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How We Made a Gloriously-Imperfect, RSA-Style, Whiteboard Animation Video

Folks have been asking about production processes for whiteboard animation videos.  I recently did one for the Ken Blanchard Companies, and for such a simple-looking product, it’s actually a fairly complex process.
Here’s how this eight-minute video was created, and what it was like to do it:
– It all started with a concept meeting… not just what the video will be about, but what they wanted to achieve from it.  Ken Blanchard’s new book, Lead With LUV, communicates profound business lessons with a fun-LUVing attitude.  Accordingly, we wanted this project not to be just like other RSA-Style videos… but something unique, different, and FUN that communicates Ken’s message.
– They finalized their script, and I storyboarded it out – fifteen pages of six-image storyboards.  (This part was so much fun… I LOVE visual translation work!)
– We met again to review and approve the storyboards.  Now, be prepared for your storyboards to provide insight to the message they’re planning to share: the script was revised as a result of that discussion, and additional storyboarding was done (just a bit) before the message was finalized and the boards approved.
– Ken recorded the final audio track and we scheduled a dress-rehearsal meeting with their in-house video crew.
THE SHOOT, PART 1 – Dress rehearsal:
This was the first time I got to meet with their video team: Jason, the director; Mike, the editor; Terri, the cameraperson, Carrie, the script girl;  and of course, the wonderful Martha, Ken’s executive editor… who was also my point person for the project.  This was a flat-out amazing group of people, who were down for the adventure!  I promptly fell in love with all of them.
This was the first time either of us had done this sort of project – they usually shoot people and reenactments, while I usually do my work in the flow of an actual event.  We used the “dress rehearsal” shoot to strategize our approach and test how different types of paper and pens played on camera.  After a while, we all found ourselves wishing for a white board so we could interact with the drawings as they emerged.  Fortunately, they just happened to have a large whiteboard lying around in the back of the office!  We did some test shots and decided to go that route… and they mounted the whiteboard up on the wall for the official shoot.
THE SHOOT, PART 2 – Showtime:  
When I arrived for the actual shoot, I was nervous as all get-out.  The entire 45-minute drive there had my inner mean girl just ripping myself apart.  I called my sister for some words of wisdom, and she said “they love what you do… you know that!  Just breathe, relax, and have fun!”  When I arrived and Jason greeted me with a huge grin, saying “We are going to have so much FUN today,” I believed it.  I changed into my new white t-shirt (so my shirt would blend into the shot), did my best to get my hair to stay close to my head (a challenge for this naturally-curly girl), and went back into the studio ready to shoot.

Studio setup for whiteboard animation shoot

The studio is set up for whiteboard animation

The video team had a single camera set up on a tripod, had lighting rigged on both sides to minimize shadows (but it still created a hot-spot on the board that we had to deal with), plus we marked out the space in which I would work… just framing it out with colored masking tape.  There was a margin within that box that I needed to draw within, but we couldn’t mark it inside the box because it would show.  So we added some guide lines outside of the box to mark the frame.  I would tape different pages of my storyboards up over that box, and use it as my guide for drawing my way through the script.
The first few minutes or so were spent doing tests.  Testing the light.  Testing to make sure that the frames were marked properly.  Testing to make sure that the hot spot wasn’t in the shot.  Testing to figure out how to best transition from one shot to the next.  Testing to see how dark the pen played on the video, and how much of the white board’s nicks and imperfections showed through.  Most importantly, we tested to see where I had to be while my arm drew.

Testing and Focus... which is why the cap's still on!

You see, in order to stay out of the shot I couldn’t draw normally (where I’d just be standing and drawing.)  Instead, I had to stand out of the way of my drawing… which basically equated to drawing away from myself and not being able to really see what I was drawing until after a piece was done.  (Try drawing a circle that way!  Oy!)
And I have to tell you: at the end of the very first sequence we shot, I put my arm down and looked at it with a sinking heart (oh man, look at my drawing!)… when suddenly, I heard this strange sound behind me.  I turned around, and the entire team was cheering!  Clapping, jumping up and down, absolutely delighted with what they saw!  We went to the video monitor and they replayed the segment on fast-forward to mimic the speed of the final product, and I was shocked at how much fun it was to watch!  After that, we were on a roll!  It’s truly an amazing experience to work with a team that is literally rooting and cheering for you every step of the way.  I was deeply touched by that.
The video was shot in segments, because of the limited space/box for drawing and the stationary position of the camera.  It was also shot in order – we started at the top of the storyboards and worked our way through to the end of the story.  Segment length was based on how much the frame could hold, and we phrased the shots so that a segment wasn’t interrupted mid-breath, so to speak.  Each segment was shot twice – once as it emerged, and once with much of the work erased out and redrawn around those remaining elements.  Here’s how it would play out:

