Jerry Liu: A motion designer’s motion designer

To this day, motion design is still a hard-to-define medium and raises a lot of eyebrows to the uninitiated.

Part of the reason is the simple fact that motion design lives at the crossroads of many different disciplines; it can be anything and is extremely malleable. While there are certainly aesthetics and styles that were born within this medium, motion design itself is a mixed medium which is constantly pulling inspiration from different artists, movements, styles, industries, and techniques. In a lot of ways, we pull from the old, put our unique spin on it, and make it something new.

Every day, we’re inundated with great work from this community and from those working in the motion design industry. More often than not though, when you look closely at a lot of this work, it’s hard to assign a label and figure out where it lives. Is it motion design or simply a beautiful example of narrative animation, or is it character animation? Is it editorial or does it live on the other end of the spectrum and blur the lines between filmmaking and VFX? Defining what makes something a piece of “motion design” and labeling it as such can create just as many questions as it does answers.

All that is to say, none of this is the case with when looking at Jerry Liu’s work. Jerry’s new film “What is a Blockchain Game?” has a little bit of everything in it from data visualization, 2.5/3D, minimal design and typography, slick transitions, character animation, hints of compositing/VFX trickery, and is all packaged in a self-contained and informative mold. To put it simply, it’s motion design at its core!

The following is a Q&A with Jerry himself where we talk about his new film and the age-old question: what is motion design anyway?!


First, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your career in motion design?

I’m a child of the 80’s (well technically 79), born and raised in the DC Metropolitan Area, USA. I was all about video games and Van Damme.

In 2001, I moved to New York to study graphic design at the School of Visual Arts. My 3rd year in, I discovered the exciting world of motion graphics. I then proceeded to lock myself in my room with my Power Mac G4 and trusty After Effects 5 Bible – and for the next two years, Mary Jane and I put in work!

After graduating and dipping my toes into the freelance pool for a few months, I took a staff gig at Comedy Central as a broadcast designer. That was for about a year and a half. Then I spent the next five years freelancing at various shops such as Eyeball, Psyop, Brand New School, Freestyle Collective, Hornet, Hush and Gretel. Highlights included playing poker with Darren Aronofsky at a monthly “industry” game and enjoying chorizo sandwiches from Despana.

In 2009, I returned home to Maryland and spent about a year and a half as Art Director at Discovery Creative, working with all networks under the Discovery Channel umbrella.

In 2011, I decided to get incorporated and have been doing my own thing ever since. I am now a lucky husband to my lovely wife Angela, and proud father to two wonderful little girls Riley and Allie.
I operate as a hybrid small studio and freelancer; and handle direct-to-client projects as well as collaborate with friends, creative studios and ad agencies as an art-director, designer/illustrator and animator.

You’ve been in the game for some time now. How have you seen things change this past decade?

Wow, thinking in terms of a decade sure makes me feel old haha.

Online Resources and Community:

One significant difference between now and 10 years ago is the amount of online resources we have. Sidenote: Speaking of resources, congrats on Holdframe’s first anniversary! Back then, if I had an animation problem to solve, I would have to ask my workmates or hit up the usual suspects on AIM, hop on Creative Cow, open some books, do in-depth internet research… and often times I would have to spend hours, sometimes days trying to figure it out myself.

Nowadays I can just “ask Google” how to do something and a plethora of options pops up in seconds. I can hop on Twitter to ask for AE expression help and within minutes, generous gurus like Adam Plouff and Kyle Martinez will come to the rescue – thus illustrating another significant change I’ve noticed: community. There seems to be a much stronger sense of community among artists these days. People seem to really enjoy sharing their knowledge and I think it’s great for the industry.

Despite being someone who works alone from my home office day in and day out, I still feel somewhat connected to my peers.

