Career Advice: Working as an Art Director at a Global Design Studio

Career Advice: Working as an Art Director at a Global Design Studio

Ringling College of Art and Design Alumnus and Art Director, Steve Biggert, gives us insight into starting a career in 3D Motion Design and Animation.

Steve Biggert is a South African/Swazi art director, designer and animator based in Los Angeles. Steve is also an alumnus of Ringling College of Art and Design, who was more than willing to share his journey and advice to other aspiring artists looking to start their careers in 3D Motion Design and Animation.

The Journey

What's your current role and what does it involve?

I’m currently an art director and designer at Elastic, a design and production studio in Santa Monica, CA.

What type of projects are they involved with?

At Elastic, we mostly create main title sequences, as well as design and motion graphics for television series, films and documentaries. As an Art Director, I’m often involved in leading the design approach for projects and helping the team develop that approach in animation. Depending on the size of the team and role as an art director, I may also be involved in presenting our approach to the client and establishing how best we can execute their needs.

What is the company culture like?

We have been working from home since the pandemic started, and although the studio is back open, most artists are still at home. Although that has changed the culture a bit, we are still a team that is engaged with each other and makes an effort to meet up and catch up. We’re coworkers and friends, which I think is really important.

When did you first realise you wanted to work in this industry?

Prior to going to college, I had always been involved in visual arts and graphic design. I knew I wanted to follow a creative career path, but I was not sure what that would be. When I arrived at Ringling College of Art and Design in 2014, one of our first projects was to create a title sequence. Before then, I had no idea what motion design was or that title sequences were a thing I could be involved in. Ever since then, I knew I wanted to work in the motion design industry - and that titles were what I wanted to create specifically.

How did you get your first big break?

The Motion Design major at Ringling helped me develop a varied, and pretty extensive portfolio of work by the time I graduated. That said, when I graduated in 2018, I still didn’t have a studio who’d said yes to hiring me. Being an international student, this was a big issue. I had previously interned in LA though, and really loved the city. I figured I had nothing to lose, so I moved to LA on a whim and a little money saved up.

Shortly after arriving in LA, and many emails later, a door finally opened and I met up for lunch with Elastic - a studio I’d long admired and wanted to be a part of. I began freelancing at Elastic as a Designer and Animator, before agreeing to join on as staff a few months later. Almost 5 years on, I’m still loving being a part of such a stellar creative team.

Image Courtesy of Elastic: "American Horror Stories", Main Title by Steve Biggert.

Describe the journey you took into your current role?

After landing at Elastic, I felt incredibly lucky to be working alongside so many incredibly talented artists. At times it was a bit overwhelming, but it was also very motivating. In my time here, the team has always made me feel welcome, and has provided a lot of support to help me grow and succeed. It’s not a given that every studio puts their faith in young creatives, but at Elastic I felt a tremendous amount of trust from day one. Opportunities to work on some awesome projects, such as the main titles for One Dollar, Aaron Hernandez and Spies in Disguise came up very early on. As time has passed my skills have broadened, and Elastic have continued to provide a space for me to grow - most recently trusting me to take on more leadership and design management as an Art Director.

Why did you choose to study at Ringling College of Art and Design?

Ringling appealed to me because it was a college with a strong focus on design as a viable career path. The school seemed like it had everything I needed to learn a new skill set, but perhaps more importantly to learn how to navigate my early career. I was given the opportunity to attend Ringling on a scholarship, and I couldn’t pass up on that offer. I packed my bags, moved to the US from home in South Africa, and have never regretted taking that chance.

How does your education complement your work?

Ringling’s Motion Design major provided 4 years of education and a portfolio that closely followed the industry’s workflow and demands. The department provided students with the access to tools to create the best work we possibly could, and the support to do so from not only the staff but also a very motivated group of classmates.

Very few industry studios have the vast selection of tools - from stop motion labs and film equipment to a professional grade green screen room and computer software - that Ringling’s Motion Design department has.

Overall my education prepared me with a large portfolio, and a work ethic that has served me well as a professional.

Day in the life

Describe a typical day for you and your team?

Days at Elastic usually start (or end) with a project meeting in which the team go over what needs to be done and discuss how we can execute those needs. These are very collaborative meetings, allowing artists and directors to bounce ideas off of each other and provide any support needed. The rest of the day is mostly working on the notes discussed, either in animation or design.

What third-party and proprietary tools do you use on a daily basis?

