As we briefly touched on in our last article, there comes a shift when many of us stop just hunting down in-house bookings and become more interested in working with clients or agencies directly. Trying to balance both of these worlds can be quite difficult.
On one hand, with in-house bookings, you have a bit more of a narrow focus on the task at hand, what you’re booked for, and simply trying to do the best work you can. This compartmentalization of responsibilities can be great but can lead to a lack of ownership and feeling of disconnection in the work you’re doing. On the other hand, going all in and working direct-to-client can give you an overwhelming sense of pride and ownership but with that comes many decisions that you likely never thought you’d be making. You quickly start filling roles that are outside of the typical creative realm.
Thankfully, Alex Mapar is here to offer some perspective on this subject. Alex is an insanely talented individual who has worn many hats in his career; including being one of the few people who can successfully bounce around the different A-list shops and maintain his personal practice.
Alex recently wrapped a great animation for Shopify and updated his website so I thought this would be a great opportunity to discuss his new piece as well as his thoughts on juggling the responsibilities of both in-house and independent work.
Q&A with Alex Mapar
For the uninitiated, who is Alex Mapar?
Hi Joe, hi world! I’m currently an independent director/illustrator/animator and occasional studio freelancer in NY. I live with my lovely wife Wendy, and our children Lilly and Mischa.
I also teach the final “Animation for a Cause” thesis class for Mograph Mentor and am sometimes a thesis film adviser at SVA.
I’ve been in the US industry for almost ten years now, but I started out in Australia in the mid-oughts and then worked in LA before coming out here and going solo.
You kind of fall into that territory of individuals who can kind of do it all. It’s a short list, and I think a sign of a different time.
Can you speak to this and how you’ve seen your inspirations change over the years?
Thanks! I think a lot of it is that there’s a much more straightforward career pathway for a young artist now. They learn their programs, techniques, get told what they can specialize in, and more or less how to do it. There’s thousands of Pinterest boards and Vimeo posts as examples to inspire and reassure them. And there’s absolutely nothing bad with that. We had to experiment and take risks with those paths and kind of figure it out on our own. Smaller markets (like Australia for me) had even less work back then, so you had to be adaptable to stay afloat. Maybe it’s natural that someone would end up with a little wider skillset through all that.
I think on all the experiences I had in ‘earlier lives’ – the comic books, art, industrial and architectural design stuff, and then visual effects, motion graphics and network branding – and they were all formative experiences for me. They were where I developed my craft and critical thinking skills and where I eventually started to develop my own voice.
That said, I probably spent most of my 20’s working to make up for it to eventually develop my own creative voice so I could start to stand out.
I used to have insecurities on how my career would have gone if I just focused on illustration and filmmaking from the very beginning instead. But I had the revelation a couple of years ago that most roads would have led me to this same position where I am at right now: with my directing work coming into focus and in the idea of getting a small studio up to speed eventually. I feel I’m in a much more capable and empowered state to do that now than if I had only specialized in the one thing. Or maybe that’s me being a pragmatist or too self-reliant about it 🙂.
My inspiration pools have definitely changed over the years, I guess kind of in line with what medium or idea I was experimenting with at the time. As I started to run more projects of my own, I got more interested in what a person did that conditioned their mind to generate a new creative idea, vs. how they specifically drew or animated something.
These days film, editorial illustration, semiotics, graphic art, and a few weird comic books are what drive me. I still try to be aware of the industry around me but If anything, I try for a clean slate to let my own voice keep developing. I’ve got a ways to go yet!
Switching gears a bit, I loved your recent piece for Shopify.
How did that come about and what kind of team were you working with?
Thanks! It was done over Feb-March ‘16 but only just posted recently. Shopify approached me and asked me if I’d be interested in making a 3-minute film for them. It was to be the hype piece for a conference, and the company’s broader anthem piece beyond that. The style and branding language would also establish the groundwork for their global brand moving forward. It also included some explainer style content – and it had to be inspiring – and shareable – and done in 3 and a half weeks! I encouraged them to focus the goals and built option bids out for them with different ways that the budget/time/scope could go towards making an inspiring video. I was a little relieved when they went with my recommend, and the whole Shopify team and design department responded really well with how it eventually turned out.
There was way too much to design on my own in the time I had, so I reached out to my friends and design heroes Stephen Kelleher here in NY and Raul Burgos in Chile. I was stoked to have them onboard to jam out with me.
The animation team on this project was set up in a unique way. Shopify is in Toronto and specifically asked me if it could work to get locally based Daniel Luna, (who brought in his own computer and has since gone on to do his own projects with them) to work from their offices. They had a small video marketing department, but they hadn’t done anything animated to this scale before so were keen on getting a front row seat to the production, so to speak. Daniel used to work at Tendril and is a great animator and super nice guy, so I was excited to have him onboard. He then recommended another awesome local animator Matt Greenwood as well, who was so easy going and lovely to work with too.
