Too close to home with James Tupper

James Tupper popped onto my radar this week with his undeniably witty and to be honest, a bit too real, short film “Freelance”.

In the creative industries, we’re so inundated with the whole “do what you love” hype. I’m often reminded of Adam JK’s similarly all too real print on the matter.

It’s not about being salty or jaded, but for a lot of us, we come into this industry from a place of genuine curiosity and passion. And whenever you start trading that curiosity and passion for money, you’ll inevitably get to the place where, well… it becomes a job.

Pros and cons aside, James’ new film perfectly captures what it can feel like living and working in the creative world and trying to keep up when we’re bombarded with distractions, flashing lights, and things to click on.

The following is a quick Q&A with James to find out a bit more about him, his work, and his new film.


Q&A with James Tupper

First, can you tell us a bit about yourself and the work you do? 

I’m a motion designer and filmmaker from Nags Head, North Carolina — it’s a small town located on the state’s barrier islands.  I am currently based in Raleigh, NC and work remotely as a freelance creative for different brands and agencies.

I mainly label myself as ‘motion designer’ for job purposes, but I’m more of a creative generalist.  I love so many aspects of art, design, and music and I’ve never been able to fully settle on just one path.

I studied creative writing at North Carolina State University then left school to pursue a career in design, getting started as a visual designer at Red Hat. I’ve assumed an assortment of different creative roles throughout my career from web developer to sound designer before eventually finding a comfortable balance with motion design. 

Over the last few years, I’ve gravitated primarily towards 3D animation and VFX. 

Can you tell us what it’s like working in Raleigh, NC and about the scene for creative work there?

Raleigh is a great city to live and raise a family.  For creative work, it can really be what you make it. It’s been going through a bit of a renaissance over the last few years and there is room for creatives to pave their own paths. A large amount of the motion design work comes from small businesses and tech companies, so you need to be okay with that in order to thrive.

It’s nowhere near as competitive as any of the bigger markets which can be positive or negative depending on your perspective.

Looking at your new film, “Freelance”, can you tell us how this came about?

I had just finished one of the busiest years of my career followed by several months of VFX training and a workflow transition to Houdini. I was motivated and in a good spot creatively, but also completely consumed. To avoid burnout, I preemptively decided to step away from the computer and take a break.  For me, that just meant putting down one creative project and picking up another.

I started doodling on my iPad with no intention of creating anything specific and that eventually led to experimenting with some frame-by-frame animations.  Coming from a world of procedural 3D visuals, the process felt painstakingly slow and I really loved it.

The story was probably brewing in the back of my head for a while because the concept and storyboard came together in about an hour at a car dealership while waiting for my brakes to get fixed. I spent about half a day in pre-production before diving in and drawing frames without looking back. 

 A few weeks later, I had a completed short film.

This isn’t always the case but I think you captured what it can be like working in this field with a scary accuracy haha. I imagine a lot of people will find this film quite relatable. What was your intent here and what inspired the film itself? 

Motion design is often about spectacle, embellishment, and hype. It can be undeniably fun and addictive but it can also wear you down when you are surrounded by it year after year.  Social media can amplify this effect. My intent for this film was to take a break from the spectacle and just make something that was honest. It didn’t have to be exciting or beautiful, just honest.

So the story naturally became one of me spending too much time isolated at the computer, being self-conscious about my work, and laboring until I crash.

It’s not glamorous but it’s completely accurate.

I agree entirely and feel you really hit the nail on the head with how genuine the film feels. We’re so inundated with all the “do what you love…passion…hustle…” platitudes. At the end of the day, sometimes work is just work, and that’s fine too. Was making this film a cathartic experience?

That’s absolutely dead on. You can’t skip the grind and expect to be left with something that makes you proud.  For me, creative work is mostly life-consuming tedium interrupted by brief moments of intense gratification.

It’s fine if you don’t love everything you make, but it’s important to take the time and appreciate the effort you put into it. I think making this film was just my bleak way of celebrating the mundane, because in all honesty, I cherish the grind.

So, what does the work-life balance look like for James Tupper? 

My wife just smiled and rolled her eyes at this question. So I’ll just say that I have an amazing wife who understands the quirks of being married to an obsessive creative. I give her back rubs and she lets me dish about triplanar texture mapping and matrix transformations. We make it work.

Lastly, what’s next for you?

I’ve always been timid about sharing my personal work but I’ve been coming out of my shell a bit this year and hope to continue making progress with showing my creations.

After six years of solo freelance production work, I’m ready for a bit of a change and will aim to spend more time collaborating with other teams and artists. 

In the meantime, I’ll be happily grinding on whatever projects come my way.

About the author

Joe Donaldson

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.