unlimited budget and an unlimited number of creators. The quality of that work is the outcome of the processes that they followed – the planning that went into it beforehand, the execution that involved bringing together experts to bring the plan to life, and the post-production process that horned the output until it was world-class. 

You can make an Avatar-like movie by ignoring all of the processes and the output will show it’s consequences. Some work requires specialized expertise and other work depends on the output of the experts. There is a series of tasks involved in completing a project and if you care about the quality of the output, there is no shortcut. 

Why should I be aware of the creative process?

Having managed a few good how-tos and explainer video projects (UdaanPay and Loadshare) as a creative project manager for guch, I often come across this question. It is then my responsibility to invest time in educating my clients and colleagues on the effort that goes into creating every deliverable.

By investing time in client education, we have had empathetic clients who understood our process and happily accepted our team’s creative suggestions wherever it was required. It also helped us to justify our estimation of work hours and budget during the initial planning of a project. 

This upfront communication always cleared the air of uncertainty and our clients trusted us with their projects. When they were included at each stage of the project, we noticed that unrealistic expectations and associated challenges gradually disappeared.

What is the process involved in a creative project?

In terms of management, a creative process goes through stages such as initiation, planning, execution, and monitoring. These steps are aligned with the workflow of the creators as well. 

Each creative house has its own set of processes, so be sure to ask or understand the workflow when you approach/get assigned to commission/manage a work. 

To better understand these concepts, let’s take the example of an animated explainer video (creative project), and let’s see the process through which it goes; starting from initiation to monitoring (initial meeting, to iterations, to project closure).

Creative Project Workflow or Pipeline

Let’s divide the flow into 3 groups in terms of production stages and the initial stage comprises a lot of planning which has some management steps also involved to give you a clear picture.

  1. Pre-production – the process of planning. For example, client meetings, planning the steps involved, or gathering resources.

  2. Production – the process of creating content by incorporating various factors gathered during the pre-production stage and converting it into a visual narration. For example, scripting, shooting and animating, etc.

  3. Post-production – the process of adding finishing touches to the created content. For example, completing the edit and adding sound effects, etc.

Pre-production

Creative Brief

After an initial pitch meeting, a creative brief questionnaire will be sent to the company. Let’s look at it as a how-to guide, which will help the creators understand the company, brand, and product much better. This information will help them brainstorm visual storytelling in a better way. 

Imagine that you and your crew are going on a voyage. Maybe you know about the plan but if your crew is not sure about the destination, the estimated time of arrival, or even the precautionary measures needed to navigate through an iceberg or a storm, then the chances are your time of arrival will get delayed or you might get lost or your ship will be wrecked. So you might as well have all the information readily available before boarding the ship. 

An unclear creative brief will lead to creators not being on the same page as the clients. This will result in unrealistic expectations. So please take some time to fill out the brief when you are requested to do so. Based on the answers provided in the questionnaire, a creative brief is prepared that will include:

  • The goals & objectives of the project.
  • The target audience involved.
  • The platform on which this video will run.
  • The estimated time it would take to finish the project.

And how does this creative brief help the creators?

It gives clarity to align the creative expectations of the creators as well as the client according to the proposed budget. It also reduces the conflict of ideas (that might occur if both parties are thinking along different lines) between the creators and the clients.

After preparing the brief, it will be shared with the client for approval, and later shared with the creative team. 

There will be a second round of discussion (on-call or meeting) to further discuss and understand the scope of the project. Normally, it would be between the client, the creative partner and the creators involved in the project. This a platform for the creators to ask the client in detail about the tone, look and feel, message to be conveyed, etc. The creative team will base their research and concept creation on the information gathered from the meeting, as well as the creative brief. Meanwhile, the management team will work on the project scope. 

Project Scope

Once the creative brief step is completed, next is the charting the scope of the project. This is usually done by project managers who are assigned to the creative project. 

Project scope is a written document that tells you what is included and not included in the pipeline of a project. The creative brief comes handy in here as this will help a lot to prepare a project scope. Information such as the objectives and goals, proposed budget, the target audience, deadline of the deliverables, creative references, duration of the video, iteration policies, and the constraints (if any) will be clearly defined in the project scope. 

We make sure that we send it to the client and get approval before we can move on to the stage of scripting and project schedule.

Project Scheduling

Just like I mentioned before, this stage is also a planning stage. Why lots of planning? A lot of time should be spent on planning a project to minimize roadblocks, which could otherwise halt the project.

