In Response to Reading David O’Reilly’s ‘So What Do You Do?’
There are obvious advantages to being the director; instant recognition, that ‘ooh’ factor at cocktail party presentations, credentials that evoke glamor and prestige, hovering in the realms of the halls of fame. The director is historically linked with the epic, the cinematic, it is a title that beholds a certain grandeur, one of the major 20th century artists. The reality however for many so called ‘directors’ today reveals a rather more sober perspective. Convention amongst many of the motion design studios and freelancers to mushroom point towards a completely different and perhaps milder more diluted role and indeed to the extent that the term director has become a title for the one man show.
Anyone can ‘take on the role’ of a whole production company these days – we all have the possibility to change our professional caps every 30 minutes of the day. There are considerable examples of quality work that rises from out of the blue screen bedroom studios where a single talent can write, design, film, animate, composite, mix and broadcast their work. Wearing these multiple caps however does not necessarily qualify oneself within the field. The term director, as O’Reilly points out ‘is such an umbrella term, it ceases to describe anything meaningful’. Walk through the corridors of a number of ’boutique’ studio set ups these days and practically everyone you meet is a director. Doesn’t the fact that many commercial projects today find their direction through a sole creative force and approach make us question the use of the title director? It may be a customary convention but isn’t it misleading?
So what do you do? There certainly is a need to think carefully about one’s professional title and have the sincerity to attribute the correct one. Which one? In the domain of motion design where motion (graphic) designer seems to have been dropped for the more esteemed director, I’d like to see a rectification. Your job title is perhaps but a general term but it can only have the weight of meaning via collective understanding of what that title entails. When I have back ache, I may go to see the osteopath but not the dentist or hematologist. If I’m not aware of that information, I can’t respond correctly. If we take on professional titles in a lax manner, we dilute and ultimately denigrate professions. It is not a simple choice of giving oneself a name, it is a conscious and sincere effort of working within a line of work and ultimately respecting your position and experience, whether you be artist, designer, editor, props man, BG layout man, animator, foley artist, in-betweener, chief animator, first assistant director, 3D modeler, ……
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Adrian Shaughnessy is a self-taught graphic designer based in London. He spent 15 years as creative director of Intro, the design studio he co-founded. He left in 2004 to pursue an interest in writing and to work as a freelance consultant. Until spring 2007, he was consultant creative director of This is Real Art. Today he runs ShaughnessyWorks, a studio combining design and editorial direction.(Design Observer)
Shaughnessy was interviewed back in 2007 and gave a most generous insight into the more wider realm of the ‘moving image’ and its implications in the digital era. He develops various arguments to explain his view of how digital moving image culture and creation has a new syntax and language, divorcing itself further from traditional film. The epic, as well as our national broadcast systems has fallen to a D.I.Y. culture that is proving to be a dominant force and one that has a completely open means of distribution:
“Its a new electronic democracy. The user is much more participatory.”
However, Shaughnessy is not shy to express his fears for this new medium that is under ” a lot of pressure from commercial interest…..I think that the moving image’s biggest threat comes from commercial exploitation.”
Later in the interview, he remarks on how electronic music has parallels with what is happening in the moving image culture. Even though electronic music via the Internet has been less hampered by commercial forces, it shares a similar D.I.Y. culture and one that has created a wider audience.
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Rick Poynor founded Eye magazine in London in 1990, edited it for seven years and is now its resident columnist. He writes the “Observer” column for Print magazine and he has written about design, media and visual culture for Blueprint, Icon, Frieze, Domus, I.D., Metropolis, Harvard Design Magazine, Adbusters, The Guardian, The Financial Times, and many other publications. (Design Observer)
In this short interview, Poynor reveals the problematic of defining motion design but also links the discipline with his personal interest in film. He focuses mainly on movie titles, talking with poignant ease about a number of works and eventually opening up to discuss deeper thoughts on the evolution in spectator literacy of the moving image:
“The audience has become enormously sophisticated…….you can produce imagery, that actually once would have been avant-garde imagery, and the audience can piece together these little bits of narrative implication to construct a whole scenario.”
