Adding animation to your illustration work can reap great creative and financial rewards. But what does it take to make the small jump from Illustrator to , to and page to screen? Nick Spence finds out
For any illustrator safe in the static world of editorial illustration, animating your work may seem a job best left to others. New skills, new software to learn, thinking not just about the image but also about time, will certainly present fresh challenges. But the rewards for adding animation to your creative canon should outweigh any lingering doubts about venturing outside of your comfort zone.
The rise of broadband and mobile content in recent years has opened up vast new opportunities for anyone creating animation and motion graphics. Online interactive content is big business and much has been made of the potential funds available in web advertising. The internet is now also the ideal platform to showcase your animation skills, with broadband best able to cope with the most demanding video and audio showreels. Many savvy illustrators have added impressive animation sections to their personal online portfolios to great effect.
Most recently Adobe, home of two of the favourite tools of digital animation - Flash and After Effects - has overhauled and integrated its applications, making the leap from illustration to animation easier. A streamlined, uniform interface aids clarity, so if you're familiar with one software package you should be able to work your way around another.
Even Photoshop has added animation tools for rendering and incorporating rich 3D content in the recently launched Extended version. Across the board, animation software from enthusiast to pro level is generally cheaper, more responsive and much easier to use. With a few notable exceptions, there has never been a better time to start to animate as well as illustrate.
The first move
Andy Smith is one accomplished illustrator who found the opportunity to develop animation skills in tandem with his illustration work while still at college. The Royal College of Art offered an animation department to anyone who wanted to make use of it and Smith, who was already working on characters and short stories for some self-published books, took advantage.
For Smith, the next step was to take the books and make them move, inspired by the animation that had most affected him. "The kind of animation I like is the early, scratchy stuff - things like Disney's Skeleton Dance and Steamboat Willie," he says. The simplicity and drawn feeling of the great Saul Bass film title sequences, in classic films such as It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Around the World in 80 Days also impressed.
Smith's illustration and animation styles are fused; both are distinct but share the same origins in screen-printing and have attracted much acclaim. His illustrations are immediate and he has tried to maintain that immediacy in his animation work. "My illustration work has its roots in screen-printing and I like to keep a very 'printed' look to my work, using just two or three colours, which overlap to create texture," he says. "It's also got a hand-drawn feel, which I wanted in the animation."
But the move from illustration into animation was not without problems. "As an illustrator I was used to creating just one image, spending time on it and making that work," he says. "When I moved to animation I found that one image is just a single frame among many others and it's the whole animated piece that has to work. The biggest challenge is in editing and pacing the animation. It's not too difficult to make individual stills look good, but keeping the viewer interested and the piece alive can be tricky."
Maintaining your style
Smith, who counts Nike, BT, The Guardian and Time Out among his clients, also had to deal with software packages that can produce very different results. "I use a lot of textures in Photoshop and try to keep a hand drawn, rough feel to my work," he says. "Going into Flash and trying to draw with vectors meant I was making smooth crisp lines and movements, which isn't really my thing. Although I use a computer for all my work I don't like it to look as though it's made digitally, so I have to build textures and scribbles into the animation so the hand-drawn feel is not lost."
Maintaining a style does have its advantages, especially when clients have needs for both illustration and animation. "They cross over," says Smith. "I often start doing work commissioned for print and it evolves into animation when the client wants to take it a bit further."
Melissa Gates, who illustrates and animates under the Monkey Laundry moniker and works with her partner Dominik Binegger as welikenicethings, has also benefited from the ability to offer both to clients. "Most of the work we do is for digital media, and those clients tend to use you for both illustration and animation. They cross over," she says. "You can do well if you can do both because the client doesn't need to look for two people to complete a job and there aren't many people who can do both well."
Gates developed both styles in tandem, but now has one eye on animation each time she illustrates. "Although I sometimes draw things that won't end up animated, more often than not I know things I design will end up moving, so I design them in a way that will make that easy, or as easy as possible," she says.
Flash remains the foremost provider for video content distribution online, and learning to draw directly in Flash can save time and produce outstanding results. "You should try and illustrate directly in Flash if you're using it," Gates suggests. "Sometimes designing something in Flash and Illustrator and animating it can be done in just one step. In most cases if it's a job for the web and the file size needs to be low, a vector-based animation is the only solution. But if a client wants something a bit more glossy and can pay for the bandwidth, or it's a Flash animation job for broadcast, we take it into After Effects and polish and add effects such as motion blurs."
