The making of The Curve in 2 minutes

As we were planning the marketing campaign for The Curve, Richard Lennon at Portfolio Penguin raised the idea of investing in an animated video to get the ideas of The Curve across in under two minutes. I thought it was a marvellous idea, as a great free entry point into the ideas of The Curve that might enable us to start a conversation with potential readers. I’m delighted with the end result, which you can see below. And once you’ve watched it, scroll down to read about how we made it and some lessons learned for the future.

The script

Richard and I wrote a short script trying to compress the ideas of The Curve into one minute. (I can’t remember who wrote the first draft. I think it was Richard, but it might have been me).

We didn’t succeed.

It came, after several drafts, to about a minute and a half. I cycled into Penguin’s offices on the Strand where they have a recording studio downstairs and we recorded several passes, editing and re-editing. We kept cutting words out, but when I spoke at a normal speed we could not get down under the 90 second mark.

We gave up. This story wanted to be 90 seconds long.

The animation

Richard took the script and sent it to animator Michael Day who suggested that we take the bold orange background of the UK cover as the core colour scheme and use the shape of a Curve to deliver our message.

His initial storyboard was lovely. Full of ideas and character. There was just one thing I was worried about: we might end up animating the words, rather than using the animation to work on the emotional part of the human mind while the words worked on the rational part.

So Michael and I had a phone call.

The emotions

Michael and I talked about the feelings that we were trying to engender in our audience. Early on in the editing process of the whole book, my editor, Joel Rickett, had said that he didn’t think The Curve should be too disheartening. “Everyone is worried about the future of their business, and it’s fine to reflect that. But The Curve, while carrying clear warnings, also has a hopeful message. Can we? make sure we end on that?”

I took that idea to Michael and we came up with a three act structure. The first act should focus on Fear. “The world is changing and I don’t understand it.” The second act should focus on Greed. “But there is a new world out there, and if I learn to understand it, I could be very successful.” The final act should be about Hope. “Now I understand what I need to do, it’s time to go out and do it.”

We had the genesis of a tight, neat, animated story.

The story structure expert

We moved from a storyboard to an animatic. This was a lightly-animated version that showed the transitions but lacked detail or polish. Michal found the music – a track from Audio Network called Play All Day – and it gave the animatic a massive lift.

I was still a little worried about the structure so I sent the animatic to a friend of mine who loves story structure theory, Ben Fisher, with an attempt to add a little Hero’s Journey to the video.

The feedback was great.

The rethink

Ben helped us see that although our basic structure was in the right direction, we had opportunities to strengthen it. By now, the video had grown to 2 minutes in length, so Ben suggested that we had 8 15-second scenes taking us through the journey. We had already thought about how to present the ordinary world and explain that there was a new world of Free out there. We showed how the Curve was a solution to a viewer’s concerns and worries about the new world. The Curve becomes the elixir that the protagonist needs to retrieve from the Other World and return to the Ordinary World in order to be successful.

So far, we were doing well. But it meant our three act structure was misleading. We recast the video into four acts: Fear, Excitement, Enlightenment, Hope. We would show people what they were afraid of, excite them about the potential of the new world, teach them what they needed to know to navigate the new rules and leave them feeling optimistic about the future.

And hopefully, to want to buy The Curve.

The result

I’m delighted with the result. Michael’s animation brings the script to life and drives an emotional relationship between viewer and content. The music was spot on. The script gets the message of The Curve across and, I hope, leaves people wanting more.

The lessons learned

  • Make the script shorter: The original script was 1’ 30” but we forgot that Michael would need to add pauses and breaks to make his animation work. So the final video is a fraction over two minutes. I think it would be better if it were 30 seconds shorter.
  • Talk to the animator: The storyboard was good but I think the video took off when Michael and I spoke on the phone. I explained my thoughts about emotions and structure and Michael was able to explain what he was trying to achieve as well as probing me for what I wanted from a video.
  • You can’t fix the script later: The script got locked down very early on. It reached the stage when a rewrite of the script would have cost us a lot of time and money. The script can be rewritten while you are at storyboard stage. By the time you are animating, it is done. So iterate early.
  • It’s not brilliant for “talking to people again”: The video is on Penguin’s YouTube channel. Which is fine, but if someone subscribes to the YouTube channel to get more Curve-related ideas, they will be disappointed. Penguin can talk to the customers again, in a general way, but I can’t, and yet they probably signed up because they liked the ideas in the Curve, rather than because they want a corporate relationship with Penguin.

I think one of the reasons the video works is because we were able to have so many iterations. We iterated on the script. We iterated on the storyboard. And on the animatic. And on the animation. And then we added polish. Michael operated under Agile principles, producing something we could experience from beginning to end early on and then polishing it again and again to produce something better each time.

For me, it was a masterclass in how iterative development can create a great product. I hope you enjoyed it too.

Nicholas Lovell

  • David Neal

    So, how much did this animation cost? For comparison, I spent about $75k on producing alicewinks, which is 164 minutes of animation. It took us 9 months, calendar time, with 3 animators ‘peak.’ Of course, my own time (and believe me, there was a lot!) was ‘free’ as was my two partners. And, about $12k was legal fees, as we are using old copyrights.