Social Media:

Social media is on steroids now compared to 10 years ago. The dailies, chasing likes, soliciting followers, mob mentality, spammers, the ridiculous amounts of hashtags (I’m guilty of this one, oops)… it’s totally bonkers now. Sadly a lot of artists these days feel pressure to constantly post work in order to stay relevant. I’ll admit, I’ve felt this way at times too. In a way, social media has become a pseudo portfolio (for better or worse). I try my best not to get sidetracked with it. I have come to realize that I should prioritize my energy on cultivating my craft – and then sharing work on social media as an afterthought.

Work-Life Balance:

I think naturally, as the industry grew older, we all grew older. We have learned that 10+ hour days are not sustainable. Health and work-life balance have become a priority across the board. I have witnessed friends and colleagues I admire transition into parenthood (and all the demands that come with it) while still producing killer work and maintaining 8-hour days. Being a parent myself, it is extremely encouraging to see more employers respect the 8-hour workday and fellow artists enforcing it.

Clients:

Clients are expecting more for less. Just going to leave this one here.

On a similar note, do you have any predictions of where things are headed?

Online courses may replace the ridiculously expensive alternative of registering at a brick-and-mortar art school – at least for motion graphics. I have to say it: nothing could replace my experience at SVA. But if I had the online resources 15 years ago that are available to everyone now? I’m not all that sure I would have made the same move.

I hope that more artists will continue to enforce reasonable work hours. We all grow older and the constant hustle and bustle just isn’t sustainable. From what I hear, it’s already happening as larger companies (such as Google or Facebook – any company that employs creatives) encourage a healthy work-life balance. So I optimistically feel this will change as people mature and priorities shift.

Clients (not all) will continue to expect more for less.

Other future shifts that come to mind in no particular order? Social media is going to be absolutely out of control. We are entering a golden age for documentaries, which is pretty awesome in my opinion. I sense an exciting future for user experience design and new degrees of interactivity. The creative industry may not be safe from automation; robots are going to take over the world.

One of the aspects that I love about your new film is that at its core, it’s truly an example of motion design. It sounds silly since there is so much grey area in what motion design is, and the fact that it can be anything. More often than not though, so much of the work we see under the umbrella of “motion design” actually leans more heavily on narrative character animation, or VFX, etc. This piece, however, is “motion design” at its core. Can you tell us about how you decided on the direction you took and what influenced and inspired the film?

Following the phenomenal surge of cryptocurrency craze and acute public awareness of “the blockchain”, in early 2018, I was intrigued and felt compelled to create something motivated by recent events pertaining to this emerging technology. Coincidentally, my wife and I also welcomed our second child into the world that May. Inspired by our two young daughters, I aspired to create something fun yet informative about their future. Combined with my passion for video games, and the desire to make something my kids could eventually enjoy, I conceived this film.

Blockchain technology is still in its infancy, but may very well be at the forefront of the future of gaming.

I sought to parallel this statement by paying homage to both classic and current video games, taking inspiration from old and new, retro and revolutionary, 8-bit and 128-bit – and of course (in the spirit of video game culture) I had to throw in a handful of Easter eggs and subtle nods!

Some driving forces behind my research/development and visual references for the film were:

• old school DOS games
• coding theory
• cryptography
• my travels to and infatuation with Japan and Tokyo in particular – the circuitry of the city, signage, arcades, insane store fronts, off-the-wall vending machines
• cats
• blockchain technology and blockchain operated games
• video games!

On a similar grey area note, there is a lot of contention on what constitutes a “short film”. For instance, can a music video or a visual essay be labeled as a “short film” or is that designation reserved for the more narrative structured pieces akin to what we see coming out of Gobelins and what not? It can be a hard distinction to make! Your film has a VO and a more explanatory and practical voice. But, it also isn’t serving a client and comes purely from you. So, what the hell is it, and where do you see work like this living in the spectrum of motion design?

Truth be told, I don’t know if I would really consider this a short film. It’s essentially just a glorified explainer video. But I sort of hate the term “explainer video” so I decided to brand this as more of a “commentary” or mini-documentary. It has a nicer ring to it =)

Full disclosure: In the beginning, I simply wanted to make something cool looking that showcased what I like to do and what I believe I’m good at. I love character animation, wacky GUI/HUD/FUI design, and just getting lost in the details.

