Editor’s note: Come one, come all and gather around for yet another amazing article from School of Motion’s Joey Korenman. Our industry is complex, even more so when you account for the number of forces acting upon it. After Joey’s last article made many of us realize we climbed the wrong mountain, I wanted to have Joey back to discuss his view on the ever-evolving landscape that is motion design, where it’s been and where he thinks it’s headed.
This is a long one with a lot of insight so we’re going to let this run at the top of the site all week.
Detroit Keyframe City
Last October, a few of us at School of Motion got the opportunity to visit four very different studios in Detroit, Michigan. We were there to shoot a video for a free class (now live!) called The Path to MoGraph. We explored the local Motion Design scene to try and get a small sense of what the modern industry looks like.
We hung out at Gunner, the Buck of Michigan. We visited Yeah Haus, an incredible studio with a fun and quirky 2D aesthetic. We checked out Lunar North, a rad 3D-centric shop with external GPUs all over the place. And we finished up at Vectorform, a tech company that houses one of the most cutting-edge Motion Design departments I’ve ever seen. After the whirlwind tour, I had a realization: This is what the future of Motion Design looks like.
The variety we saw was astounding, and I found myself thinking that just 10-15 years ago it would have been much harder for these businesses to be so successful here in Detroit. The business landscape has changed drastically since I jumped into this field, and we’re in the midst of even more change… some good, some bad. The world of Motion Design is getting really interesting… it’s finding itself. It’s experimenting and adapting. It’s also growing really fast, and that’s causing some serious growing pains.
In short: Our industry is going through puberty.
This article is my attempt at synthesizing all of the things I’ve seen in my career, all of the conversations I’ve had, and all of the insights I’ve gained since starting School of Motion. In writing this piece I leaned, once again, on the incredible MoGraph community for guidance. I tried my best to capture the current state of the industry, warts and all, and to make sense of what’s going on. I hope you take away some insights (and inspiration) from this long piece and I hope I’ve done the topic justice. Mainly, I hope it makes you think.
Now, let’s go back in time.
In 2001, the moat was deep
When I was a sophomore in college, I interned at a post-production house in Boston. This place was old-school… they had 3-4 expensive AVID suites, a Smoke, a Flame, a machine room with (literally) over a million bucks worth of gear in it, and a telecine suite that cost thousands of dollars per hour to use. They marketed their expensive gear more than the talented artists that ran it… and this was considered normal.
But tucked away in a tiny room, there was a guy running After Effects on a plain old Macintosh (probably a G4 PowerMac) and kicking out amazing looking stuff on a setup that cost, at most, what a Flame artist would bill in half a day.
It occurred to me, even back then, that the old way was unsustainable. That the tools should matter far less than the person using the tools, and that my career would be better served by focusing on learning the craft instead of the gear.
As I made my way in the industry, I saw legacy companies (the ones charging $500 an hour to make lower-thirds) go out of business. New companies sprung up built on DV video, Final Cut Pro, and After Effects… tools that were an order of magnitude less expensive. For a while, clients still held on to the perception that more expensive gear meant better quality… that After Effects couldn’t create graphics with as much quality as a Flame. It took longer than I thought it would, but eventually, that line of thought was obliterated (thanks to studios like MK12, Stardust, Logan, Superfad, and Exopolis) and the modern MoGrapher was born.
Maybe you can imagine how disruptive this change must have felt to studio owners and artists entrenched in the old way of doing things. When your business is built on the back of $500K turnkey systems, $150K salary senior artists, and a full-time engineer necessary to keep it all running, it’s tough to accept that you don’t need those things anymore and can, in fact, do the same work at 10% of the cost. If you’re a freelance Flame artist traveling all over the country on a $1500 day-rate, you get nervous when you see an app like After Effects gaining market share, especially when Andrew Kramer comes along and teaches everybody how to use it for free. Change is painful, there’s just no way around it.
And, yet, here we are. An Adobe CC subscription costs you between $20-$80 a month, and you can make basically anything on a mid-level laptop. Today, it’s about your skills, not your gear… and ironically, that’s creating some gigantic growing pains for our beloved MoGraph industry.
What’s old is new again
If you’re relatively new to this industry, the story I just told you may sound a little bit crazy but I bet you recognize some of the same issues happening today: People caring a little too much about what tool to use instead of focusing on the craft. Cheaper options coming along that upset the business model for existing companies. The democratization of knowledge, removing the biggest barrier-to-entry for those looking to become Motion Designers.
There are lots of parallels between things that are happening now in the industry, and things that happened 15-20 years ago. Before we dive into the current state of MoGraph, let’s take a look at where we were during the early days.
Learning was really hard
I remember the first time I saw MK12’s “Ultra Love Ninja.” There’s this effect throughout the piece of elements sort of “growing on” in an organic way that I’d never seen before. It’s hard to imagine now, but back then if you saw something like that there was really no good way to learn how it was done.
The MoGraph industry back then was basically a small group of artists experimenting and figuring stuff out as they went… but there were no tutorials, no 4-year curriculums, no School of Motion. On mograph.net (the original Mixed.Parts) there were discussions about how MK12 might have pulled it off and lots of speculation and experimentation… but you couldn’t just Google it and learn the trick.
