Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

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.


 

Photo: Richard Gilligan

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.

Mountain Climbing

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.

LA Daze

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.

Parting Words

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.

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  • rguerra

    I really enjoyed the article. Thanks Stephen for sharing your story.

    • Stephen Kelleher

      I’m glad you enjoyed my journey thus far – all praise to Joe Donaldson for the invitation to write this! :)

  • Brian Gossett

    Must read content right here! Love you brother from another mother.

    • Stephen Kelleher

      (づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ

  • André

    Great article! How come no one made a podcast episode with him? Should be awesome.

    • Stephen Kelleher

      I’m available! ;)

      • Brian Gossett

        I asked, Stephen and I just need a big hug and kiss. Maybe when I get Motion Sickness back up and running he and I can get it all out on the table!

        • André

          That would be great. Motion Sickness was awesome, can’t wait for the big comeback!

  • Harrison

    Enjoyed the article. One of the biggest challenges is spending time with my family / trying to live in the same city as my fiancé.

    • Stephen Kelleher

      These are the tough decisions which will lead us down definite paths – I do believe the cliche of ‘following your heart’ whether that be an unfulfilled potential in your career or a loved one is never a regret in hindsight :)

  • Stephen Kelleher

    Thanks for saying this WO – I can tell you from the mails I’ve received so far that this questioning and reassessment is very much a shared experience – you are not alone! A successful personal life is very often the key to a thriving professional one, this truly is an under-appreciated fact – great point.

  • Stephen Kelleher

    It’s an exciting puzzle to solve! Thanks for replying!

  • Stephen Kelleher

    Thanks Jay! ᕕ( ᐛ )ᕗ

  • Stephen Kelleher

    My brother – you were there for me at my lowest point, I’ll never forget ♡

  • Stephen Kelleher

    No – thank you! (•◡•) /

  • Thank you for your thoughts, Stephen!
    Health is very important topic, especially for freelancers with unlimited (at first glance) working time.

    • Stephen Kelleher

      Yes – it’s not realistic to think we will never have health issues and cruise into our retirement age unscathed. It’s something which will affect us all and our perspectives on what we do for a living. It’s been great to hear so many stories from people with similar experiences after going through a health crisis. Thanks for your feedback.

  • Cyril Izarn

    Thanks for this post Stephen! We are the same age and same type of questions (work/life balance) really interesting to get your feedback. Anyway, love your work :)

    • Stephen Kelleher

      Thanks Cyril – glad this rang some bells for you!

  • Cari Chadwick

    Thank you for sharing Stephen. Love your perspective.

    • Stephen Kelleher

      ♥♥♥ appreciate it Cari thanks ♥♥♥

  • Michael Lampe

    Great read buddy! Say hi to Conrad and Helen for me!

    • Stephen Kelleher

      I will if you give Gareth a firm handshake – thx!

  • Borja Holke

    I love your work Stephen and reading this was very inspiring. I hope that you stay healthy to produce some meaningful work. It will be pretty, that’s for sure! Cheers!

    • Stephen Kelleher

      (ノ◕ヮ◕)ノ*:・゚✧ thanks for the positive words Borja!

  • Bee Grandinetti

    Precious reading, Stephen!
    Thank you so much for sharing all of these :)

    • Stephen Kelleher

      Thanks Bee! I try to remind myself that the American / European workforce has long been compiled of non-native folks wrangling these issues seeking a better life and managing a balancing act like this. It would be great to hear others’ stories too.

  • Thank you for the article Stephen!
    I am currently going through the 1st phase and what you shared gave me some useful tips and expectation for the future. Excited to see what are inspiring work you will make on your future journey and hope you stay in good health!

    • Stephen Kelleher

      Hey Ke – thanks for the positive vibes. The ‘1st phase’ is exciting – enjoy!
      :)

  • BalLonzo

    Good article.

    I am a bit older than Stephen. 48. I came to the USA in 94 and my motion graphics in its infancy. My first job in Venice, CA. Now many years later freelancing for many years, I fell the burden of huge competition and smaller budgets. MG is mainstream. Back in the early 2000’s, I could make an excellent living; now it is hard due the above. While the technology opened up a lot of creative ways to express, it also allowed tons of new people into the industry driving lower rates.

    I love designing, but I have to say I wonder how long I will stay in the game. Either, I will start my company or at some point just leave the business altogether.

