3 Surprising Marketing Lessons from the World of Animated Movies

I love movies.

They do something wonderful to my brain. Neuroscientists back me up on this. They’ve proven that when you and I hear a story, the rational part of our brain turns off and we, in part, begin to live vicariously through the experience of the characters.

In fact, the compelling storytelling power of movies is what inspired the StoryBrand marketing framework. If we, as business owners and marketers, can communicate like storytellers, we can engage our customers on a powerful level.

That’s why this short video essay from The Royal Ocean Film Society caught my eye recently. Its creator, Andrew Saladino, sits down to talk with editors of popular animated films like Inside Out, Toy Story, Up, and more.

These film editors are all incredible storytellers. And I’m convinced that wherever you find masterful storytelling, you’ll also find lessons to improve your marketing and communication.

So what on earth can animated film editors teach us about creating better marketing? A lot, it turns out.

But first here’s the video. It’s a short watch, at just under eight minutes:

Typically, when we think of editing (a live action film, a book, our marketing materials), we tend to do the creating first and the editing second. But as you see the video, it’s the opposite in the world of animated film. They edit first and create second.

It’s a radically different approach, and it got me thinking — what can we learn from this process to improve our marketing? Here are my big three takeaways. Apply these to your business and I know you’ll create stronger, more compelling marketing material that saves you time and money.

1. Don’t wait until the end of your production process to edit.

In the video, Andrew Saladino says, “Animated films aren’t something we usually think of needing to be edited. Scenes are written, shots are animated, and then clips are just put together in the order they’re meant to be in … right?”

But it turns out, the animation editor has one of the most involved roles in the entire production.

In the video, we hear from John Venzon, who edited Shark Tale and Storks. He says that the editor spends two years figuring out the story, along with the writer and the director. Then, the last year of the process they spend actually animating the film.

What this means for your marketing materials

The most common mistake we see at StoryBrand when we review websites is that there’s too much clutter and unnecessary information. Most of it is confusing potential customers and causing the website to hemorrhage leads and sales.

The problem? Those extraneous elements weren’t edited out early enough in the website design and development process. As a result, businesses invested time and money in the copy and design of those elements. That made them very difficult to cut later, even though they were doing the website a disservice.

The most common mistake we see at StoryBrand when we review websites is that there’s too much clutter and unnecessary information.

But if you think like an animation editor and start the editing process early, you’ll cut those extraneous and distracting elements in your marketing materials before you incur the expense and time of developing them.

In fact, if you follow the same percentage formula, you’ll spend two-thirds of your time planning and prototyping your project, and only one-third of your time actually producing it. (Wow!)

Here’s how this approach might look for a few common pieces of marketing collateral:

• For a website:
Sketch out a wireframe and workshop it with a small group before you hire a designer or developer (more on that here, actually)

• For a blog post:
Edit your outline to dial in clear, cohesive points before you start writing

• For a lead nurturing email campaign:
Put up sticky notes on a white board with the big ideas for each email and move the big pieces around until the sequence nails your prospect’s journey. Then, start the copywriting and email design.

2. Collaborate and iterate

I was fascinated to learn how animated films are developed. You might assume that somebody writes a screenplay, and then a team of artists animates it.

But there is a massive amount of creativity and collaboration that happens in between those two steps.

Here’s how Andrew Saladino breaks it down in the video.

“You’ll have your basic story, your goal for what you want the film to be. But what happens is that really anyone working on the film can throw out ideas … Then the animators will turn those ideas into storyboards. When you get enough storyboards, you can put together a rough draft of what the film could look like.”

That’s when the editor really gets to work. He or she takes those storyboards and turns them into what’s called a “story reel.” The scenes get stitched together, with placeholders for vocals, music, and even sound effects.

And, as Pete Docter (who directed Monsters Inc, Inside Out, and Up) says, “Our first attempt usually doesn’t quite work.” So his team revises, rewrites, and reconsiders their choices, and then they try again. In fact, they will usually revise each sequence in a film up to five times before they feel like they’ve gotten it right. When you consider that a typical animated film contains 25-30 sequences, that’s a lot of iteration.

What this means for your marketing materials

Most of us look at a finished product and don’t consider how it got there. When you walk up to a farmer at a tomato stand, what do you see? You don’t see the field or the tractor or the soil amendment or the lost crop. You just see the tomatoes.

But remember that the process of creating marketing materials is just that — creative. And that means that while the end product should feel simple, the work to get there will be anything but.

The process of creating marketing materials is just that — creative

Think of your next marketing project like a film editor would and assume your first attempt isn’t going to work. Go into it planning on a few iterations to get it right. Simplicity is hard work.

If you can, create production schedules that allow you and your team the space to contribute (and eliminate) ideas as a group, and then revise and edit through a few iterations. If it’s just you in your business, ask a fellow entrepreneur you trust and respect if you can be that collaborative voice for each other.

3. Embrace mistakes

The film closes with a great clip from Pete Docter (the director of Inside Out and other films), whom I quoted earlier.

What he shares about the creative process is so powerful:

“We know we’re going to be wrong. If we don’t allow ourselves to be wrong, we’re never going to do anything new. We’re just going to rely on things we know work. So, for us, making mistakes is an essential part of our process. We’re not embarrassed by it. In fact, we plan for it.”

What this means for your marketing materials

Another major misstep we see, especially among established businesses, is that they’ve gotten too comfortable with what’s working. They’re continuing with the same marketing strategies, and they’re getting the same results. So, while things aren’t getting worse, those companies have missed out on the next level of success. They’re simply too tied to what’s working to risk changing it.

Give yourself permission to try something new in your materials

So give yourself permission to try something new in your materials. Take risks, watch your results, and see your mistakes as wisdom gained. It’s the only way you’ll have the creative breakthroughs you need in order to take your business to the next level.

A great story starts with great editing.

It’s as true for Inside Out as it is for whatever marketing material you’re working on this week. Embrace your inner animated film editor and apply these takeaways as you tackle your next marketing project. I have a feeling this approach will save you money and help you create stronger, more engaging marketing.

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