A look into the costs of cartooning.
As a lover of random trivia, and as someone who fantasizes about producing an animation myself one day, I’ve lately become fascinated by the production costs of popular cartoons.
Some of the numbers are pretty mind blowing, as are the production schedules. A typical episode of Rick and Morty, for instance, takes upwards of a year to produce. That seems a pretty short amount of time considering some of the crazy worlds and dimensions that show involves.
While you’d think most of the production costs in cartoons goes to the actual animation itself — which is often time-consuming and intricate— sometimes the lion’s share actually goes to the voice talent, as is seen on many network shows.
Starting at the high end and working down, a look into the costs of cartooning:
According to various sources, it costs about $2 million to produce an episode of Seth MacFarlane’s long-running cartoon sitcom. Or roughly $100,000 per random cutaway per episode. There were many different websites that reported this number, though they all seemed to link back to a singular source — an article titled “Cutting Costs” hosted by Penn State, about how TV anime is produced.
Digging deeper, I found out some of the reasons why the budget is so freaking high for Peter Griffin’s shenanigans. The answer is somewhat obvious. It has an all-star voice cast that’s been making serious bank the last 10+ years of the show’s run.
Hollywood Reporter reports that the top four cast members each make between $175,000 to $225,000 per episode. That article is from 2013. It could be even higher now. But multiple searches, even ones dated more recently, kept pointing back to those figures. If they’re still accurate, that means half the budget for Family Guy is taken up by payroll for the top voices. That’s a huge slice of the pie for talent, even considering that Seth McFarlane does the voices for a number of characters. But not exactly surprising. Talent often requires a big pay out for entertainment. The Rock made $30 million from Red Notice, for instance.
Rick and Morty
Trying to find specific budget numbers for Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon’s popular Doc Brown and Marty McFly-inspired cartoon proved tricky. But you can tease out an estimate by looking at another popular edgy animation — South Park — and then compare production styles. For that, I found a thread on the Rick and Morty subreddit addressing the inquiry “Why does it take so long to make Rick and Morty episodes?” A user who has since deleted their handle makes the observation:
South park uses Maya, a 3d animation software, to create their episodes. This means they can reuse most of their assets (even animations) without the need to remake anything…Rick and Morty uses Toonboom Harmony, which speeds the process up in comparison to old-fashioned hand-drawn animation, but is still much slower than South Park.
The user goes on to compare how South Park sacrifices “story” for “topicality” whereas Rick and Morty favors the opposite approach. According to Inverse via director Erica Hayes, a single episode of Rick and Morty takes anywhere between nine and twelve months from idea to completion. South Park is famously written, animated, and voiced all in a single week. But as the mysterious unknown Redditor pointed out, the Colorado-set raunchy cartoon thrives on churning out content that captures the immediate zeitgeist, over mulling complex narratives or long story arcs.
So, if Family Guy, a major network cartoon, costs $2 million per episode, as previously stated, while South Park, with all its cost-cutting and technological efficiencies, still runs somewhere between $500k and $1 million per episode, then it’s possible that Rick and Morty costs somewhere in-between, but probably on the lower end. Say, maybe around $1.2–$1.5 million per episode. Unlike Family Guy or The Simpsons, Rick and Morty doesn’t have an all-star cast that eats up half the show’s budget. Most of the show’s costs probably goes into the animation itself.
So basically, your popular, highly-quoted cartoons that have wedged themselves into the American public consciousness are going to run upwards of a million per episode or more. That’s not surprising. The Simpsons cost as much as $5 million per episode back in 2011.
What’s more interesting are the shockingly low budgets of anime shows like One Piece, a popular Japanese cartoon that’s been running since 1999. Medium writer, and researcher of Japanese culture, Jason Muell, in his article, “How Much Does it Cost to Produce an Anime Episode?” writes that in 2002 it cost 10.75 million yen to make one episode. That’s roughly $74,280 in pre-Wall Street bailout, pre-COVID, pre-QE infinity dollars.
According to the CPI Inflation Calculator, that means an episode of One Piece would run to about $122,287.84 in today’s Fed-pumped Monopoly money. That’s $5,095 per minute, and almost $85 per second. Still not bad for a 24-minute cartoon with over 1,000 episodes and counting.