A project schedule can sometimes be added to your project scope. By doing so your project planning will be strong. 

Based on the deadline and if there is a script, creative partners will create a tentative schedule (after consulting the creators involved), for tasks such as:

  • Research
  • Concept
  • Moodboard
  • Scripting
  • Storyboarding
  • Style frame
  • Voice-over recording
  • Animatics
  • First, the second and third version of edits
  • Sound design
  • Final cut
  • Final deliverables

The project’s schedule will also have the details of the team who will be involved in the execution and production of the video. If it is a 2D or 3D animated explainer video, then the team would include:

  • Creative Partners, who will oversee the overall operations of the project; starting from client meetings to the end of project delivery as per the client’s requirements. They also make sure that the internal creative workflow is running smoothly by closely working with the Creative Director.

  • Creative Director, who will execute the creative vision of the project and act as the head of the creative team. He or she will be a part of the creative process starting from conceptualization to the edit of final deliverables.

  • Scriptwriters, who will help in conceiving concepts and further developing it into scripts.

  • Illustrators, who will illustrate style frames and storyboards as per the approved script.

  • 2D or 3D animators or editors, who will work on the creation and editing of the animated video.

  • VO artists, who will record the voice-over.

  • Sound Engineers, who will work on the final sound mixing.

  • Quality Controllers, who will make sure that the final video is error-free and aligned with the quality standards of the company before shipping it to the client. 

As this is an important phase, before we get into the ‘creation’ or the ‘production stage’, the client needs to be aware of the work schedule. So do share your schedule with the client.

The production stage is all about planning and when that ends, then the creation stage begins.

Creative videos, especially animation videos are labor-intensive. There needs to be a ton of time spent on pre-planning before hitting the stage of production to get the concept and look & feel right. Most of the time, creators go through the following stages to align their thoughts with the creative brief in hand.

Concept

When you have the project scope and schedule ready, the next step is to come up with concepts for the video. Concepts are short paragraphs of what visual storytelling is about, and it is conceived by the creator and scriptwriter. They will collaborate and come up with 3 to 5 workable concepts that are aligned with the creative brief. 
Once the concepts are identified, they will be sent to the client. The client needs to pick a concept out of the suggestions which are later developed to a full-fledged script by a scriptwriter.

Moodboard

Depending upon the timeline of a project, and once the concept is approved, a moodboard will be shared with the client to understand the aesthetic sense of the project. However, it can be internally used by creators to gather inspiration and ideas before starting the actual process of animation. 

Moodboards are set up in the initial stage of production to understand the feeling, or mood of the animation/video and it represents the creative director’s vision for a project. For example, imagine a collage of pictures or the boards you find on Pinterest. Moodboards are the same and it can be a detail-oriented concept board which has colors, textures, photographs, fonts, character styles, energy of the video, animation style, etc. 

If there are two mood boards, the client can point out the style and tone they prefer for their project and this will help you to lock the visual elements such as colors, fonts, and animation style for developing style frames and storyboards.

Scripting

A creative process cannot start without a script. Just like how a strong foundation is essential for building a house, a confirmed script acts as a strong foundation for a creative project. Creators need a script to build the characters and visuals for a project.

The ideas for a script are derived from the concept and moodboard stages, as mentioned above. The script needs to be aligned with the client’s vision and it should be narrated in a way that the creators can easily make creative decisions around it. So if a script provided by the client is not animation-friendly, it will be re-written for an animation video. If there is no script, then concepts will be provided and script will be developed based on the concept chosen by the client.

The final script needs the client’s go-ahead, without which the process won’t go ahead. So it is very important that the client is very much involved in the process of scripting. 
Normally after the scripting stage, we would skip mood boarding and do storyboarding or style frame design (depending on the requirement of the client) before proceeding to the actual production. But in order to help you understand these concepts, let me explain them in the order of occurrence, as it would at guch.

Style frame

A style frame is a few snapshots of how the final animation would look like on screen. These are ideally 2 to 6 snapshots, which will give you an idea about the animation style, color schemes, textures, mediums, and other assets that will be used in the longer animation. 

