What Costs More to Produce: Short Live-Action Film or Short Animation

I think I managed to fit the entirety of my question into the title but for a little bit of background: I’ve recently started hanging out with a really talented young writer. I think that for a ‘first move’ it is really tough to get published and the web doesn’t really lend itself to self-publishing at this stage of the game (in order to get a short story to gain traction and popularity, I assume that the writing scene online is tough to break into). But the web is great for short animations or movies, its ‘easier’ to make good writing popular if its transposed (per say) into a visual format. Granted this costs a buncha money, but with that same money there are perhaps fewer options to popularize just the writing itself.

Leaving the speculative facets of this question aside. I’d like to know whether 5 minutes of non-amateur-looking animation is likely to cost more or less than a 5 minute live-action film. We’re totally open to nontraditional formats ala South Park.

It’ll depend on the quality you want, what (if any) special effects you want, and the talents of you or people you know. My guess is that, if it’s nothing too involved, live action will be cheaper, since it’s about the same amount of effort to act out the scene as it is to voice-act it.

One person can produce a good 5 minute animation for the cost of a computer, software, and their own time. Live action can be done on the cheap as well, camera, you, time. As the production gets more complex, the costs will climb. Paid actors, sets, lighting, etc., work against live action. But if you have to pay an animator, it can be a more time consuming process, and cost more.
Comic form can be very economical, still pictures and text.
If you have the writing done, look for animators and cinematographers to team up with. There’s no shortage of people trying to break into the industry and will work cheap to get some experience and credit.

I’m afraid I have to disagree with Chronos. Assuming the artist in question is working for free, already has a computer, and won’t need very expensive animation software, actual out-of-pocket expenses for an animated film will probably be limited to what he/she has to pay for actors and composer/musicians.

Whereas key to making a live-action film look non-amateur is using a pro-level camera and good lighting, and employing people who know how to do those things well. Even if you don’t have to pay for sets, costumes, etc., there will almost certainly be expenses involved in a live-action shoot that simply aren’t needed in animation. IMHO.

Start subscribing to Writer’s Digest. For short story writers, the first step is usually to approach magazines or enter writing contests. If the stories are over 100 pages long, you might be able to get the interest of an agent. The agent’s reaction is a really good indicator of how good his writing really is.

I would advise against turning a short story into another medium. There’s different rules and conventions. A 120 minute movie, for example, takes about 60 pages of story, changes it all into dialogue, and does almost zero exposition. A good example would be to read Stephen King’s Silver Bullet, and then watch the Cory Haim movie of the same name. It’s rather shocking how little of a story actually makes it into a film. Many of Steven King’s short stories, for example, have been made into full-length, feature films. His novels, on the other hand, have to have about 3/4 of the scenes removed to fit.

If you’ve got a 12 page story, I would suspect that, at minimum, it would need 30 minutes of film without cuts.

To establish my bona fides, I’m film-educated and have done a number of short movies. I’m also very interested in animation, but unfortunately spectacularly rubbish at it. I am Norwegian, though, so I’m not familiar with the rules in the American industry.

The quick and easy answer is, of course: it depends.

Making a live-action movie is expensive. For our shorts, which we did with school equipment, we were always required to calculate a budget for how much the movie would have cost were we to do it “above board.” While we often spent no money at all on the project, the 5-10 minute shorts were usually budgeted at around $150.000 - $300.000. Film equipment, even in the so-called prosumer niche, is expensive.

Here’s a quick run-up of what a semi-professional short movie will need.

  1. A decent camera. I wouldn’t use anything less than a pro-sumer grade camera for anything I was serious about. My current camera is a Sony XDCAM EX1. That should run at about $4750. Add in extra expenses for a tripod, extra optics, a hand-held rig (like a Fig-Rig) and spare SD cards. It gets expensive.

  2. Sound equipment. For a good result, this should run at a portable mixer, a boom, a good-quality directional mike and a wind-jammer/mic sleeve. Expect about $1000 worth of equipment.

  3. Light equipment. This can range from a full studio lighting kit to a home-made softbox and a few “oranges.”

  4. Actors. Price varies, obviously, but if you want to do things above-board you need to recall that SAG sets minimum rates.

  5. Props, costumes, set dressings, set rental, generator rental, etc, etc, etc. This all depends on the content of the movie.

  6. An editing suite. If you want it to actually look good, you’ll probably need to go up to a professional editing suite. The most popular ones are AVID for PC or Final Cut for Mac. (I use FC, despite my dislike for Mac products. I’ve simply found it’s far easier to use. And the built-in Color editing suite is a very, very nice bonus.)

  7. Technicians. Unless you have friends into video production, your best bet is probably to hire film students.


All in all, I’d say that a good 5-10 minute short will require about $10.000 -$20.000 worth of equipment and personnell. If you can get those things free by for instance borrowing from a film school during summer hols or attracting people with their own equipment, that’s gravy. But unless you’re in the environment yourself or can successfully pitch your idea to someone who is, it’ll be very hard to cover all posts. And even then, some of the costs are unavoidable. Catering for the location, for instance. Or the electricity bill. Or the SD cards used. Etc.
And then there’s animation. It can be accomplished by a very small core team - 1-3 people, depending on the quality you want. However, both the hardware required to run modern animation software and the software itself are expensive. And then you need a recording setup for sound, voice actors and, of course, the technicians. Animation isn’t something you can pick up overnight - it’s a full craft on it’s own.
I’d estimate about $8-10.000 worth of equipment for a good short. You won’t be touching Pixar’s toes, but then, hell, few can.

wow thanks for all the insights so far everyone!