My availability was/is incredibly limited, so I figured I would do a passion project that killed as many birds as possible in order to be most efficient with the commodity called time. I decided to make something that would satisfy my creative need to make something nutty – but that might also demonstrate a bit of graphic design, character animation, FUI design, tell a story but also explain and inform. Overall, I wanted to combine my older more seasoned motion design sensibilities with my newer flavors in an attempt to exhibit a style I could sell as my own.

This may be obvious given your role in Back to Bits, the style, and what you’ve mentioned already, but can you tell us a bit more about how video games have influenced your work?

I’ve played video games pretty much my entire life. These days, I unfortunately don’t have time to play anymore, but I still experience them vicariously through release trailers and gameplay videos. I absolutely adore video game concept art and follow loads of artists who work in the gaming industry. I own tons of game art books. I also follow indie game developers and enjoy watching their progress – again just living vicariously through them haha.

It’s always been a dream of mine to develop my own game, but I’ve come to realize the part I’d most enjoy would be designing and animating the graphics – so why not just divert that energy and passion into my work?

I have also always loved video game UI. I relish in the little details of the start screens, player select menus, pop-up menus, health bars, item shops… all that stuff. It has always fascinated me, ever since I was a kid. Even map design in video games excite me. I remember as a kid taking great pleasure in drawing Legend of Zelda maps on graph paper to document the dungeons I’ve explored.

For the past few years, I’ve been getting into more character animation. At first, I made the mistake of over-animating and making everything so unnecessarily bouncy and smooth. Not that there is anything wrong with bouncy and smooth, but I felt like my characters were looking a bit too After Effects generated. I decided to take a closer look at video game character animation – more specifically 2D – and study what made them so snappy and full of character (for lack of a better word).

Amid my research I came across this amazing talk by animator Mariel Cartwright and often refer back to this video and its principles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mw0h9WmBlsw

Some character animation from the film:

Finally, what’s next on the horizon for you?

I’m actually wrapping up a few projects in the next two weeks, so as far as the immediate future goes, I’m taking a break from work.

Moving forward, I’m going to try and craft ways to simplify my life, slow down, and spend more time away from the computer… whether if it’s striving for better work-life balance as an entrepreneur, or considering a steady staff gig so I don’t have to deal with the logistics of running a business anymore. I do however hope to do more work in the same vein of this film. I mean, that was a big reason for making it. Work begets work, right?

I would love to get more into title sequences – and even better yet, title sequences for games! I would also love to get involved in more documentaries, character development or concept art. There is actually too much I’m interested in to list it all out.

I’ve recently done a little housecleaning of my website to help market myself and attract more of the work I enjoy doing. I removed a bunch of stuff but kept some of the ‘oldies but goodies’. Pretty much everything on my site now is in line with what I like to do.

As for my next passion project – in the spirit of simplifying and balancing my life – I’ll probably look to collaborate more. Perhaps co-direct something. Associate with other creative’s projects. I’ll probably also take a less practical route and shoot for something a bit more off-the-wall.

I had such a wonderful experience teaming up with Yuta Endo (for sound design) and Matthew Curtis (for voiceover). Also a special thanks to Ross Plaskow for lending me his voice for the initial scratch track of this film. In retrospect, I was a bit ambitious with this project taking on all the design and animation myself, hence the year timeline. Lesson learned.

Thanks so much for inviting me to share my thoughts!

About the author

Joe Donaldson

/ www.joedonaldson.tv
Joe Donaldson is a director, designer, and animator who worked on Motionograpgher from 2014-2020. Previously, he was an art director at Buck. Over the past decade, he's lived and worked in Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles and has directed work for clients such as Apple, Google, Instagram, The New York Times, Unicef, Etsy, and The New Yorker. In addition to his creative work, in 2018 he started Holdframe. He's now working as a professor at Ringling College of Art and Design and when not teaching he can be found spending time with his family or out running.

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