Creative Lives — Animator and director Russ Etheridge: “Whatever you find fun will be the thing you become an expert at”
Having worked at both Moving Picture Company and Animade in London, animator and director Russ Etheridge recently made the decision to go freelance and relocate. With ten years of experience behind him, he is now based in Brighton, collaborating with studios such as Moth and the Wednesday Collective, as well as acquiring new clients like Micro Museums in New York. But his current reality isn’t one he believed possible while at university, admitting “I didn’t realise [animation] could even be a career.” He describes some of the skills, lessons and projects he’s collected along the way, and why change has become such an important factor to his development.
Freelance Director and Animator
TED-Ed via Wednesday Collective, New York Times via Moth, Micro Museums
Animation MA, Royal College of Art, 2007–2009
Digital Arts BA, Thames Valley University, 2004–2007
How would you describe what you do?
I’m a self-employed animator and director. I work mainly in the commercial world, which on the face of it sounds dry, but it actually allows me to work on a really wide range of projects. Things like social media campaigns, explainers, short films, public space installations and even the occasional good old-fashioned TV advert. You never know what will come next, and the quick turnaround keeps things interesting.
What does a typical working day look like?
To be honest, I’m on the computer for at least 8 hours on a weekday. You may have heard that animation takes a long time, and it is the absolute truth! Mostly gone are the days of working with real materials in the real world.
If you’re a commercial animator working in the industry, your world is drawing tablets and software. I do however actually use a sketch book for planning any design work. Also being self-employed means a fair amount of emailing, particularly if I’m running my own job.
Where does the majority of your work take place?
My workdays are currently spent in a shared studio space where I rent a desk. It’s a big, bright space with plenty of plants and a good work vibe. There are ten or so other people doing various things, mostly creative work, a few designers, an illustrator and a couple of other animators. A small animation company called Formplay own the space, and I do the odd freelance project with them too.
How does your freelance work usually come about?
Most of my work comes through the various contacts and other animators I’ve met or made friends with over the years. But a lot comes through word of mouth, and through the work I post online.
How collaborative is your work?
Animation is hard and takes a long time, so most projects require a number of people to create something in a reasonable amount of time! Typical teams involve two to five animators, and a producer to keep track of the project and liaise with the client. Then you might have more creatives and producers depending on the size of the job.
A good example of a very collaborative animation project was for IBM Dublin Labs, which I worked on while at Animade. This project used a wide range of animation techniques, After Effects puppet animation, Cinema 4D, hand drawn and stop motion. We had specialists in all these fields in the studio doing their thing.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The least enjoyable thing is when a job is running behind schedule and disorganised, so you’ll be rushing or doing lots of overtime. It can be incredibly stressful and the quality of the work suffers. Luckily this seems to be getting less common for me.
There’s lots I enjoy about animation, I don’t think you could do this job if that wasn’t the case, as it takes a lot of patience and learning. I’ll often sit and stare at something I’ve animated looping over and over again, to see if I’ve missed something. I also get a massive sense of satisfaction from figuring out an elegant solution to a problem.
“On the face of it, working in the commercial world sounds dry, but it allows me to work on a really wide range of projects.”
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
I got to go to the Facebook headquarters in California, which was incredibly exciting and surreal. The job was fun but the unlimited free food and the park on the roof topped it for me! Since going freelance at the beginning of the year I’ve had the chance to be involved in some awesome projects by Moth and Wednesday Collective, they’re some of my favourite designers and just great people to work with too.
I’ve also been working on something special for a non-profit in New York called Micro Museums, I’m hoping it’ll be out in public spaces in the US towards the end of the year.
What skills are essential to your job?
A good sense of timing for animation is essential, as well as being able to visualise how things move in your head. Also a good grasp of design and keeping up to date with what other people are doing is incredibly useful. In terms of technical skills, After Effects is my main tool; it’s a deep programme so the better I know it the faster and easier my job is. The same goes for Cinema 4D, which I use for all my 3D stuff.
Are you currently working on any self-initiated projects?
Absolutely, but it’s always tricky to balance with paid work. I find you can get super-excited about an idea, but then ‘real’ work comes along. You get snippets of time here and there, and then the idea doesn’t feel fresh anymore. Animade has a very healthy side project culture. Any spare moment between client work is spent on personal or studio-initiated work. An ongoing series called Propz is a great mixing pot of ideas where animators are encouraged to get weird.
What tools do you use most for your work?
