At Underwire Festival back in November I presented a panel on how to make your mark in the animation industry and how to stay true to your vision at the same time. In keeping with the ethos of Underwire to support female talent it was both a useful exercise in showcasing the work of three talented female creatives and by sharing with others experience and advice the hope that it might inspire the audience to consider the direction of their careers.
Sharing their tips, tales and traumas were animation director & designer, Kris Hofmann, artist & filmmaker, Kim Noce, and video designer, Laura Hulme. All three speakers had come from vastly different backgrounds, and all three had gravitated to animation as a way to translate ideas and tell stories, pushing the boundaries with new technology, animation techniques and collaborators, in both their commercial and personal projects.
Through this post we can further share what was discussed in the presentations and the Q&A conversation around pitching, working with others and keeping a creative voice in the process.
“As the client is investing money in your project, they want to know with 100% accuracy what they will be getting.”
Kris began proceedings focusing on the importance of how you present your ideas and the visual tools you employ. She demonstrated this by talking about one of her first commissions, which was for Granta’s feminism issue. Kris shared her initial concept image mocked up in Photoshop, which clearly illustrated to the commissioner the vision she had for the piece, and won her the commission. The image was almost identical to the final film below.
Kris then shared a less positive experience. She learnt the hard way from producing an online commercial the importance of explaining step by step your idea to the people you are collaborating with on a project. With her storyboard for Rdio she focused on showing the shapes and colours in each scene and had omitted the people moving them about, so that when the final film was shown to the client they were surprised to see people on screen. Thankfully they still supported the work and Kris was only asked to make minor changes to the work.
Learning from her previous oversight, Kris’ storyboard for An Unfair Game, made in 2013 for New York Times Op-Doc strand, clearly showed the concept from start to finish, whilst still allowing Kris enough creative freedom in its production. Kris had to pitch her idea to the commissioners and a large audience at Sheffield Doc/Fest, and presented a video based on her board that demonstrated her capability to tell a story and won her the pitch. The final film took three months and closely matched what she had initially pitched, which greatly impressed the commissioners who were used to documentary filmmakers pitching ideas that were often transformed by the final film.
“There are lots of opportunities and different directions you can take. Something you can start ten years ago can sometimes pay off ten years later, particularly given how slow animation can be. Just don’t give up.”
Kim then spoke about the importance of freedom and exploration in her work. She presented an extract from her NFTS graduation film, After, an animated documentary featuring audio interviews. Although Kim usually liked to be very organised and rigorously plan the structure of her work, with this piece she just began animating instinctively focusing on the voices and applied a variety of techniques and textures to represent the emotions of the interviewees.
Having come from the fine art world Kim found after she graduated that she was unprepared for pitching her ideas and having the romantic notion of the fine artist believed that she would just survive on making her own films. (Kim continues to uphold this notion and makes the films that she wants to make). She was fortunate after graduation to be selected for Channel 4’s now defunct A-I-R (Animator in Residence) scheme, which allowed her the time and resources to produce Forget Me Not.
With every pitch and idea she produces she aims to push forward her practice as a fine artist and to push the boundary of what is possible within the brief. Working in collaboration with her partner Shaun Clark in MewLab, they try to test new techniques and to find new collaborations with each project. They also aim to make work that is not just for the client, but is also something that they can be proud of and can show in festivals and other spaces, as there is little funding around for personal animation projects these days.
To illustrate this Kim spoke about the recent commission she produced for Watford Museum about the restoration work being done to the tombs. As Kim had previously worked with the museum and they trusted her, she was able to convince them to give her the freedom to make a more abstract piece about how we perceive death. For this project Kim produced several tests and a symbolic storyboard, which she used as a shot list enabling her to be organised but also have the space to be creative in its production.
Kim responds to practically every brief she hears about so that she is constantly generating new project ideas. Though sometimes she finds an existing idea can also be modified to fit the parameters of a brief. She has lots of ideas in development, including several with dancers.
“Ultimately good ideas are king, but it would foolish not to acknowledge the process of fabrication.”
