All about animation with James
1 September 2023
isobel motion designer on being inspired by product design, challenging yourself and learning new tricks.
LBB> How did you fall in love with animation?
James> Animation wasn’t the first thing I thought I’d do. A long list of ideas led me through studying product design, graphic design, then eventually teaching myself motion design. I think it really clicked when I was in the early days of my degree, back when Tumblr was super popular and I’d spend hours every week glued to hypnotic GIFs created by mysterious, anonymous artists with varying levels of Cool Online Persona. It felt like an underground world of people making art, and I wanted to be a part of it too. What started as an obsession with sci-fi HUD animation quickly grew across all of motion, realising how huge a pathway it really was.
LBB> Tell us about the animation project that kick started your career?
James> In 2018, there was a student competition for RSA; a great brief to create a film which supports a TED talk on false truths (which was hugely trending at the time). This is where I really pushed my creative and technical abilities in animation – stop motion, rotoscoping, infographic design and kinetic type. This piece was shortlisted and then was my headline act at our degree show, which ultimately landed my first job.
LBB> How would you describe your art style and what are your biggest inspirations that developed it?
James> I wouldn’t say I have a specific art style at the moment, but for a while I really focussed on brutalist sci-fi designs. Burning bright neon HUD lines on a black background, pushed into 3D space with plenty of glow and chromatic aberration poured on was my home. Nowadays, I’m working more with CGI, adding to the already monumental pile of ‘satisfying’ animations out there.
LBB> From your perspective, what’s the key to animation that really lives?
James> The most important thing to animation is clarity. Often this is helped by your source artwork, but knowing when to stop is important. Thinking in terms of primary and secondary animation is something I always have to remind myself to do; what will audiences perceive actively vs passively. Primary gets your information across, secondary is how they’ll remember feeling, which is just as important.
LBB> Show us your favourite or most impactful project that you’ve worked on - tell us, what is it that makes it special and what were the memorable moments or challenges?
James> The POV scene from Girlfriend Deluxe was a great one to work on. I remember Steve Moss (the director) showing me the scene and going through the full range of curiosity, horror, then finally bursting out laughing. The main challenge with that piece was creating a display that looked futuristic and full of information, but without distracting the audience from the actor’s great reactions. We solved this by just making all the elements as fine as possible, layering them in 3D and pushing them back a touch with blurs and chromatic aberration, which helped cement it being a POV shot.
More recently, we’ve started a new series of animations for JET. Their brand line is “Keep On Moving” which leads us really naturally to creating infinite looping animations, satisfying renders and that sort of thing. I set up a core set of rules to create consistency, but within that the freedom has been really fun. So long as it relates back to the brand, the space is completely open to create some fun art. I’ve been playing a lot with physics simulation in Blender, setting objects up like dominoes, or using the cloth simulation tools. Really cathartic stuff once it goes right and I can just watch it loop seamlessly in the viewport.
LBB> Tell us more about observation and movement - what is the process you go through to study movement of characters?
James> Observing movement is useful to me in thinking about how things are linked. Often a complex motion can be broken down into arcs and orbits. Imagining invisible anchor points where something moves around can save headaches later, and is also just an interesting fun way to look at the world.
LBB> We all know of some ever-green adult animations, but lately they have definitely been on the rise, from Rick and Morty to Arcane. What sort of opportunities does this open for animators, both within and outside the advertising industry?
James> Variety is the key difference. Shows like Love Death & Robots are a real highlight that people getting started in animation can get into it in so many different ways now, through different styles, different software’s or skills. The boundaries are being pushed by huge productions like Spiderverse, but equally by smaller, even solo projects like Astartes or Dynamo Dream. There’s no expectation that animators have to be able to draw, or be VFX experts or create photoreal renders. Of course these things are highly sought after, but the key thing is a good eye and creative vision.
LBB> How does one figure out what kind of animation style or styles fits a particular story or project?
James> Choosing a specific style is never simple as picking the name of a style and going with it. Plus it usually comes out of larger conversations with your creative team. Research is really important here - knowing what’s been done successfully in the past can help make it intuitively obvious what style will match certain kinds of story. Once you have that base it’s important to develop your visuals into something new where you can pull in ideas from unexpected places that have nothing to do with what you’re making!
