Q: People don’t typically associate character animation with motion graphics. Can you talk about how Psyop uses character animation in motion graphics?
A: People tend to define motion graphics too literally and think that only motion can be used to communicate a tone or feeling. At Psyop, we believe that how a character looks, feels, acts and sounds is always critical to the storytelling process, and can be quite powerful emotive tools. For example, moving paint or a camera can be a character as can a penguin. People want to connect and empathize with something that seemingly has soul to learn something about themselves or simply be entertained. As animators, we impose our own human emotions on animals, people or inanimate objects for the purpose of storytelling. As artists and creators of characters, our goal is to show emotion through unique character traits, facial expressions, gestures or the way they move. This emotional connection is what makes character animation so important in our storytelling process.
Q: What is your creative process?
A: Our production pipeline at Psyop is similar to that of a VFX studio. We just work at a very compressed speed. Our goal is to find innovative ways to create characters that are emotionally and visually arresting yet still work in the context of what we’re doing for a motion graphics project. There are a lot of ways to do this, and we try them all. I love to mix techniques to come up with something you might not have seen before. Maybe we start a project shooting live action plates. Maybe we’ll paint on the live action or create a replicated CG model. At the end, we hopefully have this hybrid design that moves through its environment but looks like a painting. Pushing ourselves to be as visually experimental with character design and animation and fearlessly trying to be more innovative than our last time is sort of what Psyop has always excelled at from a character design point of view.
Q: How important is character development to the overall story?
A: At PSYOP, we’re often presented with a sketch of a character story or concept and are tasked with bringing that character and story to life. This scaffolding is a great place to jump from but involves a lot of thoughtfulness and development on our part.
To start, our entire team unites to come up with the most interesting way of executing the story, style, and character animation. Through this collaboration, we ask ourselves questions like what’s the tone, what are we trying to say, what’s the emotion we need to convey? Everyone has input from the Directors to the Interns.
The character is then fleshed out in the design phase. The illustration helps the character take on traits which will help it feel alive and have a little soul. The modeling team then models all the nuances and cracks and crevices and bumps and textures. Riggers put the joints in, and the lighting team works out the environments; the time of day, and how the lighting effects the textures and shading of the characters look and feel.
It’s a whole team of people that all have different roles in creating a character and bringing it to life. Personally, I usually have a very specific vision of what I think we should be making, but the process of including all the voices creates a chorus far richer than any one individual could create on their own.
Q: What’s PSYOP’s secret to creating character-based motion graphics that may be different than other studios?
A: We put a lot of importance on the meaning and nuance of a character’s design. Super small stuff like the size of a button on a jacket - it all has to have meaning and needs to help create a multi-layered character. It’s important that we keep in mind how we want the audience to feel when they’re watching this character move. Something as small as how does the eye shape of the character connect to an emotion to tell a story or how can the camera capture the character’s personality? We really think about what’s going to make this character evoke emotion with the audience.
One of my favorite ways to do this is to use contrast. I like to do this by not making a character anatomically correct. Use the physicalities of the character to show insight into who they are. Design a little, big bosomed old lady with impossibly skinny legs to show sass, or coke-bottle glasses to really capture the pupils darting around. Or surprise the audience by doing something unexpected like giving a world-class pianist tiny fingers to show conflict.
Q: Do you have a standard set of techniques that you use to create characters?
A: Yes and no. I have a powerful suite of tools that I lean on to create new and interesting things. And I use many different features within those tools. I experiment to death. I try to spring myself from doing the same thing over and over and try everything possible to come up with something new and different. You’d be amazed at how different filters look on top of each other. Or how many combinations of techniques and media you can fit in one animation. That’s why it’s important that I use software with a broad feature base that allows me to experiment with different techniques. It’s essential to my process.
Q: What is the one piece of advice that you’d like to give to motion graphics animators?
A: Most people think they need to create something beautiful and artistic when what’s really required is a vessel to convey a simple message. They’ll over-animate everything and try to pack too much into their character. Just keep it simple and try new techniques, but make sure you animate with a purpose. Rather than add action upon action, I like to take the feeling of something and metaphysically try to show emotion subtly with light animation. Subtlety goes a long way.
Q: Can you sum up your basic philosophy when it comes to creating interesting and innovative characters?
A: I often find myself playing an imaginary game to come up with something unprecedented such as if my dog, the opera, and skateboarding had a baby. Usually this provides a good, fun platform that people can engage with and picture. And if they can’t picture it, even better.
Generally as a Director and artist, my task is to create something that is authentic. A character that has depth and meaning and whose technique and story can’t be figured out at first glance. This approach opens me up as a designer so that I can be an aid in engaging the audience in the journey of character design and animation.