Explainer videos come in all shapes and sizes. But how do we decide what form these videos will take? Of course budget and client intention play a large role – we’d be lying if we said they didn’t. But, while so much of where we go with a video is unlocked through Discovery calls, the real direction is dictated by the message.

University of Kent Animated Explainer Video
A powerful message.

Cover to cover

Dr Heejung Chung at the University of Kent came to us having written a truly fascinating book. One which detailed an abundance of research into contemporary working challenges and how they affect women specifically. From the outset, we were absolutely taken in by Dr Chung’s passion and the findings that were uncovered. 

The cover of the book The Flexibility Paradox
Available now.

The book is called The Flexibility Paradox. In it, evidence shows that flexible working and remote working are causing employees to absorb a wealth of pressures that don’t exist in a conventional office environment. Now, there are many ways we could have taken the overall tone and flow of the script itself, but we decisively chose to be actively antagonistic. At least to start with.

Poking the bear

Understandably, this carried an element of risk. The opening seconds of a video are absolutely crucial and if you don’t make a connection with your audience, what incentive do they have to continue watching? So we chose to stoke the flames.

See, although flexible working should be as normalised as other standard business practices, for many people it’s still a point of contention. There are those who love the opportunities it presents and others who hold misconceptions about what it entails.

This led us to the bold opening statement: “flexible working is fundamentally broken.” Much in the same way a certain colour will catch your eye, this was intentionally designed to draw in people with differing opinions. This is because, whether you agree with the statement or not, you’re compelled to find out what the rest of the video has to say.


So knowing we had the viewer, it was time to make a strong pivot. Whatever preconceptions you brought to the video, we countered with facts. Introducing and building on the notion of self exploitation. We then stacked more and more evidence: public perception, a sense of validation through hard work, competing with coworkers, eventually leading to the stark and relatable reality that employees are working everywhere, all the time.

A thought bubble surrounding a person asleep on the job
Finding ways to picture assumptions.

But we had one more surprise pivot – the crux of Dr Chung’s findings. Due to a host of societal expectations, women were suffering worse in both the short and long term. So no matter who was watching, we wanted to drop an eye-opening explosion: the reality that there is an imbalance to an already broken system.

Finally, we needed to reiterate that flexible working has astonishing potential and benefits. So the close was all about reassuring the viewer that this is something that needed to be nurtured and reformed. But rather than being vague, it was important to outline very clear and specific ways to achieve this.

And thus we had our script.

From page to screen

The beauty of a script is that, even though the writer will have ideas or concepts in their head, we’re an incredibly collaborative bunch. Ego is parked at the door and we all step into a meeting like “Ok, how can we make this the most engaging it can be?”

As with the start of any process, we threw lots of ideas around before settling on the colours and overall style drawn from the book itself. Afterall, the video directly encourages the viewer to pick up a copy of the book, it only makes sense to link them.

To align our ambitions with the budget, our art director had the novel idea of going with a look heavily inspired by opening titles from 1960s films. From here the team watched sequences from It’s A Mad Mad Mad World and Catch Me If You Can for inspiration. And with the client’s approval, we set to work.

The real challenge at this stage was capturing the level of emotion in the script. But also injecting enough literal representations, so the audience is able to relate. Basically, it’s a battle between the desire to go abstract or direct. Obviously both have their benefits and drawbacks. And we make it our mission to consider every one of those possibilities. 

Very quickly, our designer started to tap into the use of light and texture. Stating that she was incredibly comfortable with this approach because, “I felt at ease with textures, just as that’s my jam.” Which, when paired with lighting, became a wonderful device to really underpin so many elements; such as time of day, a juxtaposition between hope and despair, simple screen illumination, and outlandish expectation vs harsh reality.

Like this but not like this

Being such a unique visual approach, we decided to scamp up the concept first, before drawing the full visual storyboard. This isn’t necessarily our regular process but we wanted to ensure the client had as clear an understanding of what to expect as possible.

Very early rough sketches
The first rough sketches.

