Five Rules for any Company that Wants to Make an RSA-style Video

So your company wants to make one of those RSA style videos you’ve seen on YouTube and loved so much. You’ve got to hand it to the people at RSA, they really hit on something cool when they started this hand-drawn whiteboard animation phenomenon. People were craving the low-tech human touch for communicating ideas and RSA was there with the perfect concept. A disembodied hand magically draws cartoons while a voice lectures you, all at the privacy of your desktop.


The Daniel Pink RSA video has 8,400,000 views on YouTube

I have enjoyed the benefit of the popularity of whiteboard animation and have done I think ten of them now, I’ve sort of lost count. Not for the real RSA company but, you know, knockoffs in my own style. The results have ranged from great to not-so-great, so I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learned, so that you don’t end up disappointed with the results when you embark on your own. Here are the elements you should have in place if you want to make an RSA knockoff and have it turn out great:

1. Have a good story

Don’t think that the magic of whiteboard animation will turn mind-numbingly dull material into compelling video. It won’t. Watch the RSA videos again. They are so great because the stories are great.

Come up with an engaging tale that can be told by a single narrator. It could be worthwhile to hire a professional writer to whip your content into shape. I offer, actually sort of demand, to be involved in script revision now whenever I work on a video because I’ve seen how they turn out when the words don’t get the love they need.

Another thing: fifteen minutes of whiteboard animation does not a good video make. The maximum duration is about five minutes. After that fatigue sets in and your suffering viewer loses the message of your video.

2. Use Detailed Storyboards

Even though they look spontaneous, these videos are anything but. All of the imagery is drawn and plotted out beforehand in a tight storyboard. You, as the client, want to know what the artist has in mind so you can make revisions. For a three-minute video I usually plan for a week of storyboard revisions before filming.  Once the storyboard is nailed down to everyone’s liking the artist and videographers will use it as a bible for the filming. Don’t turn on the camera without it.

The storyboard becomes your bible

3. Have a Quality Voiceover

Again, before you try to do it yourself, remember there’s a reason why there are professional voice actors and recording studios. Your audience is used to hearing the polished voiceovers of TV commercials and movie trailers, and your CEO reading a tedious monologue is a cue that it’s time to fall asleep. If you must record it yourself at least be sure to record clean audio, without a dog barking in the background.

4. Be Sure to Use Good Lighting

Lighting is the most important thing in shooting one of these videos. If you’ve seen one with harsh shadows all over the whiteboard you know what I mean. Lighting is best left to people who light things every day. If you’re standing around with some cheap clip-on lights for the first time, trying to get them aimed properly, I’m worried about your results.

5. Have a Pro in the Cutting Room

Once the shoot is done you need to have a professional edit the video. A pro will make it look seamless and beautiful, timed perfectly with the audio. Your brother-in-law will make it look like a hack job. In post production a lot of enhancements and tricky animated effects can be added. This is where RSA makes a lot of the magic happen, in fact my videographer friends say that RSA must spend weeks in post production making their videos seem so simple and appealing.

To many of you these tips will seem obvious. Hire people who do this for a living to get the best results. But for others who see the RSA style video as a cheap and dirty way to turn a boring speech into something hip and memorable, please think again. The commitment–and cost–may be more than you planned for.

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  • Great tips Lloyd. Can you offer some links to your fave RSA videos?

    April 30, 2012
  • Jo Rivers

    Nice tips Lloyd. Thanks

    June 7, 2012
  • Thank you so much for this post. I knew there was more work involved, but didn’t realize the level of work and details. You’ve saved me time and frustration, so glad I found this 😀

    March 7, 2013

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