Creative Lives — “Let the job be fun”: Brighton-based animator and designer, Laurie Rowan
Working from his studio in Brighton, animator and designer Laurie Rowan’s ever-expanding set of surreal and playful characters can make for bizarre professional conversations: “You end up in straight-faced boardroom meetings saying things like ‘Ok, so what’s the ETA on the yum yum gobble drops?’” Laurie graduated with a BA degree in Media Practice and Theory from the University of Sussex, and got his first job animating £2 video clips sent via text message before smartphones became the norm. He then progressed to game design, winning work with TV show competitions and commissions for animated films featuring his own characters. Here, Laurie walks us through his supportive upbringing, catching his first big breaks and mastering the production process from end-to-end, all while keeping fun on the horizon.
Freelance Animator and Designer
Digital Creative, Kanoti (2010–2014)
BA Media Practice and Theory, University of Sussex (2003–2006)
BBC, Channel 4, Al Jazeera, It’s Nice That, eOne, Disney, Nickelodeon, Marvel
How would you describe what you do?
I create children’s content for the most part. The bulk of my work is around game design – making landscapes, characters, rigging and animating them and working with an art director and development team to make it all work. I also do linear animation work, or what’s termed, ‘explainer videos’, and sometimes I’m called upon to create sets of short looping gif animations for Facebook sticker sets to promote the release of a film or TV show. Generally, I work in small studios as a third party supplier and I try balancing this with creating my own self-initiated work, which is what helps gain new clients and keeps me excited.
What does a typical working day look like?
I keep working hours from 9am to 5pm and hire a studio across town where I do my work. Most of my working day is spent at a computer screen, but where possible, I try to work in a sketchbook because working solely on a computer can become constrictive. The majority of my projects are long term, so I’ll be contracted to a single client and focus only on one project at a time.
How does your freelance work usually come about?
Generally, my work comes through referrals. Brighton has a lot of media agencies for it’s small size and once you’ve worked in the industry for a while, you become known, but it’s important to maintain relationships, remind people you exist and are available to work from time to time. Sometimes I’m contacted through contracting agencies, which are brought in to fill a specific role, and this comes about from LinkedIn. Recently, I’ve been creating my own exposure through Instagram, Giphy and other online platforms and started receiving inquiries about producing work in my personal style.
How collaborative is your work?
When I’m designing games, a large part of the job is being an intermediary between the design and development departments, finding a balance between aesthetics and functionality. The same goes for the straight animation work. I usually work with a phased delivery approach and the client gets two rounds of feedback. It’s key to ensuring they understand and are happy with your thinking.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The most satisfying part of my job is creating something tangible – experimenting with ideas, overcoming technical constraints and ending up with something fun that is seen and used by people. There are downsides, of course. The least enjoyable part of my work is scoping – working out how long each aspect of the project takes and the resources required.
“Brighton has a lot of media agencies for it’s small size and once you’ve worked in the industry for a while, you become known.”
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Being commissioned to direct a film for a collaboration between It’s Nice That and Canvas, as part of their Ways of Seeing project. I was given free rein to interpret the FACT Liverpool gallery space and distil that into a three-minute film revolving around my characters. It was the first job where I had to recruit my own team and allocate tasks. From start to finish, the process involved visiting the site and drawing up ideas, creating a storyboard and treatment and getting these approved by all the commissioning bodies. Timing was tight, so we made a concrete plan to get everything we needed in one smooth process.
After this, I had to create an animatic [animated storyboard] to demonstrate the pacing and narrative of the piece. I handed this to the client to get an impression of what they bought, the composer to begin a rough draft of the soundtrack and my animation assistant, as a guide for 3D tracking. Finished segments were added as we went and shared with clients to show progress.
What tools do you use most for your work?
