5 Stages to Beautiful CGI Animated Films

In the world of ever-increasing customer demands for interactivity and greater sensory experiences, having an animated CGI (computer-generated imagery) film for a project can elevate its marketing campaign above the competition. The goodwill value of a beautifully created movie could be tenfold, as nothing else showcases the story as well as a carefully crafted mini-movie of the project’s location, amenities and architectural design, including a variety of colour scheme selections and future lifestyle for the residents.

Since the development is yet unbuilt, “selling the dream” is a lot of work for a sales agency and a film for a project provides a real opportunity to excite viewers about future possibilities as it takes them on a moving journey through time. As the films involve more visual senses, we can turn the unbuilt dream into reality and create excitement and, ultimately, sales enquiries.

Creating animated 3D films takes architectural visualisation to a whole new level. There are artists in the digital visualisation world who can produce incredible 3D visualisations with the current technology. When compared to real photography, the difference between the two is imperceptible. This is because, provided enough time, opportunities for digital 3D film production are virtually endless.

Unfortunately, time flexibility is one luxury often not available to us, especially since the film can only properly get started once the still 3D imagery is complete and all architectural design elements are resolved in 3D. Thus, the CGI film production is often left until the very end and at this point the development team is typically pushing to start the marketing campaign – some sacrifices must be made during the completion stages of the film.

In this article, we discuss the high-level stages of delivering animations for property development marketing and some of the insights gleaned from completing a range of CGI movies: from basic zoom and fade image effects through to full-blown animated sequences with multiple moving objects and depth of field effects.

Stage #1 – Film Strategy: Create the Wow Factor to Excite

The objective of Stage 1 is to create a storyboard that clearly defines all key elements that must be showcased in the film. How is the film going to be used within the broader context of the marketing campaign? Is it going to be distributed through social media or TV? What is the call to action at the end of the film? These and several other questions need answering in the first stage of the film development process.

Identifying the overall objective of the film and putting together a strategy, which then translates into storyboards and an effective planning tool, is crucial to the success of the film.

Geoffrey Reed, Director of Reedcomm (a creative agency from Adelaide with whom we recently worked) says: “Creative strategy for property development video projects is vitally important. The creative team’s brief usually starts with a set of architectural plans and a location. And usually not much more. On a recent inner-city boutique apartment project, we didn’t even have a name to work with, so we created our own and branded the project ‘Lexington’.

We then built images around brownstone buildings, created our own song and a visual style and tone for the video that riffed on the vibe linked with Lexington Avenue & the Gramercy Park precinct in New York City.

Often, the CGI production team is separate from the creative agency and works to create cohesion between the brand’s story and animated sequences. Developing a solid storyboard of the film helps to align the vision of the project to the branding and other creative collateral.

Storyboard: Narrative that Excites and Stimulates Viewer Engagement

So, what are the key ingredients of movies that are going to excite the audience?

It’s not just about the mechanics of the building – it’s how life is going to flow through the movie. When the proposed building is going to be constructed in the neighbourhood, new life is infused into the street. An animated 3D movie helps visualise real life and the future lifestyle of the residents, with the new building as part of the streetscape.

The first step is identifying key elements of the movie for the storyboard. What is the purpose of the film? Why is somebody going to love living at the new location? How do we communicate a logical flow in the story?

The sketches in the storyboard are snapshots of the sequences, with a brief description of the action that takes place. These can be as elaborate as necessary – sometimes down to the detail of music transition effects – depending on what will help clients understand the objective of each sequence.

Stage #2 – Animatic: Present Stylised Flow

Once the storyboard is resolved and accepted by the client, we can proceed to create camera movement sequences within the 3D environment already produced. Lifestyle footage, aerial and streetscape photography and video can also be organised, as well as the music selection for the overall film.

As most of the 3D modelling has been completed during the creation of the still imagery, the camera movements – whether exterior or interior – can identify areas of further modelling that may be required. The extra scenery may not need the level of detail necessary for close-up animations; just intricate enough that, if the camera is panning past those areas, it looks like there is an environment (rather than empty space).

Audio Selection Component

Selecting the right music is integral to the animated film, as it evokes emotion and enhances viewer experience. For the Lexington Apartments marketing film, the production team created a song for the movie to be in line with the overall brand story of the project.

Existing songs may sometimes be used, provided permission has been obtained from the artists so as not to infringe copyright. Alternatively, if budget is limited, there are dozens of websites with audio files, available for under $20, that are seamless and can be licensed for commercial use.

The tempo, tonality and intent of the audio file should ideally match up with the camera movement, so the beats are in line with keyframes, transitions and other effects throughout the film.

