Joe Donaldson: The Devil Is In the Details

Motion and Animation Month kicks off with ADC Member with a "simpler" style

It’s the start of July and the return of ADC’s Motion and Animation Month! Yes, after featuring the many illustrators, photographers, letterers and typographers within the ADC community, it’s now time to shine a spotlight on the artists who breathe life to still images and make them move. From traditional cel animation to 3D animation, from TV interstitials to web series, July’s featured ADC Members run the creative gamut in an industry whose output is as challenging and time consuming as it is rewarding.

Kicking off this month’s theme is a Los Angeles-based art director who is soon to embark on an exciting new chapter in his career — teaching the craft he has been mastering for the past several years.

joedonaldsonheadhotJOE DONALDSON

Art Director
Los Angeles, CA
(352) 870-5862



Of course most people were first exposed to animation from after school and Saturday morning cartoons, but what’s your earliest memory of being interested in motion and animation as something that people actually made?

I am very grateful for growing up in the BMX community. My entire upbringing was centered around making things, whether it was building dirt jumps or simply exploring our city and learning new tricks. There is a huge creative component to BMX, and this was everything to my friends and me. BMX videos were also a huge part of our lives. As soon as a friend would buy a new video, we would crowd around the TV, put the VHS in and watch it to no end. Ultimately, this led to making our own videos.

Did you study formally, or were you consider yourself more self-taught? What were some of the earliest lessons you learned about the art form?

I had quite an unplanned entry into the industry. Before I even knew what motion graphics was, I found myself working at an ABC News station. I took the self-taught route for a number of years, but ultimately I enrolled at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where I received my BFA. As for learning lessons, one comical blunder I made early on was not knowing the importance of in and out points when it came down to a video going on air. On one of my earliest freelance jobs I made a :30 promo for a local company, little did I know it needed to be an exact :30 down to the last frame. Long story short, this all ended with an angry technician at the local TV station and me frantically trimming the tails off the video and rushing to re-deliver it on time.

How would you best describe your style? Do you fight against having a telltale style, or do you embrace it as your brand?

Style is something I feel I have been honing over the past few years but am very much still figuring out. Based on my attitude, I would describe it as a quest for simplicity. In regards to having a telltale style, that is something I welcome.

What was your first big break, where this truly went from being an interest or pursuit to being an actual job?

That is a tough one to answer as there have been pivotal moments in so many stages. While I don’t typically work with live action anymore, one of the most important moments in my career and creativity was when my mom loaned me the money to buy a used Sony VX1000 camcorder. This was the moment that allowed me to take a big leap and to start producing the work that I wanted to make and the first time I ever took a chance on my creative pursuits.

Do you remember some of your early work? Comparing it to your latest work, the kind of projects you do now, what is the biggest change you’ve noticed? What about your work or your process has remained the same?

A big shift I have witnessed is the understanding that things don’t have to be perfect or that there is no “perfect.” As my work becomes simpler, I think it also has gotten quite a bit looser and more gestural, dealing less with detail and more with form.

Sell yourself and your style by completing the following sentence: “Clients and collaborators should come to me when they’re looking for…”

… an honest and committed collaboration. I absolutely love what I do whether there is a six-figure budget involved or I am burning the midnight oil for free on a personal endeavor. The most important thing to me is making good work and enjoying the process.

“I absolutely love what I do whether there is a six-figure budget involved or I am burning the midnight oil for free on a personal endeavor.”

Are you freelancer or are you part of a regular team? What do you consider to be the biggest pros and cons of your situation?

I’ve worn many hats, from being a freelancer to a repped director. For the past two years, I’ve been working full-time with the amazing people at Buck as an art director, although I’m about to embark on my next journey: teaching! I’m excited about my shift into the world of academia and I’m hoping it will allow me to refocus and continue to do what I love while adding a change of scenery and a new perspective.

Secret weapon: what’s your favorite tool in your arsenal (pen and paper? Program? Plug-in?) and why do you love it so much?

I love working with a china marker during the early stages of a project. China markers are so clunky that it forces you to think big picture and deal more with form and structure as opposed to obsessing over just the right curves and details.

Do you experiment with software/tools/techniques, or do you tend to stick with what you know?

I tend to stick with what I know technically, but am always looking for new processes to explore that will help to shape the results. I’m hoping to dive deeper into TV Paint on my next film.

Of all the projects you’ve worked on, which one are you most proud of? Tell us about the project, and why it holds such a special place in your heart.
I feel this question can be answered differently at different stages of my career.

Commercially, I am very proud of the recent film I directed with Buck for Instagram. The concept of the film is fairly derivative, essentially many of the classic “maker” tropes that we have all seen before, but this film was especially rewarding to make. It was a great opportunity to dive into process and craft while exploring a wide variety of mediums.

Socially, I am very proud of my work for Unicef after the Nepal earthquake. UNICEF commissioned me to make a short, shareable film to draw attention to this crisis and how others could get involved. This was a wonderful experience to see my work as more than simply an ad. At the end of the day, it wasn’t about perfect pixels or selling something but trying to help others.

Personally, the film I created for The New York Times has meant a lot to me and really shaped my last two years. This was my first time really jumping into the deep end and embracing risk/failure. Luckily, it was a wonderful experience that really helped me hone in on the type of work I want to create and opened many doors for me.

Motion and animation is often accompanied by sound or music. How do you approach working with audio elements? Do they help form your visuals? Are you listening to them throughout? How involved are you in this part of the process?

Music and sound design play a HUGE role in animation. Honestly, using my Unicef film as an example, if it weren’t for the amazing work Antfood did, the film would have been much less successful. My strategy when it comes to music and sound is always to hope that there is enough of a budget to work with Antfood, or hope they like my idea enough to get involved anyways!

Where do you go to get a much needed creative jolt, whether online or in the real world?

As cliché as it is, stepping away from the computer and spending time with my daughter is what keeps me going. Being in the real world gives me the ability to come back with a clear head while Nova provides all the inspiration I need to aspire to be more than I am.

What’s the biggest misconception people have about what you do?

Unfortunately, that animation is cheap and easy. The devil is in the details and good animation takes time. One-day solutions lead to one-day results…

What’s the last project you did for yourself, as opposed to for a client or a job? What do personal projects mean to you and your craft?

Even though it’s super small, my contribution to the 9-Squares project was very rewarding. It was a great excuse to just make something for the joy of making it. I struggle a lot with personal projects. Since my entry into the industry was so unexpected, I seem to always have a client. While I’ve been lucky to work with great people and companies, it’s a personal goal of mine to make more work for myself; art for art’s sake.

Which of your peers, the people in your orbit, are making work that you are digging right now? What about them do you like?

This is always changing, but I am extremely inspired by Ben HillFreddy ArenasNicolas MénardJohnny Kelly and The Moth Collective.

What inspires me most about these people is their ability to have established themselves in the commercial world with a strongly recognizable voice while also keeping a connection to independent work.

What’s your favorite part of the entire creative process of motion and animation?

My favorite part is simply the act of making. I don’t necessarily identify as one thing. I’d love to be a better animator but I’m not solely an animator. Similarly, I’d love to become a better illustrator but I’m not into this solely for illustration. I love motion and animation because it allows people like me who aren’t necessarily great at one thing be involved, influence projects and still make great work.


Motion & Animation Month takes place throughout July, and is open exclusively to ADC Members. Not yet a Member? Join today!