PHOTO CREDIT:© Doug Gordon
Animoto has added eight new pro photography themes for its multimedia videos and the results are snazzy.

Product Review: Animoto Pro


OCTOBER 02, 2010

Dan Havlik

Who'd have thought the photo slideshow would still be kicking around nearly 50 years after Kodak introduced its classic line of Carousel slide projectors? Yes, if you're a fan of the TV series Mad Men, you probably remember the episode where Don Draper pitches the "Carousel" brand to Kodak for its home projectors because it evokes the nostalgia of family memories. (Kodak had wanted to call it The Wheel. Zzzzz. . . .)

And there's no doubt that nostalgia is part of the reason why photo slideshows continue to endure. The other reason is that they're still an incredibly appealing way to show off images. There's just something about having photos projected on a screen—even if it's a computer screen—that makes the heart pound a little faster, probably because it reminds us of going to the movies. And if the slideshow features your clients—as in wedding, portrait or event photography—it can make them feel like the stars of their own movie. (Ka-ching!)

But what if you could do more with your images than just have them pop up one by one on the screen? What if you could add music, text and video spliced together with funky transitions timed to the beat of a licensed soundtrack? What if you could transform your boring old slideshow into a hip movie trailer with just the click of a few buttons? That's the idea behind Animoto, a four-year-old company that promises "The End of Slideshows" with its kinetic Web-based multimedia software.

A hit with consumers early on—thanks to a popular Animoto Facebook app launched in 2008—Animoto has also attracted professional photographers looking for an inexpensive but unique way to share their work with clients.

I recently tested out Animoto's photography service, which has added a collection of pre-set style templates designed specifically for pros. Called "Elegance," the eight themes are designed to be more sophisticated and chic than Animoto's standard collection of styles, which are heavier on the animated wipes and fades and bright, cutesy backgrounds.

I also invited my friend David Dupuy (www.david dupuyphotography.com ) to try out the service so we could compare notes. David's an up-and-coming photographer who is always looking for an inexpensive (read: cheap) way to expand his company's services; a trait that has led me to dub him "The Frugal Photographer." Here's what David and I thought of Animoto Pro.

QUICK AND NOT SO DIRTY

Though Animoto Pro is hardly the cheapest Web-based "slideshow" service out there—there are tons of cheesy free programs to be had on the Internet—it's not a big investment if you like what it offers. A yearly subscription goes for $249 which will let you create an unlimited number of high-res, DVD quality Animoto videos. (You can also get a monthly subscription for $39.)

The videos are so-called White Label productions, in that no Animoto branding will appear in them and you can customize them using your own logo and links to your Web site or for additional services you want to offer. (For instance if you want to sell a client a print of one of the photos from the video, you can add a "call-to-action" link right in the video player.) You can choose from an extensive—and rather good, I have to say—library of licensed music to run with your production. Or you can upload your own licensed music to your videos. Once the clips are created, you can either email them to clients; upload them to Facebook, YouTube, SmugMug, Vimeo and other sharing sites; download them and burn them to a DVD; or embed them on a Web site,

And what's so special about Animoto videos? For one, both David and I were impressed with how simple it was to create a very decent looking production piece to showcase our work. Neither one of us is very adept at using pro video production software such as Apple's Final Cut and, to tell you the truth, we're both too busy to spend hours learning its subtleties. (Several months after filing my PDN review of Adobe Photoshop CS5 I'm still sinking my teeth into that imaging behemoth.)

With Animoto, all you need to know is how to upload photos to a Web site and you've pretty much mastered the program. (You can also pull your images in from other Web sites such as Flickr or Facebook.) Once your pix are up, choose a song from the 1000+ in Animoto's music library (or from your own collection), hit the finalize button, and the service goes to work creating a video.

The site's secret weapon is its ability to automatically sync the video to the tempo of the song, intelligently fading in images, text and short movie clips based around a patent-pending "Cinematic AI" algorithm. If you don't like the finished video, you can go back in and re-edit it—changing the theme, music, etc.—or simply hit the "1-Click Remix" button in the toolbox and the site will recompose the clip in a new way.

STAY PROFESSIONAL

 The eight new pro-only styles in the Elegance collection are a welcome addition to a product that is otherwise pretty consumer oriented and somewhat youth focused. (Your niece or nephew probably knew about Animoto long before you did.)

The Hovering Drift style in the Elegance collection turns your photos and videos into subtly framed shots that float over a dark surface. Light Panes, my personal favorite, glides image panels of your work behind the main shots; while Vibrance, as its name suggests, pumps up the color and adds some pop. The retro Proof Sheets style, meanwhile, turns your photos into 35mm filmstrips. (Editor's note: As we went to press, Animoto added four themes to the Elegance Collection: Dusk Retreat, Glossy Glide, Infinite Collage, and Paper Array.) Though none of these themes is mind-blowing, they're tasteful and give the finished videos some class.

That's a subtle but important distinction from the seven other mainstream styles that come with a standard Animoto account ($30 a year/$5 a month). Though the pro themes made our videos look, well, more professional, both David and I fretted about the automated nature of the service as much as we appreciated its ease of use.

As David put it: "It's so easy, a consumer could do it. And if a consumer feels they could do it just as easily, your value and your credibility goes down."

And therein lies the rub to Animoto Pro. While it's a simple and stylish solution, there's a danger to it if you get lazy. If you don't choose the right photos for a video; if you're not conscious about what music works best with the flow of your presentation; if you don't use some of the tools in the software that let's you tweak the clips subtly but effectively; you might get a client who says: that's nice but I could do that. Also, while there's some variety and customization in Animoto's videos, if your competition is also using the service, you won't exactly be offering a truly unique imaging product.

In addition to spending some extra time thinking an Animoto piece through before you send it to a client, we highly recommend adding in a video clip or two to the finished work; maybe behind-the- scenes footage of a bride getting ready, or a groom laughing it up with his best man. Since your work is obviously going to be of a higher quality than the client could do, take every opportunity to flaunt this in your Animoto video. Wow still means wow.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Want to offer your clients a little something extra but don't want to spend a ton of time, money and effort creating it? Animoto's Pro service for photographers is a snap to use and will help you create some classy multi-media slideshows (sorry, that's still what they are) that truly impress. But just like in the old days when you were forced to watch slide after miserable slide of your Uncle Harry's trip to Greece, make sure you're as good an editor as you are a photographer when creating an Animoto video, or risk looking like an amateur. While Animoto sure is easy to use, that's both its greatest strength and its biggest potential pitfall.

Animoto Pro

www.animoto.com

Pros: Easy to create a snazzy looking multimedia presentation with just a few clicks; offers a very decent library of over 1,000 licensed songs; eight themes in Elegance collection are a welcome addition.

Cons: So easy your client may think they don't need you in the equation; though there's some customization to the videos, it's possible your competition will be offering pretty much the same product if they're also Animoto subscribers.

Price: $249, yearly subscription; $39, monthly subscription.


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