A Chat with Tuna Bora
In today’s podcast, Sarah Beth Morgan sits down with Illustrator and Director Tuna Bora!
Sarah Beth Morgan and Tuna chat about working with big time clients, illustration, the art scene in Los Angeles, and much much more.
Tuna Bora Podcast
Tuna Bora Show Notes
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Tuna Bora Transcript
Hey there I am, Sarah Beth Morgan. I’m a freelance illustrator and the instructor of Illustration Promotion at School of Motion. In my new course, I sit down with some incredible illustrators from around the industry where they share insights into illustration, design and living a creative lifestyle. I even had the pleasure to sit down with one of my favorite illustrators, Tuna Bora. This episode was taken directly from Illustration Promotion.
As an illustrator and director in Los Angeles, Tuna is creating work that consistently blows me away. She’s illustrated projects for some of the biggest brands in the world, including Toyota, HP and Skype, and I guarantee you’ll learn something from her today.
Thank you so much for coming on the podcast today, Tuna. I’m super excited to have you here.
Thank you so much for having me. I’m super excited to meet you.
Yay! So, before we dive into like the techniques of everything and all of the awesome projects you’ve been working on, I kind of want to step back and talk a bit about your background. Where are you from? Like how did you get to where you are now?
I am from Istanbul, Turkey, and I was born and raised there. I lived in Izmir for a while, which is a coastal city, it’s sort of like a little Turkish San Francisco even though it doesn’t look like it but is similar. And then I moved to LA for college, and went to Otis College of Art and Design for my bachelor’s. Meanwhile, I took classes in other schools, which was a really great experience and one of the few things LA really, really has to offer, I feel, over other cities maybe.
So, in terms of how I got here, how deep are we going into this?
Well, I totally crept on you and I was like, I saw that you left home at like 14. And did you go to a boarding school or I know such a [crosstalk 00:03:07].
I crept on you is the best line. No, I actually went to high school Izmir, the city I was talking about.
I think it’s maybe eight, nine hours by car? Again, it’s sort of like a San Francisco, LA story. And then my parents still lived in Istanbul, so I had a little place in Izmir. It’s not as expensive Istanbul. It was an affordable city. I was very spoiled, so it was a lot to have the space and, yeah, it was about four years living down there. So, I kind of had like a pre college experience, and it was extremely positive. I went to a great school, very happy and the opposite of the American high school cliche. Made lifelong friends. Still talk to them.
That’s great. Actually when I heard that, it really spoke to me because I grew up in Saudi Arabia with my parents and then I went to boarding school in the US when I was 14.
So I was like, “Oh my gosh. We both left at 14. How great.”
Both Middle Eastern women.
Yeah. But it’s totally a life changing experience. I feel like you mature a lot faster because you have to do your own laundry and stuff.
I agree with that. I was terrible at laundry. I agree with that. But I think also you kind of become more comfortable at a young age, not immediately, but over time. Just kind of being not exactly like your culture too. I don’t know about Saudi, but even in the progressive circles I grew up in, most girls didn’t move out even in college. They had every luxury, and I know people have a hard time imagining what Turkey might be like, I think that’s true for Saudi too, where people imagine is some image they saw somewhere and they don’t have a clue as to what else it’s really made of.
In my experience, I grew up around a lot of very lucky, privileged girls, and they weren’t put down for being girls, or they weren’t asked to cover up in any way, because Turkey doesn’t exactly have that culture. We’re super westernized, and so in a lot of ways they had freedom, but still, even in that circle, somebody who leaves home and goes and lives in another city by herself, I don’t know another person who really has done that except for maybe one or two students in my school, but they hadn’t come from Istanbul, they had come from maybe nearby cities that weren’t as big, so they had upgraded. And how was it for you? Did you come to learn English? Did you come by yourself?
Well, so actually, my parents are from the US and we moved to Saudi when I was six, so I was like there for the majority of my childhood, but I was totally like privileged as well. Like I was on a compound and went to an American type school, but I left for boarding school earlier than most people did, most kids, and it was a little bit of a culture shock because I was just so used to living in Saudi, but I don’t think it was nearly as scary as living in my own apartment. I was like a boarding school student, so I had a roommate and stuff and it was very strict, so I had like study hours and all this stuff and it was probably a totally different experience, but I was also like a 24 hour journey across the globe for my parents, so that was pretty disorienting.
I imagine that’s scarier at 14.
Yeah. There was always sort of … I’m sure your parents were like that too, right, where they would say, “If anything happens, we’ll be there on the first plane. Don’t worry.”
And then the little like terrible version of me inside would always say like, “Really? You’re going to be able to jump on a plane?”
They would though, my parents are lovely, but you know, yeah. It’s funny.
Yeah. Half the time I was like, “You can stay over there. I want to live on my own.”
Yeah, that happens too. But my experience was kind of the opposite of yours. My parents trusted me a great deal and I had no supervision in a lot of ways, but they also knew I was a nerd, right?
Yeah, I don’t think they feared. I was pretty responsible except for I would play video games to like wee hours in the morning and stuff.
Yeah, sometimes. My school was also pretty intense and my mom would get these calls from school who would call her and say, “She didn’t show up for school today. We just needed to call you and tell you.” Because schools generally are built to look at kids with distrust and kind of disbelieve them, so their call was motivated from like, if your kid skipped school, you should know. That’s how my school was, they were intense. But my mom would pick up and she’d be like, “Okay, okay.” And she’d like call me and be like, “You overslept again?” And I’d be like, “Ah, yes.”
“I was playing video games.”
She wasn’t mad as long as I wasn’t in trouble or like in danger or something. Like her concern would be, “Oh, did she get hit by a car on the way to school.” As long as I wasn’t dead, she was kind of okay with it.
That’s crazy. Were you like in an apartment building with people who were much older than you?
Ah, interesting. That’s so cool.
Yeah. But I had friends nearby and my mom would come visit me very often, and she would leave food and I would forget about it, that’s kind of what would happen. And I had really great slumber parties both at my place and also at my friend’s houses, because their moms would immediately go, “Well, just invite her over. We’ll cook dinner and she can stay over and you guys can do homework or whatever.” So, that fueled a lot of these … Should I tell how embarrassing I really am?
Some of my closest friends and I, we would sort of just like make up stories, staying up all night. And at that age you’re really talking about your favorite bands and writing stories about them, or we would write stories about Lord of the Rings. Like we would write fan fiction of Lord of the Rings.
It’s the ultimate nerd fantasy to be able to do that. And of course, I would draw these stories out, so we had like books full of this stuff. And my friends still make fun of me sometimes, like they had stupid names of course. “Oh, they go on this quest. They go through this land.”
Yeah, I had a blast, I’m telling you, I had a great time in high school, but I think part of it was just kind of living out a nerd fantasy out there.
Yeah. Well, that’s better than, when I was younger, I’d see my dad watching like YouTube remakes of like Star Trek, because he had finished Star Trek so he was like, “What else can I watch?”
I love your dad right now.
He’s pretty amazing but super nerd also.
I see. But between those two things, they are not mutually exclusive.
So, do you feel like living away so young and like having all those experiences shaped your artistic perspective or do you think it had any influence on where you went next?
It shaped my ability to know that I could do things, I think. Sort of when I was coming here for college, within the family, there was this general trust towards the fact that I could handle it. I mean, of course, they were worried because they’re sending their only daughter across the world. I’m sure it’s something you know nothing about. But they knew I’m a very stubborn person and I think they were thinking probably if she could do this at 14, she can probably go figure that out over there. And they never told me not to study arts. They’re both artists. And it just kind of gave me the ability to not worry about the stuff. I could just look forward and then push forward really hard, which I did. I really would lean very heavily on myself and would do really kind of unrealistic expectations and unrealistic sort of drive to go very far. And I think without that I wouldn’t have been the same person.
