Live-Action vs Animation: How to Get the Most Out of Your Video Budget

Both live action videos and animations can really WOW your audience. How do you know which one will be best for your budget? The experts at Rocketwheel walk you through everything you need to know to make the best decision.

At Rocketwheel, we believe having videos as part of your marketing strategy is a no-brainer (of course we might be a little biased 😉). But deciding on the best type of video can be a bit more complicated.

Whiteboard videos, 3d motion graphics, animated explainers, stop-motion, testimonials, brand stories - the options are endless.

But before you even get there, you have to answer one of the basic questions of video production: 

Do you make a live action video, or an animated video?

Both can effectively tell stories, explain products, and deliver your business message. 

Just take a look at Disney. They make live-action movies, they make animated movies, and they even remake animations into live-action movies - all hugely successful. For example, the recent Cruella movie was actually inspired by the original 101 Dalmations cartoon (which also inspired the 1996 live-action remake).

The point is: You can't really say one is better than the other. 

Instead, what you need to understand is what goes into each format, what resources you'll need, and the pros and cons of each.

In this article, we'll walk you through:

  • The processes involved in each style
  • A comparison of live action vs animated videos
  • The pros and cons for each
  • Rough budget estimates

Live-Action vs Animation Production Processes

First off, it's good to understand the process involved in making each type of video, as well as the major similarities and differences.

Comparing the live action and animated processes

Differences Between Live Action and Animation Production Processes

As you can see, while both live action and animation videos share a similar creation process, their production processes differ quite a bit.

Production Team and Location

The major difference (obviously) is that live action videos are shot in real-time, at a particular time and place. 

This allows the production team to make adjustments and improvisations on the spot. For example, an actor might improvise a line that really ties the whole scene together, or the director might find that a certain shot from the storyboard looks better from a particular angle.

It also allows a single scene to be filmed several times, and then edited and re-arranged in post-production.  

The drawback is that after you've left the set you can't easily change the footage. If you want to add new footage or re-do your original shots, you have to get the whole production team on location again - not fun.

Animated videos, on the other hand, are produced in a studio. 

Only one shot is made for each scene, usually by a whole team of animators. Each scene has many elements and details that need to be just right - characters, background scenes, frame-by-frame animations, riggings, color selection, etc. 

Because of this, major adjustments to later in the animation process can be time-consuming and costly. It's very important to have strong storyboards and moodboards beforehand, since this is all the animators have to base their work off.

Scene changes/revisions

On the other hand, revisions are easier to execute with animations (although they can still be costly).

You simply specify the changes you want, and after a few days or weeks, voila, your animation is updated.

Re-filming a live action video scene requires many more resources:

You need to coordinate with the entire filming team and actors, book the location, and rent any extra equipment you might need. On top of that, it can be nearly impossible to get the same weather conditions for outdoor shoots.

Equipment Required

Live action videos and animations also require different types of tools and equipment. 

A decent live action production can be made with just a good cell phone camera, some LED lights from Amazon, and a couple hours of YouTube tutorials.

From there, you can scale up production quality with better equipment. This starts at a few thousand dollars for a good video camera and lighting, all the way up to tens of thousands of dollars for top-of-the-line equipment (at this point you're most likely looking at renting what you need). 

The only equipment needed for creating basic animated videos is a computer with an internet connection. You can easily create simple animated video content with free or inexpensive software tools like Animaker and Animatron.

From there, there's a wide range of increasingly refined graphic tablets and sophisticated software tools. The learning curve for these tools can be quite steep, however, and will likely require creative professionals skilled in drawing, animating, and video editing.

Similarities Between the Live Action and Animation Processes

Budget Range

As we've seen, both animated and live action videos can vary widely in price. 

With live action videos, the budget can be very low using just an iPhone and some low-cost editing tools to shoot simple videos. And it just goes up from there! Hiring an entire production team to do the entire live action process with top-of-the-line equipment can run into the tens of thousands of dollars per minute - or more.

And the same goes for animated videos. 

A free online click-and-build app can make basic video content and concepts, whereas the most complex animations with complex 3D modelling can run into the tens of thousands of dollars per minute (at the extreme end, the 2019 Lion King remake ended up costing $2 million dollars per minute to produce)!

Disney's 2019 Lion King scene

Timelines

Similarly, both video types can be have a wide range of timelines, depending on the complexity of the video content and the amount of polish needed.

One point worth noting is that it's generally faster to produce a live action video in-house, whereas a professional agency will usually be able to deliver an animated video more quickly.

Preparation Pays Off

Taking the time to have a creative director make a detailed storyboard, style frames, and script is essential for the two mediums.  

Any revisions you make after the cameras have stopped rolling, or after the animators have started animating, can lead to major price increases and costly delays. 

The only slight exception is if you're creating a lower-budget video in-house. 

It still pays off to make a thorough storyboard, but at least you have a bit more wiggle room for improvisations and edits.

