Creative Lives — Jennifer Zheng, Junior Designer and Animator at Moth
Jennifer Zheng first scored a two-week internship at London animation studio Moth after chatting to director Marie-Margaux Tsakiri-Scanatovits at a university guest lecture. Now a full-time animator and designer, in under a year she’s masterminded a short film for XL Recordings as part of her first professional directing role, completed projects for CNN, Facebook and worked on the trailer for children’s book The Storm Whale. Her passion means that long hours don’t yet feel like a chore and with Moth’s supportive environment, she feels she’s won the job jackpot.
Junior Designer and Animator, Moth (August 2016–present)
The New York Times, XL Recordings, Kiehl’s, Facebook, WWF
BA Illustration Animation, Kingston University London (2013–2016)
Jennifer at Moth’s London-based studio
How would you describe your job?
Basically I design and animate stuff and sometimes I get to direct.
What does an average working day look like?
Usually I’m on one project or task at a time, and because animation is quite a lengthy process I can be on one project for many weeks. If I'm just animating someone else's design, then a project might take a few weeks. However, If I’m designing or directing, there is a lot of front-ended heavy work to be done, such as storyboarding, animatics, character design, as well as creating finished style frames for each scene before handing it to someone else to animate. Pretty much all of my day is in front of a Mac and a Wacom Cintiq tablet on a moveable arm. I work 10am to 7pm usually, with an hour lunch break at 1pm. When there is a tight deadline sometimes you have to stay late.
How did you land your current job?
In the summer of 2015 I did a short two-week internship at Moth, so I got to know the directors David [Prosser], Marie-Margaux [Tsakiri-Scanatovits] and Daniel [Chester]. When Margaux spoke at my university, I asked her if they were looking for an intern and sent them an email with my work. In the interview I remember talking to Margaux about skateboarding and tomatoes, I guess she liked me! I kept in touch and sent them my graduation film, which they responded to with a very cryptic email asking to meet for coffee and offered me a job. I think they chose me because they liked my film, specifically its direction and tone, and thought it was compatible with the direction of their work.
How collaborative is your work?
I feel like it is really collaborative – all the Moths are always so generous with their advice and help. I’m always so happy when we get freelancers in because we get to meet so many talented and friendly people from the London animation community.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
I like designing characters the most – also the moment when the animated shots outnumber the still frames in the animatic and you know that the film is going to work. I really don’t like emails, they stress me out a lot, especially if there are dates, times and appointments involved. The most mundane tasks are doing boils [tracing the same drawing three or four times so that it looks more alive when you loop those frames] or colouring in, because they are so repetitive. But you can just zone out, put on a podcast for a few hours and blaze through.
“It’s difficult to have a good work-life balance when you love and are passionate about what you do because it’s hard to know when to stop.”
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Animation-wise, my favourite was probably animating the little boy in the trailer for children’s book The Storm Whale. The scene was designed by the book's illustrator Benji Davies, Dave [Prosser, from Moth] directed and then me,Ester Rossi and Joe Bichard animated it. I really liked the subtle characterisation and detail, and the folds in his jacket were satisfying to animate.
I also directed a three-minute animation for XL Recordings, with a four-week turnaround. It was the first time I had to direct other animators and attempt to communicate what I wanted. Seeing it come together at the end was so rewarding, I’m really proud of it. Unfortunately it’s not out yet so I can’t really say more about it. It has been really interesting and challenging to adapt to the pace of the industry works, compared to making my graduation film.
What skills are essential to your job?
Soft skills like having a good disposition, communicating well and being good at taking criticism are crucial. Animation is very much a team sport so don’t want to be with moody or difficult people. Organisational skills are also really important when it comes to deadlines and being able to prioritise what needs to get done. You also need concentration, patience and drive.
Would you say your work allows for a good work-life balance?
It is always difficult to have a good work-life balance when you love and are passionate about what you do because it’s hard to know when to stop. Between my job at Moth and my own emails and paperwork for festivals, I haven't worked out the balance quite yet. Long hours have never really bothered me. I always feel really proud and satisfied with myself afterwards, even though it is a bit draining.
What tools do you use most for your work?
At work I use an iMac, Wacom Cintic 22” HD, Photoshop (when animating I use the AnimDessin2 extension bar), Premiere Pro, Audition, After Effects, InDesign, TVPaint and sometimes Cinema 4D. At home I use a Macbook pro retina 15” from 2013, Wacom cintiq 13” HD, a Roost laptop stand, a bluetooth external keyboard, usb splitter and a smudge-guard tablet glove.
A still from Jennifer’s film Tough, made during university, 2016
What did you want to be growing up?
First I wanted to be a chef, then a fashion designer and then a doctor.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
Having studied illustration and animation is invaluable to what I do now. The main thing I learned was a mindset and approach. I honestly think that if I had not done that course with those tutors, I would not think in the way I do now. They taught me how to approach problems, work in teams, talk about and critique film and design, technical skills and most importantly they developed me as a person.
What were your first jobs?
All my other jobs have been non-creative. I worked as a cashier at McDonalds and waitressed at Asian restaurants before my internship at Moth. It was only two weeks, but seeing the Moths and freelancers Claudio Salas and Joe Bichard work really made me up my game. They taught me about production pipelines and ways to be more economical with the way I animated that really helped me get faster – it really helped with my graduation film.
“Animation is very much a team sport.”
Was there an early project you worked on that helped your development?
The animation projects I did at university were all tailored to develop the student in a specific way, whether it was to force us into using abstract imagery to convey a message or making us think about using every part of the space within the frame.
What skills have you learnt along the way?
I have learnt how to animate in a way that’s easier and faster to tweak for the director. Layers are very important. I’ve started to learn how to communicate my ideas and how to be quicker when designing scenes for a project that doesn't have a lot of time. I picked up a new programme recently (TVPaint) because Photoshop animation is clunky.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
For the XL project, working under time constraints was really hard, especially when people can't do things until you've finished designing them first. Learning to compromise is also difficult, especially when someone else doesn't animate something exactly the way you imagined it, but it still works.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
Yes, except I have a lot more freedom and responsibility than I expected. My biggest misconception was how studios work, how they differ, what people do and how you get into the industry. It’s really unclear until you’re inside it.
Could you do this job forever?
Yes I definitely want to make animation for the rest of my life.
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
Words of Wisdom
What advice or recommendations would you give to a young creative wanting to become an animator and designer?
Be bold and brave, don’t be afraid of critique and listen to your mentor or tutor. Come into the studio every day. Don’t change ideas all the time when it gets difficult. Believe in what you can do, commit to your idea and just do it.
This article is part of our In the Studio With feature on Moth.