I kind of always felt like, even though we were privileged, it was really hard for my family to arrange for me to be here, and we all made sacrifices for it. So, I was always aware that it’s your chance. If you do something with it, great, if you don’t, you can’t blame anybody and it’s your fault. Fault isn’t the right word, I guess, but-
… yeah, it’s on you. Like you need to be responsible for the consequences of how you handle the opportunities you’re given. So, that’s why I took all those classes in other schools. I had a hard time sort of finding what I wanted at Otis at that time. I think they changed the school a bit now, but I’m not sure. And I wanted to do [inaudible 00:13:24], and I wanted to design better, and in features or TV, the kind of quality and process and standard they were looking for, there weren’t really classes I could figure that out at Otis. So, that’s why I found a mentor at Arts Center, it was Will Weston, and he kind of gave me the tools, the workable tools to really enter into a job and do the job well. He taught me a process of how to build things, and design things, and design for films, what mattered. And of course, that alone changed my life.
But I think, yeah, if I wasn’t so aware that this is your chance. Okay, flap, flap, flap your wings. Are you going to fly or not? Yeah, it’s very much this sort of being pushed off a cliff feeling, but I kind of love that feeling, so I regularly do this to myself, which is a little bit masochistic perhaps, but it also is the most exciting thing.
This is speaking to me so much right now. It’s like explaining so many reasons for why I always want to do things myself. I’m like, “Oh maybe it is because I left home so early-
… by going freelance and I don’t know.” Yeah. Sometimes I would wish for something to just happen to me so I’d have to deal with it. Like, “Oh maybe something will happen with my job and I’ll be forced to leave and go freelance. This’ll be great because then I’ll figure it out on my own.” Some thing like that.
That’s absolutely true. And I mean, I don’t know. You tell me your perspective here, but I always figured there is a connection between that and realizing if you’re an immigrant or you have this sort of big cultural jump or general like a life change, you realize at some point you can’t be looking at achieving things as your path to become happy, that doesn’t really work. Of course, things are very different from the outside and inside and there’s always this sense of grass is greener on the other side. So, right. Set goals and achieve them, but you’re also not really thinking, “Yeah, I’m going to get this job and everything is going to be perfect, then I’ll be happy.”
Yeah. I’m just always setting more and more goals.
No problem with that though. It’s good to do more things. That’s beautiful, that’s what artists should all be doing, but I shouldn’t say should, everybody can do whatever they want in 2019. But that’s where the fun is, is trying new things and wanting things
Yeah. No, I definitely agree with that, and I feel like that really shows from your career and the step you took to get your mentor at Art Center. And right now, you worked on that VR film a while ago, the first Oscar nominated VR film, that’s totally a step into a new territory.
That’s crazy. Yeah. Well, we’ll get into that a little bit later. But when you finished school, did you start working on your own right away or did you get employed somewhere? What happened from there?
I graduated in ’09, which was when the ’08 crisis hit sort of the animation industry at the sort of feature and TV, maybe not TV yet, but the feature level, people started laying off a lot of people, a lot of companies were in a hiring freeze, and that’s what I wanted to do. And really, in the beginning I thought because I reached out to a lot of people, I showed my portfolio around and I was given really positive feedback. Of course, looking back now I’m like, “This looks like crap. What was I thinking?” But at the time, there wasn’t as much competition. People were all just kind of trying to figure it out. Art of Books were kind of out. Blogspot was new, like think pre Instagram.
2009 was still Blogspot. DevianArt was high school like. But lots of Lord of the Rings art on DevianArt, not just for me, but probably everybody.
I’m going to go look for it now.
So, where did you end up working or what did you end up doing after school?
So, I started working in motion graphics because my school sort of specialized in it and I knew a lot of things. I had to take all these classes in school for motion graphics, and visual effects, and just basic color correction, editing, it was a really mixed program. So, one thing people were really good at at the time, Art Center didn’t exactly have a motion graphics animation track yet. They did great design, and they did beautiful visual development stuff and so on, but the animation thing really came sort of towards the end of our education to Art Center, which is wild to think about now. So, a lot of Otis grads went to motion companies or found motion companies. So, if you were coming out of our school, you knew a lot of people who are going into that industry, and animated projects were happening, a lot of characters spots were still kind of happening, and slowly I started working on those.
It was actually really hard in the beginning, because again, I was convinced talking to Pixar, and talking to Disney or whomever, that I would at least get an internship somewhere. And they almost all happened, but then they were like, “No, we’re actually not getting anybody. We’re actually just going to get one intern this summer.” And it was like, “What?”
No, I mean, it’s life. It’s super normal but I was super heartbroken over it of course, and I felt really lost. So, I started working in motion, and over time at some point Sony did offer me an internship. I couldn’t take it because it just paid so little and I was already out of school kind of dealing with all of this. There’s a financial aspect of coming out of school that we don’t often talk about, but I think it’s super crucial. It’s the point where it’s you have to prove yourself, but also you all of a sudden meet these added sort of insecurities about what you’re worth, right? Because at the school you’re not validated by the money, you’re validated by the grade, and all of a sudden it turns into money. And it’s dangerous to think about things like this as sort of anything that could prove yourself worth. I think it’s a bad way to make art and it’s a bad way to live, but you’re young.
Yeah, when you first start.
Yeah. And people don’t talk about it. We should talk about it.
Yeah, let’s talk more about that.
Sorry. This will be a long psychiatry segment.
Well, so when you first got out of school, since you didn’t take the internship with Sony and everything-
… were you jumping from studio to studio? How was that working?
Yeah. I started freelancing. First Year was mostly that, and I was so lucky. This was when Elastic was three people and I was there.
Yeah. That’s crazy how things have changed.
Yeah. I’m talking like a dinosaur now.
No, no. Those companies grow so fast too though.
Yeah, it was interesting seeing all these companies come and go. A lot of the companies that were big at the time, they either split up into smaller companies now or disappeared. We were having a conversation about this the other day and somebody mentioned the name Exopolis, and I’m like, “Whoa, I haven’t heard that in 10 years.” But they were big. They were huge. And so it just goes to show that things change quite drastically. But I kept working in motion throughout the years mostly because it was a really good source of income. It was just sort of a nice antidote also to working on longer productions where you do a lot of work and it doesn’t see the light of day sometimes, or you do work and it’s locked in some kind of NDA thing for five years.
Yeah. And it’s weird like I did work at Sony full-time for a very short stint, and what I had to show from that was, what, like 60 door knobs. Like it’s super weird.
60 door knobs kind of a thing.
I might be a dramatizing for effect here, but it’s interesting you have to go have those weird experiences to realize this is what I want to do.
Yeah. Did you end up enjoying working at those motions studios or did you kind of have your sights set higher?
I always wanted to do more things, so that’s one aspect. But from time to time I really did enjoy motion graphics mostly because I had made really good friends and working with them was fun. And there’s something really great about being able to take a short enough project and design it, and it has to get approved because you have a hard end date, and they were a little bit bigger back then, but still there’s limited budgets so they’re not going to keep making iterations until the last moment. You have to get going kind of. And that allows at least a young designer to have quite a bit of experience pulling a whole project through, and kind of seeing what needs to be there, and understanding the needs of it and what it would take to sort of art direct something.