It was an interesting experience, directing a team that’s physically working in the client’s building. There’s always a chance that the client could pop by and be confused by something that was a WIP and I was concerned about preparing and managing their expectations alongside review presentations. Thankfully, healthy amounts of trust and respect from everyone made it all work out relatively smoothly.
Sounds design and music were from the *legendary* Jim Guthrie. I have his Swords and Sworcery EP on vinyl at home, and I’ve not fanboyed out like that in a very long time!. We were so thankful to have him for this and he, of course, knocked it out of the park and took direction in stride. Definitely looking forward to working with him again.
Logistically, I stayed in NY for the whole thing while I was waiting for a new passport. Everything was done via slack and video hangouts whenever I needed to catch up and share screen to give notes.
The use of texture, form, and minimalism is spot on.
Who “cracked the nut” on the look and what were your inspirations and goals for the piece?
Shopify had the early beginnings of an even more minimal schedule webpage for the conference that they would launch the video at. It was really just a flat light gray background with a dot bullet point list in gray, yellow, teal and pink but still, they wanted to allude to it. They also had a few hundred line art icons from their product that they asked me to try and use.
To start, they liked the pared down, big shaped/colorful work I had been doing. Given that the conference seemed like it was going to go minimal, it seemed like everything was working towards that same goal. The look had to function later in their branding too, so I was also trying to limit the style to something logistically economical to make as well.
Shopify wanted the spot to be warm and humanized so I felt texture could unobtrusively help give the minimal piece those qualities, as well as adding a hint of contrast and interest to the big shapes. I’ve been buying random patterned paper and wallpaper for years (don’t judge) and thought it would be perfect to use some of it for this.
We kicked it off with storyboard/boardomatic frames that I had to rush in a single night. Even though they were rough because of time restraints, layout wise it was pretty cool seeing how close we ended up to a lot of those with the big, minimal shapes and compositions I had drawn in. From there I split them up between Stephen, Raul and I to flesh out design frames with.
Stephen and I both loved this one piece of abstract art by Jared Bell so I thought he’d be great for the buildings and interface forms/hands (which of course he was!). I’m still so happy with how the interface forms turned out in particular since they’re so hard to design uniquely. We went through a few rounds of internal revisions and steered back a little to the original layouts to get them nailed, but they could have easily been too representational and boring, or confusing and abstract. We ended up reworking the dots entirely a couple of times too. They’re so commonly done, and I really wanted something bespoke but innocuous for them since they were a consistently present device. I was aiming for a graphic look that could work with both a big and expansive feeling or small and icon like one across the piece. I ended up redoing them (in tandem with the textures), as well as the cart scenes as the animation guys started going the following week.
Raul tended to the people and plants. We did a few rounds on the characters together to get the right balance and tone, but the plants were a hole in one. He’s seriously amazing and humble, and I love working with him when I can.
I did the spread of cat and cart scenes and then stepped back in to help guide, balance and finish the forms across the whole set before doing the coloring and texturing on everything. Later, Matt Greenwood patiently helped me with animation testing on the hundreds of cycling colors and textures. (no fancy plugins for this back then!) That finished the feel for the piece too.
We all three of us had different personal 2d styles, so stewarding them towards a single unique look and building on that was really important here. Collaborating and jamming out on each other’s frames like this is usually a walk through an ego minefield too. But when it clicks and works and there’s trust and respect between everyone it always ends up working out better than the sum of its parts.
One thing I have always respected about your work/career is your ability to seamlessly go from taking in-house bookings at studios to maintaining your personal practice.
Can you tell us how you juggle the two?
I admit it was tricky to get my head around it at the beginning. But I found that if I keep it organized and transparent (no fake 1st holds etc.) it’s something I don’t have to think very hard on.
Practically, it’s a calendar, a spreadsheet, time spent planning and a bunch of emailing. I sometimes do holds with studios that I’ve worked with before, specifically for pitches & projects that fit with my style and let me art direct, lead, or just want my illustration or design for a few days.. And if a directing project or pitch/bid comes along for me that’s worthwhile enough, then I can join the line and try and challenge for my time just like another studio would. It helps to separate yourself out like that and to treat it as an even field, and producers seem to appreciate that.
Out of principle I never try to get out of a booking that’s already been made to take something else that comes up. I’ve heard of it happening but it’s not cool. I also avoid double booking. Missing out on those jobs is a small price to pay for having trusting relationships with your fams.
What would you say your ratio of in-house to independent has been and how do you see that changing?
I want to preface this incredibly indulgent answer (that’s the equivalent of me describing how I fine tune my lottery winnings) by saying how thankful and grateful I am every day for having this position of privilege. I have a nice job drawing pictures and making cartoons, that somehow pays the bills too. It’s amazing; I really mean that. There’s a million harder jobs out there and a million harder hardships to have to deal with, and I check my head with it every single day.
So my first year was around 30% rep based directing, whereas this last year it was up over 80% independently. I think I’m at the point now where I can safely and thankfully be a bit less fear driven and more selective on the projects I take on, which might take that back down to around a conservative 50% or so this year. I’m keen on the idea of putting a lot of that time back into personal work to finish some films though.