  • Colin Trenter

    Deep questions and a great perspective Stephen.

    • Stephen Kelleher

      Thanks CT! (▰˘◡˘▰)

  • TRAN LA

    As a motion designer in my mid-30’s I can really identify with this. It seems that there are just as many question on future/ career now as there was in my 20’s. I have feeling that design folks’ introspective nature is a lifelong affliction.

    • Stephen Kelleher

      Ah yes, perhaps we are more predisposed to introspective assessment having to constantly compare and contrast for a living. Perhaps it never gets easier, you just get better :)

  • JL

    Thank you for sharing your story. I am 37 and can say without a doubt my priorities like yours have changed. My personal life/health and time away from work are more important to me now than when I first started out in the industry. The question of weather one location is viable enough to support myself over another is one I think about a lot too. Often times lately that question for me also comes with “is it a naturally beautiful place to live in?”, “how hard would it be for me to visit my family from there?”, and “will I still have to listen to a neighbor’s kids bang on bongos on Sunday morning?”. Hopefully companies won’t reverse the trend of being able to telecommute from wherever we want to be. I would also just like to add that Europe seems to have a wonderful work/life balance in some towns! Berlin is a heck of a lot cheaper than New York too.

    • DookieMonster

      Same here. I never wanted to live in one place for my whole life, but felt tethered to NYC for work. I love NYC, but after 10 plus years there, I was ready for a change. I kept an eye on where other designers were hailing from and was happy to see Motionographer feature animators in Rochester, Nashville, Madison, Columbus – all over. So I felt confident I could move to some place with a beach without sacrificing clients (many didn’t even know I was in NYC anyways). I also never wanted the responsibility of “Creative Director” – like teachers becoming principals and miss being in the classroom with their students, I would miss creating. Not sure what that means for me 15 years from now, but no one really ever has job security so why worry about it now?

      I love these conversations Motionographer has opened up, it’s something every designer thinks about (what if I run out of creative gas when I’m 50?!) but doesn’t really want to talk about.

      • Stephen Kelleher

        Amen. I’m glad you found a way forward and had the courage to follow that path. Fear can paralyze so many of us from becoming happier people. How wrong can you go if you ‘follow your heart’ with your eyes fully open to what you’re gaining and losing. And yes – shout out to Motionographer for giving me this platform to bring these issues up :)

    • Stephen Kelleher

      Yes, it’s been refreshing for me to see how other cultures and cities have agreed that a work-centric life is not a healthy, reasonable or smart way to spend your brief time on this planet. And perhaps it might also afford you time to see your family more often, turn off your computer at a reasonable hour and even (shockingly) facilitate you owning property one day without being a millionaire. Although these things have long been true about big cities all over the world, I guess it would be nice to think that in 2017 agencies and studios understand that you don’t have to live in a sprawling metropolis to create world class work.

  • Jaime Vazquez

    Awesome article! So much to relate with. Thank you a billion times!

    • Stephen Kelleher

      Glad you got something positive from this :)

  • Excellent insight Stephen!

    • Stephen Kelleher

      Thanks Eoin!

  • Mark Cernosia

    Great article Stephen, thank you for sharing. I’m 36 and going through similar things in regards to work/life balance. I work full-time now but want to make the jump to freelance, so I’ve been doing my freelancing after my kids bedtime / dinner with wife. I don’t live in a big city and always have thoughts of working in NYC or LA, but love where I live and hope I can work remotely. Lots of your thoughts hit home, so thank you again for taking the time to write this. Much love!

    • Stephen Kelleher

      Thanks for your feedback Mark. I guess it’s worth reminding myself reading a lot of the emails and DM’s I’ve received from writing this article that the struggle is universal and perhaps the grass always is greener on the other side. Also, that for everything you gain you gotta give something up. Time is short and if nothing else, assessing your priorities and checking the oil every now and then is a worthwhile thing :) Here’s to a possible future of remote work!

  • morgancjames

    Yea Buddy. Irish, I love reading the story. Glad all is well and you are still creating.

  • Caoilte Cahill

    Great article man! Good to see a fellow Dublin lad make it in the big bad world. What are your thoughts on the industry in Ireland at the moment?

    • Stephen Kelleher

      Hey Caoilte, I wish I could express an opinion but it’s been almost 13 years since I’ve worked on home soil. Hopefully it’s better!