Creative Lives — Animation isn’t a style, it’s an integral part of the story: Animation director Marcus Armitage

Posted 07 August 2019 Interview by Indi Davies
Written by Marianne Hanoun

Don’t start at the top, start at the beginning. Looking back, the advice which animation director Marcus Armitage would give to his younger self is pretty clear. “I wanted to go straight into directing”, he tells us, “but it was the biggest mistake.” An RCA graduate, Marcus already had a BAFTA-nominated film under his belt, but chose to spend time really learning his trade – freelancing as an animator and assistant at studios like Moth and Beakus. These days you’ll find him directing and animating full-time for Studio AKA in Clerkenwell. He tells us more about the journey that brought him there – including a short stint as a portrait artist for pets.

Job Title

Animation Director, Studio AKA (2018–present)

Based

London

Previous Employment

Freelance Animator, Studio AKA (2016–present)
Animation Director, British Humanist Association (2016)
Freelance Animator, Moth Studio (2014)
Animation Director, The School of Life (2014)

Place of Study

MA, Royal College of Art (2012–2014)
BA Animation, UCA Farnham (2009–2012)

Website
Social Media

Marcus

Day-to-Day

How would you describe your job?
As an animation director, jobs often start with a brief coming into the studio from various clients, which the other directors and I respond to. I’m quite a versatile artist so I pitch on a wide range of things at the studio, rather than the jobs that are specific to me. And if I win a pitch I’ll direct that job, with the help of the producers at AKA and a team of animators.

The briefs and commissions can vary wildly – from traditional advertising spots to title sequences and animated narrative inserts to TV shows or films. It’s the variety that keeps me in this industry, and keeps me trying new things.

“It’s the variety that keeps me in this industry, and keeps me trying new things.”

What does a typical working day look like?
I usually rock up to the studio in Clerkenwell at about 9:15am. We try to work with people in the studio, and don’t often do remote work. I have my own desk and a giant pin-board for storing ideas and drawings, which makes it feel like my place.

My time at AKA is split between many different roles and projects. If I’m not directing a job, you’ll usually find me animating or artworking another director’s job instead. It’s very collaborative at AKA; people are always switching from one job to the other, and the directors help each other out if they can.

Receiving and responding to briefs challenges me, which is something I thrive on. I love working on a pitch, even if I only have a day. It’s a mad game that you get better at every time; sometimes I’m amazed at the work I can produce in such a short amount of time.

My Dad, Marcus' BAFTA-nominated graduate film from the Royal College of Art

Stills from My Dad, Marcus' BAFTA-nominated graduate film from the Royal College of Art

Stills from My Dad, Marcus' BAFTA-nominated graduate film from the Royal College of Art

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Could you tell us about how your relationship with AKA works?
I started at AKA as a freelance animator for about two years, and eventually they asked me if I would like to be represented by them in May 2018. I wasn’t sure about being a director due to a bad previous experience, but in the end it was a win-win situation; I could continue doing animation and if jobs came up, I could direct them knowing I had a great team around me.

As a director, there are lots of things you need to be on top of you wouldn’t necessarily be aware of as an animator. Previously I would just start animating without any plan, but this way of working doesn’t translate into the commercial world – everyone changes their minds and you have to be ready to change your animation with them.

“The best way to think of [social media] is as a test platform: try things, put them out and see what reaction you get.”

What has been your most exciting recent project?
We were asked to pitch on E4’s rebrand, and their closing line on the brief was ‘surprise us’. I loved this project as there was a lot of creative freedom, and the chance to do something big and bold.

Working with the CG department at AKA to make my designs move for the New Breed ident was also challenging. It felt like I was actually directing something and working with skilled people to make my vision. It was very different from my previous work – that’s my aim really, to be able to do projects that excite me and not necessarily based on previous work.

How important is self-promotion to your job?
When I was first starting out, I put all my energy into self-promotion. When there’s so many other students out there, you have to find a way to get noticed. I don’t put as much energy into it now, though, as other things take up more time, like my life.

But it’s still important – as agencies and potential employers look more to social media platforms to find new talent, you have to at least put the work there for them to stumble across it. You will always have to self-promote because no one is going out looking for you. The best way to think of it is as a test platform: try things, put them out and see what reaction you get.

Hand-drawn documentary, That Yorkshire Sound, Made for BBC4's 'Listen to Britain' (2019)

What are the best and worst parts of the job?
The best part of my job is the people I get to work with. The culture at AKA is great; it’s not a get in, headphones on, go home kind of place. We talk, have a big communal dining area and play football on Fridays, which means people from different departments get to know each other.

But people can also be the worst bit, too. Animation is a complicated process and the most difficult part can be trying to get clients to understand that there isn’t a magic animate button. Managing people and expectations is something that comes with experience; it’s the part of being a director that I never thought about.

“The most difficult part [of my job] can be trying to get clients to understand that there isn’t a magic animate button.”