Of course, there usually are also art directors, but I always found that to be a funny line, especially now, coming in to pitch something and a director basically just passes you the agency brief and says, “Do what you want.” So, you kind of come up with your own direction for the spot but you’re a designer. So, I would say my experience and satisfaction changed depending on the director. I kind of slowly figured out I’m good at working with directors and getting answers out of them because I show up and realize it’s a paid for job and say, “What do you want to do? What is your angle? How can I help you make what you want. We can try this, we can try this. Does this work for you?” And I prefer that clarity from them. So then I can go with that thing they have in mind and then explore within that area. Because the job isn’t to sell my design aesthetic, it is too sort of bring what they want to the green.
Yeah. It always sounds like a dream brief just to get something from someone and just be like, “Do whatever you want,” but honestly, it’s almost harder, it’s so much harder.
It’s harder and it’s a little bit unfair too. If you’re going to rely on my brand, but I’m coming in pitching … I know this is like a controversial thought because a lot of jobs don’t have these huge budgets and they are still maybe paying out of pocket to bring in a freelancer like me to pitch for them, but it is weird at the end of the day if they win … There are times where I won really big jobs, and of course, I’m not seeing any of that money. If I’m showing up for two days and winning you a $600,000 job, of course you have an obligation to hire me to design the rest of it. In a lot of cases, they will get the interns to copy my style and it’ll be this sort of like version of it. And that’s okay as long as that works for the client and it’s a business. But it kind of brings a lot of tension for somebody like me whose general task at these companies were to come in and pitch things.
So, at some point I felt that I had to do things that I could own to that extent, like at least creatively say that this was my direction instead of kind of somebody else taking the credit for that, and taking the credit and the pay for it, to be quite frank. In smaller jobs, I think directors do not get paid now and I’m experiencing that kind of firsthand directing. But I think it’s sort of weird that it also works the same way for these bigger jobs, and sure, that’s a trade off of getting paid for the ones that aren’t actually paid pitches for the company. But that’s a weird balance and I can’t speak for anybody else or say what’s right or wrong for the industry, but I just really want to be somewhat fairly recognized and somewhat fairly compensated for the jobs that I come onto.
I do say this to the producers who I know and who hire me and I work better with the ones who understand that and respect that, and sometimes I end up not working with the people who don’t understand why this is important or feel that they are above giving artists a fair living wage.
Yeah. And I don’t think that’s at all an unreasonable thing to ask, and I feel that a lot of times these days people are too nervous to ask that kind of thing or like bring it up. And yeah, that’s pretty awesome that you recognize that and have the ability to do that.
I also think it’s sort of a privilege and it’s sort of a duty. If you’ve been in it for long enough, you know you can do it, and unless you also do it … younger people really can’t do it. If I’m seasoned and I’m coming in and I charge more than the other guy and I never say, “Hey, if you’re going to keep me past 7:00, you’re going to have to pay me overtime,” how is that kid going to ask for a living wage with an overtime? At the end of the day I think there is no union in motion, and that sort of creates, “How much should I charge? What things can I really ask for?”
I think one way artists can maybe help themselves think about their time in a more productive way and respectful way is to realize it does not matter what you are going to do for the rest of the night. Those are still working hours. Like at times when I have two jobs booked in one day, which happens sometimes, I have to go home and do more work, if you are extending my time, you are taking away from my paid time. But why should that be different than when I have a family obligation or when I have some other thing? At the end of the day, true or false, I don’t know, but 90% of the time when people ask you to leave really late or ask you to work late is because your time wasn’t well managed.
I think part of it comes from perhaps being a little bit cocky at this point and saying, “I know what I can get done in a day. I can get maybe like three or four works worth of day for the client done in just one day if I have to, if I absolutely have to.” That lowers my rate. If I don’t work at a good rate and if I’m like squeezing every juice out of me, it ruins me for the rest of the day, it tires me out, and also it cheapens the work I do technically. But depending on the situation, I will judge how fast I need to work and what is reasonable to expect from you. If some clients is asking for 15 paintings from you in one day, it’s because they’re trying not to book you for the time you should be booked for.
So, if we don’t self-regulate and we don’t sort of ask for the reasonable thing here, it’s going to be impossible for everybody else to do it.
Yeah. And I feel like that is the weird thing about the motion industry sometimes is that they purely work off of day rates unless you’re like a director or something. But yeah, I feel that day rate can be problematic sometimes because yeah, they’re just trying to squeeze all of that process and work out of you in one day when if you were charging at project rate then you could get a lot more for it and then you’d actually have free time.
The other thing is if they give you 15 paintings to do, you’re probably going to do 15 really terrible paintings because that’s the most to do. I think with, again, like having a conversation with directors, sometimes you can clarify what they need and you can say, “Hey, 15 paintings are not possible in one day,” depending on the style of course. “And what if we did this or what could I provide you with? This is my limit, this is what I can do in one day. This is a reasonable amount and I’ll try to squeeze this in but this is what you can clearly comfortably expect from me.” And there are days where we choke. There have been days where I show up and I’m like, “Ah, nothing is working.” So, it is sort of a balance, but I always just try to make sure everybody wins from both ends.
I know I’m speaking a lot about how to protect ourselves, but I also respect if somebody paid you a lot of money and they needed something and I was the one who couldn’t get it done for whatever reason, I want my clients to leave the table feeling like what they got was good value. That they weren’t promised something I didn’t deliver unless they played a role in it, right? Like if they waited around all day and then came to me at 5:00 PM and asked for four paintings, I will say, “I can’t do that. I was here all day. This is not what we agreed upon.” But everything is a little bit of trying to see it from both sides.
However, as an intern or as an artist or a designer, you are providing value and you are trying to help them win a pitch. If you’re doing your best to be useful to them and you’re nice to work with, I feel like most places understand the situation quite well and don’t demand all that much out of you. And if you’re talking to people who make you feel terrible about that all the time, then there might be a studio culture issue or it might be a producer issue.
And I think it’s always okay, sometimes producers I think feel … and it is true, that their job is to save company money, but sometimes it’s okay to talk to your director and say, “Is this normal? They booked me only for this amount of time and this feels like a disproportional amount of work. Can we prioritize what needs to really be in there on what is kind of extra or if you guys are sending out the pitch a few days later, do you want to buy more time if you want all of this stuff? I’m happy to help you but how can we do this together?” And I found in ways, things fall through the cracks and directors say, “Why didn’t they book you all the days?” And they go and take care of it. It’s not really ratting someone out, it’s just really you have to voice the hiccups so it can be taken care of. As long as you’re not doing it, I think, in a sort of super blamey sort of way.
Yeah. It’s more of a conversation.
Yeah. And if you’re saying, “Listen, I can’t make 20 paintings in one day,” and they’re making you feel shitty about that, then maybe don’t go back if you can afford to. That’s what it comes down to at the end of the day.
Yeah, just learning from experience.
LA is great because there are hundreds of studios, there’s millions of ways you could design and make money. So, if you’re telling yourself that this is the only place you could do it at, this is the only way it can be done, it might be that your priorities are different and that’s okay, but it’s your job to prioritize whether it’s just making a living or you’re really dying to work with this creative director or what you are really there for. It’s okay to go to places because you want to learn stuff, but do you feel abused, or do you feel that this is okay?
At that point your health and mental health are more important and it’s probably better to move on to something that works a bit better for you.
Yeah, but there’s competition, right? And especially … I mean, I don’t know about you, but I think also earlier on, being a woman, I felt that I had to prove myself furthermore. People would speak over me in meetings, people would take my ideas and pretend they came up with it. It happened more often than I can talk about.
