Creative Lives — Oliver Sin on working in Cheltenham and balancing work as an animator, director and illustrator
Oliver Sin’s journey to becoming an animator was not altogether straightforward. Growing up inspired by video games and animated films, he aspired to be an animator at Disney. But deterred by how hard it seemed to land a job in the industry, he opted to study graphic design instead. Experience designing banner ads for artists such as Adele and Basement Jaxx followed, as did a full-time design role after graduation. Oliver, however, knew it wasn’t quite right for him: “I was in a steady job but I still wasn’t totally happy with what I was doing.” Sinking time into building a new portfolio and showreel, he finally set his sights on the animation career he had dreamed of. Six years later, Oliver is now living in Cheltenham and producing characterful digital animations for a range of clients like Dropbox, Samsung and IBM. We met up with him to chat about tuning into intuition and creating your own chances.
Freelance Director, Animator and Illustrator
Creative Designer, Nerv, Cheltenham (2010–2013)
BA Graphic Design, University of the West of England (2007–2010)
IBM, Dropbox, Airbnb, HTC, WWF, HTC, FC Barcelona, Samsung, Now TV, University of Chicago, It’s Nice That
How would you describe what you do?
I’m a freelance director, animator and illustrator. My illustrations and animations are predominantly digitally rendered and vector based, and a lot of the time, involve characters.
When directing a new project, it’s my responsibility to help reimagine a new vision for brands. I also lend a hand to studios and agencies on their projects with the animation or design process. My clients range from big brands to the education and charity sectors.
What do you like about working in Cheltenham?
Being in Cheltenham has so many advantages. It’s only a town so you don’t get all the hustle and bustle of city life. The town holds multiple festivals throughout the year including Jazz, science, literature and music, so it’s always quite lively. There’s a steady growth of creative businesses and events each year. Not only is it a very scenic and beautiful town (like a flatter Bath Spa), it’s also surrounded by the Cotswolds, which is yet another wonderful part of the UK to be in. If I need to get out, London is only two hours away and Bristol and Birmingham about 45 minutes.
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, though. Cheltenham is an affluent area so houses are extortionate in value compared to many other towns and every year, the Gold Cup is held here for a week, which creates a huge influx of gamblers and drunks. Not my kind of scene.
How does your freelance work usually come about?
The majority of my contacts come via word-of-mouth or directly via an online project or my website. A handful of projects each year come through my US agent, Mendola Artists. Most clients approach me because a project of mine appealed to them. I always try to stay active on creative platforms such as Dribbble, and I’ve been posting a lot more work on my Instagram and Twitter in the past year.
How collaborative is your work?
I mainly collaborate with a producer or creative director but I’d like to believe my line of work is very collaborative in other ways. Every so often I get to direct, which enables me to hire talented animators or illustrators if I’m tight on time, or if the budget allows, and build relationships with them.
I’m also a regular on The Monster Project initiative where I get to collaborate and encourage young students in the US who are exploring the world of art. It’s a very rewarding collaboration.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
I really enjoyed creating the animated rebrand identities for a Raleigh, NC studio called Dash. They gave me their new brand guidelines and full creative freedom and allowed me to produce whatever wacky and weird identity I wanted, so long as it was five seconds long and followed the brand colours. It’s very rare a project like that comes along and I jumped at the opportunity.
“Don’t let others dictate how you should be working and what your work should look like.”
What skills are essential to your job?
Storytelling and project management – I need to be make sure my animations have a flowing story, or else things won’t make sense or gel together. I need project management skills to keep on track with schedules, and if I’m hiring help, it’s a valuable skill to have so you can manage them properly, too.
Are you currently working on any side projects?
I’ve always got a side project on in the pipeline. I have a tendency to start multiple ideas at once. Some may not come into fruition but that's the beauty of having many ideas at once, you pick and choose from the best and roll with it. I’m currently producing an illustrated series of weird musicians just to keep myself busy in-between projects.
What tools do you use most for your work?
My Wacom 22hd Cintiq for the majority of my sketches and illustrations. Programmes I use on a daily basis are Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator for my illustrations and After Effects for animating. Very rarely do I actually use physical pens and sketchbooks any more, which is a shame. However, if I ever do some quick sketch work I tend to go for a trusty 4B pencil and Posca brush markers.