Laura discussed the power of technology as a creative force and importance of collaboration. Laura works exclusively in the commercial world, starting her career ten years ago making graphics for live news channels, and now produces projects for large-scale live events and broadcast. She finds that within commercial work there is the opportunity to develop a creative voice and style as a designer, even within the limitations of budgets, timelines and demands of clients.
Laura is a self-contained director and draws up the concept, boards her ideas, designs and animates the work herself. This discipline is something she has learned working commercially and has found this training has shaped the work she makes these days. For the type of work she does her designs take into consideration the context and the practicalities of how the work is applied to a technological framework.
The diverse requirements of the projects she has undertaken over the past two years have helped Laura to grow as a designer. Having started on the fixed format of the television screen she now creates work for varied screens sizes and projection surfaces, which have different opportunities and limitations. Her work has to fit harmoniously into its context and the other elements that she has no control over, such as performers, presenters, lighting.
She showed clips of three recent projects that involved a variety of canvases, including a live television programme where she produced the graphics for LED screens in the studio and iPads held up by the audience, projections for a custom-built church organ at a promotional event, and short music videos that were projected onto a sculpture at live musical performances.
Laura feels that collaboration is at the heart of her work, and that she is able to both maintain and develop her creative voice whilst working with input from others. The work she now produces is the result of collaboration with large teams of people (technicians, artists, musicians) that allows her to produce great work.
In the Q&A session Kris, Kim, Laura and I discussed the lessons learned over the paths of their careers and what might be next.
Kris felt that hearing the others speak had inspired her to try her hand at visuals for live performance again. Kris acknowledged that her first foray into this realm had not been entirely successful as she had not fully considered the context of the work when making the film, but that lesson learned she would look to collaborate with someone experienced if she undertook this project again. She also mentioned that she was keen to work with the World Wildlife Fund.
Kim said that for her any type of collaboration was welcome. She feels that animation is a brilliant medium to lend itself to many different types of activity, and would especially like to be involved in more collaborations with dancers.
Laura is keen to do more artistic projects live, particularly in the theatre, where she might have the opportunity to experiment more. Having seen Kris and Kim’s presentations Laura was interested in the freedom of their projects coming from the pressurised, structured commercial world.
We also briefly returned to key things to consider when pitching. Kris said that it was important to be confident in your idea and believe it to be the best thing ever, otherwise why should the funding body or client have confidence in what you are trying to sell to them. And also to never appear apologetic as it gives a bad impression.
Laura added that it was never good to talk ideas down before you have even shared them with anyone. She also pointed out that you should not present an idea that you don’t like, as that will inevitably be the idea that gets picked and you have to make.
Kris suggested that in your pitch document your most impressive concept image and key points have to come at the top, as the people you pitch to can sometimes seem as though they haven’t read the entire proposal, so it’s always essential to get the key information up front.
Kim has realised from experience that comments people you pitch to make on your proposals can be really useful, though it can sometimes be hard to hear. She felt that an outsider’s perspective can at times enhance the work. So do listen at pitches too.
Laura felt that courting criticism was a good thing to bring into the creative process. Working commercially she is used to blunt responses and dismissal of her work that can be quite soul destroying. She often asks colleagues in the studio to respond to what she is working on before she takes it to a client. She felt it was better to ask people “what’s wrong with this?” to counteract default polite responses.
I added that it was important to test your ideas on others early on to see if your work would have resonance, thinking of the many films at festivals that you come away from bewildered at who the audience is for the piece – make sure that your story makes sense.
Kris responded by saying that she felt her next project would benefit from collaboration with a good editor, as she felt that animators get attached to their shots given the craft involved, but that you need someone who has a good eye who can help you to cut the film and keep the story intact.
Conversation switched to people’s origins and Laura spoke of how she had been seduced into animation by the technology and had left her desire to produce television programmes behind her by the end of her degree. She ended the event on a positive note by saying:
“You don’t have to go through the traditional route. If you are willing to learn, it doesn’t matter what stage of your life you are at or how you do it, you can be an animator.”