Minimalist Motion Mastery — W/Greg Stewart
A deep look into a modern motion designers habits, and background.
I’ve had an amazing time learning about Greg Stewart through this interview process. Greg has produced some of the best work I’ve seen in a long time. I absolutely am stunned by his attention to detail, and after talking with him I realize why.
Greg shares his background and how he became a motion wizard. Not only does he share how he ticks, but also shows us where he’s learning and what his goals are.
When someone is putting out gold you should look at what they’re doing to produce that gold. So you can figure out how you can adopt their learnings to your process.
Who is Greg Stewart?
My full name is actually John David Gregory Stewart (that’s where the handle I use in all my social accounts — jdgstewart — comes from). Oddly, to this day I’m not 100% sure why I go by Greg.
I’m actually from Canada, but my family moved to the U.S., then eventually made our way to the Twin Cities (Minnesota). I’ve started out in film, but after a year I became a motion designer. Currently I’ve only been in motion design for 4 years.
What are some interesting facts about yourself?
I’ve always been someone who loves taking things apart.
As a kid I loved Legos — I’d always build the set according to the directions right away, and then take it apart and build something else. There was something about the process of taking something apart and building something different and new with the pieces that always delighted me.
Throughout my life, whenever I’ve found something that fascinates me, I can’t step away from it until I’ve satisfied my curiosity. Whether that was staying up all night to finish a novel (I was one of those kids who’d read under the covers with a flashlight), not being satisfied with anything less than 100% completion on video games, learning a new language, or whatever — what’s always kept me ticking is the drive to understand how and why something works, and then be able to use what I’ve learned as tools in my own creativity.
To this day I think of myself as more of a technician than an artist.
You recently started freelancing, how is that going?
I just transitioned into freelancing full-time about two months ago. So far I’ve absolutely loved it. I’ve always been someone who thrives when I have a certain amount of freedom to work at my own pace, and that was a big draw to me in jumping to freelance and has been a big perk thus far.
Where I was working before I was the only motion artist, and now being freelance I’ve been able to connect, partner with, and learn from other artists in the industry who are just way better than me at what I do — so I feel that’s opened up a lot of possibilities for me in terms of my personal, professional, and creative development.
Prior to being freelance I was at an agency called Open Book Communications working as their motion designer (check out their work at teamopenbook.com, everything is amazing), and before that I was a video producer at a church in a suburb of the Twin Cities.
How did you get into this career field?
I got into motion design a few months after graduating college. I was studying theology with a double minor in Spanish and Ancient Greek, but had decided I wasn’t interested in pursuing more education (i.e. seminary) at that time — mostly out of a conviction/realization that the things I was studying were mostly puffing up my ego instead of helping me become more kind and humble towards others.
Around that time, I had an opportunity to work as a video intern with a college ministry I was involved in, and I found I really loved the process of creating things that would challenge how people think or encourage them towards something.
I’d seen videos that had really challenged me or caused me to think about the world or humankind in a different way, and the prospect of using video to share meaningful stories or positively impact how people think was an exciting one to me — especially in today’s society, where video/media play such a huge role in swaying culture and are often used in really negative or deceptive ways.
As soon as I was exposed to special effects/motion design, I was hooked. I remember seeing a music video that was filmed on a beach where some on-screen text was wiped away by a wave and thinking “how on EARTH did they do that??”
At my first job I had the opportunity to create lots of 0:30 animated bumpers for different sermon series, which is where I got to start combining film/storytelling with motion design; that’s where I’ve been grooving ever since.
My sweet spot has really become refining movement — I can happily spend hours in the graph editor tweaking things until I think it’s just right. But as I’ve transitioned into freelancing more, I’ve had a lot of fun overseeing projects, thinking about the big picture and creative process, and finding/allocating resources to make a project happen.
Who is putting out great work that you admire, keep going back to for references, or who helped inspire you to start in this industry?
Oh man. I don’t even know where to begin. I’d say jr.canest is one of my biggest inspirations — as a creative individual, animator, and as a person. I admire his work, and his kindness/humility that’s come across in the interviews with him that I’ve listened to.
I’d put Phil Borst and Seth Eckert up there as well. Sander Van Dijk is for sure an inspiration to me on multiple levels — both on the the sheer quality of his work, and his philosophy of having clear values that help guide what kinds of projects you work on. Everything David Stanfield touches is pretty amazing as well.
What type of motion do you like to focus on primarily?
I love using animation principles and concepts like eye trace to create things that really feel beautiful. It certainly helps to have beautiful designs to work with, but it can be a fun challenge to take something that looks like clip art and make it move in a really interesting way.