Yeah. And in some ways, producers would try to kind of push for things a little bit harder. I’m very stubborn and annoying, so I would always try to fight back. But I did feel that sometimes people kind of try to do their job “too well”, as in it’s a win if they can get you for cheaper, it’s a win if they can do this other stuff free. At least for my own mental health, yeah, I realized that I didn’t pay such close attention to what it was doing to me emotionally, I was more worried about making a living and surviving and so on.
So, the best thing I learned, tip, because we’re recording I think for students-
… is look around you and look at the people who are a little bit older. And if you respectfully ask them, “Hey, I’m doing all of this, is this normal? Hey, I am doing all this, but I don’t feel really great about it. What do you think? Am I right to feel uncomfortable about this?” I think most of us have that moment where we go, “What if this is super normal and I’m just being a brat?” People feel worried about speaking out of turn or saying something controversial, which I understand, but older people will tell you. They might be a bit jaded and you might get a lecture from them, but they will tell you, “Oh, that will happen, or you don’t really have to do that.” Or You could more directly ask and say, “How can I tell my producer that this is too big a workload for me?”
Yeah. I think that’s super helpful advice for students because I mean, especially if you’re a remote freelancer or something, you never think to do something like that, but it’s always going to be so helpful, and the person you’re asking has probably been where you’ve been at some point. So, I’m sure they can understand and help out a bit.
Yeah. If you get an email out of nowhere from a student or a young freelancer, you don’t always know their situation, so you try to answer and you try to help out, but honestly, it is always a little bit easier talking to somebody who works for the same company or somebody who is in the same room because they know this place and they know the standards of this place, right? So, if they have more experience, they already know kind of where this place falls in relation to other places.
There were some studios, I won’t name, who are known to be kind of slave ships, right? So, if in that situation you walk up to a freelancer, or an art director, or just a more experienced designer and say, “This feels a little bit extreme, this is extra. Is this normal?” And then they will turn and say, “Oh, it’s not like this everywhere.” And sometimes all you need is that, and that could lead to you having a good conversation with a producer or that could also lead you to think, “Do I want to be here? Maybe I’ll work for this other company. Maybe I should talk to places.”
Yeah. Well, I mean, all of this is super helpful, especially if some of the students who are listening are transitioning from another industry or if they are just right out of school, I think this is all super helpful to hear.
Did you do any of this? Did you ask older people or mentors?
So yeah, when I was at Gentleman Scholar it was great because there are a lot of freelancers coming out, like I think you were one of them. And I did, I asked Trevor Conrad was there for a bit and he would help me with a lot of stuff. A lot of it was like technique stuff, but I could talk to them casually and I felt comfortable asking about workload stuff too. And then Paul Kim.
Didn’t you share a studio with him at some point?
Yeah, we had a art studio, like a shared workspace for a number of years, yeah, till last year, for like six or seven years. He’s a good friend.
Yeah. Yeah. I remember him telling me that you guys had a shared space together. That’s so funny. But yeah, I think for me it was like seeing how much they were doing in a day, even if I wasn’t directly asking them since I was doing similar projects or I was like on a pitch, I was like, “Okay, well obviously I’m not as experienced as them, but I can see they’re doing like one or two frames a day,” and I kind of talked to them about the project, and that really helped me a lot. I was a freelance so I couldn’t really ask like rates and stuff because it didn’t apply to me as much, but yeah, so helpful.
Yeah. And it’s also a really nice moment, right? You feel connected and you feel cared for, and as freelancers, I think it’s really important … I mean, I know you were full-time at the time actually, but freelancers are kind of the nice free agents. It’s the little helpful bacteria that gets into the system that just makes everything stronger and that’s sort of the cross pollination I feel, like that’s really where, I don’t know, they kind of serve as the bees of the ecosystem.
Yeah. They kind of spread knowledge, and they kind of spread information, and talent, and work, and different approaches.
Yeah, that’s so true. That’s a good analogy. I like it. So, now like we’ve talked about your bringing up and like your experience as a freelancer, but what is your day to day work day look like now?
It’s never the same. I get that question a lot and I never have an answer. Years later, I still have no answer, because I work in different mediums and I work on different types of projects, it really, really changes. If I’m directing something, it’s different, if I’m just doing editorial illustration, it’s different. I’m writing a lot more these days, which is new for me.
Thank you. It is fun to be sort of the beginner at something again. I don’t want it to sound like, oh, I’ve mastered everything, I just love not knowing stuff and then it’s sort of this exciting, rewarding experience. But yeah, it I think stemmed from wanting to be a little bit more in charge of the projects I’m doing and just really wanting do things I care about. So, depending on the day, it really changes. And I take days off in between, which feels really good, honestly.
Yeah. You work hard and then you take days off, I think. But the things I do every day is I write in the morning every day just to sort of relax and as a meditation, and I do a daily illustration still every day.
Yes. I love seeing those.
Thank you so much. Yeah, it’s kind of weird. Sometimes I’m really tired and I’m sort of like begrudgingly doing it even, but it feels good to do one even if you didn’t enjoy drawing it, at the end of the day you’re happy you did it.
Yeah, accomplished. Yeah, you finished it. Yeah. I was actually going to ask you about that. On your Instagram, I can tell you post every day and your style is like constantly changing and evolving, and I can really tell that you do like trying new things all the time. Do you think it’s important to be versatile?
It depends on what’s important to each artist. Changing styles is fun and production, that design background gives me sort of this drive to want to find the best voice for what the project is. And we do that in motion too, I think, but it’s more referential. We just go, “Oh, this isn’t the style of so and so,” which is another issue that I have.
But when they come to you with your friend’s work and say, “Can you rip this off?” I almost always say no. And the first thing I ask is, “Did you reach out to her?” Like, “What is this?” Or studios may not know and maybe I should not myself, but I reach out to them and say, “Did they reach out to you because they sent me your work and they’re asking me to do it.” And if it’s somebody I know really well and we’re both laughing about it and they’re like, “Just take it, just take the money,” I might do it. But to sort of like work behind an artist’s back making the money instead of them off of their style, it’s painful. I don’t feel good about that and so I try never to do it.
It happens too often too.
I know. I know. And then now I think styles are a little bit more repetitive too compared to maybe like five years ago, I feel. But yeah, it’s, it’s one thing like being influenced by a dead painter from 200 years ago, I don’t think you always have to be deeply original, but I think there is something to be said about people who have worked hard to find their own style and then you’re kind of banking on their hard work in a way. So yeah, I don’t know. These are very gray, mostly dark areas.
Do you do a different illustration every day?
Yeah, I do. I do something every day. But I was going to say for instance, for editorial or certain types of design, actually a lot of people do better by sticking to one style. I think that is no excuse not to study other styles, but people have lives. My approach towards other people’s creative choices has change the lot over time. I think before when I used to be more worried about my career in a stylistic sense or whatever, I was a little bit more judgmental and I’d be like, “Why is this person during this, or whatever?” It’s a terrible way to look at other people and it feels good to be able to say, “I used to be like this.”
Yeah, look back on it, feel better now.
Yeah, just accept that I have been shitty. It’s important, that’s super important to me. But I was going to say, yeah, like if you’re an illustrator, for you to have a recognizable style will undoubtedly make you more money and gain you more of a sort of vibe because people will come to you to draw that particular style. But I also think a lot of editorial illustrators have sort of their own sense of humor and storytelling ingrained into their own style. Like if you look at Geoff McFetridge or Jean Jullien, their work is that style because of their outlook, and when they get hired to do something for a client, they’re hired for that outlook and not just the artistic style. However, when you do TV commercials for instance, it’s rarely really that artist driven, right? It’s different to when say they hire Jean Jullien to make a cover for New York Times. I don’t know if he does that.