Live Action vs Animation: Pros and Cons

comparing the pros and cons of live action vs animated videos

Live Action Video Pros

Humanizing Effect

The most powerful advantage of live action videos is the human touch they add

Seeing real people, with the nuances of their facial expressions and their body language helps viewers connect emotionally with your brand. 

Especially in the B2B space, where brands often underestimate the value of this connection, showcasing executives', team members', and even clients' personal stories can be a great way to soften up your brand's image.

The detail and authenticity of live settings also helps to add extra life to videos. This ambience can be recreated in animations, but it very quickly becomes expensive.

Speed

It's easier to create an engaging video quickly using the live action option. 

You can film, edit, and release a workable video in just a couple days. It will likely be a little rough around the edges, but this is fine as long as you're making up for it with authenticity and connection

This timeline can be even shorter if you're just producing Tik Tok or other Reels-type micro-marketing.

On the other hand, it's difficult putting together a good animation in just a few days, even with user-friendly animation software. If it looks cheap and poorly done, it will likely detract from your brand's image.

Physical Product Demos

Live-action videos are great at showing customers how they can actually use your physical products. 

To really get the most audience engagement, go beyond just demonstrating your product's features and uses. 

Instead, show them the benefits of using it - how they'll no longer have a particular problem, how they get to spend more time with family and friends, or even how they'll finally be able to afford that Ferrari they've always dreamed of (sorry, that's how marketing works 🤷).

Live Action Video Cons

Limited by the Physical World

The major constraint of live action video content is your actual physical environment: There are only a limited amount of sets, locations, props, and actors that can be used for filming.

On the other hand, the flexibility of animation lets you create virtually any world you can imagine. 

This lets you convey your message in innovative ways to capture the attention of your target audience.

Limited Room for Additional Edits

It can be difficult to add or edit scenes once the footage has been recorded. 

Not only does re-recording scenes delay your project to begin with, getting the same actors and equipment might be much more expensive - or not even possible!

Please please please refer back to our point about the importance of good storyboarding!

Animation Pros

Simplifies Complex Knowledge

Animation works best for exploring and explaining abstract concepts and ideas. 

This works best for products or services that are solving complex business problems, or anything in the world of bits, bytes, and bioscience.

However, this doesn't mean animated videos are only for complex topics. Even simpler ideas can often be best understood through explainer videos and a creative metaphor. 

Evergreen

You can make edits and updates to animated videos fairly easily.

Updating a live-action video means getting the production crew together, finding the original props, hoping you can get the same actors, and bringing them all together on the physical. After you're filmed the new footage, it still needs to be reviewed, edited, and finally inserted into the original sequence. 

Phew - it can be done, but it ain't easy. 

Animated videos are a lot simpler to update. 

Your animator or studio can just open up the original source files and make the edits. Depending on the complexity, this can take anywhere from a day or two to several weeks.

Animation Cons

Less Personal

An animated video production can feel less personal to your audience. 

If you're trying to show your organization's human side, this might not be the best route to go.

This is especially important to consider when you are promoting the social and lifestyle benefits of a physical product, or your business depends heavily on customer interaction.

Steeper Learning Curve

If you want to make your animation in-house, it can take quite a while to learn how to use even the most basic animation software.

It might seem easy, but it will likely take you several weeks to put together a workable video in-house. Rush this process, and you might even end up hurting your brand's reputation.

Live Action vs Animation Costs

As we've seen throughout this post, both styles can vary widely in price - so it's impossible to say which costs more. 

What's more important is to understand the process involved in producing each style, their strengths and weaknesses, their tradeoffs, and how to make the most of the budget you do have. 

Take for example the team at Sandwich Video.

They were curious about the impact of production cost on a successful video advertising campaign. So they decided to commission three live action videos with different budgets: $1000, $10,000, and $100,000—all advertising the same service.

The low-budget $1000 video was directed by a staff member who shot the video on his iPhone X and starred in it.

Compare this to the $100,000 big-budget video that required a full production crew and was shot on an Arri Amira camera (that costs over $40,000).

Both videos proved to be successful ads, but they ultimately concluded that good storytelling matters more than the actual production cost - more on that here.

Animation vs Live Action Ballpark Budget Estimates

We're going to assume that if you made it this far, you really really want an idea of how much it's going to cost. 

We can't promise this is what you'll pay, but the prices below are roughly what professional studios charge. But beware - there are always project-specific factors that can inflate or deflate the project cost of any type of video.

So here goes:

Professional live-action video production costs can range between $5000 to $20,000 per minute for a basic video, while premium quality videos will cost between $25,000 to $50,000 per minute.

A basic animated video will cost around $6000 for a 60-second video. At the other end of the spectrum, a complex animated video can cost up to $15,000 per minute.

But always remember: A big budget video production doesn't guarantee your video will be cost effective and lead to more conversions.

The real value comes from knowing where your video content fits into your marketing strategy, and how to creatively get the most out of your budget.

Working with a professional agency and experienced creative director can help. They can help clarify your needs and help determine which style is best for your next project and budget.