  • I’d walk them through where I was going to go in the frame as I drew the sequence, so the camera would know where I was going.  (“I’ll start here, then move into here, than up into here, then over here… ”)
  • We’d shoot the entire scene once and cut
  • We’d look at what was on the board, decided what the key anchor pieces would be, and erase out almost everything except for those anchor/transition pieces
  • We’d shoot again with me drawing stuff back in around the anchor pieces.

Because Ken had recorded the audio-track separately, we weren’t concerned about the audio track for this shoot.  So we could talk our way through the script, I could talk the camera through a sequence as I was drawing it, we could use fun voices, and otherwise have a wonderful time working on the project!

Walking Through a Whiteboard Animation Shot

“Okay, this next shot will go from storyboard page eight, block four, to... ”

The final shoot was originally planned for 3.5 hours, from 12:30p to 4pm.  With shooting just about each scene twice, by the time we reached 4pm, we had a page of storyboarding left to shoot… and the images were fairly simple.  We pushed on through and completed the entire thing – again, with everything pretty much shot twice – in a little over four hours.
My work may have been over, but Mike and Jason’s work had just begun.  They needed to speed up the video to sync with the audio track, so that as Ken spoke, the right images would be unfolding.  Plus, they worked hard to incorporate both sets of footage, along with just the right soundtrack (I think they NAILED it!), sound effects, and visual effects into the final product that brought our vision to life.
We shot my work on March 29th.  Ken wanted to premiere the video at the ASTD conference on May 22nd, which meant that the finished video needed to be submitted in the first part of May.  Mike and Jason had a little over a month to work their magic, and they did an AMAZING job!
The video debuted at the Ken Blanchard booth at the ASTD Expo, and interestingly enough… this was the very first time that their booth won Best In Show at the Expo!  Coincidence???  (Okay, it probably was… but still!)

  • This is NOT like graphic recording.  I want to make that very clear to fellow practitioners who think “hey, I capture stuff in real-time, I can do a video!”  The process requires a lot of structure, forethought, and planning.  When you’re comfortable with that level of structure, it’s a lot of fun!
  • Drawing out of the shot is hard.  HARD, I tell you!  Others may be really good at it; for me, it’s a bit like drawing blind and hoping for the best.  With our next project (and we’re both playing with ideas for a next project… ), I’d want to see if we could rig the camera to do a top-shot and have the board flat on a table.
  • There’s no going back during a shot.  Oops!  If I forgot to draw in an ear during a sequence, I couldn’t realize it and then go back to add it because the camera was following the story’s progression.  To do so would mean having to retake the entire sequence… which leads to the next thought:
  • Take your time.  When Jason would call “Action!” I’d find myself wanting to draw as fast as I could through a take.  Working in real-time, I need to be fast.  With this sort of project, where we’ll be speeding up the film and syncing it to a separate audio track, speed isn’t as important as I originally thought.  Now I know it’s okay for me to take my time to create these images… because my team will take care of the speed moving forward in post-production.
  • Plan for a massage the day after.  Seriously.  You’ll need it.
  • Dive afraid and enjoy the process.  I’ve heard other visual practitioners say that they wouldn’t touch one of these video scribing projects with a ten-foot pole. And I’ll admit it… on my drive up to the Blanchard office on the day of the actual shoot I was really tearing myself up inside, full of fear and doubt, judgments and criticisms, and wondering what the heck was I thinking to saying yes to something like this!  You see, this was a really public first video.  Heck, it was for Ken Blanchard – one of my personal business heros – talking about Southwest Airlines!  Come on!!!  Here’s the thing, though: when the message makes your heart sing and you fall in love with your team, it’s so much more fun – not to mention easier – to do this sort of a project.  If the project doesn’t feel right to you, say no.  If the project feels right but you’re scared, dive afraid.  You’ll be glad you did.  (I certainly am!)
  • Enjoy the Imperfection.  I remember watching the finished video all the way through for the first time.  I had been DREADING seeing the finished product, simply because my inner critic had been sharpening her knives for over a month and I didn’t want to see the litany of flaws and imperfections in this very-public work.  But then I spoke with Martha and she said, “when you watch this, just picture all of us here with HUGE BEAMING GRINS on our faces because we ABSOLUTELY LOVE this video!”  And I sat down to watch it.  Do you know, my inner mean girl didn’t have a single thing to say as we watched?  We both had these big, dopey grins on our faces the entire time, because it’s imperfections – MY imperfections – worked really well!  The video turned out exactly the way it needed to.

