Creative Lives — Director and animator, James Papper talks about the importance of laughter
Making himself and his audience laugh is a priority that James Papper takes very seriously. Combined with lively colours and hilarious scripts, it’s difficult not to be captivated by James’ work. Having received his first break as part of Ogilvy’s six-month internship placement The Pipe in 2016, James went on to work for Blinkink and eventually found himself signed by the agency. James finds inspiration in his own personal work, and draws on the beautiful and the ugly – causing his projects to be both honest and human. We spoke to James about the difficulties of comparing yourself to others, coming up with original ideas and why laughter truly is the best medicine.
Director and Illustrator
Karma Cola, Voxi, Domino
BA Illustration, University of the West of England Bristol (2013–2016)
How would you describe what you do?
I make animations, illustrations and films that relate a lot to my personal life, and allow me to overshare beyond my own personal network of friends. I also always try to create things that make me laugh. Then every now and then someone does a lovely thing where they pay me a bit of money to help them sell a product.
I draw on a lot of stuff from my personal life as well, even if it’s not a literal translation. I just feel very lucky to be able to articulate my feelings in a way that’s therapeutic for me and that allows me to connect with loads of other people. It’s nice because I guess a lot of people have trouble talking about their feelings, but from developing this skill I have become more open.
“It’s only in the last year or so that I’ve realised the importance of having a personal life and enjoying myself.”
What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
I’m lucky enough to be signed by Blinkink, so I just come into the studio Monday to Friday and I have a little space where they let me work on my projects, even if I’m working on a personal project which is very nice of them.
I come up with my best ideas in the morning. It always changes because life changes but at the moment, this is my process: I have a cold shower, a coffee, then I walk through the park towards the studio, listening to good music that makes me want to dance. This weird combo of things usually puts me in a really good mood and I come up with my best stuff when I’m in an excitable mood.
I used to always work weekends, I’d be constantly sat at a desk trying to force myself to come up with something good. But it was very stressful. It’s only in the last year or so that I’ve realised the importance of having a personal life and enjoying myself. In my opinion, it has made my work a whole lot better.
How collaborative is your role?
As a director I think it’s important to know that you don’t have to do absolutely everything. It’s good to be able to recognise what certain people are good at and bring them together in order to make something much bigger. For me collaboration is very important.
James’ personal work
“I draw on a lot of stuff from my personal life as well, even if it’s not a literal translation.”
How do you like to work?
I used to go straight into the studio and just try to grind my brain out on the page, but over the past couple of years I’ve started to enjoy drawing really loosely in a sketchbook. Not caring about whether something looks shit or not, just getting ideas down and kind of emptying my brain a little. It’s good exercise for your mind and every now and then you come out with something good so you build up a little bank.
Once I find something worth making, I’ll then sketch it out and try to make it look as good as possible. Then I clean it up and start animating. If it’s a big project with some money behind it I really like working with animators who are much better at making my stuff move. If it’s personal or small, I’ll just crack on. Over the past couple of years, I’ve also started to really enjoy doing my own voiceovers and music for my projects. Music is a big part of my life so it’s nice to be able to incorporate that into my work.
How did you land on your creative style?
My visual style is just something I’ve developed over the years by drawing a lot, however I think it’s the ideas that are most important. So for me, my drawings and animations are just a vehicle for the little ideas that I come up with on a daily basis.
I used to look at a lot of other artists for inspiration, but I think that can be dangerous because as humans we tend to get jealous and compare ourselves a lot. But I guess I just find a lot of stuff funny in daily life. My work is often character based, so stuff like overhearing phone conversations, observing people on the street or just talking to strangers really gets me excited and inspires me to make things that I find funny.
James’ work for Karma Cola
What skills would you say are essential to your job?
The ability to take other people’s opinions on board, maintain a clear vision, and articulate what it is you want from an animator or designer. There’s nothing worse than a sloppy brief and people really underestimate the importance of it.
Are you currently working on any personal projects?
Yes constantly. For all the bad things to be said about social media, I find it a really useful tool for just making quick fun stuff. I think my dream projects mainly consist of doing little idents [a short sequence or video]. Luckily Instagram is perfect for that kind of stuff so I just get to make my own all the time.
The way I manage this around other work is by being selective with what work I take on commercially. If something comes in and I don’t really like the script or the idea, and there’s no room for change then I generally won’t take it. This way I get to keep developing what I do which hopefully leads to better scripts coming in.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be when you were younger?
I had loads of different ideas about who I wanted to be when I grew up. Eminem, Fred Durst, Michael Jordan to name a few. In the end I was just James Papper.
After graduating what were your initial steps?
I went back to working in pubs for a while so that I could afford to move to London. Then I saw an opening at Ogilvy for a paid internship, so I thought I’d try my luck and ended up getting a spot. It taught me a lot about working in the creative industry, what I wanted to do and what I didn’t want to do. It was also the first time I had a job which didn’t involve menial tasks – so it was a mad feeling for me. Through that I met Bart from Blinkink – who, after pestering him for ages – watched my grad film and eventually invited me in for a chat.
They kept me around to research on pitches for directors and got me started as a freelancer. I always wanted to be in with Blink ever since finding out about their animated series Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared. Eventually I was helping research on an iZettle pitch for film director Elliot Dear and I saw in the email chain that they were discussing potential character designers. I immediately went up to the producer and asked if I could do it. It’s all about being cheeky sometimes and just asking for stuff. I got the job and shortly after that, they got me to direct a campaign for VOXI, then they signed me!
James’ Work for iZettle
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Just look after yourself as much as you can. I think younger people seem to be more conscious of this these days. Throughout school and university, and even some workplaces, I always felt like the people we were supposed to look up to held an unhealthy work rate in such high regard, and that it was something we should all aim for.
There should be more of an emphasis on wellbeing, so (and I know it’s easy for me to say this now) try not to let yourself stress too much about it. It’s never the end of the world. If you want to be a director, just make short films or music videos with your mates. Work within your means and just make things happen, but most importantly do it because it makes you happy.