He continues to develop on the various techniques that are used in digital film today, hinting that greater abstraction, symbolism and more graphic elements have their place and that “….the audience is ready.”
Animation is an incredibly versatile and flexible means of expression and one that has become perhaps the most cross-disciplinary of all mediums within the moving arts today. It has come a long way from its humble beginnings as a means for artistic expression and story-telling. It is now clearly an advanced medium and mixture of techniques allowing not only the possibility to exist alone and entertain on a feature length level, but also act as a means to seamlessly integrate with live action to the extent that the real and the modeled are utterly indistinguishable. The borders have become so blurred within this hyper reality that even making a distinction between what is an animated and a live action shot film seem pointless. The purists stand firm to their beliefs that if not animated within a ‘traditional’ framework, then it just isn’t animation (see discussion at Cartoon Brew on motion capture). However, beyond the technical advancements and their validity, animation has for me two clear sides to the creative coin: Genre & technique. The important point to retain here is that genre stems from an industry firmly linked with character driven story-telling and film tradition. Its beginnings, as we are all aware, date from the Disney empire back in the early part of the twentieth century. Technique on the other hand is what has given rise to other ‘forms’ of the medium that either stand alone as early abstract works or, as I have mentioned, become a modeled part of the bigger picture. It is rather a means to an end whereas ‘animation as genre’ is indeed the whole package and the end result.
Where then could we fit an idea of motion graphics within this framework? Well, put simply, it uses animation as a technique. It is however not solely a technique but a new form of animation with its own unique visual language; one that does not take root in character driven narrative nor does it adhere to traditional filmic language. This new language draws predominantly from graphic design and the more experimental boundaries of art. If we take a closer look at the production of most animated films or series these days, apart from the developments in technology, the actual artistic and directive process has remained very similar to those of the early days: Animation within its context as a genre depends on strong character design and the ability to bring the character alive through movement, dialogue and eventually emotion. The key to good animation remains strong scenarios and strong characters that need to be designed within the context of the story line and in line with particular design and technical issues. These key points of procedure and production have been and still are the basis of all good animation schools and training.
Motion graphics however resides on formal issues of shape, colour, composition and typography. The design issues are focused foremost on context and communication where style follows and never dictates. I prefer to see motion graphics as a mode. It is neither genre nor simply technique: Not genre because it does not have the historical nor professional weight. Nor just technique, because it has a language of expression and communication that goes far beyond that of simple execution of sequential image making. Motion graphics is something new.
:::::: PART 1 – Motion Graphic Designer: A Misunderstood Profession
Graphic Design On The Timeline.
As part of a series of articles, essays and interviews on the topic of motion graphic design, I thought it pertinent to start by tackling one of the great mysteries in the domain – its definition. The search for a clear and undisputed sum of words that pertain to boiling down the sensational effervescence behind motion graphic design today has always been at the back of my mind. Occasionally those thoughts are catapulted to the fore in times of discussion with others or when explanation be needed for laymen and indeed professionals alike. The definition of motion graphic design should be self-explanatory – all the necessary words needed to describe it are part of its morphology. Despite that fact, there is much confusion about what motion graphic design is, and more importantly if we can even consider it as a professional field of work with the accredited title of motion designer.
Before I continue with a brief guided visit amidst the confusion of the misunderstood let me make clear my own objective in publishing these articles. The aim is not to propose another view on motion graphics nor is it to conclude with an all-new shiny 3D spinning definition. Rather, I want to open up the discussion on the subject, encourage critical analysis, debate and thoughtful insight and hopefully rise motion graphics above the unfortunate sensationalism that seems to pour from what little coverage there is in the field. We need more thoughtful discussion and less sensationalism.