But just because an aspect is working well for one team, doesn’t mean that will immediately translate to another. Case in point, a writer could easily pen, “a horse is chased by a car behind a chain-link fence” but for an animator that sounds like a nightmare. So despite the light and textures solving so many problems for the designer, and being signed off by the client, it presented some technical challenges for the animation team. 

Initial rough sketch storyboard
Sketching out ideas.

Without giving you a crash course in Adobe products, the way After Effects and Illustrator use blending modes, differs. In essence, this is a setting that allows you to overlay colours or textures.. or anything really.. which changes how the layers below it operate. To take a very literal example, the background texture was actually a photograph that needed to be set to the blend mode ‘multiply,’ which would darken areas of the image. Still with me? This adds to the handmade feeling of it all.

Full disclosure, although the designer and animators worked closely together to preserve the overall look and feel, we weren’t able to ascertain exactly what was wrong. We’re not engineers, we’re artists. If the tool isn’t functioning as we want it to, sometimes all we can do is find workarounds. In this instance, that meant manually tweaking the opacity along with the blending modes to get it to match. And with that resolved, we could focus on motion. 

Look over here please

With every animation, we constantly consider the audience’s eye; especially during transitions. As an example, say you’re watching a chase scene in a police drama and the characters are running right-to-left. But in the next shot, they’re running left-to-right. This shift can be disorientating and distracting.

A page from the written storyboard
Every step is storyboarded out.

So when moving from one scenario to another, the animation team had to be conscious of where the viewer is currently looking, where they need to look next, and how their gaze can be guided. Inherently drawn through the emotional experience. Like a lot of creative elements, it’s a seemingly invisible one – which, when done well, the audience won’t even realise is happening.

Speak up

From the very outset, we decided the best route to take with this piece was a combination of powerful text-led imagery, along with a strong and compelling voiceover. Thankfully, the hunt for an appropriate voice artist was admittedly a short one. We discussed this with Dr Chung and agreed that as the video was so heavily focussed on working women and mothers, a female voice was essential. More than that, we wanted someone who sounded older, more established and could give a mix of gravitas and optimism. 

A screenshot of a conversation on slack linking a video to Lauren Bacall
Slack chats.

With the voiceover and animation working in harmony, there is one more crucial component: sound and music. Not every project requires this step. After all, a lot of videos viewed on social media are watched without sound. But with the emotional core running through this piece, we knew that atmospheric layering would only enhance the experience.

Trawling through a site like premiumbeat.com is an experience, to say the least. Navigating your way through myriad styles, genres, instruments and themes – it can be overwhelming. But we knew we wanted a subtle piece which started out evocative, suspenseful even, before transitioning to something more buoyant and hopeful. And after a fair amount of searching and comparing, we hit gold.

All of this was then delivered to our sound designer who immediately latched onto the narrative’s strong association with time. He then incorporated lots of different ticking sounds and alarm rings to punctuate certain moments. During the first third he “had all of these different ticks fade in – and time stretched to play at different speeds – to create a sense of chaos and urgency.” As the scene then transitions into night, this fades out and is buried in reverb to “give a sense of losing track of time.” And to highlight the change in attitude of our on-screen figures, we had all of the music build and briefly stop, when the clock is pushed away. To represent the character no longer feeling a slave to time.

The proof is in the pudding

Alternative options detailing a person sitting on a sofa working late into the night
A host of options.

And so, after the entire effort was stitched together, the final video was sent to Dr Chung for approval. It’s a genuinely tense and nerve wracking moment. And no matter how many projects we work on, no matter how many videos we create, you always get a flutter of anticipation as a project nears an end; it’s the overall swell of pride and the odd sense of mourning that it’s over.

To the casual observer, The Flexibility Paradox is a simple 2 minute animation. To the audience it resonates with, it’s bold, it’s colourful, it’s challenging and it’s thought-provoking. For us, it’s a little more. It’s the product of weeks of meticulous consideration, hard work and refinement. And the truth is, this is how we treat every animation. So as you peruse our portfolio, pay attention to the details in the scripting, the motion and the way it sounds. And ask yourself, “What made them choose to do that?” The answer might surprise you.

University of Kent – The Flexibility Paradox from Curveball Media on Vimeo.