Connor Campbell on getting his start in animation and the future of his London-based motion studio
For Connor Campbell, animation wasn’t the career path he had always expected to fall into. However, we’d say it turned out rather nicely. Since going solo and launching his own studio in 2019, Campbell already has an impressive list of clients to his name – Apple, Nike, MTV and Jamie XX to name a few. We had a chat with Connor to learn more about the magic behind his experimental practice, and gain an insight into his day-to-day life in the studio.
PT Can you tell us about how you first got into motion design?
CC My background was always very firmly rooted in graphic design, which I studied at Edinburgh College of Art back in the day. When I graduated, I found myself with a very wide range of generalist skills, from coding, video editing through to print design and branding, all of which ultimately landed me an internship as an Art Director at It’s Nice That.
During my interview I sort of let slip that I could animate… this wasn’t true (I was in the heat of the moment OK?!) but the truth was I hadn’t touched animation software since I was 12 years old making stick fight videos reminiscent of Xiao Xiao (remember these?) between long sessions burning the midnight oil on Runescape. The first project they got me working on was an identity for The Graduates, bringing it to life through animation so I had no choice but to learn fast and it was at this point that something clicked in my head that motion had a lot of potential to bring something else to a static identity, exploring deeper personality than if it was to exist only as a still image.
In the years following, I was working closely with my friend Rob who started the iconic Glasgow record label Numbers and I animated a bunch of their flyers as well as taking on lots of freelance animated posters (remember when animated posters were a thing) with my friend Alex Gross from Ourplace Studio who would put on these club nights called Left Alone in a sweaty basement in Stoke Newington. With each animated poster release, I would try to push my motion skills to new heights, using every effect and plugin I could get my hands on to make it move. It was a nice opportunity to focus solely on motion without thinking about design whatsoever and definitely gave me an outlet for my weekly self-tuition.
PT During this time, what was the biggest learning curve for you? Do you think animating requires a different creative mindset than static design?
CC Getting to grips with new software is always a bit daunting when you first open it. It can feel overwhelming at first and, with motion, there are so many ways to do one thing so where do you start, right? There’s so much problem solving involved that adds this whole new layer of thinking and being able to persevere through constant errors and hours of getting things wrong or forgetting to tick one little box then suddenly the whole thing works and you can’t explain why. But when it does work, something clicks and there’s no better feeling!
PT What were your inspirations growing up, and what inspires you now?
CC It’s a bit of a cliché but I was always into anime, starting from Ghibli, Yu-Gi-Oh and Card Captors (AKA the gateway of animes) which soon progressed into the deeper, more emo stuff like Evangelion, FMA and Ghost in the Shell. I was always amazed at how the creators could build so much drama and intensity around a single frame using very simple techniques. A lot of this has played a big part in how I think about motion now – even when it comes to a visual identity – finding those moments to allow for a bit of drama between the frames.
PT After working at It’s Nice That for three years, what made you take the leap and launch your own studio?
CC I really wanted to get back to the MAKING of stuff and to get hands-on with projects again. As an Art Director, you’re charged very much with the VISION of a project, finding the right people to work with and briefing them to carry out that thing in your mind. However, after a while, and after three more Graduates identities, I began to feel that maybe I could really take motion seriously and make it my full-time thing.
The moment that really gave me that final push over the edge was when Studio Lowrie called me up in the middle of all of these thoughts to say that they wanted me to animate their identity for Sundance Film Festival 2020. This was almost my guiding light that told me it was truly time to make the leap, and I’m so glad I did it!
It’s great to be able to collaborate with external creatives.
PT How did you find the transition, going from a 9-5 to being your own boss? What helped you handle that period of time?
CC By the time I left It’s Nice That, I was taking on more and more freelance motion work, which almost always happened in my tiny bedroom in Hackney very late at night. My good friend Caterina Bianchini of Studio Nari happened to have a spare desk, so as soon as I was done with my 9-5, I suddenly had a workspace in a studio of very talented, sound and supportive people who very much became my new family. It was great suddenly being able to focus on motion outside of my room and inside normal work hours.
