Modern Love: Under His Misspell

NYC-based designer/animator Joe Donaldson was commissioned by the New York Times to create an animated interpretation of “Under His Misspell,” a column penned by Jessie Ren Marshall for The Times’ Modern Love series.

For several years, Modern Love has been a place for guest authors to share “deeply personal essays about contemporary relationships, marriage, dating [and] parenthood” — but the addition of animation is a new development.  

I wanted to find out more about Joe’s approach to the project and learn about the New York Times’ thinking behind the series. What follows is an edited version of email conversations with Joe and The Times’ Zena Barakat, who came up with the idea of using animation for the Modern Love series. 

Q&A with Joe Donaldson

Tell us a little bit about where you are in your career.

I typically work in the advertising/motion graphics world, making the rounds at the different studios here in NYC. So much of my time is spent animating other people’s designs/visions that I soon realized I didn’t have a well-defined voice of my own.

It’s been such a wild ride just to get where I’m at that I am extremely grateful to have work doing what I love and being able to support my family. Being unsure of your voice is totally understandable when starting out, but it is something I wanted to change.

Right now, I’m working on making the transition from always animating to having a more active role in a project’s development and design.

How did you find out about the series?

I came across The New York Times’ Modern Love column and a post that they were seeking animators. I immediately reached out to Zena, and we hit it off.

I am extremely influenced by Nobrow and the folk art/print community. I knew it was a direction I wanted to push myself and thought The Times piece would be the perfect opportunity to explore that direction.

The project was pretty simple. It had a low budget, but I could do whatever I wanted. No revisions and no asking for permission.

I received the VO and a copy of the column and had three and a half weeks to develop the story, design and animate it all.

Was that enough time?

I feel I can hold my own when designing for a 15 or 30, but this was the largest design challenge I had ever taken on. So you can imagine it was pretty hectic doing it all on my own. My main goal with the piece was to take a step back and focus less on spectacle and more on telling a story in a simple, stylized way.

Are you pleased with the results? Did you find your voice?

Overall, I’m thrilled with having taken on the project. It was really hard at times but in the end, totally worth it. It even made the home page of The Times’ website which made my mom and dad proud (haha). I still have a long way to go with defining my voice, but this was a great project to help get that started.

Q&A with Zena Barakat, Video Journalist at The Times

The Modern Love series of animations seems to be part of larger trend at the Times to use motion design to interpret/re-imagine content. Is that an organization-wide effort?

It’s not a new thing — for years, The New York Times has produced gorgeous interactive graphics and videos. But you are right that in the last year, we have increasingly used motion graphics in our videos. We are exploring different ways of storytelling.

Was the the animation series for Modern Love something you came up with independently? 

The Modern Love animated video series was my idea, but everyone at The Times has been really supportive.

For years, the weekly Modern Love column in the Sunday New York Times had an interpretative, clever illustration that ran alongside it. Brian Rea has illustrated it for a long time.

Animation was the perfect next step in turning this great column into a video series. I called the editor of the Modern Love column, Daniel Jones, and he was excited about the idea from the start.

What’s the format for the animation series?

I decided that each month we’d have a different animator. I wanted the series to be unpredictable and a showcase of different artists. Just as the column has a different essayist week, I wanted a different visual voice interpreting a Modern Love story every month.

So what’s the process like?

The way it works is this — I interview the columnist, edit the audio of our interview to a few minutes, then I have a sound designer refine it with music and some sound effects. Finally, I hand off the audio to an animator or team of animators. Then as the animator does his or her work, we edit the music and sound effects to reflect the new vision.

I find the animators on sites like Motionographer and by just searching Vimeo. Joe Donaldson was the first animator I chose who came to us to submit his work for consideration.

He did a beautiful job. His animation is charming and interpretive and funny. I love the scene with the cell phone on the bedside table. The flow from scene to scene is beautiful. I love his animation and he was a joy to work with. His attention to detail was amazing.

Is it open to anyone?

For those who want to animate for The New York Times Modern Love video series, they should send reels and some complete examples of their work to: animatemodernlove@nytimes.com. That goes right to me, and people should forgive me if I don’t get back to them right away. I get pretty swamped with emails.

But I would love more voices, more styles, more interpretation. What I always ask for from animators is to be more creative and less literal in animating the story. When animators are telling their own stories using the columnists’ story as a guide, that’s when we see the most beautiful, funny, clever work.

Any constraints or rules to keep in mind?

This animated series won’t ever show a character moving his or her lips to the sound of the audio. My goal is to create a more cinematic, more interpretive and less literal visual experience.

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About the author

Justin Cone

/ justincone.com
Together with Carlos El Asmar, Justin co-founded Motionographer and F5. He currently lives in Austin, Texas with is wife, son and fluffball of a dog. Before taking on Motionographer full-time, Justin worked in various capacities at Psyop, NBC-Universal, Apple, Adobe and SCAD.

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  • Stephen D

    Great piece. But why do they force animators to do all that work within 3 weeks? That’s ridiculous and we should expect more respect for the work and understanding of the time needed to create it.

    • allen

      uhm..because they have a deadline?

  • Thank you for this! Very interesting ;)