3d animation: what buyers and developers need to know SOUP TO NUTS

3d animation!? What the deuce?

That's right. When it comes to niches, 3d animation is not a bad route to go. If you've ever dabbled in animation for your clients, you'll notice you're one of a thousand fishes in the sea who can do 2d animation. 

Ditto live-action video ever since 2008's Canon 5d Mk II and YouTube a few years before it.

But 3d animation? It's a skill few possess and even fewer are great at. I have zero skills in 3d animation beyond what After Effects can natively do. But I know how to pitch, I know how to lead a small video production, and I know how to over-communicate. Don't let the barriers to entry keep you away. Find a talented artist and be a heckuva producer.

Not interested in 3d? Niche down 'til it hurts fellow filmmakers, and I'll see you on the next post (or video).

After a long hard look at the 80/20 rule in my work as a video producer, I'm gonna niche down even more with 3d animation (and A/R) for businesses. I encourage you to examine where 80% of your work is coming from (live video? commercials? weddings?) and cut out the 20%.

If you're a buyer, don't panic - this guide will be written to accommodate your perspective and your needs too.

Soup to nuts, here's the ultimate guide to set the work process straight for both parties; you won't find a funnier, better-looking guide this side of the Mississippi. You'll get your money's worth on this one, and if not, I have a 7-day refund period because your success is my mission.

BONUS: if you join the Bold Nation newsletter below, I'll send you all 8 steps in one nifty .pdf. This post contains the first 5.

Now, there is lots of room for collaboration in 3d projects,  and communication is key. In fact, it's step zero in this process.

0. Communicate. Over-communicate. Then check in again with something funny.

Communicate 'til all bases are covered. Check.

Then go back and over-communicate. When we were in basic training at Lackland AFB, we couldn't hear what instructions were being relayed to the group up front. I was always in the back because I was a road guard (bright vest and all), so I often asked for the student leaders or the row in front of me to repeat the instructions because I often couldn't hear them. I was only looking out for myself all those many moons ago, but I knew from my time teaching math that if one person had the question, sure enough, someone else was thinking it. The worst questions (and the only dumb questions) in life are those left unsaid. And make no mistake, even after the sale, your client will have piles of questions - this is good.

I mentioned math, so it's not a bunny trail to mention it here again. Math is a very visual language. Repetition is a plus for students, and it's an even greater plus for high-rep learners. Math, not unlike animation, has a lot of moving parts, and it can get nitty-gritty or downright esoteric. Both are visual languages for communicating ideas; both have lots of potential to go sideways in a hurry. Your job as the developer is to be a teacher. Teach your client about the different methods or ideas you'll be running. Ask clarifying questions and don't rest on your laurels 'til you know they can give the 411 to their 6-year-old with ease. 

What about something funny? We do this in speech - we have to break up the monotony of our voice with a percussion or a joke or something every 90 seconds or so. Do the same with your communications. Don't just check in for updates, and don't just send only updates. Send a card when their anniversary is on the 'rizon. Send a picture of a loaf of bread and tell 'em you LOAF working on this project with them. Keep it light, and keep it coming. 


1. Get on the phone

I know some buyers are reluctant to get on the phone just as some sellers are scared of the phone. But with 3d animation, there are just too many variables to communicate only by email. The first chat should be to set an appointment to get on the phone (if not a meeting in person or a Skype/Facetime/Messenger/Zoom/Myspace call) to allow fluid conversation.  

Buyer's responsibility: commit to a 10-minute conversation on the phone. Share your vision, expectations, and ask questions. Email or a service like Slack, Trello, or Asana is okay for future communications because 3d is detail-heavy, and we all know long email chains are a pain in the rear. On my last gig, I had email chains as long as 70 emails or so. My fault? 100% my fault and not afraid to admit it - I'll be guiding all parties to Asana or Trello in the future.

Developer's responsibility: be a servant. Remember the first rule of selling is agreement. Make sure - even if the product is the wrong service for the buyer - you leave them with something. Heck, you could point them to this guide or the guide on why people need video. If you can't sell someone on your service as an animator, at least give them something of value to maintain a healthy line so that (as Uncle G says), you might be able to do business with them in the future. People buy from people they trust, so build a relationship now and nurture it. 

2. Negotiate

This isn't just closing the deal and signing the dotted line. Figure out what each party needs and get everything in writing. Talk about timelines. Talk about quality (photorealistic or not-as-detailed). Figure out who is developing the script. Who is recording the narration? What does the music sound like? Do you want a fly-by? Cross-sectional views? Is the animation team going to have 5 machines working around the clock? Will you have to send renders to a farm? Discuss, discuss, discuss, and put everything you promise in writing (typed, unless your handwriting is a sans-serif font that's pre-installed on MS Word).

Buyer's responsibility: 3d animation takes time - make sure you're clear about your deadlines. Don't try to haggle the animator for pennies. The market value for 3d is about as 1-1 as you can get with video services; i.e. you truly get what you pay for and "quality" is still a competitive advantage in 3d animation, unlike with live-action video production these days.

Developer's responsibility: Everything you mention in an email that'll you do for the buyer should be lifted (copy and paste job) into your contract on the blank space before both parties sign. Make sure you pony up on your contracts and sign as an officer of your company (if you have one) rather than just regular ole you. Leave room for them to do the same as well. Don't sign as yourself (opens you up to liability) - sign as an officer of your company. Not sure whether to incorporate or not? Read on amigos.