“You’d have these keystone pieces come out, mostly launched by about a dozen really well known studios, and they would create a wave large enough that everyone talked about the work collectively. I think you can attribute some of that to healthier budgets, but I think you have to give these OG studios some credit for finding and curating talent that could deliver strong, original, creative content, on pretty much every outing they did.”
Josh Van Praag
Designer / Animator @ The Mill
So, I learned, like most artists in my generation, by playing around with After Effects constantly. I ripped off stuff I saw that looked cool and basically reverse-engineering everything that I didn’t understand. It was a long, slow, process, and I missed learning any of the basic fundamentals until I was well into my career.
You needed serious cash
When I went freelance for the first time, I needed to invest in my own software. Final Cut Pro Studio was around $1,000, Adobe apps came in a bundle that was over a grand, and if you wanted any decent tracking/keying tools you also needed Shake or Combustion for another $1000 or so. There was no Frame.io, there was no Dropbox, there was no Google Docs… every tool you used was expensive.
And the software was the cheap part! Opening a studio likely meant you needed to be able to digitize footage from tapes, and probably lay back your final output onto a fancy DigiBeta or HDCAM deck. The gear necessary to do this was incredibly pricey… the tapes themselves could cost over $100 a piece! If you wanted to open your own shop you might have to take out a bank loan or have a rich uncle.
You worked on TV commercials, period.
In 2001, you either worked on TV commercials or on… TV commercials. You could work on network graphics packages which were mostly, yeah, commercials for the network. Although, to be fair, I would occasionally work on high-end corporate videos (with budgets that would make you faint) but most of the “cool” stuff you saw being done was for air on television in a :15, :30 or :60 second format. Web video was still kinda new, the iPhone didn’t exist, there was no social media.
Personal or studio projects were definitely a thing, but paying jobs only existed in a couple of forms.
The budgets… oh, the budgets.
If you worked on national TV commercials in the early 2000’s, budgets of $250K and up were pretty common. The post-production budget for an animated, national :30 spot could be $100K with weeks of editorial, design, animation, onlining (which doesn’t really exist anymore) and audio work. A busy post-house could bill 8-figures in a year. Even at smaller post-houses the budgets were much higher compared to what they are today.
“I see a lot more packaging of services these days. We used to just be contacted for production and then it was production and edit and now it is production, edit, color correct, audio and graphics. I never used to deal with audio mixing and music licensing, now it is the exception to the rule if I am not handling it.
[Post budgets] used to be $15K for a :15 and $30K for a :30 [$45K total]. Now it is $15K for a :60, :30, :10, :07. Many more deliverables within the same old budget.”
Executive Producer, Element Productions
On the other hand, senior artists had high salaries. There were extra costs for things like film developing and film-to-tape transfer. Clients expected a level of wining and dining that would make Don Draper blush. The overhead required to maintain a studio was much, much higher and the gear could cost a fortune.
Major markets ruled the day
In the olden days, if you wanted to work on the coolest stuff you basically had to move to a major market. It could be Los Angeles, it could be New York, it could even be London. But, that was basically it. This was partly because of client perception (even Boston was seen as a small, less-talented-than-NYC market) but also because there was no such thing as working remotely. It didn’t exist… how the hell would you even do it?
There was also a feedback loop at play. Lots of artists would move to major markets, which would create a talent pool big enough to allow great studios to set up shop. Those studios did the best work, which attracted more talent, which meant more studios could open up (or spin-off from existing companies) which would then attract more talent, etc…
Nostalgia is one hell of a drug
I’ll be honest, it was a very exciting time to be in MoGraph. Every week you’d see something you’d NEVER seen before. New studios would pop up and create aesthetics that were unique, fresh, and represented their personal voices. Budgets were big enough to allow for a bit more experimentation (necessary when nobody really knew what they were doing) and the whole thing felt a little bit like punk rock… nobody really “got” what MoGraph was except the people doing it and it was fun to be on the cutting edge.
And there was a flipside: Since almost nobody knew how to do this whole MoGraph thing, you could get by and make a great living simply by knowing After Effects. This worked out extremely well for me in my early days of freelance because I didn’t have a clue about design, animation principles, conceptual thinking… but I sure did know my way around After Effects.
And then… things started to change.
The gravy train slows down
Around 2007 a bunch of things started to happen that, on their own, wouldn’t have changed much in the industry. Taken as a whole, they started a domino effect that created ripples we’re still feeling today. Here’s how it felt from my perspective:
Easier to get your learnz on
Tutorials started springing up, and they were good. It had always been possible to find resources for learning how After Effects worked… like “the bible” from Chris and Trish Meyer. But it was trickier to learn what you could DO with After Effects. Enter guys like Andrew Kramer, Aharon Rabinowitz, Eran Stern, and Harry Frank who started teaching us mortals how to use After Effects to do really cool things. Soon, they were followed by John Dickinson, Tim Clapham, Nick Campbell, Matt Jylkka, and other artists who were showing us how to make cool looking, commercially relevant stuff with the same tools we’d been using for years. In short, you could learn a decent chunk of the Motion Design skillset from the comfort of your bedroom. Sure, you weren’t getting the full Art School experience, but for many artists (myself included) that was all I needed to launch my career.
