Animation for illustrators: how to bring your drawings to life, and why your career will benefit
With clients increasingly expecting illustrations to be animated for digital campaigns, illustrator and animator Abbey Lossing spells out the skills you need to have a leg-up in a competitive sphere.
It’s Nice That is currently partnering with Skillshare, an online learning community for creatives, on a series of articles exploring the value of learning new skills. In this piece, Abbey Lossing explains how learning how to animate her illustrations got her jobs at Buzzfeed and Vice, then innumerable freelance clients, and how it's not as daunting a skill as you might think.
The last few years has seen the illustration and animation industries change beyond recognition, with clients and consumers alike craving movement from their imagery. This transformation has made its way through the whole spectrum of visual media, from social media stickers to global advertising campaigns, and excitingly, this mainstream dissemination has paved the way for a plethora of new styles and techniques to be used to stand out from the crowd. Recent global events have also had their impact; with agencies having spent a few months of lockdown trying to rethink how projects can be delivered safely, animation is enjoying a huge surge in popularity, and brands are turning to the discipline instead of live action often for the first time.
So, what does this mean for illustrators? In short, it means the landscape has changed and whoever is hiring you will most likely expect your artwork to be animated in some way. Even commissions for print sometimes come to life as an extra feature online. This may seem daunting if you’ve spent your whole career so far perfecting one skill, only to be told it’s not enough. Luckily there are plenty of resources out there to guide you, and online learning community Skillshare offers online classes for this very specific area of expertise. One of the platform’s key teachers in this field is Abbey Lossing, an illustrator and animator with a brilliant knack for humorous and relatable characters, who teaches Animation for Illustration: Creating Layered GIFs with Photoshop & After Effects on Skillshare. The Brooklyn-based artist previously worked as staff animator and illustrator at Vice News and Buzzfeed, but explains that when she set out, animation wasn’t originally on her agenda.
“After college I wanted to keep building my illustration portfolio,” Abbey remembers. “I’d hoped to do freelance from the get-go, but jobs were slow so I had some time to try new processes. I was vaguely familiar with animated gifs, so I knew it was something I wanted to explore. I ended up just watching a bunch of YouTube videos and making a few pretty basic gifs and posting them on Tumblr. I still had a lot to learn, but those first few gifs ended up helping me land my first staff illustrator job at Buzzfeed, where I created illustrations and gifs for Buzzfeed lists.”
Abbey says her work had always leant itself to animation, having always been inspired by illustration with “subtle repeating movements”. “At the time Rebecca Mock’s work was definitely a huge inspiration because she was the only illustrator that I was aware of that was creating that type of work. My illustration style was very different from hers, but I loved the extra interest that she achieved with the most simple movement, and I wanted to try it out with my own work.”
Skills in animation were infinitely useful for her roles at Buzzfeed, creating gifs, and then Vice, creating longer animated segments; Abbey even believes that she “probably wouldn’t have been hired at either company if I didn’t have a basic level of animation experience”. Now as a freelancer, she’s seen the skills pay even further dividends, stating that being able to animate has definitely helped her nab projects. “Media is often consumed on mobile devices, so the opportunity for moving imagery is growing rapidly. Art directors will often ask specifically for a gif or animation, so having that skillset puts you in the running for those types of assignments.”
Abbey reckons clients ask for animation 50 per cent of the time – so while it’s not essential, it’ll definitely help your chances if it’s in your tool belt. “There’s still a huge market for still illustration, especially for things like packaging, branding, and print editorial work, but I think having the ability to add animation gives you a leg up in the current market. It's a great skill to be able to offer. Many of the larger projects I’ve landed over the past couple of years have had at least a small animation aspect to them, so I may not have even been considered for those projects without having the ability to add movement to my illustrations.”
Recent improvements in technology and software have lowered the barrier to entry for animation, yet it can still feel a formidable task to learn – especially since it is widely considered one of the most time-consuming and patience-trying disciplines in the creative field. Abbey says that many of the people who take her Skillshare class are “intimidated by the process,” she tells us. “They fear it will be too complicated and that prohibits them from diving in,” so her class breaks it down into simple, approachable steps, with a real project at its centre. Her advice is to “start small and go from there. Begin with a project that inspires you to become familiar with the new process, not overwhelmed by the programs.”
Though it’s tempting to want to jump straight to the fun bits, one of Abbey’s top tips is not to skip over the basics and consider animation a separate process to your time-tested illustration regime. “Illustrators already have a strong drawing background, and often I think they approach animation in the same manner they would a still illustration. This complicates the process. I highly recommend The Animator’s Survival Kit, a book by Richard Williams. Researching basic animation techniques will greatly impact your work and save you time and headache in the long run.
In Abbey’s Skillshare class she goes over basic animation techniques using Photoshop and After Effects, a combination she prefers as it retains her hand-drawn aesthetic. Participants don’t need to have any prior animation experience, but it’s worth considering that a familiarity with Photoshop will be beneficial. In the class, Abbey shows you how to start with a line sketch, animate a character, then add colour to the character and background. “Be prepared to put a bit of time in and be patient with yourself!” Abbey adds. “Learning a new program can seem overwhelming at first, but it's so worth it in the long run.” By the end of the class, you will have created a looping animation that follows a character through a scene, and the techniques you’ll learn can be applied to a variety of projects and assignments.
Like anything unknown and new, starting is the hardest part, and Abbey says animation is no different but once you see the potential for what you can do, the ideas will gather momentum. The project you choose to do can also flex according to the time you have available. “Once you enroll and begin the project I think you’ll be inspired and encouraged to keep going. Although the class does go pretty in-depth, you can put as much or as little time into the project as you have. If you just want to learn the programs and go over the information, then keep your animation simple and minimal. If you’re feeling inspired and want to make a new portfolio piece, then get after it! There’s no limit to what you can achieve with this process.”
Sign up here to take Abbey Lossing’s Skillshare tutorial, Animation for Illustration: Creating Layered GIFs with Photoshop & After Effects.