Motion graphic design as a term has no clear history. We can perhaps only guess that the first mention of motion graphics came from John Whitney’s company name in the sixties – Motion Graphics Inc. Apart from that apparition though, there is little to claim on how the term arrived and became one of the biggest buzz words of the nineties. That lack of knowledge however is perhaps now, ten years on, proving to risk its demise. Why? Because it appears that being a motion designer is akin to being some sort of schizophrenic chameleon constantly juggling varying professional caps and occasionally spluttering the words title design, Bass and the odd Binder for good measure. The bottom line is no one seems able to clearly express what they do and commit with sincerity and integrity to the title of motion designer. So, does motion graphic design really exist or are we seeing the end of a ‘trend’, a buzz word of the nineties that had some loose connection with the past? The question is perhaps purely rhetorical but I do hope an open debate can ensue.
There are a number of articles, essays, and book prefaces on the subject of motion graphics. Indeed, all maintain the view that this is slippery terrain. However, they all offer essential notions on the subject and more importantly express common ideas that show a firm background in history. One of the first papers to arrive on the web on the subject was Matt Frantz’s thesis that takes both a theoretical and historical approach, drawing example from the work of Saul Bass and the profession of title design. Frantz makes a vague stab at defining motion graphics as “designed non narrative, non-figurative based visuals that change over time.” He goes on to explain and indeed attempt to define the very form of motion graphics within a context of graphic design. His approach is problematic for two major reasons.
Firstly, he limits his historical approach to one single figure, based on the idea that Bass was “the earliest significant motion graphic designer that had a tradition in graphic design.” That very statement has undoubtedly had vast ramifications on people’s perceptions of motion graphic’s history. Many websites hail Saul Bass as the pre-eminent figure of the discipline and consequently this has bonded a cliché tie between the work of title design and motion graphics. The historical context is important but as I have set out to show throughout this blog, many others have contributed to defining the form and discipline. Bass played his role in cementing a firm link within the film industry, his status however in the field has been blown out of proportion. Bass was more a graphic designer than a motion designer (the term ‘motion designer’ having never been assigned to Bass and no doubt didn’t exist as a term until much later). Moreover, the likes of Oskar Fischinger, Walter Ruttman, Man Ray, Viking Eggeling, Laszlo Maholy-Nagy, Lotte Reiniger, all of whom were pre Bass, had backgrounds or an influence on graphic design and were making images move. Reiniger and Fischinger had both worked in titles or on some sort of moving graphic form for advertising (Muntz TV, 1952, Oklahoma Gas, 1945-50). Reiniger had created hand-cut silhouette titles for Paul Wegener’s film, The Pied Piper of Hamelin in 1918.
Secondly, although he makes the valid point of motion graphics’ inherent link with traditional graphic design, Frantz focuses too much on form and completely by-passes any questioning of the function of the discipline. Non-figurative, non narrative forms sliding across the screen are all very well, but if we do not extrapolate on their visual meaning, intention and context, then they remain just that.
Images Over Time, Matt Soar and Peter Hall. (Eye No 06 Vol 15 Summer 2006), is a brilliantly written, albeit short text that suggests the broader issues of motion graphics within todays creative climate and points more specifically to its rich history, quoting Oskar Fischinger, Lotte Reiniger, Man Ray and others as valuable precursors in the field. The authors point out Louis Sandhaus’ definition from ‘Los Angeles in Motion: A Beginners Guide from Yesterday to Tomorrow.’ (SEGD Journal 2006).
Motion graphics describes a broad field of design and production that embraces type and imagery for film, video and digital media including animation, visual effects, film titles, television graphics, commercials, multi-media presentations
…architecture, and….digital/video games.
Here we have a supple definition of the field that gives a realistic overview of both its scope in terms of media output and its possible professional domains. If we are to believe however in this as a working definition, then motion graphics is indeed an extremely vast area. Moreover, as well as having an extensive reach in terms of professional output, it also suggests expertise, especially on a technical level, of each of those fields of work. As Matt Woolman points out in his book, Motion Design, (Rotovision SA,2004). ‘Motion graphics design is not a single discipline. It is a convergence of animation, illustration, graphic design, …. filmmaking, sculpture and architecture to name but a few.’ This multidisciplinary approach is an essential yet problematic characteristic of the field. The very nature of this openness complicates our search for a clear definition. With so many forms and media to play with, motion graphics could well be anything you want it to be yet that is unfortunately to say nothing about what it really is. That said, Sandhaus’s definition is probably the best and most realistic definition to date.