Work for Mentor Up
Work for Mentor Up
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
Surprisingly, I grew up wanting to work as an animator for Disney! I gave up on that dream when I was at school; I freaked out when I found out how hard it was to actually get jobs in the industry. I had an interest in physics, but I was a terrible at science and ended up pursuing art again at college. I’m now doing what I originally wanted to pursue. Funny how things go full circle.
What influence has your upbringing had on your choice of career?
I watched a lot of animations in my childhood. As well as Disney, I was brought up with Studio Ghibli and other obscure animes. I have very fond memories watching My Neighbour Totoro with my cousins. I was also a big fan of video games and would dedicate hours playing Zelda and Pokémon. I would also create comics with my friends that were part-storytelling and part-puzzles. My taste, values and how my mind ticks have definitely been influenced by all this.
How is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I have a love-hate relationship with what I studied at university. I personally did not take too much away from my graphic design course and felt ill-prepared when I joined the real world after graduating.
The few things I am grateful to have experienced while there was everything I learnt from other students – both on my course and others. A lot of my friends were studying animation, and it was inspiring to see what they would develop. It helped me realise that my passion lay somewhere outside of graphic design.
Work for The Monster Project
Work for The Monster Project
What were your first jobs?
My first ever jobs was as a part-time cleaner and a IT tech assistant at the same school. My first creative job was while I was at university, creating flash banners for the Beggar Group’s record labels. This was my first real taste of what working in the creative industry was like. I was given the chance to create banners for some well known bands and artists such as Adele, Basement Jaxx and Vampire Weekend. After graduating from university, I did an internship at a digital agency in Cheltenham called Nerv. I was eventually hired as their creative designer full-time, helping with branding, web and UI projects.
Was there anything in particular that helped your development at the start of your career?
I don’t think I would have the the confidence to do what I do now if I didn’t connect with the very talented and humble, Matt Smithson of Igor & Valentine (originally known as Man vs Magnet). He was the first animation director to hire me and put his trust in me. He was the one that gave me the confidence to jump into full-time freelance and I have a lot to thank him for.
“I was in a steady job but I still wasn’t totally happy with what I was doing. I felt like a sinking ship.”
What’s been your biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge I had to overcome was a period between the end half of university and being in full-time employment. It was near the last third of university that I realised that I wasn’t 100% sure I had the drive and passion to work in graphic design field. I sucked it up, carried on and graduated with a respectable grade. I was in a steady job but I still wasn’t totally happy with what I was doing. I felt like a sinking ship. This is when I knew I had to do something about it. I used my spare time to build up a portfolio and showreel so I could leap into the world of animation and illustration, a dream I wanted to fulfil. Six years later, I’m still doing what I love.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
I believe so, I just didn’t realise how much more there was to learn when you own your own business. A whole lot more admin than I expected too! However, there was no doubt in my mind that my true calling in life was to do something design-related. I can’t imagine myself in another industry.
What would you like to do next?
One of my future dreams is to create and direct my own animated show. I’m a big fan of cartoons like The Amazing World of Gumball and would love to have my own one day! For now, I’d like to bring in more projects with a storytelling narrative over the typical explainer job.
Could you do this job forever?
I would love to, however it’s hard to imagine myself in my sixties doing the same work because the industry feels like it’s a young person’s game. Time will tell.
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
I’m actually currently developing a separate brand for myself instead of using my name. I’m only a one man band right now, so it’s only natural for me to desire a studio with my own bunch of talented staff. Right now, things are very good and I’d like to do a lot more directing work.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Don’t let others dictate how you should be working and what your work should look like. It’s great to learn from others and even be inspired, but never feel the need to be exactly like them. Instead, experiment, explore and find out what you are comfortable with. Share your work and gain feedback, it’s one of the best ways to improve your development.
If you’re worried that you’re not getting the type of projects you’d like, then create your own chances by spending some time on personal projects. That way, future clients will want to hire you for it. I found personal development to be very valuable in building my own career.