I had a chance to interview Jake Mathew who is a motion designer freelancing in the Chicago area. He had a lot of great tips for creating a portfolio and getting into the industry. Big thanks to Jake for taking the time to share with us!
Did you go to school for motion graphics?
When I entered college, I didn’t even know the term “motion graphics”.
What did you study at school?
I went to the Rochester Institute of Technology (R.I.T.). I got a B.S. in New Media Information Technology, which covered a wide range of disciplines. (Video editing, audio design, animation, web design, print design, typography, web programming, interactive media).
When I finished, I felt like I was decent at a whole bunch of things, but I really wanted to be great at just ONE thing. I have always loved animation and wanted to improve my design aesthetic. I went back to R.I.T. for a Masters in Computer Graphic Design. It was during graduate school where I really got into motion graphics design. (I didn’t even know such a job existed until then).
The design part took a while to get good at (and I’m still learning). But, the motion aspect was much easier for me as I have been animating in one form or another since I was a kid. (Ranging from flip books to very crude animation software from the mid 1990s).
How did you get into your first job in the industry?
Landing my very first motion graphics job was difficult. A lot of students want to become motion graphic designers so there was a lot of competition. It is hard to get a job without a demo reel. But, it is hard to have a demo reel without working any jobs. It was a Catch-22 situation.
So in order to start building up a portfolio of work, I treated every class project and assignment as a potential spot for my reel. After about a year of grad school, I had enough work to create a 30 second demo reel that I could send to companies. Thirty seconds may sound really short, but I made sure to include only my BEST work.
I landed a job as a motion graphic designer at a local post production company. I spent my final year of grad school working there between classes. The types of projects I worked on at that company were just local and regional TV commercials.
Tell me a bit about where you work and what they specialize in. Are you at a studio? Freelance?
After I finished grad school, I got a job as a motion designer for the TV channel, Current TV. While a lot of people are not familiar with Current, they have a really talented in-house graphics department and I learned a lot during the 2 years I worked there. After Current TV, I moved to Chicago and have been freelancing at post-houses around the city.
How long have you been in the industry?
About 6 years.
What software do you use?
I use the Adobe Creative Suite and Maxon Cinema 4D for everything I do.
How would you describe your style?
I prefer to create designs that are surreal, love using bold bright colors, creating quirky/weird animations. It is a very graphic style. I prefer that to photographic-based designs. I try to constantly create things that are outside my comfort zone just so be a more well-rounded designer.
When creating my reel, I tried to place a mix of different styles, but everyone tells me that I have a very distinct style.
Do you have any hints for people interested in the industry, any ideas on how to get started in motion graphics?
I’ve noticed a lot of students and people just starting out in the industry very focused on the technical aspects of the field (such as what software to use, which plug-ins to use to create such an effect). Plug-ins that may be very popular today may look cheesy and dated a few years from now.
While you are in school, take courses that will improve your design-sense. Learn about typography, color theory, composition. Good design never goes out of style.
Build a solid demo reel. Take your best class work and place a few seconds into it. If you have any freelance projects or personal projects that you are proud of, use that. Get a nice web portfolio together. Sending a web link to your demo reel to companies is going to be the way you get a job. Don’t worry about creating a DVD as most companies prefer viewing it on the web so they can easily email it around or bookmark it if they like it. Quicktime files are preferred.
Some web portfolios have crazy Flash interfaces with animated menus and buttons and transitions. I would stay away from this unless you want a job working in Flash. Otherwise, make a clean website where the demo reel and other select projects can be viewed in the least amount of mouse clicks.
Are there any fantastic plug ins, third party tools or books that you have found recently that you would recommend?
There are so many more free sources of information on the web now than there was when I was starting out.
Andrew Kramer over at VideoCopilot.net has several free and paid plugins and presets for After Effects that are very helpful. I recently used it VC Reflect plugin that is a huge time-saver when working on a project that requires a lot of floor reflections.
Also, for 3D animators who bring their work into animation for further tweaking/compositing, Re:Vision’s Reel Smart Motion Blur is a must-have to get realistic motion blur that renders in the fraction of the time as using motion blur that is built into your 3D program.
Do you have any websites or books that you turn to regularly for inspiration and training?
I think that motionographer.com is one of the best place to see some of the best motion graphic spots currently out there.
What is the single most important thing you need to do or be to excel in our industry?
Always be animating/designing things that you love and try to evaluate your own portfolio/reel every few months and pick out your weaknesses and figure out a way to improve them.
Sometimes you may have a staff job or a freelance project that does not inspire you or challenge you. If that is the case, try to find a job that will. And if you can’t, create personal projects. Some of the best pieces I’ve worked on were just fun experiments I did in my spare time without any clients involved.
Each year, you should be a better designer than you were the year before. If you stop improving, change something.
If you could have a dream job in the industry, what would it be?
Chicago doesn’t get a ton of this type of work, but I would love to just work on graphics-heavy music videos and animated title sequences for films. But for the most part, being a freelance motion graphic designer is a very satisfying job. (It depends a lot on the project/client).
Special thanks to Jake for taking the time to share some advice with us. You can find him at jakemathew.com.