How my job saves you money and increases the quality of your video.

Using motion graphics as an alternative to video to save time, money and video quality
I’ve been working in post for over three years. The majority of my job is doing motion graphics and visual effects. So what does that mean for the layperson? In the most general terms, I make your video shine, pop, and explode with awesome.

A few months ago we had a script that called for a “puppet show”  way to display on-screen text. We started to prepare to shoot the scene, which included mocking up signs with the on-screen text, then getting the signs professionally printed, and then re-printed because the original colors weren’t quite right, cut out and pasted onto sticks.

Then we needed to prepare the set. We needed to set the camera rig up on the tripod, set up the lights, get the frame to stand up. This process is easier said than done. Getting the lighting just right is an art in itself. You might think you have it right and then you start rolling the camera only to discover that your signs are way too glossy and shine when they hit the light at a certain angle. The focus of the image can be hard to nail as well because the signs might shift from their plane towards and away from the camera. So, you put all these issues together and you have text that’s hard to read and a process that can take a lot of time to get right.

A sample of the test shoot we did.


What are some other possible issues you can think of when watching the above? For one, this portion of the video would eventually have a voice over and on top of that, the voice over was dependent on a survey that wasn’t yet completed. So typically we will do reference audio, basically reading the script while acting this out and hope the final voiceover matches closely enough with the reference audio. Usually, it’s pretty close, but I need control. I like the ability to time things out to the frame. I’m a perfectionist in this regard.

There’s another issue that I envisioned coming up in the future, what if the client wants to change the on-screen text weeks or months after we shot the scene? Well, that would mean we would need to reprint some or all of the signs, set up all of the lights, get the frame back up, and doing an endless amount of takes to get it just right; Only to find out a week later that the client wants to change the copy again. (Our clients are perfectionists too, getting the correct messaging is important!)

This is where I come in. In addition to spending much of my day in After Effects, my brain is constantly poking holes in every concept of every script we get. Yes, I’m a giant wet blanket and not always fun to be around, but because of this, we can head off problems before they ever become blips on our radar of re-shoots.

Within 5 minutes of getting briefed on this project I envisioned all of these issues and in another 10 minutes had mocked up something that looked similar to our test shoot but also had the benefit of being easily editable and adaptable.

The method to my madness

My first step was to gather the basic elements. I needed a background (easy, one solid color), a frame (we have plenty of dry erase boards around the office, I found one I liked and took a picture), and we needed hands, sticks and signs with text. For the hands I filmed a co-worker’s hand against green screen, keyed out the green and BAM, we have our hand. I took pictures of our sticks (multiple sticks for a subtle variation). Next, I just used a simple oval for the sign.

At this point, I have a bunch of sticks, hands, and signs. I wanted this to feel a bit organic. I didn’t want robotic movement. So I put some tape on my co-worker’s hand and elbow and shot a few movements. Then in After Effects, I tracked the motion.

For the entrances and exits.

For the hand movement.

Now I have realistic movement and I’m able to “Parent” this movement to the hand and make the sign a “Child” of the hand. Essentially, everything will move together as one based off of my motion track.

So the nuts and bolts are all there. I have movement, text and a scene. But it feels…flat.

Moar lights!

After Effects is a great program with the ability to do a ton of different things. One of the features that I find really cool is that you can set up virtual cameras and lights. With lights, you can give your assets shadows and give these flat layers a bit more depth to them.

This is what it looked like without lights

Here it is with the lights turned on.

As you can see, this second shot pops a lot more than the first shot.
If you’re still having a hard time envisioning this, let’s step out of the camera’s view.


These yellow cone wireframes are my lights and the pink pyramid is my camera.

Using this method, I have full control over all my lights, color, focus, composition and timing. So when the client inevitably came back with voice over and on-screen text changes, we were ready to update with just a few clicks. No sign printing, no building up the set again, no re-lighting (let alone remembering the original set up), no endless takes until we get it just right.

Of course, we made the changes and once the client saw them they had revisions on top of the original revisions. That would have been a great headache if we shot all of this practical and I’m sure we’d have no problem charging our client for the re-shoot of the re-shoot.

At the end of the day, this process was a win-win for both our company and our client. Not only did it add to the overall look and production value, it saved everybody time and money.

– Travis Erdmann

Post Production Supervisor at Sierra Media