Startup costs drop off a cliff
Then, the price of software dropped… like, drastically. Personally, I think we can all thank Apple for this. Avid, the industry standard editing software for decades, used to cost a goddamn fortune. You needed a very high-end machine, extra breakout boxes to allow for video encoding and decoding, expensive hard drives that could handle video bitrates, and the software itself which was thousands of dollars. An Avid system could easily cost $100K. Then, along comes Final Cut Pro, for $999, which can do 80% of what an Avid can do and runs easily on a modern Mac. The effect was crazy to watch. Within 5 years, half the post-houses in Boston had switched to Final Cut Pro. It was just a no-brainer. The pricing model and the focus on making video editing “more accessible” lead to enormous market share.
In 2011, Adobe started switching users over to a subscription model, giving them every Adobe Creative Cloud app for a low monthly fee. From a business standpoint, this was a brilliant move by Adobe. All of the sudden, every post-house in the country that uses After Effects now has a “free” license of Premiere which, by the way, works hand in hand with After Effects. And the startup cost to get into Creative Cloud drops from $1000 to $50 a month.
For freelancers and smaller studios, the benefits of this pricing model can’t be overstated. It opened the floodgates, allowing more artists than ever before to access the same tools that the best studios in the business were using.
Location stops mattering (as much)
Have you ever done a client-supervised After Effects session? You can imagine how fun those are… “let’s wait 5 minutes now while I RAM preview this.” At my first job, I would have clients in the room about half the time. It was the only way to get quick feedback. But, around 2007, technology started to catch up. Services sprung up like PostSpots (not cheap) that allowed you to post videos for client review. Dropbox was founded that year, and around 2010 became a very viable way to share assets back and forth with clients.
Wipster and Frame.io came along a few years later and made it, in a way, easier to work with clients over the internet than in real life. For freelancers, this was obviously an amazing development… but it was even more important for studios, because now it meant, for example, that you didn’t have to be in New York City to work with clients that were based there. Finally, location became secondary to talent.
The invention of the explainer video
Remember when every single business in the universe had their own explainer video? At some point, I think around 2009, there was this crazy explosion in the amount of MoGraph being produced… and I’d bet half of the increase was due to explainer videos. They entered the Zeitgeist, and everyone needed their own. From 2012 to 2015, at least 50% of the work I did would fit under the “explainer video” banner… and I bet I’m not alone.
Of course, the explosion of MoGraph work can’t be attributed solely to the Explainer… but I think it’s a good proxy for what really happened: The persuasive power of Motion Design became apparent to the broader population.
The iPhone gets released in 2007, and within a few years, every adult human is carrying around a high-definition screen in their pocket. YouTube becomes this enormous thing, every business gets a website with a video on the homepage… Everyone wants video, and Motion Design is uniquely positioned to provide a persuasive, engaging experience without the higher costs of traditional video production. MoGraph is now mainstream.
“Now, everyone has a television they rarely watch but they have a screen in their hand 24/7. And those screens need content. Shooting is expensive and requires more pre-production. Mograph has become cheaper and it has quickly become the entire product for a lot of companies. This means more people need video content, even down to areas that traditionally only needed still content, like UI/X.”
Motion Designer / Tutorial Hero (Workbench.tv)
Out with the old…
Here’s a story that, I think, illustrates pretty well what happened to the industry during this time:
In 2010, I partnered up with a couple of very accomplished Editors and co-founded a Motion Design studio in Boston, Toil. We set out, from day 1, to go after high-end jobs from local ad agencies. We had a beautiful office in downtown Boston that was set up for in-person visits and fancy lunches. Our rates were high, because… let’s face it… so was our overhead. Our bread and butter were regional and national spots for major brands, and we had a full-time Executive Producer going out to expensive lunches with clients in an attempt to get the gigs we needed to keep the doors open. We hired a high-end interior designer to pick out our furniture and make our office “hip.” In short, we were built on the old model.
Around the same time, a good friend of mine founded her own company. She took the complete opposite approach and rented inexpensive space further away from the ad agencies. She bought Ikea furniture for the office. She tried to keep clients out of her office, preferring to work remotely. She went after clients that, frankly, couldn’t afford us… but who, with her low overhead, were very profitable customers. At first, I thought she was misreading the market, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. As old-model shops started to go under, her studio was perfectly positioned to grow in a sustainable, profitable way. Eight years later, Newfangled Studios is absolutely crushing it, doing high-end work for companies like Google and Bank of America. It seems like they’re always hiring… and Toil is no more.
There’s a lesson here, one that I think everyone in the industry should pay attention to. We’re going through a similar period of change right now, and those that don’t adapt will be doomed to face the same fate as the legacy companies of the early 2000’s. Before drawing any conclusions, though, let’s look at the current state of things.
If you are entering the world of Motion Design in 2018 then, in some ways, the world is your oyster. I truly, truly believe that this is the easiest, most exciting time to jump into MoGraph that has ever existed… though that’s not to say there aren’t still some serious growing pains working themselves out in the industry. Here are some things happening today that are way, way different than when a young, non-bald Joey Korenman entered the game.
Learning is so. Much. Easier.