Yeah. Like they tell them this is the prompt and he pitches a few different ideas and they picked the one they like the most from what he pitched and then he paints that out. So, it’s sort of his take and there’s a lot more sort of autonomy in sort of what he’s finally making. But our process of making animated or just video advertising campaigns for say Coca-Cola, it’s really rarely that. So it kind of, I think, generally goes from agency, which sort of that system is changing too, but agency to that particular artist, and then they handle that contract more like the New York Times contract. So, motion is different in that way, and I think that’s worth paying attention to charting your own path, be it about the style you choose to do or also the way you want to practice your art.
If you can do every style, on that regard you don’t have as much to offer to people sometimes because your style doesn’t come with the presupposition from everybody that you represent these values. It’s a bit harder.
Yeah. You’re more of a chameleon.
Yeah. If your style is recognizable, it still works, but you didn’t build the value of that style as much because half the time you’re working on other styles. However, I think the style being the epitome of an artist identity is a little bit annoying to begin with because it is all an inflated value based on market use, so once again, it kind of forces you to identify with something, a value that other people get to put on you and your usefulness, your art’s usefulness to sell products for other people’s gain. And if we are talking about just being artists, I don’t think that’s the healthiest way to look at your work or your output because it becomes your life. You become, if you are driven, and you like it, and you’re deeply ingrained, and even I think the most sort of jaded artists still want to find theirselves and their expression through their art. That’s why they got into it in the first place.
So, even if you dull that sort of passion, it’s there, and I really do believe even the coolest chillest, “I’m going to go home and not even think about art,” type of employees, they are happier when they get to make something that feels personal and special. So, I think the biggest thing I learned was understanding that your idea of success, if it’s very market-driven, and value-driven, and money-driven, it’s going to probably be at odds with your artistic drive and your artistic satisfaction. And people will tell you a lot of times, “Oh you got to put in the hours before you do something personal or whatever,” and I find it so disgusting. They are not knowingly doing it, but they’re telling you to kind of turn the stove, like turn the fire down like to simmer slowly instead of like cook fast-
… because they’ve been taught to do that. And it is easier … like I’m not saying you should go on a job you’re hired to sell a product and then be this wildfire, like that’s the other extreme of not getting the issue, right? But also, it is your job to constantly decide what’s happening to your artistic vision, or your creative output, or your creative path. That journey is your responsibility. Other people will tell you, right, to do it in the way they learned how to do it, and there will be less resistance and tension from a client when you’re just saying yes to everything, which won’t always result in the best outcome either. So, you kind of really got to pick and choose your battles.
And when people say that, I used to take offense to it, right? When people would say like, “Pick and choose your own battles,” and I just think like you have given up, you’re giving me bad advice and you’ve given up, like, “I don’t like your work or whatever,” I would get so defensive. But I think as I get older now I kind of understand they’re saying, “Just keep the balance. You have to keep the balance of what is really happening here.” If you remove your own ego and your own drive to be successful and famous and do the best frames, I’m like, it’s funny concept anyway, right? Like, “I’m going to do the best frames,” and you can just focus on the fact that there is a task at hand, it has a purpose.
Your job is to help the director fulfill that purpose. This is motion specifically, and you try to do that in the most engaging, interesting way possible without contradicting the director because you have to do that. And that is a formula for that job title and situations specifically. As you grow and make your own work, if you carry this kind of like do the easiest thing mentality into our own work, and I’m not talking about, “Oh, this would be economical and possible for me to do so I should go for just simpler style,” but I’m talking about the like shortcuts of, “This will make it sleek or whatever,” right? If you kind of go down that route, like is that the best way to express yourself? Is that a good use of your personal time towards your own artwork?
It’s always finding the balance of all of these things and like life and art too, and arts and art, and paid art and personal art, and free time and time you spend thinking and nurturing yourself and growing versus the time you actually spend on a project. You realize that these are really not solid concepts and really not well contained units, that they always are just ebb and flow.
Yeah. Wow. So insightful.
I feel like I’m learning so much.
Well, no, but it’s true. I mean, there’s a lot of amazing points in there, but one of them that I always try to stick to, it’s so hard, but obviously saying yes to things is great, but saying no to things is also super important, and that’s like a very hard skill to learn. But if you can focus on that-
Especially women too, right? Like you’re so trained to say okay to everything because realistically speaking, this is where my personal view comes in. In the world, in situations where you have absolutely zero culpability, people will get violent towards you if you say no. Like they will hit on you, you will say, “No, thank you,” and they will get violent at you. So, there’s a real life danger of women having to constantly judge the situation, and if you just kind of like don’t say anything, maybe you won’t be attacked. And that might be true in some situations, it’s insane, but that’s the world we live in.
Yeah. I can totally imagine I’ve seen and tried to be there for say young interns or young designers who walk in, and they know something is wrong, and they’re really uncomfortable with it, and you can tell from their body language but they’re unable to say anything and it’s sort of going, “It’s okay,” or stepping in for them and saying, “Hey, is that right?” Women I think are sometimes a little bit better at reading that room because we’ve been spoken for against our will so much.
Yeah. Just observing from there.
Yeah. But if you feel great, without advertising for them, I should say, when I was young and I went to work at Buck, I felt a really big difference at that time from some of the other places that I worked at. To be fair, a few of those were visual effects studios, so it was full of like … it was like 300 men and two women, right? Like I’ve been in that position too. But then when I went to Buck, I felt, because Jenny, who’s a friend of mine, was an art director, she’s now I think a ECD or a director there, and just like the female producers, Emily was there, Emily Rickard, Rickard, Rickard?
I don’t know. You would know better than me.
Sorry, Emily. You have a cool Australia accent and I always doubt my own pronunciation of your name. So, these women were not only present and doing great work, but they were respected by their peers, and they could dress comfortably and not worry about like, “Oh, are people going to look at me weird because I’m dressing like how I would normally dress.” At least I’m speaking purely from a cultural aspects, like a gender, cultural aspect. Ryan is the founder of the LA office and the head of the LA Office and he’s like a happy chill guy for the most part, happy meaning like he likes his life, he likes his wife, he’s not like a toxic feeling boss, which like at least in terms of culturally making you uncomfortable, I’ve definitely worked with some. And you just feel like nothing inappropriate in that sense happens there.
It was kind of interesting how even that allowed me to be able to say no design-wise to things, where I felt I was physically not in contrast with the place so I could just focus on, “Oh, this is okay.” I knew they weren’t going to look at me and say, “Shut up.” You know what I mean? Or roll their eyes.
Yeah. You could tell the other women’s opinions were valued there because they were in positions of more, I guess, like power than-
Yeah. That’s actually what we’re all looking for, right? Is for our presence to be normalized. We don’t want … what is it called? Preferential behavior necessarily, and we don’t want people to shut up and now only we speak. But it’s the sense that it’s almost like before you upload a profile picture, you get that icon, like we want to be that. Like we want to be that first and then what we are, we just want to be the designer or whoever. And yeah, when our ideas are bad, they’re bad, that’s totally fine too, but the sense of, yeah, it’s not even saying yes all the time, it’s just the inability to say no, right, to feel like you have to be quiet because you’re just worried that if you say something it will be an issue. And I mean, we should all think twice before we make a comment about somebody else’s appearance and should think twice, there are things we should think twice in terms of participating and doing your job, you should be able to do that.