It’s also gotten pretty clear that to grow past that, I’d really benefit from a support structure around me. Being a hands-on director is hard ass work and a whole year of solo stressing is daunting. So I’ve started talking to people recently about potential ways to join forces.
That might mean hiring a permanent producer and some art support help, and that’s definitely a possibility I’m looking at (holler at me producers 👋).
Another could be going in with a production co on a director roster and having their support. It’s been on the cards for years now with a few places, and maybe it might start to make sense to revisit again if the fit was right.
There are pros and cons to any situation but in your opinion, what’s the best and worst things about working in-house and independently?
+ Freelance lets me get exposure to big projects, teams, artists and budgets that I just wouldn’t have access to independently. It’s also a chance to make new friends and hang out with old ones that become extended family over time. The biggest bonus is when you work at a veritable unicorn farm. Everyone is amazing and committed you can learn and grow and be inspired by them no matter what your level. Other times it’s nice to be able to take creative risks that you’d otherwise be afraid to do on your own dime because the bigger studio is willing to back you on them. Freelancing also helps stay financially nimble if there’s enough demand for your work. Sometimes it’s just plain nice to let someone else do client management too.
– On the downside, the better the studio is, the less likely you’ll get called up for the best plays with all those unicorns around. You could also land a poorly organized producer, or have to lead a team that’s been scraped together thoughtlessly. But honestly, none of these are real problems, you just have to learn to work around your ego, take the initiative and try to lead by example. Freelancing IMHO is maybe the most comfortable position in this industry, with little risk and all the flexibility if you’re semi-talented, friendly and organized. Honestly, it’s a blessed gig.
+ Independent work/directing gives a fuller sense of ownership of the work, and there’s the long-term value that comes with that. I get to express my voice as a storyteller, visual artist and animator, make the calls I believe in and be able to develop and refine my team and client skills. Also, another bonus is that every once in a while when everything works out, it can bring in a sizeable enough profit that I can save to ‘spend’ on my own personal work too.
– The scariest risk for independent work for me was what I saw in a lot of great young directors (a number of them friends) going through and getting chewed out by the advertising conveyor belt. A lot of them ended up going back to freelance full time, go back to studio staff positions or be so jaded by the experience that they leave the industry altogether. Many of the ones that were making the most creative work weren’t very healthy financially too. Often times a young director is just trying to make as much as they would freelancing, but with all the responsibility of the project now on their shoulders too. On the other end, a lot of production companies don’t even tell their directors how much budget their project has – which confuses me to no end on how to know whether you’re doing it right. It can be hair graying stuff.
I think just looking at the lengths of those paragraphs makes it pretty obvious to see why I tried to leverage the best from both and try to avoid the bad…
Alright. now for a hard one, the term “director” can be fairly contentious. Can you tell us what directing means to you?
That’s honestly not so hard 🙂. To roughly paraphrase the traditional meaning that’s been taught in film schools for years and years – having (and selling) a strong vision for a project and the responsibility and ability to see that executed while keeping the team and a budget healthy.
In my day to day, that’s when I do direct client/agency work, or in-house creative direction, or even personal shorts where I might just be directing a sound designer.
On a lighter note, what is your ideal job/working scenario?
It sounds like a brattish letter to Santa, but:
I love: To be around clever and inspiring people that push me. Working with super clients that inspire me.
I’d love: To have an EP of sorts to be the extra brain and support I sometimes need for my independent work. To eventually lower the ratio of advertising work I do in a year. To raise the ratio of work that aligns with my views as well as my creative goals. To raise the ratio of directing work that I’d be happy to ultimately share on my site. Lastly, and most importantly – to be able to prioritize finishing off at least a couple of the dozen shorts that I’ve been kicking around for so long.
(Also please Santa – world peace and empathy. It’s very hard to focus right now)
Finally, what’s next?
Right now? Vacation for a week!
The folio’s finally up again too 😘 (cc Jordan, Joe, Daniel, Stephen, Mum!). It’s a soft launch, for now, some fresh projects still to come over the next month as they release.
I’ve also promised to share more work, more regularly. So taking the late late late plunge and going to be better at Instagramming bad drawings and animations for everyone.
Personally, I’m working on a series of micro-shorts that exist somewhere between film and editorial illustration as a way for me to vent my views through. I’ve got around six done so far and really enjoying the process. I’ll be trying to release them semi-regularly.
Business wise, I think I’m at the point where I’ll soon need a hand to grow so am slowly starting to meet producer/production/agency folks again to see where that could lead too.
Also, excited to say that after working from our home offices for forever, my unicorn homie Saiman Chow (who I’m in absolute creative awe of), and I just put a deposit on an amazing studio and art space to house our practices. Let’s see what else that can bring in the mid term. Fingers crossed, watch this space!
Thanks for inviting me to navel-gaze for a while Joe! Deepest apologies to everyone else.✌