Let’s just get the plug out of the way, I’ll try to make it quick and painless. When I started in the industry I would have killed to have the learning resources now at your disposal. I didn’t even know what I didn’t know, which makes it 100x harder to improve at your craft. But, now, you can literally follow a soup-to-nuts curriculum either online or at one of many traditional colleges across the world.
If you’re super motivated, you could just watch free School of Motion, Video Copilot, and Greyscalegorilla tutorials and learn enough to get a job in the industry. If you want to level up, you can spend a few bucks on one of our courses, MoGraph Mentor, or LearnSquared. You have access to tools and resources like aescripts + aeplugins, Holdframe, Motion Hatch, and many others. In short… literally anybody with a copy of After Effects can get in the game. If you see something amazing Buck produced, there is literally nothing (other than, ya know, tons of practice, hard work, and experience) keeping you from producing the same thing.
“…I started learning After Effects first in 2011 and Cinema 4D in 2012, which was right in the heyday of sites like VideoCopilot and GreyscaleGorilla really being established as “the” tutorial sites in each of those software packages, but there wasn’t anything quite like a Mograph Mentor or SoM Bootcamp which feature a longer form “curriculum” at the time. At this point in 2018 it isn’t unheard of to find a great tutorial maker who can offer free content on the same level as that training was 4-5 years ago. The bar is getting lower and the beauty of it all is those early tutorials I did are still floating around on the ‘net, but now there is access to those higher level paid offerings I mentioned earlier. ”
3D Designer / Animator
Basically, it comes down to this: If you want it bad enough, nothing stands in your way other than hard work.
Maybe it’s too easy?
But, is there a downside to this? If you go to YouTube and search for After Effects tutorials, there are tens of thousands of videos… more instruction than you could ever watch in multiple lifetimes. As a beginner, how are you supposed to know a bad ball-bounce tutorial from a good one? How do you know if you’re learning industry best-practices or if you’re picking up bad habits that will haunt you for years once you’re in your career?
This is a real issue we’re dealing with right now as an industry. Nearly every studio owner or agency hiring manager I’ve spoken to in the last 3-4 years has told me that hiring talent is the #1 challenge they face. It’s now trivial to pick up the basics of After Effects, and to follow some tutorials to put together a reel… which means that studios are looking for that needle in an ever-growing haystack. And, frankly, how can new artists (who haven’t gone through a structured curriculum) have any chance of learning the skills they need to be successful? Learning to design well is a pain in the ass… it doesn’t make for an entertaining tutorial that will get lots of views (unless you’re Carey Smith) so YouTube-as-a-school breaks down when it comes to learning the really difficult-but-important stuff.
Bottom line: It’s easier than ever to find great resources and curriculums to get the knowledge and skills you need crammed into your brain… but you still have to work really hard to actually learn those skills or you won’t get anywhere. If you don’t have a good work ethic, even attending an incredible 4-year art school can’t save you.
“As someone who is currently a student in a Motion Design program, I can see that there are lots of people who are starting to go into our industry. 4 years ago, the program had just about 25 people in the incoming class and now, the incoming class has upwards of 50 people. That is an insane amount of growth for just a few years. With this growth, the faculty has gotten better at teaching as well and the students are coming out into the industry much more skilled than ever before.
At the same time, the skill level difference from the more advanced students to the less advanced students, I feel, has also increased. The more involved students are getting better in a shorter period of time and the less involved students are still growing at a very slow rate because of their lack of effort.
Keeping this in mind, I feel confident for my future in the industry because of this fact. The students who are more involved will always be able to find better, higher paying jobs because of this skill gap. The industry may be growing, but I feel that the top artists will never have a problem with standing out among the crowd.”
Motion Design student at Ringling w/ a great reel!
Curation to the rescue!
If Motionographer has taught us anything over the years, it’s the value of curation. In our algorithm-driven online world, there is definitely still a place for human curation of content… educational or otherwise. As much as Facebook and Google would like to provide you with 100% of the information you seek, there will always be room for people (and companies) who take pride in the quality of their content and training. Sites like School of Motion, MoGraph Mentor, Greyscalegorilla, and The Futur are a testament to the power of thoughtful, curated content.
Sharing is caring
One last thought on this whole “learning is easier” thread: Our industry is a shining beacon of light in terms of the way we share information these days. Back when I started, guys like Aharon Rabinowitz were getting hate-mail for making tutorials… older artists would complain that he was giving away trade secrets and taking food right out of their mouths. Try and imagine that happening today. We live in an era when you can download Beeple’s project files for free to dissect and learn from, and that makes me happy to no end.
“There are more Facebook groups and slack channels for you to sink your teeth into or reach out with questions than you can shake a stick at. Need a copywriter? just ask. Can’t figure out why your animation won’t work? Just post a video of it and within less than 12 minutes on Slack someone is on it. That sort of response time blows my mind. ”
Barriers? What barriers?
There are, practically speaking, no barriers to entry to MoGraph anymore. Let’s consider what it used to take to get in the game:
Software – $2,000 for After Effects, Photoshop, Illustrator, and a video editing app.
Hardware – $2,000 for a basic system… but you wanna do high-end 3D? You’ll need a render-farm, so go ahead and add $20K.