Since I’m a perfectionist to the core (I’d rather be A+ level at one thing than A- at ten), I gravitate towards minimalist design and motion projects that have a few elements moving really beautifully, rather than a lot of things going on all at once. Early on in my career, every time I felt that something I had made wasn’t good enough, I’d try adding more and more stuff to try and “fix” that, or cover up what I didn’t like. Obviously, adding bad animation to bad animation doesn’t make it better.
Over time I’ve come to believe the path to making something excellent is more often by subtraction than addition — by narrowing your focus and taking things away that aren’t working, rather than adding in more things just because it doesn’t feel good enough.
I think simple, minimal design is really hard to do well, because you have to pack a lot meaning and intention into very few things. But I like the challenge of that. Plus I think it makes it easier to get critique and grow as a designer or animator, because it becomes really obvious if your design or animation isn’t working well when it’s not hiding behind a ton of other stuff.
How do you set side time to practice? How do you learn?
I think the best way to practice is by doing real work as much as possible, or creating whole pieces — as opposed to messing around and not having anything to show for it. In my early days of motion design, I was only working a part-time job, so I’d spend my off days on Lynda.com or watching through anything on motionographer or wineaftercoffee and trying to learn a new part of After Effects or figure out how something was pulled off in a particularly amazing piece.
Taking Animation Bootcamp + Design Bootcamp with School of Motion really catapulted my skills/growth as well. Prior to that I hadn’t really had the opportunity to get feedback from other motion designers/animators, so having that was huge for me. Having to create actual projects and submit them for feedback and revision (in addition to all the lessons!) helped me understand way more about why certain things were or weren’t working in my animations.
Critiquing other people’s work (in contexts where they’ve asked you to do it) can be really helpful for me too, because it forces me to think about why I have the opinion I do and to try and articulate that in a helpful way.
Any book recommendations, or documentaries?
I’ve started making semi-regular visits to used bookstores (Half Price Books is my favorite and trying to pick up cheap design/art books). My favorites are case studies or anything that lets you in on the problem a particular project was trying to solve and how they went about it. It helps me to be able to step away from the computer and flip through books full of inspiring work.
A current favorite book I’m reading through is “Frank Pick’s London”, which I picked up at the Design Museum in London while I was visiting Europe a few months ago.
Can you dive deeper into what you’re learning from this book?
It’s all about the process of how the iconic branding for the subway/tube system came to be what it is, and how this man Pick really drove that, even though he wasn’t a designer. The whole concept of trying to make an entire city feel accessible and create systems of communication that could be understood at a glance so people could quickly know 1- where they are, and 2- how to get where they wanted to go. All the decisions that go into that is so intriguing to me. It seems like such a giant and complex problem to solve that would involve so many questions, I wouldn’t even know where to begin trying to tackle something like that.
For instance, how do you decide what information to include (or not include) on a transit map? Do you sacrifice geographical accuracy for legibility/clarity? If so, are there potential downsides to that? How do you direct traffic within a subway station when there’s multiple trains going in different directions, so people know where the trains are? Does that impact how you build the station itself? What if a passenger has to also take a bus to get where they want — how would they get that information? Should all the materials — maps, signs, posters (within trains and buses, and on the walls in stations) — have certain elements that are all consistent with each other? If so, which ones? Is it better to use text, or iconography? Why? And so on and so forth.
Reading about the whole process of the London Underground branding has had such an impact on how I think about motion design and the creative process.
Pick noticed a number of inefficiencies and problems in the Underground system and through sifting through a lot of information and asking hard questions, identified that a root of many of the symptoms he was seeing was a lack of consistency and clarity (or just a lack of good design, really) in how the Underground was communicating with consumers/passengers.
So, he commissioned all sorts of artwork and simple, clean design as a means of solving the root of those problems, and a lot of the look and feel of London as a whole today is because of that. Even though he wasn’t a designer, he saw the value of design in urban development and used it to solve real, practical problems.
I think why I find that all so interesting is because it speaks to 1- the importance of breaking down a problem to its root, so you can find the right solution, and 2- the pragmatic, real-world applications for design, and by extension, motion design.
In working directly with clients, it’s so important to listen and ask the right questions so you really understand at the deepest level what problem they’re trying to solve. And, when you really do that right, you can create art and motion design pieces that really serve a practical purpose beyond just looking incredible.
What are your goals for your career in 2018?
I think the last few years I’ve stretched myself pretty thin between working full-time and freelancing a lot, so honestly at this point my biggest goal for this year is to work as much as I need to so I can travel and do more things that are life-giving for me that don’t involve being on a computer.
