The Cost of Computer Animation

Inquiring for "free" or "cheap" student work on animation?

Short answer is animation is NOT CHEAP. Most studios charge per second, and corporate work is usually of the lowest quality and the fastest turn-around (because they don't need the level of artistic detail that's expected in feature films).

Animation is usually figured on a "per finished second" basis, although productions are usually flat bid. To some degree, how much animation will cost you is up to you. What are your needs and what is your level of sophistication?  We do quite a bit of animation for corporate communications in the $250 to $500 per second range... By way of comparison, an animated movie like "A Bug's Life" or "Tarzan" is in the $7,000 to $8,000 per second range. A television series like "The Simpsons" is in the $500 per second range. Commercials average in the $3,000 to $5,000 per second range.

Until recently, the average price of any animation that would be considered professional was about $1,000 per second minimum. Television shows like "Dr. Katz" have shattered conventions as to what constitutes acceptable animation and lowered the per second costs (and standards) accordingly.


Here are some things to consider about both 2D and 3D Animation. My expertise is in 3D Animation for Game Development.  However, the production cycle is similar for film (movies), broadcast (TV commercials and shows), games (computer and video games), and even low-end corporate work.

  • Budget - Both 2D and 3D Animation are very expensive. They can give you things that live action can't, but in the end, animation is more expensive than L.A. because you have to MAKE everything. In Live Action, you still need to hire actors for the voices, but those same people can play themselves in front of the camera, wearing their own clothes (rather than design, build, and costume your characters), and then you can shoot on location (rather than build all the sets, props and vehicles).
    • The million dollar questions is,"WHY should it be animated?"
    • The choice to animate something, and the choice of the style of the animation, should be based on
      • the method that best communicates your message, and...
      • your budget!
    • Animation is a product created by a multi-disciplinary team of artists and technicians.  It is typically quoted "per second" or "per minute", but in the end it is a flat bid. If you wanted to see a cost breakout, it would include paying for one or several artists working during all the stages of development (listed below):
      • Pre-production
        • Story
          • Outline
            • Most questions about the cost of the production are based on your story and how you want to visualize it.
            • However, you can write your story
            • out in outline form. If you do this, to save costs, you might consider:
              • How detailed is the story? 
              • How long is the story
              • How many locations and camera angles will you need?
          • Script
            • The script for ANIMATION is different than for FILM. In animation, it's about 3 pages per min (not 1 page page per min) bc you have to describe everything you see
            • The document that describes what WHAT WE SEE scene to scene, shot to shot, plus descriptions of who is in the story, who says what and what they are doing
            • In animation, the script is NOT NECESSARILY DONE IN ISOLATION OF the storyboard. In fact, there is usually a healthy back-and-forth between these guys. And typically, the guys working in STORY do both or at least CAN do both.
          • Storyboard 
            • Creating a storyboard is the first step in creating a VISUAL MAP of the story
            • This is also a TEAM process where there may be guys who do ACTION better than DRAMA or COMEDY and so they get put on doing those sequences
          • Color Script
            • second step to creating your Visual Map
            • helps elevate the story via COLOR and establishes the lighting decisions
        • Character Design & style sheets
          • Do you have concrete ideas about your character(s)? How many characters are in the story? Are they already drawn out?
          • In animation, these drawings are part of a "Character Bible" that include multiple views of the characters, and typical facial expressions and body language.
          • Do you have this yet?
        • Layout
          • 2D or 3D backgrounds, camera moves, character blocking
          • Working off the storyboard, the layout artist considers the composition of the shot, including the placement and blocking of the characters within the camera's view
          • Tells the artists what environments need to be built & the blocking of the action the animators should use
        • Audio - Dialogue
          • The script needs to be tied down and LOCKED before you
            • hire the actors and... ($$)
            • record their voices in the studio ($$)
          • This get's edited and added to the layout to create an "ANIMATIC" or evolving rough cut of the film/short
        • Editing - Rough Cut to Final
          • In Animation, the bulk of the editing happens up front. It's incredibly time consuming to eliminate scenes at the END of production after all the animation work has been done, so most editing decisions are made early in the process.
      • Production
        • Modeling - sculpting the sets, props and characters
          • Environments - sets and props
          • Characters - main cast, creatures and extras
        • Surfacing
          • colors, textures, and surface properties painted over the surface of each model
        • Lighting (by shot)
          • environment lighting kits
          • character/ hero lighting
        • Rigging
          • the internal armature and controls that allow the animator to move the character. Rigging is basically like digital strings and buttons that make all the parts of the digital puppet/marionette move.
        • Character Animation
          • the acting - includes body language, facial expressions, lip-syncing and interacting with other characters and objects within the scene
        • Lighting (working off the color scripts; set-up time is required per shot)
          • environmental lighting (time of day; stylistic choices for mood)
          • 3-point lighting (boosts viewers focus to something special in the scene)
        • Camera (working off layout; set-up time is required per shot)
          • Depth of Field & focus
          • Composition for Static or Tracking shots
          • Shake
        • Effects
          • Atmosphere
          • Fluid dynamics simulations
          • Rigid-body dynamics simulations
          • Particle Effects
          • Things like explosions, fire, water (flowing, splashing, etc), hair, smoke, dust clouds, etc are created using fluid and particle dynamics systems that simulate these real-world effects. And they are very expensive - both in time and software expertise. There is an entire industry built around this kind of work -- the Visual Effects industry -- and it includes other Post-Production elements like compositing and motion graphics.
        • Rendering
          • multi-pass effects
          • render farm management
        • Compositing
          • layering all the render passes for each shots together into one image
      • Post Production
        • Scoring
        • Sound Effects
        • Color correction
        • Audio balancing
        • Quality Assurance
        • Continuity checks

It can be less expensive for you to go the route of live-action (LA) video -- you still have to write the script, design your sets|props|characters, direct and record the actors, edit and process the footage. However, where you would find or build your sets, props and costumes in live-action, in animation, those things are created by the artist. And where you might cast actors or build rigged puppets for non-human creatuers in LA, in animation you have those things designed and built in the computer by computer animation artists.

The choice on whether or not to animate your story is best made based on your budget (and in turn, your standard for quality).