Stage #3 – Render Sequences: Showcase Architecture

As the animatic and music selection is approved, the full CGI render sequences production can now begin. Most of the exterior and interior materials should have been resolved within the still 3D visuals – now it’s a matter of rendering out each individual frame of the animated sequence.

This often takes the most time – depending on the rendering computer power available, it can take days or even weeks of computers rendering out, frame by frame, at 1080p full HD resolution. Typically, this resolution is enough for most video applications – the movie can be downscaled for social media marketing use or used as-is for broadcasting to TV, and the sharpness of the images will be retained. 2K and 4K ultra HD video resolutions are on the horizon but, at the moment, rendering at these resolutions is time-consuming. It also uses lots of machine power and clients are not requesting such high definition, so the return on investment is not yet there for this level of resolution for the CGI films.

Aside from the technical elements of delivering the movie, we utilise this opportunity to enhance the exterior scenery with moving elements, like cars and people, to create a more realistic and lifelike appearance. Product placement within the interior spaces can also be used to help the target demographic identify themselves as future owners. These are mostly subliminal effects that are rarely noticed consciously yet are powerful marketing tools.

Traditionally, the movie flows from outside to inside – exterior elements of the building are highlighted first, from the building façade through to the entry. Then keyframes of interior spaces: living room, kitchen, bathroom and bedrooms. Views can be added to the interior scenery, provided high-quality aerial photography is available.

Colour Palette and Multiple Schemes

Animated films provide a unique opportunity to showcase how different colour palettes can be blended together. Multiple colour schemes can be animated, providing a nice sequential transition to communicate customisation options for buyers.

Within the same key frame, the material transition is animated – thereby showing two or more colour schemes in the same interior space and allowing viewers a direct comparison, rather than putting two still images next to each other and comparing in that way.

Stage #4 – Project Location: Context Map and Graphics

One of the integral objectives of the film is for it to be an effective way to locate the project for prospective buyers, in relation to the neighbourhood and nearby amenities. Aside from this, the location map sequence brings together the design of the future building and the lifestyle and scenery footage from the neighbourhood.

An effective way of showcasing the location is to have an animated map with amenity icons appearing in relation to the project’s location. The map can then show the proximity to various amenities, in either minutes or distance units.

Another way of showing project location is by highlighting neighbourhood amenities with icons on an aerial photo; however, this requires extra expense that may or may not be as easily seen, as opposed to seeing a plan view of the location and judging distances by looking at the project from above rather than on an angle.

Our philosophy has always been about utilising the simplest and most effective way to communicate the message, rather than creating unnecessary complications. Therefore, our recommendation is to stay with a simple animated sequence if we can achieve the right result, rather than involving aerial photography that could be delayed due to inclement weather.

Stage #5 – Scenery Footage: Re-Imagine the Neighbourhood

The final element of a project marketing film is the use of lifestyle footage to complete the picture. Street life, cafes, parklands, playgrounds, shopping strips, golf courses, beach and sporting facilities are just some of the potential amenities in proximity to the project, where short 2- to 3-second video sequences can really add to the success of the film.

Adding neighbourhood scenery into the movie can bring the film together for prospective buyers, and utilising hired actors – who play the roles of the project’s future residents – can help the target demographic identify with the project.

If the development designers or other consultants on the marketing team are comfortable with being on video, short interviews discussing the project’s aspects are also useful.

Keep in mind that adding extra footage to the film changes its nature and may reduce engagement as viewers are often short on time. An alternative is to create two versions of the film – one as a short introduction, and an extended version that contains the interview footage.

Project Marketing Films Create Enormous Value

Animated CGI films engage more senses and have the potential to evoke far more excitement, leading to more sales enquiries, than still 3D images ever could. Viewers are taken on a carefully crafted experience that, if done well, can lead to the target market identifying themselves with the future building and hopefully falling in love with it.

Overcoming budget and time constraints is part of the journey for the appointed creative and 3D team – it is expected during the process of delivering beautiful CGI films. From our experience in creating animations and marketing films, every project has its own unique strengths and challenges – and if they are handled one stage at a time, it becomes a more manageable experience.

When millions of dollars of real estate are at stake in a marketing campaign, and with the property market becoming more and more competitive, animated CGI film can take your project head and shoulders above your competition when it comes to selling “the dream”. Putting together an expert team to deliver such a film becomes the real challenge.

To your development success,

Stan Zaslavsky

BEng(Mech) (Hons) / BTech(Industrial Design), LREA, VPELA

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