I have found collaborating with artists to be the most rewarding aspect of production. When you work well together, you create better work.
Before we began our conversation, we asked Jeff to provide seven key elements of his personality.
Was there a point of ignition in your life that led you to become the head of design at The Mill in Chicago? Did the path spring from a special event during your childhood, the influence of a loved one, or something else?
Great question. I should first clarify that the “head of design” role is mostly a management position here at The Mill. That may not sound very sexy to some, but over the last seventeen years of working in the motion design industry, I have found collaborating with artists to be the most rewarding aspect of production. When you work well together, you create better work! So by building a solid team, we can assure that we’ll always take things to the next level for our clients’ campaigns.
Now to trace this career path back to my childhood, I immediately think of my time in the Boy Scouts. We had a pretty active troop of about fifty kids, aged eleven to eighteen, with weekend outings twice a month.
These experiences included camping, hiking, climbing, cross-country skiing and even an annual winter campout in the snow called The Polar Bear. I eventually became the Senior Patrol Leader, running weekly meetings and helping the younger kids learn the ropes – sometimes literally. When I think on it, I realize it was the perfect primer for my future managerial responsibilities.
We’d like to take that ignition point and expand on it. Can you make a timeline – not of major events, but small, everyday events – of what happened from that first moment of action until now?
Absolutely. Here is a list of some of the more creative moments from my past that led to an animated future, both before and after Scouting.
My mom has noted that as a toddler I would change channels when shows came on and just watch the commercials. How prescient is that?!
That being said, I clearly remember watching Battle of the Planets, a.k.a. G-Force. This was an American adaptation of the Japanese anime series Science Ninja Team Gatchaman. I didn’t know how to describe it, but I knew it was completely different than anything else I was seeing on TV at that time, at least until Voltron a few years later (with a very similar team, I might add).
My dad showed me how animation worked by drawing a stick figure on each page of a small notepad that jumped off a diving board and disappeared into a pool below, complete with expanding rings. This little flip book blew my mind!
Dad would also create titles for our family movies on a Super 8 film camera by stop-animating our magnetic alphabet across the refrigerator. He always let me help, but then you would have to wait for the film to be developed before you could see the results!
I would later apply these stop-motion techniques in the film animation club where I directed my first short, called Skate Phantom. It was a three-minute cut-out paper animation about a revenge-seeking skater who rises from the dead to destroy the gang that lead to his demise. Needless to say, I was reading The Crow and Punisher comics at that point.
My physics teacher noticed my passion and encouraged me to learn how to make art on the computer by learning to scan my drawings, edit and vectorize them in a new program called CorelDRAW. Ha! Dated by today’s standards, but it was a game-changer for me back in 1992. When you consider how little this actually had to do with physics, you realize Mr. Van Arsdale was just trying to inspire a student. Well done, sir! And thank you.
I took a solo trip to check out a film school in LA, with the hope of transferring there from my fine arts major in sculpture to focus on filmmaking. During my last day on campus I was introduced to their brand new computer animation program where I had an epiphany. It was sculpture! It was filmmaking! It was animation! And the rest is history.
What is the most difficult concept you ever came to grasp in your life? Did you think you’d be able to do it?
As a student-artist, you thrive on self-expression to guide your work. As a professional artist, a client guides your work. That dichotomy has always been the most challenging aspect of working in the industry. I am sometimes torn between the need to accommodate requests and the desire to express my own personal creative vision. Of course, the goal is to align these two through ample doses of communication and determination. And that, my friends, is its own art! But, when it happens, it’s pretty amazing.
Silence and noise figure heavily in our work environments. What ratio of both create the best conditions for you to work at full capacity?
The Mill offices are a veritable beehive of activity and creativity! As a Head of Department, I am often shuttled around from meeting to meeting but when I am working as a Motion Designer, I love to crawl inside my headspace and focus for as long as possible. To accomplish that, I wear over-the-ear headphones and stream an evolving list of mostly instrumental music to reduce some of the commotion and distractions. One track in particular usually begins the day: John Barry’s “007 And Counting” from Diamonds Are Forever (2003). It never fails to lull me into a productive mindset.
I thrive on an extremely organized process, but use this planning to secure a safe place for untethered, organic creative thinking.
I believe that accidents, loss and failure often form the best foundations of the creative process. But some people need to remain extremely organized and prepared to develop a project. Where do you see yourself between those two poles?
I thrive on an extremely organized process, but use this planning to secure a safe place for untethered, organic creative thinking – and those happy accidents, losses and failure you mentioned. That’s where all the magic happens! It can be so difficult for non-creatives to comprehend this aspect of production. I have found that if you give it a name – something like “design exploration” – it can be added to a schedule by a producer and buy you and your artists time to think, find inspiration and play.
Do you ever have to deal with last-minute problem solving in your work or everyday life? How does your thought flux work in that moment? Can you give a specific example?
Constantly. A great example happened earlier today: a series of animated ads we were producing changed scope just before we shipped them to air. The last-minute change we were asked to make affected every single animation – and we were so close to finishing!
I think the emotional stages are pretty common. First, there’s that sinking feeling when you realize “Hey, that’s not what we agreed on!” Second, you may feel a little defensive: “Fine! Whatever.” Which is a sentiment popularized by moody teenagers everywhere. However, any frustration is usually alleviated after talking through potential solutions with your producer.
This arc goes back to my note on self-expression versus professional accommodation and it is why the creative process benefits from a collaborative spirit. Strength in numbers! Today we were able to redefine our goals, relay our concerns in a tactful manner, and adjust our schedule with the artists accordingly. Trust the process.
BODDY vs. MACHINE
We asked Jeff for his interpretation of bodies versus machines, and then himself versus the mechanical world.
Machine vs. Body
Body vs. Machine
Machine vs. Boddy
Boddy vs. Machine
I see what you did there. To relate these equations to my timeline above, I am immediately reminded of the different worlds that are brought together through advanced creative tools. For example, when I was studying computer animation at the Ringling College of Art & Design back in the late 1990s, half of our class had very technical backgrounds and the other half were traditional artists. That collision of varied interests lead to so many amazing things. I think we all benefitted as a result and grew during the program. Jump forward to present day and I am once again experiencing the cross-pollination of artists and technologists engaging in emerging technologies at The Mill. It’s a wonderful thing to behold and I am excited to see where it all leads.
Regarding my surname, I adopted the pseudonym “noboddy” when I emerged on the LA freelance motion design scene as an unknown dude from the Midwest (considered flyover territory by the coastal elite). I thought it was a clever way of conveying the correct pronunciation (it is indeed “body”) while signaling some self-deprecating humor. I don’t take myself too seriously!
Curated by: Julien Fernandez
Conducted by: Email
Published: September 6, 2017
Total questions: 6 + 3
Word count: 1744
Reading time: Five minutes
Teenager sentiment: “Fine”
Problem solving: Yes
Boy Scouts: Inspirational
TV commercials: Favored
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