My main tools are 3ds Max for building and animating characters, After Effects for putting my videos together and animating details such as patterns and faces, and I draw a lot in Adobe Illustrator, which I also use to create vectors for speeding up my 3D modelling. I recently bought an iPad Pro with the pencil and this has become integral to my work. I use it to sketch out concepts in Procreate and love how it has the freedom of traditional pen to paper, but the ability to work an image into something close to the final thing, all in one place.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
Growing up I wanted to be an animator, a comic book artist or a stand-up comedian. I loved The Simpsons, Labyrinth and Eddie Izzard and saw an appealing mutual creative freedom in all of them. I used to spend hours making short claymation animations with my dad’s camcorder and then discovered an early version of Flash. They weren’t very groundbreaking and were probably quite crass.
What influence has your upbringing had on your choice of career?
Massive. My mum is an artist and my dad introduced me to surreal, expressive literature and music. Creativity was really valued in our household and I always felt the arts were a viable career choice. I was a late bloomer in school and art was the only thing I really excelled at, so I always felt it was central to my identity and sense of personal worth.
How is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I studied Media Practice and Theory at Sussex University. I did get hands on experience working on a project from start to finish using creative software and recording equipment, but I wouldn’t say it prepared me for working in the industry. It was a very broad course, which could be accused of being composed of box-ticking elements. Writing my dissertation was very useful – I mean, it was awful – but gave me the analytical skills I bring to breaking down projects.
What were your first jobs?
My first job was as a junior animator at a small animation studio in Brighton. The company’s focus was to create short video clips to sell to mobile phone subscribers. This was before smartphones and before the potential of video on mobile was properly realised. We used to charge £2 for a one-minute video clip the user received by text message. The company anticipated a profit of millions and I think we made £400, which was largely spent at Pizza Express.
What one person helped you the most at the start of your career?
A man called John Davison, a designer based in Brighton, has been central to my career. He gave me a lot of opportunities and had a lot of patience as I learned how you conduct yourself around a boss. When the first company I worked for collapsed, John recruited me to work for his digital agency Kanoti. I worked there for five years and learned everything I know about dealing with projects and putting ideas into practice. Unfortunately, that company fell victim to the recession, so I went freelance and John supplied my first few jobs. He’s still a dear friend and my career would not be where it is without him.
“You end up in straight-faced boardroom meetings saying things like ‘Ok, so what’s the ETA on the yum yum gobble drops?’”
Laurie designed the website for animated children's television series P J Masks, which was nominated for a children's BAFTA
Laurie oversaw the creation of Al Jazeera’s children’s digital channel, Baraem
Laurie art directed this app for CBBC, which won a children's BAFTA
Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
I did a project for the BBC as part of their Connected Studios division, creating a seventh online episode of the TV programme Inside No 9. The show featured a live pitching session – 12 companies were given a brief and two days to develop their treatment in direct competition with one another. Then, the completed pitch was delivered in front of competitors. It was an unconventional working method and more stressful than I’m used to, but it was a growing experience and we won.
From there, we worked with a scriptwriter to align and accommodate each other’s approach, and made a live action comic revolving around cinemagraphs, which give the impression of a living photograph. We created a virtual set in 3ds Max, hired a giant green screen studio at Elstree Studios and directed a live action shoot with professional actors over two days. Once we had the footage, it was inserted into our virtual landscapes and we worked with developers to convert it to a HTML5 page. Then we created promotional artwork to be used in the online campaign.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
Initially, I thought it would be more straight-up fun. It is fun but it’s also work. Working a lot in children’s media, it’s funny how outlandish subject matter becomes everyday and cartoonish language gets normalised. You end up in straight-faced boardroom meetings saying things like “Ok, so what’s the ETA on the yum yum gobble drops?”
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become an animator or designer?
Work hard! Be invested in what you do and make critical evaluations of whether it’s good. Let ego go – you’ll have to throw a lot in the bin, and that’s just part of the process. Be nice. Do personal work and learn software and new production techniques that help you produce good work, fast. There’s no such thing as cheating, short of copying someone else's work – don’t do that. Remain positive and let the job be fun.