Advice that I’d give to anyone who is about to go freelance is to make sure that on the Monday morning of your first day of the good life, make sure to have something booked in. Whether that’s a project, a bunch of meetings or setting up your new PC – you have to stay BUSY. Whatever it takes for you to turn a blind eye to the freshly hitting dose of uncertainty you’ve just dealt yourself and to focus on yourself as a solo artist.
PT What does a standard Monday morning look like, for you?
CC I’ve started running to work in the mornings when I can, which has given me a really nice perspective on the week ahead. After this, we have a team-wide briefing call where we talk about the week ahead and set up all the tasks that we’ll be working through. We’re in a really lucky position where creative friends rent desks from us in our studio, so we always get to hear what others are working on day-to-day and it’s a great mix of CGI, graphic design and coding in the room with some incredibly talented people. There’s always someone around to give you a fresh perspective and some temporary respite from your own creative echo chamber.
PT What does the structure of your team look like now?
CC There are three of us who make up the core studio day-to-day, but we grow our team with independent motion designers depending on the project. As our individual skills are quite generalist, it’s great to be able to collaborate with external creatives who can get really specific with their specialism to really craft a route with us.
PT Do you typically get commissioned directly by brands or by design studios?
CC It’s a perfect mix of the two – 50/50!
PT And at what stage of the branding process do you usually come into a project?
CC We work on many different aspects of motion, from music videos through to full-scale TV spots which are very involved with motion from the outset, but when it comes to branding specifically we tend to come in at the end of a project – once all the static guidelines are signed, sealed and delivered. This means that we’re often the ‘magic ingredient’ right at the end and maybe more of an afterthought if there’s enough budget left over to bring an identity to life through motion. However, this tends to be an unhelpful process, as the most interesting results are always achieved when motion is being developed alongside a brand. Our process is very experimental, so if we can get our hands on a raw identity as early as possible, we can push it to its limits testing how playful/clean/characterful it can be and look to the keyframes in-between for a moment that wouldn’t be achievable through static design.
PT Do you have a dream project, collaboration or client?
CC When I was younger I was very into Justice and was obsessed with all of their music videos (D.A.N.C.E. basically got me into design). Their live shows absolutely blew my mind – there was one in particular where they both emerged from a giant crucifix built from audio-reactive light panels playing synths and dressed in white suits. They still hold a special place in my heart and would love to work on something for them, so if you’re reading this, Justice…
Experimentation will always be at the core of what we do.
PT What tools, tips, or resources help you out the most on a day-to-day basis?
CC I’m a big Are.na user. Since my days at It’s Nice That, I’ve been collating illustration, graphic design and photography into very organised channels so that no reference ever haunts me as ‘the one that got away.’ It also makes a great dump for motion tests that we’ve been working on, so you can use them in future projects – nothing is ever wasted!
Also, 80’s Japanese car ads are a constant source of inspiration.
PT How are you hoping the final months of 2022 pan out for the studio?
CC We’ve been lucky enough to work on some dreamy projects this year and with no signs of stopping. We’re excited to go to DEMO festival in October where I’ll be speaking alongside Yonk, Tim Rodenbröker, Koos Breen and Studio Dumbar about all things motion and meet up with friends of the studio. It’ll also be a nice chance to take a breather and reflect on the work we’ve made over the past few months before diving back into the render queue.
PT How would you like to see the studio evolve over the next few years?
CC I’m a big fan of keeping things small and generalist, growing the team slowly and making sure everyone has ownership of the projects they work on along the way. Experimentation will always be at the core of what we do as a studio, so always learning and adapting with every new piece of work we create, embracing new techniques and software. At some point, we’re going to have to rename it, as it’s no longer just me…! [Full rebrand incoming].