Editor’s note: In this month’s Guest Post we have an article by none other than Stephen Kelleher. For the past decade, Stephen has been a fixture in the New York City scene and our industry as a whole. Having worked for just about every client and studio under the sun, you can see his influence everywhere. As our needs and priorities change, so too does our path through this ever-evolving industry. What was once ideal in your 20’s might not be the same when you’re in your 30’s. In this article, Stephen takes a look back at the past decade, how things have changed, and where he is headed.
I / You / We
My story to date is similar to that of many working professionals; one of ambition, sacrifice, achievement, perspective, and reassessment. My professional journey has developed in tandem with the motion design industry itself; I have benefitted from its growth and been affected by its changing demands. Currently, my life and career are in flux and I’ve found myself looking back to possibly find a way forward. I hope by illuminating my own path you might find something of value.
Coming from a small city like Dublin with its relatively small design community, I always knew moving to a larger city was on the horizon. In fact, it was something I relished. I studied visual communication and upon graduation was fortunate enough to be offered a position in the city’s leading post-production studio. But only 2 short years later, I felt I had reached a creative and monetary ceiling. It was 2005 and motion design was in its exciting adolescent heyday with studios like Psyop, Brand New School, and Shilo mapping out new territory in the world of ‘motion graphics’ and I wanted in! I cut a reel and reached out to my favorite US-based studios hoping to catch their eye.
I was 25 and my priorities were:
- development as a designer
- career opportunity in a larger market
- to travel, broaden my horizons and grow as a person
The most promising offer came from a new upstart based out of Los Angeles who were making waves with their high-quality, fun and design-driven work; they were called Buck. After several months of visa wrangling, I found myself sitting on a plane with a one-way ticket to sunny LA. Not knowing anyone or having ever been there before, I had high hopes, open eyes and a gut full of nerves.
I was welcomed to Los Angeles by a friendly team of dynamic minds who were only limited by the scope of their imagination. To say I felt intimidated was an understatement – sitting amongst the insanely talented Thomas Schmid, Yker Moreno, and Bradley GMUNK Munkowitz to name a few, I felt like an imposter. I still remember my head swimming from that first day at Buck HQ, going home and calling my then girlfriend long distance feeling so out of my depth – maybe they mistook me for someone else while reviewing reels?! But this is what I asked for and I was going to throw myself into my work, learn all that I could, and take advantage of this amazing opportunity. The next year was one long steep learning curve which gave me what I now realize was an invaluable high-water mark in terms of quality, innovation and a working environment. Los Angeles, however, was not for me. After giving it a full year I could honestly say that I never fully acclimated to the city, its expanse, weather or people – in hindsight the culture shock of the sun-drenched west coast was simply too overwhelming for a Dublin boy like me. I was ready to leave and although I didn’t know where I should be, I knew LA was not it. Leaving LA also meant leaving Buck and my visa to work in the US. Many non-native professionals seeking to switch jobs face this added consequence of extradition, making such a decision extremely difficult. But after a full year of contemplation and with a heavy heart, I said goodbye to my new found friends and boarded a plane back to Ireland.
Ready, Set, Stop
After only a few months back in Dublin I was itching to return to the US; my appetite had been whetted by the Great American Experiment and like many generations before me, I knew I could have a better life there with greater opportunity for growth and adventure. It was 2007 and at this time there were only a few real options for people looking to sharpen their skills and earn a living in the motion design game; economic hubs like London, Los Angeles, and New York. My preference was immediate and I took the first AD position I was offered, earning more money than I could have dreamed possible and in my dream city: NY-motherfucking-C! But only a few months in, new issues arose. Whereas before I had the right job in the wrong city, this time I had the opposite – a stress-filled and unfulfilling role in a city I was in love with. Art Directing for the first time meant a role shift; long meetings with clients and even longer hours overseeing teams of animators and taking on more responsibility than I ever truly wanted. It was a sobering moment to realize despite the perceived steps of progression in the industry from junior designer to senior, AD to CD – I really felt most at home hands-on, crafting the visuals myself; being a designer.
And so I left my full-time position and with only a three-month window to secure a new visa, I took the plunge into the freelance world at the beginning of 2008. This meant starting a company on paper, writing a business plan and lengthy legal expenditures to ensure my new-found freelance status was above-board and in accordance with the law. Once I had my new visa secured I thoroughly enjoyed experiencing the new studio structures, being a one-man business, all while developing my craft and partying hard in this exciting metropolis. I was completely absorbed by the new and constant challenges that living in such a competitive city can pose. People often say that time passes quicker in NYC and my experience was no different – the next two years were a blur of endless style frames, back-to-back bookings, and regrettable hangovers. The Lennon quote ‘Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans’ also rang true when at the end of 2009 I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. It seemed that life was forcing me to hit the pause button.