Website – Good luck! Maybe you’re a geek and can figure out how to get your own site set up. If not, expect to spend $1,500 or more for a crappy, non-responsive site.
Clients – Have fun cold-calling, because social media doesn’t exist and there isn’t a great way for you to be “discovered.”
What does it take to be a motion designer now?
Adobe CC – $50 a month
Hardware – A $500 PC laptop can run Creative Cloud just fine.
Dropbox – Free to start
Frame.io – Free to start
Website – $12 a month on Squarespace
Clients – Find ‘em the old-fashioned way, or use Behance, Instagram, Dribbble, or any other social media to get discovered.
Even on the super high-end of 3D work, the barriers are falling constantly. Cinema 4D is still relatively expensive for most individual artists, but once you own it you no longer need a render farm in your machine room. Cloud renderers like RebusFarm and Zync have made it incredibly affordable to simply rent-a-render-farm as you need it. And with GPU rendering, you can quadruple your speed simply by adding GPUs.
Lunar North, one of the Detroit studios we visited, had external GPUs and cables everywhere, allowing them to kick out incredibly detailed, photorealistic 3D without the overhead of an expensive render farm. They’re a great example of a company using the cutting edge to lower costs tremendously while still keeping the quality bar very high.
Barriers to entry vary from industry to industry. If you want to start a car company, for example, you need millions of dollars worth of gear and people before you can even begin. For MoGraph, you basically need a credit card with a few months of 0% interest. This is, in my opinion, amazing news. If you’re a young artist thinking of jumping into the Motion Design industry, there really isn’t anything stopping you. However, this is definitely one of those double-edged swords.
When you needed all kinds of fancy gear to be in the game, it meant that “real” MoGraphers didn’t have to compete with hobbyists or artists without the access to gear. Now, studios have to compete with everyone on the internet who has a license of After Effects. Sites like Upwork and Fiverr are filled with amateur Motion Designers who can, with a $50-a-month Adobe license and a few hours on YouTube, crank out renders that might be “good enough” for many clients. Are they able to match the quality of true professionals? Of course not… but do you think all of your clients can tell the difference between great design and “meh” design? Do they recognize nuanced, fluid animation when they see it? Like it or not, removing barriers to entry in any industry will cause downward pressure on pricing, and possibly on quality.
“I’ve worked for several agencies where they have hired freelancers on Fiverr, despite telling producers to keep that fact strictly under wraps. It’s genuinely scary. Whether that’s due to financial restrictions from their client or just an attempt to maximize profit, I don’t know. It does, however, feel like we’re on the verge of something new.”
Freelance Art Director
Photography is an industry where this has already played out. Camera gear is cheaper than ever, and literally everybody with an iPhone thinks they’re a photographer. You can learn the basics of photography on YouTube for free, and the barrier to entry is a $500 camera package. Looking at this industry can give us a good idea of what effects we might feel in Motion Design.
“…it’s gotta be the exact same thing that’s happened in the digital photography world. Having a camera is so easy, everyone can call themselves a photographer. But somehow, over time, the professional photographers have figured out a way to survive and thrive in an extremely over-saturated market.
One of my old managers when I was an on-site motion designer said something I’ll never forget. He said that whenever there is a “glut” of designers, or the market is saturated, “there will always be room for value.” This was back in 2009-2010, when graphic designers were on the rise, and my city of Columbus was crawling with them, and they were all looking for jobs. But man, he was right – there were really only a few that were actually good enough to be considered hire-able.
So I guess what I’m saying is, as the motion design industry grows and matures, I hope we see the same thing happen. More people are doing it, but more people need it as well, and as people see it more, there will be a clear separation of the professionals from the amateurs, and there will always be room for value.”
Motion Designer / Illustrator
Granted, photography is a much more mainstream creative outlet than Motion Design, and the technical barriers to entry are less daunting (point, click, post on instagram) but we will likely continue to see gear and software get cheaper and more user-friendly, enabling almost anyone to do MoGraph. All we can do in response is to make our work so good that the clients who do care about quality continue to hire us. We can act like professionals and build relationships that will survive the proliferation of cheap, inexperienced alternatives.
“I’m an illustrator and the tools for that job are verrry accessible. But because the software is simple (and sometimes unnecessary) there is more demand for non-software skills, like smart ideas and strong aesthetics.
So as motion graphics “grows up” the rates might go down, but that will encourage software-centric people to look into more universal design skills as a competitive advantage, which is great for our visual culture in the long term!”
Screens, screens, everywhere!
The interesting thing about the barriers to entry being removed is that one would expect to be less busy as more competition enters the industry… but that isn’t happening. Every single studio owner or producer I’ve spoken to in the last 3 years has told me the same thing: There aren’t enough (good) Motion Designers out there to do all the work we have coming in.
Think about all of the mediums that now utilize MoGraph that didn’t exist or were brand-new 15 years ago. YouTube marketing, Social Media, UX/UI, VR and AR, thousands of niche cable networks, Netflix, Amazon Prime, in-app animations… If there are pixels on it, a Motion Designer has a gig waiting for them. At the same time, more companies than ever are savvy to the persuasive power of MoGraph. This all adds up to one thing: A shit-ton of work.