The style framework begins as soon as the script is approved and it will be sent for the client’s approval. Designers create style framing by keeping the following things in mind:

  • Target audience
  • The style of animation 
  • Mood or emotion of the video
  • Colors to be used as per brand guidelines (if any)
  • Typography
  • Smooth & flat or textured & edgy designs
  • 2D or 3D animation
  • Character or icon animation 

For clarity, two options of the same frames will be provided, which will help the client to visualize and choose the appropriate style that resonates with their idea of the look and feel. It is important to get the style frames right and it should be open to client feedback as this is the only way they could pre-visualize the project in colors and shapes. Once their feedback is incorporated, the style frames should be approved to remain unchanged.

Storyboards can accommodate changes easily when compared to style frames as they are complex because of the designing element involved in them. So incorporating changes (depends on time constraints and budget of the project) will take time and hence, it is always advisable to get the style frames approved before proceeding with the animation.

Storyboarding

A storyboard is an initial visual plan for a creative project before the actual animation process. Let’s look at it as a visual script flow. It is composed of designed or drawn illustrations that are arranged in a sequence from the beginning to the end of the video as per the approved script.

As creating a video is time-consuming, storyboards are created to narrate the visual plan from beginning to end. This ensures that the clients are on board with the creative plan that is about to be executed since there won’t be any room for future delays or changes. This also helps clients visualize the scenes from the script. 

Storyboards are either hand-drawn or colorfully designed using Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop.

Creating a storyboard also helps creators to block the characters, camera, typography, and other assets in a frame as per the approved guidelines.

Each visual will be displayed as a thumbnail with a text line associated with it, which would explain the action happening on the screen. For example, there is a sketch of a scene and under the sketch, there will be notes about the sound effects, animation effects, or even a line from the script. This process helps the client visualize the animation from the beginning to the end. 

Sometimes, we present a storyboard to our client during the pitching of a project (pencil sketch or digital illustrations), if the script is already locked. Clients are requested to add inputs or make changes (depending on the timeline and budget) as it is easier to incorporate changes in this stage rather than redesigning everything after getting into the labor-intensive and time-consuming stage of designing the final digital assets.

Voice-over

Voice-over (VO) recording goes hand-in-hand with the style frame designing and storyboarding. When the designers are working on the style frames or storyboarding, the creative partner will be coordinating with voice-over artists and sound engineers to get this done as per the approved script.

Initially, voice-over samples are sent to the client for approval. The final recording will be as per the client’s choice of voice. In some cases, the client leaves the judgment of the voice-over to us and we always pick the right voice artist from among our guch PROs.

So it is wise to ask the client whether they need a male or female VO and the tone of narration style before going ahead with sending the voice samples. 

Animatics

When all the frames in the storyboard are stitched together (with or without a VO) it becomes the rough cut and it is done to get the continuity and timing reference.

 If you watch the video at this stage, you might not like it. So it’s a good idea to ask for a first draft or first cut.

Animations can go through several stages of edits (depending on the time, budget and iterations agreed upon). As an example, I’ll discuss an example where there are four such stages: first cut, second cut, third and final cut. 

First Draft/ First cut

A first cut is usually 85 percent of the video which will give a feel of what the final video will look like. The first cut might have some animation as well as still frames, VO, or sound effects (varies depending on the budget of the video). 

First cuts are normally shared with the client to get feedback regarding the continuity, timing, and frame settings. If there are any changes to be incorporated, this is the stage where you can do it. After getting a go-ahead from the client, the editing process goes to the revision cut or the second cut.

Second Cut

After getting the client’s feedback, a quick second cut will be done in order to incorporate the suggestions and corrections pointed out by the client. The second cut can also include background music or sound effects as per the client’s requirement. Even this cut needs the clients approval before it can go to the third cut stage. 

Third Cut

This cut is sent to the client to finalize everything. At this point, 95% of the video will be completed, with animated screens, BGM, sound effects, and text on the screen. It is not advisable to accept/make any structural changes, such as adding an extra scene in the already approved script, change of VO, scrapping the script. etc, at this point. As mentioned above, you have gone through each process thoroughly and if you make a change in the script, then the entire foundation of the video can collapse. 

The only thing that can be done at this point is to make adjustments in the timing of the audio & video and changes in the text appearing on the screen. Client approval is needed for the edit before we can deliver the final deliverable. 

Sound mixing

Once the revision cut is approved after incorporating the changes, the cut will be sent to a sound engineer for sound mixing. Sound mixing is the process of mixing and matching the audio levels of the BGM, VO, and sound effects used in the video to make everything sound nice and seamless.