What skills and tools are essential to your work?
My animation skills have got me far; being able to hold character proportions and produce subtle animation is something that is hard to come by. I probably use Adobe After Effects, the most out of any other tools.

There are also the skills that you don’t learn and don’t get told about. As art students it’s the one thing you dread, but getting feedback and being able to take it on the chin is important. Sometimes it feels like a personal attack, but you have to remember that it’s there to make you better. I have learnt so much at AKA, and that’s all down to the feedback I’ve had and the changes I’ve made to my work over time. Being able to take what someone says, put it into action and understand why has upped my game massively.

E4 Ident 2018 – New Breed, made with Studio AKA

How I Got Here

Do you remember what you wanted to be growing up?
At first I wanted to be a pilot, and joined the air cadets until I was 18. Then I focused on my art instead at which point I wanted to be a painter, and did pet portraits for a while...

How do you feel your studies have helped in your career? Do you feel a degree is necessary for this kind of work?
For me a degree was completely necessary. I didn’t really have a clue about animation, and yes I could have stayed at home and learned the process of animation, but I would have never learned about film making and discovered animations that changed my perspective on what I want to do.

It’s a period of discovery that changes who you are, and surrounds you with similar people who will help you later in life. Studying gave me the motivation and support to make my voice in the animation world. It allowed me to learn what I wanted to say and how I could express that through sound and vision. I don’t make films in my job, but I do have to tell visual stories and you have to try and create something unique. And that’s what university was for me.

“As art students it’s the one thing you dread, but getting feedback and being able to take it on the chin is important.”

What were your first steps after graduating?
After my BA, I felt there was still more I could do with animation. I got accepted into the Royal College of Art to continue studying animation at MA level, as I admired the work that the students produced.

After my MA I had to land on my feet quickly because I hadn’t earned any money and was renting in London. My first job was animating a video for The School of Life with my friend Ignatz Johnson Higham who I studied with. The producer on it was also an old friend from UCA. It was a fun job, with a quick turnaround and we were still able to use the college’s equipment before they kicked us out. It was the perfect start: we pushed it online, it got a Vimeo staff pick and helped us both get more work.

What is Literature for? Short film made for The School of Life with Ignatz Johnson Higham

Was there anything in that particularly helped you develop?
Working with director Steve Small at AKA. I remember doing an animation test when I started, to see if I could get a job working on the TSB commercials. I did my one-day test and thought I’d done a decent job. Then came the notes…

It changed my understanding of animation completely, I felt like I had just been pretending until this point. There were four pages of detailed notes and drawings on where it could be improved. When I saw them, I thought that was the end, but I was asked to work on it the following week. I learned so much from Steve and other animators with years of experience behind them, like Peter Dodd.

I also recently worked with Steve, painting individual frames for the animated inserts on Black Earth Rising. That kind of job can open doors to new ways of working too, and we have started doing a lot more work within TV shows and films.

“I try not to use animation as just a style – but as an integral part of the story.”

If you could recommend one resource to take inspiration from, what would it be?
I always recommend Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. It does something that all great media does, in that it turns your prejudices upside down and change the way you see the world.

The way it’s written is also a complete package: the physical book itself is part of the story, as it’s written as a collection of diary notes that chart the character’s progression and eventually his regression. The power of this book is in the format, it makes it feel real. It’s something I try to do with animation: use it as not just a style but as an integral part of the story.

Marcus directed this insta-novel of Edgar Allen Poe's 'The Raven' for the New York Public Library with creative production house, Blacklist

Marcus directed this insta-novel of Edgar Allen Poe's 'The Raven' for the New York Public Library with creative production house, Blacklist

Have you ever found it difficult to make a living from your work?
After I graduated I realised that I wouldn’t make any money from making films. And after having made two films recently, I made losses on both…

There have been moments where things have just gone silent, but I would say I have been lucky. I’m a hard worker, and my main problem has actually been figuring out who to say ‘no’ to, and trying not to work two jobs at the same time.

What would you like to do next?
I have a film I want to make, it’s more ambitious than my other stuff. I’m working on it in between jobs, so I can pitch it. It’s about Yorkshire and rhubarb. It’ll be great. Other than that, I just want to keep learning, growing and working on bigger projects.

A still from Marcus' film, That Yorkshire Sound (2019)

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to do the same kind of work?
You may think you want to start at the top. I did, I wanted to go straight into directing, but it was the biggest mistake. I had a terrible time, didn’t make any good work and ended up losing all love for animation.

Start at the beginning – assist, animate, learn your trade and get to know people. Then work on your own things in-between and prove that you have a voice worth listening to.

I learnt so much about being a director from working under someone, seeing how they gave feedback and dealt with changes. I discovered that if negativity is coming from the top then everyone feels it, but if the director is positive about it, even if it’s not the best thing, you are more likely to give your best work.

Posted 07 August 2019 Interview by Indi Davies
Written by Marianne Hanoun
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Animation
Mentions: Marcus Armitage

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