Gates found Flash the easiest, most intuitive and accessible way of making the transition from drawing stills to making them move. Having downloaded the 30- day trial, she was up and running making simple animations within a week. Traditional animation sources proved a constant source of help and inspiration. Cartoon Animation by Preston Blair, the bible of professional animators, and The Animator's Survival Kit by Richard Williams are two books Gates suggests no budding animator should be without. After Effects came later, which enhanced the look of her work, adding smooth camera moves, lighting effects, depth and texture.
Bring characters to life
For Alexis West of The Swinging Seesaw, animation was the logical way to inject life into his character-based illustration work. Having always had a soft spot for Saturday morning cartoons and character-based computer games such as Banjo-Kazooie and Super Mario, West began animating his own creatures to great effect.
"My main side project at the moment is The Swinging Seesaw website, and with it I am aiming to create a character-based portal in which my character designs can reside with a true sense of personality and credibility," says West. The website animations currently range from relatively lengthy user-activated sequences to simple movements that convey a small sense of West's plans for a constantly expanding and evolving world of evocative characters.
"When illustrating my characters I think it is important to invoke a sense of personality and credibility to them, and hopefully this is further demonstrated by the illusion of animation," says Smith. "Something as simple as considering the way a character's eye will move around will inject a sense of empathy."
Animation has also changed the way West looks at things. Even if his work is based in whimsical other worlds it's important characters remain down to earth and interact with some semblance to life. "I am more aware now of real-life movement, and how physics and timing all contribute to certain actions," he says. "Something as simple as an animated walking loop is not as easy at it may look. If you don't reference how a real person walks, it just doesn't look at all convincing in the animated outcome."
West also warns those starting out not to over rely on 'out of the box' automated features found in applications such as Flash and After Effects that can offer instant animation but little in the way of long-term originality. "The only real foreseeable problems with such accessible tools may stem from an over reliance on the default tools and effects offered by such design programs," he says.
In education, strong parallels between the two disciplines are being drawn. The Graphic Arts degree at the Liverpool School of Art and Design has pathways in both illustration and animation. "Drawing is the cornerstone for both disciplines on our Graphic Arts course," stresses head of department Jonathan Hitchen. "All students are given the opportunity to explore moving image during the first year and we have an increasing number of illustrators willing to experiment with making drawings move."
"We aim to provide an environment where illustrators and animators can learn from one another," Hitchen continues. "Character development is an aspect that's useful to both disciplines and developing a narrative layout for an illustrated book is not too far removed from developing a storyboard for an animation."
Crossover between specialist areas is encouraged at Liverpool School of Art and Design, and this interdisciplinary approach produces graduates who can combine elements of illustration and animation in real-world projects and commissions. "Illustrators need to be equipped with an increasingly broad range of technical skills and it's not surprising that some will choose to answer a brief with a short animated sequence," says Hitchen. "And if their work is destined for the internet, being able to add movement can be an important bonus."
"I'm not saying that this makes them animators in the traditional sense of the word," Hitchen continues. "The work involved in getting even a short film together often requires a very dedicated and committed temperament, but there seems to be an increasing range of opportunities for illustrators to add a little something extra to their static work."
Beyond animation the world of motion graphics can offer endless potential, leading to some big-name clients and campaigns for mainstream broadcasters and household names. From full-length advertisements to subliminal idents and stings, it's a vast and varied area that combines several strands of creativity.
"For me, the great thing about motion graphics is that it brings many of the things I really love together: design, typography, illustration and animation," suggests art direction and design expert Stephen Kelleher, aka Frankenstyles, who works extensively with industry leading lights such as BÃ¼ck and Transistor Studios. "With motion graphics I don't have to choose to be any one thing, which suits me fine."
With broadband's relentless escalation and expanding platforms for interactive content, including high-definition television, on the increase, the rapid rise of motion graphics witnessed in recent years looks to be unstoppable. For those looking to commission new creative content, motion graphics offers a cost effective and time sensitive way to add stunning imagery, often from small and adaptable emerging studios.
"The high quality and affordability of motion graphics has forced agencies and clients to sit up and take notice over the last four to five years," says Kelleher. "Compared to live action, motion graphics can be much quicker to produce and can be more cost effective, too. Aside from the commercial use of motion graphics, the software's usability and low cost has allowed people to get into animation quite easily, which in turn has fed the growing motion graphics market with skilled people. The amount of new studios popping up, particularly in Northern America, shows that motion graphics is very healthy right now and can sustain continual diversity and competition."