“One thing I don’t think is talked enough about is how uniquely positioned motion designers are for a career in UX. Motion design in UX is a fairly new skill set required to build great products and it kind of “resets the industry” a bit back to a time when the talent pool was less crowded, the barrier of entry was low and the pay was high. It’s growing quickly and the bar is already higher then it was when I got started in it (about 2 years ago) but there is still such a need for motion designers with UX experience and because that doesn’t really exist companies are willing to hire motion designers and teach them UX on the job. For me personally, I see working in UX as a more promising future for a designer, and with our unique position to enter that field I couldn’t be more excited for the motion design industry.”
UX Motion Designer at Google
On our Detroit field trip, we visited a company called Vectorform that works on some really crazy projects for high-tech companies. For example, they worked with Microsoft to come up with new ways of using Hololens AR technology in the automotive prototyping industry. They have a team that can come up with concepts for how new technology might be used, and then they create prototypes and proofs-of-concept for their clients. They create AR and VR experiences, demo videos, and full-blown products. In order to do this, they need artists who understand design, animation, video, and user experience. Who better than Motion Designers to handle all of this? What blew me away the most about the MoGraph team at Vectorform was that the jobs they were doing didn’t exist 10 years ago. They’re using tools like Unity and Unreal Engine to translate their work into real-time applications. They’re on the very cutting edge, and growing fast.
So, yeah, there’s more work than ever out there. But now let’s talk about the dark side of this. Some of the best Motion Designers in the world are working for Google or Apple (four comma club!)… or even Facebook. These companies are hiring so many artists that they are driving up salaries and day rates on the Pacific coast of the US. Unlike a studio, Amazon doesn’t need to make a profit on it’s Motion Design work, so they can pay a freelancer almost anything they want because their core product is something besides animation. This means that studios (even top ones) are having a harder time recruiting talent because it’s tough to compete with the infinitely-deep pockets those tech giants possess.
Motion Designers are also having to grapple with moral dilemmas that seemed less prevalent in the old version of our industry. 15 years ago you might have had to decide whether or not you were willing to help Pepsi sell more soda. Today you might be asked to help rehabilitate a less-than-trustworthy social media company (and offered a king’s ransom to do it). In light of current events, should we be selective about which brands we work with? I mean, you gotta pay the bills somehow, but should you be willing to work with anyone that can pay your rate?
“Personally I’m a little concerned about the relatively cozy relationship between big tech and the Motion Industrial Complex. It feels like our best artists and animators have recently been tasked exclusively with putting a friendly face on FB, Google and Apple — products that I find myself distrusting more over time. Our ability to bring charm, wonder and appeal to the digital world is a massive power that can be harnessed for good or for ill. So I worry a little about that relationship”
Motion Designer / Instructor / Tie Enthusiast
There’s that double-edged sword again. I think that, overall, having more work means more opportunities for everyone and that’s a good thing. It’s true, however, that we’ve got a lot of soul-searching to do as an industry. As Erica Gorochow said at Blend last year: “Motion Design is a superpower.” We’re really good at taking someone’s message, polishing it and packaging it nicely, and helping them amplify it. We should probably use that power for good, amiright?
“[I’m] also worried about how the relative ease of creating professional-looking graphics is affecting our journalism media, too. We don’t just bring “charm, wonder, and appeal,” but also a sense of credibility. In the era of fake news, our niche of production lends itself too easily to making lies, bias, and pseudo-science look like the real deal. If it looks professional, people trust it.”
Multihyphenate Digital Media Creative
The case of the disappearing budget
It’s almost a meme: Clients these days need twice as much for a fraction of the old budget. Last time I checked, nobody added more hours to the day, so how are we expected to cope with doing more work for less pay? Should we just get all Mike Monteiro on our clients?
Let’s dig into this. From everyone I’ve talked to I’ve heard the same thing, “budgets are shrinking.” It seems to be true, objectively, that clients have less money than they used to for projects. There are plenty of reasons for this, such as:
- Ad spends now have to be split up across way more channels: TV, radio, social media, display advertising, paid search.
- More artists in the game = more competition = lower prices
- New tools / automation bring the costs of making stuff way down
- Budget sites (like Fiverr) are commoditizing MoGraph
But I think it’s a little more useful to look at how profitable it can be to do Motion Design these days. Budgets may go down, but as long as costs also go down, the bottom line doesn’t change much. This was made crystal clear to me after I left my position at Toil. As a company, we had some beefy monthly expenses like staff, rent, insurance, and client service. If we had to set a day rate like a freelancer would, it would need to be at least $2000 a day to keep things running and maybe to eke out a little profit. A $20K job that took 2 weeks for us to complete was, basically, break-even for the company.
Compare that to what happened after I left. After teaching for one year at Ringling College, I found myself freelancing again. One of the first jobs I took on was an $18K job for an ad agency, and it took about 2 weeks to do and given the flexibility freelance can have, I found the profit margins to be much larger than what I experienced in the past at a typical studio.
Each person’s situation, needs, and overhead is different. The point being, if you’re a solid freelancer getting booked all the time, those “shrinking budgets” could be helping you more than hurting you because you’re able to take on work that a studio literally can’t afford to take. If you’re a small studio in a less expensive area, you can take on jobs that larger studios won’t be able to do. It’s the medium to large agencies and studios that are really feeling the burn of lower budgets.