Quality Check 

Before shipping the final deliverable to the client, it goes through a round of quality checks. The video is thoroughly checked for typos and other technical errors such as sound mismatch, VO and visual mismatch, continuity issues, freeze frames, etc. before sending it to the client. 

Final Deliverable

The completed video will be sent to the client in the required format (usually, the MP4 version shared via Google Drive or WeTransfer). At this point the work of the creator is complete and the creative partner will close the project by sending a formal project closure mail.

https://youtu.be/hoF_pskzWNM
Animated Expainer video done for Atlas, Loadshare

Creators, creative companies and creative projects live and breathe creativity and if you try to look at it through a conventional project style (like building a house) then your project will not develop. Here are a few things to remember which will help you to become an understanding and empathetic stakeholder.

Things to remember

Creative projects are qualitative and not quantitative

You cannot measure creativity. It is hard to quantify creativity by applying the standard indicators used in traditional projects to measure performance. Let’s take the example of an animated video (creative project) and our classic example of building a house (construction project). 

In an animation project, it is difficult to quantify sketching, storyboarding, animatics, etc. Whereas, you can quantify a load of bricks, mortar, and sand if you are building a house.

So when looking for performance rate, next time, always ask for how much has been done and how much is left to do. Utilizing an automated management platform to check the status will help you understand where your project stands in terms of performance.

Project objectives and creativity should be balanced

Your objective is to complete or receive a project on time while ensuring that it meets the quality requirements within the budget limit. But often, project objectives take the front seat while the creative part is thrown out of the window. Doing this will hinder the workflow of the creators and it won’t lead to a successful project.

It will help if you can find a balance between your objective with creativity. You can align your objective of meeting the deadline with the creative expectations of your creators. Sticking to a creative brief will help you as well as the creators to never go overboard. So as a first step, you must always have a creative brief. 

Also, encourage creativity by giving ample space for creators to think creatively. Once you brief them, do not stand behind their back constantly in the guise of monitoring. Give them some time to work on their ideas and let them come back to you as per the workflow. 

Endless iterations create never-ending projects

Let’s go back to the example of building a house. You are building a house and you are not sure if you have the best. Will you go back to demolishing the house or spend a lot of time in the initial planning to minimize the risk?

If you want to add a new room or remove a room in the house, then you will have to destroy and rebuild the foundation of your house and the rest of the things will change according to that. Similarly, if you make changes in the script or voice-over, then the structure of the video fails. The time and pacing , even the visuals of the videos have to be changed. It can be done but every iteration affects the schedule and budget of the project. 

The solution for the above situation is to make sure that each stage of the building process is thoroughly checked before going to the next step. The reason for asking approval at the end of every stage is to consider that stage finalized.

So when it comes to the house example, even before building the house, you will ask your designers or engineers to come up with some visual examples. Out of these visual examples, you will choose the best one and then all the stakeholders agree to it and the construction begins. 

The idea is to minimize iterations by foreseeing risks and for that, a creative project must go through the painstaking process of planning. 

Similarly, before rushing to start work on the video, spend some time on planning and finalizing things like the script (which is like the foundation if it were to be compared to a house), voice-over (the walls), style frames (doors, windows, paint color, water supply, and electricity). A house is built step-by-step and similarly, your video is created step-by-step.

If you don’t get the foundation correct at the onset of a project and allow changes to the structure every now and then, everything can fall apart. With never-ending changes, your project will drag on, creativity will get exhausted, deadlines will be missed, and the project will fail.

A considerable amount should be spent on prior planning in terms of finalizing the look & feel of your project. Include all the stakeholders from the beginning, and keep them in the loop until the end of the project to get approvals quickly. Focus on quality in a project’s end-result, and not on however many times the same scene or character was redone in your video. 

Conclusion

The next time you think of approaching a creative project or managing one, even if you are not creatively inclined, understanding what goes behind the work and the complexities involved in delivering a creative work will help you to set your expectations right. 

Empathize with your creators’ point of view, collaborate with the team to bring out the best, and communicate with your team to convey your ideas and opinions. Practicing all these will take you through a productive and visually wonderful project journey without having to face much chaos. 

On to the next project!

For further reading

If you wish to know more about creative projects and management, here’s a collection of articles that I found extremely insightful:

This article contains images sourced from Freepik Stories – https://stories.freepik.com/