In 2011, Daniel Coutinho left his family, his home and his girlfriend in pursuit of a dream.
Now, as a staff animator at Buck — one of the most admirmed studios in motion design — Daniel looks back on his journey from the small town of Batatais, Brazil to the superhighways of Los Angeles. While the details are specific to him, the lessons he learned are universal.
Discovering motion design
Did you know when you were in school that you wanted to do motion design? Or did you discover that path later?
I didn’t know at all and I actually went through a long period— roughly the first 3 years—of uncertainty and even frustration. Then, out of the blue, someone showed me some 320×240 QuickTime movies from MK12 and Psyop. That was a turning point!
I know for a fact that this resonates with a whole generation of artists, so we can never stress enough how important these studios were and still are for our industry.
When was that?
It was around 2004. Soon, I was devouring an instructional book on Adobe After Effects 6.5 and my path started to clear up.
Through the first 5 years of my career I was a broadcast designer. Working at a TV station—specially on the news programs. It’s great training for an animator, in my opinion. Yes, it is a repetitive (sometimes tedious) job, but you’re learning how to follow visual guidelines, meet tight deadlines, share files with other artists, deal with journalists and other types of professionals.
Most of all, you’re learning to improvise, to deliver even when the news break at the last minute and everyone’s stressed out around you. I learned a lot about the RGB world and drastically improved my AE skills during that time. Every day I would check Motionographer, Creative Cow and Video Copilot to see what was going on in the industry and to learn new AE tricks.
Deciding to come to the States must have been a big decision for you. Why did you make the leap?
The mid-2000’s were a fascinating time for motion graphics. New techniques would come up frequently. Each spot would look very unique. The internet was growing — even Vimeo was coming up still!
Buck, Eyeball, Belief, StarDust, Superfad and many other studios were all delivering incredible spots by the minute, and we all wanted to know how they did those things. Those conversations were so commonplace that at some point I got attracted to the idea of finding out for myself.
In 2007, I took a few classes on motion graphics that also showed me that there was more to it than broadcast design alone. The instructor at the time was getting ready to move to the States himself, which further added to my curiosity. (Quick footnote: 9 years later, Marcel Ziul is still a great friend —a big-hearted, super talented director that inspires, motivates, teaches and helps others— me included.)
Was there a specific moment that you feel pushed you to the US?
Attending Motion (the motion graphics conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico) in 2009 was a pivotal moment for my US career. I went by myself, met great artists — among them Michael and Erik from nailgun*, with whom I kept in touch and ended up working with remotely a year later.
We did Spike TV’s “Playbook” show open and graphics package, a project that I still hold dear, since it was an unmatched challenge but also eventually opened a major door for me.
Things like styleframes, boards, the workflow of a US studio — even Cinema 4D — were all new to me. I learned it all on the go, Skyping with Michael and working on my time-off. I definitely bit off more than I could chew (not sure if they knew it then), but it turned out alright, and I’m thankful that they took the risk to give me this opportunity.
Did that project lead to more work for you?
After deciding to move, I put a reel together, came up with a list of favorite studios and started sending out emails asking for opportunities. I got almost no responses, and the ones I got were negative, which made me realize I had to come up with a different strategy.
Time for a different strategy
I found out about this Design program at UCLA Extension, and what lured me to it was that by the end of the program you could take the OPT (Optional Practical Training), a 1-year work permit for international students to put in practice what they had learned in class.
So there you go, I’d be a freelancer living next door to those companies — on top of that, I’d have my fundamentals brushed up in class. For that to happen, I had to save money (it’s not an inexpensive program to attend), so I readily renounced many things in terms of lifestyle and social life, always keeping my big objective in mind.
If you set a tough goal like this for yourself, you have to be ready to give up on certain things. Not that I regret it really, but often recalling the apartment I rented and the buses I took to work during that period I feel a bit sad for my past self… maybe I was a bit too extreme with that attitude.
Anyway, I kept sending emails to studios — and this persistence is something I hope works as motivation to anyone interested — but now I was going to make myself more easily available once I moved.
What was the hardest thing about leaving Brazil?
First, being apart from the people. My entire family still lives in Brazil, and when I first moved my girlfriend at the time couldn’t come with me, so that was hard.
On a positive note, the support I got from loved ones was something really inexpressible. Plus, even though it was a big decision, I didn’t make it without help. I was blessed to meet mindful folks along the way, without whom this wouldn’t have happened.
The second hardest thing was that I had a stable full-time job and a good career already established. Leaving meant giving up those five years and starting anew.
