When I first started studying animation, the pencil was still king and my classmates and I arrogantly dismissed those working with pixels as non-purists who didn’t understand the ‘art’. Toy Story was yet to change the game. We were Blockbuster on the eve of the Netflix age.
Around this time, I recall one particularly loquacious lecturer challenging us to focus on the emotion of the pictures we drew and the stories we told. “Transcend the confines of mere lines on paper! Strive to evoke a visceral response from your audience!” he would say (or words to that effect). If anyone has seen Bambi or the first ten minutes of Pixar’s Up, you know he was right.
Today, my days as a pious pencil wielder are far behind me, but the words of my sage lecturer still ring true. The films we create, in whichever medium, may have a different purpose but the goal remains the same; to create a connection with our audience, to conjure an emotion.
When it comes to creating branded content, the intended outcome may be less ‘visceral’ but how can you get more emotional heft into your films?
1. Inspired, not stolen!
We all watch TV and film. From the first real movies, featuring the likes of Buster Keaton and Mary Pickford, to modern masterpieces by Tarantino, Nolan or Anderson, there is so much inspiration to draw upon. If something you watch makes you laugh or cry, it is by design, using techniques that have been proven over a century of moviemaking. Nothing happens by accident and little today is truly unique.
Like any industry, there’s trends and tropes that can be borrowed – drawing on the things we see and hear in the content that other people have created. Whether that’s film, TV, trailers, brand films or Instagram reels, don’t be afraid to stand on the shoulders of giants, especially if it enables you to add more feeling to the videos you produce. That isn’t an excuse to be lazy, it’s an opportunity to walk a path that others have trod before us and add our own layer of individual creativity.
2. You’re dealing with people.
The videos we make at MTM aren’t simply to make our clients happy (although that is a pretty critical part of the process), they’re for people to actually watch, and hopefully enjoy. Real people like you and me. People who watch Netflix, who go to the cinema or who consume all kinds of content across social media. So, if you want to create films that resonate and achieve the desired outcome, focus on who you are talking to, and know that they’re connoisseurs of the artform. They have seen the lot and don’t have time to waste on films that don’t, on some level, reflect their experience.
3. Music to my ears.
Using music well is the ultimate weapon to tell people how they’re supposed to feel. It feeds a different part of the brain and can be the most effective way to drive an emotional response. What would Jaws be without the duh-duh, or Frozen without Let it Go for that matter? Choosing the right track is key, and often a good starting point to setting the mood. When you listen to a prospective piece of music, ask yourself if it gives you the feeling that you want? Pauses, swells and drops are your friend too. Create a landscape with your soundtrack rather than a long flat road and you’ll take your audience on that journey with you.
Effective use of timing is key to getting the right reaction. Be surprising, be interesting. Use it to stay focused on your story. Don’t hang around too long on something that doesn’t add to the narrative, and don’t jump around trying to fit too much in. Timing shots to the mood of your film is key.
And, following on from point 3, timing your music correctly can make or break a film. One frame difference in your cut can literally be the difference between satisfying and awkward. Use the soundtrack to help your timing and deliver the feeling you want to create.
5. Devil is in the details.
Easing is one of the largely invisible tricks we use to make elements of a film feel smoother and more fluid. It can take many forms but a good example is making your text accelerate or slow down in a specific way. It not only looks great, but it helps let your audience know what you want them to feel. A slow fade can add gravitas to a piece of text, whilst an almost imperceptible bounce can make it feel more playful. Animating in a creative way is one of the most satisfying things to behold. If you get it right, your audience will engage more, they just might not know why.
6. Be surprising.
As we’ve said before, your audience is a discerning bunch and wants to be entertained and surprised. If everything that they see in your video is what they’re expecting then why make it in the first place? Thinking creatively about ways that you can not only keep them engaged, but also knock them off balance with a proverbial right hook will make your film more memorable.
7. In the end…
I’ll be the first to acknowledge that some of this is big talk. Going for the jugular every second would be exhausting - and impossible! But, by constantly thinking about what you want your audience to think, feel or do and how you intend to get them there, you will undoubtedly create more emotionally engaging films.
Equally, the experience of a talented team of metaphorical video-making Geppettos, much like the specialists here at MTM, may also be required to help achieve said points, but of course I would say that. 😉