Why (and how) illustrators should get into animation

Jelly London on why illustrators need to start thinking about all things GIF, motion and animation-related.

If looking for a barometer in illustration trends, one only needs to look towards the AOI World Illustration Awards held every year in London. Its 2019 celebration of all things illustration saw more animated pieces among the shortlist and winning entries, all still falling under that wide and inclusive bracket of illustration.

Attending festival conferences both home and abroad such as Pictoplasma, it's been a trend clear to us for a while at Digital Arts, but perhaps not yet known to the majority of illustrators, especially those just starting out on their careers.

A recent talk at graduate show highlight D&AD New Blood sought to remedy that, as presented by Jelly London founder Chris Page and head of animation at the studio George Coffey. Jelly, to use the production company and agency's more common name, has been ahead of the curve for a quite a while now, having set up its own in-house production studio in Kitchen.

We spoke to both men on advice for getting illustrators both new and seasoned 'animation ready', and whether its artistic or commercial concerns are driving illustration's motion into less static areas.

Where to start

"A gif is a great way to start," begins George by email. "We use the term gif because of its file type, but essentially it’s a very short piece of animation. It’s the best way to start because you can try out any of the techniques of animation and it's easily shareable."

George has been a Jelly veteran for eight years now, climbing from work experience staffer to main overseer of animation at Kitchen, Jelly's workshop responsible for art and animations both of their own and the Jelly roster's for clients such as Converse and McDonald’s.

"When you get on to creating a longer piece," George continues, "we break it down into small parts of animation that you put together. So that doesn’t seem so daunting.

"Collaboration is key," Chris says, summing up the Kitchen/Jelly dynamic. "The more exposure and cross-pollination that there is between disciplines, the better."

As founder of Jelly London, Chris has been in prime position to see the adoption of idiosyncratic art for purposes of marketing and branding, and prescient enough to encourage the merging of illustration and animation as far back as the 2000s.

"If you are an illustrator," Chris continues, "look at the style of the work that you create, then look at the kind of animations that are being produced in a similar style.

"After that, try and open up conversations with the people creating them. Don’t be frightened to reach out," he recommends.

"One of the best things about our line of work is that it is one of the most friendly and heart-warming communities I have worked in," George adds.

"When you are talking to other animators and illustrators, everyone understands what you have gone through and they are always happy to help. So don’t be afraid to ask. And never be afraid to explain/help. People will work it out anyway so you might as well be the person that helped."

I posit to Chris how helpful it might be to get illustrators some real-world experience through operations like Kitchen.

"Its not always possible to have the illustrator on-site whilst animation is being produced, although it’s great if that can happen," he says.

"To be honest, most longer-form animation is quite slow and labour-intensive to produce and there’s a lot of sitting around waiting for things to happen which isn’t always the best use of a non-animator's time.

"With Zoom, Skype, Slack etc, it’s very possible though to have the illustrator feel part of the process without having to be in the studio. Regular updates and reviews are an important part of the production process, and making the illustrator part of that is usually constructive.

"We do regular workshops with our roster to help them to be more animation-savvy and George and I are happy to do more talks and events to spread the word. Just give us a call."

Why to start

"From a technical viewpoint, I think it’s important to think about workflow as early as possible," Chris tells me when asked why illustrators need to get animation ready.

"Anything that saves time in illustration and animation can’t be overlooked. So helping illustrators think about the way that they format their files so they can collaborate with animators easily and more effectively is very important for everyone."

"From where I’m standing," George adds, "as someone involved in the commercial side of things, it's really important that illustrators realise just how important animation is becoming in the marketplace.

"There have been numerous surveys recently published telling commissioners how much more effective animated billboards and interactive sites are at retaining interest customers.

"Make no mistake, clients wanting movement in illustration is becoming more and more prevalent and it’s really important that the crafts people involved in its creation realise this sooner rather than later."

Challenges to expect

"I think it’s all in the mind set," George says when I ask what challenges illustrators may face when moving into animation. "It’s all about thinking about how you prepare your illustrations, so that you have the things that you want to move existing separately.

"Illustrators are so good in showing movement with a single image, but when you’re animating it, you may find you don’t need as much detail.'"

"File sizes are something else to think about. You won’t need to make them 300dpi at 4000x6000, you only need 72dpi 1920x1080."

"I think this depends on whether you just want movement within your imagery or if you want to think about producing longer pieces," Chris offers on the same subject. "There’s a big difference between being a brilliant image-maker and an effective storyteller in a motion piece.

"Storyboarding ideas is great practice and it is often a good idea – as an illustrator – to look at an image and think how about how you might have got there; start at the end, not the beginning."

I suggest that one challenge holding illustrators back is what they should charge for making a moving image and how such things are licensed, a point which Chris agrees with.

"This is really important and potentially quite a big minefield for any illustrator, especially one without representation," he writes. "I am currently involved in an initiative with the AOI (Association of Illustrators) and the APA (Advertising Producers Association) to try and reach an accord where there is wider access to a common rate of IP rates for animation use.

"There is a fair amount of education to be done, especially client-wise, but Ren from the AOI alongside Steve from the APA are both determined to try and push this through. Hopefully before too long on-line resources such as the AOI’s pricing calculator will be able to help illustrators to have ready access to the pricing info that they need.

"In the meantime my advice to any illustrator is that if you are being commissioned to produce any commercial imagery, whether it be still or moving, then there is always a license to be negotiated. Don’t give your work away."

What's not so different?

"I’m entirely non-technical but from what I’ve seen most illustrators these days are reasonably tech-savvy and, to a certain extent, self-taught," Chris explains.

"As such the software leap shouldn’t be a hard one if you are animating digitally. If you are looking at cell animation or stop-motion then obviously these are more specialised skills but one can still obtain enough information about them online to be able to talk about them with a certain level of confidence. Sometimes the internet is a wonderful thing.

"Animation production companies are always on the lookout for artists to produce style frames and develop characters for them, so definitely get in touch with them."

"Larger forms of animation are definitely collaborative, but a lot of the time the process is very solitary, like illustration," George explains on his opinion of overlap between the two practices.

"We both put our hearts into something that gets instantly judged, and we both need to grow hard skins to survive certain comments and amends.

"However, we both have the desire to push ourselves and see where our art can take us. This is a huge driving force for people to expand their skills, wanting to see how far you can take your style, ability and techniques. This also includes collaborating and sharing ideas."

Cartoon clients

So it seems commercial expectations are encouraging this sea change in the creative branding field. But how are brands finding their animator talents – is it by either approaching an animator instead of an illustrator, or finding a middleman like Jelly to animate their illustrator of choice's work?

"Both are true in my experience," says Chris, "but then my experience is as the owner of an illustration agency and production company, so I can only talk confidently about that.

"All I would say is that more and more animation is illustration-led, i.e. it's coming off the back of the selection of a specific illustrator or designer that the brand has chosen to work with first, then knows that it wants those assets to move.

"Obviously Jelly is a very favourable position to facilitate that desire with the work of Kitchen but it proves that illustrators need to form bonds with animators as early as possible, whether that be through an agent or another means."

Animation credits –  main talents in order of appearance:
Made Up
Dan Woodger
BIFF
Marylou Faure
Alva Skog
Hannah Warren

Read next: How to price illustrations

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