Millions of people watch today’s most popular animated series, either on television, or through a streaming service. Few, however, are aware at just how much goes into making a single episode, or some of the costs involved. Depending on the style of animation used, a lot of the costs can take the form of production and post-production. 3D animation, for example, is highly complex and requires not only an immense amount of technical skill, but also an incredible amount of patience. Many people have the misconception that you can just download a copy of the free software “Blender” or some equivalent, and create a feature-length movie over the course of a weekend.
Nothing could be further from the truth. While it’s true that many of the tools used to create animated series’ are free, or at least very low cost, it can take years to master their use, and you pay a premium for that mastery.
Of course, some shows, like “Family Guy,” are hand drawn animation, which is an entirely different animal. There’s still tons of pre and post-production work to be done, but it requires a very different set of skills. Again though, animation expertise, no matter what form it ultimately takes, doesn’t come cheap. It can take a whole team of animators more than a week to animate a single scene. The processing power required to render it is enormous. In fact, in a brief video put out by a company called Theory Animation, they describe how a single frame can take up to four minutes to render for production. Multiply that by a thirty minute episode, and you begin to see the scope and scale of the project.
The people behind the scenes though, are only one part of the show’s total costs. Another big factor is the voice acting talent. Now, it’s true that when a show is first launched, the budget is tight, and the voice talent tends to be paid minimally. However, if the show becomes a runaway hit and starts generating serious money, the voice talent behind that show are entitled to a bigger slice of the pie. In those cases, salaries can increase dramatically, and this can increase the total production cost of each episode enormously.
Take the example we mentioned before, “Family Guy.” At its peak, the voice actors were making an average of $300,000 per episode. Multiplied out across the entire cast, and you begin to see how the total cost can mount quickly. Of course, what goes up can also go down. As a show wanes in popularity, the show runners have little choice but to adjust salaries accordingly. The only alternative is to simply cancel the program, because it’s just not generating enough revenue to pay everyone at the level they were being paid.
Another hidden factor that can increase the cost of any given episode is the fact that the writers and the show runners often don’t have a clear idea of what they’re “looking for” in terms of the finished episode. This can lead to the animation team receiving unclear storyboarding, often coupled with minimal instructions for turning the writing and the basic idea into a finished episode. Most of this work is done on a fairly tight timetable, and as is often the case when there are minimal instructions and unclear expectations, what gets delivered in the first draft is quite different from what the show runners had in mind. When that happens, the animators are essentially asked to begin again, or to make sometimes significant changes to the arc and flow of the story.
If the show were a live action production, it would be a simple matter of telling the actors to get back to their marks and pick it up again from a certain point, but in the world of animation, the animators actually have to create EVERYTHING from scratch. When someone requests a change, it sends the animation crew literally back to the drawing board. Unfortunately, this can happen more than once in a single scene, and multiple times in any given episode, requiring a huge amount of re-work and revision, all of which has to be done from scratch for every single change.
Last minute changes
Then, there’s the problem of the last minute changes. These are actually worst of all, because again, most shows are run on a fairly tight timetable, so when someone thinks of a new scene or line of dialogue to add, it can really complicate things for the guys behind the scenes. In most cases, they manage to work a miracle and get it done, but that miracle usually involves pulling in more talent, or working long hours and late into the night to get everything done, and of course, all that overtime can add up quickly.
The long and the short of it is this: Anybody who tells you that you can just download a few free tools and make even a short, one-time animated clip in a matter of days is pulling your leg.
Sure, you can mock something up fairly quickly, but if you’re talking about creating a fully rendered, production ready piece, with motion timed to voice, professionally produced and acted, there’s just no way. There’s an enormous amount of work that goes into each and every episode by literally dozens of people you’ll never see or hear a thing about. These unsung heroes of the animation world deserve every cent they get, because a lot of what they do is tedious, thankless, high precision work that makes every episode memorable.
It’s also hard to begrudge the voice actors a fair cut of the profits if the show is highly successful, which explains the other big reason for skyrocketing episode costs. Put both of these together, and you can easily have a single episode of a popular animated series that runs $2 million, or even more per episode. If that makes you want to rethink the line of work you’re in, reconsider. Most of the guys who work in animation had to spend years making minimal pay before they land a job on a breakout series like “Family Guy.” Not everyone in the business makes a huge salary, and the industry is an extremely competitive one.