What could be retained from all this so far, is that we are talking about a field of work that takes root in the elements of (graphic) design and has a wide ranging means for professional output within other creative areas and disciplines. In his preface, Woolman goes on to stress the importance of ‘graphic’, referring to Paul Klee’s notion of point, line & plane, which he says is the premise of motion graphic design. Woolman’s work is an insightful and convincing introduction to what I would like to think motion graphics is about. He lays down the basic foundation of a discipline that clearly is informed by the visual language of graphics, a foundation that is clearly not to be confused, as is often the case, with the language of film. The distinction is important I believe.
Up till this point, neither of our definitions takes into account what motion graphics is actually for. Sure, we have pinpointed some professional domains: title design, broadcast design, vfx. No one though has specifically underlined the function of motion graphics. The answer for me is clearly found with graphic design, a line of creative work that distinguishes itself from other strains of the artistic sphere by a basic premise: to communicate clearly and effectively a message in line with a given client brief. Graphic designers are first and foremost concerned with informing or to varying degrees inferring a message. There is a line of thought here that can be applied to exactly what motion graphics should be about. Whether it appears as part of an identity for a television program, the opener to a film, the menu to a dvd or an interactive page from the Web, the basic premise remains the same. There is always a fine line here between entertainment and information, aesthetic and functional form, self expression and collective thinking…..etc. The balance however always tilts to informing rather than (self) performing.
The City in Motion – L.A.’s Hyperactive Graphics Scene by Holly Willis is not exactly a stab at defining the form, but it does describe with light-hearted candour a particular scene that is representative of today’s concoction of work for the commercial world and the effervescence of branding. Again, we find numerous common denominators in the article with mention of Saul Bass, Fischinger, Ruttman and the strong link with graphic design. However, her text opens up a whole new dimension of thought and problematic to our conundrum. There is suggestion that motion graphics has not only become blurred in a strain of hybrid form and creation, it has also succumbed to the commercial powers whereby the only defining rule of form and function is to break all rules and create something “new and innovative”
“Branding used to be all about creating “one clear message,” adds Brand New School’s Notaro, shaking his head. “But that one clear message is boring. So we’ve always tried branding a different way. We say, let’s try branding by attitude rather than visuals.”
And this is where motion graphics seems to have lost its footing amidst the almighty commercial forces and the all new moving image culture where hybrid cocktails are fuelling the ‘now look what I can do’ attitude. If we are to follow in the steps of current creative trends, then perhaps motion graphics has found itself sucked into the wider, and evidently more popular, area of the moving image. If this is the case then I can but only assume that motion graphics was never really given the serious attention it needed to stay above and stand out from the rest. If it has merged, if we can only consider it as this constant multitude of hybrid creation, then it seems urgent to address the situation. Otherwise we are letting a strain of the moving image culture get tangled in lax attitudes that in my view will only result in accepting its demise. As Kyle Cooper points out:
“So much of what is called motion design is pushing towards lower-end visual effects and cartooning, leaving behind content, composition, typography and colour choices that make up the foundation of good design.”
Kyle Cooper in ‘Motion by Design’
(S. Drate, D. Robbins, J. Salavetz. Laurence King Publishers 2006).
A question imposes: Do we make a distinction between motion graphics and what has become a wider field of expression: the moving image? Again, this is a question that needs to be addressed.
Perennial doubts plague the area of motion graphics today. Can this area of work be considered as a discipline within its own right? Or will it forever remain a marginal ‘art form’, out there on the periphery and diluted amidst a plethora of professions? Has motion graphics fallen into fashionable terminology, driven by the commercial world, lost amidst the ever expanding digital world and hovering between animation, design, video, film, web, the virtual and the real? Who is the motion designer and what is motion graphics?
To follow – A series of essays, interviews and commentary that will attempt to shed light on the above questions.
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This is a research blog on the subject of Motion Design. It serves as a means to discuss, share and develop ideas that will be used for a feature length documentary film.