Yeah. No. Super valuable insights there. I mean, I’ve always worked at studios where I was valued, but there were times especially even when I just first started out that I just felt like I couldn’t even talk, like I was too nervous to share ideas. And I think it was one thing that Trevor Conrad … like it wasn’t the culture of it that was making me feel that way I think, but even just being right out of school and not feeling confident in myself. And then at one point Trevor Conrad was like, “You know what? Even if you have an idea,” and I don’t know if this is the most sound advice, but it really stuck with me, he was like, “Even if it’s like a stupid idea, just stick with it and be confident about it.” And I don’t know why, but that stuck with me so much. I was just like, “Well yeah, I guess it’s more about just having the confidence to say something out loud and then just, yeah.” I guess I’m relaying it in the wrong way, but-
There’s no wrong way. You’re relaying fine, it’s totally fine.
No, I know, but I can’t get my words out right now for some reason. But yeah, just he taught me more about being confident in the office and like, “It’s fine. We’re all just people here and everyone’s just going to share stupid ideas. I share stupid ideas all the time and you can say yours and it won’t be looked down on.”
I think that’s part of it too. I definitely do not want to be a male apologist in any way, so this is coming from the kind of opposite place, that when we are too worried about saying the wrong thing, we can’t be goofy, we can’t be ourselves, we can’t say funny things, everything becomes serious and everything becomes sort of this like you’re not playing with other people, it’s tasking instead of just playing. And I think creativity is a playful thing. If you are not at least kind of enjoying it, it really shows in your work. And so women at work … I’ve seen this happen with other people but I can only speak of my experience, if I’m doing that, and when I go and set up my desk and make my own frames or whatever, I’m still having fun, but I’m having fun by myself, and it’s kind of like going to the playground and just making sandcastles one person.
What kind of stops us from kind of normalizing the relationship and being well integrated like that also is like men are joking, they’re not worried about saying stupid stuff. Of course the consequences are different, right? They don’t have to worry about seeming stupid. Like Trevor is a very intelligent guy but he’s also the goofiest person I know, and God bless, right? Like it’s good that he’s like that. So, he’s able to play around, and joke, and kind of be silly, and be self-deprecating without that being a culturally weird thing, and he’s able to be embraced for the person that he is. That I would say is one of his good strengths. That’s how I see him at least.
So, if we go in and we’re quiet and we’re paralyzed into not being able to participate on that level, yeah, you’ll never become a full part of the team. And I think we feel that and we internalize that, right? This is not putting all of this on women by the way, this is not saying, “Women should blah, blah, blah.” It’s kind of what Trevor did to you. He basically said to you, right, “Why don’t you come play with us? It’s actually kind of fun. Don’t worry, don’t worry, I got your back.”
“Let’s make a sand castle.”
Yeah. “Let’s go to the slides. Come to the swings, I’ll push you.” That’s the sort of interaction that really builds meaningful work relationships and communication. And honestly, unless that’s happening, you’re not getting the best out of your job, the company isn’t getting the best work out of you? That’s the funny thing people miss, I think. Like when you engage too much in the conversation of, “Yeah, everybody did wrong.” It’s like, “No, no, no. We got to make it safe and playful for people, like that slight kindergarten and feeling, that’s what you want,” without people being irresponsible of course. But yeah, that’s the best feeling. Going to the rooftop, and having lunch together, and talking about really dumb stuff, you need that.
It’s such a great part of the culture when you can get that flow down.
And also we can all make that culture happen. That’s what’s important, I think.
True. Yeah. Well, I just want to kind of touch on a little bit more of the technical side of things just for the students so they can hear a little bit more about your process. So, I know that you draw every day and you post that work on your social media. Do you feel that you would be where you are today if you didn’t consistently keep that sketchbook of all your work?
I know that it was a big part of what made me where I am. I think emotionally I would be a different person. Again, it’s kind of like a meditation and it’s nice. There are some people who found my work through my daily sketches, but also it wasn’t the only extracurricular thing I did. I used to do sort of like conventions, and I printed books and did other public work that isn’t motion. I would say my path is more defined by the connection of all those thing than just the daily thing, the daily practice. However, I would say it starts a nice conversation between you and an audience, which again, I never intended to have this audience. I didn’t start to post online, I just started to draw and then yeah. First one I posted it, it was on my personal Facebook account like 10 years ago and it was not public, right? So, it was just like if my friends wanted to comment, it was fine.
And then actually one of the teachers I had at Otis, his wife, also an art teacher at a different school, she started posting them publicly and then eventually made a page because she was sharing it with her students and she was saying, “Hey, your accounts is private.” Actually now in today’s world, that’s kind of weird, but at the time-
Yeah, I was going to say, “Did she ask?”
I can’t remember. She’s really nice. I’ve known her for a long time and so it wasn’t this like total anonymous person like identity theft thing, but she did make this account and I was like, “Actually, I think I’m going to remove you from this account because now that I’m on it, it’s a bit weird that I’m sharing it with you.” But she wanted that, she was like, “You should take over.” So, that’s how it became a public thing. That’s weird, isn’t it?
Well, I mean, if she’s like a friend, that sounds pretty cool. She was like advocating for your art and wanting to share it with the world. That’s pretty cool.
Yeah. Yeah. That’s how I choose to take it.
Wait, did she make the Instagram account that you have now?
No. Instagram account, actually, I had a personal Instagram account, like just me and my friends, and then eventually I said, “Should I just post art here?” And people were like, “Yeah, you should do that.”” So, that’s how the Instagram, and I was like, “Cool.” I think up until maybe this year, the personal photos are still at the bottom of the page, and then I was like, “You know what? I’m going to maybe remove these.”
Oh, I still have some. I should probably do that.
I mean, nobody has to do anything. I started really thinking about online presence as this thing I want to be … I always had my own rules. Everybody has their own rules, right? Like what you share, how you share it. Maybe your rules are you share everything. But I always had sort of like, “Oh, these are not people I know. I want to be open but only to a certain …” like they don’t need to know everything about me, and I’m not comfortable with everybody knowing everything about me. It is a weird thing, because, yeah, there’s something strange I think about there being more people in the world who know this specific part of you and have their own assumptions about you and that number being significantly greater than the ability you have to meet people in real life.
So, even if every day I meet new people, which I do often, there’s no way I’m going to know as many people as these people who very superficially know me at this point. There isn’t anything wrong with that. I still am very grateful and have a lot of empathy towards people who support me, and I try to be genuine about it. I don’t think I’m being facetious in any way. I hate being fake. I don’t like pretentiousness in that sense or really any sense. So, I regulate it in the way that I know best, but yeah, I don’t post my personal relationships as much. I’m not going to post stories with my friend’s kids unless they feel very strongly that I should, or I’m not going to show my nephews on Instagram. Not that I think there’s any problem with anybody else doing that, I just really care about their privacy and I care about sort of … this is a very personal part of my life.
I’m really, really lucky … I know this wasn’t part of the question, but I am really, really lucky that people who follow me generally are great people. They’re very supportive. I mean, everybody I interact with at least. I can’t speak for … I’m sure there’s interesting people in there, but I’ve been receiving mostly just really kind things. I try to be kind and then hopefully in return meet kindness in the world. That’s at least a goal. But I have friends who get threats, and they have friends who get like very weird judgemental stuff, and I’m not saying we should hold back because we might get criticized, but sometimes it’s also like, “Is this my thing to share? Like is my nephew’s life mine to share?” It doesn’t feel like it, right? Or my friend’s house, should that be on Instagram for a bunch of people she doesn’t know to see.
Everyone’s journey is personal and different, so that makes sense.
