Interview with Chi Birmingham

Maybe the hardest thing in animating for illustration projects is finding a way to make the movement itself be central to the meaning of the illustration, and not just something that you have to throw in at the end because you promised your client that you were going to make them a GIF.
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Chi Birmingham has been working as a freelance illustrator (and occasional animator) since 2010. He shares a studio with 4 fellow alums from the SVA MFA Illustration program, and a dog that hasn't quite come around to him yet named Dutch. He spent several years pursuing a fine arts career in the Bay Area of California before moving out to New York and turning his focus to illustration full time. He now lives in Jackson Heights Queens with his wife and their two cats, Ficus and Margarita. His clients for illustration and GIFs include Krispy Kreme, Google, and Willamette Week. His favorite movie is Tremors


You were trained first as a painter, then as an illustrator. When did you get into animation?

Birmingham: That's right! I made the pivot into illustration about 9 years ago. I'd gotten a degree in painting and drawing a few years before that, and had a little success getting my work into galleries, but I actually found myself wanting to have a "real job" or any job after a certain point. Truth be told, I think just painting, or working in the studio on anything can be pretty lonely, especially when there isn't anyone waiting for whatever it is you're making. At 22 or so I was living in a little cabin on my grandma's property that had been her painting studio and was spending about 8 hours a day listening to music and making little gouache paintings, which up until that point had been the best thing I could imagine, but when I was actually living it was kind of miserable. It took me a couple more years to totally run out of steam on that particular plan. I moved out to New York to shake things up a little bit, and hopefully bump into a better idea of what to do with myself. I actually bumped into illustrating as a career sideways. I had basically given up on the idea of painting for a living, but thought that I would like teaching if I could get an MFA. It was when I was looking for MFA programs that I found out about the illustration MFA at SVA and kind of pulled a 180. 

At SVA I took an animation elective basically for fun, but ended up really loving it. I never got very ambitious with it (and still haven't!) but I definitely got a kick out of bringing little characters to life on the timeline. My focus was (and is) still illustration which I was still very much not a master in, so after getting my toes wet in animating basics, I didn't really go back to it for another year or two. Once I was out of school and working in a little studio with a few friends, I found myself having a lot more downtime (more than I'd like to admit!) and when I knew I had a week or so to focus on a little GIF, I would go back into Flash or the Photoshop timeline, and try to learn something new. My strategy (such as it was) was to focus on some effect that I wanted to learn, and then base a little GIF around that. So, maybe I would have an idea of how to animate smoke, or rolling tank treads treads, or hair movement, and then I would reverse engineer a little scene to suit it. I should say, this is basically the opposite of what I had to do when I started getting animation commissions. As an illustrator I was more in the habit of coming up with an idea, then figuring out how to draw it. But with animation assignments, I've found it much better to try to steer the project towards the handful of effects I can actually do, (and the smaller number that I can do in the day or two that you usually have for an editorial assignment.)

Following up on these different crafts, I’m always interested in identity. You describe yourself as an illustrator. How does your animation work play into this? What does illustration mean today?

Birmingham: I would definitely still label myself more of an illustrator than an animator. I think I use movement (when I do at all) as another effect, like color or value, to add a little pizzazz to what's basically a static image. I'm not (typically) doing very complicated scenes, and to tell the truth, I think a lot of the more complicated GIFs I've worked on have actually been the ones that don't function as well as illustration, or as an element in a big chunk of text. So, yeah, for me, at least in the way that I'm comfortable using it now, animation is basically a tool in a big set of tools that I have to work with when I'm making an illustration, but if it doesn't serve to heighten the focus of the illustration, or tell the story more clearly, it can end up being kind of distracting. I think we can kind of tell when something has been added to an illustration (or any other type of art) that doesn't really need to be there for it to function, and it kind of bugs us. So maybe the hardest thing in animating for illustration projects is finding a way to make the movement itself be central to the meaning of the illustration, and not just something that you have to throw in at the end because you promised your client that you were going to make them a GIF. 

You’ve done motion illustration for clients like the New York Times and Krispy Kreme. Is the process different when you are doing animation vs. a static illustration? (i.e. are you showing them a storyboard, or rough animation?)

Birmingham: For sure! I've tried a lot of different things for different projects, and I don't know if there's a one-size-fits-all approach. For the simplest GIFs, where you are really just adding a little movement to a still drawing, it's usually enough to just send a single sketch with a note saying something like "In sketch #3, the flames will be animated." For bigger projects I've done full storyboards, but even if you think you're being really clear, as soon as you have several pages of drawings and captions explaining something, it can be really easy for your idea to get lost in translation. Also, to be honest, I think a lot of times the clients I've worked with just haven't read them at all, which sounds crazy, but I now that I've actually had the experience of working in-house, you see how much people are just skimming through material to try to get the gist so they can relay it to their bosses. If you have the time, I think it's actually easier to do a really rough animatic, and send it over as a GIF. (This is only if your scene can't be explained in one or two still drawings.) In general, I think you have better results if you start sketching in the medium that the final art will be delivered in as close to the start of a project as possible. With animation especially, sometimes just seeing something move yourself can help you see what needs to be fixed. Better to get it up on its legs early than convince the client you know what you're doing with sketches and then have to explain why it won't work after all.