For me, that involves things like reading books, spending time outside in nature (especially the North Shore of Lake Superior), playing music, running, or being with family and friends. And Skyping my two-year-old British nephew, who is objectively the cutest kid on the planet.
On a more practical level, I’d like to collaborate on some projects with other animators (I’m currently working on a fun collab with Francisco at LongSummerDays that has been SUPER fun) and grow my business enough to be able to bring in/hire other people so I can either just manage the project as more of a producer or focus on refining movements/animation that someone else has blocked in.
Right now I’m doing a lot of work with a local film studio that I’ve been doing freelance work for off and on for the last 3 years or so. As I’ve developed a good relationship with the studio owner (the “I need you” level, per the Freelance Manifesto), he’s brought me in on more high-level projects and given me more responsibility on those projects, so I actually get to handle some of the production management, client relationships, and screening/hiring of freelance contractors.
I think it’s so important to remember that even as an individual freelancer, you’re running a business — so I’m really excited about this specific opportunity to keep learning more about the business side of creative work.
What’s your dream job, and how do you think you’ll get there?
I’d say my dream job is doing what I’m doing now honestly, but a lot more of it.
Long-term my goal is to have enough work and enough of a team built up that I’d be able to step away for longer periods of time and do missional or non-profit work in other parts of the world.
If I ever have a family, it’s super important to me that my children experience different cultures and other parts of the world, and I’m hoping that succeeding as a freelancer or business owner would allow for the margin for that. Working remotely from another part of the world is certainly not all that out of the question, after all.
I think getting there is a matter of building up good relationships with clients who trust me and will come back to me for work, and finding the right people I can trust to handle work in my absence. Additionally, I’m working on ways to generate alternative revenue streams (currently real estate investment; I co-own a rental property that I live in and also run an Airbnb) that would give me more flexibility outside taking on really involved motion projects.
Any advice for people working to hone their craft? What about those who are looking to go freelance?
“Do the work you want to get paid for before you’re getting paid for it.”
I’m not sure of Joey Korenman from School of Motion was the first to say that, but I think it’s spot on.
Surround yourself with people who are better than you at what you’re doing, and with people who can learn from you.
The things I’ve learned from other animators — whether directly or by picking apart project files — have been invaluable. I’d say I’ve also grown by trying to pass on what I’ve learned to others (I’m involved in a motion mentorship program here in Minnesota) has grown me as well — plus it’s just a good thing to do.
Take a class from School of Motion… Any of them… All of them.
Constantly expose yourself to stellar work, and learn as much as you can from it. I think there’s a couple different sides to that for me. Sometimes, it means finding a piece that just blows my mind, and scrubbing through it frame-by-frame to try and figure out just how they pulled off certain things, and then trying to recreate it myself.
I always find trying to recreate things leads me to try new things with what I’ve learned. That’s maybe a more technical side of learning from good work. The other side would be more high-level; finding pieces that maybe aren’t as technically astounding, but get a more emotional reaction out of me or do a really good job of communicating a concept or getting a message across.
I take note of which parts of that piece resonate with me and just keep asking questions until I feel I’ve broken something down to its most essential form and learned something valuable. Why did I feel excited at this given moment? What about that piece, specifically, was so effective? Why did they choose that particular music track, or that particular visual metaphor to tell their story?
It’s important to study things from multiple angles. I think the most inspiring pieces are those that marry the technical with the conceptual. That’s the kind of work I want to create.
Have other creative hobbies/passions. Creativity is creativity — whether it’s on paper, in the curve editor, or on a musical instrument — and it all feeds into each other.
If you’re looking to go freelance, I’d check out Sander’s course “The Ultimate Freelance Guide”. I went through it earlier this year as I was considering and planning towards taking the jump, and it was super helpful.
He does a really good job of breaking down the principles of successful freelancing and giving practical examples of what that looks like. Apart from that, I think one of the best things you can do is develop good relationships with people in the industry and build up trust.
People are more likely to hire a trustworthy B-level animator than a flaky A-level one.
I’ve found a lot of work by building relationships with film studios or people who have consistent needs for motion design, even if it’s just in small projects. Having three or four solid people/agencies who already have big client bases and think of you as their go-to animator means you can spend less time looking for work and more time doing work.
What’s one piece of wisdom that you come back to when you need inspiration?
“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” — Jim Elliot
I’ve always loved this quote by this personal hero of mine. It reminds me that there are things I have that I can’t hold onto like time, talents, money, opportunities, and so on that are best invested in things that will stand the test of time or eternity.
I believe strongly that living one’s life in service of others is the best kind of life there is.
At the end of the day, I’d rather be remembered as a person who used their skills and resources to do good to others than as a motion designer.