Creative Lives — From BMX videos to animating across the Atlantic: Stephen Ong on his journey to Make It Move
It could all have been so different for Stephen Ong. With initial plans to study geography at university, it was a love of shooting BMX videos that led him to design, and eventually, animation. Soon after his graduate film ‘When Humans Ruled the Earth’ was awarded a Vimeo Staff Pick, he landed his first full-time job as a creative at Bloc Media. Together with ex-colleague Mark Fuller, the duo formed Norwich-based animation studio Make It Move Productions in 2016. Creating silly, serious and interesting stories, each project now has at least two brains and four hands on deck – whether that be client work or independent projects. In this time, Stephen has seen his range of skills stretch to animating on-the-go and expertly chasing invoices. He tells us more about what he’s learned so far.
Founder and Animator, Make it Move Productions (2016–present)
Freelance Animator at Razorfish, Spindle Productions, JESS3 (2011–2016)
Creative, Bloc Media, Norwich (2010–2011)
BA Animation, Norwich University of the Arts (2007–2010)
How would you describe what you do?
Make it Move is an animation studio set up by myself and creative director Mark Fuller. We create films for clients and independently as a studio. Our work ranges from quick GIFs to short films. We like to create silly things, serious things and tell stories that people will find interesting.
What does a typical working day look like?
The animation we do is largely digital, so most of the time we are in front of a screen, but we do still draw on paper every so often. We mostly work from 9am to 5pm, taking a break from screens when we can. We work on projects and creative work 90% of the time, with perhaps 10% of the work being admin tasks.
Where does the majority of your work take place?
In our office in Norwich, unless we’re meeting clients. We just got an iPad pro which has meant we can draw and animate outside of the office and on trains to meetings, which is great. I even made a little animation the other day on a flight mid-way across the Atlantic.
The Norwich creative scene is very collaborative, we’re currently working on a project involving many studios and independent creatives in the area called New Impressions, which is a celebration of Renaissance Books. The community is always growing as well, we’ve got a great art school in town and a lot of graduates stick around as it’s easy to develop your practice. It’s a very inexpensive place to live and run a business.
“Each project involves at least two sets of hands, and we always reach out to our network for sound designers and animators.”
Mark Fuller, Make it Move’s creative director
How does your client work usually come about?
Most of it seems to be through word of mouth. It’s lucky that we’ve been able to work with some great clients who tend to recommend us to their friends and colleagues. Work seems to grow organically without having to chase it. It’s much easier working with people who you’ve been recommended to, as there’s a level of trust already in place.
How collaborative is your work?
Very. Since Mark started working with me in May, each project involves at least two sets of hands and we’ll always reach out to our network for sound designers and animators who can add a lot to the piece.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
My favourite thing is animating frame-by-frame drawings, but it’s a rarity these days. Most of our work is After Effects animation which is still great fun, it’s just a bit technical sometimes, and I would rather be drawing. The worst part of the job is chasing invoices, but I’m getting good at it; if I wasn’t an animator I’d make a good bailiff.
GIF by the studio
GIF by the studio
GIF by the studio
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
The projects we’re currently working on are the most exciting. We are directing two studio films: one is based around gentrification, and the other is an abstract piece. However, as is the case with a lot of independent work, it’s hard to juggle this with client work. These things tend to take time, so they will likely be ongoing for the next twelve months.
What skills are essential to your job?
Drawing, After Effects, design, a bit of coding, patience and good ideas.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
I liked drawing a lot as a young child, so this is pretty ideal. high school kind of sapped my creativity, and I got more into sports. But eventually I probably thought it’d be cool to draw stuff.
What influence has your background had on your choice of career?
I studied moving image at college after sixth form. Design at high school was mainly product design which didn’t interest me, and I almost took geography at university. When I left school I used to shoot a lot of BMX videos which is why I studied media at college. From this I moved into a design course at art school where they had a specialist animation course.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I studied animation, and I’m now an animator, so very useful.
“My graduate film had zero pre-production and was very successful. I didn’t think things like storyboards were that important. I was very wrong.”
What were your first jobs?
I went into a junior creative role at a digital agency called Bloc Media. That’s where I met Mark there who now works for my company. It was fun working there and we were given quite a lot of freedom, which I feel pushed me towards freelancing and starting a company.
What in particular helped you the most at the start of your career?
Going to art school was pretty important, which both my parents helped with.
Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
My graduation film ‘When Humans Ruled the Earth’ was awarded a Vimeo staff pick, which helped me land my first full-time job.
What skills have you learnt along the way?
Plenty of skills, but mainly After Effects. It changes so quickly in terms of the software and new plugins, so it can be quite overwhelming to keep up. However I think that having ideas and the ability to tell stories are the most important skills to have.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Learning how important pre-production is in animation. My graduate film had zero pre-production and was very successful, so I held on to the belief that storyboards and so forth weren’t as important. I was very wrong.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
Yes. It’s fun working with lots of different clients and also being able to work on independent work.
What would you like to do next?
More of the same but moving into other areas of design, not just animation and motion. I’d like to start using different techniques and do more hand-drawn animation for sure.
Could you do this job forever?
I could direct commercial animation longer than I’d like to create it. I could make independent work forever.
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become an animator and found their own studio?
Use your school projects to have fun, don’t worry too much about what is commercially relevant. Realise that technical skills and animation is 50% of the job, being a good team member is also very important and makes up for the rest.