Small request: if anyone happens to be familiar with relevant examples of low budget live-action or animated shorts on youtube (or anywhere online for that matter) to get some sense of the ballpark quality we’re talking about in this 10k-20k range that would be super duper helpful!

You can probably do it for well under 10-20k by using ingenuity, but you haven’t given us any idea of the subject, or the minimum level of quality. BTW, some film schools offer short programs that include most of the costs of producing a short film in the tuition. New York Film Academyoffers a program for $3000 tuition and a $500 equipment fee.

You seem to be assuming 3d animation, but the OP mentioned something like South Park (which I believe started out as just flash animation) as being acceptable. And flash animation can be made using cheap software, on a computer like the one the OP probably already owns.

The real question is what kind of story you want to tell.

Live action film and animation work differently, so rendering the story in one medium versus another will change the story.

You can shoot either medium as cheaply or expensively as you like.

Once you know what your story is, you’ll know how to shoot it. Then you can make a budget.

Here are a couple of amateur produced animations that lead to professional contracts. Unfortunately I can’t find references to what they actually used to make them.

Alien “I Will Survive” video. This brought the creator to the attention of one of the major animation companies, Pixar IIRC.

The original Tripping the Rift animation. Lead to a short lived series on the SciFi channel.
(NSFW spoiler tagged)

Here’s a video with the Sony XDCAM EX1 (with and without 35mm adapter), the camera I mentioned above. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uLS5Jv16z2I&feature=related
Keep in mind that youtube compresses the video further, so the quality level is above what you see - it’s a full-HD camera. (1920x1080P)

I usually use a ENG-44 portable audio mixer for sound recording. It has 4 channels in for mics and wireless bugs and allows you to listen to the recorded sound via loopback in the output. (I.e. a multi-cable goes from the mixer to the recording unit - usually the camera - and allows you to listen to the sound that’s actually being recorded. A big plus.) The audio quality is good, but it does have some practical drawbacks - you’ll probably want to buy a carrying unit with straps and you’ll need to keep extra batteries handy. It’ll put you out about $500. Can’t find any sample sound recordings online, but I’ve never had reason to complain.

As for microphones, I usually use a Sennheiser MKH 418-S in a boom setup. It’ll put you out about $1000, but it’s worth it. Though I admit I have a “thing” for expensive mics. :wink:

As for a general impression of the quality you’ll get in that ballpark, here’s a short made with the XDCAM EX1 - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7wBWmApeqBk.

But, really, it’s impossible to tell. It depends so much on the content of the film. Are there three hundred extras running down a street? Is it exclusively filmed on location? Are there pyrotechnics? Etc, etc, etc, etc, etc.

It really depends on what the story involves in terms of number of actors, sets, props, etc… the quality of the desired output and the time frame involved in the project.
As I like to say to the producers I work with (I’m a professional 3D animator), Low Price, Short Time and High Quality, pick two. :slight_smile:

I can only give you very general ideas on what a 3D animation would cost, as an example I just finished a freelance job, about 1 minute worth of animation, lightning and shading (almost no modeling involved) and the price tag was about 4000 USD. The work I do in my company can be quoted from 10.000 up to almost 100.000 for a 30 second TV commercial, that should give you an idea of how much costs can vary depending on the nature of the work to be done.

Having said all that, you can find some very motivated animator(s), use a free 3D software like Blender and a lot of free time and get your story done basically for free. If the artists are talented and well directed (practice herding cats… on meth) you may get very good results.
3D artists are artists, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to find someone to do the job if the story is inspiring to them.
To this end you could see about rising interest in 3D forums, like 3D Total or CG Talk.

Let’s not forget the most important part of film: who you know.

If you know the right people, they’ll bring the equipment you need, whether that’s animation software and a computer or the lights, cameras, microphones and editing setup.

Check out http://www.danhumphrey.com - in the Film section, Rectify and The Addict were both done on shoe string budgets by a volunteer cast and crew, who even brought much of the equipment needed. I don’t want to share any numbers in case that would be considered sensitive by the folks involved, but it was not expensive.

Ale’s prices fit with what I know of professional production costs, but the OP’s friend just needs some indie buzz. If you know the right people, that can be had very cheap.

What you do is go to a local college and solicit help. The idea is you get a film and the others get something to use as well. The actors get the film to use in their promotion, the people behind the scenes get to use it on their resume.

Also no one is going to expect the film to have the quality of a multi million dollar Hollywood fim. Look at a film like “Rear Window,” which was a movie but a movie designed to look as if it were on a broadway play or stage.

You can often re-write script so it minimizes the use of the sets and locale. You want it to look decent but the OP really is trying to emphasize the writing. A bunch of fancy actors and slick special effects aren’t going to help the OP as much as the quality of a script that is set with minimalistic intents.

So go to a college and post a bulletin and get a bunch of students involved in the project.