The Larger Picture
The tidal wave of emotions, fears and the clarity that comes with a cancer diagnosis washed over me during the 6 months of treatment I received back in Ireland. And although there’s nowhere I would have rather been during this period I felt prematurely robbed of my life in NYC where I had a career I loved and felt in total control. Lying in a cancer ward far from my former busy routine and professional concerns, I had a lot of time to think. I knew my time in New York wasn’t over yet and I made a promise to myself to get healthy and reclaim the life I felt had been stolen from me.
In April 2010, having been given the green light by my doctors I once again left my home city for the US, excited to be alive but somewhat rattled by a terrifying encounter with my own mortality. At the time I thought I could just plug back into the all-consuming machine of New York commercial art but in truth, I couldn’t shake the transformative new perspective that cancer had bestowed upon me. The formerly weighty issues of stylistic development or professional achievement seemed unimportant and even trite to me now. I found it difficult to relate to industry friends who were absorbed in their careers and the minutiae of the motion design world. They were merely reflections of me less than a year previously but the disconnect between us and between the motion design world and I began to grow.
I was 30 and my priorities were:
- staying healthy
- enjoying my life away from the computer/autonomy
- making work that I found personally rewarding
Thankfully my former years of toil had laid the groundwork for a stream of constant freelance work which I was grateful for. Before cancer, my reason to be in New York was for work but now I used work as a means to enjoy my life in New York. Taking on the bare minimum of freelance work to cover rent/food and eschewing a monitor tan for a real one, I began cycling a lot, working out every day and prioritized a personal life in a way which I had never truly done before. This readjustment was just what I needed and as my physical and mental health blossomed anew, so did my visual output – it became more personal, more honest and concerned with the existential issues I had been left mulling over as a cancer survivor.
Over the following years, I came to a place of comfort with my non-committal role as a freelancer. It has been a fine line I’ve spent much of the last 7 years riding; appreciative of the work that comes my way, always endeavoring to elevate a job where possible whilst seeing my work in a holistic way; as an essential but singular piece in the larger mosaic of my life.
All Things Considered
2017 marked a personal milestone and cause to take stock; 10 years living in NYC, working at an epicenter of motion design with some of the most notable studios and individuals in the field. After a decade in New York, I began to reflect on what it had afforded me and at what cost. A few things were immediately clear; in these last 10 years this industry has changed a lot – budgets and project timelines have been slashed, there are more people pitching for fewer well-paying jobs and many of the biggest studios from 2007 no longer even exist. In this fast-paced industry driven by trends and technology, it’s only constants are: change and the sacrifices demanded from its practitioners. As someone who has increasingly sought a more holistic work/life balance, this assessment was disconcerting and gave me cause to question whether I wanted to stay in a work-centric city like NYC or the mercurial field of motion design itself. I had achieved what 25 and 30-year-old me wanted – so what about now?
I am 37 and my priorities are:
- working in a way that is both financially viable and conducive to a balanced life
- being closer to family
- achieving a sustainable career
With these new priorities laid bare it became obvious that something had to change. After investing much of my adult life and career in a city with an undoubtedly expensive future and on a treadmill showing no signs of slowing down, is it time to leave NYC for a city that could be more conducive to my newly realized life goals? Do I have the energy to start from scratch in a new city? Should I change lanes from specializing in motion design for the wider design field? Should I move closer to the family who I rarely see and with whom my time is growing short?
Making Moves / Motion Making
Looking back on these last 10 years in NYC from an enthusiastic transplant to a subway-hardened vet, I can appreciate how much I have gained. But a tipping point has been reached and I’m hoping to take all I have learned with me and apply it in a new time and place. I’m trying to hedge my bets on a city where I can envision have a better quality of life, perhaps even be able to afford property one day and establish a reasonable working life that has a strong potential for longevity. In this regard motion design seems to hold some promise and a few things seem obvious in the immediate future:
- screen real estate will only continue to grow
- it’s a safe bet that anything that can move probably will
- advances in connectivity means the possibility to work remotely will increase
- problem-solving and visual communication will continue to be fundamental to commerce
It’s also worth remembering how young this industry is. This becomes especially apparent when looking for examples to follow as we get older. As someone who has always been more interested in the problem-solving than the storytelling, I look to the famed graphic design practitioners who were still pushing the lead in their 80’s as something to aspire to – will our Wacom pens still be handheld in 40 years I wonder? I plan to stick around to find out.
I’m currently exploring European options and am writing this from Berlin. I’m doing what has worked for me in the past; taking time out from the fast-paced world of motion design to ask the important questions. I’m testing new waters. I’m listening to my intuition. Standing at the crossroads and on the cusp of a new adventure, I feel thankful for an industry which has afforded me the opportunity for such introspection, creative expression, and a decent living. These kind of decisions we all make are a confluence of lived experience, opportunity and trade-offs for a preferred future. As this industry continues to change, we change along with it – each of us making judgment calls and tough decisions to better not only our own lives but hopefully the state of the profession itself, allowing for life to happen in-between the keyframes.