Why Live Action Always Beats Motion Graphics

Why Live Action Always Beats Motion Graphics

It seems to be the easiest path to becoming this generation’s George Méliès. You download a couple of graphic templates, throw them into your favorite video editing software, and you now have ‘industry standard’ motion graphics for your next YouTube video.

The only problem is, video creators far too often fall into the same snag faced by commercial filmmakers and artists from time immemorial: they see the object from the lens of the creator and not the viewer.

Let’s sum up the crux of this article from the get-go: no one really gives a fuck how cool that industrial grunge transition is. Whether it’s a television commercial, a product presentation, or a short documentary, nothing has the same effect as a story told with real live-action footage in line with our expectations of timing, duration, and presentation. A little novelty is welcomed, too much is discouraged.

Before your demons start whispering in your ears, it is important to highlight that the purpose of this article is to moderate the use of motion graphics as well as stylistic shots and editing (macro, superimposed, and the myriad of other traditional and new-age cinematography and editing techniques) rather than discourage them.

You are not going to be able to demonstrate the inner working of an iPhone without using 3D models and visual effects, and you sure as hell won’t make an engaging 40-second YouTube ads video montage for your Tourism company if you’re just using ordinary jump cuts for the entirety of it’s duration.

But the problem is that we overestimate the role of stylistic elements in our storytelling, a mistake that proves criminal at a time where half the world has ADHD and has the attention span of a squirrel monkey.

A Closed Feedback Loop

the prototypical freely available intro – used far too much by novice filmmakers and budding youtube creators.

Much of the blame can be placed on the closed feedback loop that delimits the creative process in so many companies and industries. Painters interact with other like-minded painters, musicians interact with other like mindedmusicians, and visual creators – unfortunately – spend a lot of their time interacting, seeking feedback, and learning from other like minded visual creators.

It’s a feedback mechanism that leads to several creative decisions that don’t carry over to the most important stakeholders: the viewers. Graphic designers often vent over how clients do not understand the complexity and hard work gone into engineering that dreamy background for the client. The fact is, however,that the client understands the end user – and realizes that it’s the giant mouthwatering donut in the picture thats sells itself, not the subtle messaging in the background.

Here’s a typical real-world situation.

You are a multimedia producer working at a creative agency. Your client is Bell Canada, and you are developing 30-second testimonial videos for their residential services – television, internet, and so on.

To put it succinctly, you’re making short videos of customer reviews (whether real customers or not is irrelevant here) by existing Bell customers. With the help of your team, you come up with a 30-second ad that consists of 16 seconds of live-action footage (with sound) of the customer. The rest is divided into a short intro where the Bell logo jumps around, short graphical transitions, and a colorful ending montage (different digitally generated hues merging together) that highlights diversity without explicitly mentioning it. 

The graphics team obviously cares a great deal about how the transitions look. Therefore, you spend several days fine-tuning it with their lead. You also have two meetings with the advertising department on whether the ‘colors merging’ outro is in line with the diversity policy.

The ad comes out and everyone misses out on a crucial fact that only the old-fashioned politically-correct executive realizes. The fact is that no additional element – including the logo dance, transitions, or the colorful digitally generated graphics that you spent 2 weeks AB testing – contributes to the primary purpose of the video: highlight a customer’s positive experience with Bell. At a time when each second is crucial in maintaining the customer’s focus, you’ve spent 14 seconds on redundant placeholder content.

To be fair, companies like Bell Canada are making this mistake less and less each passing year. In fact, most corporations have realized these market truths after companies like Apple and Tesla have enjoyed unparalleled growth from years of minimalist function-driven messaging.

The real culprits now small-medium creators like you.

A Level Playing Field

Chances are that the digital marketing agency you have employed is charging thousands while using cheap widely-available assets for your business. It makes business sense for them to do so. And certainly doesn’t hurt you as a small business owner – no one in your hometown gives a rat’s ass if there’s a pub in London using the exact same design.

After decades of waiting, low-budget and amateur graphic designers, filmmakers, and visual artists finally have access to high-end digital production platforms thanks partly to Moore’s law and other socio-economic factors. The urge to publish mind-numbing graphical content and focus overtly on digitally-generated media is understandable. 

A lot of the blame must be placed on repositories like Envato and Freepik that have allowed novice and professional creators alike to gain access to millions of visual assets to use freely in their visual projects. The ‘if you have it, why not use it’ way of thinking takes over, and far too many fall into the same hole. Why not add a 5-sec outro rather than end on a simple logo fade?

