Creative Lives — Marie-Margaux Tsakiri-Scanatovits, director at Moth
Director Marie-Margaux Tsakiri-Scanatovits set up London animation collective Moth with two friends in 2010, unaware that it would blossom into a full-time studio. Since then the team has expanded to five and now counts Facebook, The Guardian, The New York Times, XL Records and NSPCC as clients. This growth means that as well as generating concepts for animations, Marie-Margaux’s role encompasses a fair bit of strategy and admin. Previously she freelanced at the capital’s top animation studios, observing their highs to inform Moth’s fun and supportive culture – the success of which she attributes to “chemistry, common values and goals”.
Director and co-founder, Moth (2010–present)
The New York Times, XL Recordings, Kiehl’s, Facebook, WWF
Freelance Animator and Director (2010)
MA Animation, Royal College of Art (2008–2010)
BA Illustration and Animation, Kingston University (2005–2008)
Marie-Margaux at work in the Moth studio
How would you describe your job?
I am a designer and director but also take time to do some of the emails and admin work, to take a break from designing. Work is split between us differently depending on how many projects we have running I don’t have time for animation so much anymore, which is something I miss. In my ideal day, I would have four hours assigned just to animate a tetrapod!
How did you land your current job?
I set up Moth Collective with Daniel Chester and Dave Prosser in 2010, after graduating from the Royal College of Art. I don’t think we knew that we were going to become a full-time studio, but we naturally grew into one. Before that I worked as a 2D animator for studios in London such as Studio Aka, Nexus, Golden Wolf and The Electric Theatre Collective. I would be called in to help out with either animation or artworking, or to help a director with a pitch. Though freelancing can be stressful, I loved the constant change and meeting so many talented people; some of them became good friends. I observed how people ran their studios, how producers talked to freelancers and clients and how they picked up the phone. All that observation and learning I took with me into the studio.
Where does the majority of your work take place?
We do all of our work from our studio except for the few times we go to teach or do talks. We spend eight or nine hours in front of our screens, though if you count Netflix in the evenings, it all adds up!
“I don’t think we knew that we were going to become a full-time studio, but we naturally grew into one.”
How collaborative is your work?
Very. A lot of people have told me their stories of collectives that haven’t worked, although they were made up of very talented people. It doesn’t just take individually talented people to make a team. Like in any relationship, a collective is about chemistry, common values and goals. We like to take scripts from clients and get a sense of what they want, but we also ask them to involve us from an early stage to make the process as collaborative as possible. When it comes to freelancers, I communicate what I have in mind for a specific scene, but ultimately I want them to inject their character and ideas.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The least enjoyable aspect is dealing with difficult clients. Often that people want a lot out of you without realising the cost implications, or they let you down and refuse to compensate for the time you have worked. Unfortunately, these scenarios will always play out, no matter how big or small you are. What you learn is how to protect yourself, so that when it happens you are less affected by it. You also learn to take things less personally.
The job was much more stressful when there were just the three of us running the studio, when we had to pull late nights on a weekly basis. We were juggling directing, designing, animating, responding to client emails and holding meetings, working on festival submissions, cleaning (yes, that’s part of it too) and more. Since we have taken two more people into our team, the roles have spread out more, and we all have a better work-life balance.
“Like in any relationship, a collective is about the chemistry, common values and goals.”
Character line-up for Facebook Events
Work in progress for Facebook Events
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Our first job for Facebook in August 2016, which was also the first with our agents Hornet Inc. It was a promotional film for the Facebook Events team aimed at an audience in Latin America. The deadline was extremely tight (4 weeks) so we had to work intensely for a month to get it done. Thankfully we put a really good team together and came up with a fun concept that kept us all entertained throughout. I concentrated specifically on the character design and directing the character animation. It was really satisfying that I had a chance to inject my salsa dancing knowledge into it. We worked with freelancers Carlos De Faria, Ross Plaskow, Joe Bichard, Stephen McNally, Aaron Lampert, Marcus Armitage, U Ka Hei Knifeson, and Ester Rossi, while Box of Toys did the sound and music.
What skills are essential to your job?
As the studio grows, we need to develop new skills. It’s not just the drawing or designing skills that you need; it’s directing, producing and communication, time management, business strategy, financial management and much more. Depending on our strengths and what we enjoy, each of us take on extra responsibility in addition to the creative work.
What tools do you use most for your work?
Apple iMac; Wacom Cintiq 22HD (for drawing); Adobe Suite; TVPaint (for designing and animating).
Marie-Margaux at work in the Moth studio
Inside Moth’s London-based studio
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
I decided I wanted to be an animator when I was four. I went through different ideas, from jewellery design to fashion to becoming an interpreter, but I eventually steered back to animation.
What were your first jobs?
I did my first internship at Nexus, animating for Celyn Brazier. It was a lovely two weeks that led to more work with Nexus for much longer periods of time. Once I had their name under my belt, other bigger studios started trusting me and offering me work, so I will always be grateful to Celyn for choosing me to help him out.
What skills have you learnt along the way?
I am actually a technophobe so I should be adapting much more than I am now. The skill set changes very quickly, year to year even. I tend to stick to everything drawing-related, but it is also because this is what I enjoy the most. I also really enjoy anything that has to do with communication, so the guys have to drag me off emails sometimes and get me back onto drawing.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
We used to take projects on for very low budgets that had creative freedom in return. Unfortunately, a lot of them would end up getting cancelled in the end, so you would end up with nothing. No exposure, and no income. Since then, we are much more careful about what and how many of these projects we take on.
Is the role what you thought it would be?
My 20-year-old self hadn’t quite thought of all the studio admin you need to do with your designer’s hands, but I enjoy it all the same.
Work for ‘The Last Job on Earth’
What would you like to do next?
I did this exercise the other day that I read about in a Motionographer article. The exercise is to picture a Tuesday in five years’ time and to then realise if what you are doing is going to lead you there. I am not going to bore you with the specifics of my future Tuesday, but Moth was in the core of the picture, strong and still standing. It is very much who I am and what I do, I don’t see an end to it. Within Moth, we aspire to keep doing interesting projects and feature-length content. And having fun, above all.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become an animation director?
Work hard (but don’t burn out). Be nice and grateful to people but don’t let them step on you. Don’t be arrogant, it might take you somewhere momentarily but not for long. Develop drawing skills, they are the basis for everything. Freelance in different studios and roles, to see what suits you. You might discover a strength you never knew you had. Develop communication skills; it is part of the job and it is good for you personally too. Freelancers like to work with directors that are good communicators and that make them feel at ease. Leave work at 7pm and do something fun. Things you do outside of work feed your work and your ideas. Always take holidays.
This article is part of our In the Studio With feature on Moth.