Do you see more clients asking for motion-based illustration projects? If so when did you start to see this happening?

Birmingham: Definitely! I think I did my first GIF for a client about 5 years ago for the New York Times. I was working for them a fair bit at that point doing op-ed pieces, but you never really feel like you have much job security as a freelancer, so I remember thinking "this is the way I'll make myself indispensable!" Of course, the deadlines for the op-ed page are already crazy, so doubling or tripling the amount of work it took to deliver a final started to feel like a pretty dumb strategy. For a while though, they were the only clients I had that were commissioning gifs. In the last few years though, it feels like a lot of the bigger jobs I've gotten have had some element of animation in them. About 1/2 the time it will actually be someone else on the team doing the actual animating, but I think having all those New York Times GIFs floating around helped trick people into thinking I knew more about animation that I actually did. 

At least from my perspective, the biggest change has been the boom of advertising projects that are only intended to live on social media platforms. There's a demand for very short animated projects that wouldn't really have made sense before, and it's kind of a perfect time to be putting up your shingle as an animator without having to have the chops to make a longer project, or even know how to add sound effects or dialogue. I think there is still a lot of room in that particular space to innovate, because it hasn't been around very long. The budgets are pretty good, and the stakes aren't as high as, say, pitching an animated short. A lot of times a company will be running several campaigns on social media simultaneously just hoping one of them will catch on, and if you have a little portfolio of stuff that's done well on twitter or instagram, you've got a pretty good chance of being given a shot. I remember when I was growing up in the 90's aesthetic of commercials on TV was very low-fi and home made feeling. It felt like they were trying to do anything they could to capture kids attention, and taking a shot on a lot of weirder art school type ideas. ADs on TV now are super polished and look better than blockbuster movies from back then, but that same sort of crappy "anything goes" vibe has moved online, and it's kind-of a great time to be diving in.

What tools do you use to create your animated work? Is there any technology that you are experimenting with or eager to try out?

Birmingham: I do all my animating in Adobe Animate. I actually had been doing all my illustration in there as well, so it was a pretty easy transition. One thing I'd like to eventually change is my reliance on tweening and rigging to animate figures. Animate makes it very easy to treat your figures like paper dolls, and have all the animation be based on rigging them as flat shapes, but I'd actually like to take a step backwards, technologically speaking, and try to have more of my movement come out of actual frame by frame drawing. For quick deadlines I'll probably always revert to whatever works to get the job done in time, but at least for my own experiments, I think I'll be leaning towards a more "traditional" cell animation approach.

Are there any illustrators working with motion that you admire or are influenced by? What makes their work exciting to you?

Birmingham: Definitely! Too many to mention, and I'm the worst at remembering people's names even when I follow there work for years. But a few that come to mind. Rebecca Mock is fantastic. Her work is so beautifully observed and really elegant. When I'm working I feel like I'm throwing in everything but the kitchen sink and my restraint goes out the window, but I love how sure and confident her work feels. It doesn't feel like she wants to hit you over the head, she just creates a real visual moment and lets you find it and explore it on your own. Very cool. James Noellert is another I really love, and for similar reasons. His style is very different from Rebecca's, but I'm really impressed in the way he has found a way to make very graphic handmade feeling drawings move as animation without sacrificing what makes them work as still drawings. 

Do you think motion is important to the future of illustration?

Birmingham: Certainly! I wouldn't say that it's something everyone should have to learn to compete, but it's a great tool and there are more ways of sharing even simple animation than there ever have been before. I think as a freelance illustrator you're trying to look for some new way of surprising your audience, maybe with an idea they've never thought of before, or with a technique they haven't seen used, or some combination of elements they're already familiar with but have never seen put together in the same way. Having animation as one of the tools you can throw into the mix gives you a big leg up just because there are certain visual ideas that can only be expressed through movement, and up until recently, it was only TV and Movies that had access to them. So it's kind of like a gold rush right now to go scoop up as many unclaimed motion ideas as possible, and a few years from now that will be a lot harder as there won't be as many obvious ones that haven't been snatched up.

One bit of advice I'd give to myself (because I still need it!) is maybe to just slow down a bit. I think the hardest thing for me is just to really focus on the things that I'm actually doing, and not get too caught up in the idea of missing out on some other sort of project that someone else is having success in. This has only become more true over time, for me at least. Whenever I'm thinking up new ideas, the last thing I want to do is just keep making damn illustrations, which I guess is good, because it's not a bad thing to be learning something new all the time. But when I actually get down to work and lose myself in it, I think I always relearn the same lesson, which is that it doesn't really matter as much as I think it does what my strategy is long term, or what career change I'm positioning myself for, as long as I'm just actually, in this moment, at work on something. If you keep making stuff, whatever it is, things happen on their own and you don't really need to know where it's taking you. And even if you do have a strategy, the actual opportunities you get will always surprise you, so better to just put your head down and get to work. In a nutshell: don't have a 5 year plan, have a plan for what a good day of work would look like and repeat it as many times as possible.

Thanks to Chi Birmingham for taking the time to talk about motion and illustration. Please check out his portfolio here: www.chibirmingham.com and follow him on Instagram @chibirmingham.