I feel like I should take a moment here to acknowledge the elephant in the room. What I just described above is, unfortunately, going to kill a lot of studios. Hell, it killed mine. Some very big legacy studios are going to close. Ones you’ve heard of. Ones that have done incredible work and inspired you over the years. It sucks… but if you go back to the beginning of this piece you’ll recognize that it’s happened before. This is part of the business cycle for every industry, and Motion Design is not immune. Studios, big and small, have to adapt.
What does adapting look like?
Yeah Haus, one of our stops in Detroit, is a small shop run by husband and wife power-couple Michelle Oullette and Chad Thompson. They have a small in-house team, rely heavily on freelancers, and have a small office that feels like a hip, cozy apartment. Being based in Detroit allows them to keep costs way down compared to a place like Chicago or New York or Los Angeles, and the work they’re doing is as good as it gets… top-notch design and animation, with their own unique style and voice. Ironically, shrinking budgets might be one of the reasons a company like Yeah Haus can thrive in today’s market… they don’t need $100,000 budgets to make a healthy profit on their work.
Like I mentioned, larger studios and agencies are feeling the crunch the worst. Because of their high overhead and legacy costs, it’s getting harder and harder for older studios to stay in the black. The best of the best are somewhat shielded, but I really do expect to see some of the old guard closing their doors over the next few years. To survive will require changing strategies, and sometimes even business models. My buddy Chris Do saw this coming and has made a very intentional shift with his business, transitioning Blind (a legacy studio) into The Futur (a learning platform). I suspect we’ll see other business owners doing likewise… pivoting towards a more sustainable and profitable direction.
For the freelancer, the biggest downside to smaller budgets is that it’s far more common these days to be expected to know how to do everything yourself. You wanna be booked all the time? Make sure you can edit, design, animate, do some basic sound design and mixing… and if you can also write scripts? You’re golden. This puts a lot of pressure on newly minted freelancers in certain markets who don’t have access to studios that can hire them just for their specialty, but it’s also a great business opportunity.
“Motion Designers are expected to be proficient in a increasing number of different areas of expertise and much of the time that determines your employability. The more you can do the more opportunities you can have out there, and that is overwhelming for someone who is just starting. For some jobs, especially in middle size studios (Which tend to look for generalist) it isn’t enough to just know After Effects, you need to be proficient in Photography, Design, Editing, Compositing, Sound Design, 3D, Simulations, Character Animation Etc. you need to take care of whatever type of work that comes your way. ”
Editor / Motion Designer @ Hyper House
One other potentially troubling consequence of falling budgets is this: As we adapt to working faster and more efficiently to maximize those budgets, we might be training clients to expect more for less. Mack Garrison, EP of Dash Studio (Raleigh, North Carolina) said this:
“People want more for less. Shorter timelines, grandiose creative requests, and low budgets are becoming a regular occurrence. The big agency model has shifted as clients are willing to go directly to studios and freelancers to handle their work. While this is a great opportunity for the small creative (designer or studio), it’s also a slippery slope because we validate poor timelines and low budgets which further drives these unrealistic expectations.”
Garrison also said that the way to mitigate this is through educating your clients on matters such as pre-production is important and why, for example, using 3D animated characters may not fit in their budget range.
Well, that section sure was a bit doom-and-gloom. Is there an antidote to lower budgets? Anything artists and studios can do to keep costs down so that the real measure of a business’s health, profitability, is still in the black?
Location Independence is now a thing
As our field trip to Detroit thoroughly demonstrated to us, you can now run a world-class studio from anywhere. By the way, I mean no offense to Detroit… but if you’d told anyone in the industry 15 years ago that one of the best studios in the world would be located in the Motor City they would have laughed. But, of course, now we have Gunner.
Gunner, like Yeah Haus, gets to take advantage of the fact that office space in Detroit doesn’t cost $75 per square foot. Salaries don’t need to be inflated to pay for expensive housing, gas, or food… you can have a great quality of life on a reasonable paycheck. Florida is also like this, btw :)
In the past, setting up shop in Detroit would have been an issue if your goal was, like Gunner’s, to do cool work with cool brands because the only big brands in Detroit are automotive. Your ideal clientele would be limited simply by geographic distance. Now, it’s actually the norm to work with clients that you have never met face to face. Nobody cares where you live and work as long as you can establish trust and deliver on your promises. Gunner does both, and they are thriving (expanding, actually) due to the success they’re having. Sure, there are still a disproportionate amount of top studios and artists living in the major markets, but it’s no longer a prerequisite.
Nick DenBoer, one of my new favorite animators, works from his home studio in Toronto. From his icy lair in Canada, he has worked for Conan O’Brien (LA), Weiden and Kennedy (Portland), and produced a short film that got into the Sundance Film Festival. He collaborates with artists, like David Ariew who lives thousands of miles away near San Diego, and none of his clients mind that his body is not in the same city as theirs. The internet makes the world really small.
“Columbus, Nashville, Denver, Rochester, Asheville, Tampa, Austin, all have solid studios whose work can compete with LA and NYC. Urban renewal of factory and loft spaces has allowed young companies to find work/live spaces as well – what happened to Brooklyn and Oakland is also happening in Cleveland, Cincy, Milwaukee, etc.