By far the most widely used software at the studio is the Adobe suite - After Effects for animation and compositing, and Photoshop and Illustrator for design. We are a studio well known for our 3D work, which is mostly created using Maxon Cinema 4D, and rendered using Octane or sometimes Redshift. Our 3D VFX team also use Maya for most of their work.

Image Courtesy of Elastic: "Crime of the Century", Graphics by Steve Biggert.

How are new ideas pitched and developed?

When a project comes in, the team is usually briefed on the client asks and needs, before we begin developing possible looks and concepts in the form of styleframes. These frames are collected in a pitch deck, which is presented to the client. From that feedback we further explore the design approach and fully flesh out the look and feel of the project. Once that is approved, the team moves into animation production and delivers the final project.

What does design look like in your team?

Design involves a lot of references being pulled, a lot of discussion on what look we want to create, and then design frame explorations. Some projects/concepts may only need a couple frames to communicate the idea, while others may require several to break down the sequence of events. Design and animation often overlap in the production process, so often design changes will be made by animators later on as well.

What does your workflow look like?

For me everything starts with research and a lot of reference. Even if I’m not creating something that resembles a specific reference, I have still pulled a bunch of references in the build up. I also scribble down a lot of notes and ideas - these are usually conceptual approaches, ideas of objects/scenes to include and descriptions of feelings I want to evoke.

After that, I begin designing styleframes for hero moments which “sell” my idea, either to the client or the team. These frames are usually collected in a deck with some descriptions/concept statements (this is where the extensive scribbled notes come in handy) which is sent to the client. After the client lands on a look, I design more frames to flesh out the sequence and approach before beginning animation. After many tweaks and a healthy amount of second guessing, things are finished!

Which departments and key people do you work closely with?

Things are very collaborative at Elastic, with every team member working very closely and having input on how things look, move and are executed. Teams usually consist of a few designers, animators, an art director, a creative director and a producer.

Industry trends are usually visual trends, and are continually evolving. Often clients are going to want whatever the current trendy look is, be it stylized 2D animation or highly cinematic 3D. That often affects what sort of artist is in demand at various studios.

It helps to wear a few different hats as an artist, but there’s a fine line between being a generalist and spreading yourself too thin.

At the the end of the day, trends will come and go. What is most important in my opinion is making sure you have good taste.

One thing you’d never change about your job?

Working with like-minded, passionate people. I’m not sure how some designers/animators are able to work as a team of one for most of their careers. I love having a team of driven creatives to work with. Your personal talent might be individual, but it really helps to have people around to explore ideas with and take on tasks they’re more adept at.

Image Courtesy of Elastic: Main Titles by Steve Biggert.

But one thing you wouldn’t mind seeing changed is?

Motion graphics, like many creative careers, can often be a little grueling in terms of hours and deadlines. I think more boundaries, and a stronger position/will to enforce those boundaries on clients, is needed.

Career Advice

Is formal education essential for someone aspiring to do your job?

The short answer is no. Studying motion design at college played a big role in my career, but it won’t be essential for everyone. I’ve worked with a lot of talented people who just picked up the trade and learnt it themselves.

Whether you went to college to get into this industry or learned things yourself through other methods, the most important thing to grasp is a professional workflow and solid work ethic. That isn’t taught through any specific method, it’s really down to the person to commit to and uphold.

What tasks would you be typically asked to do as a junior artist?

Junior artists play different roles from studio to studio. Sometimes these will be more mundane than others, but everything is important in gaining the trust you can execute things to a high level. At Elastic, we try to get juniors as involved as possible without overwhelming them with too much pressure. This is often in the form of design explorations and motion tests in the early stages of a project.

What skills do you look for when hiring an artist?

Strong knowledge of the tools we use is really important, because we’re not really going to hire someone who doesn’t know the software we use. At Elastic specifically, being able to design and animate is a big plus because of how often those two stages overlap in production. For me personally, I always try to see how good their eye for motion design is. Do they know what good design or animation looks like?

What skills seem to be missing all too often?

Professionalism is a skill often overlooked in favour of others, despite being the most important thing.

You may be good at the software and have talent for design and animation, but if your professional skills - working effectively with the team, communicating clearly and just being a positive presence - are lacking, that’s going to be a big issue.

Describe your attitude towards your job?

It’s a cliche of course, but I’m very passionate about what I do. I want every project I work on to be something I can be proud of, and to have been a positive experience. That’s not always possible, for a variety of reasons, but it’s something I strive for every time. I have realized, for better and sometimes for worse, my personal feelings and motivations are often affected by the quality of work I’m producing and how interesting I find that work.