In case you weren’t aware, Japan is a powerhouse in the animation industry. So it makes sense that it would have cracked the code on how to profitably churn out cartoons in a cost-efficient manner. TMS Entertainment, one of the most famous and prominant production studios, and a subsidiary of Sega Sammy Holdings since 2010 (yes, as in the Sega gaming system) basically made ALL of the popular 1980s/’90s cartoons Millennials know and love. Shows like Inspector Gadget, The Real Ghostbusters, and Batman: The Animated Series, and many more.
YouTube Cartoons or Ultra Low-Budget Animation
How much would it cost to make your own independent cartoon?
Okay, so for the average person, the above budgets are obviously way out of reach. But let’s say you wanted to make something super cheap that was only a few minutes long. Like those corporate explainer videos, or a funny short.
Well, unless you’re able to do all the drawing yourself, it’s still going to cost you anywhere between $3,000 and $7,000 for simple 2D animation. That’s according to ProductionHUB, which also points out that those numbers DON’T include other important things like the screenplay, voiceover, or music. For higher quality animation, ProductionHub notes that you could pay $10,000 to as much as $1,000,000 a minute for animation.
One million dollars per minute? Wow. That’s Pixar movie territory.
You can see why Seth MacFarlane wears so many hats as a writer, director, producer, and voice talent on Family Guy. You’ve got to cut costs anywhere you can in cartooning.
Even those “low” numbers ProductionHUB quoted are ridiculous. It makes me wonder how animated channels like Kurzgesagt — In A Nutshell or The Infographics Show on YouTube get by, despite having tens of millions of subscribers.
Let’s say you were still determined to make a simple cartoon of your own. This seems doable, despite the heavy costs at even the low-end of the scale. Back before YouTube became dominant, amateur animators made all kinds of shorts and even long-running series on the site Newgrounds. Salad Fingers, a creepy viral animation created by David Firth, initially appeared on Newgrounds in 2004, and has since built up a cult following.
But supposing you’re not able to draw. Or you don’t have the time or talent to master the intricacies of digital animation programs like Adobe Animate or Blender. And you’re on a tight budget. Well then, you’re pretty much relegated to finding freelance artists on a site like Fiverr.
I looked under the Video & Animation section at the popular freelance marketplace for an idea of what creating an animation might potentially cost. For professional 3D character animation, Pakistan-based provider rocky_shane charges between $2,000 and $5,500 for 60 seconds. That higher price includes 3D modeling, rigging, detailed movements, and four characters. The provider doesn’t mention anything about voiceover work, scripting, or music, so it’s likely you’d have to provide that yourself. That might mean then hiring an editor to mix all the seperate components together seamlessly, which would incure further costs, assuming you’re not doing all of that yourself.
So, if you were trying to make a cartoon with a story narrative, you’re looking at minimum of $55,000 for a ten-minute short, not including all the extra stuff mentioned. Or $132,000 for a full 24-minute episode. Pretty steep, but that’s actually right in line with One Piece’s almost $122,000 cost per episode.
U.S.-based provider gallywix offers a more comprehensive animation service that includes full backgrounds, editing, consultation, and syncing supplied voicover and royalty-free music. But only for two characters. For the advanced quality package, all of that will run you $12,500 per minute in “basic style.” That’s your typical generic-looking cartoon. For something more complex like Futurama, the provider charges $25,000 per minute. And then for even higher quality, like Adventure Time, $75,000 per minute.
There are certainly cheaper alternatives on Fiverr. I screened out for “professional” services only, as that is where you’d realistically want to go if you were serious about making a legit (albeit low-budget) cartoon. If you just wanted something really simple and basic, there are likely plenty of artists you could find at a lower cost. But probably not by much.
Given those still-pretty-high costs savings for freelancers, you’re probably better off paying for a course to learn an animation software yourself, in addition to taking art lessons. Even if you end up with something really crude-looking, if people like the story or characters, you could still potentially build up a good following. For example, there are a ton of amateur “Wojak” animations on YouTube that use clip art, static backgrounds, and automated voiceovers. And they’re actually super popular. Low Budget Stories has 335,000 subscribers, for instance, and that channel only started a year ago.
Animation is not cheap, to say the least. Most of your successful YouTube/independent productions are made by the artists themselves, who likely spent years honing their craft. If that sounds daunting, remember that Stan Lee, the founder of Marvel Comics, couldn’t draw. He was a writer/editor. And he did pretty well in the end.