Well, that’s the story!  Was the video experience a lot of work?  Yes.  Would I do it again? In a heartbeat!

Recorded Trainings: How to become a Whiteboard Animation Ninja!

Whiteboard Animation Ninja

In this 4-part recorded training series, whiteboard animation veteran Jeannel King teaches you how whiteboard animation videos are made…from script to storyboard to setup to shoot!
Click Here to Learn More >>
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  • Posted by Jeannel
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I love the RSA animate style videos and created one for a major project in graduate school. I wish I had seen this blog post before I did create my version. I used many of the tricks you mentioned - and YES - I did need a massage later. If you are interested I can send you a link to my video that captures my philosophy, vision and strategy for my work in the field of creative thinking.
Jeannel thanks for sharing your process - so9 much hard work but well worth it! Love the video - supports the message without taking over the stage :-)
    Thanks, Rae...for the post and for your kind words! :^) Have you tried your hand at these videos?
Jeannel, I am considering a career change and would like to learn how to draw for such RSA animated whiteboard stories. I live in the Denver area. I am targeting a small local company that specializes in speech coaching and video marketing, figuring that I could position myself as a new whiteboarding resource. I'd love any tips you can share, and how I can practice or learn how to draw better in order to do what you do. I have a hearing problem so I'm not sure I could draw quickly if I can't hear what is being said, but I'd like to try. I'm more interested in the storyboarding and recording sort of animation like you've documented here. I'd love to chat if you you're open to that. Bob the Planner (currently an event manager)
    Hi Bob, and thanks for your comment! First things first - the good news is that with whiteboard animation videos, you are not actually drawing along with what the speaker says. Rather, you are typically working off of a storyboard and script, and that video component gets synched to an audio track separately. The rest of your question deserves a better answer than a reply to a comment, so I'll put that together and share it as a blog post...probably for September 17, 2013! :^) With thanks, Jeannel
      Hi Jeannel and thanks for your response. I am checking out the IFVP conferences and trying to locate some local art classes to see if that would help, although I'm also downloading your free e-book to see if classes are even necessary. I'm so happy I discovered your blog and am going to delve deeper into your posts to learn from all of your wonderful tips! As an event planner I am constantly challenged to make the content "come alive" and to engage the audience, to free them from their digital enslavement to their devices (iPads and cell phones) so they PAY ATTENTION to the content! I think these types of visual presentations are just the ticket!
Jeannel - This was such a helpful post! I have been doing some Graphic Facilitation around my company and was approached to do a RSA video. So with your blog's guidance, we jumped of the high dive!! It is in the editor's hands now and I'm off to get that massage!! Thanks again!!
    WOOT! Way to go, Heidi! :^D Virtual High Five! :^) )"( (^: What was your biggest takeaway from creating your video? I'd love to hear! (Also...when it's done - and if it's for public consumption - I'd LOVE to see how it turned out!) J
Hi! I'm shooting a video like this tomorrow and we did a test run yesterday. Drawing while trying to keep your head out of the frame nearly had me in tears. Glad I came across your article while procrastinating/panicking. So nice to hear that someone else was also horrified by all the unexpected difficulties with this type of video! Whiteboard stop motion is definitely a self esteem challenge. :)
    Thanks, Channing...and good luck with the shoot! (You can totally do it!) ;^D
Really love that white board video. and its awesome . Great job!
Great work Jeannel! Absolutely love what you have come up with, as you mention - the beauty of this style of videos, is in the imperfections :)
    Thanks, Tom! :^D I appreciate it!
Hi Jeannel, loved the way you've combined 2D animation elements and sound effects into the "classic" whiteboard animation. This sure makes the difference.

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