When you started school at UCLA Extension in 2011, did you think you would stay in the States?
I knew that I would make use of the OPT, so my goal was to improve my design skills in that one-and-a-half year of school and then freelance in as many places as possible within the following one-year period that the visa allowed.
I wanted to absorb everything: how these artist talked, their workflow, their references, inspiration, concepts, ideas — even the physical structure of the studios, the technical stuff. I was curious about everything!
What was gonna happen after the one-year period was unclear to me, but I had in my mind that the experience would pay off regardless of the outcome: if I went back to Brazil, I would definitely be more mature and knowledgeable.
Carving a path to Buck
You freelanced at some amazing places before landing your job at Buck. What was your first freelance gig? How did you get it?
My first freelance gig was at Blur. One thing I learned from my experience there: most of the people in this industry are really nice, and that’s absolutely the case at Blur.
Blur was one of the places that received emails from me often, so at some point they gave in. I remember them mentioning the project I did with nailgun* — sometimes it takes just one step to get your foot in the door. I worked with the motion graphics team on awards and TV shows openings. I really respect the environment and friends I made there.
Coming from abroad, there’s always the concern that your peers or directors you meet will be secluded, competitive, even unfriendly. I’ve only encountered the opposite from that everywhere I’ve been.
How did you end up at Buck?
Again, they were in my email list. Honestly, they were among my favorites.
I was freelancing at Imaginary Forces when Buck answered one of my emails. It is definitely helpful to have good recommendations in this industry, but that’s not always possible if you’re a beginner or a foreigner like me. I was lucky they called me despite not knowing who I was.
The way I see it, when a producer contacts you, first and foremost they’re looking for help to crack their challenges. I believe what I had to offer wasn’t an outstanding talent, but commitment and responsibility. They called a few times for freelance gigs, and I consistently showed up ready to help. So after a while, I expressed my desire to stick around, and they offered me a position.
That’s interesting. I definitely think people overestimate talent when it comes to being a successful freelancer.
I’ve seen extremely talented artists get booked and not really engage on solving the task at hand, or perhaps not work well in a team. When you’re committed, your peers and directors will gladly help you refine your work, if needed; but if you’re overconfident, you may not be the hand the team needs to solve their problem.
What I can say about Buck is that the artists and staff are certainly the heart of the studio: the top-notch work comes naturally as a byproduct. Friendly, fun, cooperative, hard-working people truly seems to be the recipe here, and I’m proud to be part of this.
Dealing with bureaucracy
Many of my friends have struggled with the visa process in the US. Has it been difficult for you?
It is a complicated process. There are many types of work visas and the processes vary depending on the country you’re from. My advice would be to try and learn as much as possible. There’s a lot of information online and people willing to help.
Also, based on my experience, I would say having a well thought-out plan is the best way to go, keeping in mind that it may take time.
Do you ever dream of returning to Brazil?
Yes. My wife and I often talk about our upbringing in Brazil, the things and people we miss, and the feeling of belonging and being part of a place and a group of loved ones. Right now though, it makes sense for our careers and our lives to be here in Los Angeles.
Advice and lessons learned
What advice would you give to your 18 year old self?
Explore more. During university, my roommates also got into animation before I even did, and I can only imagine how cool it would have been to have jammed with them, how much we’d have improved during that time of our lives when we were only taking classes and not worrying about the future. Well I guess that was my mistake, I worried too much.
What else have learned from your journey?
Everyone is busy working. When I started sending emails to the American studios, I got frustrated for getting no answers. If they don’t respond, it doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t want you or hate your work. It means they didn’t have time, perhaps not even to look at your e-mail.
It can also mean they’re not looking for people. When they do need someone, though, you want your link to be there in front of their eyes. So I’d say be persistent (not annoying) and patient. They’ll often be searching for a specific technique needed for the job, so try to be as professional as possible — and make sure to showcase your work for in a short montage. (They have dozens of reels in their inbox, don’t dare test their patience.)
One more thing: when they reach out, they usually have a problem to solve right away, so be prompt. That’s what I think worked well in my plan.
One other important thing is teamwork. I used to be impressed at reels I’d see online and assume they were one-man shows. That’s how I used to do motion graphics: I was the designer, the animator and the compositor (maybe even the sound designer!) all at once. When you’re starting out, this can be both inspiring and discouraging.
Having the privilege of being here opened my eyes to the importance of teamwork and workflow, how much better a piece gets when each one does their part. But come to think of it, I’d probably keep this from the earlier me. I’d rather have him learn by himself.