But also we are really overstepping our boundary in privacy in a lot of ways. Like celebrities lives became super popular, right? In the 90s, it went out of control, Princess D died, and we still didn’t learn any lessons from that. So, now we feel that everybody who’s online is fair game to us, it’s fair access. We can very easily stalk each other. And I’m not talking about you finding an interview I did and knowing something about me, because it’s an interview, I put that out there, right? But I think there is an increased awareness I have and I wonder how the world is going to keep building it’s awareness too about sort of like what are you making available public, and if you’re making it available, then are you consenting to being taken in any way it can be taken?
Once again to sort of draw a parallel as a woman, what you wear to the street, it might just be hot and maybe you’re wearing shorts, but I’m also without letting this be a thing that really like censors me from my own perspective, I also know deep down inside that because I’m wearing shorts, some guy’s going to think that I’m trying to get attention from him and he’s going to feel like kind of righteous and entitled to be able to say anything about my body. Like that’s going to happen, and in life, I know how to handle that now. So, it’s kind of understanding that we are all walking symbols and other people are sort of looking at online personalities, honestly, kind of like how they look at women, like we’re around to just serve them. And is that the relationship we’re agreeing to? I think it opens a lot of questions.
I do this work and I don’t do it to try to win popularity or fandom from other people, I do it for me and that’s why I’m really appreciative when people connect to it and write something personal underneath. At the same time, you get sometimes funny comments like somebody you don’t even know coming in and writing their scholarly criticism. And it doesn’t bother me actually, but it’s also like sometimes, I mean, I still appreciate their effort and I see that as a want to connect. But people come and write their political ideas right? And do I choose to engage with that or not? It’s not out dissing thing anybody and not appreciating their time and energy and wanting to converse, but also does being online artist qualify me to speak about … does it require me to get into these engagements with people about their personal beliefs? It’s a different thing than I invited you to my house and I made you dinner and now we’re talking about these things. I think it’s a general symptom of the world, not just art related.
I think artists, it’s very easy. I’m sure you have your own issues because you have, I think, quite a bit of a following yourself.
Yeah. I mean, I totally agree it’s like getting weirdly like voyeuristic these days with social media. I mean, I enjoy sharing things. I don’t share anything that’s like too near and dear to my heart, but it is kind of funny when I share something, even if it’s just my friend and see them in real life, and they’re like, “Oh yeah, I saw what you had for lunch today.” And I’m like, “Oh, that’s [crosstalk 01:10:40].” I don’t mind it because I put it out there, it was just like cheese or something. But it is like, “Oh yeah, I guess I did post that and now everyone knows that. That was kind of funny for me to do that.” So, it is kind of weird when you see it manifest in real life.
Yeah. We never have to sensor it because it’s becoming public or whatever, it’s just a reminder to check in with yourself and realize that this is a decision, right? It was really funny sometimes like people you meet on the street … Has this happened to you?
Maybe a couple times, but since I’m in Portland, there’s not many people here.
Yeah. I’m really lucky. Again, I’ve had very few truly like strange experiences.
I mean, even the strange ones are kind of cute. So, once again, my heart is full of love for the world. But I remember buying a sweater on Ebay and then it arrived with a note saying, “Are you the artist?” And then a personal letter or like-
Yeah. I mean, yeah, but also I’m like, now you know my sweater and I feel kind of weird. It’s a good thing I wasn’t buying a bra.
Yeah, yeah, it doesn’t matter. Of course, it wouldn’t really matter, but it creates situations you can laugh at and awkward triangles are my favorite thing in life, so I just try to see those like I’m creating more awkward situations and that’s good.
Yeah. Something to draw about later.
Well, real quick, just out of curiosity question. Do you use Photoshop for your work mainly or do you draw mostly on paper?
I do both. So, a lot of the stuff I post on Instagram are on paper. I usually try to hashtag what it is because I realize people would ask the same question multiple times.
And that you feel like you should answer, but also how many times can you write pen or whatever? So, I try to write like, “Oh, this is in ink or this is whatever.” And I think the digital ones are kind of obvious but people sometimes still get a little bit misled.
Yeah. I was just curious. Have you ever used like Procreate?
I’m such a old school person. I really like a nice tablet. That’s my ideal form of digital art.
Do you a Cintiq or a Tablet?
I have an Intuos3 I bought in 2004 and I still use it.
Yeah, I love that thing. It still works perfectly.
Oh, yeah. But that’s crazy.
Yeah. I have it in two sizes, one that I travel with and the other one is large and I work with it in real life.
I mean, that’s nice because you can take it everywhere with you. I’m so spoiled by my giant Cintiq that I have to work from home, but that’s cool.
But I mean, your setup is always the best set up. My regular setup is as a desktop, it’s not a laptop, but when you find the thing that you’re really comfortable with, I think it’s just nice that you have that. I know eventually I’m going to have to upgrade, but Cintiq, if I were animating 2D, I think I would probably want a Cintiq, and they changed a lot and got better. But yeah, I just like the portability and the general feel of a tablet.
Actually, I’ve met a lot of people who use tablets, but I guess I just never like imagined … I guess because you’re always drawing on a flat surface on your paper too, it makes sense that you’d want to draw on the tablet.
Yeah. I realized that I sit around all day and leaning onto a Cintiq I find physically uncomfortable. I also had kind of carpal tunnel from drawing like a crazy person and not knowing how to hold a pencil well when I was in college. So, things that make me uncomfortable and my arm ache I try to steer away from because we’re in it for the marathon, right? We’re in it for the cross country, we’re not doing this frontier. So, all of that. And yeah, I think the quality, it’s easier to get that sort of 2015 trend that’s ongoing where it’s like a wiggly line, like I drew this line slowly and very zoomed in. It’s easy to get that on Cintiq but I find it physically too clumsy still to have kind of swooping lines or making shapes very organically with Lasso. A lot of things I do tend to be fluid and I don’t do that with the Pen tool, I actually do it with Lasso. I just like improvise it with Lasso and that’s the best way I know how to get the shape I want.
Yeah. And I mean, everybody Lassos, this is not a new thing, but I find that to be actually harder to do on a Cintiq, depending on the task, I think, it has more challenges.
Makes sense. Yeah. It’s also just like what you learned on and what you feel comfortable with. I don’t think it would be physically possible for me to use a tablet because I have the worst hand-eye coordination.
I’m sure I could get used to it, but …
Yeah. I’m sure your hand-eye coordination is fine, like it’s totally okay, right, for it to be a different preference.
Yeah. If you ever see me throw a ball for my dog you will know that my hand-eye coordination is not okay. Yeah. I mean, that could also be, if it were me throwing a ball, it’d probably not work because of the lack of general physical like exercise.
In this week of the course, the students are learning about character design and you’re super great at designing all types of characters. For you, what’s the first step in designing a character?
I try to think about the tone of the piece, and what it’s going to be used for, and to compliment essentially, the overall look. So, I always think about the sort of similarity or difference between the character and the backgrounds, and I also think about the budget. So, if it’s a motion studio asking me to do characters, my first question is, “Is a 2D? Is it 3D? Is it After Effects? Is it going to be hand animated? Do you what the medium is?” Because there are a lot of great 2D designs you can’t really pull off in 3D, there are a lot of 3D things that just won’t look very good and will be harder to animate in 2D.
I come from a background of really sort of comprehensively thinking about design as a reflection of the project. So, I always approach character as it’s a huge part of the message and a huge part of the tone and that’s the thing the eye goes to. So, if it’s a funny spot and you designed super realistic characters, sometimes they’re kind of missing out on the option to do something more interesting. And with the client you always get a brief, so you kind of have an idea of what they’re looking for, so I just try to punch that up and make it more special if possible.
Yeah. And I noticed that in some of the longer animation pieces you do and all that, a lot of the characters seem to have a lot of personality. Do you ever think about their backstory before designing?
