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Motion Design Business Practices
by Shel Perkins

Motion design is a rapidly growing category of creative work. Motion components (both high- and low-end) are being integrated into online projects, television programs and commercials, feature films, games, applications and content for mobile phones and tablets, as well as three-dimensional installations and kinetic displays in public places.

This diversity of projects has led to quite a bit of confusion and inconsistency about motion design business practices and contract terms. To add to the confusion, the work is being done by people who have come from very different professional backgrounds, bringing with them different industry expectations.

For years, it was the norm in film studios and television networks for motion design to be created by staff members. Employees were trained to use specialized equipment (for example, the Quantel Paintbox in the 1980s), and many of them were members of entertainment unions. The unions negotiate and enforce collective bargaining agreements that govern the hours, working conditions, minimum wages and benefits for members employed at companies that have accepted the agreements (usually referred to as “signatories”). Because motion design has not had its own union, practitioners have been members of related organizations such as IATSE Local 839 (The Animation Guild) or IATSE Local 16 (which represents a variety of stagehands and technicians, including many who create computer graphics). However, a labor organizing effort is currently underway by IATSE with the objective of forming a new union specifically for motion design and visual effects (VFX).

On film and television projects, a clear distinction is usually made between the production and post-production phases. The production phase includes preparation of all live-action footage, whether it’s shot on location or in a studio. Action that will later be combined (composited) with motion design is usually shot in front of a green screen. The post-production phase includes all editing and the addition of computer-generated graphics, animations and VFX. Post-production also includes preparation of the soundtrack and the addition of title sequences and end credits.

In the past, it was typical for major studios to do much of their own post-production. In recent years, however, most post-production work has shifted from in-house staff members to outside specialists. There is now an ecosystem of specialized post-production companies providing various services to the film and television industry, and it must be noted that some of the smaller companies involved in motion design blur the line between production and post-production. Creative boutiques often say that they can shoot and edit, as well as design.

The skills required for making feature films and television programs are also directly applicable to the making of television commercials. The traditional approach in the advertising industry has been for agency staff to develop concepts for campaigns, and then buy production and post-production from the outside. More recently though, as the overall creative process has become primarily digital, the trend is to do more of the work in-house. For strategic reasons, digital services are being more fully integrated into the agency itself—exactly the opposite of the predominant trend in film and television.

Lastly, motion design skills are also in great demand in the game industry. Most game development studios and publishing companies divide their workload between employees and a network of outside talent. Projects include major releases for consoles as well as the rapidly expanding category of casual games for smart phones.

With so many people doing so many different things, we have to ask ourselves—what if anything do all of them have in common? For the most part, this boils down to two important things:

First is the use of a shared set of digital tools. Although there are still some higher-end systems (such as Autodesk’s Flame for compositing), technical advancements over the last twenty years have brought many motion design capabilities to the desktop. The current tool set includes applications like Adobe Flash and After Effects, as well as Apple Motion and Final Cut Pro. The steadily decreasing cost of equipment and soft-ware has made motion design affordable enough for more people to incorporate it into more projects.

The second thing that all motion designers have in common is the important legal issue of “work made for hire” (sometimes shortened to “work for hire”). This phrase comes from us copyright law. In most instances, it refers to original work made by an employee within the scope of his or her job, in which copyright ownership automatically belongs to the employer. However, it can also refer to original work made by an independent contractor or an outside firm, in which copyright ownership might automatically belong to the client. This is only true if the work meets very specific criteria—it must be specially ordered or commissioned, it must fit within certain categories of work (motion design fits into a category that covers work that is “part of a motion picture or other audio-visual work”) and a written agreement to that effect must be signed by both parties. (We’ll talk more about written agreements in just a moment.) Perkins
Shel Perkins ( is a graphic designer, management consultant and educator. The revised and expanded second edition of his book Talent Is Not Enough: Business Secrets For Designers is published by New Riders.