Where do you get your inspiration from and how do you implement it into your work?

A lot of my inspiration comes from film and photography. I love creating work that has a cinematic quality to it. Dramatic lighting, beautiful compositions, and symbolism as storytelling tools are perfect for title sequence design. I also pull color palettes from movie stills all the time - especially films that match the tone of the project I’m working on. More than anything though, I just love texture. Work that has a tangible quality to it, be it subtle or more overt, is so appealing to me.

New product or business you admire?

AI scares the hell out of me to be honest, but I’m excited to see how it’s incorporated into our existing toolsets and software. I’m not really interested in image generation for social media clout, but more so in how AI can improve plugins and processes such as keying, texture creation, UV mapping and a whole host of tools we use as motion designers every day.

Image Courtesy of Elastic: "1883", Main Titles by Steve Biggert.

What unique challenges and opportunities does your work bring?

Title design is a very story/concept driven medium. Creating a cinematic piece which prepares the viewer for the world they are about to experience in the show/film is a really intriguing challenge, and is what drew me to the industry. How difficult that challenge is really depends on the content it is being created for, and what concept we are executing.

Describe a project brief that you’d recommend artists create for their portfolio?

I don’t really have a specific brief but I think it’s really important for students to think about what type of work they enjoy, and what type of work they would like to do in the industry. For me that was title sequences and work for television, so most of my portfolio was those types of projects, and was executed in a style I like and felt I was strong at. Don’t pigeon-hole yourself, but don’t spend a large chunk of time creating a variety of work just for the sake of it. If a student really loves a certain look and feel, is good at creating work in that style, and wants to work for a studio that excels in that space - then by all means, do that!

That said, if you are being very focused in your approach to your work, make sure you are executing it at a high quality and that there is a realistic space for that work in the professional world. The last thing you want is to have only worked in a very specific niche, only to find out the job space for it after graduation is little to none.

What mistakes do you see artists making when applying for jobs?

Coming across as insincere is a weirdly specific thing, but it irks me quite a lot. Don’t be overly formal, but also don’t be unprofessional when reaching out for jobs. Don’t lead with your resume, have it somewhere on your site but don’t put it in your first email.

Also, don’t make it hard to find your best work. If you send a link to your website, that link should open up onto all your best work and be easy to navigate. I do a pretty deep dive, but most studios will take a 2 minute look and move on - don’t make anyone have to search for your best work, show us!

Finally, for students doing class projects to fill their portfolio - even if it means breaking the rules a little bit - try your best to make your projects look different from your colleagues. Set yourself apart and create work that doesn’t look like an assignment. Class projects are totally fine in your portfolio, after all that’s why you’re in college, but coming across a few students with very similar individual projects on their sites is always a bit of a downer.

If you could give one piece of advice to artists starting out, what would it be?

Listen to all advice, but be specific about what advice you take. When you first start out, everyone has more experience than you, so it’s important to hear what that experience is and what it could teach you.

Not all advice is good advice, and not all advice will work for you specifically. Listen, decide what works for you, and then use what does.

If you could go back in time to when you first started out, what advice would you give yourself?

Imposter syndrome is normal for everyone, but have more confidence in yourself. As I got closer to graduation, I felt more and more pressure to have my path established and a job secured. Most of my classmates had done that, but for whatever reason that wasn’t the case for me at all. So, when I got to Elastic I felt incredibly lucky (which I was) but also that I might not have deserved the opportunity. I had a lot of self doubt and, surrounded by such incredible talent, I felt like I might not have been good enough to be where I was. On the outside I was working very hard, and developing a good relationship with the studio, but it took a long time for me to grow out of that deeper feeling. I’ve finally got to the point where I understand luck has played a big part in my career, but hard work and desire to grow and succeed has created a lot of that luck.

What specifically about The Rookies do you think is beneficial to an artists journey?

The Rookies is a fantastic resource for artists to learn more about the industry, engage with each other and get support for their journey. Nobody’s path into the industry will be the same, and so it’s really important for young artists to have support that they can tailor for themselves specifically. For me, I think The Rookies is a really good space to provide that - whether it be in creating new work or by connecting young artists starting out with experiences that they could gain from.

We thank Steve for sharing his experiences with his fellow artists! You can find more of his work on Instagram and on his website.