But not only are there more studios in more markets, you consider the ease of file sharing today and now motion designers can work from anywhere with studios or clients from anywhere. This is kind of, well DUH, but when I graduated from college in Madison, WI, everyone had to move to Chicago or maybe Minneapolis to find work in the region if they wanted to stay close to family/home (I went to NYC). Today there are several small studios in Madison and I’ve noticed a few animators working remotely from there. That’s huge for young people building a life where they choose, rather than having to follow the industry.”
Animator / Illustrator
For both studios and their full-time artists, this new “work anywhere” reality is a huge perk. As a freelancer, location independence is a mutha-luvin’ game changer. Got a laptop and a phone you can tether to? You can work from just about anywhere… and I really mean anywhere. The beach, the woods, another city, another country… it doesn’t matter. I met a really cool artist at Blend last year named Arley Cornell who was spec’ing out a van to live the van life for a bit while he freelanced. You could not do that when I started in this industry… and I think it’s one of the best things that has happened to Motion Design.
We obviously need to say thanks to Dropbox, Frame.io, Skype, Zoom, Slack, Google Docs, and ubiquitous broadband internet access for making this possible. Technology can be a double-edged sword (there’s that term again) but in this case, I think it’s pretty much an unqualified win for the industry. Studios can work with artists who live thousands of miles away, clients can hire you no matter what city you’re in, and you can MoGraph from a van. What’s not to love?
What to make of this?
Let’s recap. Compared to the early days of the industry, Motion Design is now a very different beast. Learning the skills to do it has become far more accessible. The financial barriers to entering the field have shrunk to almost nothing. The number of clients asking for Motion Design has exploded as new mediums pop up constantly. Budgets are shrinking, which hurts some and helps others. And, finally, your physical location has become almost a non-issue.
To young artists entering the field, it’s really hard to see any of this as a negative. They can get the software and the skills they need easily, they can do it from the comfort of their hometown, and there’s so much work to go around that it’s a pretty safe bet they’ll find a job when they’re ready. Most online communities in this industry are incredibly open and welcoming, and you can meet and communicate with other artists easily
To older pros and legacy studios… it’s not a completely rosy outlook. If you invested millions of dollars and 20 years building a 40-person studio in Los Angeles, you may have to radically change the way you do things to survive the changing market. If you’re a freelancer who only does storyboards and doesn’t animate, that’s getting a lot tougher to sustain unless you’re at the highest end of the studio food chain. And everybody in this business is going to have to deal with the fact that the talent pool is now global, and artists in developing countries can (and probably will) compete for work at a price point most companies won’t be able to match.
But, here’s the thing…
Motion Designers are, at our core, problem solvers. Heck, that’s why most of us got hooked on After Effects in the first place; you’re constantly trying to solve a puzzle, and that’s addictive. The downsides to all of the new developments I’ve brought up are real, but I see them as challenges, not impending doom. If you’ve worked in this field for longer than 2 years, something has changed radically since you’ve been in the game. That’s just how MoGraph rolls.
The companies and artists that are going to succeed in this brave new era of Motion Design are the ones that don’t shy away from change. The ones that embrace new realities instead of fighting against them tooth and nail. The ability to adapt to shifts in the industry isn’t just an advantage, it’s a requirement. Motion Designers are now on the cutting edge of so many different disciplines that constant change is part of the job description. No resting on laurels for us. And, as always…
It comes back to the basics
Over and over again when I talked to people for this article, I heard a similar mantra: Talent will always be in demand. Relationships are more important than ever. Be a problem-solver, not a button pusher.
“[Don’t put] too much emphasis on learning the tool and not enough on emphasizing your value being a designer & creative and uniquely using the tool. When you willingly let clients commodify what you do, you get Fiverr’d.”
EJ “Hootenanny” Hassenfratz
3D Motion Designer / Instructor
“No matter what new software, hardware or even AI is out there, there will always be one constant: people. Your experience, knowledge, personality, and problem-solving ability will always make you in-demand and give you the ability to charge premium rates as long as you put in the effort to develop the right relationships with other people. Technology and craft are important but trust and relationships are critical to success in this industry.”
Agency Creative & Commercial Filmmaker
Other creative fields have been through evolution like this and have come out the other side with new business models, new ways of doing work, and a more resilient industry. Motion Design will do much more than survive this shift… it will thrive.
Let’s bring it back… to the future!
The four companies we visited in Detroit are each, in their own way, an example of MoGraph’s future. Talented, creative, and future-thinking businesses that are poised to thrive in 2018 and beyond. If they are any indication of what the next decade of Motion Design has in store for us, I can say with total honesty: I can’t wait.
Thanks so much to Joe Donaldson and Motionographer for letting me write this ridiculously long article. Thanks to all of my School of Motion alumni-family for the input, and thanks to the incredible Mixed.Parts community for theirs. Thanks to Alex Pope for her drawing skills, and thanks to YOU for being a part of this community, even if you just got here.
The Path to MoGraph is our love letter to Motion Design, and we invite you to check it out and share it with anyone you know who’s interested in the challenging, fun, creative party we’ve got going on in this one-of-a-kind industry. Rock on!