Thou shalt not steal: what are the references for and how to find them?
Why do animation studios ask for references from clients, where to find them and why is it so important?
For creators of a creative product, reference is an auxiliary image or clip that is used as a focus when working on a new project. For the customer, it is an example of what he likes and what he would like to get from the studio or a specialist.

References are used in various creative spheres: cinema, music, design, game-design and so on. I work in an animation studio, so I will tell you about the selection of references in animation.

What are the references for?

In the brief*, we are always asking customers to attach links to references. But even if they are not sent, we select them ourselves for the following reasons:

1. They help us to better understand the client and choose the right style illustrations, colour scheme, animation, pace of narration and background sound. And the client is given an idea of how to visualize the idea.

2. Searching for references is a way to analyse the current market situation: trends in animation, design and illustration, what competitors do and why it works or does not work.

3. By reference, you can estimate the preliminary cost of the project and the upcoming amount of work: how much time it will take to draw the illustrations in the selected style and their animation.

*Brief — a statement of work that specifies the main parameters of the ordered product.

Types of references: what to pay attention to when selecting them.

It is pointless and dangerous to look for the perfect example where everything will be liked, as it may end up copying too much. It's best to find a few animated videos and images, indicating what exactly caught you in one case or another.

We divide references in three types.

1. Thematic examples of ideas and dramaturgical basis.

Analyse your competitors' animations, assess their ideas, the script and its implementation. This analysis is necessary to understand how to stand out from the general background, which stories have worked well and which have failed.

2. Stylistic — examples of visual solutions.

In this case, the reference can be both an animated video and an image. When choosing stylistic examples, be guided not only by the principle of "like/dislike", but also by trends. In 2020, hyperbole proportions, bold colour combinations, neon lights, atmospheric gradients, collages, 3D art, isometric illustration (three-dimensional objects on a flat surface) and abstraction are popular.

3. Technolgical — examples of animation.

When choosing a technological reference, pay attention to the methods of animation: transitions from scene to scene, the gait of characters, visual effects, interaction of objects with each other.

Blockfood animation video, Lemons
Vielight, Ourshack
Coca-Cola "Happiness Is Movement", Nexus Productions
American Family Insurance - The Future of Home Insurance, The Digital Ring
Three tips from Collby on finding references

1. Search for references on several resources, do not stop at one site. The most popular video service is YouTube, but we recommend you visit it last. The platform is designed for mass creativity, so in the flow of content, you can just never find a good animation.

Here are a few resources for searching references:

It is created by filmmakers for artists, directors, animators and other creative people. Therefore, there are much more aesthetically valuable videos on this site than on YouTube.

On Vimeo, videos are sorted by category and there are thematic channels where the content is broadcast. Another cool feature of this video hosting is Staff Pick selection. Vimeo Editorial staff regularly watches the loaded video and publishes the best works in their opinion.

Collby at Vimeo

It is a professional community for artists, illustrators, photographers and animators, where they share their portfolios. The peculiarity of this resource is that you can see not only the finished project, but also the stages of work on it.

Collby at Behance

It is a professional community of designers, illustrators and 3D visualizers. The service is more suitable for finding stylistic solutions, as it allows you to publish only images and GIF files.

2. Use queries close to the subject with your field of activity.
For example, if the company is recycling waste, type in "ecology", "nature", "garbage", "environment pollution", etc. In these videos you can find visual images that are appropriate for your specific business. Use English when entering requests: the result will be much higher, as all services are international resources. If you have a narrow topic and no examples, don't get upset, look in a wider segment or just skip to the next item.

3. Choose what you like. At the stage of selecting references do not think about the price of one or another animated video. If you focus on the budget, you risk abandoning the solution that you like and available to you in favour of more trivial.

An illustration that seems simple is not always cheaper than a more complex one. The price is affected by the saturation (called detailing) of the picture (the more details and drawings, the more laborious and, consequently, expensive the illustration will be) and the complexity of the animation, but not the style itself.

For instance, there are two pictures below that are drawn in different styles. The first seems more minimal than the second one. But it took the same time for the illustrator to draw them. Thus, the cost of the animation video will not depend on the stylistics you choose.

So send us everything you like. And we will help you to meet the budget.

P.S. Can the studio exactly repeat the reference?

We do not recommend you to ask animation studios for a picture exactly like in the reference, even if you really liked the video. Full and ruthless copyright is prohibited, and breaking the law is unlikely to improve the reputation of your company. And in general, it's wrong to copy something. And studios that are looking for their way don't do that.

For us, a reference is just a starting point in the work, which helps to form a general idea of the project and starts the creative process.

We always strive to create a unique product that will take the best of references without losing its identity. That's why we are guided by the Austin Kleon principle in working with examples:

"What to copy is a more complex question. Don't just steal the style, steal the thinking behind the style. You don't want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes."

Austin Kleon, "Steal Like an artist"