3. Assets

I'm sure you have a few videos in mind. I'm sure you've seen 3d animations that made you think, "Gee, I'd like that." Keep a running doc of these samples. And start building your library of shared materials. This goes for both parties - buyers and developers. You need to be able to communicate freely with one another without getting bogged down in the esoteric details of 3d animation. 

Buyer's responsibility: this goes with any animation - have a folder prepped for your developer that has a simple word doc or an .rtf file with branding guidelines (yes, spell them out) as well as any detailed notes you'd like. Be to sure to include logos and vector art in your folder as well that may or may not be needed. Include 'em anyways! Color, looks, styles - even if "flat" - will be helpful resources for your animation team.

Developer's responsibility: ask 'til you're blue in the face for materials you need, and don't settle 'til you get them. You're doing both parties a disservice if you think now's the time to be modest (as if you were modest or reserved about landing the gig!) about your needs to get the project rolling. Also, get a project management tool up and running for your buyer (Asana, Trello, etc.) and walk them through it so there are no surprises. You don't want 70+ email threads in your inbox. Your buyer needs a centralized place to communicate and get updates, so start 'em early. If you can, sit down and walk them through it during the negotiation before they sign. Once they sign, thank them and get out of there - you have work to do!

4. Time

This is a biggie. Bad time management is a killer on a film set, and it's no bueno in your video production services. 3d animation has so many moving parts, so many places for error or slow rendering that both parties need to be fully aware of the time involved. 

Buyer's responsibility: be prepared for some massive sticker shock if it's a rush job. Don't assume a video like this one below is an easy, $3,000 video.

For that matter, don't tell your service provider you want a video like this aforementioned one at all, unless you're a big blue whale in the world of business and can drop $75,000 or more. 

Let's bring you back down to earth; a $2,000 video will look more like this one:

3d animation isn't something you can start and pivot easily with, especially when you have a deadline. Of course, it's on the both of you to over-communicate during pre-production, but once production starts, it takes time, and the amount of detail you want blows up the costs significantly. If you can find a cat in another part of the world who will remotely do your 3d animation for pennies on the dollar, more power to you. 

Developer's responsibility: first things first, a few preliminary items that work in tandem BEFORE the close.

A. Be as transparent as you can be about pricing. Heck, go to other places on the web to see what the pricing looks like. Join other company newsletters if you must to get the pricing. It'll help you be competitive in the marketplace. 

Also, don't assume that time and detail are the only items that cause the costs to soar. Explain very clearly which processes and the number of machines and people will be involved in this 3d animation. Build value for your selling price and go for it - ask for the sale.

B. Once the pricing is clear, communicate how long this will take, then multiply that number by 1.5. 

What if the render farms crap out?

What if you forgot about your anniversary trip coming up?

What if you internet provider goes AWOL in your hour of need (true story - definitely happened to me, and I didn't have a solid plan B)?

Exactly why you should multiply the time by 1.5, then give that number to your client.

E.g. if you know the job will take 2 weeks to complete, tell your client it will take 3 weeks. Earlier in the sale, before the client signs, make sure this is spelled out and be sure to include a safety net such as "expected delivery date is _____________". Back to the 3-week example, if you close on the 1st of June, your work agreement should say something to the tune of "expected final delivery is June 22nd." 

Make sure your client understands they have to stay in the communication loop. I've seen some work agreements with "restart" fees in the costs - meaning, if the client goes AWOL on you for a month (for example), then it will cost $200 to restart the project. I haven't done this (ever, but I'm willing to try), so if you have already, comment below on the results. 

Now that we've backed up and covered material that should have been shared in the earlier section on negotiations, let's talk about time here. 

It will bite you - in the worst way possible - in 3d animation if you're not prepared. It's time-consuming with 2d-animation. It's even more time-consuming with 3d. Remember back in 2002 when you had to use "Windows Movie Maker" to edit your mini-DV clips after their protracted conversion to digital? If you were too young for that, just know this, 3d, even today, takes oodles of time to render. It's data-heavy, and your client (unless they have previous film/video experience) operates with the mindset "Oh, it's a quick, 30-second video." 

So, I don't recommend the usual 3 cuts (2 revisions), and you're done. Because a lot is on the line, I think Uncle Ben would counsel all the young Peter Parkers to think and act differently with keeping the client in the loop with 3d animation. Rather than shoot over a first draft and hope for the best, send over everything, every working day or every other working day. Specifically, I recommend the Scrum approach when it comes to time. Which leads us to the next step...



Want to download the entire .pdf and get all 8 steps? Of course you do! Your information's safe, won't be farmed out, and emails only occasionally offer promotional offers. By and large, it's informational content week-in and week-out.

What was the biggest learn from your last 3d animation project? Comment below!

Jake the film guy

I want to encourage others and bring honor to the Almighty in everything that I do with film and video. My goal is to take the first 11 minutes of my tv pilot and seek out decision-makers who can further the conversation about developing it into a show. If my team and I can do that, then we can teach 100,000 other microbudget filmmakers how to do the same thing so that we might tell stories of hope to millions. In the meantime, I'm a son of the King, a family man, a lifelong student of film, and the author of two microbudget filmmaking books.