After Effects and Cinema 4D are my main tools for animation, occasionally Photoshop for the odd bit of hand drawn, maybe Animate (Flash) if I have to. I do most of my work with my MacBook pro, a second screen and a Wacom Intuos 5. I also have a small Cintiq for more serious digital drawing. Then I have my trusty sketchbook and 2B pencils for sketching, planning and doodling.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
I’m not sure I had a clearly defined career goal from an early age, although I did start animation when I was a teenager. But I don’t think I realised it could even be a career until I was half way through university!
My mum dabbled in a bit of design, so although neither of my parents took a creative career path, creativity was around. We also travelled while I was growing up. In the mid ’90s we lived in California above an animator who had worked on Nightmare Before Christmas. For me, this was like living above a rock star. Unfortunately I didn’t care enough about networking when I was 10 so there’s no lasting contact there!
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I studied digital arts for an undergraduate degree, which actually gave me a lot of time and freedom to do animation. I made a few mixed-media and straightforward animations for my third year project, which enabled me to land a place at the Royal College of Art’s Animation MA. This was a great course, which pushed me to think more deeply about my work. I also met loads of amazing animators there, many of whom I am still in contact with, including the Animade guys where I worked for a few years.
“I don’t think I realised [animation] could even be a career until I was half way through university!”
Was there anything in particular that helped you at the start of your career?
I got the work experience at MPC in quite a roundabout way, and also had a brush with animation history. My grandfather had recently got in touch with some people he knew as a teenager in Sea Cadets back in the 1940s. One of those chaps happened to be Roy Naisbitt, an amazing layout artist who worked closely with the great Richard Williams at his peak.
Roy was the layout artist on Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Space Jam, among many other famous projects. He showed me his treasure trove of old animation cels (celluloids) and sketches he kept from that era, it was mind blowing! Roy’s son owned an editing studio in Soho and had a friend at MPC, who I was introduced to. This meeting eventually led to the placement in their motion studio.
Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
One early project was for Virgin Atlantic in 2010, where I made a lot of the background scenes. It was one of the most high-end ads I had ever worked on, and although the content isn’t exactly to my taste, it gave me a fantastic insight to the inner-workings of the VFX commercial world and it was exciting to see my work in the cinema.
Another more recent project was ‘Olympops’ in 2016, which I made as a side project for Animade in celebration of the Rio Olympics. It’s a project I’m particularly proud of and really represents a fun and engaging style that I want to develop more in my work.
Virgin Atlantic ‘001’, 2010. Agency: Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe Y&R, production company: Partizan, post-production company: The Moving Picture, company director: Traktor
What skills have you learnt along the way?
During my time at Animade I learnt a lot about character animation and design. I’m that finding really fun and satisfying as I continuing on that path. I also learnt a lot about project management and dealing with clients. This has become a necessity, but is equally important when working in any part of the industry, whether it be freelancing, managing your own projects, or being part of a bigger team.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
I’ve made a few big changes over my career, going freelance for the first time after leaving MPC, then taking a full-time role at Animade, and now being self-employed again, as well as moving cities. Each change had its own challenges but also brought new benefits. It’s definitely kept things exciting – I think change is important, it lets your goals evolve and keeps you on your toes. You never know what you’ll learn with each step.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
I’m not sure I had many preconceptions about my job to begin with, it’s all felt like exploring the unknown and adapting as I go. I didn’t think freelance work would be as prevalent as it is, allowing me to be self-employed for half my career.
I also feel a lot more like a business person than I ever thought I would be. I wish someone had told me from a young age that business skills are essential and unavoidable!
What would you like to do next?
I’m currently enjoying being in Brighton, but I’ve only been here since the spring so it all feels fairly new. I’m looking forward to seeing where the jobs take me!
Could you do this job forever?
I would definitely like to! I’m not even sure what will happen over the next few years let alone the next 30. In her interview, Rose Blake mentioned painter Rose Wyile, who is still making beautiful paintings in her 80s. That is an amazing target, to still be inspired and having fun with what you create way past retirement age and proves all you need is drive, not youth!
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
If there’s enough work, I’ve thought about teaming up with some other like-minded animators and starting a little studio of my own, but I’m also quite content for the moment as an independent animator.
“I think change is important, it lets your goals evolve and keeps you on your toes. You never know what you’ll learn with each step.”
Character design in progress
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Everybody has a different goal and different tastes, so it’s tricky to give one piece of advice. I think with anything skilled and creative, whatever you find fun will be the thing you become an expert at; that thing you can’t stop fiddling with or working on.
I think ultimately it’s that sense of satisfaction from making something you feel proud of, which is what most creatives are continuously after. It’s a hard thing to achieve but you’ll catch glimpses of it along the way.
One last thing would be to understand your work in a wider context. Look at what other people are doing, follow people online, meet other people in your field, speak to them and learn from them.