Shooting high-quality footage or images is expensive and requires equipment, logistics, and project management. Using motion graphic templates requires a $25 dollar membership and a decent computer. 

Freepik is an interesting example on its own. Whether you’re running a laundromat or a restaurant chain, there are hundreds and thousands of industry-specific design templates that can be customized depending on the context, platform, and audience. While it certainly doesn’t hurt using these templates to create an industry-standard visual front for your social media presence, we often forget that it’s the messaging that matters rather than the drapery we tie it up in.

Facebook realized this long ago. For several years, the social media platform has urged its advertisers to minimize the amount of text and graphical overlays on their creatives. Turns out that videos and images with more graphics and text get significantly less engagement. Who would’ve thought?

The Rules Of Motion Graphics & Graphic Design

if you filled in 15 seconds of your video using a stylistic montage like the one above, you missed an opportunity to emphasize the individual impact of each clip

As a motion graphics artist, the pressure to create something original is much greater than for a live-action content creator. The camera lens will always capture life as it is, staged or not. But when it comes to the world of graphics, we subconsciously raise the bar and expect originality simply because the process of ‘creation’ does not need to be representative of the ‘world-image’ instilled in our minds – therefore enabling a whole array of new possibilities for the designer.

But it is crucial that we understand a harsh truth of life: if your audience itself is not comprised of video creators and graphic designers, they couldn’t give a damn if that background pattern was full of circles, squares, or coconuts – or whether the gradient was purple or pink. Human beings interact and learn naturally from live-action images, and we tend to overlook or quickly forget all objects slightly abstract.

Yes, we still have to ensure that we use transitions and motion graphic templates to spice up the visuals, but the key here – once again – is minimalism. Use what is absolutely necessary, and nothing that is redundant.

Again, you would do well here to study what billion-dollar entities like Apple, Microsoft, Tesla, and Google are doing for a majority of their creatives. They have embraced minimalism to the core and adopted a pragmatic approach towards creatives, with a handful of common elements:

  • Real images drive the narrative. 
  • Computer-generated visuals including 3D models are minimalist and serve a functional role (for e.g. an x-ray look into the components of a Tesla)
  • Transitions are used for functional purposes only, such as a change in tone or subject matter, and are timed to be quick and non-discernable.
  • Simplicity is celebrated.

This iPhone 12 ad is a prime example of this philosophy. The ad was immediately lauded by the masses and critics alike and heralded by many to be amongst the best visual intros to an Apple product – ever. 

Even ads that use a fair amount of graphic design are fairly frugile when it comes to design philosophy. Look at this Galaxy S20 FE television ad – sure, there is a lot of computer-generated imagery, but if you break it down, it’s just a white background and a whole lot of phones. 

Stick To The Basics

Hey, does the oval look too small? no one gives a fuck other than you..

People prefer concrete objects over abstract design because life isn’t an early 20th-century art exhibition. And as much as you want to flaunt your new hardware, your hard-earned graphic design skills, or your new subscription to Envato, why not calm down a bit and just focus on what sells?

Another rule of thumb to have in mind: unless you’re reaching tens of thousands of viewers every day, don’t spend too much time AB testing minor design decisions such as different fonts and backgrounds. As long as it’s acceptable and looks good to a your target audience’s aesthetics, these designs really don’t matter unless we are talking about the official landing page for Tesla’s CyberTruck. Each design decision in that scenario, spread over millions of visitors and billions in potential revenue, can be important and worth taking a look at.

Truth be told, I have always felt sorry for motion graphic artists, graphic designers, and the whole circus of visual designers – as a documentary filmmaker, it is a group I am also a part of. These individuals spent hundreds of hours obsessing over minute detail with supreme skill, and the end-user rarely sees the final product with the same respect and admiration that it merits. Ofcourse they get the validation of others in their field of expertise.

But the audience cares only for the story. The less live-action imagery there is, the less they are able to recollect the visual aspects of that story. If you’re a visual creator of any decent skill, your brain is probably aching to yell out that this Ali Umair guy is simply bullshitting. But that is the goal here, to step outside into a world where 99.5 percent of the people are not visual creators.

Unless you are an artist who has their own little niche or simply do not care to follow the rules of commercial viability, it is vital that you quickly adapt the relative as well as universal truths that are driving the success of good content.

The form, and the technology that enables it, does matter. But it is inevitably how your easily your content gels in with human experience that will translate into its ability to sell products or generate views. This is why live-action imagery should always remain the primary weapon in your video / content creation machinery.

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