Don’t Steal: Everything About References

Collby Graphics

Why do animation studios ask for references from clients, where to find them and why is it so important?

For creatives, a reference is an illustration or video that is used as an inspiration when working on a new project.

For customers, it’s an example of what they like and what result they’d like to achieve when ordering a video.

References are used in various creative fields: film, music, design, game dev, and so on. Since we’re an animation studio, this article is all about references in animation.

What are the references for?

In the brief*, we’re always asking clients to share some links to references. But even if they aren’t attached, we select a couple of them ourselves for the following reasons:

  • References help us better understand clients’ hopes and vision and choose the right style, color scheme, dynamic and sound effects. As for the clients, they are given an idea of how to visualize their story.
  • Searching for references is a way to analyze the current market situation: trends in animation, design and illustration, what solutions competitors use, and what works and doesn’t work.
  • With a reference, it’s easier to estimate a price and the amount of work. A reference helps to answer the question: how much time will it take to create illustrations in the selected style and further animation.

Brief — a statement of work that specifies the main parameters of the ordered product.

Types of references: what’s important to remember when selecting them.

It’s pointless and dangerous to select the “perfect” reference, in which a client, and you adore every detail. It’s a trap, and you most likely will end up with a copy of the reference. The best way is to have a selection of videos and examples with different good and bad elements to be inspired by. We divide references into the following types.

1. Theme-based — examples of scripts and concepts.

Analyze your competitors’ animations, assess their ideas, the script and its implementation. This analysis is necessary to understand how to stand out from the crowd, which script approaches work well and which have failed.

2. Style-based — visual solutions examples.

In this case, an animated video or an image can serve as a reference. When choosing style samples, be guided not only by what you like and don’t, but also keep in mind the trends. In 2022 pay attention to 90s styles, isometric shapes, kinetic typography, elongated forms, psychedelic colors, Art Deco,
3D characters and abstractions.

Abstraction by Camilla Falsini
Isometry by Aga Jucha
90s style by Alania Johnson

3. Technic-based — animation examples.

When choosing a reference for the style of actual animation, pay attention to the ways objects are brought to life: scene-to-scene transitions, visual effects, interaction and movements.

Search for references on different resources, don’t limit yourself to one platform.

Of course, the most popular place is YouTube, but we recommend saving it for later. Mainly because it’s designed for the masses, so from all the variety of content it’s easy to get lost.

Here are a few more professional websites for searching for references:


It is created by filmmakers for artists, directors, animators and other creative people. Therefore, there are much more aesthetically valuable videos on this site than on YouTube. On Vimeo, videos are sorted by category and there are thematic channels where the content is broadcast. Another cool feature of this video hosting is Staff Pick selection. Vimeo Editorial staff regularly watches the loaded video and publishes the best works in their opinion.


Another professional community for artists, illustrators, photographers and animators, where they share their portfolios. The main difference between this resource is that you can see not only the finished project but also the creative process.


A special place for designers, illustrators and 3D visualizers. The service is more suitable for finding stylistic solutions, as it contains only images and GIF files.

Use tags that are closely related to your topic.

For example, if your client is a recycling company, type in “ecology”, “nature”, “garbage”, “environment pollution”, etc. Under those tags, you can find images that are appropriate for your specific business. Use English when entering requests: the result number will be much higher since the platforms are international. If you have a narrow topic and no examples, don’t be frustrated, try to use broader tags and synonyms.

Choose what you like.

When selecting references, don’t limit yourself by worrying about the price of one or another video. If you focus on the budget, you risk mission out on a solution that fits your needs the best.

An illustration that seems simple isn’t always cheaper than a more complex one. The price is affected by the saturation (called detailing) of the picture (the more details and drawings, the more laborious and, consequently, expensive the illustration will be) and the complexity of the animation, but not the style itself.

For instance, there are two pictures below that are drawn in different styles. The first seems more minimal than the second one. But it took the same time for the illustrator to draw both. Thus, the cost of the animation video will not depend on the style you choose.

P.S. Can creatives copy a reference?

We wouldn’t recommend you to ask animation studios for an exact copy of a reference, even if you really like it, and it’s perfect for your task. Full and ruthless copyright is prohibited, and breaking the law is unlikely to improve the reputation of your company. And in general, it’s just not nice to copy someone’s work. Studios would love to be challenged and be inspired by references, not re-create them.

For us, a reference is just a starting point in the work, which helps to form a general idea of the project and starts the creative process.

We always strive to create a unique product that will take the best of references without losing its identity. That’s why we are guided by the Austin Kleon principle in working with references:

“What to copy is a more complex question. Don’t just steal the style, steal the thinking behind the style. You don’t want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes.”

–Austin Kleon, “Steal Like an artist”

A little brain game for you to finish the reading with. A reference and an “inspired” by it drawing. Scroll down for the answer.

Answer: there are no differences, don’t do like that.