One of our favourite jobs collectively where this was particularly powerful was for Reed – they’re all about making people rethink careers and become excited about work rather than dreading it, so we went into a fantastical realm where a row of dogs took the shape of the word ‘Monday’. Smashing together the happiness of Pomeranians with the dread of Mondays meant we could change people’s associations really quickly. I elevated this by animating the dogs to pant and smile, wagging tails and moving about a little to give them their full personalities without breaking the illusion of the type. Also, a great part of this was doing the Corgi version for the Queens’ Jubilee, which ran as part of the first set of ads on the freshly opened Elizabeth line.
LBB> What is your favourite piece of technology or software that you use and how does it help your creative process?
James> I do all my 3D animation work in Blender, I’m too lazy to learn anything else now. There’s so much knowledge online that any time I hit a wall, 15 minutes on YouTube and I’m moving again. It’s grown so much in recent years that it has more power than anyone could really need tool-wise, and lets you crank out respectable renders even on underpowered hardware! It lets me quickly model things scrappily, animate a camera through some action and get a rough idea moving in front of people’s eyes in minutes so we can start making decisions.
LBB> What sort of briefs or projects do you find more personally satisfying to work on?
James> The most satisfying projects are ones where you get to challenge yourself and learn new tricks. Of course that means added pressure to learn and get it right the first try, but at the end of it, with a little guidance, those projects tend to be the most memorable. Outside of that I really enjoy branding projects where I can explode a brand’s identity out and create a whole suite of animations with only very limited assets, thinking about where they can live and how to inject life into something that can be quite flat.
LBB> What recent projects have really stood out for you and why?
James> A recent project that stood out was the Monster film we did for PlayOJO, a bit of a win for our internal production. I got to really have a play with stop frame animation, creating lightning for our Frankenstein monster as he’s woken from hibernation by the excitement of the casino games. Also meant being very particular with motion tracking, which is something I normally hate!
LBB> Who is your animation hero and what is it about their work that inspires you? What example of their work particularly stands out?
James> My animation hero hasn’t changed for a long time, and that’s Ash Thorp. Probably one of the most multi-skilled people out there, his eye for art direction takes the craft into fine art levels, spanning 3D photography, graphic design, cinematography and colour design. His work is usually somewhere in the sci-fi genre which happens to be my favourite, but his executions vary greatly, aiming to put out a unique short film at least once or twice a year. I sometimes wish I were even half as prolific!
LBB> Outside of the field of animation, what really inspires you?
James> Outside animation, I’m really inspired by product design. It’s something I almost went into and as my 3D skills progress I’m increasingly tempted to step back into it. The hard surface work of artists like Maciej Kuciara and Ben Bolton, and the cinematic scale of Pascal Blanche constantly blow my mind and inspire me to aim higher.
LBB> What do you think are the misconceptions about animation throughout the industry?
James> I think a misconception about animation will always be that it’s solely one thing; either only hand drawn old school Disney animation, or completely CGI. There are so many ways to animate now, and you could specialise in any of those paths and never even think about the rest! With new software tools popping up seemingly every few months, there’s more to learn than ever, and more ways to put your stamp on the craft.
LBB> What are the biggest changes to animation and challenges facing animators at the moment and what are your thoughts on them?
James> The biggest challenge is probably education. It’s hard to articulate every possible thing that animation can achieve, so sometimes techniques get overlooked, or estimates are way off. Thankfully most times, because the process is so collaborative, it just takes a quick conversation to fix this!
LBB> Any advice you would like to give to aspiring artists?
James> To any aspiring artists, I’ll repeat well-trodden ground and say: Just make stuff. Make lots of stuff. Study what you like, try to copy it. Steal while you’re learning and pay it back later. I spent a year making animations every day, often copying things I’d seen the previous day on Instagram or Tumblr just to work out if I could do it. You most likely don’t know exactly what you’ll be good at or enjoy, so start somewhere and you might be surprised.
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