Always, always. I mean, I always try to bring something personal into them either from myself or other people, because in the end, the character is only as good as how relatable they’re, and one of my pet peeves, especially early on, is every kid we designed for every project would have to be a happy white kid. And I’m like, “Why are they happy? Like, what kind of happy are they?” And I would always make them sort of maybe they’re shy and they’re happy but they’re also like a little pigeon toed or whatever. And an art director would come by and say like, “He looks like he’s lacking confidence. He can’t be pigeon toed.” And I’m like, “No, that’s the whole thing that sells his look.”
If you pay attention to 80s sort of kid based stuff, which everybody our age loves, it’s all these kinds of like flawed, ordinary kids that are happy and that’s what’s so lovable about them, right? So, it was always, always a boy too, it was never like a little cute girl happy, little white boy.
Yeah. You look like you’re Richie Rich. It’s changing a little bit, which is cool. But also designing characters for motion and designing characters for the screen, like a film screen, are very different. You do not come from the same background at all.
Yeah. So, can you talk a little bit about that difference?
Well, basically, there’s only one character in a commercial that really matters, and it is the product, so everybody else is a secondary character and hence they can really only be kind of a stereotype, that’s why I try to give them the pigeon toe or whatever their version of that is, like maybe they’re just really goofy or something. But in a film, there is the main character, there’s sometimes more than one but generally one that you have to identify with, and that is the audience. You’re telling them something about themselves. It’s very personal. So, even if the character has lived or is going through something you haven’t personally experienced, which is kind of the whole point, you have to kind of hypnotize the audience to believe that if they were in that situation, maybe they would also make the same choice or they would feel the same thing. So, you have to put it on the screen and, of course, it’s two dimensional kind of surface characteristic, but it’s really not about that at all.
So, you can get away with a lot of anti-heroes. The characters don’t need to be likable. They don’t have to be likable at every point at least. They’re likable at their core because there is something about them that is their redeeming quality. But yeah, like you’re almost sort of writing the character and their physical manifestation, what they would wear, how they would act. You are not just designing something to be quickly making a point, but you’re really production designing, like you are really costume designing, you’re the hairstylist, you’re the makeup artists, you are that person, that character when they woke up in the morning and what did they put on? It is more than just one thing that you are thinking about. And also in a narrative project, that changes, right? So, the character never begins somewhere and then ends looking exactly the same way or feeling the same way. So, what is that arc like? How does the character change? How is their struggle, which is the story represented and how they visually get to be portrayed in the beginning and in the end.
So, that, and of course budgetary things. Like, yeah, like in a movie it’s very different. I remember on Pearl, it was pretty much left up to me what the characters … who they would be, not just what they looked like but to actually fill in what their personalities were.
A lot of it was me saying, “He’s this kind of dad.” Like Patrick knew he wanted the dad to be a musician and a single dad, and the girl was just a teenage girl. Like that was the description. Or like the girl was a kid first and then she grows up and becomes a musician. That’s what I received from him. And I would say, “Okay. Do you want it to be like this? Because I think that that should be sort of like a hippy burn out and the girl like she would be going through this streak when she’s 13, so she would have say like purple streaks in her hair.” Because I said, “We should set it in 90s.” And then I’m like, “This is what a 90s 13 year old would feel. This is what she would do. This is why she would argue here.” And it’s a different task.
Yeah. It’s like developing a whole nother series of stories.
I really loved when I was watching Pearl, it just felt everything was so relatable. I was like, “Oh, I totally did that, and I was grumpy when I was that age.” Or like when they were in the car and she was sitting at our dad’s lap, that felt like a very relatable moment too.
Yeah, and that just makes the viewer, yeah, like we said earlier, hypnotized by the characters.
Yeah. And VR is super complicated because the camera’s floating and it’s also being held by the audience, so it’s like a whole different thing. But it’s actually pretty weird, it’s existential crisis because it’s not being framed for you, so it’s a cold ending.
Yeah, that sounds so complicated.
Thank you for your compliment. I graciously accept, humbly.
Of course. Well, real quick on the VR end, did you have any crazy uphill battles you had to go through to learn that?
Oh yeah. I mean, I had to build a pipeline-
… with the help of like a Cassidy Curtis who was our technical lead, and we had a producer, David Eisenmann step in three months into the project, so that was the core. Nobody knew how to make this thing, we didn’t have any tools. VR was extremely primitive. We would have to get builds then record them on a phone, then given to us from a phone.
Yeah, I recently gave a little talk about this and just going back I was like, “Wow, wow, wow, wow.” I had forgotten the aspects of it that were really hard. But I just made an AR project and it was no different, so I feel like it was good training.
Yeah. I feel like learning things from scratch when there’s no guidelines out there already is the best way to learn. You make so many mistakes but learn a lot.
It’s funny. Yeah, it’s funny because nobody can say you’re doing it wrong because there’s no wrong way to do it. But on the flip side, if you do have a clients, you’re dealing with their anxiety of like they don’t get it, and they don’t know how to imagine it, and they can’t comment on it, and they get very frustrated by that, except Google Spotlight was an exception to that because they knew that it would be unpredictable, and they knew the approach there was very different because they’re not a very standard entertainment company, and obviously they weren’t making a product for sale, so that reduces a little bit of the marketing and sort of additional pressure of … and there was no like, “How are we going to market this?” Yeah. It was great.
Yeah, sure. Cool. Well, it’s really interesting to get some insight into that. I know literally nothing about VR or AR, it seems like a whole new world, but-
… pretty cool that you got to play with it. Yeah. Well, I guess I’m going to wrap things up here, but I just wanted to see if you had any last words of advice for someone who’s just starting their career.
That’s always such a loaded question.
I know. Okay. Is there something that you didn’t know when you first started that you wish you had?
I knew nothing when I started. I think the fact that I didn’t know I knew nothing was a really great blessing in disguise. I learned … okay, I guess this is my takeaway, I learned that if you really are passionate about it and you really want to do big things, and not just big as in like you want to be famous, but you want to make creative things and you want to vehemently pursue that, don’t try to stimulate the experience of having something in your mind and make decisions off of that. The best way is really to just kind of play around and then experience something, because otherwise, you’re kind of stuck in this sort of, here’s the next carrot on the stick sort of mentality I think. It’s really easy to end up there. And if you ended up there or you want that, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But if you feel very strongly about creating a more independent path for yourself, I think it’s really important to not just make huge life decisions off the probability of happiness or probability of success you’re going to gain from something.
I had really unexpected things come my way. They came my way because of the work I had done, but not because I wanted to be … I say this one often actually. I didn’t set out to be a VR production designer, and if I did when I was coming out of school A, that would be really weird, and B, I probably wouldn’t then have ended up where I am now. It’s meant to be a little bit of a fun journey. It’s kind of like listening to music. You’re not listening to come to the end of the song, it’s supposed to be, and it is our job to enjoy it while we’re going through it. Because the company has its own objective. Just work with them for when you have common goals or when you need money because there’s no shame in trying to make a living, and otherwise, you’ll know. That listening to your intuition is a skill you build, it’s something you get better at. You don’t wait until you get the perfect opportunity to start listening to your intuition because it doesn’t work very well when you do that.
Awesome. Well, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. I feel like I learned so much and everyone who’s listening will too, so thank you.
Thank you for letting me babble.
I’d like to extend a big thing to tuna for volunteering her time to come on the podcast. You can see all the show notes for this episode over on School of Motion, and if you’ve ever dreamed of learning illustration for motion design, go check out my course on the site. Thank you so much for listening. Bye.