How Much Does a Live Action Explainer Video Cost?

Recently, Video Brewery posted an article entitled How Much Does an Explainer Video Cost?. The post mainly dealt with animated videos and left out an explanation of the costs to make live-action explainer videos. While animation can be a highly effective use of resources, at times you just really want that live-action piece to explain your product or service – often in hopes of creating a viral campaign (see the ubiquitous Dollar Shave Club for reference).

How Much Does a Live Action Explainer Video Cost?

As a video creator, I often run into potential clients who seem flabbergasted when I begin to discuss the costs. Perhaps many of them think that the check goes straight to my pocket (if only it were so) or that the industry is full of greedy creatives (sometimes true but normally just people trying to make an average living). To combat these misunderstandings, my intention here is to explain what costs to expect when making a video, what makes each element important for the video and how to make the best decision possible when choosing a vendor and budget for your video project.

So how much should a live action explainer video cost your company? $5,000? $15,000? $50,000? The answer (to the chagrin of many a marketing manager) could be any of those numbers and often runs much, much higher. Whether you’re creating a video for the homepage of your website or a broadcast television commercial, many of the same principles and costs apply. The right budget may not be the cheapest. You have a brand and company you are trying to build and having your cousin or a high-school buddy make the video for your cherished brand, while cheap, may not be the best option.

Costs Involved in Video Production

Before choosing a budget, it’s essential to understand where those costs come from in order to make the most informed decision possible. Of course, every project is different but it’s likely your project will include many (if not all) of the following costs.

Pre-Production

  1. Concepting and Script Creation: Someone has to have an idea and develop a script for it. Hopefully, they are highly creative, understand your product, are a good writer and care about you and your company.
  2. Organization/Project Management/Producing: Time and money need to be allocated for booking the crew, scheduling, organizing the different items of the budget and, of course, working with you, the client.
  3. Location Scouting and Talent Search: Locations and talent often seem to be the most overlooked part of a video project with a small budget. Someone needs to take the time to find the locations to be filmed – either a professional location scout, the video production company or the client themselves. Who will be on-screen? Talent needs to be found which might come through a professional agency, a casting call at the production company or Craigslist. It may not be easy to find that perfect place or person for your brand and these elements often require a lot of time for deliberation and final selection.
  4. Production Design: The set of your dreams begins empty – production design is crucial. If the video will be shot in a studio, the set may have to be built and all the props added from scratch. If the video will be filmed on location, props still may need to be brought in, or at the very least, the location will have to be tidied up a bit.

Production

  1. Crew: Director, assorted producers, the camera person and their assistants, the lighting person and their assistants, the sound person, the production design people, wardrobe, makeup, the food people and all the production assistants driving everyone around and carrying everything everyplace. Of course there can be even more roles than those just mentioned – I apologize to anyone I’ve left out. Will your particular video need this many people? Probably not – but it might.
  2. Equipment: Cameras – sound gear – lights – dollies – teleprompters. Somebody has to pay for all that – whether it was rented for the day or purchased long ago.
  3. Locations: Maybe the video can be shot on a soundstage. Or perhaps you have this amazing idea for a shot from a train looking out over a cabin on a lake with a mountain in the background. Of course you have to take the time to find that location but you also have to rent out a car of the train and get the crew there. Even a regular old suburban house costs money in order to secure permission and insurance to film. Some might suggest that you go the guerrilla filmmaking route, but be warned that you run the risk of ill-will from owners, not getting access to locations on time, a higher likelihood of getting sued for damages and getting shut down by the property owners or local government.
  4. Talent: Talent costs money. Especially if hiring from a talent agency. Even more from a union based talent agency. Oh, and there’s also one scene that calls for 20 extras – not cheap. Of course you could have your pretty sales-rep from down the hall just do it. Or your dashing CEO. Again, be warned – you could be there all day and into the next when they start freezing up on camera given that they have never acted before. Even if they manage to get through all their lines, somehow their tone on camera just isn’t the same as when they’re talking to you by the water cooler. It happens.

Post-Production

  1. The Edit Room: It takes time to go through all that footage. It takes time to piece it together. It takes time to listen to the client’s feedback and rearrange it all – 2-3 times. It takes time to mix the audio. And it takes time to color grade the final image to make it look just perfect.
  2. Design, Animation, Compositing, 3D Assets, etc: If your video has additional animated assets to insert into it, a graphic designer or animator or 3D artist (or all of the above) may need to be called in to work on those moving parts.
  3. Music: Music is also often overlooked or thrown in at the end, but it is highly integral to the mood of a piece. While there are cheap music options out there, getting that perfect song can cost quite a bit to license or compose from scratch. And no, you cannot just use your favorite Top 40 song.
  4. Stock Assets: Sometimes the right choice may be to include stock photos or video clips into your video. While an economical route, it still costs something.

Cutting Production Costs

After reading through that list, you may be thinking that you won’t need so many elements. That you can write the script, use employees as actors and save money by using stock video overlayed on a greenscreen. No makeup necessary – no props – no wardrobe. No graphic design needed – you can just use pre-made stock graphical assets. Be warned – these thoughts can lead you down a slippery slope and your video may end up looking something like this. Of course there are real ways and places to cut costs down, but it’s important to first understand the process. Once you do, you can respect what the money is going towards and then you can work together with the video professional to make informed decisions about how best to allocate your budget.

Picking Your Video Vendor

Finding the right video professional to work with can be difficult. There are many types of vendors and each come with their own pros and cons. Here are a few that you might run into:

  1. Friends, Family or Co-Workers (moonlighting film aficionados) – Unless they have a real background in production this should probably be a last-ditch effort. This will often lead to videos made with a camera ten years old, with poor sound and performances that seem like they are meant to be satirical.
  2. Up-and-Coming Production Company – An affordable option, but one with some risk. Check their portfolio to see if they have the type of video you want made. Even if their portfolio doesn’t have it, they might be interested in going the extra mile to build their reputation or in giving you a discount to create new pieces to add to their reel.
  3. Established Production Company – Less quality risk than the above, but it’s still important to do a thorough look at their portfolio or ask for references. Oftentimes, these are the companies ad agencies will work with and you can bypass that agency cost by going to the production company and working directly with the people who will be crafting your video.However, if your low budget request is readily agreed to, you might ask yourself what they’re cutting out to make the numbers work.
  4. Ad Agency – If you want all the market research, a multi-pronged ad campaign and the knowledge that they’ll be using vetted creatives, then this is the route for you as long as you have the deep pocketbook to go with it.

Setting Your Video Budget

No matter which type of vendor you choose, you need to let them know what you want, look at their portfolio and work with them to get an idea of what should be included in your video. Sometimes a vendor might be tempted to cut costs in order to win your business – especially if you’re pushing for the lowest cost – in which case you might be unhappily surprised by the final product you receive.

While every live action video project is different and there is no clear or set one-size-fits-all budget, I’d try to steer away from sub-$5,000 bids unless you are looking for more of a videography type product. It is hard to include all the necessary elements plus provide some profit to the vendor at those points. If you have the marketing budget and you’re serious about your brand, don’t be afraid to spend in the $10,000-$30,000 range. And if you have a fairly ambitious project or are working with an agency or highly-regarded production company expect to pay at least $50,000. From there, the sky’s the limit.

Live action videos can be an important tool in your marketing arsenal, but there are a lot of factors that go into building the perfect piece and it’s important to make sure you’re doing it right. Often it can be worth building your budget around the right video professional that will take the time to listen to you and craft a piece that does your brand justice.

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