Jonathan Mckee: ABCs, BBCs and UXes

London-based ADC Member goes for "a killer idea, dash of humour and well crafted motion"

ADC’s Motion and Animation Month is back! After featuring the many illustrators, photographers, letterers and typographers within the ADC community here on the ADC blog, it’s once again time to highlight 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.

Our next featured ADC Member is a self-taught London-based animator, designer and writer who has helped shaped the motion guidelines of none other than the venerable BBC!


JonathanMcKeeHeadshotJONATHAN MCKEE

Animator/Designer/Writer
London, UK

jonathan-mckee.com
info@jonathan-mckee.com

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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?

When I was a kid, my grandmother only owned one VHS (don’t ask) and that was Disney’s Snow White. It had a short ‘making of’ documentary inserted after the credits and it was my first exposure to animation as a process. Suddenly I was learning about the people, the techniques and ‘the secrets’ behind the cartoons. For seven-year-old-me, that was pretty mind-blowing.

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’m totally self-taught through a combination of persistence and the glorious Internet. I started out as a graphic designer but gradually got sucked into motion through experimenting.

My earliest lesson was a hard one in project management. I decided to make a thirty second, hand-drawn animation during a two-week university project (yes, I know). I severely underestimated how long storyboarding, artwork and scanning each frame would take. All-nighters did follow and as I downed yet another glass of Coke at 3.00am, I knew I‘d learned my lesson.

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

A killer idea, dash of humour and well crafted motion. If I can tick those off, then I’m happy. In terms of a visual style, I don’t chase one. But if one day a fixed style works for me, then great. Right now, I’m too much of a motion nomad to settle down.

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

In my final year of university, I responded to an international D&AD student brief set up by Disney. They were looking for us to design a lead character for a comedy cartoon. My pitch was an animation about a dreamcatcher, who battles nightmares when we’re all asleep and saves the world. I went on to win the top prize of a shiny Yellow Pencil and Disney asked me to come do some work for them. That was the moment that my ‘interest’ finally turned into sweet, sweet money.

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?

When I look back at my earliest work, it’s shocking in its ambition. It’s got scenes with fully illustrated backgrounds and lots of moving characters and set pieces. And there’s about five of those within 30 seconds. What has survived is the storytelling, the character focus and the humour.

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

…an innovative way to bring a great idea to life. Or even just looking for a great idea. Plus, I’m Irish. So I’m guaranteed to be friendly and charming.

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?

For the last couple of years, I’ve been part of the BBC GEL team. GEL stands for ‘Global Experience Language’ and is a design framework that enables the BBC to build consistent user experiences across its many digital services. Plus we’re all excellent people. During my time in the team, I’ve been a strong voice for motion and wrote the BBC’s first principles for motion design in UX. You can find out more about GEL here.

I do freelance work but on a limited basis. There’s always a tempting idea out there somewhere.

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

It’s a fine-tip ink black pen and a notebook. If an idea is exciting me in the notebook (and it makes sense too), I know it can work. And the pen is so nice to use that it encourages me to doodle – which is always good.

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

Life gets really boring if you stick to what you know. I’m always trying out new approaches and techniques because you never really know what’s going to come of it. It’s not easy though and sometimes it’s daunting. Right now, I’m trying to get into animating for virtual reality and also using HTML and CSS with motion. That’s two steep learning curves I’m on – especially as it’s in-between other work. But if you don’t have the curiosity to innovate and experiment, why are you in this game?

“Life gets really boring if you stick to what you know. I’m always trying out new approaches and techniques because you never really know what’s going to come of it.”

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.

That is of course ‘The ABCs of Motion’. In short, the BBC UX team needed some principles for using animation in their user interfaces. I was tasked with creating these principles and making a short film to explain them. I worked with many designers across the BBC to settle on three simple principles, which were presented in an ABC format. Then came the film, which was the most enjoyable part.

A lot of the visual language that’d been used around motion in UI was often flat, colourful shapes. I wanted to get away from that and so pitched a film about animation that used no animation at all. Instead we’d use dancers to explain the principles of good animation. I wrote the script and then teamed up with filmmaker Simon Ellis, who directed it.

I worked closely with his team and learned so much from the process. From the casting to the wardrobe, I got involved in so many aspects of the production. The principles and film were launched in April 2016 and were the BBC’s first set of motion design principles. They’re now part of a small club, including Google, that’s sharing their motion philosophy with the world.

You can see the project here.

JonmckeeABCs

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?

Great audio goes hand in hand with great motion. If it doesn’t, it can turn a great project into a lesser one. If I’m ever working on something with audio, I work hard to make sure everything is working together.

But audio definitely helps form my visuals. I do a lot of listening to a lot of movie soundtracks. When I do that, images and whole scenes just form in my head. I’ve been doing that for so long now that when I hear a piece of music; I can instantly get a feel for the right visual to reflect it.

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

I look away from the design world and into our everyday world. When I need to come up with ideas, I’ll usually go to a big open space, like a park and take someone with me to talk it through. For some reason, having that space above and around me makes me feel like my ideas can be limitless in their ambition.

And if we’re talking pure influence, I have a collection of ‘the art of…’ books at home. A lot of those are Studio Ghibli or Pixar and feature the art behind their best films. They’re great for reminding me that even the animation gods had many twists and turns in their process. We’re all human after all.

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

I think it’s labelling animation as ‘easy’. And that comes in two forms. One is people who just assume you make ‘cartoons’ and mess around for a living. The other is the few clients who can underestimate the complexity in what we do.

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?

I’m writing a series of Vine animations at the moment. It means I can flex my animation skills without going over six seconds. It also forces me to strip ideas down to their bare minimum, which is a handy skill to keep pushing.

Personal projects are a safe zone to play in. If things don’t work out, there’s no loss. It really is an open canvas to push yourself and introduce some things you hadn’t considered. Think of it like your own personal ‘labs’. Google have them, Apple have them. They’re the places where the zany stuff is tried and tested. But some of those zany ideas will make their way into your work eventually. Without personal projects, I’d go mad. And life wouldn’t be nearly as fun.

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

I’ve got great respect for Animade. They put out consistently great work that’s well animated, character driven and innovative. I also like the fact that they ‘give back’ to the community. For example they curate an animation blog of the stuff they love and they also organise events where animators can present and share experiences. That’s what sets them apart, the willingness to support growing talent.

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

It’s the fact that you get to wear many different hats. And no, I’m not talking baseball or cowboy here. It’s that you can be pitching a concept or mixing some audio. You can be slaving away at getting ‘that walk’ just right or you can be directing whole scenes. Writing a script to designing some beautiful backdrops. It lets you learn so much and work with so many talented people. In the end, your scope can be as big or small as you want it to be – that’s what’s so exciting.

 

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